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December 08, 2006

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

Yes, I finished the sex scene. My editor tells me I didn't embarrass myself, which is, frankly, pretty much all I was hoping for out of that experience (this means the scene was otherwise fine as well -- all my other quality standards still apply). Writing sex scenes is not a naturally comfortable process for me, because (among other things) I tend to find most sex scenes very poorly written; the response they produce out of me typically is not arousal but impatience, as in please get these nipples and dicks out of my way so I can get back to the story. My reader consciousness is definitely engaged when I'm writing about sex and mostly it just wants to me to wave through to the next thing.

(I'll note that erotica and porn are largely exempt from this exasperation because, after all, that's what erotica and porn are about. Complaining about an over-abundance of nipples and dicks in erotica is really missing the point. In those cases, I just hope the descriptions of nipples and dicks aren't goofy.)

If I get exasperated with sex scenes, you say, then why put in a sex scene at all? Well, naturally, I'm putting it in because I want to use it to make a point (stop it) about something; in this particular case some insight into the character which is best achieved in a sexual situation. Mind you, I'm not scared of writing sex -- I'll do it if I need to -- but I really do need to have a reason to have it in there. I had a reason. In it went.

The way I eventually made it work to my satisfaction, incidentally, was to put a little bit of humor into it. Part of the reason it was giving me a real headache was the character was dealing with it in a deadly serious manner, and that was difficult for me to write. Just a tiny bit of humor in the scene, on the other hand, gave both a narrative device to frame the scene but also allowed me to a place where the character could get to the reason for the scene, which was to meditate on the nature of desire. It's a not-unserious look at that particular topic, I should say. But using a little bit of humor to get there made it work. Or at least, made it work for me. Who is the first person that this sort of thing needs to work for.

Just as a bit of expectation management, the scene didn't end up all that graphic. It's clear what they're doing, and it's clear they're having fun doing it, but the "nipples and dicks" quotient is very low. No throbbing manhoods or heaving bosoms or aureolae crinkling in delight or bursting dams of orgasmic orgamicosity or whatever. Honesty, I think I would choke on my own tongue trying to write that sort of verbiage. And, you know. I don't want that.

Posted by john at December 8, 2006 08:02 PM

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David Louis Edelman | December 8, 2006 08:20 PM

Why you felt the need to insert a kinky sex scene into your updated version of The Rough Guide to Money Online, I don't know.

Martin Wagner | December 8, 2006 08:21 PM

...bursting dams of orgasmic orgamicosity

It's too bad I'm not a musician. I'd totally name my band that!

grant | December 8, 2006 08:32 PM

I like how Richard Morgan writes sex scenes. Especially the ones in "Broken Angels".

You might not want to take my suggestion though. I'm an over-sexed 24-year-old guy.

Chang, who gets nothing done without BRAINZ | December 8, 2006 08:43 PM

I don't get the thrust of this post.

But I suspect it's coming to a head.


Agh, what a dead giveaway.

Chang, who gets nothing done without BRAINZ | December 8, 2006 09:05 PM

I also suspect this may be why the word - wait for it - cockring has been on my mind. Mostly cause a friend of mine was in a band by that name.

It's only a measure of my level of comfort with you guys that I feel I can share this without derision.

Jemaleddin | December 8, 2006 09:14 PM

The question that needs asking is: did the humor you injected into that scene come from anyone's actual experience?

Lisa | December 8, 2006 09:16 PM

Not that this pertains to anything (as if any of my comments ever do)...but this whole thing reminds me of something I had forgotten about for years. A very long time ago, me and two other newly blinded female friends of mine were struggling to learn Braille. It isn't hard, just incredibly boring and takes lots of practice. So we decided to spice it up by writing a round robin style Braille erotica story that we would all mail to each other and pass on to each other to add to it. Talk about eye rolling derision! It was the most hilariously over the top bunch of drivel ever. I knew then that none of us would make good trashy romance novelists. But it did drive into my skull the grade 2 Braille (like shorthand) contractions in all the various forms and derivitations of any combination of private parts. Which may come in handy someday...but hasn't thus far.

John Scalzi | December 8, 2006 09:21 PM


"The question that needs asking is: did the humor you injected into that scene come from anyone's actual experience?"

Well, "anyone" is a fairly broad set. It's from my particular experience, however.

Dan | December 8, 2006 09:23 PM

Don't worry, John. We'll still respect you in the morning.

I know what you mean about poorly written sex-scenes. I've read some which were written brilliantly, and they just meshed with the story very well with their subtlety. They were a necessity to the story.

On the other hand, I've seen some sex scenes from some otherwise awesome authors which all but ruined the book for me because they came across as though they were written by a horny, 14-year old virgin.

Jemaleddin | December 8, 2006 09:45 PM

Well the scene could have been between two aliens that reproduced in a particularly humorous way or something, and you'd have made it up from whole cloth. Let's face it: there's a lot more imaginary nobodies out there than there are actual anybodies. If that makes sense.

And if it turned out to be particularly embarrassing, or happened in the company of somebody you knew who needed anonymity, I thought you might need the "it happened to a friend..." excuse.

But now we'll all know your (potentially) terrible secret. Or at least the secret that was humorous enough to get you through your "Dear Penthouse Forum" moment of anguish. And piqued our curiosity enough to make sure we buy this book. =-)

pcomeau | December 8, 2006 10:30 PM

So.. no Farmeresque moments a la _A Feast Uknown_ or _The Lovers_?

CaseyL | December 8, 2006 11:02 PM

bursting dams of orgasmic orgamicosity

Phrase of the Day.

I, for one, really prefer sex scenes that have some humor in them. I think it's because I find sex pretty funny, in a good way, for high-brow as well as low-brow reasons. I think too much savage rampant passion and too much reverent apotheistic rapture are, one, rarely realistic (and therefore dehumanizing, even if the writer "means well"); and, two, kind of boring.

My impression of writers, esp. women, who write a lot of explicit sex scenes in non-porn books is that, from what little I know about their real lives, they don't do in RL the things they write about. Or at least, not that much, with that many people and/or toys, that kind of variety, and certainly not with that kind of damage to the furniture. I wonder if that's another form of Mary-Sueism. (I could be totally wrong; my data sample is quite small.)

elizabeth bear | December 9, 2006 12:06 AM


What works for me is to write sex scenes the same way I write conversations or fight scenes--I think about the agendas, the conflict, and the choreography, in that order. *g*

Dunno if it's helpful, but it works for me.

(Me, I show the sex if it fits the same criteria for any other scene--does it worldbuild, develop character, advance plot, or create tension [pick two or three]? Otherwise, cut to the next interesting thing.)


Mark DF | December 9, 2006 12:43 AM

I find it easier to write about sex with humor too. Sex is funny. I also find it easier to write about if I think of it as a metaphor for something I'm trying to convey (which, personally, is the point of sex scene outside erotica/porn) rather than simply sweaty slapping bodies.

And apropos of this discussion, a shout-out to Ms. Bear: I just read the first two chapters of By the Mountain Bound and have to say, stunning. I'm new to your work, but not for long! thank you.

Wickedpinto | December 9, 2006 02:14 AM

I had a reason. In it went.

thats how I usually feel about sex.

Deanna Hoak | December 9, 2006 06:18 AM

The touch of humor probably showed more about your characters, which is always nice.

Mary Anne Mohanraj | December 9, 2006 08:11 AM

Casey, as someone who used to write and publish a fair bit of erotica, I'd say that you got it pretty much exactly reversed. Most of the erotica writers I know have had much more varied and experimental sex than they ever bother to put into their fiction. Self included. :-) It's more fun to do it than write about it, so you know, that's where most of our time/energy goes.

Besides, you get to count it all as research -- and you know what they say, that you need to do ten times as much research as you'll actually put into the story for the writing to seem realistic. I'd say that's as true for researching sex as for researching medieval history or kung fu fighting.

Admittedly, in my research phase I was more likely to accidentally damage myself than the furniture. Furniture is surprisingly sturdy.

A.R.Yngve | December 9, 2006 08:39 AM


Dave Sanford | December 9, 2006 09:57 AM

I think you should write like this:


"Drusilla's ample bosoms, engorged with ill-concealed lust for the dashing young Lord Forwhyllyn, strained against her bustier like half-wild horses straining against their new master's bridle"

Does that fulfill the humor requirement?

Dan | December 9, 2006 10:20 AM

That's good Dave, but I prefer:

"His tongue traced up her body, leaving a long, glistening trail as though he were a common garden slug struggling to cross the sidewalk beneath a hot summer sun."

Damn! That's sexy.

Dave Sanford | December 9, 2006 10:26 AM

While I'm thinking about it the one 'Questionable Content' sex related comic that science fiction readers should read is:


"Hawking Libido Dilation Effect. Bane of frustrated young men and physicists alike"

Eddie | December 9, 2006 11:00 AM

Humor will get through times of no sex better than sex will get you through times of no humor.

I think your humor in TAD was what made it REALLY good as opposed to just good.

An author who does humor well is at least as rare as one who can write about sex.

However: Deanna and Mary Anne-- Please let me know if you're ever ever having a book signing or a reading in Austin. I want to come.Er,I mean I'd like to be there. ;)

Nate Trost | December 9, 2006 12:46 PM

I prefer to think that Scalzi struggled with writing a few paragraphs only to realize he had inexplicably used the word 'turgid' no fewer than nine times. Strangely, this persisted through several rewrites.

I'm picturing a writing workshop meta-exercise involving writing about the mental deliberations of an author working out a sex scene. Rest assured, if I ever write fiction that requires some form of sexual encounter, the sequence will be planned out in Lego storyboard form. That'll make for one hell of a blog entry.

Also, authors take note, if you happen to include the term 'zero-g sex cage' in your novel, you are guaranteeing that if I buy it, a friend of mine will pick it up and randomly open it to the exact page where said cage is referenced. Thanks a lot Peter F. Hamilton!

dave | December 9, 2006 01:04 PM

A.R. Yngve,
Dammit, you had to mention nipples that go 'Spung!'. I wonder how many young men forever lost their trust in GrandMaster Heinlein upon discovering that nipples do not really go 'Spung!'?

(Does that punctuation make sense? Or less sense than nipples that go 'Spung!'?)

Shawn Struck | December 9, 2006 01:20 PM


I think you have a long way to go before your prose reaches Laurell K. Hamilton proportions.

Johnny Carruthers | December 9, 2006 03:27 PM

Okay, how can descriptions of nipples be goofy?

Steve Buchheit | December 9, 2006 03:40 PM

Mary Anne Mohanraj, "Furniture is surprisingly sturdy."

Good thing to note for future reference. Thanks. :)

Glad you solved the problem with humor, Scalzi. I've seen that most "heavy sex" is about as good as teenage sex, underskilled, over-wrought, but gets the job done somehow through all the mess. Sex and humor are great companions. And laugher goes well with it, as long as it isn't pointing and laughing.

PixelFish | December 9, 2006 03:42 PM

Dave: In which Heinlein book do the nipples "Spung!"? I am now curious. You'd think I'd remember a case of Spungitude, but I don't.

In German, the word for nipples is die Brustwarze, or translated more literally, the breast warts. How great is that?! (You can also use der Nippel, but what fun is that?)

Regarding Scalzi's last paragraph: If aureolae are crinkling with delight, I think it's a sign of a more serious symptom.

Eddie | December 9, 2006 04:19 PM

He held her in his arms and kissed her long and deep,gently caressing her brustwarze until---SPUNG!

Martyn Taylor | December 9, 2006 04:54 PM


Google says it was The Number of the Beast (picture me shaking my head in disbelief). I do remember making a resolution not to read anything Heinlein EVER wrote again after that. As I recall, he didn't, but I'm sure our host can put me right on that, if needs be.

fishbane | December 9, 2006 06:30 PM

Besides, you get to count it all as research [...]

What form do you use to write that off?

PixelFish | December 9, 2006 06:39 PM

Martyn: Aha. I never got round to reading Number of the Beast. That explains why I never bumped (excuse me) into Spung! before.

Dave | December 9, 2006 08:24 PM


After _TNOTB_ came _Friday_ and _Job: A Comedy of Justice_ which were pretty good and readable, respectively, and _The Cat Who Walks Through Walls_ which wasn't.

Sex by god should be humorous, I say. Run like hell from those who take it like a wafer, and cleave to those who take it like a mint.

That said, my aureole crinkle in delight Every Damn Day, so there.

Eric J | December 10, 2006 12:07 AM

Aureole Crinkle is today's Band Name of the Day. And possibly a future Bond Girl and/or Drag Queen.

CaseyL | December 10, 2006 02:15 AM

Aureole Crinkle sounds like someone a traveling snake-oil preacher would marry.

And, yes, she'd help him fleece the flock.

Lots of that "laying on of hands."

Martyn Taylor | December 10, 2006 05:08 AM


Thanks for putting me right. I had it in my head that Spung came from something else, and I thought it was a one word title - Friday, as it turns out. It was a long time ago and I'm afraid I think Heinlein is a Young Man's War (sorry).

Still, I've been educated, which is never a bad thing.

Scott Wyngarden | December 10, 2006 10:57 AM


I see your Questionable Content, and give you xkcd:

Dammit Feynman!

Stephanie Leary | December 10, 2006 01:06 PM

Sara Donati did a series on writing sex scenes a while back. First installment? Humor.

Bryan Price | December 10, 2006 09:54 PM

The GNTIAWIMH (Great Novel That I Am Writing In My Head) has everything leading up to the sex scene, and what follows. For starters, the lead character has been a prostitute/consort for at least a century in his life, pleasing both sexes. And then putting the soul of a 1500 year old man into the body of a 19 year old. I'm not even going to even think about what the foreplay may be like on that one.

Anonymous | December 11, 2006 01:17 PM

Lol wut. :)

andrea | January 30, 2007 11:14 AM

ficken ficken ficken

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