Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing Sex

I received a question recently that I think is more for authors than it is for me. However, I’m going to attempt to answer anyway and then open up the boards to you, because I think in many cases the best answers to the questions I receive can be found in the comments section and not in the response I give.

How do your authors whose work is more bluntly physical in its descriptions of intimate interaction handle people's inevitable tendency to assume the prose is recollected experience? Is it safer to become pseudonymous than have your friends and relatives start greeting you with "knowing smiles" and a cringeworthy nudge-nudge-wink-wink?

I assume you’re talking about the erotic romance authors I represent more than anything else. What’s interesting though is that a lot of my authors use pseudonyms and for a lot of very different reasons. However, it’s never dawned on me that some would use a pseudonym for fear that others might assume they write the sex scenes from experience. Now that you say that though, I think I admire a lot of my clients a whole heck of a lot more than I did before [wink]. Yes, I would imagine there are a lot of people out there who think my erotic romance authors, and many of my other authors, for that matter, have pretty adventurous lives. However, why would one assume that because you write about sex you’ve experienced it? Do you assume that a mystery author has discovered a dead body or that a fantasy author has traveled to another dimension?

I think the answer to your question, though, has to come from within. It seems to me that you might be uncomfortable with the sex in your book or the sex you’re writing, and if that’s the case then I have to ask whether you should be writing it at all. Even if you write under a pseudonym the goal is to be successful, which means that at some point people are going to connect you with that name. However, if you determine that what you are writing is in fact right for you and yet you are still uncomfortable with using your given name, then by all means use a pseudonym.

But let’s open this up to readers and authors. How do you handle this sort of reaction from readers?

Jessica

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

I always think that people will either assume that I have experienced them or that I fanatasize about them. In fact, my mother doesn't want to read my book because of the sex scenes!
:-/

Honestly, the sex scenes that I have written in my book are appropriate to the characters. There are two male characters whose lives revolve around sex. Of course I want them to be believable, so there are some pretty hot scenes involving the two of them and my female main character.

I haven't done many of the things my characters do! They are different people in a different world. After all, my life would be entirely too boring to hold a reader's attention.

bon said...

I have to say, if I had readers who nudged me knowingly, I would most likely assume they tried the scenes I wrote and I would have to nudge them back.

I tend to think like a man might. If people are assuming I am experiencing the sex scenes in my work, than by all means, give me props. Or better yet, it gives my husband props. He might be even more appreciative of the thought than I would. Wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

But heck no, I would not pseudonym for that. It might be a chance to embarrass my mother-in-law as well.

Kimber An said...

I already use a pseudonym in the Blogosphere for personal reasons. One of my mentors said I should use it published too, because people have gotten to know me as moderator of the Enduring Romance book review site. So, the Pen Name issue is taken care of for me.

Here's what I've learned about how readers feel about sex in books-

1) They're smart and they can tell if you feel comfortable writing it, and they think it comes off lame or ridiculous. Lesson: Don't write more graphic than your comfort level.

2) They're smart and they can tell if you only added the sex scenes to sell the book. Again, lame and ridiculous. Same lesson: Don't write more graphic than your comfort level.

I'm not sure how other writers feel, but when I write at my comfort level I'm not self-conscious about it at all. The pseudonym for this reason would be a non-issue.

Devon Ellington said...

I publish under a half a dozen pseudonyms, but that's more for marketing purposes than because anything I publish makes me squirm.

The people whose opinions of me as a person matter to me tend to be intelligent enough to discern between the fact that I write fiction and the fact that I have an actual life separate from that fiction.

As for those who make ridiculous assumptions, I always ask myself, "who is this person in the fabric of my life and do I really care?" Most of the time, the answer is no, so I nod or shrug or smile or laugh at them and move on.

My energy is better spent in my work or in living my life and enjoying it. I don't owe anyone explanations or delineations between work and life. Peer pressure wasn't a factor when I was in school; if people still act like we're in school, why would it affect me now?

Anonymous said...

I write YA, but it's not particularly graphic. However, my MC is having a lot of comical romantic experiences. People in my critique group are wondering if it's all autobiographical. Of course, it isn't - some things are based on real scenarios but I twisted them for fictional purposes and completely made up much of it. Honestly, the absolute truth would be harder to believe than the fictional accounts! I have to say, though, that I was very taken aback the first time someone asked me if it was autobiographical. I'm kind of used to the fact now that they might suspect some of it's true or based on reality, and it doesn't bother me anymore. So if it ever gets published, I don't think I will use a pseudonym. I'll just refer my parents to the disclaimer in the beginning: "Any semblance to real people blah blah blah is entirely coincidental."

Lynne Connolly said...

I don't write under a pseudonym, because I'm quite proud of what I write and I don't have any extraneous reason to do so. I have friends who live in the Bible Belt, and whose life would be Mud if they didn't, friends with small children who help out in the kindergarten, but I have none of these things.
I research my sex scenes just as I'd research any other aspect of my books. I've never taken part in a menage, but with a bit of help from my daughter's old Barbie dolls and some research into what people do it for, why and what they get out of it, I've managed okay.
The old way is to say that I also write about murders, but I've never killed anyone either, but that's getting a bit sad.

Kathleen Dante said...

I just smile. If people assume I write from personal experience, then evidently I did my job in making the characters' interaction believable.

Of course, if the one doing the nudge-nudge-wink-wink is unpleasant about it, I just extend the comparison to suspense writers and serial killers. It helps that the suspense comparison also applies to my books. =)

GEORGIAM said...

No matter what you write some people are always going to assume it refers to you somehow (experiences, desires, wishes…) and although that might be true sometimes, it mostly isn’t. I’ve never so far changed anything in a story for that reason. In fact I’ve only deleted one scene for a similar reason (and only because deleting it didn’t ruin the story).

It was high school. A teacher had asked to read a FIRST-PERSON short story of mine. I chose to delete a rape scene of the protagonist, to avoid any assumptions, in case the teacher was one of “those” people. But I chose to leave an explicit sex scene in the end anyway a. thinking that a mobster was excused to have such a sex experience, b. because the scene was crucial to the story.

When I don’t try to avoid such assumption-based behavior from others, I try to deal with it with humor.

Once, when my mom asked what the story I was writing was about I told her:

“Well, I’ll tell you, but don’t tell dad cause the story is about a girl having her father killed.”

Insert the equivalent of nudge-wink-wink.

“But it’s only alleged that she did it…besides they weren’t close.”

“Why would you want to hurt your father?”

“Mom, it’s just a story, besides if I really wanted to harm anyone, it would be you. Dad doesn’t bother me at all.”

Dara said...

I don't worry about it, mainly because I don't write graphic sex scenes. I tend to employ the whole "fade to black" technique, but it's mainly because what I write doesn't have sex as a main part of the storyline and it would just be gratuitous.

Also, it makes me uncomfortable writing it, but that's just me :P

Candi said...

I tend to think that people use psuedos less for a feeling of discomfort than just to keep that portion of their writing more detached from their personal life.

For me, the erotic novels are something I very much enjoy writing. I'd love to know that anyone who read them enjoyed them and any knowing smiles would be most welcome.

On the flip side of that - I work at a preschool, am a member of the school board, am a den leader for both girl and boy scouts.

I wouldn't want my more 'flavorful' writing to cause discomfort for me or any of the parents I have relationships with and so I choose to keep that area of my writing behind closed doors.

JMO

Anonymous said...

I like what Kathleen said! Stephen King writes about murder but he doesn't murder people.

However, writing a good sex scene may be somewhat cathartic! ;-)

Eden said...

Everyone I know of who's read my erotica and other fiction is able to draw a distinction between author and narrator. That said, my husband and some of his friends do like to wink a little at some of the things I've written. It doesn't embarrass me. I never considered that someone wouldn't separate me from the narrator.

My reaction to the question is honestly: who cares? So what if someone associates you with your author? It means you're writing with veracity. Isn't that a measure of success?

Sooki Scott said...

I dabbled in writing romances. Only to discover sex scenes required more than tab A into slot B.

I think one should write what they know. Now I write murder mysteries. Perhaps I’ve said too much.

Confucius says; wise man never plays leapfrog with unicorn.

garridon said...

No matter what you write some people are always going to assume it refers to you somehow (experiences, desires, wishes…) and although that might be true sometimes, it mostly isn’t.

This brought back memories. When I was a teenager, I wrote short stories. One of them my mother happened to see while it was still in progress. In it, one of the characters said something about being pregnant. First question from my mother was if I was pregnant. When I told her it was just something in the story, I don't think she entirely believed that. At the time, it wasn't exactly like I had just decided to write one story--I'd been writing them for years!

J. Mayhew said...

I've never assumed that writers draw from their own experiences for sex scenes. Rather I think they have a fantastic imagination and a gift for describing a relatively "messy" interaction in a way that makes their readers hot. I was a little nervous when my friends read the first draft of my novel (several sex scenes included) - but I'm not going to publish under another name. I'm proud of my characters and their creativity in the bedroom!

Anonymous said...

Most people I know use a pseudonym for one of two different reasons, 1) a 'difficult' last name (my reason) or 2) they want to separate their identity - there's a woman in my local RWA chapter who writes erotic and inspirational.

Wes said...

There is truth in the statement "Write about what you know." In my critique group it is painfully obvious when someone writes a sex scene which misses or goes terribly wrong that they don't have much experience with or knowledge of sex. One otherwise talented writer in my group wrote (I'm paraphasing) "Three hairs sprouted from her nipple like palm trees on a tropical island". I wanted to hurl, but that was not the reaction the author was trying to achieve.

Knowing one's subject doesn't mean one has to have done everything one writes about, but the author must have enough understanding to make the leap into new territory believable, hot, or whatever the goal is.

ryan field said...

Writing Sex is different for everyone. I actually do base a great deal on personal experience for my erotic romance, and I don't use a pen name. I did when I first started, but I got over it.

I do use a pen name for some things now, but that's usually because I'm stepping out of my genre.

I think writers use pen names because they are always thinking of the future, and if you want to hop from one genre to another, it's hard to use the same name.

spyscribbler said...

Easy! Use a pseudonym! I'm a prude, and I need to use the pseudonym because I'm a teacher and because I have to protect my ability to be emotionally honest and as explicit as the writing demands. A pseudonym protects all that.

As far as readers assuming I've experienced the sex scenes? I'm okay with that. My whole "message" as a writer is pretty much summed up with "You're okay just as you are."

When writers go around saying "I don't do this act, just my character does," I think that starts to send a message of judgment on the sexual act they're denying. In fact, if someone who writes my kink goes as far as to announce on their blog that they "write about kinky stuff but don't do it," then I never read their kinky stuff again.

Sex is a tricky subject with lots of landmines personal to every reader and writer. As erotica writers, we're in a special position to give love and acceptance fulfillment to a reader's most intimate dreams and desires. That's not something to squash with a careless remark or our own personal hang-ups.

Jessica Milne said...

That's certainly an interesting point. I'm cautious to write certain stories that have been floating around my head because of my mother's reaction. I like the idea-- a lot, actually-- but if she ever saw it, she would assume that some parts were taken from my life.

Which they are DEFINETLY not.

I decided a few days ago that I want to write it anyway. She can read it when it's done if she wants to, but first I'm going to talk to her and explain that it's all fiction and make sure she understands it before seing page one.

On the subject of pseudonyms: no matter what I write, I'm proud of it. I don't think I'd use another name when publishing because I'm happy to let people know that I write. It's an important part of who I am as a person.

Karen MacInerney said...

Gosh -- I hope my readers understand it's not me in those scenes. Then again, not long ago, I told someone I wrote a series about werewolves... thirty seconds later, she asked me if I wrote everything from personal experience. So maybe not.

And as for writing to your comfort level, I think at times we as writers have to stretch -- and sometimes (I speak from personal experience here), you have no choice but to stretch. It's amazing what you can do when there is no alternative. :)

Anonymous said...

ANON 10:44

I have different reasons for the pen name. I have a boring name, and I prefer my to be just plain old me to my neighbors and friends.

Terry Odell said...

I use my own name, although one of the first questions people ask when I say I'm a writer is, "What name do you write under?" (Probably because they've never seen my books on the shelves at Wall Mart.) I use mine--I'm too old to start training people to remember more than one name for me.

The lady at the Post Office read one of my short stories (not erotica by any means, but sensual) and said, "Wow, I can't look at you the same way ever again."

But since my books are also mysteries, I'm like other commenters here and just say I haven't had to kill anyone to get it 'right' for my story, and let them draw their own conclusions about the sex parts. My mother wanted to know if I tried everything out, or if I just 'copied' other authors. My kids are still freaked that I know about "that stuff."

I will confess that hubby has (more than once) said, "Hmm...are we writing another chapter?"

Jenna said...

People are going to see what they see, and assume what they will. Others will totally miss things that you wrote directly about them.

My writing teacher wrote an excellent book to great critical acclaim. He drew the MC's angst from some of his own experiences. The MC had some issues with his dad, and my teacher wrote some details from his life with his dad into the novel. Some of the details were quite extensive.

When his dad read the book on its release, he called my teacher laughing and said "that thing the dad does at the dinner table - I do that! You got that from me!" My teacher was surprised and asked "wow, is that the *only* thing you see that's like you!?!?"

People see what they want to. I have some very conservative people in my family, and I'll warn them that a book may not be to their taste, but I can't stop them from reading it.

I fully expect some family members to see certain details and assume that I'm talking about them, or assume that I've had sex with 27 men at once, or assume that I'm some sort of sexual deviant - and I just don't care. Those same people have been causing trouble my whole life, and this will not be any different.

I liked Devon's point of "who is this person in the fabric of my life, and do I really care?" Most of the time, the answer will be that I don't care at all.

I'm more concerned with strangers reading the work, if you would call it actual concern. Some folks just aren't subtle, and I've seen it before. I'm a bellydancer, and many people equate being a fully dressed, highly trained dancer with being a stripper or prostitute. I didn't spend thousands of hours in class and thousands of dollars on performance clothing for it to be assumed that I'm available after the show for $50 a pop, but a lot of people assume that is so.

There are 6 billion people in this world with different cultural backgrounds and history. Even if you edited your work, you still will not be in every single person's comfort zone. Some people have no imagination of their own, and they assume that it MUST have been you - that brain muscle for them just doesn't work, so they only have fact as a frame of reference. I pity them.

Inevitably, this will happen. People will assume that the things that you write about are you, even if it makes no sense. In the reverse, some will assume that *everything* is completely invented when it is certainly not. You can't stop it or change it. Be honest and truthful to the work, or don't write it. Writing a dishonest work is a pointless exercise, since it will be neither purchased nor appreciated.

Angie Fox said...

I had to laugh when I read this post because it is so true. Now I write paranormal romance, so the sex isn't as graphic as it would be in an erotic story. Still, there is sex and it surprised me to no end when my book came out and people really did assume I was some sort of wild diva writing about my own sex life.

I mean, nobody assumed I've hunted demons, or sliced a werewolf's head open with a switch star or performed an impromptu exorcism. But the sex? It must be what Angie does all the time.

I don't know what an author can do but shrug it off and grin. And keep writing those scenes that get people talking, of course. ;)

Kate St. James said...

I just say it's not me, it's my characters - because that's the truth. I write under two names and get as much flack for the tame love scenes I write under my other name as I do for the erotic scenes I write under this name.

Leona Bushman said...

I use a psuedonym for my highly sexual books. But it is out of respect for other people'e belief systems. There are those I have come to know well and love that would be embarrased to read that scene, escpecially if it is written by someone they know.

I do not want them purchasing a book to support me and then read what would be uncomfortable for them. If they ask me, I tell them I write sex scenes, as I am not ashamed of it. However, I also understnd others have a different belief system than I do.

It also keeps the genre seperate as I am about to be published in the sci-fi arena. I don't want to be prejudged either way.

Jennifer Roland said...

It's funny how we all act about sex. In my perfect world, I would be much more embarrassed to be able to convey the depths of depravity that leads someone to murder than to write a compelling and adult love scene.

Yet somehow, I have a part of the dedication to my first novel (which includes both murder and sex) written:

I would like to thank my parents (who I really hope never read this book) for always believing in me, no matter what crazy schemes I cooked up.

Michelle Miles said...

I've gotten these questions before. I think it's a sign of lower intelligence if people can’t discern the difference between fiction and real life. The sex scenes I write are between my characters, not me.

If you're ashamed or embarrassed by the things you write, then you might want to rethink it. I decided long ago I wouldn’t use a pen name just because I wrote sex. I’m proud of my work and no one can make me feel bad about it. My two cents. :)

Anonymous said...

I recently sold my first story to SPICE Briefs under a pseudonym. The running joke between my husband and me is that I've finally sold something to a respected publisher but I can't share the news with my family, because they would be horrified to learn that I wrote a piece of erotic fiction.

Writing under a pseudonym allowed me to write vivid, imaginative, erotic scenes that I might not have been comfortable writing had the little voice in my head kept saying, "Your grandmother is going to read this!" And like others have said, the scenes were appropriate for the characters involved - not for me personally.

DebraLSchubert said...

I have a stage name for my "musical" side and I've found it to be a somewhat schizophrenic experience. For a while, some people in my life knew me as Jamie, others as Debbie, and still others as both. It got confusing. I'm sticking with my real name for my writing endeavors. I've got a bisexual gal in my finished novel and WIP and I'm sure that makes my dear friends and family ponder (and keeps my husband hoping *wink*). Fine. Let them wonder. It makes life much more interesting!;-)

Brit Mandelo said...

Because I write two very different genres--fantasy and erotic romance--I use two similar pen names. Anyone who read one would notice the other, as they share a first name and the last name is shortened to an initial for the erotica. It just makes potential shelving conflicts a little easier to sort out. (I also work in a bookstore, so.)

Anonymous said...

The best advice ever for writing good sex scenes is from Steve Almond.

http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/out_there/documents/02844055.htm

Tamara

Anonymous said...

Sorry. The link didn't come across. Search for "Steve Almond" and "Writing Sex" and you'll find it.

Tamara

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks for a really interesting article and discussion. Maybe one day I'll have to think about answering the question too, and I'll be grateful for all this advice.

Chumplet - Sandra Cormier said...

My first two novels had some steamy sex scenes, but they were just that - spice with a little nice. I didn't mind having my name connected to them even though many family members including my parents read them.

My latest falls in the erotic category, and after much thought I decided to keep the same pseudonym. I don't know if it will affect my future career, but that's a risk I'll take.

Kate Douglas said...

I write really over-the-top erotic romance and I think I've been asked every question out there, but it really takes a lot to throw me for a loop, so if the question is honestly asked I give the person a straight answer. A lot of my stories have explicit same-sex scenes or group sex scenes. I have friends who live in those relationships and are very forthcoming about confirming whether something I write is physically possible or potentially painful--or even physically dangerous. Even though what I'm writing is pure fantasy, it still has to have the ring of truth for my readers to accept it. I figure if I can make them believe that people can become wolves, it's not going to be all that difficult to get them to accept the polyamorous relationships within my stories.

And as for using a pseudonym--I do only because there is already a romance author out there published under MY name! (How DARE she?) Otherwise I would use my own name.

If you're not comfortable with the language, the descriptions or the complex physical and emotional attributes of an explicit sex scene, don't write them. Your readers will know, because you will have distanced yourself from the scene, and it shows. if you don't want to write it, they're not going to want to read it.

Moth said...

Currently I'm trying to break in as a YA writer and I'm using a form of my real name for that. However, some day I'm planning to hop the fence to Romance and I know I'll need to publish those under a different name than my YA so I figure, "Hey, if I have to change my name I might as well go nuts." So, I've got a fabulous pen name all picked out for the Romance, but if I do use it it won't be because I'm uncomfortable with what I've written, or because I'm worried about people *wink wink-ing* me.

sylvia said...

My stories can be pretty dark and twisted and my mother has a tendency to worry that they are about me until proven otherwise. So when I wrote a piece of flash about a sex worker, she immediately wanted reassurance that it wasn't personal experience I was drawing on. The same thing happened when a female character wrote in the first person about being drunk and staying drunk (for weeks, forever).

I'm not sure there's a lot you can do about it other than laugh. I agree that if the reactions are coming from people who know you, a pseudonym is probably not the answer.

Wes said...

A very interesting observation by Kate..........

"If you're not comfortable with the language, the descriptions or the complex physical and emotional attributes of an explicit sex scene, don't write them. Your readers will know, because you will have distanced yourself from the scene, and it shows. if you don't want to write it, they're not going to want to read it."

Joss said...

Initially when I started writing my novel, I was nervous about my father reading it (the sex scene is pretty tame, but even so), but I've since realized, I'm more afraid of him seeing the horrible relationship my protagonist has with her father, and thinking I secretly hate him.

I've written some pretty graphic scenes in other work, and I didn't find it embarassing. Though, I'd be kind of amused if I found out people thought that I've experienced all that, especially since I'm a virgin.

As to writing from experience--I can imagine sex as well as I can murders, gunfights, ghosts, demons, and anything else. :)

Kathryn Lilley said...

Okay, I now want to start writing sex scenes that will shame me into getting a new pseudonym (grin)! I'll have to check out that Steve Almond>Writing Sex link. Thanks, Anonymous!

Lisette Kristensen said...

I write under a pen more for convenience than anything else. I debated this issue for a long time, and finally felt it was better for privacy reasons and not content that I use a pseudonym.

The sex scenes are a combination of real experiences, fantasy and what girlfriends have described to me. It a mosaic of real/fantasy and wishful thinking.

Actually, I have found writing the sex scenes to be easier than any part of the story. It just flows naturally for me.

Anonymous said...

It can be very sexy to read about things you would never do, never want to really do, but that are a turn-on to imagine.

Anytime you have something to protect (i.e.,your privacy, your or your spouse's job, your kids' environment at school or with friends, your other writing area,or even that nagging inner censor who won't get off of your shoulder,)I think a pen name is probably a good idea.

Henry Harris said...

I recently had an agent agree to represent me based on reading the first couple chapters. A week later he was complaining about very, very mild sexual innuendo, flirting actually, between the male and female lead. Four weeks later when he got to a scene where the two leads were having sex, described in a non-graphic, tasteful way, he dropped me.

I'm thinking about putting a sign at the beginning of my novels to save time. Warning:This Story is about actual human beings.