Capturing Chemistry: Writing Good Sex

Posted on Mon, Feb 15 2010 12:06 pm by Dara Syrkin

View From The Loft interview with Ann Rosenquist Fee and Catherine Lundoff

Love is in the air at this time of year. Love of all varieties. So the View team gleaned the inside scoop on how to write well about sensuality, romantic love, and sex. Two Loft teaching artists, Ann Rosenquist Fee and Catherine Lundoff, teach the art of erotica. Here are some of their insights.

The View: What makes a good sex scene good? Who do you like to read for their keen ability to get sex on the page?

Ann Rosenquist Fee: My favorite sex scenes are those that aren’t, on the surface, about sex. A participant in “Sex on the Page” [Ann’s Loft class] read a scene from his manuscript in which a character cleans a pool. The narrator described the landscape, the mechanics of pool cleaning, and the woman lying nearby, all with language that was so deliberately sensual and rhythmic, we’d have sworn sex was happening.

Similarly, when actual sex scenes are good, I think it’s due to an element of surprise. Pauline Reage achieves that in Story of O by describing violent, passionate acts with pristine and unhurried prose. Gloria Vanderbilt’s new Obsession: An Erotic Tale does it, in part, by virtue of the fact that the author is 85. Reviewers don’t love the book, but come on, 85.

Catherine Lundoff: I like a sex scene that is integral to the story—it doesn’t just pop up out of the blue then go nowhere. I want to get an idea of what these characters are about and how they’ll get where they’re going. Donna George Storey, Cecilia Tan, Cheyenne Blue, M. Christian, and Jacqueline Carey are among my favorites. These are writers who write great sex while telling a great story.

What are the challenges not only in getting sex on the page but in capturing sexual chemistry? How much of a sex scene is sex?

AF: The first challenge is knowing what the sex scene is doing for the story. When a writer knows that, he or she has a better shot at knowing what to show and not show on the page. Sometimes it serves the story to show skin on skin; sometimes not. The results can be equally erotic.

CL: I think it depends on a number of factors, including genre and the audience you’re trying to reach. In erotic short fiction, for example, the sex scene can be used to tell an entire story. For example, a story of lovers growing apart can be told this way. The difference in intimacy remembered as well as present and future intimacy can be used for both character development and plot arc. The sex scene then becomes a vehicle for telling that story to the reader.

But the sex scene itself is always just one part of the complete story. Most erotica shows the buildup of sexual tension prior to the actual sex, as well as the consequences that result. Most romance readers will expect a courtship leading up to any sex scenes as well as a potentially long-term relationship resulting from them. A science fiction or mystery reader will expect that any sex in the story will be tied to the plot development.

That said, the biggest challenge for me is to make it real and believable while creating characters in a situation that readers will respond to. They don’t necessarily need to like or identify with those characters, but they do need to have a response if I’ve done my job right. Quite a bit of that process is in how I set up the scene and its aftermath—how did these people meet? Why? What happens next?

How does poetry enter into erotic writing?

CL: I don't write poetry myself, erotic or otherwise, but I do read a fair amount of it. Of the poets who write with an erotic edge, my favorites include Chrystos and Gioconda Belli, as well as anthologies like Sam Hamill’s The Erotic Spirit. I love the imagery and the word play as well as the erotic energy in these writers’ poems. It seems as if writing poetry gives an author the opportunity to express emotions in a way that she or he might not in prose. Given that, I think erotic poetry occupies a special place in the entirety of erotic writing.

AF: I steal from poetry’s toolbox for the sake of rhythm. I think that’s fair. Transgression makes for good erotica.

Why should people read erotica?

CL: Because when done well, erotica is a joy to read. It can be moving, hot, horrific, lovely, and inspirational. Occasionally, it can be all these things at the same time. Few other kinds of writing match the intensity of good erotica.

AF: It’s more edifying than porn. It’s better for your circulation than day-job e-mail. And it’s instructive—there’s not a writer in any genre who doesn’t learn from reading words that pulse.

Why should people write erotica?

CL: It's fun, fulfilling, and excellent practice for improving your writing skills. You can learn a lot about character building and plot movement while you write about your characters getting it on. It’s also something that’s difficult for many writers to write about; we get better when we push ourselves.

AF: If you can string words together in a way that causes a reader to flush, or sweat, or lunge for their partner, is there anything you can’t write?

Halfway tongue in cheek: Are we Minnesotans of Scandinavian and German heritage a bit too uptight still to let ourselves express sensuality? Isn’t that an obstacle that’s difficult to overcome?

CL: I’m a transplant from Brooklyn, New York, albeit of part Scandinavian ancestry, and yes, writing erotica can be an obstacle in this region, mostly for doing public readings. I do five to six readings a year, often in different parts of the country, but scheduling them here is generally the most difficult. Even though I write and am published in other genres as well as erotica, I often run into an assumption that since I write about sex, I must not write about anything else. The follow-up is that of course I won’t read anything else but the scariest of smut if turned loose, even if I clearly state otherwise.

On the other hand, looking for venues to schedule actual erotica readings can also be challenging, though that’s improved a lot in the past couple of years. I’ve read erotica at the Smitten Kitten, True Colors Bookstore, Patrick’s Cabaret, DreamHaven Books and Comics, the late, lamented Query Books, and Intermedia Arts, and I’m eternally grateful that they were all willing to host the various events I’ve read at. It’s not the Bay Area or New York City—yet—where there are regularly scheduled erotic reading series, but it’s definitely getting better.

AF: Eroticism is relative. Garrison Keillor’s new 77 Love Sonnets sports a cover sketch of a reclining, full-frontal nude. That may not be erotic to a polyamorous dominatrix in San Francisco, but it’s something to blush about in the Mankato Barnes and Noble.

When did you realize you were good at this part of your craft?

CL: At the risk of sounding like a raving egomaniac, I sold the first four stories that I wrote and won a contest early on, thus gaining the advantage of instant validation. That said, I believe being a good writer means continuously working at being a better writer, so I consider my writing to be a work in progress

AF: I was writing grants for nonprofits. About the hundredth time I was asked to sex up the year-end financials, I thought it might be fun to sex up actual sex. Sort of a literary counterweight. It helped—my grant-writing skills made for some thorough and organized erotica, and the financials got significantly hotter.

Catherine Lundoff is the award-winning author of Crave: Tales of Lust, Love and Longing (Lethe Press, 2007) and Night's Kiss: Lesbian Erotica (Lethe Press, 2009). She is also the editor of the anthology Haunted Hearths and Sapphic Shades: Lesbian Ghost Stories (Lethe Press, 2008). Her short stories have appeared in more than 70 publications, including multiple volumes of Best New Erotica and Best Lesbian Erotica. She taught “Inflagranti Delicto: Writing Good Sex Scenes” during the 2009 Loft summer term.

Ann Rosenquist Fee is the winner of the Missouri Review’s 2009 audio fiction competition. Her stories appear in Frenzy and Never Have the Same Sex Twice (Cleis Press), The Blueroad Reader (Blueroad Press), and several online journals. Ann cotaught “Sex on the Page” with New York writer Ellen Neuborne, a fellow alumna of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.