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Sweet vs. Sexy: What You Need to Know About Writing Both

In the world of romance, “sweet” has a very specific connation. A “sweet romance” is one where the bedroom door remains firmly closed so that the reader cannot see inside. Readers who prefer characters who don’t have sex before marriage choose these books, but so do those who are fine with the sex so long as they don’t have to see it. Though this sounds as if readers fall into two camps, pro-sex or anti-sex, the truth is that reader preferences fall all along the sweet-to-erotic axis.

It’s important for an author to keep her position on the sensual spectrum relatively constant, at least within a single series or genre.

Once a reader discovers an author she likes, she expects to be treated to the same heat level when she buys more books. The reader of sweeter romances does not want graphically descriptive terminology when she runs across a love scene. She prefers more allusions, more metaphoric language. The reader of erotic romance prefers to know exactly what’s going on, with no lace veil of language between her and the action.

Luckily, in today’s marketplace, there is room for all kinds of romance, from perfectly sweet to utterly erotic. Before you decide where your romance will fit, ask yourself where you are comfortable. Do you read every word of the sex scenes in the romances you enjoy, or do you tend to skim them to get on with the plot? Are you at ease with explicit terminology in your daily life?

If you’ve never written a romance and are up against your first sex scene, let it flow naturally. (Like the rest of your book, it can be edited into shape later.)

Sex scenes in romance novels are no different than any other scenes. Each one serves a purpose in either the arc of the plot or the arc of one or more characters or else it doesn’t belong in the book. Some characters will want to have protracted interludes while others may like it quick and dirty, but the number of words doesn’t change the quality of the scene or where it falls on the scale of sexiness. A paragraph can be wildly erotic or you can spend three pages getting to second base.

The concept of explicit versus erotic was a difficult one for me to grasp for a long time. When I started writing a series about women who sold sex toys, I was sure I was going to end up writing scenes too erotic for my comfort level. But that’s not how it worked. Instead, one of my readers told me “you write sweet romances with sex toys.” After I thought for a while, I realized that what she meant was that the sex, while explicit, is less important as a physical activity than as an emotional one.

At the end of the sexual encounter, will the reader think, “Wow, what a great blow job”? Because if so, you’ve probably written a wonderful erotic scene. If they think, “I am so happy he finally trusted her enough to let her do that,” you’re probably landing on the sweeter end of the spectrum. (And if readers aren’t sure what exactly happened, you’re in full sweet with the bedroom door closed!)

Once upon a time, you could depend on certain subgenres of romance to provide certain types of reads. Regencies were likely to be sweeter than romantic suspense, for example and one of the differences between “paranormal romance” and “urban fantasy” was the sexual content.

One of the changes wrought in the industry of late is that you cannot simply rely on genre to provide a heat rating. If you want to write a scorching Regency, you won’t be alone. Want to write a medium-heat romantic suspense? You can come and sit with me—the Harp series is heavy on the action and emotion, lighter on sexual content. Sweet paranormal? I’m sure there are readers out there anxious for your books.

There are places in writing where stretching yourself beyond your limits is a good idea. It’s always important to open your mind, your heart, to push yourself. But don’t betray your beliefs just for the market. If you don’t believe whips belong in the bedroom, don’t write them there just because you think that’s what’s selling. Readers who do like whips will be able to tell and they won’t trust you. In this instance, I’d say it’s not “write what you know,” but “write what you enjoy, or imagine you’d enjoy.” After all, it all comes down to the basic truth that sex is pleasurable, and reading it should be, too, whatever heat level it is.

Column by Laura K. Curtis, author of MIND GAMES (November 2015, Penguin).
Laura gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing less dry short crime
stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. She is a
member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime. In 2015 alone, she has two
romantic suspense novels, a self-published contemporary in her “Goody’s Goodies”
series about women who sell adult toys, and a short Gothic piece in Protectors 2: Heroes.

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