Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Are You Too Explicit

I received a question from a writer of women’s fiction asking if she needed to tell agents up front, in the query, that she has a few explicit sex scenes in her book. She had a couple of concerns: one was what was the line between “hot” and “explicit,” and the other was that her readers/critique partners said she needed to be up front about this.

I don’t think so. I don’t think you need to tell readers in your query letter or cover copy that your book might have explicit sex, violence, or anything else. Unlike movies, books aren’t yet rated (although give it time), and do you really want an agent judging your book by what might be rather than what it is? Like readers, agents have different tolerances for different things. I represent erotic romance, so clearly my tolerance and what I might deem “hot” versus “explicit” is probably very different from the agent who not only doesn’t represent erotic romance, but focuses her list primarily to the Christian market.

I don’t think you should ever feel that you need to warn readers (whether they are book buyers, agents, or editors) about your book. Let the book speak for itself. Write a strong query that entices, intrigues, and grabs our attention and then let us judge the book on its merits, not on our own fears or preconceived notions.

But I’m curious how readers feel about this. Have you ever picked up a book only to become upset because it was too explicit for your tastes? Did you wish you had been warned? And if you had, then do you support a rating system for books much like the movies?

Jessica

48 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

I have no problem with explicit sex as long as it has a context in the book. If it's shoved in because someone (either author or editor) believed that a certain number of sex scenes was required, it usually shows (and you can skip right over it). At the same time, I don't think the writer has to detail each and every move.

But I can't write one without giggling.

brimfire said...

I've never become upset by a book because it was too explicit, though I have been surprised by some scenes. I've recently started reading books that are a little more, um, racy than what I'm used to reading. I was still fine with it. I might even admit to liking it. ;-) I did, however, just finish reading a book in a series that almost took the sex too far. And it really wasn't even the sex part - it was the other person/icky creature thing the protag was considering getting into bed with. She didn't, thank God, but that was the first time I ever thought about not reading the rest of a series based upon the erotic-ishness of a scene. If the rest of the book hadn't been great, I would have ditched it.

Keri Ford said...

Can't say I have. Not a fan of the rating system. with a half naked woman and man on the front cover (typically in some embrace), do we really need an "R for sexual content" slapped on the side? I know not ALL books have such showy covers, but in the information age when prices of everything are incresing, I don't see a need to pay someone to decide a universal grading system on books.

I have heard it's better to write hot when in doubt (so long as you're comfortable with it) because it's so easy for the editor to turn it down.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I'm with Sheila Connolly. As long as the explicit scenes are in context, I don't have a problem with them. I still skip over most of them, but that's my choice - I want to get back to the plot. The only time I have a problem is when they seem like they're thrown in for effect, or worse shock value.

And I'm against rating books. Usually doing a little research before you buy can keep you from spending money on books that are too racy for you.

Chro said...

I don't mind explicit sex, as long as it, and the relationship as a whole, make sense.

I started reading a book recently where it seemed like every man and woman spent 95% of the time thinking about banging the opposite gender. And no, this wasn't an erotic or romance novel. It was a standard sword & sorcery fantasy. When two of the main characters started kissing each other out of the blue, I hurled the book across the room and stopped reading, because it just seemed that unrealistic. I dunno, maybe I didn't reach the part of the book where the author revealed the air in his world contained traces of ecstasy and viagra.

Tamara Hughes said...

I agree that explicit sex in romance novels doesn't bother me unless it's written just to add sex. There needs to be meaning behind it and a change in relationship/emotions because of it.
I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of erotica, but it's not because of the explicit sex. It seems in these books the focus is on sex and the plot may be limited or interrupted to keep that focus.

JES said...

Suffering a Miss Manners attack of the vapors here:

I have no problem with explicit sex as long as it has a context in the book. If it's shoved in... Sorry, dears, I stopped reading right there! :)

Seriously, though... Long before I even met her, The Missus had acquired a set of those Beauty books by Anne Rice/"A. N. Roquelaure" (The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty etc.). I picked one of them up once and flipped through it. Mostly it struck me as... weird.

Emphatic NO on rating systems.

2readornot said...

I think the only time I'd become 'upset' if a book was more explicit than expected is if it was in a children's (probably YA) book -- or a book that's clearly marketed to YA. Even then, however, I generally read fast enough that I can keep ahead of my kiddos (they're years from being teens), so hopefully I'll find out early enough to either have a nice discussion about it or hide the book away for a couple of years.

superwench83 said...

Like others around here, I don't mind explicit sex scenes if they have a place in the story. And on the other side of the debate, if a sex scene is intrinsic to the plot and the writer leaves it out because she feels uncomfortable writing it, that can harm a story just as much as having a sex scene when one doesn't need to be there.

I agree about not mentioning these scenes in the query. In a query, you want to come across as confident. If you mention these scenes as something you feel on-the-fence about, I think that makes you look less self-assured about your work.

Dearborn Alternative News said...

Not upset but, like Jes, I was caught a bit off guard by Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty series...though, the fact that I read all three may be telling, ha.

No, no, no rating system, no.

Kimber An said...

Explicit content is the main reason I started the Enduring Romance book review blog. A lot of the readers I knew were annoyed with buying a book thinking they were getting one thing, only to find out it was something else. It seems to me, and them, that Romance novels have become more explicit since the boom of Erotica. Not all readers like that and for a variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with morality. The major problem with this is these readers leave the New Releases for books they know will not shock or gross them out, and sometimes they never come back from the used bookstore or library. Since authors earn their money by the sale of new books, this cannot be a good thing for the publishing industry. I am of the opinion that anything which reassures a reader is a good thing. I'd support a rating system for Romance novels. Anything to draw the disenchanted readers back into the fold, I say. This is why we rate novels by Heat Level at Enduring Romance.

However, I do not think Heat Level should be included in a query letter. It really is irrelevent at that stage, unless it's being pitched to an Erotica, Christian, or Young Adult publisher. Heat Level can be modified to suit the market any agent or editor feels the story is most suitable for.

P.S. We're throwing a Cyber-Launch Party to celebrate the release of SHADES OF DARK by Linnea Sinclair all day tomorrow (August 7th) at the Enduring Romance blog. Hope to see you all there!
;)

Patricia W. said...

Not a fan of rating books but I have picked up, started, and put down books that are too explicit for me. Usually because the book was recommended to me or because the author previously wrote less explicit books that I enjoyed and I mistakenly thought the new release would be in the same vein.

It would be nice to have some way to tell. A "hot-meter" of sorts. But as with films, it would only shift over time. What was considered R-rated twenty or thirty years ago is now simply G.

writeidea said...

Only one book upset me because it was explicit, but not because it was too explicit for my tastes. The book was part of a series I enjoyed and it came a a shock.

I wouldn't necessarily agree with a rating system, but I would have read this book with a different mind set if I purchased it from the erotic section.

Robena Grant said...

Jenny Crusie taught me that sex scenes are action scenes. That means the emotional conflict has to increase after one of these scenes. If it doesn't, if nothing changes, it isn't needed because it isn't advancing the story.

It does annoy me to have gratuitous sex scenes in both books and movies. And you can always spot them. While there are ratings for movies, I do think rating books on sexual content would be difficult to achieve.

Erotica doesn't appeal to me so I don't buy it. A lot of my friends write it and that's fine, it's just not for me. I still think some of the most memorable books, the hottest I've ever read, focused on sexual tension and the emotional journey of both the hero and heroine, rather than sexual gymnastics.

December/Stacia said...

I believe that you need to foreshadow the graphic level of your scene at some point. A linguistically graphic scene coming when nobody in the book has ever once had a sexual thought or used a word stronger than "darn" doesn't work. But if body parts are heating up at various stages through the book, we as readers are forewarned that there will be sex.
Body parts are like guns: you shouldn't take them out if you don't plan to use them at some point, but you can't just have one appear without letting us know they're there either. :-)

Writer Dad said...

No, I've never been upset by something being too explicit. I just wanted to ask, do you really think that books might be someday rated?

Anonymous said...

These days I would never reject a book simply because it was racier than I expected. But when I was about 13, I ran into a book that turned out to be a pretty explicit erotic version of the King Arthur stories, which I found scandalous at the time. In cases like that, there should be SOME hint on the cover that it's an erotic story instead of a knights-adventuring story. But these days it seems boring to me to choose a book based on whether or not there's sex, and how explicit the sex is. If I'm hooked after the first chapter, the writer can take me anywhere they want.

Karen Duvall said...

I don't like explicit sex scenes mainly because they seem to take away from the story. I skim them to get to the good parts, the plot. But I will read them if they're written well, though it seems very, very few authors have the ability to write an engaging sex scene without it being melodramatic and over-written. It's like getting Jujubees stuck in my teeth. Gah!

Anonymous said...

As a writer of detective thrillers the issue has come up with me as well. I've deliberately toned down some sex scenes because I feared they may be too explicit. I didn't want an agent thinking I was writing pornography. But perhaps I'm being overly cautious here? I've tried to use comparable authors as a guidepost, i.e. Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, etc. Some of their passages can be extremely graphic, but mostly they seem to write sex scenes in a fairly innocuous presentation. So I'm thinking for my genre, explicit sex should be a minimum....

Perhaps it's a genre-related call. Some genres are more open to explicit sexual descriptions while others are less so.

Mystery Robin said...

I love to read mystery and I have run into many books with explicit, disturbing violence that has taken me by surprise. I do wish there was some sort of warning for things like that, just because I don't like to have those really awful images in my head.

Genre Review said...

I don't like explicit sex, excessive cussing, gratuitous sex or violence, or predictable plot lines. Which means I have trouble finding books of any genre to read these days. That's why I started my Genre Review blog, to rate books along those lines so that others don't have to buy a book blind.

I don't really know what I think about a book rating system on a larger scale, but my first thought is it might encourage authors to write for a particular rating instead of what is correct for the story.

As for telling agents: it sounds like her story isn't just "standard romance with an explicit sex scene" but might be categorized differently because of those scenes. If she isn't sure if a certain agent accepts romances of that type, it might be a good idea for her to say something so that no one wastes their time. I'd probably put that information at the end of the query, though, so that the agent can get a feel for what the story is about before that.

Just my 2 cents.

Kayleigh Jamison said...

This is a great subject. As a reader, I don't require a rating system. I have only once been offended by a book and felt there should have been a "warning" of some sort, because there were explicit rape scenes, written like erotic sex scenes, told from the POV of the rapist. The book was marketed as erotic romance, and needless to say I was squicked. However, I like my romance hot.

As a writer, I've had one reader complain that a book was "too hot." She rated it a 1/5, and said she wouldn't have read it at all if she'd known it was erotic romance; she liked the characters and the story, but gave it a low rating for the sex level.

A lot of smaller presses have implemented a rating system, and I wouldn't be surprised to see one set into place with the larger publishers eventually.

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, several in the "thriller" genre. I put them aside, mostly because they were poorly written, but also because the sexy bits fit poorly with the rest of the story.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I would hope that by researching your agent and what he/she has represented, as well as the standards for the genre, would hint at whether a prospective agent would be offended/put off/not interested in your work due to the level of sex. If the agent has only repped squeaky-clean projects and hasn't indicated an interest of getting out of that mold, he/she is probably not interested in anything too erotic.

As a reader, I don't require ratings. Sometimes I think it might be nice to know if a book has something that wouldn't be expected for the genre (e.g. a graphic rape, perhaps), but I'm fine doing my own research beforehand.

Lehcarjt said...

I'm not a fan of the hotter books in romance. I will put a book down if it becomes too explicit for me. In truth, that is rarely the only problem a book has though. I realize that this isn't 100% true, but I've noticed that in an awful lot of the books I've read lately, the bigger the sex, the lower the quality of the rest of the book.

However, I don't feel a need for a rating system. Covers say a lot. Does it have naked people in it? People losing their clothing? Lots of skin? Guess what... It's probably going to be high on the hotness scale and not something that would interest me.

Same thing with the back blurb. If the story is about 'wild passion' etc., etc., then I put it back.

What does upset me is when a book cover/blurb don't give an accurate portrayal of the story inside. And in truth, that is a greater problem than just the sex.

WordVixen said...

I only have a problem with sex scenes if they're: A.) gratuitous, since no scene should ever be gratuitous, B.) poorly done, because there's nothing worse than a bad sex scene, C.) obviously there to fill a quota [must have 5 sex scenes per novel], or D.) violent- and I don't mean lost in the throes of passion.

Kate H said...

I have been caught off guard by explicit stuff in books. I don't think I'd go for a rating system per se, but I would like to see some language in the back cover copy, for example, that would give an idea of what one is getting into. (This doesn't apply to the category romance lines, where I suppose the name of the line alone pretty much tells you what to expect.)

Imani said...

I ran into a graphic sex scene in a sci fi which through me off. I wasn't expecting it from the genre, and while the sex was expected, there was little lead up to how explicit the description would be.

Rather than a rating system I'd want more information. I can't tell anymore from the cover or the blurbs whether "hot" means explicit or erotic. And I HATE it when the cover doesn't have anything to do with the story.

Anonymous said...

I'm for less is more. If the stage is set for sexual tension, your own mind fills in details according to what you find attractive -- someone's hand going up somone's thigh can be much more exciting than giving a play by play of what happens next. Too explicit details take you out of that, sometimes, I think.

But I write YA, so maybe I should let the romance writers answer this one...

tina gray said...

I'm with the consensus that the language of the book should warn the reader on some level. In my very first crit group, there was an author that wrote historical western romances. Each time she was in the hero's POV, she always had him curse a time or two in his dialogue. She told our group that this indicated to the reader early on that the book would be racier in other ways as well, i.e. sex scenes. Also, the scene must be necessary and must change the dynamics of the hero/heroine's relationship from that point on.

As to what is too explicit? That's tough, because it is so subjective. But personally, I don't think you can go wrong so long as you follow your characters and be true to them. THEY will tell you how hot the scenes will be between them in the bedroom, according to their pasts, their personalities, their needs. It only feels forced and explicit if you stray out of character.

Stephen King said in his autobiography that the only way to wrong a reader is to lie to them. As fiction writers, that's sort of our job ... so it seems like a catch 22. But, I think what he meant was don't let your CHARACTERS lie to the readers. So long as the heroes/heroines are true to themselves and the world they live in, the reader will never feel slighted or deceived ... or violated, for that matter.

Just_Me said...

If I pick up a romance novel and it gets a bit hotter than I usually read I don't mind, I may skip, but I don't mind as long as the scene fits and isn't filler.

I do mind having an erotic scene in a book where I'm not expecting it. If I picked up a fantasy or sci-fi book where the back said it was a hard-boiled detective novel (or something similar) and I find erotica I'm not happy. I like some fair warning.

As for ratings.... as a reader I'd probably ignore them, but as a parent I'd kind of like to have some rating system for novels. When we're at the bookstore I don't necassarily have the resources to read the reviews and find out if a book my daughter wants has content that we need to talk about ahead of time or that as a family we've agreed don't meet our standards. I know teens get into all sorts of things, but when you have children reading ahead of their age level the maturity isn't always there to balance out things. A sticker on the shelf saying "mature YA" or something would be nice.

AstonWest said...

Oddly, I get a lot of comments from readers who wish I was MORE explicit...

Laurel Amberdine said...

I don't imagine there will be a mandatory, age-restricting rating system for books unless something widely offensive happens like it did with movies with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Even so, since readers generally have some kind of taste and expectation in play when they pick up a book, having a clear indication of what they're getting would only benefit sales, I think.

Though perhaps people reading on the train to work would rather not have the "SUPER HOT SEX" indicator displayed on the spine... :)

Amy said...

This is where recommendations and book blogging can be so helpful. I don't favor a rating system, but it can be impossible to know. I"m a Christian and while I read just about everything, I know some people who want to stay away from certain stuff. Explicit sex scenes or a lot of language being the main things. So for some readers, it is important to know up front, and they will not buy books if they aren't sure.

Jolie said...

As far as sex and profanity go, nothing offends me. I have a harder time with extreme violence, but I wouldn't expect to be warned about it via a ratings system. Chances are I won't be caught off guard because the violence will fit in the story and I will be prepared for it by I've read so far. If it doesn't fit in the story, I'll put down the book not because I'm offended, but because the story is obviously not well written.

Book rating system = boo. It would only lead to restrictions on who could access which books, and frankly I'm sick of unnecessary restrictions.

Really, the only thing in a book that would offend me is if an author's bigotry is showing. And there mustn't be a ratings system for that, either. It would result in the worst kind of labeling and pettiness.

Chumplet said...

I don't think I'm too explicit in my writing. In fact, I think I might be a bit too tame compared to some of the really hot authors out there.

I stick to my comfort level, which may rise and fall according to the story. If an agent or editor asks for more or less heat, I'll comply to the best of my ability.

When I was younger, I often raided my parents' library and stumbled across some really explicit stuff. I knew it was taboo, but didn't shy away from it. I like to think I learned a thing or two!

Ana said...

I agree that a rating system might create more problems than it solves. But readers do need some kind of hint about what may be coming.

John Ringo's Ghost series (military/techno thrillers) shocked his Sci Fi readers with its graphic and often violent sexuality. But he did an excellent job of setting the tone early so that we had some clue of what we were getting into. I can't remember all the intros, but Chapter 1 (not the prologue) of Unto the Breach begins with the main character saying, "F*** me." Two for the price of one, and if the reader can deal with that intro, they can probably survive everything else Ringo throws at them.

Readers will forgive surprises but not disappointment. Well-executed first paragraphs are the only rating system we need.

Elissa M said...

I'm definitely with the "no ratings" crowd. You really can't put an objective label on something subjective like "hotness" anyway.

And I agree with those saying poor plotting and writing are a bigger turn off than explicit scenes. I've never put down a book because it was too sexy or violent, but I've quit when the sex or violence made no sense to the story.

Kate Douglas said...

When Kensington Publishing launched Aphrodisia, they knew they were coming out with very sexy books that some readers might find offensive, so they opted for a warning. On the back of each book is a small notice: "WARNING This is a really hot book. (Sexually Explicit)" We still get Amazon.com reader reviews that complain there's too much sex in the books!

As far as putting a warning in the query letter, I would say absolutely not. It's so subjective--everyone's squick threshold is different and it's better to let editors decide for themselves whether or not the material is too graphic.

Elizabeth Platt said...

I've never been upset by a book, never felt it to be too explicit. I've been bored by books, disappointed by them, disgusted by them, but never shocked, not really.

I think if we start rating books on content, we need to start rating thoughts and conversations. Maybe we should have designated 'explicit' zones where people can be graphic or gruesome freely, and other 'safe' zones where the innocent and naive can play...

Sorry, that was a bit cynical, but I get that way when it comes to ratings.

Angie said...

No. Absolutely not. :/ One of the major weaknesses of fanfic as a community is that not only does custom require all stories to carry movie-style ratings, but anything that might make anyone blink, much less go "Ick!" or "Eww!" is warned up, down and sideways, even to the point of spoiling a plot twist. I find it frustrating and annoying, and would hate to see commercial fiction go the same way.

Angie

Alyssa said...

I was reading fantasy and sci-fi from the adult section of the library when I was 11 or so, and so I ran into sex scenes at an age when perhaps I shouldn't have. It didn't bother me, on the whole, but on two occasions I still remember I found myself reading rape scenes, and as a young girl, it was not so great.

While I really hate the idea of a rating system, I also hate the idea of strictly confining voracious young readers to the YA section... some kind of notification of sexual violence--very subtle--might be a good thing. Particularly in cases when an author writes some books that are more or less YA-appropriate and others that are not. One of the rape scenes I accidentally read was in a book by an author who also writes a series that, while in the adult section, has many young fans... I think in that case at least there should be a warning.

(By the way, I've just found your blog, so this is my first comment. Hi! I look forward to reading more! :)

ColetteGarmer said...

I would like Jessica to post a few of the novels she feels are good examples of erotica.

No rating system. Big Brother's watching too many of our private activities as it is.

Selena Blake said...

Like many others explicit sex doesn't bother me. I prefer it be in the mix of a great story. If I start to feel like its just sex-for-sex sake then I start skimming until I find the story again. No biggie.

I'm not sure about the rating thing. I know many review sites provide a rating and that's great for readers who may not want something so hot.

I think that's the great thing about our genre. There are so many heat levels. So many themes, genres, subgenres. There's something for everyone.

AmyB said...

I'd be leery of a ratings system, for fear that the book-banning crowd would jump on it, wanting to ban R-rated books from libraries and things like that.

That said, this is one area where I think fanfic is ahead of profic. Fanfic includes in its header a warning line for any potentially disturbing content. The interesting thing is that while this very helpfully steers me away from stories I don't want to read (for example, stories involving physical abuse of heroine by hero), the warning line also acts as a hook sometimes! When reading fanfic, I often check the warning line before the plot summary, because it's there I'm most likely to be hooked!

About a year ago, I read a very popular book that I was under the impression was a sweet time-travel romance. Then I came to a scene where the hero beat the heroine for disobeying him, and that was followed by numerous torture and rape (or near-rape) scenes. I really felt blindsided. I would not have read the book if I'd known that content was in there.

Ironically, I've read more disturbing content than that in fanfic, but in those cases I knew what I was getting into because I'd read the warning line. I thought, "Well, I don't care for X, but maybe I'll just take a look...?" And in those cases I wasn't bothered by the content--at least I wasn't blindsided--because I'd made an informed choice to expose myself to it.

J. Lea Lopez said...

I agree with colettegarmer: If Jessica (or any of you readers) could list a couple examples of "good" or well-written erotica, and maybe a book or two from different ends of the explicit scale, that would be super helpful.

I'll admit that this was my question that I sent in, and although I'm pretty set on NOT mention the explicit scenes in my query, I'm still confused. Several people mentioned "standards of the genre" but I haven't been able to find any clear cut standards. I'm not writing a romance like the ones on the shelves with the Fabio-like men on the covers. I'm pretty firm in my idea to market it as women's fiction. I think some of my readers have concerns because the book starts when the MC is only 17, though by the second half (where most of the explicit scenes take place) she's in her 20's. I'm certainly not afraid of writing an erotica novel (indeed, that's one of my next ideas lol) but this one isn't it. It's not a YA novel either, but I guess there will always be readers who are uncomfortable with more than a closed-mouth kiss from anyone under 18. :-)

Sorry to steal the thread haha. But if anyone could point me toward some clear genre standards, or toward some good examples that I can read, I'd be super appreciative!

Angie said...

Lea -- my very favorite erotic romance right now is Bad Case of Loving You by Laney Cairo. Every time I read it, I'm startled all over again by just how much sex there is in it, because it doesn't feel like it when I think about the book.

I don't like pointless sex in stories, and when I run into it I skim through it. If I do too much skimming I feel cheated by the book. None of the sex in Bad Case is pointless, though; it's very explicit and gets into one or two kinks which one doesn't usually see in the mainstream romances, but it all works -- it reveals character and develops the relationship and furthers the plot, and just generally pulls its weight through the story. (Aside from being wonderfully well written and hot.) This is the best example I can think of of how to get a lot of explicit sex into a book without going over the line into "Too Much" either in quantity or explicitness.

Angie

green_knight said...

I was frequently squicked by explicit sex from the time of twelve when I really Did Not Get It. And I am still annoyed by explicit sex scenes and books that focus on sexual relationships; if I wanted to read porn, I'd read porn.

If it were me, I'd like a warning the query letter. Whether it's 'a dark and disturbing tale' and 'without mercy' or 'hot' 'sexy'. That should be enough of a clue for me to know whether I want to read it.

Worst book I read? First volume had a bit of fighting and death. Second volume described, step by step, the killing and dismemberment of a child. By the good guy. The victim was his own nephew whom he had befriended.

Now I could just have lived with that if it had been perpetrated by a villain... but by the guy I'm supposed to cheer for? Only reason I wasn't physically sick was that I read it on the morning of a sunny day. Would I have wanted a warning?

You bet.