Did I get your attention? Good.
I'm something of a cynic when it comes to love stories and something of a prude when it comes to writing about sex. I'm all for the fading to black before anything big happens. But sex and love are integral to the stories we all write. So I decided to enlist the help of my pal, Lynn Messina, for a guest post on this, the most romantic of days. She is a chick-lit veteran like myself. Lynn has a brand new book out The Girls' Guide to Dating Zombies. It's a love story with a little bite.
It’s Valentine’s Day, so naturally a writer’s fancy turns to love—and sex. More than one author I know can tackle the latter with aplomb. The romance heats up, the couple moves to the bedroom (or the couch or the kitchen table), and members start to throb. The sex scene, florid but fluid, culminates grandly in an eloquent description of satisfied lovers replete in each other’s embrace.
I can’t do that.
Over the years, I’ve tried writing many sex scenes, and they always come out stilted and vaguely silly. Part of the problem is procedural; I find it hard to break down such an encompassing whole into components. But the bigger impediment is my own overwhelming self-consciousness. My mom died more than a decade ago, and yet every time I try to write about a throbbing member, I turn watermelon pink at the thought of her reading it. What would she think?
It was unfortunate, then, that I decided to write a book called The Girls’ Guide to Dating Zombies. The preimise was simple: A plague turns 99.9999 percent of men into zombies, and women, making the best of a bad situation, begin dating zombies. But the human-zombie relationship turned out to be a little more complicated than I expected. The romance heated up, the couple moved to the bedroom and I called after them, “Wait, hold on, guys, where are you going?”
This amorous turn probably seems obvious to you. Not only is sex central to the dating enterprise, but zombie sex is the giant elephant in the room. Even if I never mentioned the Sword, everyone who read the book would be trying to figure out the mechanics.
But I routinely missed the obvious—it’s my special talent as a writer. Every story has its own internal engine, its own inevitability that drives it, and I typically spend two thirds of the first draft fighting the inexorable end. When the epiphany finally strikes, I change course midstream and continue from there. Years ago, I’d start over and revise, but I have since learned that the best way to never reach the end of a manuscript is to go back to the beginning.
When I realized there was no escaping zombie sex, I resolved to be brave and wrote a nice little scene in which Hattie and her zombie boyfriend have a mutually satisfying experience. The passage was tasteful and vague and full ellipses rife with suggestion. I thought it was good, but when I reread it a few days later, the lack of details annoyed me. As a reader, I have my own obsession with mechanics. I always want to know the hows and whys of a situation, and I hate it when writers elide over the specifics with an inadequate explanation or typographical euphemism.
The only solution, I realized, was to throw myself into the muck. Rather than skirt the ickiness, I would submerge myself in it. It was the least I could do for the book.
To my amazement, complete submersion was remarkably easy. I reminded myself of the story’s central conceit—that women like Hattie Cross, with no alternative, are determined to make the best of a bad situation by dating zombies. So naturally, Hattie would find something romantic about the act of physical zombie love, something that would redeem the only reality she’s ever known.
The descriptions of sex, then, became a game: How could I juxtapose the gross reality of the act with Hattie’s romantic perception of it? When her zombie boyfriend’s worryingly squidgy chest presses against hers without caving in from the pressure, she finds the weight reassuring. She uses the classic language of love scenes, but her meaning is literal: She’s actually reassured that his chest won’t collapse under the weight of his own body. No decomposing corpses in bed tonight!
In the end, I felt very good about the zombie sex scene. Despite my blushing and squirming and worrying that people would find me completely depraved, I’d managed to add something necessary to the narrative. To my surprise, the real problem was not adding toomuch. Sentences like “A piece of his soft, fleshy lip fell off in my mouth and dissolved on my tongue” might make me giggle but they were just a little too much muck.
What do you have trouble writing about? Sex, death or something else? How are you able to get yourself over these hurdles?
Check out Lynn's book here