Writing and Censoring Sex for the Timid Author

Song of the Day: Counting Stars by OneRepublic

This past weekend I was a featured author at a local county library book festival. I had a great time connecting, reconnecting and meeting authors, organizers, and readers. Fun was had by all. I sat on a panel discussing steamy reads. No surprise there, right. The wonderful thing about panels is that people get varying responses to the same questions, be it highlighting authors’ processes, experiences, or craft. At the same time, there is often unifying advice for aspiring authors on perseverance, encouragement, and inspiration.

One attendee this weekend asked a series of questions that probably most writerauthors struggle with at one time or another. The query started out with, and I will paraphrase, writing sex scenes. How do you write intimate scenes, especially steamy ones, knowing your parents, co-workers, and friends in the community will read them? I had a lot to say about this. My advice: cut out the noise, the whispers, the judging that is going on in your head. Don’t worry about what others will say or think. That’s crippling and taints the storytelling. Write for you. And then ask yourself who is your target market. I’d be willing to bet it’s not your parents, co-workers, and community friends.

mark censorThis led to the next question. How do you write sex scenes? Much is determined by certain dynamic factors – genre, POV, situation, level of heat, and target market. The biggie is to rely on your senses. Use as many as you can. Be your characters. Are what they doing appropriate for them? (Not you!) Don’t just tell or explain what’s happening. Show it. Show it by utilizing action words and details. If there is dialogue, please, please say the words out loud to yourself. Are they appropriate? Is the exchange real? Sex is a real, natural human response to the base carnal needs as well as the deep emotional impact of love. This should be conveyed in storytelling, too.

What if you don’t feel comfortable writing the intimate scenes? If you squirm and feel awkward about it when you write intimate scenes, your readers will pick up on that. Your writing will be stilted and unreal. Write what you are comfortable writing. That said, don’t be afraid to push your boundaries. Remember your target market – what do they require from you, the characters, and the story. Don’t shock and awe if your characters/story/genre doesn’t call for it. Conversely, don’t fall short of expectations, either.

_DSC3946This led to a final question asked of me after the panel was over. What about writing controversial scenes or subject matter – something that could be offensive and/or sensitive? My answer is two-fold. Consider the characters. Don’t alter or censor them. Write the story or scene how it is supposed to happen if they, themselves, were writing it. No holds barred. Then write the scene differently – in another POV, behind the scenes, or in muted bits of key information. Just be sure not to lose the effect or purpose. Which way works best for you? Unsure which direction to take? Enlist in critique partners and beta readers to help. Honest opinions will go a long way. I wrote about a rape in BLOOD AND TREASURE. Clearly a horrific subject. Instead of recounting the disturbing act in detail, I took “screenshots” of the incident through the character’s mental state and awareness. I still achieved the emotional impact, but sans the graphic nature.

Bottom line to all these questions:

  • Write for yourself and your target audience.
  • Be comfortable with your product.
  • Use your senses.
  • Consider your characters. What would they do?
  • Don’t censor your writing!

This, of course, is just my candid advice. How do you handle these sticky situations?

9 Responses to Writing and Censoring Sex for the Timid Author

  1. girldrinkdrunk says:

    Prepare a perfect fib then write with abandon.

    “The sex scenes, Grandma? Oh, I didn’t write those. The publisher hires a writing double to fill in those bits.”

    “What’s that? You thought I was e-pubbed? Er… You can’t believe the editing apps they have now… The sex scenes are all pre-written. Just insert the character names–like an x-rated mad libs.”


  2. jbrayweber says:

    OMG! These are GREAT, Kristen. I especially like X-rated Mad Libs. I may just have to use that line.


  3. Thank you, Jenn. How do I write sex scenes? Very simple. I don’t. They bore me. Since I’m writing for readers with tastes similar to mine, I think it’s safe to assume sex scenes bore my potential readers too.

    I focus on what’s going on in the characters’ hearts and minds. Far more possibilities there. Including the only ones likely to interest me and readers like me.

    Readers who go for explicit sex scenes have tons of books they can read. And more all the time. I think there should be something for the rest of us.


  4. jbrayweber says:

    And that’s great, Mary Anne! You KNOW your target market. You know what works for you and your readers. Different strokes for different folks. 🙂 As you said, it’s important to get into your character’s hearts and minds. Be your character.


  5. I have tried on several occasions to write explicit sex scenes but I just cannot do it. Not that i don’t know the words, I simply don’t feel comfortable using them in my writing. My way around this is to start the scene after the sex and let everything flow from there. It works for me. :o)


  6. jbrayweber says:

    Bingo, Tracy! You know your comfort level. Doesn’t mean that you couldn’t write it, read it, or enjoy reading it. You know your boundaries and you have chosen wisely for you. Readers respect that and respond to authenticity.


  7. Sarah Andre says:

    I do admit to leaving that scene to the bitter end. It’s the very last chapter I write in the entire story, even though it happens in the middle- 2/3 thru.

    I do admit to drinking a glass of wine (OK, 2) beforehand.

    I do admit to skimming erotica to get in the groove and refresh my memory on sex vocab (I mean there are just so many times you can say ‘mouth,’ ‘lips’ or ‘tongue’ without sounding like an instruction booklet…and yet that entire area plays a KEY role!)

    And I admit that when I hand my draft to my father to read I’ve paper-clipped that chapter shut and say, “skip chapter 25.” And in all the novels I’ve written, by golly, he’s never once peeked. I don’t think HE wants to read the scene just about as much as I don’t want him to read it. 🙂

    My husband admits to ‘skimming it.’ (So cute.) Like most non-writers he thinks I did all this or want to do all this or dream of doing this with another guy who looks like the hero. I’ve stopped trying to change his mind.

    It’s fun to edit that scene (and edit and edit) because it just gets sharper and hotter. It’s that first draft where you sound like a trembling virgin… (“he does WHAT?”)

    Sounded like a fun weekend, Jenn!


  8. jbrayweber says:

    Sarah…sometimes you scare me with how much alike we are. When I first starting writing love scenes, I skimmed (and read) erotica to see how it was done. I knew by those stories what I was comfortable reading and comfortable writing. But more importantly, how to craft a sensual scene that didn’t involve telling it from a narrative view. I also tell my folks to skip the chapters that involved the sex. If they chose to read it, great. But at least they know ahead of time. My mother chose to skip them. My father, he chose not to. He wanted to experience my story and my writing word for word. We don’t talk about those scenes, but he always tells me how proud he is of me and how much he likes my books. My DH…well…he loves to read them. (Go figure)

    The liquor comes when I edit. *shrug*


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