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How to Write a (Literary) Sex Scene

10/28/2013 02:31 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Let's talk language. Pudenda is a word meaning "the external sexual organs of a human being, especially those of a woman." It comes from the Greek word pudendum, which means "something to be ashamed of." Consider the implications of that. It will give you meaningful insights into civilization.

I've taken a number of writing workshops, and taught even more, and I've never seen or heard an intelligent discussion on the proper way to write a sex scene. Maybe the teachers were afraid of being fired. The thing is, many, if not most, novels these days contain sex scenes and most authors are botching them, probably because no one ever wrote the literary sex scene manual.

I'm at the stage in my career where public shunning might do me good, and I can't be fired, so here is my take on literary copulation. Beginners and Pulitzer Prize winners alike fall into two primary traps: 1) too many technical terms. One is enough. Or 2) vague euphemisms. I had a student who kept writing about his "manhood." It took me two stories to figure out where his manhood was. If that organ defines your manhood, you are basically a useless man. I thought he meant trigger finger until it started throbbing.

Romance writers tend to talk in terms of flowers. Or maidenheads. If I was a maiden and someone called that my head, I would be offended. Romance novels have a lot more sex scenes than my books, but my books are considered racy. No less than some crankcase in the New York Times Book Review claimed my last novel had too much sex between senior citizens. It made him feel icky to picture old people doing it. With luck he won't grow old or won't be doing it when he does.

There's only one real sex scene in the book. People think my novels are racy because my characters are true to life: They think about sex and talk about sex, more or less continuously, but when it comes to the real thing, they only do it every 200 pages or so.

I use sex in my books for the same reason I use it in life itself -- for comic relief. Making love without laughing is like eating without tasting. You might not starve, but you'll miss the fun. Might as well watch cooking on TV, if all you want is to kill some time.

The way to write my kind of sex is through dialogue.

"Higher, dammit."

"You're on my hair."

"When was the last time you cut your toenails?"

"Wrong hole!"

I know biting body parts sounds hilarious, but it's been done before. Gross out humour belongs in the movies. Us novelists need to be more subtle.

The sexual ambiance needs to be unique, in some way, or you might as well skip to breakfast, now that it's no longer acceptable to skip to the cigarette. In nine fairly racy novels, I've only written one graphic scene between two regular adults who like each other, and I put that one in the catacombs of Paris, witnessed by six million dead people.

If you must write serious literature, I would advise skipping the thrusting manhood or angry urethras and going with emotions. Make the sentences read as poetry -- man on top, iambic, woman on top, trochaic or even serpentine free verse. (You poets can work this out with other positions and forms.) Typing "bitch" 50 times is boring and has been done. So has having a woman repeat "fuck me" over and over for two chapters. Don't do it. I liked the Woody Allen movie where he said "Slide," because thinking about baseball made him last longer.

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