Thursday, October 22, 2020

Every Title I Thought Up For This Post Was Filthy (I'll put them in the comments.)

Q: How do you handle sex in your books? Or, if you don’t, why not?

by Catriona

On Tuesday, Frank talked about a Left Coast Crime panel where winners and honourable mentions from that year's Bad Sex Awards were read out.

Minds, I was on that panel. And the excerpts were an astonishingly effective vaccination against ever writing a sex scene, let me tell you.

One had a bit about a dog with a penguin its mouth climbing to the top of a sand dune. (Oh God how I wish all but one of the panellists had got together beforehand and agreed to nod with recognition and make the reader of that think he was the weirdo. We missed a trick there.)

Another compared a woman's suntan marks with rings round a boarding-house bathtub (which I think is a great image, actually, but these were supposed to be the thoughts of a man in the throes of passion ...)

And they're not the worst. Google Guardian Books Bad Sex Awards if you like a laugh and aren't planning to eat watermelon, sardines or custard (yes, really) in the near future.

So how do I handle it? Well, I take my cue from the name of the award. I think good sex leads to bad writing - whether it's the insert tab A into slot B kind or the choir of angels on titian clouds of ecstasy kind.

But bad sex is much easier to write well. (Isn't that like life? I'm sure I remember reading some brisk agony aunt - one of the ones with that trademark excruciating lack of bashfulness - say that if all's well it's about 10% of a relationship, but when it goes wrong it shoots up to 90%. Claire Raynor maybe? Or Anna Raeburn? Virginia Ironside? Splendid women all, but if you sat next to them on a bus, you'd leave before your stop.)

I also believe bad sex earns its place in a crime novel more honestly. It can reveal character and you can hide clues in the ensuing storm of embarrassment.     

So I have written a couple of sex scenes. In fact, three. Two and a half. One and two halfs. 

In THE DAY SHE DIED, there's an abandoned effort at sex (Can I get points for not using the term "coitus interruptus"? Not now, I can't.) This shows something about the character of the male participant. Or does it . . .? (You've got to say that when you're talking about the inner workings of a plot. It's in the MWA, CWA, and SinC bylaws.) 

Later in the book, there's another more successful - or at least completed - attempt looked back upon minutes later by the protagonist. This gives some insight into her character. Or does it . . .?

The other thing about "bad sex" scenes is that they can be funny. Of, course the Bad Sex Awards show us that attempts at "good sex" scenes can be coffee-down-the-nose funny, but I mean deliberately. The one complete sex scene I've written in thirty-one novels is played for laughs. 

At the start of the first in the Last Ditch Motel series, Lexy's marriage ends when she witnesses her new husband very much reconciled with his ex-wife. I loved writing that scene. Especially the bit where the lovers are cowering under the covers, after being busted, and Bran (the ex-husband) is writhing in shame, and Lexy asks him if he's trying to wriggle out of a condom, and he says no, and she says "Oh great. Now I'll have to go to a clinic to get checked for skankitis too", and Brandeee (the ex-wife) says "Hey!", and Lexy gets to look down her nose and say "Oh really? I've fallen short of gracious behaviour, have I?" and sweep out. Or does she . . .

You can tell how much I love that scene from the way I just brought it all back to my typing fingers without having to look it up, four years later. 

And if you're wondering where the humour is supposed to be, let me just point out that "Brandeee" isn't really spelled with three "e"s; Lexy just pretends it is because she hates her. So that's the level right there.

In the third strand of writing I do, there is no sex at all. I mean none. The Dandy Gilver series makes Mr Rogers look racy. (UK Blue Peter, basically.) One time, Dandy is dying to get her husband out of her bedroom so she puts a hand to the back of her neck as if she's going to unbutton her dress. He flees.

And in THE TURNING TIDE, the book that's coming out in the US on Nov 10th, Dandy's son can barely manage to tell her that his new wife is pregnant because of what that means has happened, prior to the pregnancy, round about the conception sort of time. "Oh for Heaven's sake!" Dandy says to him. "Where do you think you came from?" One of those things you say - well, I say - that comes out such a lot worse than you thought it was going to.

I'll be reading that scene, and others, live on my Facebook author page on publication day. Click here to get reminders. It's at 5pm pacific and a recording'll be available afterwards if that's awkward for you.

I'm so much looking forward to it. Or am I  . . .? 



Paul D. Marks said...

This is sort of the problem, isn't it, Catriona: "The other thing about 'bad sex' scenes is that they can be funny. Of, course the Bad Sex Awards show us that attempts at 'good sex' scenes can be coffee-down-the-nose funny, but I mean deliberately." Good or bad sex scenes can come off funny, but not always intentionally....

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Writing funny, bad sex scenes beats choirs of angels on titian clouds of ecstasy every time.

Catriona McPherson said...

Oops! It's my birthday and I've been skyping and generally whooping it up all day. But as promised: titles that came to mind were "The view form Slot B" and "Sit up and Write for England" and worse than that.

James W. Ziskin said...

Brilliant, Catriona! This post hits it on the head. Or does it?


James W. Ziskin said...

I love “deliberately” funny sex scenes. The not deliberately funny ones not so much.