The 12-step program
Now that I am an internationally famous author celebrated for my graphic portrayals of amour (see “A Pervert Among Us,” New York Times Book Review, April 2002, and “How Low Will He Go?” US Magazine, Jan. 2003), I am frequently asked how I manage to write such incredibly hot sex scenes.
My general response to these inquiries is to laugh shyly and say, “Look, kid, ask Updike, he’s even smuttier than me.”
But I must admit that the question is being asked so frequently these days, and with such delicious sycophancy, that I feel duty bound to respond to my public somehow.
Therefore, in the interest of preventing more bad sex writing from entering the cultural jet stream, I am officially setting out my 12-Step Program for Writing Incredibly Hot Scenes.
Step 1: Never compare a woman’s nipples to:
b) Cherry pits
c) Pencil erasers
d) Frankenstein’s bolts
Nipples are tricky. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and shades. They do not, as a rule, look like much of anything, aside from nipples. So resist making dumbshit comparisons.
Note: I am guilty of the last.
Step 2: Never, ever use the words penis or vagina.
There is no surer way to kill the erotic buzz than to use these terms, which call to mind—my mind, at least—health classes (in the best instance) and (in the worst instance) venereal disease.
As a rule, in fact, there is often no reason at all to name the genitals. Consider the following sentence:
“She wet her palm with her tongue and reached for my penis.”
Now consider this alternative:
“She wet her palm with her tongue and reached for me.”
Is there any real doubt as to where this particular horndoggle is reaching?
Step 2a: Resist the temptation to use genital euphemisms, unless you are trying to be funny.
No: Tunnel of Love, Candy Shop, Secret Garden, Pleasure Gate
Equally No: Flesh Kabob, Magic Wand, Manmeat
Especially No: Bearded Clam, Tube Steak, Sperm Puppet
I could go on, but only for my own amusement.
Step 3: Then again, sometimes sex is funny.
And if you ever saw a videotape of yourself in action, you’d agree. Don’t be afraid to portray comic aspects. If one of your characters, in a dire moment of passion, hits a note that sounds eerily like Celine Dion, duly note this. If another can’t stay hard, allow him to use a ponytail holder for an improvised cock ring. And later on, if his daughter comes home and demands to know where her ponytail holder is, well, so be it.
Step 4: Real people do not talk in porn clichés.
They do not say: “Give it to me, big boy.”
They do not say: “Suck it, baby. That’s right, all the way down.”
They do not say: “Yes, deeper, harder, deeper! Oh baby, oh Christ, yes!”
At least, they do not say these things to me.
Most of the time, real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as, “I think I’m losing circulation” and “I’ve got a cramp in my foot” and “Oh, sorry!” and “Did you come already? Goddamn it!”
Step 5: Use all the senses.
The cool thing about sex—aside from its being, uh, sex—is that it engages all five of our human senses. So don’t ignore the more subtle cues. Give us the scents and the tastes and the sounds of the act. And stay away from the obvious ones. By which I mean that I’d take a sweet, embarrassed pussyfart over a shuddering moan any day.
You may quote me on that.
Step 6: Don’t obsess over the rude parts.
Sex is inherently over the top. Just telling the reader that two (or more) people are balling will automatically direct us toward the genitals. It is your job, as an author, to direct us elsewhere, to the more inimitable secrets of the naked body. Give us the indentations on the small of a woman’s back, or the minute trembling of a man’s underlip.
Step 7: Don’t forget the foreplay.
It took me a few years (okay, 20) to realize this, but desire is, in the end, a lot sexier than the actual humping part. So don’t make the traditional porno mistake. Don’t cut from the flirtatious discussion to the gag-defying fellatio. Tease the reader a little bit. Let the drama of the seduction prime us for the action.
Step 8: Fluid is fun.
Sex is sticky. There is no way around this. If you want to represent the truth of the acts, pay homage to the resultant wetnesses. And I’m not just talking about semen or vaginal fluid. I’m also talking sweat and saliva, which I consider to be the perfume of lovers, as well as whatever one chooses as a lubricant. (Sesame oil is my current fave, but it changes from week to week.)
Step 9: It takes a long time to make a woman come.
I speak here from experience. So please, don’t try to sell us on the notion that a man can enter a woman, elicit a moan or two, and bring her off. No sale. In fact, I’d steer clear of announcing orgasms at all. Rarely, in my experience, do men or women announce their orgasms. They simply have them. Their bodies are taken up by sensation and tossed about in various ways. Describe the tossing.
Step 10: It is okay to get aroused by your own sex scenes.
In fact, it’s pretty much required. Remember, part of the intent of a good sex scene is to arouse the reader. And you’re not likely to do that unless you, yourself, are feeling the same delicious tremors. You should be envisioning what you’re writing and—whether with one hand or two—transcribing these visions in detail.
Step 11: Contrary to popular belief, people think during sex.
I know this is going to be hard for some of the men in the crowd to believe, but it’s true. The body may race when it comes to sex, but the mind is also working overtime. And just what do people think about? Laundry. Bioterrorism. Old lovers. That new car ad. Sex isn’t just the physical process. The thoughts that accompany the act are just as significant (more so, actually) as the gymnastics.
Step 12: If you ain’t prepared to rock, don’t roll.
If you don’t feel comfortable writing about sex, then don’t. By this, I mean writing about sex as it actually exists, in the real world, as an ecstatic, terrifying, and, above all, deeply emotional process. Real sex is compelling to read about because the participants are so utterly vulnerable. We are all, when the time comes to get naked, terribly excited and frightened and hopeful and doubtful, usually at the same time. You mustn’t abandon your lovers in their time of need. You mustn’t make of them naked playthings with rubbery parts. You must love them, wholly and without shame, as they go about their human business. Because we’ve already got a name for sex without the emotional content: It’s called pornography.
Bonus Step! Step 13: Read the Song of Songs.
The Song of Songs, for those of you who haven’t read the Bible in a while, is a long erotic poem that somehow got smuggled into the Old Testament. It is the single most instructive document you can read if you want to learn how to write effectively about the nature of physical love.
I am not making this up.
Steve Almond is the author of The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, due out in the spring from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Reprinted from the first print edition of Small Spiral Notebook (Vol. 1, Issue 1), a literary journal launched online in 2001 that covers poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.