Writing The Secret: Sex & Romance in Fiction

Writing The Secret: Sex & Romance in Fiction


Figure 1. Well, not really...

Figure 1. Well, not really…


Last weekend, I taught a workshop at The Loft Literary Center on with the title as the topic. It was me and 11 students all interested in how to approach  sex and romance in their stories without being ‘cheesy’ or ‘going too far’ or ‘crossing the line.’ It was a great class, and like most of the ones I teach at the Loft, way too short for all the things I wanted to cover.

So here I figured, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d post a little recap of what we discussed and what we didn’t get a chance to cover, along with some recommendations for further reading.

I hope I conveyed my enthusiasm for students to write about sex and romance. I hate that it’s considered prurient or indulgent or gratuitous (fuck you) or a B-plot. I hope they will try writing a sex scene or a draft full of romantical gestures, and that each time they do so, it gets easier and easier.

As I said in the class, more than once: EVERYONE wants to read about sex. But not everyone is willing to WRITE about it.

Figure 2. The Reedus making one of the Universal Gestures we all learn in grade school...

Figure 2. The Reedus making one of the Universal Gestures we all learn in grade school…


Some topics covered:

– writing group response to sex scenes in manuscripts
– technical terminology to use for body parts and genitalia
– my aversion to the whole “Only If It Serves The Plot/If It Isn’t Gratuitous” line re: sex/romance in fiction
– explanation of romance, erotic romance, erotica
– the responsibilities of the writer re: triggering and writing non-consensual sexual acts and rape
– concerns of writing sex in young adult books
– Rule 34
– the advantage fictional sex has over visual sex (porn)
– some notes about the romance genre and market
– vulnerability and romance
– romantic cliches and how to defy/defeat/revitalize them


Figure 3. Sometimes you just need some Reeduslingus... or something

Figure 3. Sometimes you just need some Reeduslingus… or something


Please message me or leave a comment if you’ve got a link  or book recommendation I should add – this is greatly appreciated!

Further Reading

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male by Andrew Smiler. Jossey-Bass, 2013.
Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank, Bloomsbury, 2007.
The Erotic Mind by Jack Morin, Harper Perennial, 1996.
How To Write A Dirty Story by Susie Bright, Touchstone, 2002.
How To Make Love To Adrian Colesberry by Adrian Colesberry, Gotham, 2009.
How To Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton, Picador, 2013.
Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love & Desire by Lisa M. Diamond, Harvard University Press, 2009.

Fiction (super literary grown-up fancy kind)
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
Endless Love by Scott Spencer
Swimming Sweet Arrow by Maureen Gibbon
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
Towelhead by Alicia Erian
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Testimony by Anita Shreve

Recommended Romance Authors
Victoria Dahl
Tessa Dare
Lisa Kleypas
Elizabeth Hoyt
Joanna Bourne (god I love The Spymaster’s Lady! So excellent!)
Linda Lael Miller
Megan Hart
Charlotte Stein
Laura Lee Guhrke
Lorelei James
Cecilia Grant (great review here of A Lady Awakened)
Eloisa James (this review especially pleases me: “Bitches love a castle.”)

On Porn & YA Literature:

On Making Sex Normal – a TED talk by Debbie Herbenick:


Real Sex Advice: The Savage Lovecast podcast (with Dan Savage)

The Sex Talk:

Sex, YA Books and Some “E” Words

Sex in YA series (by author Kody Keplinger)
Taboos: http://www.yahighway.com/2011/04/sex-in-ya-part-1-taboos.html
Keeping It Safe: http://www.yahighway.com/2011/04/sex-in-ya-part-2-keeping-it-safe.html
Stereotypes: http://www.yahighway.com/2011/06/sex-in-ya-part-3-stereotypes.html
Sex v. Romance: http://www.yahighway.com/2011/07/sex-in-ya-part-4-ya-vs-romance-sex.html

On Sex by Ashley Hope Perez
Part I: http://www.ashleyperez.com/blog/item/105-on-sex-part-1-this-house-i-cannot-leave
Part II: http://www.ashleyperez.com/blog/item/106-on-sex-part-2-teens-are-sexual-people-too

Let’s Get It On: Sex Scenes in Young Adult Novels:

On Sex , YA Literature and Terminology:

Writing Sex in Literary Fiction:

So… Are Your Characters Ever Going To Fuck?

The Boys of My Youth: a collection of posts about days gone by

10 Contemporary Sex Scenes That Will Make You Believe In Love:





  • Ashley Hope Pérez (@ashleyhopeperez) on Mar 13, 2014 Reply

    I love that this was your V day post–thanks for the shout out. For the record, my mom still holds against me the fact that I responded to her question, “Do you know about sex?” with the finger-though-circle jabby gesture. In my defense, she asked me AT DROP OFF when I was in third grade… it wasn’t the best time to talk about it, Ma!

  • Sarah Ahiers on Feb 14, 2014 Reply

    Man, I really wish I could have taken this class. I’m dealing a bit with the “does it advance the plot” bit in my MS. I have a make out scene (not even the sex scene) which I was told to maybe cut. And my instinct was like “no. I like the make out scene. It build tension for the sex scene later” but I felt like I needed to come up with a structural reason why it should stay. And I did. But I wish I would have been at your class to hear discussion about thoughts on your aversion to the whole “Only If It Serves The Plot”

    • Carrie Mesrobian on Feb 15, 2014 Reply


      I could rant my head off about Only If It Serves The Plot but probably I should make another blog post? Though remind me in the future if we see each other, okay?

  • Carrie Mesrobian on Feb 14, 2014 Reply

    Will amend, as I have lots of romance titles/authors I love…

  • Merrian on Feb 14, 2014 Reply

    Intrigued your booklist doesn’t include examples of romance genre writing. Romance writing as a matter of course addresses sexual tension and connection as critical elements of a relationship and story whether the bedroom door is closed or wide open. Megan Hart and Victoria Dahl or Charlotte Stein are all authors worth looking at I think.

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