Monday, August 23, 2010

The Emotion Box

by Sophie


Guess what? I wrote a sexy book. Yes I did, and it was even published. It had stuff in it that makes me blush to think about. It was full-on erotica, as spicy as I could make it, though since then I have learned that as erotica goes it was rather tame. Still, a few people said nice things about it, and all in all I was proud of the effort. (Don't bother looking for it - I used a secret pen name. :)

When I started writing mysteries and young adult I gently closed the door on that chapter of my career and didn't look back. Once in a great while I visit the web site of the small press that published me, mostly out of curiosity to see if they're still featuring it on their list. Occasionally I get a royalty check - enough to take a couple of the Pens out for a fast-food lunch.

I have great admiration for people who write spicy love stories. It's hard to do well, and I'm very glad I tried it so that I understand the challenge of writing erotica, or erotic romance as my good friend Rachelle Chase frequently reminds me. It's an important distinction: an erotic romance is, first and foremost, a love story.

Writing flat-out sex is probably a challenge as well, but one of a different sort. I imagine you need an encyclopedic knowledge of all the creative and clever ways human beings have discovered to escort each other to heights of pleasure, and I'm not about to sneeze at that.

But er...sheer variety is not my strong suit. So to speak.

Um. Anyway. Recently I wrote the first book of my new series, a paranormal trilogy for Harlequin Luna under the name Sophie Crane (March 2011). I knew when I started it that it was about a post-apocalyptic world where survival was difficult at best, and earthly pleasures are few. So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when the characters ended up having sex. I mean, when there's nothing to eat but moldy Saltines and no TV or movies or alcohol, people are going to look for diversions where they can.

What surprised me was that the scene demanded to be told in fairly explicit detail. Now I haven't exactly been avoiding sex since my little foray into erotic romance: in every single one of my never-published books, in every Stella book, in everything except my young adult novels, people think about and talk about and sometimes even have sex. But I don't belabor the point. Why? Not because of any particular convictions about appropriateness of the subject matter or fear of offending people, but because it's not germane to the story. In the Stella books, if the poor gal ever does manage to get laid, I can't imagine it will improve the story much to know the details. Many of my readers have already let me know they'll cheer her on, but I doubt they are looking for particulars either.

In AFTERTIME it was different. Because Cass, my heroine, wasn't just having sex when she had sex. She was bringing everything to the table: her fears, her grief, her exhaustion, her quest, her fury. When she hooked up - and my, my, my did she hook up - it was an emotional release of a magnitude that surprised even me. It was a turning point, a moment of clarity, a bid for hope.

When Cass had sex, it represented a decision to keep on trying to survive in a world that had nearly crushed her. It was not neat or pleasant or expected; it was furious and violent and uncertain and messy - and every one of those details was important to get across the emotional importance of the scene. Leaving them out would have made the book lesser.

That's not a bad test for knowing when to be explicit.

I'm very, very proud of the love scenes in that series (though I am forbidding the kids and my dad to ever read them - uck!) I worked hard to get them exactly right, so that every physical detail was matched by the emotions behind it. I don't know how they'll be received - I'm sure they won't be to everyone's taste - but I am confident that I wrote the story of my heroine as it needed to be told, and in this story sex plays an important part.

I have this thing I say when Juliet and I do our Writing Emotion workshops: "Sex is a mechanical box to hold emotion." I think it's one of the smarter things I've ever said. Sex without emotion has its place and its readership; I doubt that readership is mine. People who like my books are probably character-driven, just like me, and when sex is necessary to tell the characters' emotion story, then that's what I do.


Rachael Herron said...

I keep thinking about that mechanical box, and I thank you for it. It's going to help me with some writing right quick.

Juliet Blackwell said...

I love this. Amazing how hard it is for some writers -- and lots of non-writers-- to realize how hooked in sex and emotion can be. They don't *have* to be, as you point out, but it means so much more when they are. Can't wait to read Aftertime, Ms. Crane!

Karen Olson said...

Curious why in your YA book there's no talking or thinking about sex, when that's what all teenagers are at least thinking about.

I think it's great to see you stretching your wings, so to speak. The Harlequin series sounds interesting!!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Thanks dearies :) In my YA, there is a boy - and a relationship that goes deeper in book two. And I'm sure they are thinking about sex but they're kinda busy saving the world and all...I've read some relationship-focused YA and some of it's really good. I might get around to writing some eventually!

L.G.C. Smith said...

Hear, hear. In all my favorite romances, the reason for including explicit sex scenes is to show us things about the characters that we couldn't learn any other way. That's real. That happens in real life fairly frequently.

Gratuitous sex has its place, certainly, and erotica for the sake of erotica can be lovely. But for me it's so much hotter when we see the holes in characters' psyches it fills and/or lays bare. I can't wait to read "Aftermath.":)

Anonymous said...

I think you put your finger on it perfectly!

If the question is "will she say yes," then the question is answered very early and fading to black is just good storytelling.

If the question is "how will this affect her," then you stay in the scene until that question is answered...

This helps me not feel like a coward for having faded to black up to now. Latest WIP has some hard questions that might require this kind of answer...but at least I know the right questions to ask. Not "how explicit should I be" but "what is the character's journey through this scene."

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey L.G.C. I love what you called my book and wish i had named it AFTERMATH instead of AFTERTIME. hmmm, might need to call them about that.

Mysti, don't worry about fading to black! but some day maybe you can try what my therapist once told me - if it makes you really uncomfortable you are probably doing the right thing. it was in another context but hey - probably works for lots of things!

L.G.C. Smith said...

Oh, Soph, sorry about that. I know better. Auto-pilot malfunctioned. AKA brain fart.