Writing Romance: A Word About Sex

Hello Campers,
Last month I promised to take a side trip here and discuss – ahem – sex.

Is sex necessary in a romance novel? That’s a huge question. Before I move into the real discussion, I’ll point out that my romances do not have sex in them. That is a personal decision I made, and I’m not here to get preachy in any way. I fully realize that this decision will result in some folks not buying or liking my books. Disclaimer done.

In preparation for this post, I googled “sex in romance novels.” The first hit was a Goodreads discussion titled “How Important is Sex in a Romance Novel?” It’s an interesting read. There’s everything from “super important” with points deducted if there is not sex, to folks who skip the sex scenes altogether, to one guy who says “Any good Romance story must include the points of love lust, sex & the aftermath, the sweaty bodies, the stained sheets or the unconventional romp in the park.”

Most said that it depends on the characters. That may or may not be true. It may completely depend on the target market.

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel for an erotica publisher. I didn’t enjoy writing it, and on the 1-5 flame rating system, it got a 1. I didn’t write for them again. It wasn’t my forte. Another two-book “series” I wrote – before my change of heart – did contain sex, though it wasn’t a main focus of either story. I so love those two stories. Recently I went back to the first one to see if I could take the sex out. What I found out: sex changes everything. But you likely already knew that. If I took the sex out of that book, I’d have to go about setting up dominoes that were knocked down by that act.

What this means, though – and I think it’s a positive – is that that sex scene was integral to the story. It was not just obligatory.

That being said, I’m glad there’s a romance market for every reader and every writer. (What I’d like to see is a rating system – but that might be just me.)

Let’s look at some of the submission guidelines for various Harlequin brands.

• The heat level is explicit and graphic. The hero and heroine have a powerful sexual and emotional connection.
• We’re looking for authors who have a distinct, memorable voice and write stories with a high level of sexual tension as well as graphic sex.

• Sizzling sensual tension between the hero and heroine.
• Sexual language that leans more euphemistic and romantic rather than explicit.

• A hero who will command and seduce. There's nothing in the world his powerful authority and money can't buy…except the love of a woman strong enough to tame him!
• High sensuality and sky-rocketing sexual tension to quicken your pulse.

• Plots unfold in a wholesome style and voice that excludes explicit sex or nudity, premarital sex, profanity, or graphic depictions of violence: references to violent incidents or premarital sex in the past are acceptable if they contribute to character development.
• Physical interactions (i.e. kissing/hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality: low level of sexual tension; characters should not make love unless they are married.

The inspirational imprints that have a “mandatory faith element” and no premarital sex.

As you can see, the HOT value of each of these imprints is different. So your decision on sex with these imprints is a market-based one. That may not be true for other publishers. Check submission guidelines for your target publisher.

Obviously, if you’re self-published, the decision is entirely yours. But you will still be targeting readers. That, of course, may not be your focus when writing your novel. It will be more about what you like to write – what you like to read. Let me assure you, then, that there is a market for every SIZZLE level out there. Write the book of your heart.

Your readers will find you.

Okay, enough sex talk. Next month we’re back to our outline, and we'll tackle the MIDPOINT.

Until then, BiC-HoK: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.

Cheers, Jax

Writing Naked

I am critical of badly written sex scenes. I want, therefore, to be able to write an emotionally singular scenario that scorches as it burns through the heat of unfolding events; a scene that twins joyous abandon with losing one’s self in a blazing physical coupling of passion and sweat.

I read various authors with incredulity, wincing as the scene offers gravity-defying pyrotechnics, then misfires the emotional pay dirt. Intuitive connection with the beloved, often after a courtship of hours, and accentuated with words that I could not use without giggling.

No matter whether the protagonists are sweet country lovers, dangerous co-assassins, or neurotic/erotic dominant/subs, they always have the moment. Mostly interesting, some others not so much. Credibility, people! Can I identify, could it be real? The animal within, I find, is often a voyeur.

In determination to set matters right, I sat myself down some months ago to begin to write one story that would be better than average, a rediscovery tale between older, more experienced lovers, an amalgam fusing a wild ride with wisdom, saucing up a certain street cred garnered as the fruits of mistakes made, life's challenges overcome. I envisioned their passion as I wrote, intensely graphic enough that the reader could sniff the pheromone-filled night air, feel the sweat of anticipation, the gnawing fears of disclosure, and the physical tension of imminent discovery.

My lovers poised on the aching cliff of desire before the magnetic pull of their coupling reached, well, climax. Within four pages, I had become what I was, a former Catholic schoolgirl, incapable of writing, thinking, or expressing the rawness of my own sexuality, embarrassed that my dead mother might somehow read my pornography through the mists and purse her lips in disapproval.

Where had this come from? I wondered, although in truth, the entire question was hypocritical. I knew the answer. My mother, that strong Victorian-minded woman, had taken my thoughts hostage.

Independent thinker? PFFF! I’m a sham, a fraud, a charlatan. In any language, a fake. Inside my beating defiant heart is a compliant girl who can't create for public consumption what she would think acceptable in private. This self-censure is disturbing, pitiful, even humiliating, as I would fashion myself a woman who is creative, provocative, and occasionally daring.

I still can't write a sex scene popping with volcanic fire, a scene that sweats with lust, romance, and passionate imminence, including, of course, the actual act, whether mitzvah or transgression, either zipless or zipped, with or without toys, depraved or transcending.

Others can pen with ease what my stingy heart will not allow me to write. A poet friend describes skin with such reality that desire emanates through the paper, damp with sensual energy. You can feel it. You can smell it. You can lap sustenance at the fountain of desire. I look beyond my own body, play God with character creation, and find only myself in disguise. A split personality battle ensues between the characters for dominance. Will the bitch win, or the diplomat; the siren or the cloister; the giver or the user. Does that even matter that I am trying to write not an intellectual treatise on sex scenes, but heart-pounding, breath-catching sex, for God's sake!

It isn't like I haven't had experience to draw upon; it isn't like I don't know how the mechanisms work. Everyone over the age of 11 has at least the same technical knowledge. I must admit here, to myself, that I haven’t committed to sharing those most personal of thoughts and that I lack the courage to smudge on paper. I flinch at physical descriptions of body parts in ecstasy, feeling myself a Kinsey researcher, a voyeur, an exhibitionist. Yet, my characters are driven by sex, with longing, hapless, hopeless need, and I want to give them their due.

Can I write steamy sex scenes? Will I be able to step out from behind my own curtain? I have no idea. I will no doubt continue to criticize badly written sex scenes, and I will also read them with purpose—but, for today, perhaps only for today, I remain a literary virgin, frozen in desire and fear.


Judith Lavezzi considers herself a novice writer, with one book completed after several years of working on the craft. She’s written several newspaper and magazine articles, which were published before she gathered enough courage to tackle a novel. Her book is set in 19th century Italy and is a story of one man's journey through the sometimes violent and always changing landscape that was Italy before the capture of Rome. She’s partially through the second book, another stand-alone novel set in Italy and America, chronicling the same descendants of that family as they face the threat of an incurable disease in a race against time and hope. She belongs to the 93rd Street Irregulars critique group, and they, with exquisite patience, have kept her from writing a thousand-page novel to impose on all her friends. You can learn more about Judith on her website.

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Nine-How Much Sex? How Much Romance?

By Jeanne C. Stein

Sex in writing is always a touchy subject—pun intended. Where does love making end and erotica begin? How much sex is too much? Do you have to have sex in your story?

Let’s start with the last question first. To be frank, most readers of genres such as UF or (of course) romance, expect sex to be a part of the storyline. PART of the storyline. They also expect it to be pertinent to the story, not tacked on as an afterthought. It’s different in erotica--sex IS the story. In UF or paranormal or straight romance, sex should be a natural element of the bigger story though it does not necessarily involve long-term consequences—or romance in the classic sense. Remember the difference between paranormal romance and UF? We may have a committed couple, but there’s no guaranteed happily ever after. In romance, happily ever after or happily for now is implicit. Regardless of genre, however, writing sex can be fun.

But writing a sex scene is not as easy as one might think. How far do you want to take it? Do you want to stop at the bedroom door or fling it wide open and invite the reader along? For our purposes, we’re going to assume you’re inviting the reader in.

There are two main elements to writing a good sex scene—the emotional and the physical. Sexual tension between the characters should have been building long before they land in bed. Danger can be a catalyst for sexual tension, conflict can be a catalyst. The characters may be long time friends or lovers, they may have just met and extenuating circumstances thrust them together. After a dangerous or life-threatening situation, slaying a dragon, for instance, or banishing the resident evil, sex is often used as an affirmation of life.

So we’ve set up the scene. Our characters are headed for the bedroom. How do we describe what happens next?

Depends on what type of scene we’re presenting. Is this a tryst between two lovers who know each other well? Will they take their time? Will they light candles and slip into a bubble bath? Will they kiss long and passionately? Will there be extended foreplay?

Or is this the frantic coupling of two people who have survived an unspeakable horror and want nothing more than to block it from their minds? Are they in an elevator or a taxi or in the back seat of a car? Do they fumble and tear at their clothes? Do they explore each other with fingers and tongues? Is the consummation an act of desperation or thanksgiving?

Set the mood.

Now on to the hard part: describing the action. Use all five senses. Set aside your inhibitions. If you’re writing the first type of love scene, the language and action will be romantic and sweet. If you’re writing the second, it will be abrupt and crude.

Your characters should talk to each other. Your characters should describe what they’re feeling. Your characters should have physical reactions to what is happening to them.

Now, here’s the secret. If your sex scene doesn’t turn you on—chances are it won’t turn your readers on, either.

Does that mean it has to be graphic?

Not at all. Here’s an example from author Jeaniene Frost:

He laughed—and then whirled me up in his arms so fast, my feet were still flexing for another step His mouth crushed down on mine, taking my breath away, and the same mindless compulsion that had led me to act so bizarrely upstairs manifested itself in another form. My arms went around his neck, my legs wrapped around his waist, and I kissed him as if by willpower alone I could erase the memory of every woman before me.

I heard a rip. Felt the wall at my back, and then the next moment, he was inside me.

I clung to him, nails digging into his back with mounting need, mouth locked onto his throat to stifle my cries. He moaned into my skin, free hand tangled in my hair as he moved faster, deeper. There was no gentleness to him, but I wanted none, exulting in the unbridled passion between us.

Everything inside me suddenly clenched, and then relinquished in a rush of ecstasy that streamed down to my toes. Bones cried out as well, and a few shattering minutes later, relaxed against me… (From Halfway to the Grave)

If you’re not comfortable writing or reading open door sex scenes, don’t do them. They will lack sensuality and emotional content and the reader will recognize it. So will an editor or agent. Better to stay in your own comfort zone. Show us something that has an emotional and sensual set up but ends at the bedroom door.

Another point, it helps if what happens in the bedroom furthers the storyline. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. There may be repercussions as a result of the coupling that are not manifest right away, but are made evident later. That’s okay, too.

Is there a difference between sex and intimacy? You betcha. Though they’re often used interchangeably, intimacy implies a close personal relationship that goes beyond the physical. An important aspect of any romance. That isn’t to say that our protag should be shown as lacking moral fiber—we want her to be sympathetic. But in some genres, UF or paranormal romance, we are writing characters that exist beyond the bounds of a normal world. A world that may not recognize them or worse, brands them as outcasts. Finding solace in sex is a way of retaining that human connection.

Our last two lessons will be more about the business of writing than the elements of writing.

Next month we’ll look at the many ways writers sabotage themselves —both in their writing and with their careers.