Writing About Sex

27Jul10

During these past few months, I must have read a dozen blog posts and forum threads on the subject of writing about sex. It’s not surprising – if every successful novel has to have some sort of love story (and it does, according to the “experts”), then at some point in the narrative, most of us feel it’s necessary to at least allude to the physical representation of that love. (I am not speaking of the erotica genre, which makes no bones – no pun intended – about just what’s it’s all about, love or no.)

Most recently, the subject was raised in an email to a group of writers from my good friend – and superb writer – Phillipa Fioretti. Since she writes romantic comedy and is deep into her second novel of a three-book contract**, I’m guessing the question she asked was more rhetorical than practical. But she asked simply for examples of writers we thought were successful in dealing with the subject.

I pointed to John D. MacDonald, the author of the eighteen mystery novels featuring the character Travis McGee.

Well, Phillipa had never heard of him – nor had I until recently. But a friend had recommended I look him up and I was lucky to purchase – for fifty cents – a compendium of five such novels. Here I share one example of how ol’ Travis describes his thing – er, the act of lovemaking. It is from The Green Ripper (1974), what I happen to be reading at the moment. His love interest is a woman named Gretel, who he’d met in the previous novel, The Empty Copper Sea.

So the gusty winds of a Friday night in December came circling through the marina, grinding and tilting all the play boats and work boats around us, creaking the hulls against the fenders, clanking fittings against masts. While in the big bed in the master stateroom her narrowed eyes glinted in faint reflected light, my hands found the well-known slopes and lifts and hollows of her warmth and agility. We played the games of delay and anticipation, of teasing and waiting, until we went past the boundaries of willed restraint and came into a mounting rush that seemed to seek an even greater closeness than the paired loins could provide. And then subsided, with the outdoor wind making breathing sounds against the superstructure of the old barge-type houseboat, and the faint swing and dip of the hull seeming to echo, in a slower pace, the lovemaking just ended. With neither of us knowing or guessing that it was the very last night. With neither of us able to endure that knowledge had we been told.

The danger in pulling an excerpt like this out of the context of the novel is that you can’t measure its effectiveness without having become familiar with Travis, his lifestyle, his attitude, his view of the world. Still, what I find successful here is MacDonald’s drawing of a vivid picture of sex with in simple and poetic language, along with the metaphor of the nautical setting. The grinding and tilting, the fittings against masts. It is, I think, a fine example of how to approach sex in an honest fashion while evading the traps that lie in anatomical literalness.

**You can purchase Phillipa’s first novel, The Book of Love, with a mere click, although, Phillipa, you can tell your publisher that the price here in the states is rather ridiculous!

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15 Responses to “Writing About Sex”

  1. 1 jscolley

    Pete, this is a wonderful example of a love scene that works. As you mentioned, the use of the surrounding place setting as a metaphor is a wonderful device. He just does a masterful job — “…with the outdoor wind making breathing sounds against the superstructure…” — you can just hear their “heavy breathing” without using that tired cliché!

  2. 2 Matt

    As an occasional reader of Travis McGee, I’ve found some of MacDonald’s love scenes excellent and others rather silly. You’ve picked a good one here. MacDonald was a bit ahead of his time in showing the aging of his detective hero and depicting him as a sensitive lover before such male characters became relatively common.

    • 3 Pete

      I guess I haven’t run into the silly ones yet – or maybe I am just a silly person.

  3. 4 Matt

    MacDonald sometimes writes about his hunky lead character “healing” a sexually scarred woman or warming up the chilly vixen, who then drops him so she can go off and develop a lasting relationship. I’m not old enough to know whether such relationships happened back in the 60s, but they struck me as ridiculous.

    There’s a biography of MacDonald that offers a fairly detailed and objective review of the Travis McGee novels, if you’re interested.

    • 5 Pete

      I’ll look that up, Matt.

      While those themes certainly sound dated for 2010, I don’t think it was absurd at the time. But there’s a difference between the set-up and the delivery, so to speak. Characterization is one thing, execution another.

    • Matt, I picked up Travis McGee’s novel, Darker than Amber, in the dollar bin at my local bookstore the other day. After reading only ten pages, I understand — and agree — with your remarks about his character’s relationship with women.

      However, I still feel the excerpt above is a good example of a sex scene that works. 😉

  4. 7 jscolley

    Right, Pete. This isn’t about plot or subplot — why they are having sex or what happens before or after — it is simply about the execution of a well-crafted love scene.

  5. This is an interesting scene – I think it’s well done. Love scenes can be so badly written they are embarrassing to read. It’s a fine line to walk.

  6. 9 Gev

    MacDonald was my elderly Aunt Ev’s favorite writer. No wonder.

  7. 10 phillipa

    Thanks Pete.

    Tell you what, you tell the publishers for me! It’ll sound better coming from an American. You know, “US citizens clamour for Australian book.”

    The thing is, it shouldn’t be being sold through Amazon US because of all sorts of territorial blah blah that I know zip about, other than a sale is a sale.

    Sex scenes are a little like looking at life drawing. If a line or proportion is even slightly askew we can pick it up. The same with sex scenes, that’s why I like Sebastian Faulks. He’s explicit but not titillating or euphemistic and because he calls, ahem, a spade a spade, it’s somehow more moving and adult. More powerful.

  8. Excellent post Pete! I think painting the metaphorical picture here was very powerful and quite effective. Thanks. 🙂

  9. Loved John MacDonald when I was younger. I used to pilfer my dad’s books–Louis L’amore, Mickey Spillane, JMD–because they were the only books available to me.

    I like his version of lovemaking far better than those that describe throbbing members and other such ridiculous descriptions.

    Thanks for the post. If I ever put a sex scene into a MG novel, I’ll keep this in mind : )

  10. Cat Woods — I can sum up my comment to your post with, “Amen!” I like detail and all, but not that much. -.-

  11. 14 caroline

    Great post, Peter. I read every Travis novel in the seventies and eighties. For some reason, they just appealed to me. Seems like he was the first (I could be wrong) to use a theme for his titles with the colors.

  12. I’m rather tired this evening, Peter, and the line, “even greater closeness than the paired loins could provide,” at first glance read, “even greater closeness than a pair of lions could provide.” A completely different image.


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