Writing (and Cutting) Sex Scenes

True confession: I have, more than a couple times in my life, poured over a steamy passage in a bookstore or library because, well, because it was steamy.

I’m not the only one. Some of those passages were in best-selling books.

As a writer, however, sex scenes, steamy or otherwise, are, pun intended, hard to get right.

This fall, I’ve done a couple readings from my novel—Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher—and I devoted some of my time to talking about writing sex scenes.

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Talking about politics, family, and sex at the Oakland Public Library. Thanks to Tim Jollymore for the photo.

Since there were a number of writers in the audience, I asked for a show of hands of those who had written sex scenes. More than a dozen each time. Then I asked how many were satisfied with what they wrote. Only a few.

I also asked everyone, as readers, how satisfied they were, again, pun intended, with sex scenes in novels. Mostly, not so much.

Which begs the question: why include them? Sure, they’re titillating, and yes, sex sells. But plenty of fun and successful novels are sex-free zones. You could argue that sex is part of most people’s lives, so why wouldn’t it be in novels, but so is peeing, and few authors show their characters going to the bathroom.

Response from readers to Bones in the Wash has been heartening. Reviews have all been positive, some effusively so. But not everyone liked the sex scenes. My wife, for one, and the women in her book group, who discussed the novel one Thursday evening when I found somewhere else to be.

I asked around. One woman friend said several phrases—“ravaged” and ‘his hardness found her wetness”—read like “a cheap grocery store romance.” Ouch! “And take away from the book,” she added, “which I loved.” That was certainly not my intention. It wasn’t just women—one man said the explicit sex didn’t do anything for him.

So I rewrote some of the sex scenes, and uploaded a new version. I think the book is better now, but I’m curious as to what you think. Here’s some before and after.

First, an easy one. This excerpt comes—spoiler alert—after a flash flood has unearthed the bones of protagonist Tomas Zamara’s long-disappeared wife Vera in a wash outside Santa Fe.

original revised
Tomas was not interested in making love, and Tory didn’t tease him or touch him suggestively like she often did. But in the middle of the night, in the moonless darkness, they found each others lips and his hardness found her wetness and they moaned together in two-part harmony before falling back to sleep. In the morning, the sky was bright and the sun was blue. Tomas was not interested in having sex and Tory didn’t tease him or touch him suggestively like she often did. But in the middle of the night, in the moonless darkness, they found each other’s lips and made love slowly, tenderly for a few minutes before falling back to sleep.

Better, right? What was I was thinking? Was I thinking?

Here’s another, from a few chapters earlier. Tomas lived in Albuquerque and Tory in Santa Fe, so on their first several dates, he did a lot of driving. So she suggested on their next date, they do a “sleepover.” No sex, but he wouldn’t have to drive all the way home.

original revised
He expected they would make out a little, but sleepover, to him, implied sleeping. Tory had other ideas. She leaned into his chest. “I love to snuggle,” she said.

She didn’t so much attack him with her kisses, as pull him towards her. Welcoming him. It had been a long time.

He reached under her nightshirt. No underpants. Wet. She wriggled into his finger and purred as he rubbed her. She nuzzled her nose to his. “You tricked me,” she said. “You know exactly what you’re doing.”

After she came, she took him in her mouth, and oh Jesus Christ, how is this happening?

He expected they would make out a little, but sleepover, to him, implied sleeping. Tory had other ideas. She leaned into his chest. “I love to snuggle,” she said.

She didn’t so much attack him with her kisses, as pull him towards her. Welcoming him. It had been a long time.

He reached for her. She nuzzled her nose to his. “You tricked me,” she said. “You know exactly what you’re doing.”

That was simple. Just take a few sentences out. Then, in the morning:

original revised
He slept, and woke at daybreak with a throbbing erection.

Nothing unusual about that, except that here he was in bed with Victoria Singer, Hurricane Tory, her calf resting on his ankle.

She opened her eyes, yawned, then smiled.

“Hi.”

They kissed, dozed, kissed some more. And then, suddenly awake, he found himself straddling her, his arms rigid, elbows locked, their heads at the foot of the bed, her unkempt hair spilling over the side. She held him between her fingers and guided him towards her, dipping him in her juices. Knocking at the door. Full of anticipation and desire.

She was so present, her eyes, bright and playful, locked onto his. Her smile beguiling. Then she crossed a line from delight into a focused intensity. She was hardly breathing. He was hardly breathing.

Then he slipped in. Plunged in. Quickly. Deeply.

Did she take her hand away? Draw him in? Was there permission there? Or did—?

He pulled out. Broke from her gaze.

When he looked up again, she had that same intent and lustful look, and didn’t look concerned at all. “A preview,” she said, and then her face relaxed into a grin. As if in slow motion. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”

“Rumi?”

She nodded.

“Aren’t most previews more than a few seconds?” he said.

“You’re the one who pulled out.”

He slept, and woke at daybreak with a throbbing erection.

Nothing unusual about that, except that here he was in bed with Victoria Singer, Hurricane Tory, her calf resting on his ankle.

She opened her eyes, yawned, then smiled.

“Hi.”

They kissed, dozed, kissed some more. And then, suddenly awake, he found himself straddling her, his arms rigid, elbows locked, their heads at the foot of the bed, her unkempt hair spilling over the side. She held him between her fingers and guided him towards her, dipping him in her juices. Knocking at the door. Full of anticipation and desire.

She was so present, her eyes, bright and playful, locked onto his. Her smile beguiling. Then she crossed a line from delight into a focused intensity. She was hardly breathing. He was hardly breathing.

Then. Then. Did she take her hand away? Was there—?

When he looked up again, she had that same intent and lustful look.

“A preview,” she said, and then her face relaxed into a grin. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”

“Rumi?”

She nodded.

“Aren’t most previews more than a few seconds?” he said.

“So I’ve heard.”

Again, the same scene, with fewer explicit words. Better? Is less more? I thought so before. Now I’m not so sure. Or I could have cut more. 

Are these minor “improvements” worth all the teeth-gnashing? It’s hard to know. (Though I think eliminating the word “ravage” from my vocabulary is a no-brainer.)

Let me go back to the question I asked above: Why did I include sex scenes?

(btw, we’re talking about five, six pages out of 400. Most of the book is not about sex.)

For me, the answer is because they reveal character.

Sex is something universal that just about all adults engage in, but because it’s private, emotionally charged, and the participants are exposed and vulnerable, it shows who people are in ways nothing else does. There’s also plenty of religious and cultural baggage associated with it, and that can add richness and texture. And because sex is private, readers tend to be curious about how other people, fictional or not, do it.

The best sex scenes aren’t necessarily the steamiest. Great sex doesn’t make for a great scene. What’s often more interesting is when things go wrong. Where instead of ecstasy, the lovers experience distress or embarrassment or loneliness. Which they usually keep to themselves.

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My Brother’s Book Review

I’ve been meaning for some time to post one of my favorite reviews of Bones in the Wash, from my brother Michael, an English professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy. He may not be objective, but he does study and teach novels for a living. So that’s something.

(There are 29 other reviews if you want some less familial takes.)

Well-crafted, thoughtful, and fun: I know the guy who wrote this too, and have known him for a while. He is my brother. I was reading the book while traveling this summer, so I’ll start with one story of reading while on the train and one of reading while on the bus. I got more and more embroiled in the plot as I got further into the book, so I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings. And when I was within four paragraphs of finishing, my stop on the Chicago el train was coming right up. The train stopped and I had three paragraphs to go. Things in the book were pretty well wrapped up, but I wanted to see just how it ended. By the time the doors opened, I had one paragraph to go. I kept reading, finished, and dashed out the doors just as they were closing.

The day before, I was next to a guy on the bus, and I was talking about the book. I teach literature, so it’s a pleasure for me to talk about books. He was a reader, so he told me about Phillip Roth and I told him about John Byrne Barry. Anyway, he said “Well, it must be awkward, you being an English professor and him wanting to know what you think of the book.” And I laughed and said it wasn’t awkward at all; the book was so good I didn’t need to worry about that for a second.

I like the book’s stories of trying to do the right thing in the context of hard-ball politics. It reminded me of Robert Penn Warren’s *All the King’s Men* that way–there are times when one of the main characters, an earnest young woman who wants to bring about political change, wonders whether it would be a morally just course of action, in the long run, to dig up dirt on her opponent’s campaign manager (who is another of the main characters), to discredit him and win the election for the candidate whom she genuinely believes occupies the moral high ground. There is a meditation on how we can know enough about the consequences of an act to judge whether it’s good or bad (good news? bad news? who knows?), there are references to the temptations of political office, temptations to take care of your people.

Mayor Tomas Zamara has lost his wife, years earlier, in a mysterious disappearance that is assumed to be a murder, and when we see one Mexican drug cartel try to frame another other cartel for the crime, there’s a parallel to another plot playing out that fall, in which one party is trying to frame the other for voter fraud. This book is plot-driven and it is, for that reason, a page-turner, but the author–I’ll call him John–puts a lot of care into the composition of that plot, and the way the small plots start to take on the same shape as the larger plot is one of the ways that shows. The book keeps a lot of plots going at once, and they’re all interesting. At some point a journalist named Bas is saying that this news story he’s covering has everything–family drama, game-changing moments, gangsterism, and illustrious history–and yes, this book has all that.