The Story Doctor is (In): Sleeping With Spirits

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James Patrick Kelly holds a special place in our hearts here at Mothership Zeta. He’s not only a multiple-award winning author, but also a dedicated teacher who does not put on kid gloves in the workshop—he tells students exactly how and why a piece is (or isn’t) working. It’s that kind of professional laser-vision and “expert path” feedback that new writers can learn deeply from. We are proud to offer Jim’s knowledge here and in future issues of Mothership. Learn from Jim, write great work, and send it to us during our next open submissions cycle. In this article, Jim discusses the best ways to write sex into fiction. You can see more examples of this in practice in Jim’s latest publication in July’s Fantasy & Science Fiction— the three-flash “Oneness: A Triptych.”


When Editorial Goddess Mur Lafferty asked me to write a column for Mothership Zeta, I thought I’d like to try something that hadn’t been done before. I blurted out a half-baked idea about celebrating the craft of the stories in this fine publication. I teach a lot and have spent a considerable fraction of my career helping aspiring writers achieve their dreams—mostly by workshopping manuscripts. I’m of the story doctor persuasion when it comes to critiques.  When I see problems, I don’t just point them out, I suggest surgical remedies.  Of course, the stories here in Mothership Zeta are well published and thus no longer need revision. But by highlighting some of what these talented authors have done right, I hope to enhance your appreciation of what they’ve accomplished. Oh, and maybe going forward I can help those who are considering sending Mur stories to find solutions to some of fiction’s most vexing problems.

Which brings us to the story at hand, “Sleeping With Spirits” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam.  Lots of writers attempt to write about sex, but few do it as adroitly as Bonnie has done here.  Of course, there are all kinds of sex stories. There’s porn, of course, and its literary cousin, erotica. Romance is obsessed with sex, even when it discreetly shuts the door to the bedroom. But the fantastic genres? Historically, not so much. In fact, back in the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, writers in our genre weren’t allowed to show people making love. That changed—slowly—in the fifties and sixties; many credit Phillip Jose Farmer’s 1952 story “The Lovers” with breaking the taboo of onscreen sex and beginning the liberation of science fiction and fantasy. I remember getting editorial pushback as a new writer in the 80s about what I could show and what I couldn’t. But in some way the censors were doing us writers a favor, because writing about sex is hard and doing it badly is a sure way to throw a reader out of a story. So here are some dos and don’ts you can glean from this sexy story.

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Sleeping with Spirits, by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

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This story is not safe for work, children, or jealous lovers.

You could say Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s story has sex but is not erotic. You could say it’s not safe for work but it’s not naughty. You could say a lot of things about this tale of love, intimacy, and then hangups lovers have over each other’s pasts. But what we loved about this fantasy story is that it shows you sex and love as they happen in real life. Awkward. Emotional. Tender. Confused. It feels so real – except for the spirits, naturally.

Don’t miss our nonfiction Story Doctor article by James Patrick Kelly that analyzes this story!

Sleeping with Spirits

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Nolan had just dozed off when the first spirit arrived. His girlfriend Wendi screamed. “The fuck is it?” he yelled, bolting upright. The covers fell from him. A blue-tinted body floated above the mattress. It was naked. “The fuck is that?”

The spirit looked like every jock in the movies. Broad shoulders, a strip of white across the nose, brown helmet hair. Beefy, not like the ghosts Nolan read about in cheap horror novels, although the spirit’s circumcised penis hung limp. And when this spirit spoke, there was no echo in his voice. All in all, they’d lucked out as far as spooks were concerned. It was difficult to be frightened by a naked man.

“Long time no see, huh, Wendi?” the spirit said.

Nolan looked over at his silent girlfriend. She’d scurried out of the blankets when she’d woken. Now she held her legs to her chest. Her modesty surprised him. He’d known Wendi to strip to her underwear and wade into pools at their friends’ parties.

“Who is this guy?” Nolan asked.

“I should ask the same question. Who’s this bean pole?” The spirit looked Nolan up and down.

“Fuck off,” Wendi said. “What are you doing here? I haven’t seen you since freshman year of high school.”

“Was that a while ago?” The spirit scratched his head. Flakes of transparent blue dandruff fell into the bed. Nolan realized that the spirit hovered right above the wet spot. After making love Nolan had offered to sleep on it, but he’d rolled off and away from Wendi as the urge to sleep dry took over. Now the spirit’s ghostly body seemed to rise from it. Nolan felt a combination of pity and pride.

“Yeah, it was a while ago. Shit, dude, what’s this all about?” Wendi said.

“How long?” the spirit asked.

“Five years ago?”

“How do you guys know each other?” Nolan asked.

“We used to date,” the spirit said.

“Trace was my first. We only slept together twice.”

Right, Nolan thought, his stomach twisting. Now he remembered: Trace. Trace had been popular, a junior when Wendi was a freshman, and Wendi lost it to him in the back of some car. She had wanted, she told Nolan, to lose it fast, without much thought or consequence, and she thought Trace would do it and leave her alone. But he wanted to do it again and again, even when his friends wondered what he was doing with a crazy freshman art girl.

When Wendi told Nolan that story, he knew what Trace’s friends didn’t: that Wendi was something special, the bravest person Nolan had ever met. She made you feel at home around her, like you’d been friends since you were born. You could hear her confidence in her voice. Always lilting upward, as if on the verge of laughter. Except now, with the spirit of Trace between them.

“But you’re alive. I’ve seen you on Facebook.”

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