Filling the Gaps: Where’s the sex?

"Romance" covers show what readers want

“Romance” covers show what readers want

I’ve been working on Class Act today, hurrah! After too many days lost to sickness (me and the children) it was nice to get back to it, even if I didn’t make as much progress as I’d hoped. I had a pretty rough day yesterday and it is hard to write, for me, when I’m emotionally drained.

So I spent the time I had looking through my current draft of the novel to spot areas that needed expanding. As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to write the highlights in my first rough draft, and then have to go back and fill in the gaps during revision.

One thing I’ve noticed that I leave out a lot is the sex. My books are fairly chaste, particularly by modern standards. There isn’t much nookie, even though Baby Blues starts with a sex scene (which was originally more detailed than the final edit). I find it’s not something that gets added in unless I think of it. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading (and loving) Georgette Heyer novels. (Class Act definitely has elements of a Heyer story). Maybe it’s because I’m a mother of two small children, generally too exhausted to give much thought to nookie in my own life (sorry hubbie!)

It’s certainly unusual. Most of the chick lit books I grew up reading (aside from Heyer) have at least one or two sex scenes, from the sweet, to the implied, to the steamy. I enjoyed reading them in my teens and twenties, although I’m not a fan of erotica or books that have sex as the main focus. But it is generally a natural part of relationships and therefore plays a role in the character and plot development, so why do I leave it out?

My Latest Read - lots of kissing!

My Latest Read – lots of kissing!

I am noticing, as I read Twin Curse, that there’s lots of kissing and physical contact (and I’m sure eventually sex). And I wondered, is that why my books don’t sell well and don’t get reviews? In the days of Fifty Shades of Grey, am I not fulfilling the need for a bit of action? Certainly if you search ‘romance’ books on Amazon, the covers suggest that bedroom action is a key selling point. When I write my novels, my aim is usually to explore characters at life-changing points in their lives: change of career, change of priorities, change of heart. They fall in love, but that’s only part of the story. The demons they battle are in their minds and in their past. But, to make the relationships genuine, there has to be some physical attraction.

I remember watching an episode of Bones once (a TV show about a forensic anthropologist who is also an author). The lead protagonist is proud of her books, particularly the scientific aspects of them, but her fans buy and read them for the sex. She actually has a friend of hers help her with that aspect of the stories and eventually gives her friend a percentage of the book royalties because she realises it is the sex that is selling the books.

I suppose the phrase “sex sells” didn’t come about by accident. But it feels awkward for me to go through the story and inject sex scenes where there are none. Particularly in Class Act, where the physicality of the relationship is a core part of the story. I was shocked to discover I’d got to the climax scene in the first draft without the couple ever ending up in the bedroom – even though it was a core part of the story! (The same happened in Baby Blues but at least she had the excuse of being pregnant / a new mother!)

And then of course there is the issue of how steamy to be. I prefer implied action, because what is a turn on for one maybe a complete turn off for someone else. I remember reading Mills & Boon as a teenager and giggling over the “throbbing member” type descriptions. Focusing on the sensations and the emotions is probably more my style. But there is a danger that it all gets too introspective and unrealistic: people don’t typically have internal dialogue when they’re in the clinch of passion.

Anyway, I don’t really have the answers, but I was intrigued when I realised how unromantic and chaste my romance novel is in its early drafts. Maybe I should stick with writing YA or move into MG fiction. I’m obviously more interested in plot points than pants! But, for now, I need to fill the gaps. I’m sure hubbie will be happy if I do some research and inject some sex back into things! 😉

E-Book Censorship – Necessary or a Slippery Slope?

The story as it unfolds

The story as it unfolds

Some worrying news has trickled through to me this week, through various sources, that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and particularly Kobo are censoring Self-Published/Indie Published books. As far as I can gather, from reading posts on Shannon Thompson’s Facebook wall – here and here – and through statements from Smashwords, the concern is specific types of erotica, such as incest or rape themed books, but may easily stretch into all Indie Publishing.

WH Smith, who sell Kobo books in the UK, took down ALL self-published books in response to criticism over some of the content they apparently unknowingly stocked.

Smashwords  also has this comment in their statement:

Going forward, I think we can expect this to become the new reality as major retailers set their sights on a global market where the cultural, religious or political norms in some countries will find certain categories of erotica too objectionable, or might find non-erotic categories that most western cultures consider mainstream as too objectionable.  This means we can expect more mess to come in the years ahead as the industry navigates ebook globalization [My emphasis]

Now I have to be honest, this isn’t a straightforward debate for me. My mind is surging with conflicting emotions. Paramount is the thought “Oh my goodness, if they start deleting Indie books, there goes my five-year plan. Amazon is already censoring reviews (I’ve had at least three reviews of my books deleted and lord knows how many more I don’t know about). I’ll have to give up writing and get a job.”

This might seem like an overreaction when I write books with no sex in them, never mind erotica. But, as Smashwords points out, this may well not just stop at erotica but might cover any area that’s considered taboo in a certain culture. Shannon points out on her blog that the legal age of drinking between the UK and the US is different, so might books featuring a teenager drinking be banned in the US?

First WH Smith then all KOBO

First WH Smith then all KOBO

Then of course comes the view that refusing to publish any kind of books is bad. It’s censorship, it’s against free speech, it’s harking back to the days of banning and burning books for not fitting in with the social mores of its time. As one commenter points out on Shannon’s blog, though, it isn’t actually against free speech, because these companies are businesses and have every right to sell what they choose. Even so, it still isn’t good news for Indie authors like me.

Ah, but then, a third voice pipes up: the voice of the parent. I’d happily see all porn banned on the internet: free speech or no. And if there are erotica books out there that favour or promote rape, then I am happy for them to be banned. (Remember this is only the parent talking, so no snotty comments about me being a bigot, thanks!)

I don’t want my daughter growing up in a world where people have had easy access to books promoting rape. There’s something about an idea being written down that gives it gravitas. You write about rape in a book, make it sound like a cool thing, and somebody somewhere is going to feel like that gives them a green light.

In an article on the Christian Science Monitor (which I found through Shannon’s blog) someone defends the erotica ebooks by saying:

“We outlaw snuff films, child porn and, increasingly, revenge porn, because actual people are harmed during their production,” wrote PJ Vogt on OnTheMedia.org.

“Erotic fiction concerns fake characters who don’t exist in real life.”

So it’s okay if it’s in a book, with fake characters? I should agree, yes of course. Except I’ve read books that have changed the way I think. They’ve actually rewired my brain to see the world a different way. That’s the power of fiction (as so beautifully argued in a lecture by Neil Gaiman recently:

When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

The On the Media article quoted above says that internet porn hasn’t increased actual instances of rape, and makes the assumption that literature won’t either. But if you look at Neil’s argument, the written word is more powerful than onscreen images, precisely because it happens inside the mind. It locates another ‘me’ in the world. Great if that widens the mind, not so great if it narrows it.

Neil also says, “We have an obligation [as writers] to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it” but that’s an entirely different argument against some of these books!

There is a petition on Change.org that I will probably sign, but I am having to think twice about it. The petition does say **This petition is NOT condoning non-fictional beastiality, incest, pediphilia or other things of such ‘extreme’ nature**. 

Non-fictional? What about fictional? Also, there are some views in the comments that I don’t agree with. For example someone says you need a credit card to buy the books, so you’re obviously over 18. Except what about the free sample? I’ve downloaded the first few chapters of plenty of books without having to pay for them, and many of them I wouldn’t want my daughter to read at any age.

It’s a difficult debate and I hate not knowing what side of the fence I sit on. If Amazon and other online retailers delete my books, I’m back to square one: trying to fight my way in through the agent/publisher route. And I believe we’ll all be the poorer for stopping the publishing revolution before it’s even got underway. However there is no doubt that there are books out there that ruin the image of self-publishing for all of us, never mind books I wouldn’t want my kids to have access to.

Where do you sit?

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Why I keep it chaste: 2013 365 Challenge #228

I believe I thought only of you

Watching the last episode of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice by the BBC this morning (I can’t believe it’s nearly 20 years old), as research for my post, I realised why I don’t read or write erotica or even mildly graphic sex scenes. 

The emotional tension as Elizabeth and Darcy (Ehle and Firth) walk along a muddy lane trying to tell each other they’re in love, is gripping. I feel it right through to my fingertips. It churns in my tummy. I’m fully involved in the moment, in their story and their characters.

The scene brings to mind the early tension in a new relationship. The brushing of hands, the accidental touches, maybe the gentle rubbing of feet under the table. All the anticipation and uncertainty as two people try and discover if there is mutual attraction. I felt it when I wrote the feet massage bit in Claire and was unsure where to take it next. In a modern book or movie, Claire and Neal would be in bed naked in the next scene. Maybe in real life too. It’s even happened to Claire already in the novel (although she wasn’t naked). But it doesn’t feel right for my writing. 

My favourite moment in Nanny McPhee

My favourite moment in Nanny McPhee

I’m not suggesting I’m a prude or that I haven’t jumped into bed with someone I hardly knew. But with the relationships that lasted – the ones that mattered – the testing-the-ground courtship went on for longer. There was so much more emotional build up in trying to work out if my regard was requited. I guess it goes back to my post on delayed gratification. Anticipation is good.

Even though I’ve been in a relationship for nine years, married for seven, I still get goosebumps remembering some of those moments (and, sorry hubbie, they weren’t all with you!)

Erotica is too obvious for me. Yes it’s sexy. Yes I do like to read it occasionally and, as a hormonal teenager, would flick through Mills and Boon to find the naughty bits. But even they were mostly about suggestion and less about explicit description. For me a book, or a TV show or a movie, is all about working the imagination. If too much is presented, there isn’t enough opportunity to invest your own emotion into the scene. Less, in this case, is definitely more.

The power of a swoony look

The power of a swoony look

There was originally a fairy graphic sex scene at the beginning of Baby Blues, but it’s since been toned down. It’s there for a reason: to show something about Helen’s relationship with Daniel. It’s not a coincidence that we don’t see a sex scene between her and Marcio. Their relationship isn’t about the physical (especially as she’s pregnant when they meet) although they are physically attracted to each other.

Even as I’m writing this I think I’m going to add a few more ‘will he won’t he’ moments, more accidental hand touches and lingering looks. Because that’s the stuff I like.

Even though I know they’ll get together in the end, that’s the stuff that brings back happy memories and makes my skin tingle. And given how many people watched and keeping watching the original BBC Pride and Prejudice I can’t be the only one who likes good old fashioned swoony romance, right?

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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“Found you.”

Claire turned without volition, then cursed her reaction. Dragging her eyes back to contemplation of the cave in front of her, she didn’t respond to the triumphant words. She felt him lean against the rail next to her, and shivered.

“You do make me laugh. Why are you playing these games? I fancy you, you fancy me, what’s the big deal?”

Dropping her hands from the railings, Claire turned and continued on her way through the reserve. Despite the beauty of her surroundings, she barely saw the towering trees and tumbling streams. She had enjoyed the first part of her walk in glorious solitude, as most people had chosen to chill out by the bus rather than wander through the woods. Trust Neal to catch her out.

“Are you playing hard to get?” Neal gave one of his deep chuckles as he caught up with her in two strides. His hand grasped her arm and she shook him off, even though his touch left a trail of goosebumps.

“I’m not playing hard to get, I’m not chicken, and I’m not interested.” Claire ignored the rhythms of her body that belied her words and lengthened her stride. She felt the man hesitate, before catching up with her again.

He walked at her side along the path, matching her quick strides with ease. She felt her breath quickening and knew she couldn’t keep up the pace for much longer without panting. Not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing how much he affected her, she shortened her steps a fraction and gazed out into the green depths.

The path ahead narrowed to a wooden bridge over a rushing stream. Claire longed to stop and take in scene. She wondered if Neal would get the hint eventually and let her enjoy the walk in peace. It didn’t seem likely. 

At least he’s shut up.

He followed her like a shadow around limestone cliffs and past gorges and waterfalls. They reached a natural tunnel through the rock; the highlight of the walk, according to Claire’s guidebook. Claire eyed it with dislike. It wasn’t long, but it was narrow. She didn’t fancy being in a confined space with Neal. He was considerably taller and stronger than her. So far he’d been gentlemanly in actions, if not in attitude, but she still felt his presence like that of a predator.

Correctly interpreting the stiffening in her shoulders and the tension on her face, Neal gave a low laugh.

“Don’t fancy getting cosy with me? You didn’t seem to mind on the beach.”

When she said nothing, he shrugged. “I’ll go first, if you like.”

With another laugh, he walked round her and entered the tunnel. His broad shoulders filled the space and stole the light. Claire waited until he was almost through before entering herself.

Neal waited for her at the other end, blocking the exit. His face was in darkness and the only thing she could fathom of his mood was that he wasn’t smiling.

“Now I have your attention, let’s clear the air. Tell me this isn’t what you want.”

Before she could speak he bent down and grazed his lips across hers. It wasn’t the crushing kiss she had braced for and it unnerved her. Before she could tell whether it was welcome or not, the pressure was gone.

Inhaling deeply, Claire caught the scent of moss and aftershave and sweat. Her ears filled with the sound of her ragged breathing above the rushing of the river somewhere beside them. Neal took a step back and his face became visible. Claire looked up into his chocolate-brown eyes and tried to read the expression held within them. For a moment there was seriousness and fire. Then his features shifted and the deep laughter was back.

“Chicken,” he murmured. Then he turned and strode away along the path, leaving her standing confused and alone.

***