As part of our on-going series of questions about writing and publishing, today, we Liars approach Burning Question # 5: Mentioning Unmentionables – Thoughts on writing about sex in your work. Check back often to see how we Liars respond to this hot topic.
As a young adult author, how can I NOT write about sex? Adolescence. Raging hormones. First loves. Broken hearts. Hot stuff, and truly powerful material.
But, as a young adult author, how CAN I write about sex? See, I know that just including the F-bomb in a novel immediately limits my market. As I type that word, I can almost hear the upper elementary and middle school librarians tsk-ing as they remove my novel from their order lists. I can imagine the grandparents who would have bought my book as a gift for their grandkids, changing their mind after a quick skim of its pages.
Yet teens DO curse. And my most recent manuscript has moments when the hero has to let the expletives rip. There’s just no way around it. So I’m automatically skewing that novel to an older group. Not necessarily bad, but true.
Following this logic, by including sex in a novel, I’m turning off one audience, even as I’m turning on another. In my first novel WHAT I MEANT…, the heroine is only 15, so much of the readership is that age or younger. In this story, there is a crush, a first-kiss, and a heartbreak. But there is also a parent with a dark past that did involve sex. I handled this in a way that isn’t immediately obvious to a younger reader, and because of that, my book is labeled a “clean YA,” which, it turns out, is a decent selling point. N.B.: I point out it’s a clean read to adults at my signings, who are thrilled. I don’t point this out to teens, who really wouldn’t mind some thrills…
When you get down to it, though, I am writing for teens. Not for parents. Not for school librarians. I want to tell as true a story as I can. Anything else would be dishonest. Fact is, if you include a steamy sex scene in a young adult novel, then it stands out SO much more than it would in an adult novel. The book stands the danger of becoming all about sex. Or all about the issues involved in sex. It overwhelms. In WHAT I MEANT… the focus wasn’t on sex, it was on dishonesty and loss of trust, and finding inner strength. No hot bedroom scenes belonged. It would have been all wrong.
So we, as YA authors, need to seek out the best way to reach our audience and convey our tale. In my novel OVER MY HEAD, I had the main character fall for a much older and very experienced hottie, but my heroine is all about true love. So there are plenty of mixed signals, and steamy encounters, even a few almost moments, but mostly I tease with sensuality, and once completely leave the rest of the scene to the reader’s imagination. That’s a fantastic way to infuse your writing with sex, without the sex. And for me it was a way to focus on the character’s emotions and the storyline, rather than on that tan muscled lifeguard as he…well, I’ll leave the rest of this sentence to your imagination…
In my most recent manuscript, DRAWN, the main character is falling for a ghost, and every time the two are drawn together, he disappears. Hm, a commentary on commitment? Kidding! What made this fun to write, and hopefully fun to read, is that she WANTS to be with him. She’s a willing participant, or would like to be. Will they or won’t they? Can they or can’t they? With this setup, there’s plenty of tension and playfulness and passion, without actually having the characters do the nasty.
So, sex sells, except when it doesn’t. When young adult authors weave stories, we do have to think about the marketplace. But I try first to think about my readers. I try to tell an honest story, try to spice it up with passion, and try to do this with sensitivity.
Now that’s good lovin’.
Liar Marie Lamba is author of the young adult novel WHAT I MEANT… (Random House). Her work also appears in the anthology CALL ME OKAASAN, and in many magazines including Writer’s Digest, Garden Design and Your Home.