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.

Don’t use euphemisms—do call parts what they are. In the second paragraph we discover that there will be penises in this story and a bit later on we read of “the wet spot.” When writing about sex, language is important not only to help the reader understand what’s happening but also to set the tone. Bonnie could have chosen to use every day slang for body parts, but then this sweet story might have read too rough. Note that she isn’t afraid to write fuck, but she uses this complicated word as a swear or intensifier and never to describe the act of making love.  

Don’t abuse metaphor and simile and never venture into the produce section—do invoke all five senses.  Describing primary and secondary sexual characteristics as like fruits and vegetables is not—trust me on this—a good idea. Transparent prose should be the default when it comes to writing about sex. If you’re wondering how the writer holds her reader’s interest with one hand tied behind her back, remember—we’re talking about sex here! A writer has to go out of her way to bore a reader on this subject. But look at how Bonnie gets some lovely literary effects into this story: “He remembered that she tasted like winter, the goosebumps on her arms.” Or how about this: “Wendi’s hand over his jeans, her fingers on his lips. The buzz of his skin when she kissed the hair below his bellybutton.” Sensual details, especially those which invoke the off-senses of taste, touch and smell, will bring a scene to life much more effectively than breasts heavy as ripe cantaloupes.

Don’t dwell on the hydraulics but do embrace the messiness. Masters and Johnson spent their entire careers documenting the physiological changes that take place during arousal and orgasm—so writers don’t have to. Yes, the blood pounds causing various blushings and swellings. There can be sweat and at some point precious bodily fluids may be exchanged. But describing these things in detail in the cause of verisimilitude is a mistake. If it’s realism you’re after, how about a nod toward how awkward sex can sometimes be?  The rocking and rolling and bumping against one another. Or the classic struggle to get out of those pesky clothes. “He didn’t remember the specifics, but he did remember the way his pants caught on his feet, how he had to hop around on one leg to dislodge them. He was reminded of that moment every time he had sex afterward.” Bonnie does mention fluids, but uses them to show character. “… 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.”

Don’t describe orgasms—do concentrate on foreplay.  Your orgasm is your own; nobody knows what it’s like. I’ve never read a description of one that wasn’t a) wrong or b) silly. Or both!  All the interesting character stuff happens before the climactic moment. There are multiple orgasms in this story, but Bonnie saves the sexiest scene for the last:

From the bag he pulled a bright purple hairdryer. Wendi laughed and made a lewd gesture with her hips. They ran into the bedroom, the hairdryer trailing behind them. They did it with the hairdryer between them, waiting, already plugged in. They turned it on and held the heat on each other’s bellies. They laughed until it burned. They let the noise cover their words, not the words Nolan had always imagined sex would be full of, but different words, better words because they were true—ow, wait, oh, don’t you dare come I’m not ready yet.

But these don’ts and dos aside, the most important question for readers to ask when encountering sex in a story is this: Is the sex about something more than the sex? I suppose it’s possible in real life to have meaningless sex, but not in fiction.  Every act, but especially this most characteristic of acts, needs to be filled with meaning—to overflowing, if possible.  Writers shouldn’t send characters into one another’s arms unless there is more going on than mutual lust. Here our main characters, Nolan and Wendi, are having personal problems that appear to have nothing to do with their enthusiastic sex lives. But the fantastical aftermath of their lovemaking makes it clear that the resolution of their individual problems will have to take place in the bedroom and must arise out of the strengths they derive from their loving relationship.  This is why Bonnie’s wry, ingenious and sexy ending works.

Writing about sex is truly fraught but “Sleeping With Spirits” shows one way it can be done.

James Patrick Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards; his work has been translated into seventeen languages.  He’s on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine where he had the honor of teaching two of the three editors of Mothership Zeta.  Committed internet stalkers will have no trouble discovering which two.