Okay, now that I have your attention, I guess the answer to that question depends on who you ask as a writer. I started my career in the romance genre and there were very strict rules during the 1990’s about the type and quality of sex you could show on the pages. Namely, in a romance there had to be the first encounter lovemaking scene that was typically supposed to happen by page one hundred. Yes, Virginia, if you crack the spines on romance novels of that decade you’ll find that all the action happens around that page number—and everything drives to it from page one. Then there’s the “in peril” sex… you know where the guy and girl in an action/adventure have this rousing encounter because he just saved her from kidnappers or is about to go off to battle terrorists or whatever. I like to refer to that as “Twenty Four” sex. Then there’s the thrilling conclusion sex. That make-up after the break-up but now we know this is real sex. In between all that they make up, break up, and discover that they cannot live without each other. I know, I know, I sound like a jaded editor, but after a few dozen reads you notice a pattern (smile.) Oh, and I almost forgot, the most compelling thing is—in a romance, once the hero and heroine get together, they cannot sleep with anyone else. This rule doesn’t apply to the bad guys and gals…
Which is a nice segue to undead sex (to be politically correct let’s not use the slur), ahem… vampires, or their more primal preternatural neighbors, werewolves, et al. Somewhere in the early turn of the millennium, supernatural entities became sexy and outstripped the bodice-ripper romances in terms of sensuality and what was acceptable. In a supernatural, multiple partners are not taboo—no more than opening up a vein for a lover would be. Anal sex and all sorts of fetish curiosities that used to be considered erotica go with the territory in your basic supernatural romance. In “urban fantasy” you can pretty much push the edge of the envelope or just shred that sucker, if you want to. Go figure? Maybe it’s like using foul language in anything but English… sounds less shocking and therefore the “F” bomb isn’t the “F” bomb, but I digress.
So, what is good taste, any more? To be quite honest, the lines of demarcation have become so blurred that I couldn’t hazard a guess. I know that I came up in the era of old-fashioned romance, and while my scenes may have become more explicit to keep up with the demands of the genre, I just can’t get it out of my head that I want the hero and heroine to care for each other. For me, it also has to make sense. Sounds tedious, but I’m serious. I cannot tell you how many books I have thrown across the room because an author was going to make two people screw at a time when no one in their right mind would be thinking of sex. Example: There’s a body on the floor, something creeping them out in the house. The couple is afraid and they hug each other in the dark. They wind up having mind-blowing sex. OH, JUST STOP IT! Can you say, contrived?
I don’t know about you, and maybe this is TMI about me, but in order to have mind-blowing sex I need atmosphere, environment, and a rotting body and ghosts – or creatures on four legs – just don’t ring my bell. Thank you for allowing that rant, LOL.
Sex is natural. Sex is an extension of a person’s personality. How they go about that process tells your reader a lot about who they are as a character. So it should flow right into the scene where it makes sense, in my opinion. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes less is a cheat that your readers won’t appreciate. It really depends and is hard to gauge. It’s like cooking. What’s bland to me may be spicy to you. What’s too salty to me may be bland to you. Then to make matters worse, you have an editor’s sexual filter to contend with—that’s really twisted, but true.
Recently I turned in a manuscript for a romance and had an editor tell me, “Leslie, turn up the volume.” I was like, how in the hell? (Mentally, of course I wasn’t outwardly rude.) The story didn’t have a place for the volume to be turned up. My heroine was in peril from the door. I was doing my best to get her in the sack with this dude from Delta Force, but I had this little problem—the thing called logic—that was making me say, “Yo, these folks really aren’t thinking about screwing while terrorists are on their asses, ya know.” Big sigh. So I sat there staring at the screen. Me. The crazy vampire hot love scene writer… I was stumped. Finally I wound up tearing apart the story, ratcheting down the peril, all so I could get my heroine laid. Whew! That one was work. Then I turned in a sci-fi story for another anthology and two days later I got a very “distressed” sounding e-mail from the editor who said, “Uh… Leslie… er… can you tone this down? No one else went here and we need a LOT of this off camera.” No problem, that’s what cut and paste is for, dude.
I’ve been at this business for fifteen years and invariably, the sex scenes are the ones that always cause consternation with a new editor. I wish I could give better prescriptive advice, and you’d think after forty-some-odd books with at a minimum of three love scenes per book, this would be a zombie no-brainer. But each book with a new editor is different. It’s like taking on a new lover, really. You have to find out what your editor likes, what makes them blush, what they find offensive, and what they secretly giggle at but don’t have the heart to say out loud. And it’s all done with email and Post-it notes back and forth until you get that smiley face at the end of the scene with an exclamation point. That’s when you lean back in your chair as the writer and go, “Yeah… who’s your Daddy!?” LOL!
Good Luck, and never let ‘em see you blush!
L. A. Banks is a New York Times bestseller, and the recipient of the 2009 Romantic Times Booklover’s Career Choice Award for Paranormal Fiction, as well as the 2008 Essence Storyteller of the Year award. Ms. Banks has written over 42 novels and contributed to 12 novellas, in multiple genres under various pseudonyms. She mysteriously shape-shifts between the genres of romance, women’s fiction, crime/suspense thrillers, and of course, paranormal lore. Her post is part of an on-going series here at the Liars Club, addressing “Burning Questions” about publishing and writing. Visit our “For Writers” page and subscribe to this blog to see all posts in this series!