RAVENSWOOD — Good sex writing is hard to come by.
In fact, it's such a tricky topic for writers that the Literary Review established the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 1993, a dubious "honor" that's been presented to the likes of Tom Wolfe and John Updike (a bad sex hall-of-famer).
McNair, an associate professor at Columbia College, is quick to note that the seminar, sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference, is aimed at those interested in penning realistic fiction and non-fiction, not "bodice rippers." E L James wannabes, this is not the class for you.
Bad sex writing, according to McNair, tends to stem from two opposing instincts: avoiding the subject altogether or overwriting it into oblivion.
Underwritten scenes will "let the lights dim and then it's the next morning and the couple's having bacon and eggs," she said.
On the other end of the spectrum are writers who make it "sound so magical and so wonderful, the writing becomes really purple."
Consider this passage from Manil Suri's "City of Devi," Bad Sex Award winner in 2013: "We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.”
Which brings us to McNair's first piece of advice: "Don't try to over-euphemize."
Why so much bad sex writing?
For starters unlike dialogue, setting the scene and character development, sex is one aspect of the craft that many schools tend to shy away from teaching, McNair said.
"It's fraught with all sorts of political correctness and gender issues," she said.
Another problem is self-censorship.
"I think people are embarrassed," said McNair, adding that writers often worry that "the work reflects on them."
She offered up the example of Chicago author Gina Frangello, whose mother-in-law stopped speaking to her due to the graphic sexual content in her fictional work "My Sister's Continent."
"People let that get in the way" of writing honestly, said McNair.
Of course, for non-fiction writers, the assumption that authors are working from their own experience is a fair one.
The question becomes "What do you want to expose about yourself?" said McNair. "If you're doing it right, you're really exposing something about your own awareness. You're opening this one last door."
McNair herself once had a piece published in a literary journal that dealt with a one-night stand she had in Cuba. The ramifications hit her when she received word that the work had been accepted.
"Now I'm going to be outed for this," she thought. "It did sort of stun me."
Overriding the self-censor is the first step toward good sex writing, said McNair.
During her two-and-a-half hour workshop, she plans to conduct word games aimed at getting students comfortable with the language of sex.
"It's like the 'Vagina Monologues,'" she said. "Just say it."
She also stresses that word choice and the sex scene itself should always been in service to the characters and the story.
"You have to listen to the tone of the piece," she said, in determining whether to use "breast" or "boob," for example. "Let the characters feel their way."
Perhaps most critical, she said, is getting writers to understand that good sex writing is not about sex — it's about the emotions surrounding the act.
It's about grief, desire, etc., "told through a scene that includes sex," she said. "It's not just about the release and the wonder. It might be about the loneliness after."
McNair also encourages writers to consider that bad sex could make for good sex writing.
"Grapple with that," she said. "It's more interesting territory."
A few seats are still available for "Hot Flash," 6:30-9 p.m., Monday, Lillstreet Loft, 4437 N. Ravenswood Ave. Register here; cost is $69.