Okay, but what's the sex like?

Seeking opinions: Should my intended audience determine the amount of sex in my books? And oh yeah, who is my intended audience?

sketch of two women embracing in sheets
Lovely illustration by Twitter user @agfanart, used with permission. Search for #fanart -- there are so many talented people out there!

Heads up: This post is fundamentally about choosing an audience and how to relate to them, but it does briefly mention body parts and sex acts and things of that nature. If that makes you squirm, turn back now.

Right. So I’m going to go ahead and predict what I think you’ll say to me at the end of this:

Stop overthinking it, they’re your books, and you can include or leave out whatever you want.

Hey, I’m inclined to agree. But overthinking is my default setting, and talking things through helps me calm it all down, so off we go...

There exists in the world, both in print and online, an abundance of advice for new writers. You can get tips to increase the quality of your writing, improve your process, yada yada.

What I’m stuck on at the moment is more about the business aspect of writing. According to some people in the industry, it’s never too early to strategize about breaking through to the publishing side, whether it’s via traditional or self-publishing.

I’m not saying I’m happy about this. Believe me, I want to live in a vacuum where I just write for myself and think about everything else later. But I can’t unread things I’ve already seen, so in between days where I do manage to write without inhibition, I end up thinking about what I’m “supposed” to do.

Anyway, as I see it, one area of overlap between business and the creative side is knowing who you’re writing for. It helps you figure out which agents and publishers are most likely to want to work with you, and it can also help guide your tone or shape your plot a bit, if you’re struggling to find some direction.

This issue has troubled me to no end, and I’ll tell you why: I’m writing about lesbians.

(Note: To make it easier to read and write this post, I'm using general terms instead of repeating long, specific ones. When I say “lesbian” or “gay,” assume that I could also mean any combo of the following: bi- or pansexual, person of color, transgender, nonbinary, differently abled, and other minorities. I think the issues I’m discussing — striving to fit into a broader audience and showing “different” kinds of sex — apply to each of these populations in similar ways.)

I’m not claiming to have read every mainstream mystery or thriller in the world, but of the ones I have, I can’t immediately think of any with gay romantic leads. There are some beautiful LGBTQ+ works out there that have achieved hetero-level fame status, but none that I’m familiar with in my genre of choice.

Now, am I in any way assuming my novel/series could be so amazing and popular that it will eventually land on an endcap of every Target in America? No. But would I be mad if that happened? Also no. Why not try to reach as many people as I can?

So I’m at a crossroads that those pesky advice people seem to think is important from the beginning: Who is your audience?

Since the inception of the idea for my work-in-progress, I’ve considered it mainstream. Sure, it’s genre fiction, with both crime-solving and a little bit of sci-fi and romance going on. But in general I think it’s pretty relatable to a wide audience.

At first, naively, it didn’t occur to me that the gay thing could be an issue. (LOL, right?) I was like “There’s special agents and intrigue and unexplainable shit, and lots of people are into that!” But the truth is, even today, if you look at the kinds of numbers that mark success in the entertainment industry (sales and ratings), it’s white, male-dominated stories in this genre that are most often the ones that become hits.

Same for straight folks.

If I want my novel to have it’s best chance at getting eyeballs on it, do I shoot for a traditional mass publishing audience and have it compete for a chance to see the light of day amidst way more books that include a sexual orientation way more people fall into? Or do I tailor it to a niche publisher who might be more inclined to help it find a home in the smaller world of lesbian fiction?

My gut says the former. But is that unrealistic?

Okay. If you’ve been waiting for the sex part of the conversation, it’s, shall we say, coming now.

(OMG, I know, I’m sorry. My wife’s family is all about bad puns, and I’ve been ruined.)

Let’s say I shoot for a more narrow lesbian audience. Now there are different expectations to consider. Naked expectations. I did a little bit of research here, by which I mean I read four novels and tried a fifth but hated it and stopped a third of the way through. Two were from bigger publishers, the others from boutique outfits. All of them — a coming-of-age drama, a romantic comedy, a YA fantasy, a modern-day vampire tale, and a journalism thriller — had explicit sex.

Y’all, even the otherwise PG teen fantasy suddenly featured nipples, fingers inside each other, writhing, fluids, the whole shebang.

I’m sure those five books are too small a data pool for any real analysis, but a 100% result can’t be a total fluke. I didn’t read any reviews or go for covers that broadcasted “Live! Nude! Girls!” My choices were random beyond having numerous four- or five-star ratings. None of them was marketed as erotica or even primarily romance. Maybe that was because none had more than two significant, detailed sex scenes, which didn’t constitute the majority of the content, in the grand scheme of things.

Regardless, this was different to me than any comparable novels I’d read about straight characters. Of course sex was implied, but it was more like the woman slipped out of a lacy negligee, the man pulled him to her, “and they fell onto the bed…” Cut to the next chapter. We, the audience, were not privy to the details of every lick, thrust, and moan along the way.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the ellipsis approach; I know there are plenty of readers of all sexual orientations and genders who would prefer that to anything more. I am most often one of those readers.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I got the impression that the sex in it was of the more descriptive variety like I found in the lesbian books. That’s why I used to joke that I was going to write the lesbian version in order to become a success. Because who read that book? Lots and lots of straight women. It was a profound success. See, guys may like their video porn, but the way to a woman’s nether regions is through the written word. (Studies have been done on this, but I’m too lazy to find them for you right now.)

I’m not saying all lesbians who read are just in it for the porn. Or that all sex scenes are by definition porn. But many of these women must at least find sex to be a welcome addition; why else would it be so prevalent?

The thing is, I’m not writing solely on behalf of anyone’s nether regions. I support them, I want them to be happy, but right now I’m more focused on the head and the heart.

However, if I were staunchly against reading or writing this kind of material, I wouldn’t even be asking these questions. Pleasing readers isn’t more important to me than my own comfort level and enjoyment of writing. But I’d be lying if I said I’d never been entertained or even moved by reading a well-written tumble in the sheets, and I’ve even attempted to write a couple myself. While I really don’t think it’s my strong suit, I’d give it a go if I honestly felt it would enhance the experience of writing and reading about the release of a long-built romantic tension between my characters.

And what if I do end up feeling that way? What if I’m three books in, and I’ve been writing for a mainstream audience, and I suddenly decide that what feels organic and necessary for my ladies is some steamy sex? Are my straight readers and/or fans of the ellipsis method going to feel disgusted by what I’ve done? Will I have ruined it all?

Conversely, what if I don’t really get into the sex, and my small lesbian following feels strung along and let down?

Bottom line, I want to do justice to my characters when they finally admit they’re super in love. What the ideal payoff would look like in that scenario will probably be different to everyone, including me.

But I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to figure it out now, in case the intended audience I choose to go with dictates other decisions I make in my writing.

So to sum up, I have a few choices and don't know what to pick:

  • Go for the mainstream audience, keep it PG-13, and hope straight readers will show up

  • Go for mainstream but risk alienating readers with graphic (but well-earned) sex

  • Write for my sapphic sisters but leave the details behind closed doors, risking them feeling deprived or just bored, thus possibly leading to the smallest audience of all

  • Write for the gays, include all the gay sex, and give the ladies the full love story they want (within the crime genre), but potentially never reaching other readers who might enjoy the books

So many questions! I’d love to hear your thoughts below.