This post was originally written for Kate Elliott’s blog.
I think there are several keys to writing good explicit sex scenes. The first is to give up any pretense of hiding yourself. You can’t hide from the reader, and you most especially can’t hide from yourself.
By the way, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never done the thing you’re writing about and never intend to do it. What matters is what you think and feel about the action you’re depicting. Writing, in some ways, works on the brain directly. Your feelings, through the medium of your style and voice, are being transmitted towards the reader. If your feelings aren’t essentially honest, it’s a lot harder for the reader to connect emotionally with what she’s reading.
A way to honesty is finding empathy for what you’re writing. A few times, I’ve written a sex scene about something I’ve never experienced and did not find appealing. So I asked someone who DID like the activity what it was she liked about it, and why. Given an additional point of view to work from, I was then able to consider what my characters might like, and not like, from the inside, and thus find a place of emotional honesty to work from.
Another key to writing sex scenes is the same as in writing any other type of scene; you have to pay attention to your prose. I also think you have to pay EXTRA attention, since some readers read sex scenes more closely and often than others! The attention-paying doesn’t have to happen in your first draft. Some writers, including me, sometimes find it easier to write out the first draft in a state of semi-trance, as another route to access emotional honesty.
In revisions, though, I think it’s more important in sex scenes than any others to pay attention to details. Simple things like repeating the same word over and over can throw a reader out of the scene. You can’t let a sex scene drag, and you can’t let it be predictable. After the initial draft, you might have to go back and add in a few more unexpected twists, of plot or characterization or dialogue. I always refine and polish the vocabulary I use, to make sure it’s not only evocative but appropriate to the characters, the story’s mood, and any thematic ideas I might have. Originality is always good, to one degree or another (it depends on your aims). And I make sure to look for unintentional double entendres. Those come up (heh) more often than you would think!
I feel the editing process is essential to avoid going over the top with a sex scene. It’s especially good if you can wait a while, then read again what you’ve written.
Finally, I think you have to know your characters. Sometimes I know before I start the scene how that character would act in a sexual situation; sometimes I figure it out as I go along, from a mingling of intuition about the character and the needs of the story. The important thing to remember is that this scene isn’t about you. It’s about your characters. Weirdly, I think your own emotional honesty is required to know your characters properly.
Demonstrating women’s sexuality through writing erotica, to a public audience, verifies the existence of female sexuality (woman as actor rather than than object) and helps bring female sexuality into public discourse. My emotional honesty thus not only validates women in general, it validates me as well.