Last month, the shortlist for the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award was revealed, reminding us once again that many a respected writer comes a cropper when his characters are, well, coming.
The award, now in its 22nd year, announces its unlucky winner on December 3rd, and aims "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction". As an author who's penned erotica with a range of publishers, including the UK's longstanding imprint, Black Lace, I'd like to offer a few pointers on how to write a sex scene that won't leave readers wincing.
First and foremost, show your lovers getting down to it. Romance novels and literary fiction make for unlikely bedfellows but both are often guilty of tip-toeing around the action. While romance is renowned for favouring flowery, euphemistic language to depict steamy scenarios, literary heavyweights who would baulk at using coy, purple prose, frequently employ abstraction, metaphor and obfuscation when they enter the bedroom. In both cases, the end result is the same: we can't see the (ahem) wood for the leafy-boughed symbolic representations of sexual intercourse and bliss.
That said, don't veer in the opposite direction and get too graphic. Being brave and shameless is to be applauded but zoom in on genitalia and bandy around too many Anglo-Saxonisms, and you run the risk of having your work shelved alongside copies of Readers' Wives. What constitutes "too graphic" is inevitably subjective; after all, one man's meat is another man's throbbing rod of passion. Personally, I'm a big fan of calling a spade a spade and using dirty words wisely. Striking a balance between the two extremes of no-frills pornographic plainness and writing that's so figurative the characters appear to be bonking without bodies is, I believe, the key to creating effective sex scenes.
So how else do we do that? Conveying a character's thoughts and emotions is vital. Novice writers who aren't afraid to get racy on the page sometimes make the mistake of shifting register when the action heats up. In concentrating on the choreography of copulation, they neglect the characters' interiority, abandon dialogue and ditch descriptions of anything not pertaining to the physical act itself. The result reads like an obscene version of the Hokey Cokey. While it's important to show what your characters are doing, readers will glaze over if too much emphasis is placed on positions, angles and the mechanics of making out.
Ultimately, what characters are doing is never as important as what characters feel about what they are doing. A simple kiss described from the point of view of someone emotionally invested in the moment is likely to prove far more stirring than a full-on BDSM dungeon orgy filtered through the perspective of a character maintaining an objective distance.
The feelings depicted don't need to be overtly sexual or positive either. Tension is desire's best friend. Uncertainty, reluctance, shame and fear are all powerful heighteners of the erotic. A scene in which a character pushes past a personal boundary, even if it's a boundary long-since crossed by the majority of your readers, can be hugely exciting.
The contenders for the Bad Sex Award are distinct from erotica writers in that they aren't necessarily aiming to arouse. I make no bones about the fact that as a writer, I want, among other things, to make my readers hot and bothered. In doing so, as I'm conjuring up saucy shenanigans and tapping them out on my keyboard, I often make myself hot and bothered. I figure you can't expect your readers to feel the glow if you yourself are left cold in the pants department.
Being turned on when writing a sex scene is a positive sign. But a word of warning: it doesn't follow that this produces a good sex scene. It's highly likely that prose penned on a surge of erotic enthusiasm will read far too quickly. Write and re-write. Weave in detail. Slow down the action and build up the anticipation. Seduce, frustrate and tease your readers until they're as desperate for release as one of your poor, lust-addled characters.
I like to joke that one of my aims as a writer is to trick my readers into having a quick one off the wrist. I seek to achieve this, not by piling on the raunchy action, but by creating compelling characters and strong storylines to lure my readers in. A sex scene should never be gratuitous, even in a novel stuffed full of them. It needs to develop plot and character; it can't be skipped over or removed. Try pretending you're writing for a readership of repressed prudes who claim to find sex distasteful.
You know they don't mean it but your task is both to hook their attention and to build a world where inhibitions can be loosened. Make an ongoing appeal to the sensory so when the moment arrives, your readers are already primed to be responsive to portrayals of the physical. This doesn't mean the story should feature mouth-watering banquets or luxurious health spas. An evocative description of a snowy mountain pass or a shadowy, neon-lit alley can function as an oblique aphrodisiac for your reader.
Finally, and it hardly needs saying, reject cliché and worn-out phrases. "Hard" and "wet" are adjectives that have been used gazillions of times in erotic narratives, and it's perfectly appropriate to continue doing so. More unusual descriptions, however, begin to fade or sound silly as they gain in popularity. If nipples and anuses are "puckered", and orgasms are crashing like waves, you'd do well to get out the thesaurus and to give your imagination a shake.
But be wary of going overboard in pursuit of originality or you may end up as a Bad Sex Award nominee, your prose competing with absurd gems where sex is "a repeated toing and froing on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist" (John Banville, 2009) and orgasmic ecstasy (I think) is symbolised by "a large dog [whose] slobbery mouth clutched a twitching fairy penguin". (Richard Flanagan, 2014).
If you want to try your hand at writing erotic prose, take heed of my advice: keep it simple, avoid penguins, and you'll be in with a chance of nailing it. Now if only we had a Good Sex Award.
Kristina Lloyd is one of Britain's most prolific and successful erotic fiction authors, specialising in female submission. You can find out more about Kristina's work by visiting her website or taking a look at the Black Lace imprint.