Writing Excuses 17.39: Writing Bodies and Intimacy, with K. M. Szpara
Key points: Content warning. Bodies and intimacy, without euphemisms. The intimacy of what you and your partner call body parts is rich with knowing yourself and/or character growth. Communication is key, and the growth of trust. Think about how the context of the scene changes the action. Think of intimate scenes as fight scenes or conversations. Or as dances? Metaphoric language, fade to black, or simple direct descriptions?
[Season 17, Episode 39]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Bodies and Intimacy, with special guest, K. M. Szpara.
[Dongwon] 15 minutes long.
[Piper] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon Song.
[Piper] I’m Piper J. Drake.
[Howard] I’m Howard Tayler.
[Mary Robinette] We are here live on the Writing Excuses cruise with a live audience of writers.
[Mary Robinette] Also, our special guest, K. M. Szpara. Kellan, say hello.
[Kellan] Hi. This is my first Writing Excuses cruise. I am the author of books such as Docile as K. M. Szpara, and I write a lot about like sex and vampires and blood.
[Mary Robinette] So, we are going to actually give you a content warning for this particular episode. We’re going to be talking about bodies and intimacy, and we’re not going to be using euphemisms. We’re going to be talking about adult acts that adults do with actual adult bodies. Adult bodies run in a full range.
[Kellan] Yes. Which is to say that as somebody who writes queer and trans bodies a lot, if this episode might trigger you on any of those axes, please take care of yourself.
[Mary Robinette] All right. So with that, let’s dive into the actual content. So you pitched this episode to us, Kellan. What are some of the things that you think about when you’re thinking about like writing bodies and intimacy? What are some important aspects of that?
[Kellan] Sure. I mean, for me, it’s so important to show especially queer and trans bodies. There’s such a mystery sort of around us, even to our own selves sometimes. We do a lot of manifesting of our own bodies when we are alone with others. I have sat down and struggled with what do I call these character’s genitals that makes me feel okay and makes the character feel okay and makes the character’s partner feel okay. Or what conflict does that bring up. So, for me, like settling on that intimacy between one or more people and being alone or with others with your body is so rich with your inner external conflict tension, but also a sense of knowing yourself and/or character growth.
[Piper] I love that. Because communication is so key. You can really see that in the development of the relationships through the course of the book, because you can find during different moments through the story that they’re more likely to trust, and there is a building of trust over time as they feel more comfortable communicating with each other and also being self-aware. Like you said. Just aware of themselves and what they need.
[Kellan] Yeah. It’s funny because I was talking earlier on this retreat with my agent, actually, and I brought up how when I first started writing, I learned to sort of like the meat and then there’s unresolved sexual tension for the entire book and they kiss at the end and that’s the prize for the reader and the characters. That was real bad for me. I’ve instead fallen into the thing which I think is very queer, which is very queer not applicable to everyone all the time, but, for me and many other people, which is that there’s sex first. Intimate moments first. Then, sort of like dealing with the emotional and/or communications that lead right up to it. Also the falling out, and how that manifests over the course of the rest of the novel or story.
[Piper] Oh, yeah. Definitely. Because I know that we think of romance in particular as being rather structured in the order, and I have even taught how there is often a progression of intimacy that happens. But once you know what that progression kind of is expected, you can also explore how it happens not quite in that order, and what that does to the character, that reaction time, and that thinking about it and exploring what works for them. I love that.
[Kellan] For me, in real life, there is no order. Right? So we do different things with different people at different times. It’s really important to me that characters feel like emotionally true. So, yeah. I mean, yeah.
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that as you’re talking about this, as emotional truth, I’m thinking about some of the scenes in Docile and the way the context of the scene changes the action. You want to talk a little bit about how you communicate context and safety or not safety?
[Kellan] Sure. The context is interesting because my first thought was like where is the sex happening.
[Kellan] Sometimes it happens in your like executive office at work, which I guess you’re allowed to do if you’re the CEO. But I think the actual context is who are you having sex with, what kind of sex you’re having, what are the power dynamics between you. So, for example, even though there are many sex scenes in Docile, there’s the blow job scene, there’s, as my editor has once said, one ass-eating scene per book as mandated by God.
[Piper] Only one? Are we like limited to one or is it at least one?
[Kellan] No, it just happens that way.
[Kellan] So. But the point of that is the sort of context is… It is, for Elijah, the protagonist, it is I am being asked to do something versus something is being done to me, and, do you feel like more of a willing participant if you are doing the thing, which presents a whole different struggle emotionally than lying back and having something happen to you. Then, later on in the novel, he gets to have his first like real consensual sexual experience and navigates that with a totally different context using language she’d never had access to before, feeling emotions he’s never felt, trying to deal with how to go about having some of the same experiences physically that you had the first time, but with somebody who is being very respectful about it.
[Mary Robinette] Can we talk about some tools that we can use to do this well? Like, one of the most useful frameworks that I was given when I was first writing the kind of intimate scenes that I do, which frequently resolve into fade to black, but was to think of them as either a conversation or a fight scene. That with a fight scene, I have to think about the geography and things that human bodies will actually do. And that with a conversation, that there is something that each person is trying to communicate to the other through the physical actions of their body.
[Dongwon] Yeah. I think a lot about fight scenes when it sort of comes to these kinds of moments in books. In part because we live in a society that can be very prudent… Not prudent, prudish and prurient about bodies and about sex and about intimacy. But we’re a society that also glorifies violence. We have lots of scenes in movies that have very extreme explicit details about what happens to a body when violence happens to it. So, so much of fiction is already engaging with the collision of bodies in these high intensity emotional moments. We’re just only allowed to talk about certain kinds of that versus what is a scene of intimacy versus a scene of violence. Functionally, in the narrative, they often perform a similar thing where two characters enter a scene with different goals, different emotional states, and they exit that scene having resolved some aspects of that, or evolved into a different emotional state. So there’s a way in which I think of these functionally as performing the same thing in the narrative, hopefully with different outcomes, hopefully one of them’s not dead by the end of it. But I think there is a way in which that, from a high level, mechanically they can be very, very similar. It really comes down to how we, as a society, can think about and interact with bodies in that way.
[Piper] Actually, I want to provide a contrasting approach. Because I’m really well known for fight scenes, especially in my romantic suspense, and body count, especially a lot of my other work. But I write romance. One of the things is while I have combat scenes and fight scenes in my stories, I often think about moments of intimacy as dance. It’s one of those things that I didn’t do on purpose, but because I was a dancer, and I was in dance from age 3 to 28 actively, and also, it’s a part of my meet cute with my partner, Matthew J. Drake, that we danced together and we both enjoyed West Coast swing and blues fusion, that I often think of intimacy scenes and how I choreograph them as dance. Whether that’s horizontal or standing up…
[Piper] Or a little bit of both and also the logistics of lifts. Right? Like it actually translates better for me. If it involves more than two partners, also, choreography helps a lot for that because what bodies can do. Right? Like, one person may be very bendy and one person may not be very bendy, and also, like, what are the logistics of actually being able to lift two people. Like a lot more of that actually translates better in my head to dance choreography. So that’s another alternative.
[Dongwon] I think of fight scenes is also being about dance, right? It’s about that movement and control and… In part, I love martial arts movies. I know we’re wondering further off-topic at this point.
[Dongwon] But I do think dance is a really useful thing to think about in terms of that interaction and that give-and-take in that interplay of power and connection and emotion are all things that flow back and forth in this.
[Howard] Let me circle this back real quick. One of my favorite MCU fight scenes is the one in Civil War where Falcon says to Spidey, “Have you ever been in a fight before? Usually there’s not this much talking.” Conversation during intimacy to me is one of the most wonderful things to read. I don’t just want the choreography, I want dialogue. I want… It’s a conversation. It’s much more than just blocking. Much more than that.
[Kellan] I am also somebody who’s deeply in love with a first-person present point of view. I can get away with it as much as I can. But I feel like not everyone chooses it and uses it to their full advantage. So, for me, like being in a different first-person point of view for a sex scene, and then flopping the points of view for the next sex scene, like, you are not just getting the… You, the reader, gets to see the conversation between the two people, but then you get to see later how the other character might have experienced that sex or contact totally different from the other character. I had a story out with two trends boyfriends. They both had different physical needs when it came to sex. So you really got to live in their heads and in the dialogue.
[Piper] Yeah. I think the progression is also important through the course of the story, because, again, we’re also seeing the progression of how they work together. To come back to the point about communication as well, and dialogue, I think it’s amazing and awesome, and I love it. I’m so into it. It’s also really hot, I think, in romance that there is consent not just upfront, but repeatedly through each step of that interaction, and, if there’s not, what are the reactions to it.
[Mary Robinette] These are, I think, wonderful points. Let’s take a moment to pause for our book of the week, which is actually by Kellan.
[Kellan] Wow, what a surprise.
[Kellan] That book would be First Become Ashes. It is a novel whose pitch I did not practice before this. It takes place in a cult. In the first chapter, they are all liberated from the cold against their wills. They were raised to believe that you could do magic. So when the FBI says you cannot do magic, and also, everything you believe is fake, one of them, Lark, spends the rest of the novel sort of unraveling what that means for him as a person, grappling with beliefs and his own body, especially since he took sort of like a sacred chastity vow with a literal chastity device. So, there’s some really interesting sex that comes out on the other end of that.
[Mary Robinette] That sounds very exciting. It’s called First Become Ashes by K. M. Szpara.
[Mary Robinette] So, let’s move on to one of my favorite things, which is talking about how things can go terribly wrong. So let’s talk about some tropes and euphemisms and ways of discussing this that are maybe not the most intimate. For instance, I had to narrate a book that literally had the line, “She released his love snake from its denim prison.”
[Piper] Purple prose.
[Kellan] I mean, if you say that during sex and the other person doesn’t laugh and then you will have a great time… That would be a cool scene.
[Piper] I mean, yeah. Or is it monster f-ing? I would drop in f-bombs. We are going adult. All right. So, monster fucking is a thing. It is a very… It’s rising in popularity right now. I know of at least two books with a prehensile penis going on. So, love snake would be applicable.
[Kellan] Yeah. I mean, people ask me this a lot, like, how do you keep writing so many sex scenes? Does the language get stale? How do you… Like, I name this very bluntly. I usually use cock in sexual situations, but then you’ll see that I use dick when someone’s just like alone thinking about their bodies. I… One ass eating per book. It’s like does butt sound sexy enough? Like, I do want it to be hot, right? So, like, sex is both about characters and tension and intimacy, but also butts. So, like, for me, it’s picking these words that titillate not just for the reader but for you as the author. I mean, I am…
[Kellan] Be turned on by what you write, is, like, sort of a mantra that I think.
[Mary Robinette] Well, I think that’s true with any emotion that you’re trying to provoke in a reader, that you are your own first reader. So I think that’s a very natural thing. Not something that people should be ashamed of even though we are constantly told by different forms of media, especially anything that is remotely off of mainstream, that you shouldn’t do that thing and should somehow be ashamed of it.
[Kellan] I actually thought I was a little bit odd because I have… I don’t like to write the word butt because it’s not pretty to me. So I like bum or behind or ass better as like a hotter thing when I’m writing. I’ll actually have an editor call me up, and be like, “Do you have a problem with butt?” I’m like, “No. It just… I don’t like the way the word looks.”
[Mary Robinette] It is not a pretty word on the page. Like with the Regency, I get a lot… It’s buttocks.
[Kellan] Yeah, buttocks is almost hotter to me. Or bum is more hot, hotter to me. Behind can be really hot, but then it gets confusing.
[Howard] I’ve found great uses for it, but they haven’t been intimate uses.
[Kellan] Well, the words I struggle with are always like what do we call testicles. Balls, which is also not like a super sexy word. Then, like, apple, which makes me sound like you’re saying you’re an apple.
[Mary Robinette] Weird side note. In Icelandic, a euphemism, or a term of endearment, for like when you’re looking at a little baby and it’s like, “Oh, how cute you are. Aren’t you a little ass hole? What a cute little ass hole you are. What a little raisin ass hole.”
[Piper] Yeah. The visual that I just had.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, yeah.
[Mary Robinette] My gift to you. My gift.
[Dongwon] One thing I was thinking about is something you touched on very briefly before, Kellan. I think there’s a way in which… There’s a demand and hunger for queer stories, but a lot of times, those queer stories elide over queer bodies. Right? I am also trans and queer myself, and one of the things that I become frustrated with is somehow… Sometimes that metaphoric language, sometimes that fade to black, sometimes being a little bit more clever about how you’re describing certain body parts can kind of unintentionally erase the bodies of the people who are being presented on the page. Right? So, how much do you find that that directness is useful or not? I mean, because there’s also kind of things where sometimes there are inevitably gender valences attached to certain body parts. That’s become complicated.
[Kellan] I got you. I mean, one of the reasons I keep writing very explicit sex scenes, especially for my trans characters and my queer characters, there is this air of like are you exploiting bodies that are already exploited a lot. Like, us trans people, it’s very much like the what’s in your pants question. I answer that repeatedly because I want these characters to have agency over their bodies. Like, for example, in the novelette I wrote, Small Changes over Long Periods of Time, we have a trans character who… He’s a trans man, he calls his clit a clit, he calls it… At one point, like, engorged like a swollen tick. Which is, like, not necessarily something that’s like superhot, but, like, is the vibe for him right now. It’s like sometimes our bodies, like, do feel like hot, but also kind of weird and gross at the same time. I have this agenda, which is not simply to write sex scenes because I think they’re hot, but also because I want other people to think that I’m hot. I want other people to think that people like me are hot, and know that we are having good sex. Like, queer and trans sex is experimental in that we don’t learn about it growing up necessarily. We are putting ourselves on the map as we go. I feel so honored to be part of that conversation.
[Mary Robinette] I think that’s wonderful. I also think that that segues us really nicely into our homework assignment.
[Kellan] Yes. So, for homework, I would like you to write a character undressing, either alone or with others.
[Mary Robinette] So, you’re going to do a little bit of exploration.
[Mary Robinette] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.