I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

Slap And Tickle In Novels

I don't want to be crass and offend the taste of ordinary folk. Or maybe I do? This has always been a difficult point for me when considering the novel I want to write. What do we do when the characters need to get close? I mean, sweaty close? Some people don't make it easy for us.

The Literary Review has just announced this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The hapless winner - though they normally bask in the limelight and their profile increases markedly - is Iain Hollingshead, for a passage from his book Twenty Something. Here's the offending bit, which the judges are supposed to have found unnecessary and cringe-evoking, if that's a proper term:

She's wearing a short, floaty skirt that's more suited to July than February. She leans forward to peck me on the cheek, which feels weird, as she's never kissed me on the cheek before. We'd kissed properly the first time we met. And that was over three years ago.

But the peck on the cheek turns into a quick peck on the lips. She hugs me tight. I can feel her breasts against her chest. I cup my hands round her face and start to kiss her properly, She slides one of her slender legs in between mine. Oh Jack, she was moaning now, her curves pushed up against me, her crotch taut against my bulging trousers, her hands gripping fistfuls of my hair. She reaches for my belt. I groan too, in expectation. And then I'm inside her, and everything is pure white as we're lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles.

Now, I agree that sex in a novel just for the sake of having a bit of sex in a novel leaves me cold. And how many people can write good love-making scenes? And how graphic should they be? How honest? Do we care? Are we turning readers off? Should we even be posing the question, as encouraged by The Literary Review?

I have a sex scene in the novel I am trying to sell, but I argue that it is necessary to show a crucial turning point: my protagonist has been grappling with a kind of impotence and it's near the end of the book that this is confronted "head on". I have to admit that I found it difficult trying to get the right balance, to neither go overboard nor shy away from the task at hand. I also wondered about what the reaction of the reader would be, let alone think about the reaction of those respectable people who know me and think that I am such a "nice young man".

I would be interested in getting your reactions to this short scene. I will be happy to accept next year's Bad Sex in Fiction award, because it will mean that my book is on the shelves! So, sit yourself down and dim the lights. Here it is:

He didn’t know how it happened. One minute they were coy and reclining, quite a way from each other, him going through the details of the past few days, and the next thing he was dragging his firm lips across her neck, pulling her hands down away from her fringe. He couldn’t tell who started it. His heart raced. His legs ached. She was composed and still, seeming to wait for his movements and initiatives. The
connection sent small charges into his skin.

‘You smell good,’ he said. ‘You smell so good.’ He tenderly bit her wrists and then held them up to the light, as though he needed to verify that it really was her, the raising up of a glittering, coveted prize. Her fingers seemed long and delicate like chopsticks. The soft hair on her arms lit up like sparkle dust. She stayed loose and showed no resistance, seeming to leave everything up to him.

She pushed down the top of her jeans, letting her head tumble back. A small metal ball in her bellybutton suddenly appeared like a beacon of light. He went down onto his knees and took it between his teeth; he never imagined a piercing would ever excite him. She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a condom wrapped in a black wrapper, which she hastily tore open. He was ready. It must’ve been the first
time in 18 months that he’d actually gone hard when consumed by the promise of sex. Then he was petrified that his ruminations would cause him to lose his nerve. His trousers fell easily, the button already undone after his massage with Didier. With style, he unrolled the condom effortlessly onto his glory and then eased Sandy down onto the sofa, slipping a cushion beneath her head.

‘I want you to be gentle,’ she whispered. ‘I want something loving.’

He nodded and teased off her top, and noticed that she smelt of peaches. She raised her head and kissed him on the lips, which surprised him. She whispered something, but it was broken up by the kisses. She breathed into his mouth and seemed to fill him with something powerful. When he wrenched himself up on top of her he was pleased to feel that he was still hard, his glory pushing into her inner thigh. He placed her right arm up behind her head and buried his nose in her armpit – that was something he’d loved doing in his early days with Joyce. She giggled and told him to stop. She was thin across her stomach and around her thighs, yet her thick coating of skin and her ample breasts were enough for him to hold onto and move under his palms. He never liked it when the skin was too taut and a woman didn’t move with him. He loved to explore something of substance.

He was inside her, before he even had time to reflect on whether he was ready to make the connection. The way they fell into each other seemed so right, as if there were no other position they could’ve taken up. His euphoria was increased when she moved beneath him, flexing the muscles around her groin. Her hands made delicate journeys across the divide of his back, spreading the perspiration around like massage oil. She writhed faster beneath him, her mouth wide and surrendered. She fully stretched, making the exposed cords and muscles in her neck seem like the base of a giant kauri tree, looking splendid under the light of the moon. He fell
backwards and saw whiteness, pure and plain whiteness, a warm glow that seemed to completely energise him.

They lay still for five minutes without talking, their arms and legs entwined, perspiration running like streams across their bodies, a soft after-sex smell hanging over them. He could feel a mosquito biting him on his side, but he made no
effort to remove it. He’d been rendered far too docile to react to anything. He coasted off into a light sleep and enjoyed the sensation of being lifted up high into the air. He’d been liberated from something, brought out of a cold cave
and into the warm light of day.

Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.


Anonymous said...

Hi Shameless Words, I've found you through Fiction Bitch . . . You absolutely can't worry about censoring yourself when writing fiction - sex scenes or any scenes. Being 'a nice young man' should not even come into it! Yes, sex is notoriously hard to write, you can't help but feel self-conscious . . . Mmm, honest opinion: I'm not too grabbed by your sex scene. It seems clunky to me.

'. . . he effortlessly unrolled the condom onto his glory', I would get rid of glory. Also 'a commotion of grunts and squeaks'.

Please don't think me harsh. Just being honest.

S. Kearney said...

Nmj, thanks for your post. I have opened myself up for feedback, and so it is welcome. Eeekkks! I wonder how many sex scenes written about have ever worked. Even in the most wonderful of books, I have always come across less than satisfying accounts. I suppose we try not to bring too much attention to it - it is afterall just another scene - and there is the expectation that it shouldn't be too wow, and not too limp. "A commotion of grunts and squeaks" wasn't mine by the way, that was the winner of the award. I kind of still like glory though; it relates to this man's style, which hopefully is drawn in the rest of the work. Come by and visit again, Nmj.

Anonymous said...

Actually I agree about the 'glory'. And I certainly would think again about using it TWICE!

I'm also not keen on the 'whiteness' sentence.

Otherwise, I think you've got the balance pretty well right ...

S. Kearney said...

Thanks Debi,
The whiteness sentence actually refers to a mantra talked about earlier in the book, a guru's mantra, which the main character has played over and over on his car cassette player.
Do you have sex scenes in the books you have written, Debi, and how did you find writing them?
Re glory, what does that word throw up for you? It may be the desired effect, or it may not be.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Shameless W, for confusing 'commotion of grunts & squeaks' with your own words! Am glad they're not yours 'cos they make me think of animals rutting!I can see 'glory' working, maybe if it was ironic, that is the problem with extracts, they are out of context. But regardless of what we say, you will choose your own words, and that is how it should be!

S. Kearney said...

I know some people who've had sex scenes deleted from their work in the final editing by the publisher ... I supppose they want to know what it brings to the story. I suppose it's also hard to find stuff that doesn't make us cringe. I'm glad we clarified that the commotion wasn't from me. Small mouse and bear came to mind!

Anonymous said...

Shameless: I think you're certainly out of the running for the award. The whiteness thing bothered me a bit, as it was also used by the award-winning entry, and it made me self-conscious that I can't recall any white-out moments.

Strange that such a common human activity should be so terribly difficult to write about.

In fairness, what you have posted is a sex scene without context. Without some background, it's hard for me to know what the point of the sex is, and what it relates as a part of the larger story. There's bits of information sprinkled throughout, and a few places where I liked the detail, but I was wondering to myself why this particular sex is such a big deal to him.

10,000 points for putting it out there. Brave, brave Shameless.

S. Kearney said...

Out of the running? Great! So it's not that bad! You're right about the context. The little quirks are part of the character ... and as I say, the whiteness bit comes from a mantra he's used to. Think of whiteness, pure and plain whiteness. You can just imagine someone saying that to you on one of those self-help tapes. It was brave to post this, but I've had some brave responses, so it's all good.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's v difficult to judge out of context, but honestly, 'glory' - I'm sorry but I laughed out loud at that.

It's VERY difficult. I have just finished a novel and I've chickened out, but my mum keeps telling me: 'More SEX, you need more SEX!' How do you deal with that?

S. Kearney said...

Someone has asked about the hugging bears. Yes they are gorgeous and yes it is my own photo, taken in Hyde Park in London. Does anyone know the history of this work? Who did it and who gave it to London? I know, I should've checked out the plaque while I was there!

S. Kearney said...

Flipping heck! Laughed out loud?! I may have to reconsider the word in that case! Does it help to tell you that I know an elderly man who does refer to his "thingy" as his "glory"? No, it's not me! I'm only 38.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I just wanted to add that the fingers like chopsticks has stayed in my head, though at first I didn't believe that anyone would actually have that thought about someone's fingers, but this may be a context thing again. But the more I thought about it the more I liked the image.

I think sex is hard to write because it's so private, and yet you are inviting people to watch. Also it's so common, everyone does it, so it's difficult to make it your own, to find new words that aren't just cliches.

Unknown said...

Another vote for nixing the word glory. I do give you lots of credit for posting the excerpt. In my NaNoWriMo novel I wrote a couple of sex scenes but I didn't really go into it much...could be because I knew that several people I know were going to read it...not to mention that it's difficult to write about heterosexual sex because I've never experienced it.

S. Kearney said...

Thanks Zorak,
Glory is not looking so glorious then! That's the other problem with those kinds of scenes; having to put ourselves into our charcters shoes with this kind of thing. Sex we're not used to, etc. I totally relate to what you say about writing about things we haven't experienced. It's like a man writing the scene from a woman's point of view, which I have seen done rather hopelessly.

Anonymous said...

Even if your character truly would call it his "glory," you certainly shouldn't have to. Third person gives you all kinds of outs.

At this point, I'm worried that you're going to cut the term, and then put in a scene where he calls it that and thirty strangers make fun of him.

The bit about the muscles in her neck was a place where I got a clear visual of what was going on. That's what stuck with me.

S. Kearney said...

Thanks again, Maht/Moon,
I will rest on this for a while and maybe do a bit more testing of the waters. There's something about "glory" I still like though, from this character's point of view, a new word when something safe or common is always used, but maybe that's just my rebel and weird side coming out! Thanks for the feedback.

Anonymous said...

No, it doesn't help knowing that - it makes it worse! (God, that sounds v ageist).

I don't think there's a problem of voyeurism if sex is done properly in books, ie from inside the minds of the characters, which is precisely what you do here. It's sex in films I find most problematic because the camera always creates a voyeuristic third eye.

My only problem with your piece (apart from that word) is that the protagonist seems more concerned with his own ability to perform than with the woman - but again, it's out of context, so that may be completely appropriate in the context of the rest of the novel.

Oh, also, I wasn't so thrilled by 'chopsticks' - it conjured up an image like Edward Scissorhands, which was a bit disconcerting.

S. Kearney said...

Good food for thought, and interesting to see how people react to different things. Maybe "glory" will just have to go into the "probation" tray.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who found Shameless's scene sensual? Ok, it's a bit self-conscious and, a hem, I'm not sure the pillow goes THERE, Shameless, but with a better choice of certain words, I think it is good.

Hey, it was sex as requested by the woman. The man delivered.

Anonymous said...

Hey Shameless, a bit late on this one, but I have a few things to add (I think).

Firstly, while I did find the word 'glory' took me out of the excerpt it has to be your call. I had a friend review one of my stories who laughed at my use of the word 'dick'. After a pretty hilarious session of 'find the appropriate synonm' I decided that in light of the character it was appropriate and as you've mentioned we're reading this out of context.

There is another line though that takes me out of the scene and that's: 'he was dragging his firm lips...'. Maybe because you have highligted a bad sex scene and you've built up your own, the use of the word 'firm' stood out as an inuendo and made me question the text rather than read on straight away.

I love the line where he buries his head in her armpit. Sex is an abandonment and here you reveal something very personal and a bit weird about your character that makes it your scene rather than any old scene.

Thanks for letting us offer you some constructive criticism.

S. Kearney said...

Thanks Wicked Witch,
I'm glad someone saw something sensual in it ... comme même! Pillow under the head? That probably depends on the quality of the sofa! If it only means reconsidering a few words, I'm chuffed.
And thanks, Verilion, your comments are also good food for thought. The firm lips was supposed to show that he was not feeling at ease with his first approaches: frigid, unsure, out of practise.
Abandonment, now there's a good word for this!

Anonymous said...

Just read Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. The last few pages contained the best sex scene that I can recall reading ... didn't hit a single wrong note ...

Anonymous said...

Agree with you there Debi and also agree that 'glory' and 'chopsticks' should be reworked but there are some nice, believable touchs in there.
I think many writers are afraid of getting lowdown and dirty, afraid that something of themselves will be revealed.
If this is the only sex scene and is pivotal to the plot then it should be written as sweatily as possible, if that is what is called for.
Kick the sexual censor into touch and find an ass smackin' word for the coy 'glory' and away you go.

Funny how the women have had more to say on this subject!

S. Kearney said...

Minx, I was just wondering exactly the same thing. Apart from Moon, most of the comments are from women. I've really appreciated the insight. And who said that fellow bloggers only praise us and say what we want to hear? Glory and chopsticks are on notice! But I will leave it for a bit, see what rings true for me from the context of the rest of the novel.

cate sweeney said...

24 comments!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Doesn't that tell you how much people are interested in writing about and talking about sex! Go for it!

It's good, but maybe a little over-detailed or maybe you wanted it like that... didn't like his "glory" and what's being massaged with a didier? What am I missing out on?
I think it's always better to be bold, sex sells, but I prefer it funny rather than real, but that may be just me copping out. I had second thoughts about a lot of sex stuff comments in my novel Selfish Jean, but the publisher wanted it all kept in. I plan to be just as bold with the next one. Cheap laughs? Or necessary exposition? Who knows but novels would be dull without any.
Good luck with it and so brave and inspired to include it here!
Best wishes

S. Kearney said...

Thank you Cate,
I think there is consensus now about Glory ... another word? Can I be original? Will it be better than Little Johnny? Geez. I've got some thinking to do. I must admit that I did hesitate about posting this extract ... I didn't want to turn people off. So I've been thrilled with the response to this, and the frank and honest feedback. Long live this kind of blog freedom! Good to have you stop by.

Saaleha said...

Well glory was not ... glorious
and chopsticks made me think, 'Okay it can't be that good if he's thiking of food.'
Words need to convey the sinuousness, sensuousness of the scene. I read Zadie Smith's On Beauty. The sex scenes there made me cringe, though there were only two very graphic ones. But I suppose the protagonist came across as a guy fixated with sex which made it even more distasteful for me.

S. Kearney said...

On Beauty is on my bookshelf, waiting to be read! I will watch out for the sex scenes, to see what they stir up for me. Sinuousness! Now there's a word that says everything for me!