Let’s Talk about Sex in Your Romance Novel: A PG-13 Post, Possibly Just PG

You expect sex in a romance novel, right? Like Julia Roberts’s* character in Pretty Woman, it’s a sure thing. When I first started working in this biz, reading books with sex in them was a novelty. My colleagues were amused. Then after my 300th romance, I started flipping through the sex scenes, bored to tears. So many writers write amazing sex scenes, but after a while, they seemed the same to me. In fact, for me, the sweeter romances, like the Inspirationals were more sensual and palpably romantic than the steamier ones, so I devoured those for my hot fix.

Over the years, my expectations for great sex scenes have dwindled as those for romantic tension have escalated. The foreplay/romance/character development became more fun and I care less about the sex. Often in the story, the couple has a simultaneous “release”, in the same position, and they crest the wave of ecstasy with fireworks booming. One of them wakes up to the other making breakfast, they don’t want to leave, but do and misunderstandings, vulnerabilities ensue. Another sex scene occurs close to the end, much like the first.

Just when I think I’ve read everything, a gripping sex scene will have me flipping pages so fast, my fingers are on fire.  I love it when a writer can surprise me. Here’s how it can happen:

1. If you have a sex scene at the beginning, make it charming and not gimmicky. Give it some build-up, like the heroine really, really wants to let loose. She’s determined that tonight is the night and is picking out her target. Or the hero is an expert at seduction. Or maybe they’re both challenged and just wind up in bed by some cosmic, delicious accident. I tend to dislike sex scenes at the beginning but sometimes I love them if they’re done right (no sensual dream of sex then waking up sweating to empty bed; this one hurts me).

2. Pardon the graphic note, but give them another position from the usual. I’m so embarrassed I’ll just move on to the next point.

3. Make the sex unexpected. What about in a coatroom during a party? In the car on the way to dinner, instead of peacefully at home in bed. Embarrassed again. Moving on.

4. As much as possible, cut out the cresting the waves, riding the hills of ecstasy, falling over the cliff with fireworks guiding them into the abyss of desire. An editor doesn’t register this. It’s filler. Filler’s not always bad, but see if you can make it less cliche.

5. For some, writing sex scenes can be difficult or just a big pain. Some may need a big glass of Pinot to get through it. What if you removed the scene? How would your book change? Is there a way to shape your story so that intimacy must happen and must be exciting? Think of your favorite sex scenes in movies or TV. How do they happen? I guess I’m suggesting that you look carefully at how to make this part more interesting for yourself and for the reader.

6. If your voice is sweeter, plunking down a sex scene right in the middle of your story might create an “ewwww” factor. If you don’t want one, don’t include one. It’s your book. And awkward sex is just funny.

7. Condom or no condom? Hmmm, good question, me. I used to be very strict about wanting characters to practice safe sex. Then I relaxed a bit. Sex in a novel should be an escape for the reader. If you can be safe in a sexy way, do it! Just recently, I read a story where safety was orchestrated beautifully. I’m not a stickler for this, though also not condoning unsafe sex.

8. Good sex in Romance comes from intimacy/chemistry. The way to an editor’s heart is to show the wild chemistry between two likeable characters. A really great scene will linger in my mind and encourage me not to skim those pages in the future.

Sex scenes can be memorable (Princess Daisy, p. 49, thank you, Judith Krantz). You can build a name for yourself that way. Or… you can close the door, which is just fine, too.

*I use any excuse to bring up Julia.

The Swoonworthy Romantic Hero

In real life, bad boys tend to be just plain bad (at least this has been my experience!) and nice guys are awesome. I find the more nice guys open doors for me, treat me well, show some edge and relay their intellectual proclivities, the more I swoon.

In a romance novel, the rules of the game are different. Disclaimer: Our heroine we love from the beginning. She’s us, she’s fantastic, she learns a lot on her journey and we want to follow her. The hero is our foreign element, the object of our interest, the one who pulls our attention, the one our heroine aspires to have (at least subconsciously). He has to be exponentially larger than life. He has to be desirable on several levels.

Here’s my list of must haves for a hero:

He should have a good personality–but this can be hidden, too, under decades of ill treatment by what/whomever. Life has made him a bit rough. Show us why. By the end, the reader should see him as pure gold for the heroine, loveable on many levels–and unforgettable.

Make him hot. This can mean different things to each reader. I like a face that looks a little beaten up: Clive Owen, Daniel Craig, Gerard Butler, Russell Crowe (before he threw the telephone). I don’t know why. It shows character and hotness to me. Your romantic hero can look like anyone, as long as you bring out his “hotness.” Your reader will translate it to her/his own desirability needs.

Alpha or Beta but never Gamma:  Your hero can be tough with a soft underbelly, nice guy with an edge, but he can’t be a complete toxic jerk who kills small animals. He should be redeemable throughout. The best thing is to investigate the “hero” needs for whatever line you are targeting. If the publisher likes Alpha heroes, don’t send them your Beta hero who brings the heroine flowers every day (I’ll take those flowers!).

Make him different. I’ll never forget in one novel, the hero was on a stakeout, watching the heroine and eating those gross but delicious orange crackers with peanut butter. That was all it took for me to see this hero as unique. You don’t have to go quite that specific, but think about how your hero is an individual.

He has to do something. It can be scary to dive into writing a climactic moment, but make no mistake, your hero has to be heroic. He can’t be taking out the recycling while the heroine saves herself from a would-be kidnapper. He should act and be integral to the novel’s resolution.

Real Life vs. Romance: These two heroes can overlap at the end of the story. In a romance novel, the heroine sees the hero as her hero. In real life, may your true love have the basic qualities you want: his charming personality, his looks, some baggage okay, and loveable  quirks. He is heroic in your eyes (and very hot). I dunno, do I still have my rose-colored newlywed glasses on?

Good luck with your heroes!

One Romance Editor’s Holiday in Salem

My religious background is mixed. My grandfather was a Baptist minister. My mother and father are atheists. My husband is Jewish. My brother is  Buddhist. I have many Evangelical Christian, Pagan, Catholic, Agnostic friends and relatives, too. I like to float between all religions, claiming membership, though my latest joy has been learning about my husband’s traditions. We did Easter the previous year (ate a lot of eggs, chocolate, and ham with my mother), so this year we went to visit his family in Boston. First, we snuck in some time in witch-tastic Salem. I’d always wanted to go.

My main rule for the weekend was to soak up history and religion and to avoid all reading–unless trashy tabloids to which I am addicted. We toured the Witch History Museum, ate at Red’s, meandered down the quaint streets and even toyed with the idea of “ghost tracking” at our B&B*. This seemed too scary so we remained sedate, indulging in touristic opportunities. I purchased my witchy souvenirs and even had a mischievous black cat cross my path (scaring the you-know-what out of husband).

My editor hat found its way back on my head during the tour of The House of The Seven Gables. So much had happened in that house over centuries: fortune made and lost, families and literature. The rooms, the ornate wallpaper, the snifter of brandy, chandeliers, and low ceilings. Of course, I had to get Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic to go with my experience! I forgot about religion entirely.

Or maybe I realized that books are my religion.

*There is a ghost tracking app on the iPad, which, I confess, we use often.

Okay, Who’s Suffered From Professional Jealousy?

I’ll come clean: In my 26 years of working, I’ve turned many shades of green due to professional jealousies. It started in high school when I had the highest G.P.A. in my class…until a more diligent student worked her derriere off and sailed past me. Did I mention she was thinner and more athletic, too? I resented the heck out of her and believed her popularity swayed teachers to give her better grades–certainly not because she burned the midnight oil day after day for four long years. Decades later, I ran into my nemesis and realized that she was/is/and always will be something special. She worked hard for her success and is now master of her domain, as well as an awesome human being.

I’ve been that green monster so often I can spot a kindred spirit from a mile away, especially at writers’ conferences. I’ve seen those grimaces when one writer reaps rewards another hasn’t (yet). For some, support is easy to summon when a friend has a victory. Writers go through such a unique and emotional experience, the bond with other writers can be life-affirming and intimate–or intimate with a little grrrrrrr thrown in. For others, it takes a little longer to feel joy over someone else’s success. “She got the five-book contract, but I’m stuck at two books. Argggh.” “Her cover is so much better than mine!” “Did you catch her workshop? She thinks she knows everything…”  “Her editor calls her every day, mine hasn’t called me in a year, grrrrr.”

I totally understand the bitterness.

In the past, I’ve tried very hard to let my sour grapes fuel my ambition. If she can do this, so can I. I’m smarter, more deserving and destined for world domination. I’d make a list, then vow to work tirelessly until I conquered my goal and planted my stiletto in the ground of victory–all while starving myself so that I could wear a bikini.  Jealousy can be motivating, right? Well, maybe, but by Day Three, I tended to revert to my modus operandi, which wasn’t too shabby: I love Cheetos, I’ll wear a bikini anyway and stilettos really hurt my feet. I love to read, edit, and write. The people I work with are amazing. I’ve done well in my life. End of story.

I’m not sure if it was Elmer or Bugs that said if you can’t beat them, join them. I’ve learned that it feels so much better to just congratulate those who’ve also worked hard alongside you. Over the years, people’s lives change, others move to that bestseller list, and priorities shift. Given this evolution, professional jealousy seems pretty pointless to me, not to mention energy-sapping. There were some cold truths I had to face. Maybe my “rivals” had shined for a reason. Maybe they were just awesome and I had to accept it. I have my own talents. Don’t we all? That’s something to celebrate, too.

Nothing brought this home more than 9/11. My colleagues were seated around a conference table, watching the news, shattered and eating chocolate. What to do? We were at zero. No one was better, smarter, more entitled, more experienced, more deserving. We were all human. We were all together.

When I think of professional jealousy now, I try to embrace what/who I resent (unless pure evil). It’s challenging, but oh-so rewarding. Romance editors and writers are generally so likable, interesting, and entertaining. When you cheer for someone’s success, you release those unwarranted feelings of failure and accept that your turn will come. As corny as it sounds, you tend to make more friends that way–or at least I have–and it’s made room for better things. Not too shabby indeed.