Thursday, October 7, 2010

How to measure the smut?

I told you last Friday that the most common question at the “librarian speed dating” event focused on what each book was about.

Want to know the second most common question?

It was always accompanied by a slight shift in the chair, maybe a glance to one side or the other, even a blush in one case.

Then the librarian would clear her throat. “How steamy is your book?”

The first time someone asked, I choked on the grape I was eating. Then I quietly gave myself the Heimlich maneuver while the other two authors at my table used words like “closed door” and “discreet.”

When it was my turn, I shrugged. “My debut, MAKING WAVES, includes the word ‘vibrator’ 17 times.”

The number was on the tip of my tongue because I’d counted the previous week to amuse myself. It’s true, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture. The book contains a fair amount of bawdy humor, but the hero and heroine don’t consummate their relationship until fairly late in the story. Technically, the scene fades to black before the actual “moment” occurs (depending, I suppose, on how you and Bill Clinton define “moment.”)

That differs a bit from the second book in my contract, BELIEVE IT OR NOT. Though it may change if my editor requests it, the “moment” in that book lasts for nearly 20 pages and actually made me blush once on a read-through.

Both books are packed with a lot of risqué humor that might not resonate with all library patrons, and there’s a helluva lot of sexual tension in both. But steaminess? I’m not sure how to define that.

I did have to laugh when one of the librarians described an elderly patron returning to the library with a romance novel that had been recommended.

“This is the filthiest book I’ve ever read!” she declared as she thrust it at the librarian.

“Um,” said the librarian, fumbling for words.

“Where can I find more?”

How do you judge the steaminess quotient in a book? How do you measure the smut? Is it risqué language, sexual tension, the duration or graphic nature of actual love scenes, or something else entirely?

More importantly, does it matter?

In case it maters how many times the word “lust” is used, that would be 10 times for MAKING WAVES, 14 times in BELIEVE IT OR NOT, and 6 times in LET IT BREATHE.

Just thought you should know.

25 comments :

Linda G. said...

Okay, now I can't wait to read BELIEVE IT OR NOT, too. ;)

I used to judge a book's steaminess level by whether or not I was embarrassed to leave it on the coffee table when my children were little. Now that the kiddos are grown, I guess I have to go by whether or not I'm inclined to hide the book before my in-laws come to visit.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

I judge it by whether or not I feel the need to throw in a disclaimer when I recommend it to someone. I tend to love raunchy humor. One of my favorite authors is David Sedaris. One of my favorite books is The Sweet Potato Queen's Book of Love. Not for everyone. You have to "get" the humor. So I do often feel the need to warn people when I recommend these types of books.

Then again, do I really want to be friends w/someone who can't appreciate the steamy stuff? ;)

Shainer said...

That's one thing I have learned about writing older characters; the smut level and the depth of the character seems to make things a lot more fun.

Julie Weathers said...

Ah, this is difficult. I used to hear romance was porn for the bored housewife.

My mother picked up a book I was reading about some soldiers in Viet Nam. It was kind of a VN MASH and I loved it because the humor was great. She opened it to the page where I had the bookmark and wouldn't you know it, that was one of the few pages that had "cock" on it.

Mother, read me the riot act about the filth I was reading and threw it away. Now, let's keep in mind I was grown, had been out on my own and had only returned to the ranch for a visit. Equally amazing is the fact that Mother is not some sweet little granny who thinks French kissing refers to Jacque and Monique.

I picked up some books by a very well known author I considered a friend and her books were highly recommended. As I usually do, I read the first few pages. I opened random pages inside and flipped to the end. Every. Single. Page. I pulled from the middle had cock on it. I thought, "Seriously? I'm going to read a tome of nothing but lusty hero and heroine in bed?"

I finally did read the book and it was awesome. I guess I'm just drawn to pages with certain words.

I tend not to like romances with graphic loves scenes, but that's me.

Summer said...

Love that anecdote. That's going to be me in 50 years.

I have a 3 shelves of what my husband calls my "smut novels," but I don't hear him complaining when certain scenes inspire me! *wink wink*

I let my father-in-law read one of my novels, which is complete with a pretty raunchy sex scene. We just both pretended it wasn't in there. :)

demery bader-saye said...

Hi Tawna,

Such a funny story here - talking *steamy* with librarians :)

To me, a steamy scene is one I want to read more than once! Just how steamy a scene is depends on how much I've been rooting for the characters to fall in love and finally admit it to each other.

j.leigh.bailey said...

I have read, and do read, everything from "closed door" passion to full on explicit erotica. All are appropriate in their own way. I judge the level of steam by who in my life I might loan the book to. My mom would only get the "insinuated intimacies", my grandma would get a bit more heat (almost seems backward, huh?), my friend would get a little hotter, and the most explicit are my dirty little secret!

Karla Nellenbach said...

I guess for me, I judge the steaminess level by whether or not I can read the book in front of others without going beet red and fidgeting because I'm sure they KNOW exactly what I'm reading about. LOL It won't stop me from reading the story, but some books are best left on the nightstand :)

Renee N said...

Well, I'm looking forward to reading all of your books. Do you currently have any in print?

Patty Blount said...

Last year, I found a Laurell K. Hamilton novel in my library. I read it with my jaw hanging... the sex scenes were like orgies and went on for ten and fifteen pages. And they weren't all HUMAN!

I was as shocked! Shocked, I tell you! But I was also intrigued.

Turns out, the novel I'd picked at random was from the middle of a series. I went back and read the Meredith Gentry series from book 1 and suddenly, the wild sexual shenanigans made absolute perfect sense.

"Steamy" is in the mind of the reader, I suppose.

I admit, I do hide the book, SWALLOWING DARKNESS when my Catholic Deacon friend visits because "Darkness" is a man and I can't sit there, knowing this *clears throat*.

I'm a HUGE (yes, I said huge, Tawna. Calm down.) Sherry Thomas fan. Sherry writes the most sensual fiction I've ever scene. In my favorite book, NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, the estranged couple plays the hottest game of chess EVER. In another novel, DELICIOUS, Sheri turns serving dinner into foreplay. In HIS AT NIGHT, it's the simple act of reading a travel book... all innocent, even mundane things turned HOT, HOT, HOT because of the characters in context and my own willingness to go there.

abby mumford said...

there are all levels of steaminess and all levels of readers, so who's to judge what's too much other than the reader herself? himself?

i say smut in books for everyone!

Susan M. Boyer said...

Hmmm... This is tricky. For me, the steaminess factor is about the sexual tension. The smut factor is about the language and the graphic nature and duration of the love scenes. I'm not a big fan of vulgar language in love scenes, but that's just me. Somehow it diminishes the romance factor. I think Susan Elizabeth Phillips is a master of steamy without smut. She's one of my favorite romance authors, but her "moments" are definitely not off stage. :)

Danica Avet said...

That's a difficult question. I think it depends on the situation. If it's love, twue wuve, then I'm okay with any level of er, steaminess. It doesn't feel smutty when love's involved. But if it's smut for the sake of smut, then I feel dirty...and keep reading.

I remember the first book I read with an um, oral love scene. Yeah, I was 15? Maybe 16? I read the paragraph, put the book down and blushed hard for about twenty minutes. I'd look at the book, look at the wall and blush...then pick up the book and keep reading.

Notice the trend? I will work through a book no matter how "pure" or "impure" as long as the story's good and the "smut" fits the story.

Melissa Gill said...

I write for kids, so the word "suck" is considered risque. But what I want to know is when am I going to be able to get my hands on these books????? My book club keeps saying we need to read something steamy and funny and I keep saying, there's this girl Tawna Fenske that has the perfect books, but it seems like forever until they'll be released. I'm dying here.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great post. Those naughty librarians lol For me, as long as it fits the story and the characters, it's ok. Won't read sex for sex's sake.

Valeriebrbr said...

Whatever formula you use, it all equates to $ALES. Sex sells. Period. You know it, I know it and the old lady returning her book and searching for more definitely knows it. :)

Rochelle Barlow said...

I agree with Demerey and J.Leigh. I don't read full on erotica, but I do love me some steaminess. There's nothing more frustrating than rooting for these bloody characters to finally get together and then they have a peck at the end of the book or they have a passionate kiss and The End. Umm... no! I did not just root for them only to be left with, well they sure do golly gee like each other. I want at least something. Some hands, some passion, some sounds. You know? Does that sound awful? I'm sure my mother would disown me if she knew I wrote this comment. But she can't watch a PG rated movie without getting offended. I do think that the level of steaminess is really dependent upon the characters and the story. I wouldn't want Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy to engage in some full-on naughtiness, but I would want a passionate kiss and a suggestion of their marital activities. With other fictional characters, say Stephanie Plum, I wouldn't want just a kiss and a suggestion. I want a little more and maybe even a bit more than we're given. I am a closet romance reader though. I pretend to be shocked at certain scenes when discussing them with my family, but honestly am disappointed when I don't get any page action. I have been excited to read your books since I heard about them, now, I'm even more excited!

Mary Brebner said...

OMG. I LOVE that you know how many times you mentioned "vibrator" in your book. You rock. Or maybe "hum" would be a better description...or buzz? (Nah, buzzing vibrators distract. heehee)

Brandi G. said...

I like some steam, but I'm not much for vulgarity. And sex for the sake of sex? Not a fan.

Dominique said...

I don't measure smut. Personally, if it's relevant, tasteful, and not gratuitous, I don't care how much sex or sexual things occur in a book. Sex is one of things that happens in real life (anyone who didn't know that needs to track down whoever gave them "the talk" and ask why something crucial got left out), so it shouldn't be surprising in books.

Dr. Goose said...

I have never ever ever read a romance novel. I guess you could say I am a romance novel virgin. I don't know which book to lose my precious flower to. Do you have any suggestions?

Dominique said...

By the way, there's an award for you on my blog. :)
http://mavieenviolet.blogspot.com/2010/10/some-general-randomness.html

Matthew AT Banning said...

Well ... ... ...

I'm not much of a "Steamy" fan. It's right up ther with my "Don't-you-dare-utter-a-swear-word" policy.

That said, The worst book I came across was The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Here I was attracted to the fact that it had time travel!!

I've yet to find the right bleech to remove that from my brain!!!!

I'm pleased to say that they made the movie much more appropriate for younger viewers (A.K.A. got rid of the "Steamy" scenes!)

Tawna Fenske said...

Linda G, I'd actually be interested in hearing your .02 on how MAKING WAVES differs from BELIEVE IT OR NOT!

Elizabeth Flora Ross, I loooove David Sedaris! I can re-read chapters from ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY and still bust out laughing every time!

Shainer, I feel it's my place to point out that you used the word "depth" in a discussion about smut.

Julie, your mother sounds like a trip!

Summer, my book club has a running joke about how much our husbands all loved having us read Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER (even if it did result in some members calling out the name "Jamie.")

demery, I hadn't thought of it that way -- that I was talking dirty to librarians. Wonder if I could get arrested?

jleighbailey, I think your grandma and mine would get along great!

Karla, my book club read an erotica title back in February and one member who owns a retail shop found she couldn't sit there in public and read it for fear someone might know from her expression exactly what she was reading!

Renee, thanks! The first book in print won't be available until August 2011.

Patty, I'm making a note to read all those books/authors you mentioned!

Abby, yay! Smut lovers unite!

Susan, I've only read a few Susan Elizabeth Philips books, but I do love her style!

Danica, agreed, smut has its place and can be enjoyable to read when used wisely!

Melissa, aw, thanks! If your book club decides to read one of my books after it hits shelves, let me know. I'd be happy to chat with you guys in a phone conference.

Nicole, that's exactly why I closed the door on the "main event" in MAKING WAVES but left it wide open (snicker) in BELIEVE IT OR NOT. It's about what fits the stories and the characters.

Valeriebrbr, true, though one of my critique partners writes Christian romance that's decidedly smut-free. There's a market for that, and sex-free sells pretty well, too!

Rochelle, aw, thanks! Love your term "get any page action."

Mary, the vibrator references will make sense in context. Maybe.

Brandi, it can be a fine line between steamy and vulgar, and I suppose opinions will differ about where that line actually is.

Dominique, LOL about the sex-ed lesson. It does seem like some folks missed a class or two, doesn't it? Thanks for the award, btw.

Dr. Goose, if you're looking for a great blend of humor and romance, I highly recommend Jennifer Crusie's WELCOME TO TEMPTATION as a starting point. Your wife would love it, too :)

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Tawna Fenske said...

Matthew, we simu-posted there, but I'm trying to remember the steamy stuff in TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. I never saw the movie and it's been years since I read the book. Was there a graphic sex scene I'm forgetting? Will have to go back and read again!

Tawna