I guess that’s the first rule I broke. In crafting my erotic novel, Hot Water, I had no idea of the rules for writing a romance and no intention of finding out. I didn’t even think of the book as a romance until well after it sold. The story just came to me, and I wrote it.
Okay, maybe it isn’t quite that simple. The truth is, Hot Water started as a short story for an anthology called Aqua Erotica. That was the plan, anyway. Three Rivers Press planned to print Aqua Erotica as a waterproof Durabook, and the main rule was that each story must have something to do with water. That I could do.
“Sex scenes don’t have to be graphic to be hot.
What they must be is REAL…”
For several years, too busy teaching and writing to take extended vacations, I treated myself to summer weekends at Two Bunch Palms, a famous old spa resort in Desert Hot Springs, California, not far from my home. Two Bunch Palms has been a Hollywood hideaway since the ’40s, and there is a magic to it. Who knows how many story treatments, screenplays, maybe even novels, were written in its shaded bowers and historic suites full of antiques and stained glass. Each time I visit Two Bunch Palms, I feel a creative power seep from its hot mineral water into my pores. Magic.
Of course, the Aqua Erotica stories also had to be unusual and include hot sex. I could do that, too. For some unknown reason, I seem to have a talent for writing sex scenes without a single anatomical reference or silly euphemism. Sex scenes don’t have to be graphic to be hot. What they must be is REAL, solidly based on well-developed, believable characters and situations. For me, this also means place, setting. That lush desert oasis with its magic water is almost a character itself, as is the red Lamborghini.
The believability rule applies to all good fiction. What John Gardner (The Art of Fiction) calls the "fictional dream," never, ever to be broken. Because the minute the reader comes across a silly euphemism or a paragraph that sounds like the author just decided to turn you on, the believability rule is broken and you're pulled out of the story. In fact, sex scenes are hottest when we’re fully immersed in the characters and there are plenty of emotional layers, laughter or tears or... Well, I won’t give away too much.
Anyway, six pages into Hot Water, I knew this was no short story. This was a novel. I kept writing. The story flowed through me like nothing I’d ever written. It poured over me like the silky mineral water at Two Bunch Palms that comes from the ground at nearly 150 degrees and has to be cooled for its fabulous grotto pool.
“The believability rule applies to all good fiction.”
Here’s another truth of how the novel evolved. I’d been writing mainstream fiction for years and getting “close, but no cigar,” as they say. So, there was a more personal rule I had to break. Call it the “good girl” rule. I got angry. Enough is enough. To hell with what anyone might think. This is my career we’re talking about! If Hot Water was a novel, I determined to make it so sexy and fun and short no one could turn it down. It sold in three weeks! To a major New York publisher, Berkley/Penguin. (I don't know who made the decision, but Hot Water is always shelved in bookstores not in the romance section, but with mainstream fiction).
And, as the title implies, Hot Water is all about breaking rules. The heroine, using the assumed name, Julia Reeves, deliberately gets into hot water, literally and figuratively. She just doesn’t know how deep or how hot. Let’s face it; it’s pretty hard for a mid-western housewife to escape for a weekend at a lush spa resort in the California desert, rent a red Lamborghini, and hire a gorgeous male escort for hot sex, without, well, a complication or two. But that’s her fantasy, and, in a way, the story becomes a fantasy within a fantasy.
As it turns out, William, the name Julia gives her “escort,” surpasses her wildest fantasies. Ours too. I mean, if you’re going to imagine a younger man as a blend of Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp, a man with an uncanny affinity for women and fulfilling their needs, you might as well go all the way and make him intellectual as well. The biggest sex organ is, after all, the brain. A male escort with a degree in philosophy? Hey, it could happen. And that opened what I playfully call, the deeper levels in Hot Water.
“When a woman breaks society’s rules, we may admire her and even reward her…”
So, the fantasy goes even further, and becomes every woman’s fantasy, not only the ultimate escape, but the possibility of finding the ever-illusive key to making love last. That key may lie in nothing short of revising history and our concept of sin and evil, a concept laid squarely on the shoulders, or more accurately, between the legs, of woman, Eve.
Which brings me to the final rule I wanted to break, a rule found, not in romance, but in mainstream fiction, film, and yes, life. When a woman breaks society’s rules, we may admire her and even reward her, i.e. Marilyn Monroe, but in the end, she is almost always punished: Thelma and Louise, Anna Karenina.
Not Julia. There are higher rules at work here, rules of the human spirit, and if the ending of Hot Water is punishment, it is one we all emphatically want.
Now, if only there were a waterproof Durabook edition so Hot Water could be read as the “ultimate spa novel” should—while soaking!
Ten How-To Tips For Writing Romantic Scenes
(If these seem to apply to all fiction, they do!)
1. Keep it real. Character-based stories hold us tighter and feel most real. Know your characters. Listen to them. Follow them. They want to fall in love, and the more outrageous their choice, the more barriers, the better. Isn’t life like that?
2. It’s in the details. Show, don’t tell. Tidbits of background show how he/she is captivated by the other. Be specific, unique and sensory: As she turned to go, a hint of Arpege reached him, and her laugh. It seemed to dance in the air, joyous, resolute, as if to say, come with me, yes, but I will not be held back. The way his mother, when he was five, swung him up, carried him piggyback along the Seine not to miss Paris.
3. Don’t forget wine and roses—or a less cliché equivalent. As women know, atmosphere, like foreplay, matters. Sun glistening on snow, tall pines whispering, and a flat boulder perfect for laying out their thick, sealskin blankets. The cognac burned...
4. Location, location, location. The moon peeked through the trees, reflecting off an oval pool some fifteen feet across, a waterfall tumbling over rocks at one end... She lowered herself in. Naked.
5. Variety is the spice. Make each love scene different, in tone, emotion, setting, level of tension, etc. Love is intense, confusing, often ridiculous. Use the POV and conflicting thoughts/feelings of both lovers, the possibilities are infinite, including big doses of laughter.
6. No throbbing manhoods, please. Avoid anatomical terms except for humor or surprise. How funny, the penis! Plenty of ways to shape sentences in sex scenes without resorting to ridiculous euphemisms. An action, facial expression, dialogue: “But for now," she said, "I just want this." Unzipping him, her eyes widening. "Oh, yes, this!"
7. Metaphor and allusion work too: She could only brace against him, carried by his hunger. Feeding on her. She was the flesh offered up to the unknown, and at the same time, fed by it... She wanted to see it in his face, the depth of it, this force that drove everything, grew crops, filled rivers, moved planets... In moments he made a wrenching cry and shudder like a soldier brought down in battle and slumped against her. Dying, they called it in the Renaissance. "And when he dies cut him out in little stars and he will make the face of heaven so fine... (Hot Water, pg. 85, allusion to Romeo And Juliet)
8. When in doubt, fade out. If you are uncomfortable writing a fully “fleshed out” sex scene, the result will probably be awkward or worse.
Concentrate on getting us there, making the characters’ feelings/actions/problems clear and real, then fall back on a cleverly orchestrated fade out. As in a horror flick, the monster is often scarier if we don’t see it.
9. Shock & awe—or at least surprise & delight. Keep the plot
twisting and hopping, always based on your quirky characters, always real, never contrived, at least in the world you’ve created. Move! Keep the reader on her/his toes and the pages turning.
10. Aim For Density. Density is achieved when all the fictional balls are kept in the air at the same time: plot, characterization, setting, tone, irony, humor, crafted language, a sense of past, present and foreshadowing what’s to come. Density immerses us in layers and layers, all at once; readers stay intrigued, involved, and surprised. Never, ever stop and do just one thing—like, okay, now for some historical stuff. Yuck! (See # 1 - 9)
Kathryn Jordan has taught all over the world, from Egypt to the Philippines and, most recently at Amistad High School in Indio, California. She has written for such diverse publications as Westways, Palm Springs Life, and Scuba Magazine. HOT WATER was published by Berkley/Penguin in 2006, and Kathryn toured her "Ultimate Spa Novel" through 7 states, including spa resorts and her famous "Hot Water House Parties." (Hey, tough job, but someone's gotta do it.)
Her new novel, THE GLAD GIRL, based on the true love story of Silent Screen star, Gladys Walton and Al Capone, will be released soon. Kathryn is available as a speaker and offers writing workshops and editing/consulting as a "Manuscript Mechanic—and Therapist." She lives in Bermuda Dunes, California and now writes full time.
Contact: email@example.com or (760) 345-0569 www.kathrynjordan.com or www.hotwaterthenovel.com
Stay tuned for Kathryn Jordan’s upcoming workshops on WOW!
Kathryn’s articles featured on WOW!:
Two Bunch Palms Getaway with Kathryn Jordan
Getting Into Hot Water with Kathryn Jordan