Here's What Happened When I Tried To Write A Legit Romance Scene
Faith Salie, host of Audible's series 'Authorized', dedicated a whole season to talking with best-selling romance authors. But would that give her the chops to write a decent romance herself? She tried her hand at crafting her own sex scene, no matter how much it made her blush. Hear the fruits of her labor.By Faith Salie
I’ve written one book, called Approval Junkie: My Heartfelt (and Occasionally Inappropriate) Quest to Please Just About Everyone, and Ultimately Myself, and it’s a collection of very personal essays. It’s implicitly a memoir. In it, I reveal a ludicrous — perhaps unwise — amount about myself. I tell stories in my book that I’ve never uttered to anyone else. People have told me I’m “brave” for being so forthcoming, but I’m not. I’m built to be vulnerable and honest, and I wither if I don’t express myself, so producing my book was grueling but self-serving: I couldn’t not write it, and yes, that’s a double negative.
When it came to writing a fictional sex scene, however, I was stymied. I felt more naked in that endeavor than in composing anything for my book — including a chapter about how my gay brother taught me how to give a killer hand job (not using his own penis: read the book). To me, people who write sex scenes are the gutsy ones. Let me lay out for you the source of my performance anxiety ….
Embarrassment: The Fear
Even though I knew very, very few people would actually read my scene, I was mortified that anyone would. Even though what I wrote is not really about me, I felt like letting anyone see it would be akin to sending her a sex tape of myself. It’s hard not to surmise, when you read one of these scenes, that it reflects the author’s own fantasies, and while I’ve been happy to chronicle, you know, stuff like having an exorcism of sorts to please my ex-husband or freezing my eggs or how hard I tried to get Oprah to like me, I’m just not big on detailing my own sexual imagination. Or, more specifically, to run the risk of someone reading fiction I’ve written and rightly or wrongly deducing what flips my skort.
Every writer with whom I spoke advised me not to describe much about the holes and the ins and outs.
Now, of course, that’s my insecurity talking. Because, as a (new) romance reader, I know that when I’m reading a fine love scene, I’m caught up in the moment, and I’m not thinking, “Oh, this is what Eloisa James must enjoy every night with her real-life Italian husband” or, “Obviously Beverly Jenkins loved her late husband so much because they always had mutual orgasms while he was wearing 19th-century cowboy chaps.”
So. If my scene turned out to be any good, then no one reading it would be telling herself, “This is Faith Salie’s hottest fantasy.” Rather, she’d be engaged in the story and not trying to figure out how someone (me) who wears Old Navy sweats when she goes to bed at 9 p.m. has such a fervid, imaginary sex life.
And there’s the rub, as it were: I have no idea if my scene is any good, and that’s not humility speaking. That’s inexperience and self-consciousness.
I toyed with writing something in another period so I could have more of a silkscreen of plausible deniability. I also figured that setting something in the 19th century (my focus in college and grad school) would allow me to create a “sex” scene that might involve something only as racy as … creamy ankles. But then one wonders, are ankles creamy? And then one realizes she is out of her league and that anything one tries to write would be an imitation of Julia Quinn or Eloisa James that would be as pale and pallid as a consumptive Romantic. And they did not have happily ever afters.
In other words, anything that wasn’t close to home, in time and place, felt like too much of a stretch for a pathetic novice like me.
If Faith did write a whole romance audiobook, it might look something like this. Courtesy Maroon Ash Publishing.
Humor: The Absence
I find writing with levity to be much more fulfilling than writing entirely sincerely. Even the earnestness of the previous sentence makes me uncomfortable.
Maybe part of my joylessness in writing this scene was feeling hamstrung by not knowing how to put humor in it. And when I heard the reactions from the voiceover artists and a few other readers who’d read my scene as erotica instead of a playful, but hot exchange between two people who were not into BDSM, I realized my attempt at subtle humor didn’t stick its landing.
I wonder if there can be such a thing as a sex scene that’s both hilarious and steamy.
As I’m writing this, I’m wondering (for the first time) what a truly funny sex scene would entail. I remember a specific scene in Eloisa James’s Seven Minutes in Heaven which involved witty repartee while they were getting it on. It was charming and sexy, but the sex itself ended up being seriously hot. I wonder if there can be such a thing as a sex scene that’s both hilarious and steamy. I’m sure there are many avid consumers of romance who could point me in the direction of that kind of writing.
Clichés: The Threat
It’s insanely hard to avoid clichés — his insistent man-ness, her hard nipples, the waves of pleasure coursing through her body. Every writer with whom I spoke advised me not to describe much about the holes and the ins and outs. I heeded their advice. I decided to settle on a simple tale of oral sex (yes, for the lady: of course), which I thought would be a bit less hackneyed than his manhood entering her flower. What I found, however, is that not all of my very few readers got what was going on in the scene.
So that’s my bad — in my effort to thread the needle between not being too explicit and also not being cringingly poetic, I don’t think I nailed the description of the action. And getting nailed is the point of a good sex scene. It was a massive challenge to describe the physical journey toward an orgasm without resorting to things I’ve already read that were written by folks much more skilled than I. Despite what you read in all of these romance novels, virgins are understandably pretty sucky at sex, and that can go for a virgin writer like myself.
… Not all of my very few readers got what was going on in the scene.
What I’ve shared here is specifically about scraping a sex scene out of my brain. But, as I’ve learned over the course of this season of Authorized, the sex isn’t really what romance is about. Wait — let’s not discount it, please no: I delighted in most of the love scenes I read. I mean, what a revelation, say, in reading Damon Suede’s Hot Head to find that I, a straight woman, could be both astonished and totally turned on by iterations of two men getting it on and getting it deep. Some others’ sex scenes got a little tired, maybe because there’s only so many times you can read about women getting reliable vaginal orgasms without wondering if something’s wrong with you.
But at the heart of the romance novel and the love story (they are not the same, some would strongly argue; I’m looking at you, Nicholas Sparks) is not sex. It’s the journey of the heroine (or hero) in finding herself (or himself — I’m going to stop being gender-judicious now; it’s tedious). Sometimes, like in Andre Aciman’s haunting Enigma Variations (not a romance novel, but what I’d call a love mystery), it’s about the hero perhaps never really finding himself through another, but relentlessly embracing the futile promise that love will bring us all closer to ourselves.
I’m grateful to have entered this world of hopefulness, empowerment, and, usually, HEAs.
Here are three different performances of Faith’s scene — an excerpt featuring two narrators, the entire scene with a male narrator alone, and then with a female narrator alone. Note the different flavors: