By T.J Pennington
As a professional freelance editor, I’ve learned to dread the appearance of certain things in manuscripts. Colons and semi-colons, for example, seem to confuse almost everyone. Misspellings are headaches in and of themselves, given that the rules for spelling in English differ depending on what country the writer is in—and what’s considered standard English for that particular country.
But the two things that make me headdesk the most are coyness and historical inaccuracy. And I feel so strongly about both that I think each deserves its own article. So let’s start with coyness.
I will start by saying that there is a time and a place to be coy about sexual matters. If the person speaking is a maiden aunt, or a lady or gentleman trying to discuss sexual matters publicly without shocking or offending society, a young teen whose upbringing has been so sheltered that she simply doesn’t know any other words to use…yes, coyness would be appropriate then, for it would indicate something of the way the character spoke, thought and felt.
But there are also times when euphemisms simply don’t fit the character’s point of view. I have vivid recollections of a book I read (but did not edit) whose main character was a pirate captain. The pirate described in gory anatomical detail all the tortures he would visit on his captives—and then stopped to wax poetic about the “delicate pink rosebud” of a nearly naked and well-muscled young prisoner.
Now, the pirate also went into raptures about the captive’s “ivory” complexion—keep in mind that the captive was supposed to be an experienced sailor on a merchant vessel and that this was roughly three hundred years before sunblock—and the defiance in “his sea-blue eyes”. However, the “delicate pink rosebud” was what really got me. Because the character didn’t have any problems swearing, threatening violence or being violent. He was a realistic sea-going thief and murderer, and I loved that. But every time the young blond captive appeared, the pirate turned into a little milk-and-water miss from the Regency, babbling bad poetry (“Phoebus-kissed locks of my belovéd,” anyone?) and unable to call an arsehole an arsehole. Or a cock a cock, for that matter. I shudder to recall that Pirate Pete blithered on about his boyfriend’s “impressive foremast,” instead.
So if I were drawing up a list of rules, that would be number one–make sure the character’s language fits his or her personality. Because honestly, if you’ve got a rough, tough, hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ guy as your point-of-view character, he’s probably not going to think of his penis as “my bald-headed butler” on a daily basis. And if another man is pressed up against this tough guy in a crowd and Tough Guy can feel the other man’s dick, he’s most likely not going to be thinking,”I could feel the stranger’s monstrous, mountainous manhood against me.”
(I particularly dislike “manhood” as a euphemism, as there’s a lot more to manhood than merely possessing a penis. I’ve known plenty of people who possessed penises who were, and who remain, dicks rather than men. And yes, pun very much intended.)
Now, there are some publishers who–understandably–encourage euphemisms; you’re not likely to find much profanity or vulgarity in an inspirational romance, for example. But most of the time, the dreadful euphemisms that are so at odds with the rest of the characterization are the responsibility, not of editors, but of the writers themselves. Why? For one, some or all of the following reasons:
1) They want to send a signal that the sex is an expression of love.
Since sex physically operates the same way whether the parties involved love each other or not, the writers often resort to having one character finding unexpected aspects of another character attractive. I’m not certain why this is supposed to tell me that the characters love each other, as it’s possible in real life to find someone gorgeous and not love him or her in the slightest. But in fiction, it seems to be a kind of shorthand: sex + finding the other person beautiful/handsome = True Love.
2) It’s the only way that they’ve ever seen sex scenes written in the books that they’ve read.
Whether coyness is still common in het romances, I don’t know; it’s been a long time since I read any. But I used to read them at my grandmother’s—mostly because during the summer after my mother’s death, I got dropped off at her house daily while my aunt went to work. And there was nothing else there to read. So I remember the emphasis on manhoods and lotus blossoms and raped women consenting and not consenting. (I was quite surprised later to find that was a quote from Shakespeare.)
And this happened even in books where both the hero and the heroine were modern businesspeople and supposedly sophisticated members of society. Somehow, the same paisley language kept being used, whether it was appropriate for the characters or not.
I have a feeling that many writers, especially many new writers of male/male romances—both men and women—simply haven’t realized that there are other ways of writing romance, and that same-sex romance does not have obey opposite-sex romance tropes.
Nor is this surprising. I’ve read that painters used to paint horses with human-like eyelashes framing their eyes–even though horses do not have human-like eyelashes—because horses had always been painted that way. If you ask a child to paint a stream flowing through a wood, the child will probably crayon the stream in blue, even though water is not blue. It only looks blue in photographs where it’s reflecting the sky. We see things, not necessarily as they are, but as we are used to seeing them. It’s a trick, not of the eye, but of the mind. And it’s very, very hard to get past that.
Finally, we come to the most frustrating reason of all.
3) The writers—or perhaps the publishers–genuinely want to make the sex scene beautiful.
Unfortunately, what one person finds beautiful, another may not—and that includes both coyness and purple prose. Which is why you get passages like this:
“Out of one of his luminous eyes a single tear dropped like silvery jasper. Yet even now his eloquent phallic erection stood its ground. His brain and heart might quake; this rose-gold warrior, primed with battle-juice, was too forthright and too wise yet to surrender.”
“Rose-gold warrior”? “Primed with battle-juice”? And is it possible for an erection not to be phallic? Also, I doubt that “forthright,” “wise” or “eloquent” are good descriptions for any sex organ. (If you do happen to know of an honest, intelligent and/or talkative penis, I am deeply sorry for you.)
But I’m sure that the author–Tanith Lee, in a short story called “The Woman”–thought this passage was lovely.
Second, there are quite a number of people who are unwilling to use any but euphemistic terms on the grounds that anything else—whether crude or clinical—is somehow inappropriate. Either they fear that they will offend readers, or the non-euphemistic terms offend them.
Pity the editor, therefore, who has to struggle through coy, overwritten sex scenes…and who then must convince the writer that “in another moment his hand invaded my mossy crevice” (The Life and Amours of the Beautiful, Gay and Dashing Kate Percival by Kate Percival ), “the man searched hungrily among swollen cacti for the right one to suck” (The Pleasure Chateau by Jeremy Reed), “with the come from myself strewn like white filigree” (The Last Ship by William Brinkley), or “our caged vipers hissed for release” (The Boy With Black Eyes by Brian Lucas) are not beautiful euphemisms, but, in fact, will make readers alternately groan and burst out laughing.
It’s a problem, because no writer likes the editing process. Every writer hopes that the editor won’t change too much—that, in fact, the editor will see that the work is both brilliant and artistic just as it is, and doesn’t need to be changed. I don’t blame anyone for this. It’s understandable. I’m in the same boat.
However…when the writer likes certain coy phrases or euphemisms, the writer may repeat them.
When this happens, I, as an editor, have to pick and choose my battles. I may not be able to read the phrase “his massive shaft” without thinking of either a black private investigator from the 1970s or a coal mine…but I’ll let the phrase stand if that means that I can say, “You already used that phrase once. You don’t have to use it in every one of the next nineteen sentences in the scene.” This way the author feels that he or she has gotten some use out of a pet phrase, at any rate. And I get to feel that one such use is better than twenty.
Of course, coy phrases about genitalia aren’t the only ones that recur. Sometimes you run into a writer who insists on telling you over and over that the lover of the protagonist not only possesses the aforementioned massive shaft but that he has “a strong, masculine scent.”
This one pops up a lot, and I have yet to decipher it. The description is generally given before the protagonist and the love interest have sex, so it’s not that the lover smells of come. The smell can’t be sweat, because men and women both sweat. And speaking of that…the scent is described as “strong” as well as “masculine.” Is the author trying to convey that the character is muscular—or is he or she saying that the character reeks? According to the sentence structure, that’s what the author is saying…but I’m not entirely sure that’s what he or she intends to say.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so much that the phrase is badly crafted as it is which character is saying it. When the author is in a hurry to establish that the protagonist really does deserve the attention of the love interest, he or she may not pay attention to what such a speech implies about the speaker.
For example, it’s fine if the guy who is lusting after Paul Protagonist describes Paul as having handsome features, a lean and sinewy body and a tight arse. However, if Paul’s doting father introduces himself by describing his son that way, I’m going to start thinking of some deeply wrong reasons for the man to be checking out his son’s body and rear end.
That said, I sympathize with the authors. I do. It is not easy to write love scenes or sex scenes, and most writers are trying not only to do so skillfully but to write something passionate, believable and unique. And it’s particularly difficult to do so in a historical, where half of the sexual vocabulary that the audience is familiar with doesn’t exist yet.
But—if you have a choice—opt for simplicity and clarity rather than ornate descriptions. Calling a cock a cock is infinitely less sporfle-worthy than describing it as “a rare bud of an exotic flower about to explode in a bloom of erotica” (33: A Gay Love Story by J.J. South).
T. J. Pennington is a freelance professional editor. She has edited Frost Fair by Erastes, Normal Miguel by Erik Orrantia, The Glass Minstrel by Hayden Thorne, Prove A Villain by K.C. Warwick and the upcoming A Hundred Little Lies by Jon Wilson. She also reviews books for Speak Its Name, the only review site on the web focusing on gay historicals, and runs Femgenficathon on LiveJournal, an annual celebration–now in its seventh year–of great women in fiction. She is currently working on a novel that could best be described as “medieval steampunk.” She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and can be contacted at email@example.com.