Bucket of Water Please!

Guest post by Erastes

I had a more sensible and serious discussiony post planned but I’m feeling a bit rough today so I’m going to talk about sex instead because that cheers me up.

For obvious reasons this post has no pictures!!

I think that any book these days that deals with any kind of relationship is going to have to deal with sex at some point. It doesn’t have to be a romance to do so, your guys can be spies, shagging frantically against a damp brick wall in post war Berlin, keeping out of the way of patrols–they can be adventurous explorers, risking mossie bites and god knows what else worse as they bare their bits in the jungle.  Even inspirational books – and it’s about time we saw more inspirational gay books (is anyone publishing them?) have to deal with sex – even if they don’t describe the sex scenes themselves.

The other day I found a review of Transgressions which gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had – and that was that, even though there was a lot of sex in the book, each and every sex scene was integral to the plot.

Now, your mileage may vary, but I think that this is important.  Particularly in a book that has a lot of sex in it. Even something labelled an “erotic romance.”  I don’t think that the sex should be superfluous.

First of all, let me just say that I love sex stories.  I have shelves of one-handed reads, and the short erotic story is perfect for that PWP (plot, what plot?  or porn without plot) but I truly believe that anything longer than a short story the sex scene is as much of a story telling device as the dialogue, or other kinds of action scenes.

What I’ve seen with too many books is gratuitous sex and while I’ll tolerate one – or maybe two scenes of this nature, any more than that, and I’m flipping forward to find the next plot point.  “Oh GOD, they are at it AGAIN.”  Some characters seem to have sex every single time they meet up, and that’s really not interesting for the reader (after the first couple of times, anyway!) unless it does something for the story.

The trouble is, that loads of sex IS generally realistic for a new relationship.  Most m/m books are dealing with a burgeoning relationship (there are a few series or books which start in the middle of a relationship of course) – and as we all know – when you start up a new love affair, you rush together like iron filings to a magnet every single opportunity you get.  You can’t be in the same room as each other without wanting to rip each other’s clothes off.  But if you write about this over and over again, then the reader is going to glaze over and say “so what?”

After a while, sex in books is a bit like eating, sleeping or going to the loo.  We KNOW that the protagonists do all of the above, but the author doesn’t describe every single meal because they’d lose readers fast.

I’ve literally read books that – out of a 300 page novel – have 160 or so pages – JUST OF SEX.  Sex scenes that go on for 5,000 words when you begin to worry about the state of their equipment by the end of it.

So how do you know which scenes to write about?

As I say, each sex scene has got to tell you something about the story.  It doesn’t have to further the plot, but it could also reveal something about one or other (or both) of the characters.  As long as it does something, that’s the main thing.

  1. First-time sex. This is vital.  I proof read a story a while back which started the story after the first time time sex, and I had to explain to the author why this didn’t work.  You need those first reactions, the touches, the tastes because they never happen quite that same way again.
  2. Event sex – celebratory/commiseration, pity fuck, hurt/comfort.  This generally doesn’t progress the plot, but it can show a lot about characterisation
  3. Break up sex – Either when both of them know if, or only one, it can be horrifying, galling, touching, heartbreaking.
  4. Make up sex – Again, I think this one is always vital to put in, because the motivations can sometimes be hugely satisfying to read.
  5. Hate/Anger sex – can be swapped with break-up sex, depending on why there’s anger there in the first place.  The most obvious and most used is the characters yelling at each other and then flinging themselves on the ground and ripping each other’s clothes off, so it can also work well as first time sex too!
  6. Adulterous sex. Oh yes indeed!! This can be an established adulterous relationship, or a one-time thing.  In fact, with this established relationship, it’s likely you’ll be able to show more of the sex scenes, because the guilt- or progression of the adultery will impact the plot more readily that an established monogamous relationship.
  7. Emo-sex: Verge of death sex, long separation sex, just after funeral sex. These can be alternated with make up, event or hurt comfort, but can also work well on their own, depending on the level of emo!!

If I can just illustrate my point further with Standish.  There’s a lorra lorra sex – but briefly – here are the sex scenes, and here’s what I hope each one says. (Probably worth skipping if you were planning to read the book and don’t want to be spoiled.

Rafe/Quinn – Backstory+breakup sex
Rafe/Francis – hate sex+ semi-adulterous+break up sex (!)
Rafe/Ambrose – Hurt Comfort + First time sex
(then I allude to the fact that they do a lot of sex as the relationship kicks off, but I don’t describe it)
Rafe/Ambrose – Emo (Ambrose recalling sex after finding something really upsets him)
Ambrose/Francis – hate-violence
Rafe/Achille – first time+adulterous sex
Ambrose/Fleury – first time+post momentous event sex
Ambrose/Fleury – developing relationship

Eagle =eyed readers will note that in actual fact the main protagonists never actually have penetrative sex.

Basically  – as a reader, if I can read a sex scene and lift it right out of the book, and it makes no difference to the plot or characterisation at all, then, in my opinion, it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

But that’s my opinion.  What’s yours?

Author

Erastes is an author of gay historical fiction. Her novels cover many time periods and locations. She lives in Norfolk UK with demanding cats and never seems to have enough time to serve them.

51 comments

  • I completely agree that sex scenes like other scenes ought to be there either to advance the plot or aid characterisation or preferably both. I’m glad we’re now getting to the stage where people don’t automatically assume a book is erotica just because it’s m/m. It has to minimize disappointment all around if the erotica is labled as such, and the longer plotty stories are labled as plain romance or [whatever genre]. That way people who want erotica could find it without risking getting some sexless adventure story, and people who wanted the adventure story could find it without risking buying reams of pointless sex.

    • Hear hear – more accurate labelling (and I don’t mean exquisitely fine warnings like fanfic did) seems to be part of the solution, simply between erotica and romance.

      • Maybe one day m/m romance will be a big enough seller to be sold in “lines” like the het category romance, each line having its particular level of sexual explicitness from no on the page sex at all, to anything goes!
        ~
        Which sounds kind of restrictive for writers, (do they get to cross over into other lines?) but must be a big help to readers to pick out the stuff they want from the approx 6 zillion romance titles published a year.

  • I’d totally agree with the less-is-more approach. I vividly remember getting that Sean Michael book – in dead tree format, before I even knew e-books existed – and the excitement of the first few pages followed by the disappointment that the rest was just more of the same. Surely that’s boring to write as well as to read?
    ~
    The one-sex-scene-per-chapter seems a daft idea to me, unless you’re writing something like James Lear does (and does very well indeed), in which the hero drops his trousers for pretty much every man he meets. But between a romantic couple? Unnecessary and tedious.
    ~
    I think perhaps part of the problem is that there seems to be a bit of confusion between m/m romance and erotica – in het, the categories have been around for a while and are clearly defined, whereas in m/m, there’s a tendency on the part of some sellers to lump it all in together, generally as erotica.

    • Hi JL –

      Yes, James Lear gets it right with a completely different type of idea – and the more answers I get the more I realise my article was rather incomplete!!

      And yes – I agree, gay fiction used to only really be available (in any quantity) in two disparate genres: literature and porn – m/m has crept in via the porny end (no pun intended) but I think the genre is now levelling out to all kinds, and that’s a good thing.

  • I enjoyed this post. IMO you can’t have too many discussions about sex *g*
    ~
    As a reader, I’ll pretty much read anything, so I have no beef against a bunch of sex in a book as such. BUT, I do want it to be marked that way. I like Samhain’s “red hots” label. It tells me that I’m gonna be getting a book with a lot of sex in it. And I fully agree that the sex should either push the plot or the character development forward in some way. I don’t mind a bit of gratuitous sex, but yeah, too much gets deadly dull, especially if it’s all alike.
    ~
    As an author, I guess I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never been asked to “sex up” a book. My sex scenes come from the characters and the story, and nothing else. Which is not to say that all readers will agree with my interpretation of whether or not each sex scene is needed, I guess, but I call ’em as I see ’em 🙂 The book I’m working on now (Shenandoah, the sequel to Dragon’s Kiss) hardly has any sex in it. It just hasn’t come up a lot. Though I expect the boys’ll have a “thank the Mother you’re ALIVE after all that unpleasant adventure” fuck toward the end. LOL.
    ~
    I also agree that I’d love to see a few more realistically un-perfect sex scenes, from myself as well. I think that’s one reason Untamed Heart is still my favorite of my own books, because so much of the sex was so NOT perfect. The first time Leon and Grim had sex, Grim didn’t even come. How much less perfect can you get? And how perverse is it that I am sort of proud of myself for doing that to the poor guy?? Geez.

    • Hi Ally – and thanks!

      I think one of the best I read that was literally sex on every page but managed to make it relevant was A Gentleman’s Wager by Madelynne Ellis – *fans self* Too much sex for my liking, but still it did forward the plot.
      ~
      Not having done sequels or series’ I haven’t had your prob- but I can how difficult it can be, especially if the couple are monogamous!! Five years or so into the relationship and they wouldn’t be tearing each others’ clothes off any more.

      And yes – more imperfect sex please! We’ll be moaning in a year that there’s too many of ’em, perhaps – and where is the NICE sex these days! LOL

  • I think there’s a clear trend that readers don’t want “gratituous” sex. The feedback I’m getting for “Special Forces” is that “Soldiers” is great and “Mercenaries” is boring or patchy.

    The main differences between “Soldiers” and “Mercenaries”? Every sex scene in “Soldiers” (and there are many of them) advances the relationship between the main characters, whereas in “Mercenaries” one of the MCs goes off to shag anything that moves (as long as it has a penis) – and people hate that, because it only reveals that the man has a sex drive, and several of those scenes don’t reveal anything.

    Needless to say, those are the scenes I’ll be cutting on my “directors cut” edit. They really impede the overal plot arch.

    Just to say, yes, yes, and yes again. My best gauge is, while I’m writing it, do I really think “yes, finally, sex!” or “oooh, interesting, sex”, or “damn, I guess now it’s time for the sex scene.”

    If I feel the latter, I’m not doing it. (Sorry for awful pun).

  • I find sex scenes VERY hard work to write – not fun at all – so only put them in when absolutely called for by the plot. I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of writing erotica.

    Reading it – no, I don’t read it either. I like PLOTS and if there are a few wonderfully written heated and tender sex scenes as part of the plot that’s a marvellous bonus. Sadly with a lot of m/m stuff, I end up skimming pages.

    What I would love to write, and to read, are something like the Sharpe novels only with guys instead of the hero having some inevitable temporary totty. A sex scene in a book like that really MEANS something.

    • I agree with you, entirely Sal. Books – whether they be romances or NOT, should be plot/character led, not “when will they next get their kit off”

      I hope you’ve read Lee and Alex’s books which are Age of Sail. I don’t think anyone’s quite tried the Sharpe side of things (probably the research is too scary) yet, but there are a few war books on Speak Its Name’s list.

      • I expect someone will do the land war from the Napoleonic era, though arranging the time and space for safe sex (ie, that doesn’t result in hanging) might be trickier. Ever been camping? Everyone within about 50 feet, minimum, can hear just about everything. Much trickier than when you’ve got sailors going ashore or, at the pinch, having a quickie in a rough and noisy sea.

  • Yes, I agree: you can have too much of a good thing (as I think Remus Lupin once said) and gratuitous sex can often get in the way of the story. If I’m reading a mystery novel, I’m primarily interested in whodunnit. Mind you, if the lead investigator is a charming alien with interesting hair, and his sidekick is an even more charming alien with a beautifully sculpted head-bone, sure, I’d love to see them fuck, possibly more than once, but after awhile it’s like eating too much chocolate: you long for something meatier into which you can sink your teeth. For me, the meat is the plot.

    I also like stories where the sex comes as a bit of a surprise – by this I mean, you know they are interested in each other and you know they will eventually have sex but you don’t know when, precisely. And I like the slow buildup and the ‘tease’, as well – let the primary character stroke the secondary character’s head bone while their tentacles entwine, and just before tentacles slip into corresponding orifices, have one of them leap up and go “By Cthulhu! I should have known!” Then, when the sex does happen, it’s that much hotter…

    • “If I’m reading a mystery novel, I’m primarily interested in whodunnit”

      Yes, that’s partly the problem. However I DO think that things are improving and that more people are writing plotty books with sex scenes rather than sex scenes strung together with a very thin plot. At least in the historical market, as I don’t read contemps.

      I, like you, prefer the slow burn (although sadly, with Fleury’s new adventure I shall be breaking all my own preferences as the man’s cock has a mind of it’s own, and he doesn’t give a fig for propriety or indeed, courtship.

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