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December 08, 2006

Things I'm Learning As A Writer

Writing a sex scene that doesn't having me rolling my eyes in self-derision is, like, difficult.

And this is why I'm up at 3:15 in the morning.

Posted by john at December 8, 2006 03:15 AM

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Martin Wagner | December 8, 2006 04:32 AM

So, no sheep then?

Kit Whitfield | December 8, 2006 04:34 AM

I always figure it's an acid test - you've got everything that could possibly make you look like a ninny: having to describe physical actions, intense sensations AND emotions, plus there are no sensible words in the English language for any of the relevant body parts. The trouble is that the words we have to describe sex aren't really designed to convey how it feels, it usually being a fairly word-free activity (depending on what floats your boat, of course).

My rule of thumb has always been 'don't mention his willy'. You either end up sounding like a locker-room jock or using horrible words like 'manhood'.

Boy, does the English language make it easy for sex scenes to look foolish.

Worst of all? The potential for unintentional hilarity. I was going to say such scenes are booby-trapped, but then, well, I realised why I shouldn't say it.

Chang, who gets nothing done without BRAINZ | December 8, 2006 05:15 AM

Remember our tiny discussion about sex scenes during the SLF thingie? I'm write there with you. Ugh.

Branko Collin | December 8, 2006 05:51 AM

Perhaps you should read about sex first.

Livia Llewellyn | December 8, 2006 06:44 AM

So what about a poorly-written sex scene makes your eyes roll in derision - and what would be the perfectly-written sex scene for you? I'm curious because I write erotica, and I tend to approach the sex scenes with what appears to be the same trepidation and eye rolling as you. Honestly, I don't know if what I write passes the test - it does with me, but not necessarily with readers (if I even have any). It's also why I don't read a lot of erotica, and tend to skip over sex scenes in SF and fantasy - because... ::rolls eyes::

Eddie | December 8, 2006 07:28 AM

I hope it's John P. and Jane S. getting together at long last.You've made them wait long enough.

I'm no expert on writing nor am I an expert on sex but I think the sex scene you write will be better if you use the characters to fulfill at least a little portion of your own fantasy.I like the way Barbara Kingsolver writes about sex.I always feel that she's allowing herself a bit of self-gratification.

Steve Buchheit | December 8, 2006 07:31 AM

Writing about it, from a fiction stand-point, is very difficult (I've attempted it only twice and cut it both times). However, the subject matter research is excellent! I say more research is needed.

Torsten | December 8, 2006 08:11 AM

Here comes the hot stuff:
The Bad Sex in Fiction Award!

Torsten | December 8, 2006 08:13 AM

Sorry, got too excited, here is the link:


John H | December 8, 2006 08:34 AM

I second Steve's suggestion - more research!

Ethyachk | December 8, 2006 08:38 AM

I get around this my avoiding sex scenes like the plague. I have this horrible feeling that if I wrote an actual sex scene the world would implode. I will leave sex scenes to more competent writers! Or writers who can hear the word "titter" and not giggle for fifteen minutes.

Justine Larbalestier | December 8, 2006 08:45 AM

Just leave it out. Sex does not belong in science fiction!

Steve Buchheit | December 8, 2006 09:00 AM

Ethyachk, okay, well, I don't qualify.

I needed a laugh this morning, thanks.

Bill Schafer | December 8, 2006 09:10 AM

I'm just wondering what your publisher was doing up at the same time, and why you chose to IM him about sex at such an hour.

Please sir, desist, or I shall have to involve the authorities.

Emily | December 8, 2006 09:21 AM

Justine said: Just leave it out. Sex does not belong in science fiction!

I'm curious-- why? Sex is a part of life, and science fiction is fiction about life. Yes, a specific kind of fiction.

This reminds me of people who get upset at the sex in Battlestar Galatica. If anything, that makes it more real, to me.

Chang, who gets nothing done without BRAINZ | December 8, 2006 09:37 AM


I think it was a joke.

I certainly hope so, anyway.

Sex belongs in sex.

Steve Buchheit, still all a twitter about the titter | December 8, 2006 09:41 AM

And you've had sex in TGB so you've written it before. Okay, well, technically it was pre and then post sex stuff. The post sex stuff was SF because the guy was talking. As we all know, guys after sex, "zzzz." :) You did say there were genetic modifications, so I was going with that being one of them.

Why do some spider females eat the males after sex? To stop the snoring before it starts.

Joel Finkle | December 8, 2006 09:53 AM

So this won't be the YA space opera story either, eh?

Chang, who gets nothing done without BRAINZ | December 8, 2006 09:53 AM


Thank you for making me spew bagel, scrambled eggs, and banana smoothie alll over the laptop.

To stop the snoring before it starts.

Killing me.

BigHank53 | December 8, 2006 09:58 AM

Banana smoothie and scrambled eggs?

I think I'll take the sex scene instead, thank you.

Eric J | December 8, 2006 10:17 AM

I think my favorite sex scene I read in the last year was in the Baroque Cycle, when Eliza lost her virginity to Bob Shaftoe. Stephenson wrote it in the same excruciating detail he used to describe Randy Waterhouse eating a bowl of Captain Crunch.

Eddie | December 8, 2006 10:34 AM

"Sex does not belong in science fiction!"

A lot of the SCIENCE is pretty dangerous too!You should probably cut a lot of that.Don't want to expose our children to all that Darwinian mumbo-jumbo.

And POLITICS. That should be strenuously avoided. All those IDEAS!What were you thinking.

Steve Buchheit, still twittering about the tittering | December 8, 2006 10:41 AM

Eric J, hmmm, Captain Crunch.

Eddie, I was trying to come up with a "practice safe science" scene, but could only get researchers wear full body rubbers. (squeek squeek squeek) And really, that would chaff. Ouch!

Chang, sorry about the keyboard. I was going more for the "milk through the nose" effect. Plus, I'm assuming that you're saying it was scrambled eggs for our sake. Because you're still not getting anything done without BRAINZ. Hmmm, there's an Egg McMuffin flavor, Zombie McMuffin!

Nathan | December 8, 2006 10:52 AM

To add to the degree of difficulty, make sure the scene takes place in zero-G.

7.5 from the East German judge!

Steve Buchheit, still twittering about the tittering | December 8, 2006 10:54 AM

Nathan, but only because he stuck the dismount. There was that hand fault in the middle.

Mark Tiedemann | December 8, 2006 10:58 AM

Just keep in mind that most people "remember" it happening much more, er, elegantly than the way it actually happened. It is, after all, an atheltic event, and sometimes practice is needed to become as stylish as we'd all like to think we are.

John Scalzi | December 8, 2006 11:00 AM

Speak for yourself, Mark. I was brilliant the first time. Why, I even set a land speed record for completion! Very proud of that, I am.

Nathan | December 8, 2006 11:04 AM

Steve (still twittering about tittering),

Is there a name for the "dry-heave" version of spewing milk from your nose?

stuck the landing.


Randy | December 8, 2006 11:08 AM

Just don't make it pr0n. I was really enjoying "Altered Carbon" until I got the pr0n-like scenes. Took up too much valuable STORY space to write about sex, and I always hate sex scenes that slow down a good story. And less graphic is always a plus.

(BTW, I thought the way you handled it in Ghost Brigades was very intriguing and well done.)

Chang, who gets nothing done without BRAINZ | December 8, 2006 11:08 AM

Ah, funnily the 17th of this month in this year marks the 20th anniversary of my first ascent.

My technique has improved greatly over time.

Buchheit, you are damn funny. Thank you.

rochelle | December 8, 2006 11:12 AM

Make it start with the guy grabbing the woman roughly by the shoulders, a la Shatner in the first Star Trek series. Totally hot. Especially if the woman has a bouffant 'do.

J | December 8, 2006 11:17 AM

So, I assume these are less vague than the not-so-awkwardly written (that was a compliment, by the way) sex scenes in OMW?

Mark Tiedemann | December 8, 2006 12:03 PM

"Speak for yourself, Mark. I was brilliant the first time."

Brilliant or just bright---from friction burns?

But, okay. Speaking for myself...

Steve Buchheit, still twittering about the tittering | December 8, 2006 12:33 PM

Thanks, Chang and Nathan. I tend to be funny about sex. Umm. I mean I like funny sex. Umm, wait a sec. I mean that my sex is... oh, never mind.

"If the women don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy." - Red Green

Bob Wall | December 8, 2006 01:30 PM

Just go buy a copy of Penthouse and copy one of the letters to the editor into the scene. Change all the "I never thought this would happen to me" to third person and voila, you're done.

Bob Wall | December 8, 2006 01:30 PM

Just go buy a copy of Penthouse and copy one of the letters to the editor into the scene. Change all the "I never thought this would happen to me" to third person (unless your book is in first) and voila, you're done.

Bob Wall | December 8, 2006 01:32 PM

oooops double post with an edit. delete the first...

theophylact | December 8, 2006 01:55 PM

A cinch. Just add more sodomy and more dinosaurs.

Wakboth | December 8, 2006 02:42 PM

I've noticed that it's easier to write bad sex scenes and learn to tolerate them, than it is to learn write good sex scenes.

ship | December 8, 2006 02:56 PM


the sex in "altered carbon" was graphic, just as the violence was graphic. i think morgan was trying to drive all of his points home like an arrow. i enjoyed the entire novel, sex, drugs and violence and all, but that might be my personal taste. some people get turned off by all sorts of things. when i was a projectionist a concerned mother called the theater to ask whether there was nudity in a steven segal movie her 12 yr old son wanted to see. she was informed that there was brief nudity and she vetoed it. she didn't care about the abundance of violence in the movie.

john, keep practicing the sex scene, it's bound to come out right at some point. if it doesn't, well, then it wasn't meant to be there. cheers.

Carl Caputo | December 8, 2006 03:09 PM

Marlon James at Croaking Marley has a post up about "Spacebreak Sex" (Barbara Kingsolver's phrase). It's pointedly appropriate right now.

Carl Caputo | December 8, 2006 03:12 PM

Um. It's http://www.marlon-james.blogspot.com/2006/12/spacebreak-sex.html and I don't know why the hyperlink didn't work.

Here's another hyperlink attempt.

Cassie | December 8, 2006 03:13 PM

I've been reading a new blog "101 Reasons To Stop Writing." The blogger's opinion is that all sex scenes are gratuitous.

Here's the link, so you don't have to flame me for it: 101 Reasons

John Scalzi | December 8, 2006 03:18 PM


"The blogger's opinion is that all sex scenes are gratuitous."

The blogger's an idiot, then. But I would allow that about 98% of all sex scenes probably needn't be written.

A Guy Without A Name | December 8, 2006 03:21 PM


When I've been working on scenes of intimacy in some of the stories I write, I've found it's helpful to find examples of people who have written them well, and then try to use a very similar vocabulary and see how they write it. This being the webbernet and all, there are a few sites with lots of people-written content that are free that give you good examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

If there's anybody who knows how to do written pr0n, it's pr0n-writing authors.

Sean | December 8, 2006 03:30 PM


Well, I just finished The Android's Dream. No romance? To each their own, I guess.

What is this sex scene for? TLC?

Alex S. | December 8, 2006 03:39 PM

One sex scene I thought was particularly fun to read was in The Illuminatus Trilogy. The one consisting entirely of the words coming out of dude's mouth.

Cassie | December 8, 2006 03:39 PM

John, then you think your scene is necessary for your novel?

I'm not questioning your judgment, I'm just asking a question.

Ginny | December 8, 2006 04:16 PM

If you must have a love scene, make it preying mantis sex. The females are in the habit of biting off their mate's heads during the actorotherwise cannibalizing their romantic interests.

Hey, it'd keep my interest.

John Scalzi | December 8, 2006 04:23 PM


"John, then you think your scene is necessary for your novel?"

Short story. And yup, it is. Otherwise I wouldn't have beat myself about the head trying to do it. Remember: I'm fundamentally lazy.

Nathan | December 8, 2006 05:52 PM

Then we all promise to think highly of the scene.....or at least lie convincingly.

Ethyachk | December 8, 2006 06:09 PM

"Remember: I'm fundamentally lazy."

Hey! You could be a programmer too! I'm totally lazy! I will work for hours to make something that will do what took me three minutes no more than three seconds.

PixelFish | December 8, 2006 07:44 PM

Linked from the comments of Making Light, a long time ago, but still possibly of interest:


Granted, much of the advice is proferred with the romance genre in mind, but I found it useful...

PixelFish | December 8, 2006 07:55 PM

Oh, and here's the original Making Light Thread where Teresa linked these up.


Deanna Hoak | December 8, 2006 07:57 PM

You know, I'm one of the few people I know who really loves to write sex. Something like this is easier for me to get down on paper than anything else. :-/ I must be weird that way.

Johnny Carruthers | December 9, 2006 03:24 PM

Maybe you should approach it as though you were writing something like NAUGHTY NIGHT NURSES.

sylvia | January 2, 2007 06:13 AM


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