Purple Prose and Bad Sex

04 Oct

Warning: Do not read the following paragraphs if you are readily offended about references to genitalia OR if you are under the age of 18, happen to be my mother, or can claim me as your mother (irregardless of age, birth order, or military rank).

Bad sex (either as read or experienced) didn’t prompt me to write this blog.      Really.

Rather, a windfall of nifty little love scenes by my critique partners during the past few weeks caused me to reflect upon the often narrow lines between sweet, naive, nicely naughty, nasty, and truly gag-worthy attempts to capture love-making in prose.

Let me emphasize – my CP friends produce phenomenal material. They all write superbly and in such varied voice that I thank my maker every day for their mentorship. I read and marvel at the material they produce.  And, honestly, I’m intimidated.

Each offered vignettes to touch upon the range of passion from innocent first love between very young adults – giddy, hopeful and naively erotic – to a spicy ‘balls to the walls’ bit of foreplay featuring immortal, flame-licked skin and  . . . uh, um, yeah, thanks ALOT, Meredith. So, where was I?

Ah, yes – in the interest of determining a magic formula for approaching my first draft of a pivotal love scene for my WIP, I hit the internet. After all, how does one admit ignorance about drafting such a scene? I discovered a wealth of advice on this specialty in the blogs and online forums of nearly every imaginable genre. And I am still, undeniably, ill prepared.

My colleagues make it seem easy, but their effort, collective and individual, is decidedly NOT formulaic. I am terrified to offer my pitiful attempt in the face of their skill. Because what if it’s bad? Not just bad bad. What if it’s laughably-OMG-I-can’t-believe-she-wrote-this bad?

I remember the first such scene I read years ago.  I can’t recall the title, but I was twelve and scared spitless of getting caught with one of the bodice rippers from the magazine rack in my grandmother’s beauty shop. The smell of perm solution still sparks a sense of guilty panic (hmmm, more fodder for counseling, I suppose).

Growing up on an Idaho farm meant I was familiar with basic biology, but I hadn’t a clue about the human male. And after reading the well-thumbed paperback left by one of Grandma’s clients (each fragile, gracious, blue-haired lady a possible sex fiend), I knew even less about lovemaking.

I ask you —  what in the holy hell was I to do with the virginal heroine’s description of the strapping hero as he lay nude, wounded and unconscious?

“His beauty struck my heart, then my loins.
I could not tear my eyes from his manly acorns, nestled in a wiry thatch of dark hair.”

Manly acorns? Wiry thatch? Crimeny, if we’d have been catholic, I’d probably considered vows.

Is there a nonpub version of the infamous Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ Award? If someone is taking the time “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it” for published authors — and mind you, the nominees for this less-than-prestigious tag are famous, well-regarded authors — what in the world faces the rest of us?

I throw myself upon the collective mercy of visitors to the GSWriters’ blog. What tricks, tips, or thoughts can you share to help me? Perhaps even suggestions on what to avoid?

Please. Otherwise, I might be driven to acorns.


Posted by on October 4, 2011 in writing, writing craft


Tags: , , ,

34 responses to “Purple Prose and Bad Sex

  1. blankenshiplouise

    October 4, 2011 at 5:52 AM

    Personally, I stick to standard terminology and bear in mind that scientific terms will distance and vernacular will sound a little dirty. Better dirty than childish or stupid, IMO. He’s got balls, call them balls.

    Other than that… approach the scene with all the seriousness of detailed hand-to-hand combat. There’s not as much difference between detailed combat and detailed sex as you’d think. Know your characters inside out but more importantly listen to them when they tell you what they do in bed. This is deep character work, no pun intended.

    And if you’re sliding off your chair while you’re writing it, you’re doing it right.

    (I have no kids and my mother doesn’t know I’m blogging 😉 )

    But if it really makes you uncomfortable, it’s fine to go “soft focus” and just summarize the wonderful night your characters have in a few poetic sentences that fit the story’s style. If you don’t enjoy writing it, nobody’s going to enjoy reading it.

    I hope that helps. You can do this, I know you can.

  2. Liz Fredericks

    October 4, 2011 at 6:06 AM

    Thanks for the support and I REALLY like the ‘hand-to-hand combat’ tip.

    Have a question/observation on vernacular – are there differences between regions? Sometimes, when I read authors from other parts of the country/world, I pick up on alien (at least to me) terms. I love picking up new vocab and can usually get the gist of the activity (again, the hand to hand analogy is brilliant), but wonder if the regional differences might matter (in terms of characterization, etc). After all, we have a slew of regional euphenisms for generic soft drinks (pop, bubbly, coke, soda, etc), so why not for sex? I bet more people have or think about sex than have/drink pop.

    • blankenshiplouise

      October 4, 2011 at 8:25 AM

      That’s a tough call and I like picking up new vocab too… but I think it’s okay to limit yourself to the most universal vocab possible because while yes, it’s about the body parts… it’s also not about the body parts. And I don’t think bedroom scenes have to run for dozens of pages either, so you won’t feel the limitation too badly.

      Unless you’re really writing erotica, in the “plot, what plot?” style. Then you need vocab, because that’s all you’re talking about.

      I did pick up one other excellent tip while reading about steamy scenes: You are not writing a how-to manual. Despite that we all remember seeking these scenes out when we were starving for information. 🙂

      • Liz Fredericks

        October 4, 2011 at 9:00 AM

        You made me snort coffee on the last comment about ‘starving for information’ – I wonder how often that’s been my motivation even while I’m claiming to be reading the genre for ‘market niche research’!

  3. Janis McCurry

    October 4, 2011 at 7:10 AM


    I laughed out loud a couple of times reading this. I remember the first love scene I wrote. Sex has been such an unspoken subject for so long (in my child- and teenage-verse), that it did not lend itself to the page gladly. It’s marginally easier now. I close my eyes (yes, literally) and try to imagine a passionate loving scene between two soul mates. I’m sure I don’t do it justice.

    Another hard part (Stop it, Liz) is reading it out loud to your CPs. As they will attest, the first time I read my first love scene, I brought a couple of those airline whiskey bottles and had a drink or two before I had the courage!!

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 4, 2011 at 9:03 AM

      Ok, now you made me snort coffee again. I swear my keyboard is going to short out. I think you absolutely do those scenes justice since one of your Tangle Hearts’ scenes was in my head when I thought ‘ how on earth can I do this as well?’ – I think you’ve nailed (now, you stop it, Janis) the soul mate scene.

  4. Laura Dion-Jones

    October 4, 2011 at 7:11 AM

    Write what you know. Set the scene – candles, soft, sexy music and seduce your husband or significant other and write what you know!

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 4, 2011 at 9:04 AM

      Well, Laura, therein lies the problem! 😉

  5. Carley Ash

    October 4, 2011 at 7:21 AM

    Love your blog, Liz. And that intro is priceless.

    I actually got me sex education from a trio of mass market paperbacks. A classmate with an older sister had the books. Someone had dogeared the good parts and the books were passed amongst a dozen curious jr. high girls. (Thank you Sydney Sheldon and pals)

    My favorite sex scenes as an adult have been along the less-is-more variety. The building of the sexual tension has more of an impact. Jennifer Crusie is the queen of this.

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 4, 2011 at 9:06 AM

      You’re right about Crusie and building tension. I know I’m going to date myself here, but does anyone remember ‘Moonlighting’ with Cybil and Bruce (did I get the actors’ right?) – now that was some fine sexual tension on prime time.

      • Janis McCurry

        October 4, 2011 at 9:50 AM

        I loved Moonlighting. They did a great job with sexual tension.

      • Amberly

        October 4, 2011 at 11:48 AM

        I think with Moonlighting it was the heated looks. The show still holds the record for longest on screen kiss. They’re in a lip lock, rolling around, knocking against furniture and all handsy. That and the slamming doors is what I remember about the show.

      • Carley Ash

        October 4, 2011 at 4:46 PM

        Yes, you got those names right. And I think the story ended once they got together and the tension ended.

  6. Meredith Allen Conner

    October 4, 2011 at 7:31 AM

    I will NEVER be able to look at an innocent acorn without snickering again. LOL. Love it! Writing a sex scene is hard – pun intended. It’s part of your story and just like every other plot and scene in your book it has to enrich the story and add to it.
    I drove ten hours once to listen to Linda Howard discuss writing sexual tension. She is a master at this. She recommends Desmond Morris’ book “The Naked Ape” which views human behavior from a zoological standpoint. It’s fascinating.
    As “blankenshiplouise” commented – I think it’s best to go with what your characters tell you. You can always change the specific words.
    I believe you, dear Liz, reminded me just the other day that we all write in different styles. That’s the beauty of it all.

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 4, 2011 at 9:09 AM

      I would’ve loved to hear LInda Howard on this subject. I thoroughly enjoy her books. My characters tell me they’d really enjoy a good love scene and I don’t want to let them down (did I intend a pun there? I think not, but I feel a bit like in junior high – back then, whenever someone used the word ‘it’ we’d collapse in giggles) I’m such a geek

  7. Peggy Staggs

    October 4, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    OMG! I have acorns all over the front and back yards. I’ll never be able to leave the house again. I stick to the first rule of Agatha Christy, avoid the whole subject by killing people.

  8. Liz Fredericks

    October 4, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    Now, I’m going to worry about your landscaping, Peggy. Shame on you. I write about the sociopaths among us for the same reason, but I figure after my heroine and hero catch the bad guy (or in the case of my WIP, the bad gal) they’ll want to celebrate with a little naked ape action (thank you Meredith for the reference).

    • Meredith Conner

      October 4, 2011 at 1:26 PM

      Always happy to do my part. Peggy – if you can even LOOK out a window in your house at the acorns without folding over, I’ll fund our glittery runway tread-mark t-shirts myself!

  9. megantrennett

    October 4, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    When I write a love scene, it’s usually for a discovery perpose. As in, to see if my heroine and her guy are simply intimate or if they would offend monkey’s with their behaviour. Really, it would depend on their personality, as well as age. Rarely does she ever describe his equipement (I write in first person a lot), but she does describe the act while being as modest as she can (as in position and hand placements, but maybe not what was stuck where). I do think one would have to take into consideration mental maturity and age when choosing a discription for anatomy. For instance, I wanted to use the word “junk” earlier, but it made me think of teenagers or frat boys.

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 4, 2011 at 11:35 AM

      Hey Megan, thank you for commenting. You raise an important point. We’re writing the love scene for characters so what they do, how they do and how they describe the what/how should be grounded in who they are. I think this is important to remember, especially if my mom reads a scene. I can say ‘hey, I didn’t even know what they were up to until the naked little apes (thanks again, Mer) spilled it across my page’.

  10. Amberly

    October 4, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    Liz, your sense of humor is one of the things I love best about you. I’ve read a lot of sex. From sweet hetero vanilla to border line non-consensual BDSM. Some of it was very technically correct and descriptive and did nothing for me. Others practically closed the bed room door before the perv in me got to see the climax but I remember them with a giddy heart beat. Have you seen the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Knightley? He hands her up into her coach and that brief touch…(fans self) powerful. A good sex scene is not about tab and slots but emotion. I follow a couple of rules when I write sex scenes: Linda Howard’s twelve steps of intimacy (CBC has the audio), sex does not solve relationship issues and the scene still has to advance the plot or it shouldn’t be included.

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 4, 2011 at 11:57 AM

      Thanks Amberly, you’re very kind. I agree about the brief touch being so powerful. I think that the ‘less is more’ motto works for all of us. I know it will work for me as I’m a little stressed about running out of adjectives. 😉

  11. Meredith Conner

    October 4, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    I love that scene Amberly!!! Pride and Prejudice is my all time favorite romance and that one scene – so simple and raw with such emotion – makes my throat tighten every time!!!

  12. Lynn Mapp

    October 4, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    Liz, love scenes are hard (don’t laugh). At one time I wrote chapter long scenes. All I wanted to say way “baby, oh, baby,” and call it good. I know. More is needed. We have the building awarness which leads to the first kiss. That building tension is a spring twisting tighter and tighter, until…something has got to give, and give and give. Yeah, baby. That’s what I’m talking about.

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 5, 2011 at 7:26 AM

      Well, Lynn, you’ve done a pretty fabulous job in your few sentences. Sometimes, I’d be happy to get a ‘baby, oh, baby’ down on paper.

      • Lynn Mapp

        October 6, 2011 at 11:40 AM

        Liz, just write ‘baby, oh, baby,’ and move on. You can come back and write the dang scene later. Put on a little Barry White or Luther VanDross. It will set the mood.

  13. Laurie Kuna

    October 4, 2011 at 11:25 PM

    Liz–As Nora Roberts says, “It’s not the motion, it’s the emotion.” Also, if you’re interested in an absolutely hilarious song about Viagra, Google search The Four Bitchin’ Babes. Their one cd with the song “Viagra in the Water” is PUNishing in the extreme as far as sexual plays on words go.

    Laurie from Michigan

  14. Liz Fredericks

    October 5, 2011 at 7:28 AM

    Hi Laurie from Michigan! Thanks for visiting the blog. I’ll be looking up the song today. The title alone has me intrigued . . . and viagra in anything . . . count me in.

  15. Clarissa Southwick

    October 5, 2011 at 5:35 PM

    Hi Liz, I loved the acorn example. I am the last person in the world who should be giving advice on this topic. I think the best advice I ever heard was to think of it as an action scene with a goal, motivation, and conflict. At the end of the scene, something must change.

    Or you could switch to writing children’s books, like me. 🙂

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 5, 2011 at 6:53 PM

      I might just have to switch to writing children’s books! At least, then, the acorn could symbolize some meaningful moral. Ok, I’ll try goal, motivation, and conflict and link it with blankenshiplouise’ fight scene.

  16. Mary Vine

    October 5, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    The first sex scene I wrote the couple rushed together quickly, and the act ended even faster. The hero told the heroine the next time would be better while she hardly heard him because she was aghast with herself for actually letting this happen on a whim. So, I didn’t have to give much detail in this scene. Later they had a loving relationship built and the reader was probably ready for them to basically just come together 🙂

  17. Liz Fredericks

    October 5, 2011 at 6:54 PM

    At least the hero promised improvement!

  18. Steph

    October 7, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    I find it hilarious that this blog has the most replies of anything on here yet. Way to go, Liz. 😉

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 7, 2011 at 8:23 PM

      Thanks Steph, I think ‘purple prose and bad sex’ resonates with a lot of women! 😉


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