Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I Like Sex, Except When I Don't

The problem with this title is that it implies I don't always like sex and that's what I'm going to write about.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
Anyway, you're here. Don't leave. This is about sex. Just not mine. Not really.
Lately, I'm sure you've noticed an increase in the number of YA books featuring sex. All kinds of sex. The quiet, fade to black kind. The slightly more risqué, let-us-see-the-clothes-coming-off-kind. And the naughty you-could-possibly-still-be-a-technical-virgin-but-you're-hardly-innocent-anymore kind.
And really, it's probably a fairly accurate portrayal of what teens are doing these days. It's not nearly as taboo of a subject as it used to be.
But here's the thing. While lots of teens are doing it, whether in love, in lust, in apathy, or in drunk...not every teen is doing it. There are lots of teens who make the choice not to. Even when they're in love. Imagine that.
So. My point. Yes. My point.
I think it's okay if YA books don't have sex in it, too. I don't think it makes it any less of a book--any less interesting or exciting or can't-put-it-downable. I don't think it's necessarily less realistic either. I know, depending on the characters. But just because a person seems like he/she should/would/could have sex, doesn't mean he/she is.
The fact is, you can make anything work. Just like anyone can choose to have sex, I think any character can choose not to have sex. It's not an obligation. Even if they've had sex before. Or are majorly lusty. A choice is a choice is a choice. Just have to make it realistic and true.
Sometimes I think writers feels compelled/pressured to put sex into their stories because, well damn, it's hot. Right?
But here's what I think. Books without sex can be mega sexy. Like dripping hot sexy. Think about it. What's hotter? Nakedness? Or This?
KateBeckinsaleClick image for source. 
Seriously. The, um, culmination of the sex act is like, OMG, right? But how unbelievable is the leadup? The flirtation. The moving closer. The two steps back. And CLOSER. Noses touch. Nibble the lower lip. Flick of the tongue. Dancing. Floating. Imagining.
Yeah.
There is so much tension in that. Beautiful spanking hot tension.
And when you close the deal? Tension GONE. Goodnight. Roll over and go to sleep (essentially). And if this is the first book of the series? Well. It's tough (but not impossible) to maintain that kind of tension with a romance.
There are two rules I adhere to in my writing. Well, lots actually, but two main ones.
1. STAKES MUST ALWAYS INCREASE.
2. TENSION MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER.
Now, having sex can and often does increase the stakes. And can do the same for tension, actually. But it has to make sense for the story. And for crying out loud, don't make your book babies have sex for the sake of it. They've got like 80 years ahead of them to go at it. If it works, as in, raises the stakes and actually adds to the tension, then BY ALL MEANS HAVE SEX. But the expectation should not be there. A teen romance is a teen romance, not an adult one (essentially). Let's keep in mind some of the fundamental issues of teenagedom. I'm talking CURIOSITY. WONDER. DISCOVERY. DRAMA. There's a certain beauty to this.
There are all sorts of ways to incorporate these issues into your stories, including in YA books with sex. But oh man, the lead-up. The dance. The slow discovery. That. It cannot be measured. It cannot be regained.
TWILIGHT SPOILER ALERT BUT NOT REALLY BECAUSE THIS IS MOSTLY AIMED AT PEOPLE WHO READ IT OR WHO WON'T READ IT (Bear with me. I'm making a point.)
If you read it, do you remember how after you read Twilight, you were like, "OMG why didn't they have sex?" And then the second book you were like, "Seriously? Come ON." By book four? You were practically insane, dripping sweat with WAITING. Come on Meyer, you said to yourself. Whatever you thought of the writing or the plot or the characters or whatever. You remember? The pillow? The feathers went flying? Bella's headboard broke and you were jumping on your bed? YES YES YES! Right along with Bella?
Yeah. That's a good reason to wait.
HOLY HOT BUILD-UP MELT-INTO-A-PUDDLE SATISFACTION.
(Seriously? If you're a good enough writer, you can do this with a kiss. Hello, HARRY POTTER with a hot kiss FINALLY a bajillion books later.)
Or, you know. Don't wait. Sex isn't the end-all and be-all. Lots of cool things come before/during/after/instead of sex that may or may not have anything to do with sex.
Will my characters have sex?
Blink. Blink. Blink.

56 comments:

  1. The "Or This" definitely the "Or This"

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  2. Totally agree with you. My creative writing teacher always says "you can put sex or whatever in a story as long as it works." Sometimes when characters actually do the deed it does ruin it for me. Sometimes. You want characters with a ton of sexual tension?

    Cassandra Clare is a master of sexual tension with Jace / Clary in Mortal Instruments :-) that's one reason I LOVE her books and her characters.

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  3. Yes, this. What I'm looking for while reading a romance (teenage or otherwise, really) is unbridled tension, not sex. Not having the characters have sex is as realistic -- if not more so -- than otherwise, to me, especially since, as a graduating college student, neither I nor any of my closest friends have either had sex before. It's a choice. I think the focus is too much on, "Wait! Teenagers should be free to express their sexuality!" And yes, true -- but sometimes, the free expression is to not have sex, too.

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  4. Ah yes. I agree that too many books these days - and not just YA, I mean, hello Fantasy - have sex just for the sake of it. It is one of those things that really, really need to work for the characters in the story.

    Admittedly, I'll let my characters jump to it if I see chemistry, but usually I edit it out for later, or build the tension earlier, or something along those lines.

    This is an important thing for author's, especially of YA, to be aware of. I'm glad you are :)

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  5. Save the climax for the climax!

    Normally I'd come up with something more thoughtful but that sprang to mind instead. It is 2AM.

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  6. Great post, Carol. Excellent points. I think anything can be in a story, as long as it's justified.

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  7. OH HAI KATE. :P'''''O

    But also what you said.

    *nods*

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  8. +JMJ+

    I was about to post a kill-joy, old-fogey comment about the "good old days" when YA novels were all clean and anti-septic and trimmed for Easter . . . until I remembered all the Christopher Pike novels I devoured as a teen. =P

    Personally, I'm not crazy about sex in YA novels any more than I'm crazy about sex in teen movies. Yes, I know it happens and that a lot of kids do it. (Hard not to notice when one once worked as a high school teacher!) I'd just rather not read about it . . . especially since my preferred genre isn't Romance. =P I wouldn't want a love story full of sexual tension in there any more than Romance lovers would want an alien spaceship to land in the middle of one of their stories. ;-)

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  9. Awesome point. I have to be honest and say that my characters will never have sex unless the story absolutely calls for it. Like you said, plenty, plenty of teens don't have sex. Romantic tension can be enough!

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  10. Oh, you're so right. You can only hold hands for the first time once. You can only have one first kiss. You can't go back, so rushing past all that is just wasting the opportunity for awesome, quiver-inducing tension!

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  11. Subtlely with sex always works for me!! I couldn't agree more with this fab post!!! Take care
    x

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  12. Great post. Remember all the great t.v. shows with awesome sexual tension? Like Moonlighting (I know, I'm showing my age again. Just don't tell Yahoo, cause I'll start getting those senior dating spams again) and Bones. They work so well because the characters DON'T have sex. They totally jump the shark as soon as the deed is done.

    :)

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  13. Loved this post...and reminiscing that Twilight scene.

    *sigh*

    She really did this so well, regardless of what anyone may say about the books, I was right there with you...it made the moment stand out like it wouldn't have before that EXACT point.

    I guess however you tackle this subject, you should do it with intention. ;P

    Thanks for the thought provoking subject...definitely will remember this the next time I hit this in my own MS.

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  14. I totally agree. For me, the subtle and the tease are what I use most. Sometimes it's those glances that say more than words or even if the characters touched. Sometimes it's closer, yet not just there. :)

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  15. Agreed. And like Kris said, in TV great shows wait YEARS for mc's to hook up.
    Not all teens have sex. Some do, some don't. In hs, some of my friends did, some of my friends did not. Teens from all social circles make this persinal choice. The author should know what their characters really would or would not do.

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  16. You think I write YA books...in reality, I write wild gay porn. Haha, I can't type without feeling sleazy and it's not even true.

    What annoys me about YA books and sex is that in half of the new books it's sex with a ghost, vampire, demon-possessed watermelon, etc. It drives me up the wall. If I have to feel the scars of where wings will inevitably grow back one more time I am going to do a book burning vlog. You lit a freaking fire in me, C

    My inspiration for sex scenes can be found in Looking for Alaska.

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  17. Totally agree. I also think that with teenage sex there needs to be consquences along with it. In real life, there are always consequences. It might not be something huge (a pregnancy, std) but it will be something. I haven't written "the scene" yet in any of my books, but my characters have come close to it but stop last minute. For me, I'm still trying to decide if I, as a writer, am comfortable with having that in there, or is there a way for me "write it" without actually "writing it."

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  18. Excellent analysis Carol!

    I'm going to say something which is going to make me sound like a boob: I don't like reading about sex.

    It's not that I'm offended, or embarrassed, or underwhelmed, it's just ... boring for me to read about. Which is strange because I obviously enjoy sex in real life, as much as I enjoy love and romance.

    But I'll often skip sex scenes in books. I think it's because of the exact point you made: only one thing can follow sex, a let down. A lowering of tension. A release (LOL).

    Unless your characters climax together, and one of them has a sudden aneurysm because of the intensity of the pleasure, things are going to slow down quickly afterwards.

    I haven't read all the Twilight books, but I know the scene you're talking about and my kid thought it felt unnecessary. But that's only one opinion.

    That's also one of the things I loved about Harry Potter. Love in real life is hard work, and takes time to flourish. I think Ron and Hermoine's relationship is one of the most believable I've ever read.

    Obviously love isn't sex, so there is a difference, and I don't really mind if teen characters have sex in a book, I mean it does happen in real life, I just think it's better to let it happen off screen, if you will.

    I mean I lived through the awkward sticky fumblings of a hormonal teenage boy once. It was devastating enough experiencing it for real. I'm not interested in reading about people going through it. At least not in detail.

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  19. I never skip the sex scenes, but I do like them to be later in the book. Now, I've never read any erotica, but I'm sure those authors have plenty of ways to keep you wanting more, even if the deed is done early on.

    I know the WIP I just finished, my characters didn't jump in the sack (shower) until the last third, and they'd had an established relationship. But their tension was less about sex, more about just getting along, which didn't change after they bumped uglies.

    I think as long as the writer keeps your rules to write by in mind, sex or not-sex can work for any story.

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  20. I think it comes down to your characters. Are they sex-oriented or are they sex-aware without it being a priority?

    A book with too much sex can be a turn off. Just like the romance surrounding the main character, it has to build and grow and pull the reader along until the end. The resolution, and I think a kiss or a fade to black sex scene can be as satisfying to the reader as more details. Because the reader can imagine what happens after the final page.

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  21. Couldn't agree more. Once the deed is done, the mystery is gone. The best books keep you squirming in your seat like a teeanger watching Sixteen Candles for the first time. Hello! What's hotter than Jake Ryan showing up at the church in his Porsche?! TENSION IS EVERYTHING!

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  22. You make great points here. Just like today's kids, we who write for them often find we're on the defensive when it comes to not having sex. Yet the stats say 46% of high schoolers reported being sexually active--which means more than half aren't.

    Another interesting trend is that librarians are looking to stock more books with chaste characters. Ditto with schools that book author visits. Do with that what you will.

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  23. Great post. I'm all for the build-up. Like you said, by Breaking Dawn everyone had been waiting for it. There is something to be said for building up the tension to get to the moment if it's right for the story.

    Will my characters/future characters have sex. Hmm, now that is another question. :)

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  24. I love the build up, the tension. The wanting is definitely more sexy than the sex.

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  25. The build up is the best part in a book, IMO. It's all about the romantic tension. I know there are teens having sex, but I honestly believe there is a lot less of it than is portrayed on TV and even in books. I know a lot of teens who want to read about characters who are choosing to wait to have sex, like they are. And then there is the opposite of that. ;)

    Interestingly, I usually end up liking the ones without sex better. Not always, but usually. Like I said, I just love the tension--and as you said, once the deed has been done, the tension kind of goes to sleep. ;)

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  26. As a writer (and as a reader), I usually prefer sexual tension to sex, just because it keeps things more interesting. Once it's done, it's done, and in YA, you can't get that back, which us part of the reason I prefer a YA paranormal romance to an adult paranormal romance.

    I understand that sex is a major (and required) part of the adult romance genre, but I would rather have sexual tension in the middle of my paranormal adventure, not sex.

    Great post!

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  27. I couldn't agree more. I even like books where the kiss comes at the absolute last minute because there's so much tension in the lead up. Suddenly a brush of the hand is this ginormous thing and as readers we're like, OMG WILL HE JUST KISS HER ALREADY?!?!

    I decided a while ago that I didn't want to put sex in my books. It's not that I dislike books that do include sex because if done well (not for shock factor or because that's just what you do) it can add to the story. It's just not something I choose to write about.

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  28. I'm like Matthew...I'm kinda like, Whatever...and often times I'm bored with book sex. I'm like, Is that the best you can do? Really? P.S. My husband is way hotter naked than that woman is with half her clothes on. Just sayin. :) P.S.S. You're gonna get a lot of crazies showin up here today. :)

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  29. I don't write young adult, but trust me, there will be no sex in my books!

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  30. Well, as you know... I agree. It HAS to work for the story. I LOVE the tension and kisses. and... everything but the deed. That's what keeps me turning the pages. So funny, isn't this what we talked about (one of the things) in our epic convo the other day? LOL.

    Great post!

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  31. LOL! Awesome post! And oh so true! The lead up adds tension that we writers shouldn't be so eager to give up. I read a YA book where it felt like the author dropped in a sex scene out of nowhere, with very little lead up, between two characters that deserved a lot more excitement. Needless to say, I have not wanted to read any of the other books in the series because of how that was handled in the first book. Twilight however, I must agree with you~like the novel or not, AWESOME build up!

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  32. Awesome post, missy! Gratuitous sex is bad sex. It needs to make sense to the character and the story. Period. You know who does holyhotness YA sexual tension like no other? Jennifer Echols. I practically drooled over one scene where all the character did was trace ever so lightly between the fingers for like, 3 pages. GOD WHAT WAS THE NAME OF THAT BOOK?!?! Subtlety can be damn sexy.

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  33. Wonderful post, Carol! I think having sex in your ya book has to go with the characters personality and it has to move the plot forward. I just read Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell, the sex scenes in it where crucial to the story. However, I wouldn't recommend my 15 year old read it. We talked about why I said that I didn't think she should read it and she agreed it wasn't right for her.

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  34. Awesome post! I didn't include sex in my YA for multiple reasons.

    1) I specifically wrote the book to be something my 13 year old daughter could read and share with her friends.

    2) My main character was very inexperienced, even at age 16. She experienced her first kiss in the book, and then another with a different boy. Sex NEVER even crossed her mind.

    3)Not all teens are having sex and while many are, I purposely chose to write about teens that weren't.

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  35. I totally agree. The build up parts are sooooo much steamier (IMO) (and that picture is SO HOTT. Yep, two ts there on purpose...)

    Ummm where was I going?

    Oh, right. Yes. The build up. My absolute favorite part :) To write and to read. As for whether or not The Sex actually happens? I think it really has to depend on the characters and the situation and the way the book goes, yanno?

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  36. My characters let me know if they're ready to have sex or not. I'm not thinking series. I think it needs to lead gradually. These books where passions collide, whether or not they have sex are sometimes over the top. Twilight didn't work for me on a # of levels. I think if more mothers knew what went on in that last book, they'd be less thrilled with their 5th-graders were reading the series. The fact that they waited didn't impress me.

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  37. I didn't read Twilight, but I couldn't agree more that not all real life teens are having sex. (At least I hope so because I have a 14 year old and she's not really into guys except for friends yet.) And a lot of the books I read have sexual tension without actually having sex. I really think you've made some good points. Thanks.

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  39. I agree with Sara. I think it depends on the characters, the plot, etc. It shouldn't just be shock factor. It's like swearing in YA... it can be tastefully done...

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  40. You're right. Kate's pic is sexier than a full nude. The sexual tension in a novel is usually my favorite part.

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  41. All I know is that I am terrified to write a sex scene, so I kind of hope my characters never want to have sex.

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  42. Since we have discussed this issue, you know how I feel and "if" my characters do the deed or not...blink, blink, blink. Great post! I think it can be in there or not. Totally depends on the story, the writer, and if it adds anything, or is thrown in for the sake of throwing it in.

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  43. Yes. So very, very yes.

    I'm glad you referenced Twilight. I am so in love with the fact that sex waited not only until the series finale, but until after marriage and that was largely due to the wishes of the male half of that relationship. I don't mean to say that I don't believe in sex before marriage (though if you do, that's wicked awesome) - I did it, but I was also in love and, much later, wound up marrying the guy. It just struck me as so refreshing. (Hells)Bells and Ed didn't have to have sex for us to believe in their love story, or (as you say) to make their flirtation any less intense.

    I don't disagree that sex should play a role in YA lit. I just wish it (sometimes) didn't play such a role. Ultimately I'd like to see the option to abstain should be just as cool as the actual act. (Of course this comes down to the use and consideration of terms like "prude" and "whore" and how damaging they are, too.)

    I frickin' love YA. I love to read it, I love to write it. I think it is easily the most amazing area of literature out there and the audience is brilliant, sly and so varied and interesting.

    And I LOVE posts like this. So thought-provoking and awesome.

    PS. /Drool.

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  44. I enjoyed as a teen and still enjoy as an adult a wide array of stories, none of which had sex in them, either explicit or even of the closed-door-behind-the-scenes variety. It isn't that I'm a prude--I read a bunch of stories that did have sex in them--but most of the time it wasn't needed. I hate hate hate when authors throw in sex to make a book edgier, because sex itself isn't edgy. It's normal. Whether the characters are engaging in it or not, sex is sex is sex. Been there, done that, it's not as big a deal as everyone makes it out to be.

    Focus on the characters. If they have sex, they have sex. But it can't be all they do and it can't be all they are.

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  45. I definitely don't think a YA book NEEDS to have sex to make it relevant. HOWEVER, I work in the inner city, and many of my kids are having sex. I would say I'm being optimistic if I guess at least 25% aren't. I came from a small town during high school, and even the kids THERE were having sex. I wasn't. I had a mom that scared the crap out of me, and I never, EVER toed the line. I think you can allude to sex without making it a focal point. That is what I think the YA books are lacking. Yeah, we know they are having sex. Do we have to make it sound great???? Nopers! Therein lies the problem, girlie!

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  46. LOVE this! I'm so glad you posted it! ^_^ Of course, since we talked about this, you know I agree!
    The sex or no sex should be treated just like any other plot/character development: it needs to add to the story and make sense for that character. The two rules you mentioned are perfect guidelines to judge this.
    Look forward to future conversations with you and Michele! ^_^

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  47. Oh, you are my hero. CURIOSITY. WONDER. DISCOVERY. DRAMA. You nailed it.

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  48. Thank you for the post. I agree with you on this 100%

    I'm 15 and I'm a sophomore in high school. Yeah, I know what my peers are doing. Does that mean all of us are doing it?! Obviously not. It does tend to get a little annoying if every single book character is having sex. All of these protagonists think they're different from everyone else but if you add this in there they are obviously not.

    Anyways, I agree that tension is better!

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  49. Doesn't Kate B rock? She's totally my girl crush.

    Anyways, I agree with you. The build up is the best part. Tension, of any kind, is always delicious.

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  50. Great post! I too love suggestiveness and buildup. The best example I can think of from recent YA was in Anne and May's Miracle Girls series. One hand holding scene and I was soo excited, just by virtue of the lead up to that incident.

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  51. I freaking love this post because you took a huge risk posting this- such a big subject. And you wrote this post perfectly, bravo. That's why I return to your blog, you say it like it is with grace and style.

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  52. I totally agree with you - even though I persoanlly broke every rule of this convention myself. I guess it's just a question of context. But the suggestion of something is infinitely more satisfying as a reader for sure.

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  53. I COMPLETELY agree with you! On ever count. I LOVE books that keep the tension hot and alive. It takes a good writer to keep it that way through an entire series too.

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  54. Couldn't agree more.

    And I love the image of you jumping on the bed shouting Yes Yes Yes when Edward and Bella finally....
    broke the headboard.

    Awesome.

    You had so many comments I didn't read to see if anyone mentioned the title of your post, which I think makes a valid point on its own:

    Words can grab your attention. With or without actually including sex.

    Loved it, Carol. Yes Yes Yes!!!

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  55. Great post! And I completely agree. I think that's what kept me reading the Twilight books...I just wanted them to do it already. And the kissing, touching, lust, was so minimal but oh so hot.

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  56. What a great post! I totally agree. There are teens out there who wait, for a variety of reasons, and they need to be represented, too. Plus, like you said, the tension of NOT having sex is far more interesting. Once Bruce Willis and Cybill Shephard did it, Moonlighting was over. Kills the tension every time.

    And omigosh, does your husband know you posted that picture of yourself on the internet?! :D

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