Something strange is happening in women’s fiction these days. I call it the ‘Sex Substitute’. Not a substitute for sex, but rather, where authors use sex as a substitute for what’s missing in the stories we are being sold. More and more writers are falling under its spell; and though I am resisting it with all my might I can feel myself succumbing to this affliction.
Here’s what happens: you begin writing your new book, your head filled with wonderfully layered details about the lives of your characters, the experiences that made them who they are, and the situations that will help them find and bond with each other. And then you get lazy. You realize that you can circumvent all of that hard work by just making your characters have incredibly hot, graphic and frequent sex, creating an instantaneous connection that is fiery, passionate and exciting for your readers.
Writing sex scenes is loads of fun. And if you have a willing partner, you can even reality-test some of the more creative ones. But what is much more challenging is crafting scenes where your characters connect emotionally and reveal something about themselves to each other in a way that is authentic and organic.
In my book ‘Commitment‘ it was very important to me that my characters’ relationship not become reduced to their considerable sexual attraction to each other, so I found it very difficult to sacrifice even a single scene that demonstrated how they connected emotionally. But at the same time, their sexual chemistry was a vital element of their relationship as well. The result was a long book, of which I am proud, but there’s no denying that it is long at just over 500 pages.
To get a novel to a reasonable and well-rounded 350 pages and convince your reader that your characters have come to know each other, and to care for each other takes some degree of skill, which I for one am still working on. But lately, I think far too many writers have given up on that skill-building and given in to the sex substitute. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve read those books that contain a lot of prose like: “we had a connection that I could not explain, and which I was powerless against” followed by a sex scene; or “he looked at her and she was awash with desire” followed by a sex scene; or “his eyes smoldered as they found her across the room” followed by a sex scene. And these are not Harlequin romances, people, these are novels aimed at thoughtful women who want texture, character development and depth to their fiction. For the sake of expediency, authors are increasingly and artificially creating emotional connections between characters using the sex substitute.
After several scorching sex scenes, we become utterly convinced that the protagonists cannot live without each other. It is a particularly clever ruse because it happens like that in real life too, doesn’t it? Scorching sex can lead you to believe you’re “in love”. But like real life, the sex substitute in books is a mirage, an illusion that something substantial is there. And like all illusions, it disappears after a time leaving you feeling duped.
In my next book, ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta‘ the main character is often away from her husband, which made it very difficult to construct a believable emotional connection between them, so the sex substitute was incredibly tempting as a device for me to show the love between these characters. Only after many, many edits was I able to strike what I hope is the right balance.
In ‘Unsuitable Men‘, it was far easier because in that book the main character very clearly uses sex as a way to process emotions that are very difficult for her to face, so I was at liberty to make her have sex in every single chapter (though I didn’t). What I learned from writing that character is that almost always, the sex should stand for something other than my failure to say something more profound.