Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Is Dad Reading This?

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

From Frank

Okay, full disclosure here - this question was posed to the group by Jim Ziskin, whose opinion I know from personal conversation. He essentially told me (and this might've been when he was on my podcast) that the way he likes to handle sex in fiction (and his advice to other writers) is to approach it as if his mother was going to read it.

In my case, it's my dad. But given Dad's attitude toward this subject, I think the end result is the same.

For the most part, I agree with Jim, and for a variety of reasons.

In my own work - with three glaring exceptions - I handle sex with a certain vagueness. If characters have sex on the page, it's handled with a few allusions and left mostly to the reader's imagination.  For one thing, you don't need me to tell you what sex is like, at least not the play-by-play of it. If I can express that a) the characters did it, and b) the tone of the act, be it tender, passionate, dirty, whatever, then that's enough. That accomplishes what I need for the story and for the characters.

So reason number one to tread lightly with sex is readers may not like it (see Jim's mom and my dad as cases in point).

Reason number two is I don't need to be graphic to get my point across. And, in fact, less is probably more in terms of having the intended impact.

Reason three? Sex is hard to write.

At Left Coast Crime, I attended a panel hosted by Holly West that highlighted some of the worst sex prose from the previous year, all of which came from otherwise fine books. Panelists, who were chosen somewhat based upon their own aversion to discussing the topic, had to read the passages to the audience, most of whom howled with laughter. The whole event was pretty hilarious.

You know what my goal is? To never be the passage that gets read.

I can write a fight scene all day long. I can write dialogue like a champ. But writing a sex scene that works is like songwriting - it's more difficult than it appears. (I originally wrote "harder" than it appears, but revised because I know what some of you would do with that). How much detail should be included? How best to describe acts, positions, body parts, not to mention the corresponding emotions? A tall order to do a passable job, much less to excel.

So I go the Jim Ziskin route, for the most part. The 'less is more' Frank Zafiro adaptation of it, anyway. It keeps me from putting off readers, accomplishes what I need for character and story, and I get to avoid a difficult writing challenge.

But I said there were three glaring exceptions, didn't I?

Over the course of my career, I've written three short stories that feature sex pretty heavily. Now, to be fair, in all three instances, sex is an integral element of the tale and the depiction is important. But... sex is very prevalent.

For the record, the stories are "Cassie," "Gently Used," and "Good Shepherd." The latter-most was a Derringer Award finalist the year it was published, so it clearly doesn't stink (I originally wrote "suck" but, well...). It didn't win the award, and I think the subject matter put some voters off (at least one openly complained about it in the forums of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the organization that awards the Derringer).

I have another interesting reaction story, this one to "Gently Used," but I'll save it for another time. Or ask me at a conference, should we ever get back to those in my lifetime. Might be better told in that medium.

Anyway, I gathered these three stories into a mini-collection called "Good Shepherd." I figured I might as well lean into what these stories are - they're sexy, but with a purpose. Here they are, if you're not in league with Jim's mom or my dad... but don't say I didn't warn you.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Frank. I think certain scenes are more powerful when described to a point, then left to the reader's imagination. Too much and it starts to slow the overall pace. And then there's Mother in the corner of the room.

James W. Ziskin said...

Great post, Frank. Good thing it’s not my week to answer the question, because you did it for me. ;-) You’re spot on about the bad sex scenes. I was on that panel once—with Holly West—and I was very embarrassed to read the passage. It was all good, clean fun, though. And I agree: you never want your books named in the bad sex writing competition they hold in the UK every year. Lucky for us crime writers, it’s usually the “literary” novels that win.


Judy said...

I love a sexy scene in a book, but it doesn't have to be explicit, just one where you feel the sexual tension, the desire. Being old enough to be the "mother" many authors may be referring to, don't hold back because of me!

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Frank failed to fire his shot with a buy link, so I had to take over and drill down through Amazon and finish the job. Because that is what I do. I do it every time with style, grace, and penetrating humor.


Frank Zafiro said...

@DIETRICH, thanks! I agree w/ you.

@JIM, thanks for giving me a launch point for answering! If we were in the same week, I wouldn't have done it out of respect for your post.

@JUDY, well..... You might want to follow the link Kevin provided, then!

@KEVIN, thanks for the assist!

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Kevin.

And thanks, Judy. We’ll try not to hold back.


jake devlin said...

Well said, Frank. In my first novel, I put in some "obligatory gratuitous erotica," but tried to do it differently. Since it involved spying and cameras, I was able to have some dialogue about the action as "teachable moments" while playing back the video. And due to an electronic glitch, the video also appeared on the TV of some sexually active senior citizens in the condo below, so that got some humor in. In my second novel in the series, I brought in an erotic romance writer to help the in-book author with the erotic scene he was finding troublesome. That one got so graphic I was scared to put it IN the book, so I put it online with a link in the book (which has gotten many more hits than copies the book has sold). And then, after being challenged, I took on a female pen name and wrote a VERY graphic erotic novel (which has outsold all my thrillers ten to one; ah well). Now I play with short stories under both my pseudonyms and in both genres.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My mother died before I started writing fiction (though she was a martyr to poetry readings at which I told her age, much less described sex), but that standard is a snap compared to, "When, if ever, will my granddaughters be old enough to read this?"