Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Was it Good for You?

It wasn’t intentional, but the last two stories I’ve had accepted for publication deal with sex to varying degrees. One has a sex scene and the other has what I’d label adult content, including sexual situations and drug use.

So why all the sex? Like I say, I didn’t do it on purpose. The first story, Younger Things, published in J Journal last fall, takes place over one feverish night and morning in which a young man and his older lover face one of your typical dark nights of the soul, including power struggles, crazy behavior, dares, and confessions. The second story, Casey, due out in Fiction Magazine #56 this spring, concerns a teenage boy falling in love for the first time. Part of that love is depicted in a sex scene, I hope both tender and realistic.

Each publishing experience was different. With Younger Things, I worked with the editors of the journal who requested specific revisions. Some changes were at the sentence and word level. With others they pushed me to shade the characters more, and to tweak the ending into something more solidly hopeful. But they never asked me to tone down the mature content. In fact, I had the feeling that it was because of the more adult material that the story had been considered in the first place.

Casey was accepted three years after I sent it out to Fiction. I hadn’t sent it to any other publication because I wasn’t sure about it. It was an outtake from my finished novel "A Little Disappeared." When the acceptance email finally came through, I had to dust off this phoenix and determine why it made the cut. I remembered it as a tidy slice of nostalgia, in which I incorporated my glowing memories of growing up on Cape Cod and spending my summer nights working in restaurants. I think it achieves some truth about what it’s like for a young man to be surrounded by college girls and older knowing women.

But it also builds to a sex scene. After it was accepted, I reread that part. I blanched thinking how my family might see this! I had also forgotten about the power of sex. And it’s not some rushed three sentence dry hump. No, I had to include the entire sloppy, awkward, first-time enchilada. But the editor requested almost no changes, only to clarify a couple word choices. What I believe makes this story stand out is the unflinching depiction of a young man’s sexual experience.

So again: Why all the sex? I've always thought that sex scenes offer a unique opportunity for you to delve into the psyche of your characters. Intimate moments give you a way to show how honest or dishonest your characters are. To each other and to themselves. Characters bare more than just flesh when the lights go out. Late night and early morning hours can work like a truth serum, turning an on switch where confessions and longings bubble to the surface, too close and real to ignore.

Writers: are you still unsure how your main characters think and act in all situations? Throw them into a sex scene and let them show you what they’re really feeling. Who are your lovers? Husband and wife? A couple cheating on other people? A teacher and a student? Strangers? Do they treat each other with respect in bed or only outside the bedroom? Are they in love with other people?

Even if you don’t use the scene, the information gleaned from writing it will help inform future decisions and may even give you ideas for other scenes to write. But be careful. You don’t want the sex to take over your characters, or your entire story. Too much sex and not enough characterization and the story gets repetitive and boring. Sure there’s a market for it, but not the type of market where you can proudly include your byline. Unless your name is Chad Camaro or Savannah Cavalier.

Let me know how it goes!


Cynthia Sherrick said...

Sexual tension between characters -- whether they have sex on the page or not. More often not -- can and should evoke powerful emotions in the reader.
And isn't that the true essence of being a fiction writer?

Congrats on the publications! :)

Neil Everett said...

I read through Younger Things and really enjoyed it. I would love to read the other published work too.

Robin said...

Chester looks very interested his new reading material! Interesting blog, too.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks. It's the sexual tension, and the reason behind the tension. Good or bad.

Neil, if they don't sell Fiction Mag in the UK, let me know.

Chester buys the newspaper for the ads, mostly.