Friday, 15 May 2015

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby! (Part 2)

(Image courtesy of smarnad
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
It’s almost two months since I wrote my first post on the, ahem, touchy subject of sex in Christian novels. If you haven’t read it or would like to refresh your memory, you can find it here. Thank you to everyone who commented on my question: When is realistic too much? Your thoughts were both insightful and intriguing.

Every fortnight, a group of us from a local church get together at Zarraffas (a Queensland coffee chain). These ‘Ladies of Reedy Creek’, as I’ve dubbed them, range in age from 30 to 70+, and are very accommodating when I ask them questions concerning writing. All I have to do is bring out my pen and little black notebook and they’re like meerkats on alert.

This week, I asked them what they thought about sex issues being addressed in Christian novels. (Picture a group of extremely alert meerkats). Not only were their responses unanimous (except for one who left to attend a doctor’s appointment – or so she said) but they were strongly felt.

 Here’s a summary of what they said:

There is a definite demand for stories which are G-rated, however, they would like to see Christian books which address the more gritty issues too. For example:
 • Characters with a past which is described realistically, just not graphically.
 • The struggle men (and not just teenage ones) have in their thought life
 • The pressure to remain pure without making purity an idol
 • Guilt issues surrounding premarital sex
 • They would prefer sex to stop at the bedroom door but agree there is a need for stories which address intimacy problems, particularly for those who
 o are entering marriage for the second time
 o have blended families
 o have suffered sexual, physical, or emotional abuse

(Image courtesy of markuso
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Talking of bedroom doors, as I mentioned in the previous post, Francine Rivers left the door wide open in her latest novel, Bridge to Haven. Personally, I thought the wedding night was written very tastefully. It wasn’t graphic and didn’t include body parts, although the word ‘naked’ was used. There was the usual nervousness, but also fear because of what had gone before in the life of the main character, Abra. I thought the scene necessary in order to show the redemptive healing process. Nevertheless, Francine copped a lot of criticism along with the five-star reviews.

As we all know, everyone has a differing opinion of what’s okay and what isn’t, so how do we write about these sexual issues in our novels?

Diana Gabaldon, best-selling author of the Outlander series, says this: ‘Sex scenes are not about sex. A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions.’

Now, before you shut down your computer in horror, I’m not suggesting we should write sex scenes! (Goodness, I find kissing scenes difficult to write, let alone anything more, lol). But maybe, just maybe, there’s a clue to our dilemma in that quote.

Exchange of emotions

Rather than write a graphic scene – be it rape, abuse, intimacy issues or even healthy sex – perhaps we could focus on the visceral and emotional responses of our characters. Could this be a way of showing the effects of these experiences without offending? Is this the answer for displaying the realism we seek?

Here’s a quote from one of the Ladies of Reedy Creek (who also happens to be a pastor’s wife). NB: we were discussing the realism issues when she said this:

‘We’re bombarded by (sexual) explicitness and negativity in the general market. What are we offering in return?’

Good question, isn’t it?

There’s been a lot of talk about including realism in our stories, but where do the more gritty and confronting aspects of life fit?  I’m a romance writer, and while I like to write as realistically as I can, I’m not convinced that explicit content belongs in my genre … at least, not in real time. 

I believe that in a romance novel, these darker themes belong in backstory. Readers of romance expect to be taken on a journey which explores the beauty and wonder of falling in love. That’s not to say our characters don’t go through hardships and trials – of course they do or else there’s no conflict and without conflict you don’t have a story. (Note: if there isn’t a happy ending in the book you’re reading, then it’s a love story, not a romance.)

Bridge to Haven is women's fiction. Jo Wanmer’s Though the Bud Be Bruised falls into the fiction category. Paula Vince’s Picking Up the Pieces is YA fiction. They all deal courageously with the unpleasant and harsh realities of life, but while they may include elements of romance, they are not romance novels.

 It seems to me that getting the genre right and having an understanding of what is expected within each one is extremely important when tackling these concepts.

Think of the Christian books you've read which have been out of the box as far as realism goes. In which genre have they appeared?

As always, I look forward to reading your comments.



Andrea writes contemporary romance. Her first book A Simple Mistake was a finalist in the CALEB Awards 2012. Her second novel Too Pretty was released in 2014 by Rhiza Press. 

Andrea would love to hear from you via her website or Facebook page:
http://www.andreagrigg.com/
https://www.facebook.com/author.andreagrigg

31 comments:

  1. Well said, Andrea. We live in a world full of images and values that I personally think are damaging to the human heart. Christian fiction is a terrific way to show alternatives.

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    1. Thank you Victoria. My feelings exactly :)

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  2. I agree. Victoria Bylin found away to deal with a man's past indiscretions and struggles to live a life of morals in "Until I Found You", Ruth Logan Herne does a beautiful job in dealing with child molestation and how secrets can affect married life in "Running on Empty". Dani Pettrey deals with date rape in "Sabotaged", and Denise Hunter deals with rape and it's consequences in "Dancing with Fireflies" and with abused women in her soon to be released "Married Til Monday". It can be done tastefully and we as Christians, crave discussions of intimacy and it's complications in our romances; but we don't need explicit, just tastefully done. For example, Gone with the Wind when Rhett carries Scarlett up the stairs you know what is going to happen but they didn't show the skin and grunting that film genre does now. That's the difference in writing as well.

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    1. Hi Susan - I've read two out of the five books you've mentioned (Victoria's and Denise's) and totally agree with you. The others are now on my TBR. Thanks for stopping by :)

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    2. You haven't read Dani Pottery? What kind of a Dee Henderson fan are you? (Dee endorses Dani) Read them all, starting with the first in the series.

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  3. Lots of food for thought there Andrea :) I agree that we don't need explicit sex scenes, but if sex and associated problems are avoided altogether, it can create a false view of what relationships are all about. One of the best books I've read that deals with the emotional side of that issue is 'The Reader'. It's not a Christian book and there are a couple of explicit scenes, so it's not what I would usually read. But it described a dysfunctional relationship between a teenage boy and an older woman who had been involved in Nazi war crimes. One of the things I liked about it was that it dealt very honestly with the way in which that dysfunctional relationship affected the boy for the rest of his life. Yes some of the scenes were gritty, and I'm not suggesting Christian writers should go into that much detail in sex scenes, but the emotional aftermath was dealt with brilliantly and it was a book that kept me thinking long after the final page. If we could convey that kind of emotional exchange without the graphic details, it could help people going through similar issues. Good on you for being brave enough to put this topic out there :)

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    1. Hi Nola - 'The Reader' sounds like a fascinating book. (Was it made into a movie? It rings a vague bell)

      Writing about the 'emotional aftermath' is dear to my heart. Let's hope many of us can write that kind of story well enough to keep readers thinking long after they've finished it as you did after completing 'The Reader'. Thanks for your (always) insightful comments.

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    2. Hi Andrea - Yes, The Reader was made into a movie with Kate Winslett, but the book is much better. Difficult content, but really thought-provoking and Bernhard Schlink (author) has a really interesting sparse style - easy to read with lots of white space, but needs lots of thought.

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  4. Hi Andrea,
    I appreciate the feedback from your Ladies of Reedy Creek. Surveys such as that are so valuable in showing what readers are really looking for, and we'd be wise to listen to what they say. I'm not surprised by their comments either. Striking the delicate balance between getting across the realism we are looking for, and not crossing the line into private moments readers don't really need to know about is what we strive to achieve. Several excellently written novels have proven that it's possible to evoke the emotions we all treasure without getting into explicit detail.

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    1. I love my Ladies of Reedy Creek, Paula! I really take to heart what they come up with.

      And yes, 'Picking Up the Pieces' achieved those goals. Great story.

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    2. Thanks, Andrea. I'm really pleased to hear that you read and enjoyed PUP

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  5. What good information, Andrea! Thank you so much for sharing the results of your survey. I've had much the same questions running through my mind as I contemplate the plot of my next book. I think I'd fit right in with your group. I like gritty but not explicit. Real.

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    1. Hi Varina - I have to say, your books fit right in there. 'Jaded' and 'Justified' are fabulous and inspirational for my own writing. (Can't wait to read 'Justified')

      You're more than welcome to join the Ladies of Reedy Creek anytime you're in Australia - they'd love you!

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    2. Sorry, Varina - got myself in a muddle. Meant to write I can't wait to read your third book :)

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  6. Andrea, great post! I agree that the genre distinction is important. Christian romance readers are looking for a happy ending with characters who are trying to live according to Biblical principles. The hero and heroine will make mistakes, and the consequences of those mistakes will play out in the story in a way that doesn't glorify sin. The general romance market is saturated with explicit content. In general, readers expect Christian romances to be clean reads that focus on the emotional rather than the sexual aspects of the romantic relationship. The level of sensuality will vary, but typically the bedroom door is closed.

    I agree that there's definitely scope within other Christian fiction genres to explore sexual and relationship issues from a different perspective to the romance genre, and in ways that wouldn't require what would most likely be an unrealistic happy ending. If readers are given a heads up in the book description about the subject matter and explicit nature of the content, whether it's violent or sexual, they can choose whether or not they want to 'go there'.

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    1. Hi Narelle - I'm realising more and more the importance of genre distinction.

      I know romance readers can get criticised for wanting a happy read, but that's what the genre is about - the HEA. And it doesn't mean tough issues never get faced;they do, but in the emotional aftermath, (as Nola called it in her comment).

      Another point you've highlighted is the need for a carefully worded blurb. So true.

      Thanks for you thoughts :)

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  7. i don't go much past kissing. But in my WIP I have a woman who was raped, and she had a flashback in a dream, and it did say what happened at the start but not the whole act (like a hand going up her leg). I am finding it not the easiest thing to write. But i think to write a realistic story there has to be some thing that might be unpleasant.
    The triumph over pre-marital sex, the healing and forgiveness God can give you. These are things I write. At the moment i have just finished a novel talking about keeping yourself pure, and how you need to take time in your relationship.

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    1. Hi Melanie - As you say, realism can be difficult to write, especially when it's unpleasant. I hope this post has encouraged you in your writing. thanks for stopping by :)

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  8. Fascinating post and ensuing discussion, Andrea. And do thank the "Ladies of Reedy Creek" for the great 'qual' research feedback. I particularly appreciated the views on men's thought life. BTW, there's got to be a novel with that title in it, better still a reality TV show as an alternative to all the "Real wives of wherevers …". Wouldn't that be a hoot!

    Back to the issue at hand. Like you, I tend to read a lot of secular fiction and in most cases the authors deal with sex along the lines of tasteful intimacy, i.e., what Diana G refers to. But most of what I read isn't so much about romance and it kinda gets in the way of the suspense/thrilling aspect of the novel.

    I'm all for grit as we've discussed previously and frankly we need more of it. I believe there are plenty of people especially the younger reading community who appreciate greater realism in reflecting life in our stories. I believe with more authors going the indie route we'll see more of it. And that way we readers will be able to choose whether we want to read it or not rather than those decisions being made currently by what is still a conservative CBA publishing industry.

    Well done once again, Andrea, for leading this discussion.

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  9. Julie Lessman is wonderful at showing passion without going too far. She shows the intimacy between a married couple but she does it in a way she doesn't get graphic. We see this in the relationship of the parents in the book. With the children who are featured we see how there love for the one they end up with grows and we see the passion etc. there.

    Another who has a wedding night scene is Jamie Currie its not graphic but its tastefully done and is probably like Francis Rivers. Its clean. Its people how right rape scenes where it goes beyond what Melanie said and takes so you know exactly whats happened where I get really uncomfortable and don't like them.

    Narelle mentioned genre branding to a reader its very important. If we see romance we want HEA if we see woman's fiction we know that may not happen. We also need to know what genre it is like contemporary, historical, suspense, mystery, etc. As Narelle mentioned the blurb is very important. I have friends who will not read a book with rape in it as it brings back bad memories so it needs be mentioned in the blurb as an alert. The same with books on adoption a friend read a book that dealt with adoption where the mother had to give the child away without a choice. it wasn't mentioned at all I the information and she found it very confronting as the same had happened to her birth mother.

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    1. Hi Jenny - I'm glad you've found some authors whose books you can rely on. And yes, the blurb is so important. Sometimes though, too much can't be given away or else it lessens the tension in the story. It's not an easy balance. Thanks for commenting :)

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  10. Hi Ian - I'll pass on the message to the LORC - they'll be chuffed, especially the TV show idea!

    II too think the Indie route will be the vehicle to pave the way for the gritty issues. I also like the idea of readers having the power to choose. A bit like a buffet compared to a sit down dinner, hey?

    Thanks for your comments :)

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  11. What a great post! I've never heard that quote from Diana G. before, but "an exchange of emotion" is exactly what I strive to portray when writing any kissing (or almost kissing) scene. And since I write from first person, my books are deep POV from only the heroine, which means I have to work extra hard to get my heroes feelings and emotions conveyed to the reader. Personally, I think this is a fun way to write. And my readers seem to enjoy falling for my hero alongside my heroine. I love writing those intensely emotional scenes that make a reader feel deeply, but only once have a needed to write a scene that took the heroine farther then she wanted to go--which is in the prologue of The Bound Heart. The quick emotional journey in this scene only goes as far as needed without going into details.

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    1. Hi Dawn - I love scenes which get me emotionally involved! I went to a workshop run by Valerie Parv, an Australian icon as far as romance writing is concerned, and she said, 'If you think you've finished a scene, rewrite it with more emotion. And then do it again. And again.' I think you two would have a lot in common :) Thanks for commenting.

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  12. Andrea, this is a great post, and the comments are just as good. With my first book, Jaded, I kept the romance quite light, nothing more than kissing. (which was appropriate for my characters). But with my second book, Justified, I added a teeny bit more attraction. I hesitated at first because I don't want my books to take the minds of my readers where they don't need to go, but...my character needed that scene. Her back story included promiscuity resulting in an unplanned pregnancy, so if I had ignored her obvious weakness, then her story wouldn't have rung true. And her story arc would have been flat and cheesy. As is, I give the reader a glimpse (as in, one sentence) of the temptation she's battling, but she doesn't give in to it. Then I show how she struggles through it emotionally and psychologically. But that was THAT character. Someday I may write a character with different or deeper struggles who needs a different scene. I will never include descriptive scenes in my books. Ever. But I have a feeling I'm going to have to get more creative in how I tell stories of broken people.

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    1. Well said, Varina.

      I think your character in Justified is really well portrayed. I felt her pain, her struggles, and eventually her joy - you nailed it :)

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  13. Great post, Andrea! I wrote a similar post a few years ago and used a photo of Barbie and Ken in a secular romance novel type pose (she in a long, flowing gown, tresses flying in the wind and he bending over her with long hair and shirt unbuttoned down to his navel). I think Christian romance has come a long way (especially the indies) in recent years in portraying honesty and more "real life" situations along with that HEA. If you'll indulge me, I received a lovely message on my FB author page today from a new reader who'd read my Second Time Around. Here's what she had to say and I'm sure you can tell why I found It so gratifying: I just finished your book "Second Time Around." I wanted to say thank you for keeping it real. There are so many Christian authors who gloss over the very real, very normal part of life with the topics of love and marriage. Thank you for keeping us interested but for not taking it too far! I have become a fan for life.

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    1. Thanks JoAnn, and what fabulous feedback you received! (Well-deserved, too)

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  14. Good post Andrea. Elizabeth Berg has her characters in Tapestry of Fortunes talking about what is sexy. One character says, 'All the blatant sex these days isn’t sexy at all.' You can find the rest of the quote about what is sexy on my review of this book on Goodreads if you are interested.

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    1. Hi Dale. Great quote, isn't it? (I read your review, too.) Thanks for stopping by :)

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