Feb 252010

Last time I blogged here at WriteSEX, I had a number of lovely responses. Kate T asked if I’d blog about euphemisms, and that will be my next blog, for sure. But right now I thought I’d dive into Vague’s question, which Vague boiled down to, “what is your priority when writing: plot, character, or sex?”

My first instinct when I saw this question was to answer that, in terms of mainstream publishing, the author’s priority must be plot and character over sex. And yet, even as I typed that response, I thought about a number of characters (published as urban fantasy) for whom sex and character and sex and plot are so entirely inextricable as to complicate such a knee-jerk response.

A second problem with my initial response is that it sounds a bit like the Hollywood actress who insists she will only show her ladybits in order to “enhance a character.” On the one hand, this excuse is just that: an excuse. As such, it suggests that sex and sexuality deserve, or necessitate, an excuse. It implies we need to apologize for or defend our naked bodies. On the other hand, this excuse also implies that there’s a universal scale for determining “character” and its “enhancement.” I respect Halle Berry as an actress, but after all the fuss she made over showing her tchochkees, Swordfish didn’t strike me as the most impressive of vehicles.

Another problem with my initial response is that it cuts out my own role as the author of my characters. As a literary academic, I mostly agree with New Criticism’s Reader Response theory, which states that all we have, as readers, is the text in front of us. We should never attempt to “read” a text in terms of what we know about its author’s biography.

As an author, however, I know damned well that I made a lot of choices that boil down to what I wanted to write about. And I wanted to write about sex. I like to read about sex, I like to have sex, I like to talk about sex, and I think that my whole hedonistic philosophy about the importance of healthy, healthful sex in our lives helps define who I am, as a person. I like to think of myself as a short, zaftig D. H. Lawrence of urban fantasy, but without the obsessive need to use the word “loins.” Or “inchoate.” Or “inchoate loins.”

Anyway, my point is that I–Me! Nicole Peeler! That author you’re not supposed to notice!–wanted Jane to have healthy sex, and by that I mean sex that was unapologetic and frolicsome, but also safe and completely consensual. Jane thinks about her health–both physical and emotional–before she indulges, but when she does indulge, she’s unrepentant. After all, she’s a woman grown who knows what she wants.

And that’s what we do, as authors. We make choices. But these choices then have to make sense, which means we have to make them make sense. Jane lives in a tiny community in Maine. Why would she end up such a sexual savante? That question was easily answered by her mom’s behavior–sex is in her blood; the pursuit of sex has been her example. It also helped me flesh out Jason’s grandparents. I made them two louche ex-hippies who would be comfortable educating Jane and Jason in healthy sexuality. I also upped the ante with Jason’s character. Without spoiling anything, she has a sort of idealized “Blue Lagoon” upbringing with her childhood best friend and sweetheart. Because of their similar circumstances, they mature together physically, intellectually, emotionally and sexually, and their sexual lives together are as inextricable as their friendship and their maturation process.

To put it another way, I, as the author, had to think through the choices I made and make them seem like inevitabilities rather than personal preferences. I wanted readers to see Jane as being the way Jane is because she’s Jane, not because Nicole Peeler enjoys proselytizing about sex. Jane had to live, and breathe, and appear to make her own choices on the page. So, yes, sex was one of the “ingredients” that went into making Jane True and Tempest Rising. But my job, as the author, was then to balance the rest of the recipe so it worked, as a whole.

So was my choice and its execution effective? It was certainly a risk: some people don’t like reading sex in their UF (and have told me so) and others don’t like reading non-Romance sex. In other words, they don’t like that Jane is attracted to Ryu but not “in love” with Ryu (and have told me so). While I’m sad these readers don’t see joy in Jane’s sexuality, I do not control people’s preferences, so these critiques are easy for me to dismiss. Not least because of probably one of the best series of comments I’ve received on Jane, from a reader in Alaska. I was very happy to hear from this reader how she’d enjoyed Tempest Rising. But when she told me how she gave my book to her sixteen-year-old daughter because she thought Jane’s sexuality set a good example for young women, I was floored. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I totally burst into tears.

In conclusion, it will be your choice whether you write sex and how you make that sex natural to your plot and character. Authors are puppeteers. If we decide we want our puppet to bow, we must figure out how to move our fingers in order to make him do so. Unlike puppeteers, however, we have to do so without revealing the strings that attach us to our creations. Our choices must be “invisible,” camouflaged by layers of character, plot, tone, syntax, setting, and all of the other elements that make mere choices into entire worlds. The choice to use sex must be considered, and it will have repercussions for your writing and for your audience. But what a layer of complexity sex brings: so much nuance, action, subconscious and conscious desires, a wellspring of fantasy to tap into, and a kind of tension that can’t be matched, I don’t think, in any other type of interaction or expression.

So why not sex up our dossiers? I’m glad that I did. And I think Jane is glad, too. ;-)


  18 Responses to “Sexing Up My Dossier: Or Why I Write Sex”

  1. Great post.

    I agree with the Alaska reader that Jane is a very sexually postive person. She’s open and adventurous, she enjoys sex without wacky hang ups but she’s also responsible and thoughtful.

    It is great to see a woman that is sexually free without the strings and worries and hang ups many have- or the need to attach themselves to a man or to justify having sex with a certain man.

    LKH’s books are filled with sex- both her main characters Merry and Anita have lots and lots of sex but she always has an out- Merry is controlled by the Goddess and Anita is controlled by the ardeur- so even though these women have lots of sex wiht many different men (and the occasional woman) it’s not usually their choice and that has always kinda bothered me. I feel if you’re going to have sex and enjoy it-well own it. Do it for you. Don’t try to write it off like it is an addiction or disease something out of your control.

    I love Tempest Rising and look forward to your upcoming books, Jane is a great character.

  2. When I read Tempest Rising I have to admit that reading from the healthy female sexual viewpoint made me blush at points. I consider myself pretty open minded and I enjoy sex and I enjoy reading about it. Your viewpoint was so genuine and damnit it was plain hot. The part where Jane is thrown over the shoulder in the escape and bites her rescuer in the butt, the way its described….I was whoah, I didn’t need to see a guy’s butt in that way. But that is the way it is seen by Jane and by every hetero girl out there. So bang there it is!!! Enlightenment!!! Enlightenment that I will now keep in mind while bending over in front of my date BTW. HA thanks! Now my body language and sexual-come-and-get-it factor goes up a notch. Anyhow, writing a character needs to be done straight and true (ha pun! That’s two punches in the arm you owe me). Jane True is written really well and sex has plenty to do with it. Sexuality can hold some of the most honest viewpoints there is when viewed truthfully (ouch arm punch!). I know that if I lived in Rockabill I’d be in the book store checking out Jane. Wouldn’t you? It would be my favorite hangout. I mean that’s what I do now, I’m in Barnes and Nobels as often as I can be. It is my temple and there is not a priestess that walks by that doesn’t get the look over. Wandering eyes you know…. There were plenty of things about TR and Jane that I loved and the angle on sexuality was one of them that I could really understand and bought. Keep writing sex!!!

  3. Good answer, thank you. :)

  4. Good answer. I enjoyed the comparison of authors and puppeteers. It is very accurate description. I showed it to my sister, a non-writer, and she immediately was able to grasp what it is I do (or attempt) when I write. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. I just finished reading Tempest Rising and I loved it! I think you have enough sex to keep me happy, but not so much that it felt like pure erotica. I totally did not mind that Jane did not “love” Ryu when they had sex – that’s very realistic. Jane was smart, made sure she was protected, and was aware of what she was doing. Very consensual and safe :) I can’t wait for the other books!

  6. You’re welcome, Vague! Thanks for all your comments. We really appreciate it!

    And thank you, Sharyn. :-) I tend to be the Phantom of the Mixed Metaphor, so I’m glad this one worked out. Glad that I could help your sister understand what you do a bit better. Writing can be a lonely life, and it’s easy to misunderstand what we do, so I can commiserate. :-)

  7. Great blog, and refreshingly candid. I seemed to rememeber quite enjoying Sword Fish, though maybe my memory is playing tricks.

    And the sex scenes in Halle Berry’s other movie Monster’s Ball were FABULOUS. The sex scenes didn’t ‘advance’ the story, they were the story. And it was sexy because it was real.

  8. Roxanne: I was actually thinking of LKH’s books (especially Merry’s) when I realized that there were totally mainstream books driven, plot-wise, by sex. But I’d never thought of the “out” idea that you’re calling the ardeur and the Goddess possession. . . . very very interesting, Ms. Rhoads, I like your style. ;-) And thank you! Jane likes you right back. Yet I’ve actually been quite disheartened to see the number of comments from people who do like the book but either a) make Ryu into the Romantic Hero of Monogamous Love he so clearly is not or who b) say they like the sex but wish it were more “meaningful.” I think Jane’s relationship with Ryu has tons of “meaning” and is very important to her. But just because she doesn’t start planning a wedding, people dismiss it as “casual” or “unnecessary.” Makes me sad that such commentary is so common in this day and age…

    Great to see you here, Michael! Thanks for commenting. I’m very glad you enjoyed Jane and I’m really glad to hear a guy’s perspective about the sex in the book. I’ve joked about a few reviews I’ve gotten from websites that are named things like “MANLY MEN DO MANLY THINGS” and “MEN ARE MEN AND SHEEP ARE NERVOUS,” and they’re oftentimes (not always, but oftentimes) like, “Ewwww, girlie stuff happened with sex and girls bits and GIRLS ARE ICKY WHERE ARE THE GUNS.” That the commentary isn’t, actually, much better than my obviously joking example lets us know that this is definitely a particular subset of boy-man blog, but still . . . it’s nice to hear from a man who is willing to say Jane is sexy. ;-) But I don’t know about watching her in the bookstore . . . I think all eyes would be on Grizzie. Cuz if they weren’t she do something terrible with a cupcake in order to make it happen. And every girl has pondered biting someone’s ass, believe me. ;-) Finally, arm punches for bad punnery will be forthcoming, have no fear.

    Extinah: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. And I’m very glad you enjoyed to sort of sex I wrote. I know I had fun writing it. ;-)

    Philip: Gark, I’m terrible, but I haven’t seen Monster’s Ball. I tend to only watch DRIVEL (my excuse is the amount of serious literature but really I have no excuse–I am a 12-yr-old-boy when it comes to film). But I do remember Swordfish being TERRIBLE. More to the point though was the fuss she made at the time over her tatas. You would think she was publicly sacrificing her firstborn to the dark gods, the way she fussed. OR, to be fair, the way the media set her up to fuss by focusing so much on her admittedly lovely bosoms. I can’t remember which came first, it was a long time ago. But I was more trying to pick on that idea of the female star who feel she has to make a big deal over showing her friskies . . . I liked how Gwyneth, for Shakespeare in Love, just totally dismissed any such questions (if I remember correctly–keep in mind I could have made ALL of the above scenarios up, they were so long ago and I’m too lazy to google).

  9. Okay… I am definitely reading your books now. I had already put you on the list, and then moved you up when I saw your awesome post on piracy and now I’m making a big sign to remind myself.

    (I know you’re thrilled by how you’re moving up in my TBR ranks, LOL)

  10. Very interesting post and a lot of food for thought, Nicole. I write sex because I want my females to feel unencumbered and free to explore, to find their own personal sexuality without being ashamed or in the closet about it. I write it because I want to convey it as a wonderful positive thing. I’ve always loved sex in all its variations and forms… I don’t read UF because I like books with a lot of sex, a lot of sexual tension, a lot of erotic interaction. I don’t, right now, care for action oriented plots unless it’s sexual action and that’s not to say I want porn, because I want the deep and amazing emotional connections too.

    Again, though provoking post. Glad I saw the tweet about it.


  11. HEA true love scenarios are over rated, how many times have you fell madly in bed with someone for the first time knwoing you were in love with them? Really?

    In modern times sex usually comes first, love comes later, if it ever comes at all. Sometimes respect, admiration and feelings are there but not “true love”. Either way honest emotion shouldn’t be dismissed.

    I think some people turn to books, especially romance books to get the “true love”, fantasy, happy ever after that rarely happens in real life, maybe that is why they protest too much. They don’t want their reading to be too real or hit too close to home, especially their urban fantasy/PNR books that they love for the pure escapist factors.

    Personally I love the escapsism and enjoy HEA and I can still happily enjoy a book like TR without worrying about nay of it because the book and characters are so strong, whether or not they are “in love” that I just enjoy the book.

    OK I have blabbered enough again. Sorry- in my after dinner chatty phase.

  12. Roxanne: I totally think it’s possible to fall in love at first sight, and I do it over and over and over again, with different people. ;-)

    And my thinking was that I was giving people a different kind of fantasy, and one that would hopefully encourage them to pursue their own pleasure and their own fulfillment in a more active, engaged way, rather than giving them another scenario in which true love comes along to claim someone.

    In other words, I was playing with all those well known romance/UF tropes. Some people got it and liked it, others either didn’t get or didn’t like it or both. :-) But, as my post says, that’s a risk you take when you write sex. You have to be prepared that just writing sex will offend some, and then there are a whole slew of secondary concerns/issues/etc.

    But isn’t it fun? ;-)

  13. Man, I’m totally with your point about the character behaving in a coherent way, and not just being the vehicle for authorial lectures or genre conventions (secret babies drive me bananas). But figuring out these compelling motivations is sometimes so hard! In a bad way!

    I think a lot of good analysis has come out of New Criticism, but . . . but . . . at some point don’t you have to consider at least when a book was written? Author choices in the writing could be compared to colorization in film: yeah, some directors were planning the effects of the greys, but for others it was just that color hadn’t been invented yet–this was the only way to make a movie.

  14. Heh looks like a plethora of good responses to your post Nicole :) Good job!

  15. A Reader: Wow, thanks! I’m glad people are enjoying the book. I would like to state for the record, however, that I enjoy LKH’s Merry books very much, and was actually thinking about her, specifically, when I thought about effective mainstream books that ground their plot in sex. So for any of her fans who are sharpening their razors at me, I am a fan, too. Please don’t cut me. :-)

    Awesome Zoe! :-) And that DOES make me happy, actually. As a debut novelist who never, ever thought she’d even write a book, just knowing people are actually reading TR still makes me a bit wide-eyed. :-)

    Lissa: I can totally understand that and that’s why I, too, love to read good erotica. But I’m finding that I’m having so much fun weaving in all that heat, all that tension, and all that sensuality into my mainstream, plot driven work… In my 3rd book, there’s sooooo much tension being built up, and I’m (attempting) to show it in these very incremental, very, very understated ways that are totally turning me on to write, and in a very different way than writing the sex scenes in my first two books. In other words, I think I’m learning as much about sex and sensuality through NOT writing the deed itself. Not something I expected to happen, to be honest, but something I’m enjoying very much. ;-)

    Ann Marie: You’re totally right, Ann Marie. I was just talking about this with my freshmen, with whom I was reading Sophocles Oedipus Rex. It appears so CLUMSY, with messengers arriving on cue to deliver important information, etc. But one thing I always talk to my students about is how this was a play delivered to a mostly illiterate audience who only saw plays on the few feast days a year they were allowed to (quite literally) stop slaving at their occupations. People in the audience weren’t like modern day men and women: so used to genre conventions, plot twists, foreshadowing, etc., that it’s very, very rare for us to NOT know what’s coming. It’s not that we’re jaded, but that we’re a very, very well trained audience. Unlike an ancient Greek audience of slaves at a special feast day, who were amateurs who needed their hands held. Anyway, my point is that to be a good author nowadays, one almost has to have a degree in psychology..audiences expect and know so much about the subtle ways our minds work and they want to see that reflected in the characters they read/watch.

    And thank you, Sascha. ;-) Do I get a cookie?

  16. [...] to my list of books to read. A while ago she pointed me to a blog entry by Nicole Peeler about writing healthy sex for her character, Jane True, and also recommended I follow her twitter feed. A week or so later I [...]

  17. [...] to my list of books to read. A while ago she pointed me to a blog entry by Nicole Peeler about writing healthy sex for her character, Jane True, and also recommended I follow her twitter feed. A week or so later I [...]

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