bear by san

December 2021



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writing one-eyed jack

she ain't the most feminine girl in town, but she's fun to be around

So. I'm still thinking about sex, because commodorified is still talking about sex (with a capable assist from Lois McMaster Bujold). And when commodorified talks about sex, everybody listens. And not just because she's a beautiful woman.

(Also, my responses are colored by this post over here and its comments, which of course I did find because I am the Devil, and if you speak my name I appear. I think it's also an excellent post, and not just because the writer says that I (and Lois, to close the circle entirely) write decent sex scenes.)

The comment in particular I disagree with is this one, from kalimac: (By the way, I ask my loyal readers please not to go descend en masse upon this poor person who is nattering away in sie private journel. Y'all can be a little overwhelming, I'm told, en masse, and since I found sie via the magic of ego-google, it seems like a mean thing to do. *g*)

This is asking the wrong question. It may be sometimes necessary to know that characters are having sex, though you're better off guessing. It is never necessary to see them doing it, any more than it's necessary to follow them into the bathroom to know they're doing that.

I've certainly written a few scenes that involved trips to the bathroom. They weren't routine trips to the bathroom. (There's a puking-and-head-holding scene in One-Eyed Jack that I'm mighty proud of, and which is probably going to end up on the cutting room floor, alas, because it's meant to model a certain kind of hurt/comfort fic (One-Eyed Jack is the fanfiction novel in the Promethean Age universe) and it bears insufficiently on the plot, la.)

And there's not much reason, it's true, to show routine sex, unless you are doing it to establish a baseline. But I think the attitude that it is never necessary to show sex in fiction stems from the very mistaken idea that sex is only there to do one thing, that it only serves one narrative purpose. And of course, like every other kind of scene, it serves thousands. Romeo climbing into bed with Juliet, in other words, serves a very different narrative purpose than Oedipus climbing into bed with Jocasta. But I can certainly see why you might make the narrative choice to show each of those things.

(I can think of two really effective and fairly graphic movie sex scenes without trying--there's a scene in Boys on the Side where you can practically hear the audience chanting "don't do that, don't do that" under their breaths--it's the tensest moment in the movie, frankly: tenser than the murder--and there's one in Cooler that is my single favorite movie sex scene ever. It is really graphic, as far as non-pornographic movies go, and it not only tells you everything you need to know about the protagonists, it humanizes them and makes them beautiful. Let's see. Without straining myself, there's also narratively useful sex in A History of Violence, Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange, Kinsey, Brokeback Mountain....)

Squeamishness, in other words, does not make for good literature. The purpose of the artist is never to look down.

Anyway, digression endeth.

commodorified is more interested in talking about the purpose of sex in erotic writing, but what she has to say is well-worth reading. (And you can feel free to go clamber all over her comments. She's here with informed consent. *g*) Here's a taster:

So I'm mapping this to 'subgenre', as in the differences between, say, the difference between cozy country-house mysteries, police proceedurals, the detective-centric mystery novel of character, and the overtly literary mystery that wants to state a broader theme.

Sometimes you describe the blood spatter minutely. Sometimes you just say there's a body.


So, when I said this job is like playing whack-a-mole? What I meant is, there is always some other little job that needs doing, and they proliferate while your back is turned. And they all have deadlines. My big job for this week was finishing the New Amsterdam draft. However, before Christmas, I still have to get through the entire thing on a revision pass; I have to do galleys for "Tideline" and review the contracts (It's appearing in Asimov's, my first story there ever); I have to revise the emergency last minute 1500-word review I wrote last night (today); and I have to be ready to do the proposal for Dust by Jan 15. Then I have to deliver "Periastron" by April 1 (it's a novella), and I have to have finished drafts of Dust and All the Windwracked Stars by the end of the summer.

And there will be other jobs. Galleys and revisions and contracts and arguments and (sex and sex and sex and sex and *stuffs Mick back into the box* sorry) and keeping this thing interesting and my monthly column for Storytellersunplugged.com (next one due January 6) and...

...and of course the business of living.

Gimme that hammer. WHACK!



I stumbled upon you because of David Bowie, but I'm sticking around for the fascinating peek into a writer's mind, soul, and cyclic disorder disaster shiny clean.

Anyone who's read Altered Carbon and Fallen Angels y Richard Morgan will shout to the rafters that sometimes, a cigar is NOT just a cigar, and sex isn't gratuitous page filler. In fact, his psychosexual fiddlings have stuck in my mind and tweaked my worldview a few degrees off 180.

Re: wow!


We can do David Bowie too!


(Nice to meet you.)


considering that my LJ name is apparently some swingers travel site on the Net, I'd better be open-minded about sex. cause a couple of times I've accidentally typed out soloadventure.com instead of my 'pro' blog, solomother.com and sent it out to the Netverse, with hysterical results.

That group responding to anderyn's sex critique is a bunch of prudes. Harumph. I read an otherwise unremarkable science fiction book when I was a young something or other, I couldn't tell you a thing about it, though it was a big fat paperback... but the denoument of the novel was this extraordinary sex scene that was wrapped up in cotton gingham dresses, flat burned prairielands, and UFO's landing on earth, all wrapped and warped through this vacant eyed girl and an anguished stranger. I'll never look at simple summer dresses in quite the same way, again.

Sex is a part of life. If it's not just thrown into a book for the titillation factor, I enjoy reading it. Why on earth would I wade through a gruesome murder mystery without batting an eyelash, but get squicked out when someone gets an erection? Sheez.
d'you reckon the "it isn't necessary to follow characters into the bedroom attitude" is more prevalent in prudish, puritanical America? Or is it more universal than that?

I reckon what everybody needs to do is write at least one sex scene a month and post it on their blog for public critiquing/ridicule/admiration. Regardless of whatever else they're doing. Because you can't get good at something unless you practice it.

And while squeamishness can be charming in a lover -- or a character -- it's perfectly useless in an author.
*g* I dunno. I'm an American. I can't see my countrymen as a stereotype.

You'll have to ask somebody who has a picture of "American" as a type rather than as a collective of completely contradictory individuals. ;-)
I often find myself wishing some authors would not show sex scenes, not because I do not appreciate the erotic aspects, but because I feel the author has not given enough previous contezt to the relationship where the erotic scenes feel like it's actually happening between the characters, as opposed tothe author deciding that there should be at least one sex scene in this story. What distinguishes Lois's scenes is that there is always lots of preceding tidbits which lead up to that moment, and that the sex scenes will also impact what happens later. The scene when Miles has sex with Tara says a lot about Miles, but we don't get a wordy "tell" scene, we get a scene which shows something unique about Miles and how he relates.

Ditto for bathroom scenes: the context matters. Best bathroom scene ever: the one from Clive Barker's Damnation Game, which hits all the ways humans can feel vulnerable--literally caught with their pants down--in the bathroom. The reader understands on a primal level how much the character has reason to be at this point.
Re kalimac's comment that you quote: Why, then, is it necessary to "see" characters doing anything? Why not just tell us that it happened? Why pick out sex (and whatever might happen in the bathroom) as somehow different from all their other activities?

Why, to sum up, should "Show, don't tell" be good fiction-writing advice for every human activity except sex and excretion?
because sex and excretion are icky!
Good thoughts here, and good triggers to more thoughts. I disagree about Squeamishness and good art, but then I don't see those elisions that Lois is talking about as lacunae in art. Maybe it depends on what the artist is trying to do, and in so trying, flinching from some subjects.

But I also don't buy into the notion that one knows everything about the characters when following them into the bedroom (or bathroom) to witness them in situ. One might see what they are doing, but it's what they are thinking that interests me more. If the scene is meant to be erotic, an element left to the imagination gives the reader a chance to imagine their own particular trigger which can be more effective than, say, reading one zie finds repellent.
If the scene is meant to be erotic, an element left to the imagination gives the reader a chance to imagine their own particular trigger which can be more effective than, say, reading one zie finds repellent.

I don't think that just applies to erotic scenes-- some empty space for reader identification can be useful in writing meant to evoke any emotional response.

The trick in any sort of emotionally-charged writing is to show enough of what the character is experiencing to get across what they're feeling and why, while allowing the reader enough slack to map their triggers and responses over it. Attraction or arousal are no different from fear in that way, or from humiliation or pride or grief or joy.

And I think in all those cases, telling details are perhaps riskier than strategic vagueness, but the payoff is greater. If all the story gives is a framework for the reader's own kinks and experiences, they might go along more easily, but they're not going to take anything but their own kinks out of that scene. Explicit detail is harder to do well, and more likely to bounce the reader out if it's done badly, but if it's not there at all, neither is the character.
The sex scene in The Cooler is wonderful.

For narratively useful sex, my dark horse candidate is The Terminator. :)
*g* Amen d'at.

And yeah, that is just such a fabulous scene.

I think the problem is we too often stylize sex, write it like movie sex, and sex isn't like it is in the movies....

For the record...

I said your name and you did not appear. But I wanted to have brunch with you! :: pout::

I reserve you for a meal at the next convention we're both at. You got my hopes up and now you owe me. :-)

Re: For the record...

Absolutely! *g*

Mick in A Box

Harder to keep down than a herd of wackamoles "Please allow me to introduce myself...."

Re: Mick in A Box

Ack, earworm! Earworm!
well, they would have been better off.
A still small voice told me that you were citing me here.

The explanation for the conclusion that you draw from my comment (that I believe sex scenes are only there for one thing) is contained in the additional sentence which you did not quote: "I have only ever seen one actual sex scene in a movie (or literature) whose purpose in being explicitly there (as opposed to implied) seemed to be anything other than salacious."

In other words that, in actual practice, it is only there for one thing - the explicit depiction of it, I mean. There are many reasons readers might be told - or, better, be able to infer - that characters are having a sex life. I have not seen these purposes furthered by explicit descriptions of the sex.

Of course I have not read every sex scene ever published, and (I regret to say) nothing of yours with sex scenes that I recall. Also, I did say that it wasn't necessary, not that it was totally unnecessary. A writer may wish to include it anyway. Only in the most grimly pared-down fiction is everything literally necessary.

I cited the bathroom not because it's icky, but as the strongest possible example to prove a point. Some authors (not necessarily you) say, or at least give the impression that they think, that adequate characterization is not possible without following characters into the depths of their personal lives - and by "personal lives" they seem usually to mean "sex lives." But other parts of life are equally important, and often get ignored by these same authors: intellectual lives, spiritual lives, food, and yes, the toilet.

Also to authors (the same not necessarily you authors) who think that they cannot characterize their protagonists without putting in details of their sex lives: how did authors ever do it back in the days of Shakespeare or Austen or Dickens who were societally prevented from publishing any such thing.

Shakespeare is incredibly bawdy. There are entire scenes that are extended sex jokes. Or toilet jokes.

Just saying. Don't make the mistake of confusing the Elizabethans and the Victorians: The Elizabethans sensibility is formed before the overwhelming influence of the Puritans, and partakes far more of Chaucer's "privily he took her by the cunt" than Dickens.
Something I've never quite understood is, if we're talking about genre fiction, how sex is possibly any more "gratuitous" than any of the various trappings of genre. From where I'm standing - as, to be clear, a genre fan and a fan of well-turned porn - you don't "need" any of it. But loving attention to swords, monsters, starships, royal lineages, magic, and assorted Cool Stuff gets a pass from an awful lot of people who seem to think that saying "cock" Crosses The Line.

Now, I am a rank amateur and a dabbler, and write shameless pulp to boot, so no one has any reason to listen to me. But it seems to me that, looking at my own work, the places where I've glimpsed at the characters' sex lives aren't any more gratuitous than - and "serve the narrative" exactly as much as - the eldritch monsters, mysterious immortals, and Magicians in Big Coats. If my intended audience for the latter list is people who are as fascinated by my squid as I am, why should the sex be any different? And if the intent of showing the sex is "salacious" - a word with a hell of a lot of unfortunate sex-negative baggage all over it - how is that a baser or less worthy goal than hoping a reader thinks my qlippoth are terrifying and my protagonist is cool?
It's the kinks that sell. It's *always* the kinks that sell.

We try to slip the literary value in between, like a heartworm tablet into a piece of hot dog.