A few weeks ago, I attended a book talk at Paragraphs Bookstore in Mt. Vernon, Ohio with Donna MacMeans, a member of my RWA chapter and former treasurer of RWA National.
Donna’s first novel, The Education of Mrs. Brimley, won the Golden Heart® for Historical Romance back in 2006. She has since followed it up with nine more published novels.
At Paragraphs, she described the book as “a book-length strip-tease.” She went on to explain the premise: unmarried Emma needs to escape London and the twisted domination of her uncle. She discovers an advertisement for a teaching position in Yorkshire, but the successful applicant must be a widow. Desperate, she applies anyway, forging a reference that nets her the job. Then, attired in her late mother’s widow’s weeds, she heads for Yorkshire.
There, she discovers why the spinster sisters who run the school wanted a widow. Their benefactor has read a study indicating that young women who are prepared for their wedding night are more likely to conceive and he wishes the students to be familiarized with the appropriate details, which neither of them know. Nor, unfortunately, does Emma.
She solves this problem by approaching the reprobate artist whose estate borders the school grounds. He needs a model, so he offers her a deal–he’ll answer one question for each item of clothing she removes.
Thus, the book-length striptease (which manages to be both hilarious and sexy, so it’s easy to see why Donna nailed the Golden Heart®). We get Emma’s reactions all through the book as Lord Chambers describes the logistics of the wedding night. Her responses, which range from nervousness to titillation to confusion to outright skepticism, are a hoot.
The book left me thinking, once again, about open-door love scenes. Everyone (well, everyone except the spinsters and students at Pettibone Academy anyway) already knows the logistics, so why go there (as I pretty much always do)?
After some rumination, I realized that it’s not what’s going on with my characters’ bodies during sex that interests me. It’s what’s going on in their heads. Sex is the most physically intimate activity two people can engage in. In a romance novel, it should change the main character (or both characters) in some fundamental way. So I’m really intrigued by what’s going through my main character’s mind when she finds herself in bed with her love interest.
Does being there, stark naked with all her scars and flab and lumps laid bare, feel like a good idea or a not so good one? Does this guy measure up (feel free to snicker) to the fantasies she’s painted of him, or is he a disappointment? Did this person she trusted enough to get into this position turn out to be someone she was wise to trust? Does he intuitively understand what she wants and needs, or is there a learning curve between them? If there’s a learning curve, do they approach it with maturity and reason, or is it awkward and weird?
I’ve written scenes where people have approached their first time together with a lot of deliberation and soul-searching and scenes where the characters had sworn they weren’t doing that, only to be overtaken by events and/or lust. In either case, the above questions still clang like bells.
Someone once told me that, under stress, you’re yourself, only more so. Naked and, maybe not afraid, but definitely a tad wary, is a recipe for stress. It may look like a mattress, but it’s actually a pressure cooker.
On top of that natural tension, all my love scenes are generally built on a premise of some basic conflict. When Dara and Belial make love for the first time in TDAW, he’s really worried sex with him will turn her into some kind of sex-crazed zombie, because he’s seen reactions like that in the past. (She’s thinks he’s out of his gourd.)
In The Demon Wore Stilettos, (which was supposed to be Book 3, out this fall, but is now going to be the series finale at some to-be-determined date in the future), the main character, Lilith, was cursed by God’s emissaries for leaving Adam because he insisted on being on top. (I am not making that up.) She went on to marry a fallen angel named Samael, only to have Satan split them up because together they represented too much of a threat. (Also true, according to the Kabbalah.)
Ten thousand years have passed since their breakup but Lilith secretly still loves Sam with every fiber of her black soul and she still wants nothing to do with being on the bottom. Sam has clawed his way into one of the most powerful positions in Hell (he’s the head of Satan’s Legal Department, the Devil’s Advocate, if you will) by never giving anyone an inch. Sex between those two is going to be a lot like someone setting fire to a fireworks factory. Would you really want to sit that one out?
So, what’s your preference? Door open or closed?
The Education of Mrs Brimley sounds like a hoot and a half. Terrific premise. I’ll have to check that one out.
Door open or closed? Like most things to do with writing, I think it depends on the story and the characters. In your book The Demon Always Wins, sex is the biggest weapon (pun maybe intended) in Belial’s arsenal. He’s used it to great success for aeons. So sex is the battleground for Belial and Dara, and as a reader I’d have felt seriously cheated if you’d closed the door on them just when their conflict was reaching its peak. Lilith and Sam’s story sounds fabulous, also full of fireworks and with sex as a major part of the characters’ conflict. I’m sure you won’t close the door on them but…please don’t!
I love physical encounter scenes that move the story. Ones that matter greatly to the characters. Like all scenes, the story values must change by the end, otherwise it’s just bodies getting together and that’s great for them but otherwise a waste of story real estate, and tiresome to read after a while. Also, exactly as you said, emotional responses are so much more interesting to read about than physical descriptions (unless there’s an emotional aspect to the physical info).
Can’t believe you’re making us wait until the end of the series for The Demon Wore Stilettos!
I loved The Education of Mrs. Brimley! You mentioned it a week or two ago, and I got it on Kindle and read it immediately. So much fun, and very, very educational for those of us writing romance, let alone sexy romance. The boundaries are great (why we shouldn’t have sex), and the sex scenes are hot and not cringy.
Normally, I prefer to keep open-door sex relegated to the porn. There, it’s pretty straight-forward what the reader’s (my) goal is, and it can be done very, very well. Also, porn is well-labeled, so I can often find my “genre” quickly. (I love it when the participants literally lose their minds, and are overwhelmed with passion and instinct. Not everyone’s kink, I know, but viva le difference, right?)
In non-porn fiction, I’m generally happy to have the door shut. A lot of very good writers can’t write sexy scenes. They stumble on the terminology, or use something that seems to me to be too crass or too clinical for the situation. Also, I’m not really interested in sex-gone-wrong. I think there are plenty of good ways to show that outside of the bedroom, because if the sex is bad, usually in fiction there’s also something else wrong with the relationship.
I just finished reading Jackie Lau’s Ice Cream Lover, which was well-written and a lot of fun! Amongst other things, her characters have some really sexy scenes that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in non-porn fiction. I wrote a good long note next to the first self-pleasuring scene . . . very nice technique! (I mean the writing technique, but I suppose it’s also a good sexual technique worth trying.) I’m thinking about blogging about it in the next couple of weeks; perfect for summer reading, though.