Friday, October 26, 2007

Use Your Words

by Mary Altman

What’s sexy to you?
Touched? Nibbled? Licked?

What’s hot?
Rubbed? Slid? Arched?

It’s important for Romance authors—or, really, any author who’s ever been told that sex sells and skin is in—to ask herself these questions. What makes a really hot scene? What will best help the reader get into the moment? What words should you naturally reach for to provoke the appropriate response?

Thrust? Rocked? Plunged? Sawed?

The bottom line is that your words are an arsenal, and as a fiction writer, it’s your job to reach into the rucksack, pull out the grenade, and lob it over the fence. It’s your job to blow your audience away. Every romantic encounter should be as sensual as you can make it so that you can grab the reader and force her into the experience. You won’t be able to do that if you flavor your intimate scenes with jarringly unsexy words.

If you do that, you may as well be shooting blanks.

But what makes an unsexy word? Unfortunately, it’s all up to interpretation. Words that may fade into the scenery for some will leap out and bludgeon others. Words that turn the crank of one person will leave the next vaguely grossed out. There are some common avoidables in a sex scene, however—words that you should be cautious about using for fear of making your audience cross their legs in discomfort.

1) It’s a Jungle, Baby. Despite being compared to an exotic flower for decades, the vagina should never call to mind the dense, dark, and dangerous foliage of the Congo. Avoid the temptation to use words such as sweltering, sodden, muggy, humid, or soggy.

2) Is Anyone Here a Doctor? Personally, when I’m reading a sex scene, the last thing I want to do is play Spot That STD! With that in mind, I’d like to encourage authors to cross oozing, seeping, and discharge off their mental checklists.

3) Life is Not a Frat Party! I didn’t much like obnoxious frat boys when I was in college—I definitely don’t want to read about them in my romance novels! Keep readers like me in mind when describing anatomy as tits, titties, ta-tas, nips, or boobies.

4) Your Vagina is Not a Box of Chocolates. You more or less do know what you’re going to get—or at least you should have a pretty good idea—and it’s not something you can find in the pantry. Cross out words like buttery and soupy. This editor also advises that you take care with voracious. Though it’s a common erotic word, it should never make the reader mentally compare girly bits to Seymour’s Audrey 2.

5) Just Plain Gross. I have nothing pithy to say about these last words except…ew. Bloated, turgid, and bulbous aren’t actually sexy, no matter how many Romancelandia heads say otherwise.

There are literally hundreds of other bafflingly unsexy words used in intimate scenes…and that’s not even touching the mystifying euphemisms! (Really, what is an alabaster baton? Am I running a relay race here?) It’s important to remember that words that turn you on may leave me cold and phrases that have me recoiling in horror may make you sweat. That’s fine—you can’t please everyone. But if you find that your sex scenes are making readers reach for their trusty pith helmets and mosquito netting, sit back, put down the thesaurus, and reread what you’ve been writing. A few judicious word changes could keep your editor from wailing “The horror! The horror!”


Rena Marks said...

May I add something to the list, Mary? Anything that rhymes with an icky word gives you the same visual. For me it's "weeping." Sounds just like "seeping" doesn't it? And I get this visual of a sobbing vagina, opening and clsoing like a fish gasping for air on dry land. Eeeww.

ECPI Editors said...

OMG, that is evil, Rena. Now I'm going to have fish images in my head all day.


Rena Marks said...

Hehe, wanted to give you all something to laugh about today. Feel free to pass the evil along.

ECPI Editors said...

What a brilliant, terrifying, possibly permanently scarring image, Rena!

Mary Altman


I recently read a chapter from a book a budding author asked me to critique for her. Thankfully she didn't send the full book because in this chapter she described how the heroine's C-word 'spoke' to the hero. She went into detail describing what 'it' said to him. (I kept wondering if there was an echo).

I spent the rest of the day giggling like an idiot and making people at Wally World stir their buggies clear of me.

Kate Willoughby said...

Sawing...hmmm. I would NEVER use that word. LMAO. Okay, maybe I did, but Mary redlined it. I still think it can work, but she's my editor and I do what she says.

For me, it's "vagina." That word ALWAYS yanks me back in time to high school health class. Nothing more unsexy than memories of the teacher talking about men-STRU-ation.

charleneteglia said...

Oh, God. You realize I am now mentally composing the worst ever spoof of Heart of Darkness. Must...resist...

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