Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Anatomy of a Sex Scene, Part 1: The Setup

Last week, I posted an article for CC2K's Sex Week arguing that romance novels are often used for the same type of sexual release in women that pornography is used for in men.  In preparation for that article--and honestly, also because it was fun--I read a lot of romances.   Seriously.  Take a look at the books I've read since January 1; I'd say about 75% of them are romances--as in, they may have other factors (paranormal, usually, because this is me), but they're primarily romance.  Of the rest, almost all of them have some kind of romantic subplot.  Hell, I think the only book I've read in the past few months that didn't have a sex scene was Clockwork Angel, and that's only because it's YA!

So it makes sense that I've been thinking a lot about sex scenes, both as a reader and as a writer.

Within the romance world, sex scenes come in all shapes and sizes (whoa, bad pun).  You have the Jane Austen-esque novels that don't show anything at all.  (Did anyone even kiss in a Jane Austen novel?  Much as I love Jane Austen, there's some definite sexual repression going on there.)  You have the Nicholas Sparks-type novels where you might get a sex scene or two, but they're...tasteful.  Discreet.  Imagine the written equivalent of a PG-13 movie.  It's enough that you know what's going on, but not enough to really be enticing.  Then there are sex scenes that are quite graphic and descriptive.  The level of descriptiveness can definitely vary a lot.  I've been going a bit off the beaten path with my book selections these last few months, so I've read some sex scenes that have definitely pushed my own personal boundaries.  But I've also realized that the boundaries between romance and erotica are becoming murkier all the time.

If we're sticking to non-erotica romance, and you wanted to rank, on a scale of 1-10, the hotness factor of sex scenes...J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series would be a 10.  (And, just for the sake of honesty: yes, I am jonesing at the moment.  Lover Unleashed, the ninth book in the series, will be released at the end of March.  I'm psyched about this one, because for the first time in the series, it's the female character we've been following for several books, not the male.)

I love BDB.  It would be so easy to dismiss these books as a guilty pleasure, because they're romances about vampire warriors and the women who love them, but the truth is Ward does her work extremely well.  She's created this incredibly complex world with incredibly vivid characters.  Whereas other paranormal romance series may only be loosely related to one another, BDB has an ongoing, overarching plot.  Although the "main couple" is the focus of the book, side characters and plots are always integral to the story, especially as the series has developed and the world has grown.

Ward's sex scenes are incredibly hot.  Yet they're all incredibly different, always an outgrowth of the characters being featured and their relationship.  For example (spoilers ahead):

--In Lover Eternal, Rhage fears he'll never be able to really "give" himself to Mary because whenever he gets close to her, the beast that lurks within him awakens.  (He's afraid he'll shape-shift into the beast and eat her.  I'm sure there's something deeply Freudian about that.)  So ultimately, Mary proposes he has himself chained to a bed so that she can see if she's able to take him without the beast appearing.  Their relationship has been, up to this point, very loving and tender.  Mary seems fairly inexperienced, and Rhage is quite protective of her.  It's not surprising that she's kind of freaked out when she sees him chained to the bed (versus thinking it's kinda cool and kinky), but that she tries to tough through it...or that, when Rhage realizes how nervous she is, he kisses her and performs oral sex on her until she has orgasmed and is more comfortable.

On the other hand...

--In Lover Unbound, Vishous is definitely into S&M, as a dominant who very much gets off on control.  In life, he's smart, cunning, and ruthless.  When Jane enters his world, she's one of the few people who is able, and willing, to go toe-to-toe with him.  When Vishous takes Jane back to his apartment and allows her to take him--becoming, for once, the submissive partner, it's an incredible moment.  Yes, having Vishous bound and gagged is very kinky, but the important thing is that he's giving her control--something he had always clung to, prided himself in.  He's giving himself to her.  And though Jane's a little overwhelmed by his Dungeons R' Us setup at first, she quickly finds herself getting into the action.

End spoilers.

So there you go.  Both of these involve someone being tied up. But they both evoke different reactions from the characters.  (Afterwards, Mary indicates she doesn't want to repeat the experience, whereas Vishious and Jane are later shown much enjoying their games of dominance and submission.)  And both scenes make perfect sense in the context of these books, and these relationships.

I could probably go through and describe sex scenes from each of the eight books, just from memory.  They're all very different--who knew you could have sex so many different ways?  But sex scenes in fiction aren't just about positions or fetishes.  Instead, they're about characters and feelings--which is why I argued that romance novels are often more effective as sexual releases for women than porn.  It's harder, if not impossible, for us to separate the sex from the feelings, and from that particular relationship, whatever it may be.

There is one somewhat graphic sex scene in my WIP.  On my scale of hotness (a 1, just for the sake of argument, being Nicholas Sparks), it would probably be about a 6 or a 7.  But as I'm going through my revisions, I'm not quite happy with it.  It's tender and soft and kind of poignant...but that doesn't make sense in the context of these characters.  These are two people who were crazily attracted to one another on first sight...but also hated one another.  Their dynamic is hard and contentious and lustful--even moreso now that I'm doing revisions.  Two people who don't like each other much (or like each other more than they'd want to admit) and don't trust each other might have sex.  But they wouldn't have soft, sweet, "lovemaking" kind of sex.  No!  It'll be hard and rough.  It might even be a bit violent.  And it'll also be crazy hot.  6 or 7?  I've got to crank that up to about an 8.5 or more!

But, as I said, it's all about the relationship.  The type of sex fictional characters have should be, as in real life, an outgrowth of who these characters are.  For my two, it makes sense for them to have hard, violent sex.  In another story, with other characters, that might not work.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why CC2K's Sex Week is important to me

I've been terribly negligent of this blog of late.  What time I haven't been spending on my personal writing, I've been spending doing prep work for Sex Week over at CC2K.  Sex Week is an annual event, which we hold in honor of Valentine's Day, where we run sexually themed articles--still with our usual pop culture bent, of course.

It's a lot of fun, but running it is a shitload of work.  This is my third year running it; I volunteered, again.  Is it a masochistic streak?  You'd think I'd know better by now.

Part of it is that I tend to forget, after a year of bouncing merrily along in my normal, less-demanding editor duties, just how much work it is.  But part of it...well, it goes deeper than that.  It's important to me as a woman.  It means something to me beyond just the normal "Yeah, it's a fun week where we post smutty articles."  I've been thinking about it a lot over the past few days, and I think I want to let a few things out.

I once dated a guy who thought I was a slut.

I constantly felt like he wanted me to apologize for the things I had done in my past, the other guys I had dated, even the tattoo on my back!  I think, in his mind, he accepted me in spite of those things--as if he were so magnamous, choosing to overlook my "sordid" history.  It eroded my self confidence, much more than I realized while we were dating.  He never said I was a slut.   don't think he even realized it on a conscious level, and if you were to ask him, even now, he'd probably deny it until the end of time.  But it was there, and I felt it.

You know, in a way, I think those types of unstated put-downs are worse than the stated ones--at least for me.  If he had said to me, "Beth, I think your past behavior was skanky," I would have slapped him and marched out the door, and it would have been over.  But when someone doesn't say it, there's always plausible deniability.  I wonder, sometimes, in moments of self-doubt, whether I imagined it all, whether it was my problem, not his.  But I don't think so.  I'm very intuitive, and I'm good at reading people and picking up the things they aren't saying--especially with people I know well.  Furthermore, if it were my own paranoia and shame, wouldn't I have "felt" the same thing from guys I've dated since then?  But I haven't.  Not once.  But those thoughts, those kinds of malignant tendrils, are the kinds of things that tend to creep into your soul.

Funny thing is, the more I learn about what other people are doing, the more I realize how comparatively vanilla my sex life has been; I just happened to be more experienced than this guy, and I don't think he knew how to handle it.  It didn't fit into his paradigm of what a woman should be--what I should be.  My past wasn't all that unusual; I was just more sexually experienced than that guy.  And if that's the kind of crap I get, I shudder to think what it must be like for the women who genuinely are sexually open and adventurous.

From the time we're very young, women are constantly being given mixed messages about sex.  Nice girls don't, but if you don't the boys won't like you.  Don't have sex on the first date, but don't wait too long either.  If you have sex, you're a slut, but if you don't, you're a prude.  Boys masturbate, but girls don't do that.  Men like sex more than women.  And my favorite, the horror stories told to young virgins: you won't like sex very much, you'll bleed and it'll hurt like crazy and you won't have an orgasm.  Oy.  With such shitty expectations, it's a wonder women have sex at all!

Women are expected to be chaste, discriminating in their choices of partners, less willing to "put out."  They're seen as the gatekeepers of heterosexual intercourse--because, clearly, women don't get horny sometimes and jump into bed with men they've just met.  Well, some do...but they're just skanks, right?

Even in romance novels--a genre writen for and by primarily females--you see this archetype played out again and again and again.  The woman is a virgin, or nearly so, when she is seduced by the wiser, more experienced lover.  And I don't mind reading that; I just wish it would play out the opposite way a little more often.  (One of the things--among many--that I liked about Diana Gabaldon's Outlander is that she turns this on its head.  Claire, having been married before, is sexually experienced, and she indicates that she had lovers before her first husband.  On the other hand, Jamie--despite being attractive and very sought-after--is a virgin.)  Or at least, can we get a couple in a romance novel who are both sexually experienced?

It's 2011.  Isn't it time that we stop perpetuating this stupid, antiquated ideas about women and feminity?  Shouldn't we stop condeming women for being sexually active and healthy?  Isn't it time that we showed these stupid, insecure men (not saying all men are stupid and insecure, just that the ones who think like this are), that women can be sexually open and it doesn't make them sluts?

So what does this have to do with Sex Week?  There's certainly no deeper agenda there; we just like to run sexy articles because it's fun for Valentine's Day.  But many of our contributors are females, and I like the idea that Sex Week gives women the space and opportunity to talk about sexual themes.  Exposure is key to busting some of these old-fashioned stereotypes.  If women are to be seen as sexual creatures, just as much as men, we've got to show them to be sexual creatures.

For me, on a more personal level...I like the opportunity to write freely and openly about that part of myself.  This year, I'm doing an article on how women often use romance novels for the same type of sexual release that men use pornography for.  I'm excited about it.  It's a topic I feel really strongly about, and one that I don't think is talked about much in society.  Romance novels are schmoopy things, with Fabio on the cover, right?  Clearly, they couldn't be connected to their readers' sexualities.

And I do it because, in the time since I ended my relationship with the aforementioned guy, I have become a lot stronger and more confident.  I have spread my wings.  And I have realized that there is nothing in my past I should apologize for, not to anyone.  I will not be ashamed of the things I've done.  And I will not tolerate anyone who makes me feel that way.

As is my way, I tend to be bodly defiant in such things.  This is who I am, and I'm happy with it.  And if any ex-boyfriend (or future boyfriend, for that matter) happens to stumble across it and thinks, "She isn't the girl I thought she was," well...screw him.  Screw them all.

I'm waiting for someone who doesn't think they're accepting me in spite of my history, for someone who realizes that my history made me who I am...and thinks that who I am is awesome.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

January: A Month in Review

Despite how some of the massively depressing entries I wrote in January, the month wasn't a total loss.  I got my first two full critiques of my novel, and I'm making (some) headway in the revision process.  I'm working on a novella to ease the brain detritus while I slog my way through revisions.  And the combination of crappy weather and emotional crises meant that I spent a lot of time at home, reading.

I did a lot of reading in January.

I discovered Samhain Publishing this month, after their website reboot prompted a lot of chatter on my Twitter feed.  This month, I think I single-handedly put at least one or two children of Samhain staff members through college.  And maybe graduate school.  Samhain has a fantastic selection of all kinds of romance.  My particular poison is paranormal romance, and they've got oodles.  In the mood for shapeshifters?  Vampires?  Demons?  Angels?  Other heterofore unnamed paranormal creature?  Samhain has it.  Perhaps heterosexual, vanilla sex isn't your thing?  Samhain has a great selection of romances featuring all types of relationships (M/F, M/M, F/F, M/M/F, M/F/F, etc.--I'm sure there's a few combos I missed), heat levels, and degrees of kink.  In addition, if you're not feeling up for a full-length novel, they feature a lot of short novels and novellas.  (Longer titles are featured in both print and e-book format, whereas shorter titles are e-book only.)  The site is user-friendly and easy to navigate.  I really ought to send them a thank-you letter or something: these books were exactly what I needed in January.

In addition to my recent discovery of Samhain because my Twitter peeps talked it up, I have also gladly discovered the works of KT Grant and LA Dale.  KT Grant's novella, For the Love of Mollie, was a fun, sexy romp about a slightly overweight, more-than-slightly insecure woman who falls for a sexy gym owner.  I loved reading about a heroine who wasn't the magazine-model image of beauty.  (Or, as I more often see in romances, the woman who thinks she's not conventionally beautiful, but actually really is.)  Also, there's a lot of sexy scenes contained in a very short space.  A very fun read.  (Also, I love this cover.  It's exquisite.)

LA Dale's Perhaps ... Perhaps was a funny, charming story about an Australian schoolteacher who falls head-over-heels for the new principal.  I loved watching the evolution of the protagonist, Flora, as she went from shy and neurotic to strong and confident.  I also liked how Dale's characters behaved like real people, rather than the archetypical ways romance novel characters usually behave.  It made them frustrating at times--but also more realistic.  I wanted to strangle the hero a couple of times, and I wanted to smack the heroine upside the head.  But people in real life aren't perfect.  Nor should they be in romance.  (Also, confession: I dig Australian accents.  I blame it on my tendency to watch foreign TV shows as a child--thanks a lot, Spellbinder!  Also, Ingo Rademacher on General Hospital during my high school years--yummy!  But whatever.  I dig Australian accents.  I think they're crazy sexy.  I could listen to an Australian man reading the phone book and it would sound like poetry to me.  Getting to imagine an entire book full of a sexy man saying sexy things in an Australian accent was icing on the cake for me.  And yes, I have a very vivid imagination!)

A book I loved this month (that I've already mentioned):  So I was completely and utterly enamored with Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning.  It was always the mystery that propelled me through this series, and I felt like Shadowfever tied it all together well--with just enough ambiguity that I didn't feel the ending was "too pat."  From what I've read on blogs and review sites these past several weeks, the reaction was more mixed than I realized when I wrote about it a few weeks ago.  (Actually, I was writing about rude people on critique sites and their utter inability to allow for dissention, but that's not the point.)  From what I can tell, it seems like the people who loved the first four books in the series also loved Shadowfever.  The people who didn't like them or felt ambivalent were less inclined to like it.

I guess you know where I stand.  I'm hooked.  And pretty soon, I suspect I'm going to read the books again just so I can go on that journey again.  (And yet again, I discovered the series through Twitter.)

A book I loved this month (that I haven't mentioned):  Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare.  I've moved away from the YA genre a lot in the past year, mostly because I was tired of reading about protagonists who were a decade or more younger than me.  But I loved Clare's Mortal Instruments series.  It was just so fresh and fun.  Clary was such a great heroine, and...well, if I'm being completely honest, Jace is the guy I'd have a crush on (but never manage to work up the nerve to ask out) if I were 10 years younger.  Tortured--check.  Brooding--check.  Self-depricating humor--check.  Tousled hair--check.  He's the perfect teen hero, angry but never angsty, intermittently sweet but never sappy.

I follow Clare on Twitter, and I started noticing quite a bit of chatter about her other book, Clockwork Angel, which takes place in the same world as her Mortal Instuments series but 130 years earlier.  It sounded intriguing, so I came out of my YA-free cave and took the plunge...and it was awesome.  With its combination of otherworldly fantasy and steampunk sci-fi, Clockwork Angel creates an aesthetic that is even more unique than the Mortal Instruments books.  Twists and turns kept me guessing until the end.  And once again, we're treated to a tortured teen hero: Will Herondale.  At first wisecrack, he seems similiar to Jace in a lot of ways.  Then I put two and two together and realized he was an ancestor of Jace's (though I haven't yet figured out how they're related).  The apple, it don't fall far from the tree.  And thank goodness for that!

The bad news is the sequel, Clockwork Prince, doesn't come out until September 2011.  The good news is that I also realized The Mortal Instruments is not a trilogy!  The fourth book, City of Fallen Angels, comes out in April.

Seems that I may have to end my self-imposed YA moratorium--at least for Cassandra Clare.

Lesson of the Month:  Twitter matters.  There's a lot of junk on there, natch, but there's also cool stuff to be discovered.  I love finding new authors, new publishers, and new books.  The sheer volume of new and exciting material I've found this month, as a result of Twitter, has made me very happy.