I’m Too Sexy For My…Book?

In the spirit of me trying to jump back into producing blog posts about writing, today I’m going to tackle a subject that one of my readers prompted me with last week. SE White asked in a comment:

I had an interviewer ask me how I decide the amount of sex that goes in a book and that really got my imagination going. How much is too much? Which part is plot? Are we still considered housewife porn or is romance a legit genre now? Does the amount of sexy time change based on the genre you’re writing?

This is a really good series of questions! The answer depends on a lot of things: what you like to write, your publisher, your target audience, and even what’s selling right now.

Everyone knows there’s a lot of stereotypes surrounding romance novels, even though most of them are incredibly outdated. The idea of every romance novel being vacuous smut, the old school purple prose-laced “bodice ripper,” and the idea that it’s not real writing but simply “porn for women.” Unfortunately, the biggest example the non-romance reading public has to look at is the Fifty Shades series, which isn’t actually romance but erotica (leaning toward erotic romance, but I’ll get to the differences in a moment) so it reinforces the stereotype. There are different levels, and types, of romance. Romance is also a lot more diverse, inclusive, and socially aware these days than the naysayers give it credit for.

Not every romance novel is jam-packed with hot sex. There even exists a genre called Sweet or Clean romance, which includes nothing more racy than kissing. There is Christian and even Amish romance, which of course don’t focus on sex. There are romances that imply sex but it happens off the page and isn’t described. It goes all the way up to erotica, which is the wall-to-wall smut that the layperson thinks of all romance novels as being. Most publishers use a “heat level” system which lets readers know just how much sex is–or isn’t–contained in a book.

Here are some different kinds of romance:

  • Sweet or Clean romance. As I said above, these books contain no sex and not even the implication of it. They are simply love stories and focus on the building of a relationship. They’re usually pretty wholesome. And have quite a big audience! Which contradicts the idea that “all romance is smut.”
  • Closed Door/Fade to Black. These are romance novels where sex is implied, but never shown. The characters might start getting hot and heavy but the sex happens off the page. I wouldn’t classify these as “clean” romances though, because there is some sexual focus.
  • General Romance. This is a broad, broad category. It’s the one I tend to write the most in. Sex happens–and is even described–but it’s not a big ol’ raunch fest start to finish. And there’s a lot of space here for just how much sex is in there and how well detailed it is. Think of how you watch a movie and there’s a sex scene or two in it–that’s where this category falls.
  • Erotic Romance. I write some in this category too. This is general romance, but there’s more sex, and it’s more focused upon and detailed. The love story is still paramount but we really get more into these character’s sex lives.
  • Erotica. This is what your average sneering, dismissive critic of romance will think all romance is. This is the smutty, porny, high focus on sex story. However, erotica isn’t just “porn.” You’re not going to get far as an erotica writer if you just write porn. There also has to be a story, and you have to make the reader interested in reading about all the hot sex these two (or more) random people are having. Why should I care? Why should I find it hot? This is a broad category too, which branches out into all sorts of things like BDSM, fetishes, and kink.

So, circling back to the question: how much sex do I put into a book? It depends on the book, and what layer of romance I’m writing. As you can see, there’s a lot of gray area. I’ve never written Sweet Romance, and I’ve only dabbled in Erotica in anthologies. Most of my work falls into that broad swath in between. The best answer I can give is: I let the story dictate it. I don’t sacrifice plot and story to wedge sex in, and similarly, if the characters wanna do it, I let them do it. Then I let the publisher go ahead and decide the heat level.

As for the question “is it a legit genre?” Well, I’ll just let the numbers do the talking.

Thanks for reading my ramble! If you have any writerly subjects you’d like to see my take on in the future, just leave me a comment!


Today I thought I’d share some of my very favorite quotes about writing. All of these are printed in and shamelessly lifted from what is also my very favorite book, For Writer’s Only. Do get a copy, if you don’t have one. It will change your writing life!

Writing Quotes:

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

Writers kid themselves–about themselves and other people. Take the talk about writing methods. Writing is just work–there’s no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or type or type with your toes–it is just work. – Sinclair Lewis

Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. – Jules Reynard

Easy reading is damned hard writing. – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Well, I don’t know exactly how it’s done. I let it alone a good deal. – Saul Bellow

When I want to read a good book, I write one. – Benjamin Disraeli

Writing is the only thing that…when I’m doing it, I don’t feel that I should be doing something else instead. – Gloria Steinem

The solitude of writing is also quite frightening. It’s quite close to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch. – Nadine Gordimer

True artists, whatever smiling faces they may show, are obsessive, driven people… – John Gardner

There is no pleasure in the world like writing well and going fast. It’s like nothing else. It’s like a love affair, it goes on and on, and doesn’t end in marriage. It’s all courtship. – Tennessee Williams

The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. – Agatha Christie

This morning I took the hyphen out of Hell-hound and this afternoon I put it back. – Edwin Arlington Robinson

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett

And my favorite:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. – Anonymous

Have a great Monday!

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Right now I’m doing a whole lot of revising/editing on a book I recently finished. Sometimes this is the best part of the process for me–the first draft is down, the story is told, and now I’m in the process of fixing it up and making it shine. It’s a time for clipping and adding and rearranging, and honestly, I like it a lot. Probably because in most aspects of my life I like to organize and sort things. This is the stage where I get to work on putting everything in order. It’s funny because when I initially started writing  years ago, I HATED doing edits and revision. I don’t know what led me to love it, but I’m glad I do now.

I’m finding, as I often do when I revise, that I have a bad habit of repeating myself. Thankfully, I can spot it and eliminate it as I edit, but I still get irritated at myself that I do this. To clarify: for some reason, as I write, I feel the need to keep bringing up the “point” of the story–whatever the main character’s struggle and main issue is, they keep circling back and focusing on it. I know this isn’t needed, because you really only need to say it once, and then reinforce it with the events as they unfold. Yet, I keep doing it!

I usually feel when I’m writing if I don’t occasionally remind the reader “x character feels y about this situation” that I’m either not giving the situation enough gravity, or the reader will forget. The funny part is when I revise I see these things sticking out as the unnecessary bells and whistles they are and quickly pluck them out. So why write them in the first place?! I could save myself so much time if I left them out to begin with!

I think the reasons I do this may be one of two, or a combination of both:

  1. It’s part of the process of talking myself through the story. Even though it’s a lot of useless repeating, I’m mostly talking to myself and reminding myself of plot points when I do this. It helps me stay on the path. When I revise, I can take these markers out, but during the first draft they help me stay on course.
  2. Anxiety. I feel if my character doesn’t think about the problem enough, then their journey isn’t going to seem realistic. I mean, when something big is happening to you, isn’t it all you can think about? Doesn’t it consume most of your life? If my characters don’t keep circling back to the problem, it’s not REAL.

Number one is useful, but I end up overwriting when I lean on it too much. Number two really isn’t true, because telling a story isn’t the same as living real life. The reader doesn’t need to be told every other page that the character is focused on the situation they’re dealing with, because we’re watching them deal with it. The fact it weighs heavy on their mind can be just as easily, and much less invasively, merely implied. In both cases, I need to trust myself–and the reader! I don’t need to beat anyone over the head with plot points.

Despite the fact I know and understand these things, I still catch it during revisions on every book I write. It’s almost like filler and it annoys me when I see it–even though when I was writing it, it seemed like the right thing to do. Going forward, I’m going to try to be more mindful while I’m writing. If I catch myself repeating, I’ll try to ask myself instead how I can remind the reader with actions instead. I give anyone who’s editing right now this piece of advice: look for what you constantly repeat, or draw attention to, and ask yourself why. Also pluck it out, even if it seems more “realistic” to keep bringing it up, because I assure you the story is already keeping these things in the reader’s mind.

Do you find yourself circling the same points when you go back and do your revisions? Have you managed to spot it while you’re writing and stop yourself?

No Escaping Fate

Concluding this week, I’m doing a series of posts on the conflicts that can be found in a narrative. Depending where you look, and whose advice you ask, there’s anywhere from 4-10 types of conflict that can drive a plot. I’m only going to cover six, though. Those being:

Character vs. Fate

A character with a destiny–it’s a story we’ve heard often. Whether it’s a good destiny or a bad one, of course, depends on the story being told. From the child of royalty set to inherit a kingdom, to someone who has to carry on a legacy, to someone who is cursed, or Neo from The Matrix, this type of character pops up often in literature and storytelling. Sometimes this story is much easier to create conflict in, because there’s already a looming villain or destination that the reader can understand. The character either has to stop their terrible fate from happening, or they have to attain what is rightfully theirs. They’re on a course they can’t easily jump off of.

If it’s a terrible fate, this is a good way to build a character. How they react to their impending doom says a lot about them. Are they fighting it with every fiber of their being, or are they simply letting themselves succumb to it? What sort of terrible things will follow for everyone else if they meet their fate? If it’s something good, this is also a way to build character, and it’s important to show us why it’s good, either to the character specifically or the whole plot of the story. The conflict can also be something standing in the way of this character attaining their good fate.

Not many people in real life are born “destined” for a certain fate, so this is fascinating to imagine. Of course, people born with inheritances or diseases that will take their life eventually know exactly what it’s like, but for most of us, our lives are pretty much up to us. It’s interesting to explore the concept for many of us–in some cases, the idea of having things planned out for you gives a sense of security, even.

Character vs. Fate needs:

  • A hard-to-avoid destiny. Whatever is in store for your character, it’s been decided for them before they even had the ability to choose. It’s a hard path to veer off of. There may not actually be a way to avoid it–the story may be in how they handle themselves until that fateful day.
  • Consequences for a fate being sealed. Whatever happens, the world will change when this character meets their fate. At least, their world will.
  • Reasons the character doesn’t want (or wants) this fate. The character shouldn’t be complacent in what’s happening, whether it’s something negative that looms ahead, or trying to fight toward what they’re owed. The conflict comes in how they face their fate and deal with it.

I do tend to like stories that show a character struggling against fate. I have no particular “destiny” in my own life, unless it was being a writer, and even that isn’t life or death for me. I like stories about people who overcome, or get what they deserve. Do you like these kind of stories? Do you write them?

The Eye of the Storm

For the next few weeks, I’m going to do a series of posts on the conflicts that can be found in a narrative. Depending where you look, and whose advice you ask, there’s anywhere from 4-10 types of conflict that can drive a plot. I’m only going to cover six, though. Those being:

Character vs. Nature

There’s no shortage of stories out there (especially in the realm of movies) where characters struggle against nature: stuck in a snowstorm, at the mercy of the sea, lost in the wilderness. There’s entire movies that are specifically about catastrophic natural disasters and the consequences for mankind. Living on this earth is a precarious thing. At any moment, it might choose to swallow us up or wipe us out. Many of us couldn’t find our way out of the deep woods even with the necessary tools. So it’s a scary prospect to have to confront nature.

This sort of conflict can also be presented as a secondary element, or a plot device: enemies stuck in a cabin during a blizzard, rival scientists having to work together to stop a volcano from exploding, characters thrown together by the effects of an earthquake or fire. The story can be mostly about the characters with the struggle against nature merely acting as the premise. It goes without saying though, you probably need some sort of subplot if the main focus of the story is a fight to win out against nature. We aren’t going to care much about flat characters with no relationship exploration just because they’re crossing a glacier. We need a reason to cheer for them to get to the other side without freezing to death.

Nature can be terrifying, as anyone who’s lived through a tornado or been swept down a river can attest. Nature doesn’t care about us and it kills indiscriminately. That’s why it can also be a thrilling thing to write about and why it’s at the center of so many adventure stories. Humans are silly, we like to court danger, and nothing is more dangerous than the very ground we live on. Of course we challenge it!

Character vs. Nature needs:

  • A strong natural force. Whether it’s a thunderstorm preventing a mother from picking up her kids from school, or a raging hurricane about to destroy a city, it has to be big and bad enough to impede your characters from what they want or outright threaten their lives. Tromping through the snow to the bus stop is annoying but it’s not really an adventure (I speak from experience).
  • A reason your character can’t win against it. You don’t want your characters to just be able to go in the house and wait until it stops raining, that’s not very exciting. Put them in a situation where they can’t easily escape nature and pit them head to head with it. Yes, most sensible people would run from a volcano about to erupt, but what if they can’t?
  • A plausible out. Unless you’re planning on killing all your characters in the end, you have to at least eventually give them some way to escape or stop nature’s fury. People love a good “triumph over nature’s odds” story.

I admit, I enjoy those “weather” moves like The Day After Tomorrow and Twister. (And Sharknado? Tornadoes full of sharks are a natural disaster, right?) They’re fun, and thrilling, and I get to stay warm and dry while I watch them. Do you like stories about the struggle against nature?