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.