In this Pocket Guide, Leone Ross tackles the age-old question of what makes good sex – for writers, of course. Read on for tips on mastering your approach to writing about sex, refining intimacy, and the trouble with purple prose…
Take a deep breath and have a think about the following sexual activities and feelings.
A new lover.
What about vibrators?
What about being f*cked in the arse?
There are two main things that get in the way of writing good sex. The first is how you feel about the subject – sex is notorious for making people uncomfortable, and writers are no exception. Studies show that we get all weird and wordy when we’re uncomfortable or ignorant – we hedge, use jargon, rely on cliché. Novelist Jan Michaelson says erotica should “cause arousal, but also align itself with literary merit.”
Start by thinking differently
Writing sex well is an opportunity, a celebration and such an intellectual challenge. Sex writing centres the body – what could be more fascinating, difficult and delicious? I like to think about sex writing as a liquid exploration: of sweat, tears, blood and cum. Sweat implies physical movement and exertion. You don’t have to have characters swing from chandeliers, but the body is moving and crafting those descriptions is demanding and technical. Consider that sex is not just about PIV [penis in vagina] or ESO [earth shattering orgasm]. Tears implies emotions felt –all emotions are interesting, and so delicately stoked via sex! Blood reminds me to consider taboo, violence, matters of consent and communication. And then the sticky reality of cum – the mechanics of getting there, the arousal and afterglow, the mopping up, with all that suggests.
You don’t have to be a great fuck to write about sex. Just curious about truth. In fact, vulnerability or clumsiness can be the greatest authenticity. One of my favourite sex scenes is by Stephen King in his novel Hearts of Atlantis, about a young man losing his virginity before he goes off to war. The girl has a single wisdom: she needs to go slow. So the boy does what she needs, to the sounds on the radio. It’s a significant moment between a sweet couple on the brink of sacrifice and violence, and it haunts the protagonist for the entire novel: “Jackie Wilson sang Lonely Teardrops and I went slow. Roy Orbison sang Only For The Lonely and I went slow. Wanda Jackson sang Let’s Have A Party and I went slow. Mighty John did an ad for Brannigan’s, Derry’s hottest bottle club and I went slow. Then she began to moan and it wasn’t her fingers on my neck, but her nails digging into it, and when she began to move her hips against me in short, hard thrusts, I couldn’t go slow and The Platters were on the radio, the Platters were singing Twilight Time and she began to moan that she hadn’t known, hadn’t got a clue, oh gee, oh Pete, oh gee, Oh Jesus, Jesus Christ Pete and her lips were all over my mouth and my chin and my jaw, she was frantic with kisses. I could hear the seat creaking. I could smell cigarette smoke and the pine air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror and by then I was moaning too, I didn’t know what and The Platters were singing, “Each day I pray for evening just to be with you” and then it started to happen. I held her with my eyes closed and went into her that way, that way that you, shaking all over, hearing the heel of my shoe drumming against the driver’s door, thinking that I could do this even if I was dying, even if I was dying, even if I was dying.”
So…give the sex a purpose in the story. It’s not merely titilatory! Ground it in character – writing about a specific body and mind, affected by childhood messages and a lifetime of experiences. Just knowing how a character’s sexual identity has formed can improve your writing. You don’t even have to include a sex act. But if you do, make sure it moves the plot along!
Reject limited ideas of ‘perfection’. If sex is not some perfectly orchestrated fuck in an elevator where no-one’s knees hurt, we have so many amazingly sensual, authentic possibilities. Think ‘ugly’ sex and socially unacceptable sex; the particularities of older and younger people; of smells and textures and colours and sounds. We menstruate, we lose erections, become turned on at weird times etc. Bodies crinkle and cramp. Don’t just rely on describing tits and arse, either. Back of the neck. In between your toes. Skin. Liver. Lick the hair. The erotic is an idea and what makes us shiver has been co-opted too long by Western beauty ‘ideals’. It’s a lie that we all desire one particular kind of body. Explore real desire ferociously: that dip in an unexpected place; the fact that she’s wet, not the package that wetness comes wrapped up in; the sexy in the everyday and the ordinary: sound, motion, light, texture, breath. You do not have to be thin to be a gloriously sexual human being.
I started off this Pocket Guide by saying there were two things that get in the way of good sex writing. The second problem is technical. Every year the wonderful Bad Sex Awards regale us with purple prose and cliches.
You can improve your sentences by doing this:
Decide how explicit you are going to be.
Haleh Agar’s short story, Sitting Between, in which a tired, grieving woman lets the passenger next to her on a plane masturbate her, is a slow-build example of understatement: “Under the blanket, his hand explored. His fingers walked along the outer edges of her – testing, curious. She thought of the quiet darkness at the depths of the ocean and relaxed into her seat. His fingers ventured further in. She controlled her breathing, gentle and steady like the old woman’s snoring. A quiet burst of laughter. The flight attendants still enjoying their break while she enjoyed his touch—a touch that grew in confidence, the further he explored. She admired his boldness, expecting life to reward him for his willingness to take chances and in this way she found her own hand wandering under his blanket and she watched as the tiny plane inched forward on her screen.”
A full confession. I don’t really like reading erotica. I love considering sex and reading about sex and being sexual, but so much peddled as erotica is terribly written. And bad sex writing pains me. Poet and activist Audre Lorde reminds us that when sex is fully experienced, our expectations for our whole lives increase: “Having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power…we can require no less of ourselves.” Human sexuality is this astonishing, complex, luxurious potential for joy and power. It is also just like any other subject you might write about – it benefits from directness, detail and deep consideration.
Start gently, by noticing…
1: SENSORY WRITING: Four exercises in paying attention to detail.
Part 1: Pay attention to all your senses. Look up now and simply list what you see and hear; might taste or touch.
An example from my living room: A pile of 27 unread books, spines of varied widths in greens, blues, whites, reds and yellows. A striped makeup bag on the carpet, next to a stripey cat. The sound of the news from the apartment above my head. Two elastic bands on my wrist. A ticking clock that doesn’t tell the right time. An empty coffee bottle. A neighbour retches.
Part 2: Eat a very small piece of fruit or a sweet or chocolate. Now pay attention to the sensations of eating and list what you experience. Make a list of what you notice.
Part 3: Having practiced noticing, now do it again, during a sexual experience. You can do this alone, while fantasising or masturbating – or with others. Simply be present and notice. Make a mental list of what you see and hear and taste and smell. Some people may be uncomfortable with this idea – if that’s you, work with memory, and recall a favourite, vivid sexual experience. It could be a single kiss or a full-on BDSM experience.
Part 4: Choose one of these prompts, adapted from Cherie Loughlin’s 300 Erotic Prompts, and make a list of details, using all your senses.
A red plum; cats; an elevator; a back-seat; my best friend’s brother; all day naked; against the wall; broken furniture; tenderness; dirty talk; ex sex; flirting with a stranger; long, happy marriage; the kitchen; giggling; the mirror; lights off; morning sex; music; listening to the neighbours; the dark; walk of shame; different from me; pregnant; surprise visit; in the dirt; the one who got away; rejection; orgy says no; fat; thin; black; white; other.
JUST DO IT: An exercise for those who write around, under, up to and past the sex scene but don’t actually write the sex.
Write a single-scene story in which a couple have a first-time experience – it could be old exes having final sex, it could be 80-somethings doing anal for the first time, it could be wedding night for celibate Christians or the first time a john kisses the sex worker he has been seeing for three years. As silly, sweet, sordid or serious as you like.
Apply these constraints to control the story:
You MUST begin with the sex in the very first sentence or paragraph – not a feeling about sex, you must write an actual act/behaviour. Choose that act and jump in. Be very clear about the sex act. It may help to consider the prompts at the very beginning of this pocket guide – kissing, oral sex, clitorises – and the ideas and attitudes that arose.
Tell the story from ONE POV. Do NOT jump into the head of the other character. We should only have a sense of their feelings from their actions or dialogue.
Write two sections: one, larger section that is the sexual experience, and then one in which your POV character responds to the sex, having mattered in some way, having moved them to revelation or ‘newness’.
EMPATHY AND TABOO. An exercise to push you further.
[Work through the steps of this exercise as they occur – don’t jump through them or read the exercise in advance]
[a] Imagine a person going for a journey. Train, plane, automobile, horseback – up to you. Be specific: a train journey from London King’s Cross to Birmingham. Give the person a name, gender, age, job. Think of what they’re wearing.
[b] Think of a sexual activity that’s not for you – it could be something you judge, or something you think sounds unpleasant or beyond the pale; something that just doesn’t turn you on. [Note: The sexual activity should be consensual and between adults.]
[c] Imagine your character is a huge fan of the sexual activity that you don’t like…they totally adore this thing. When they get to their destination, they’re going to do the sexual activity they love.
[d] Write, without stopping, for 15 minutes, in the first-person ‘I’ voice, from the point of view of your journey character. Have them fantasise about doing their favourite sexual activity once they get to their destination. Be as detailed and specific as you can.
A few erotic things I actually like…
Erotique Noire: Black Erotica, edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Reginald Martin & Roseann P. Bell
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
Lust by Susan Minot
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
The Turn On Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-turn-on/id1468949359
And something I wrote:
The Woman Who Lived In A Restaurant by Leone Ross
Leone Ross is a novelist, short story writer, editor and academic. She writes speculative fiction, realism and occasional erotica because it’s so damned difficult. She has been described by the Times Literary Supplement as ‘a master of detail’ and by BBC Radio 4 as ‘filthy’, which sounds like the same thing, to her. Her short story collection Come Let Us Sing Anyway (Peepal Tree, 2017) was shortlisted for the 2018 Edge Hill Prize, among other awards. Her third novel, This One Sky Day will be published in April 2021 with Faber & Faber.
Published 17 November 2020