I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking lately about the process of writing my first novel, When You Went Away. This has caused my mind to wander back to my first time. No, not that first time. I mean the first time I wrote a sex scene in a work of fiction.
When You Went Away is my first published novel, but it isn’t the first novel I wrote. It isn’t even my second. No one will ever see the first two, however. I wrote the first when I was thirteen and I’m not sure it technically qualified as a novel. In truth, I’m not sure it technically qualified as English. I wrote my second in a Novel Writing class in my junior year in college. The goal of the class was to develop a story and write the first few chapters. My novel was a coming-of-age story about a fateful summer among a group of close male friends and the protagonist’s first experience with love – and I decided that I was going to write an entire first draft over the course of the semester. The prose came very easily to me, and I was flying through it. Then, about two-thirds of the way into the novel, it was time to show the protagonist and his love interest making love for the first time. Suddenly the pages weren’t writing themselves any longer. In fact, I came to a dead stop. I’d read plenty of sex scenes in other people’s novels, and I’d known this scene was coming for a hundred pages. I also felt it was completely necessary to the story, as it was an epochal moment in the relationship and in the protagonist’s life. Still, it stopped me cold.
There were a couple of issues here. One was that I couldn’t decide on an approach. Did I go metaphorical? Did I go clinical? How much emphasis did I put on the act, and how much did I put on the buildup to the act? The other issue was the nature of the class itself. It was a workshop class, which meant that every student read what he or she wrote that week to the rest of the group for review. The passage I’d read the previous week made it very clear that the moment had arrived between these two characters. If I just skipped past this, my fellow students would call me on it. But would their disapproval over that be harder to endure than my skittishness at reading such an intimate scene aloud?
Finally, I decided to go “all in.” I summoned everything I knew about the characters and about their relationship, allowed myself to imagine what their first night together would be like – and I wrote an eight-page description of the experience. I decided to focus on emotions and sensations, but I didn’t shy from the visuals. When I finished writing it, I felt an actual sense of fulfillment. This lasted until I had to read the scene to the class. Since my eyes were on the page, I couldn’t see the reaction from my fellow students. But the utter lack of movement in the room told me that I’d either captured their attention or made them hugely uncomfortable (or both). No one had chosen to read a passage like this before me. When my reading was over, someone tried to say something about the imagery and another person mentioned something about the characters. The basic message in the room, though, seemed to be, “can we please get on to the next reader?” However, when the chapter came back from my professor, it carried a note that read, “Great freaking scene. You handled this like a pro.” I chose to believe that he meant I’d handled the scene like a professional novelist and not that I did it like someone who wrote about sex for a living.
This came back to mind when I wrote the critical sex scene in When You Went Away. I decided not to make it eight pages long (it’s not even a page long). That’s a younger man’s game. But I did want to “handle it like a pro,” and I wanted to make it as emotional as I could.
Michael Baron is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month. This means we are offering sensational deals on all of his works, including When You Went Away. You can learn more at our website.