Sex in a story, sex as a story

In an early review of The Brazen Altar, the reviewer made an interesting observation: The story is told through sex. It’s not a story with sexy scenes in it; it’s a story that’s told via sex.

What’s the difference?

There’s a lot of sex in The Brazen Altar. Well, in all the Passionate Pantheon books, really. But it’s not ‘story’, then ‘sex scene’, then ‘more story’, then ‘another sex scene’. The sex is deeply integrated into the story; the characters grow and change during the sex. The reader learns about the world during the sex.

We think that’s how erotica should be. In fact, that’s what we thought erotica was. But a funny thing happened on our way to publishing: we saw a review of The Brazen Altar that complained the plot doesn’t make sense. 

And we think we’ve figured out why.

There’s a tendency for readers to sort of skim over the sex in a lot of erotic novels, especially if the sex isn’t exactly the sort that lights their fire (or at the very least twiddles their knobs). Their eyes glaze over: “yeah, yeah, this is a sex scene, not a story scene.”

Most erotica has, we think, conditioned readers to read this way. The (in)famous novel 50 Shades of Grey tends to have sex that feels very disconnected from story, in part because back when it was still Twilight fanfic, the site where it first appeared didn’t allow explicit sex. The most explicit scenes were only available on the author’s website, and linked in the notes. This meant that the story had to be comprehensible (insofar as that word applies) even if you didn’t read any of the sex. (Considering the circumstances, and a mostly-teenage fandom, I have to say I agree with that compromise.)

But the Passionate Pantheon books can’t be read that way.

If your eyes glaze over during the sex, you’ll miss a lot. A lot of sex, obviously, but also a lot of the character dynamics, a lot of the worldbuilding, and a lot of the plot.

No wonder she was confused.

The stories take place in a far-future society ruled by benevolent AIs who are worshipped as gods. The people know the gods were created by humans, of course, but when they’re functionally omnipotent and omniscient, what else would you call them except gods?

And they still worship them anyway, mainly through highly ritualized sex. Sex pervades every part of the society: it’s worship, it’s connection, it’s entertainment, it’s community. It’s a fundamental part of the lives of the characters who inhabit the book, meaning it’s a fundamental part of the stories we tell.

We’ve deleted sex scenes that haven’t served the plot, the characterisation, or the worldbuilding. For all the fact that the books are loaded down with sex (and oh, are they ever), none of it is gratuitous. We didn’t have the space to waste. Every wet, squishy bit of it serves the story. 

Yes, even that bit, with the thing you really liked. And the one with the act you found vaguely disquieting. And the one that left you wondering how you could replicate it with the tech levels we have now. 

All of it.

When you read the novels, keep that in mind. The books will make a lot more sense, we promise.

A Tale of Three Covers

When we wrote our first novel together, The Brazen Altar, we knew it was an unusual story. We shopped the manuscript around to a number of publishers, all of whom said the same thing: how are we supposed to sell this? Erotica tends to be siloed — gay cowboy porn, D/s threesome werewolf porn, wholesome Amish porn — and there’s not a lot of market space for erotica that doesn’t fit neatly into a pigeonhole.

That wasn’t going to work for us.

The world of the Passionate Pantheon is big, diverse, lush…and doesn’t fit neatly into any silos. And that created a number of problems, not the least of which was figuring out how to get it published.

We wanted covers that suggested this wasn’t conventional erotica. Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. Or at least people tend to, no matter how often they pretend otherwise. Most erotic book covers show carefully contrived poses designed to make the character a passive receptacle of sexual attraction, or even reducing the character to just a collection of body parts. 

This…really didn’t work for us.

With our covers, we wanted to change the formula. We wanted covers that were pretty (and I think we hit the mark — we have the most beautiful porn out there, Change My Mind!), but more than that, we wanted covers that show characters acting with agency, not passive receptacles.

One of the key things about the Passionate Pantheon books is these are not stories that have sex in them. These are stories told through sex. There is a lot of sex in these books—way more than you’ll find in most erotic novels—but the sex isn’t added to the story, the sex tells the story.

There is character growth during sex. The reader learns about the characters’ motivations and values through the sex. You learn about how the world works through sex. The sex isn’t gratuitous; it’s integral to the plot.

This does create problems. A lot of folks who read erotica tend to glaze over during the sex scenes, and if you do that with these books, you’ll miss important plot points and character development. (In fact, stay tuned, we plan to write an entire blog post about that.)

We wanted covers that communicate that idea. We wanted our covers to show the characters as active, fully realized people, operating with agency. Doing, not being done to.

The cover for Brazen Altar isn’t like any other erotic novel we’ve seen. In tone and style, it owes more to its utopian sci-fi roots than its erotica half. It calls back to the Golden Age of science fiction, when anything seemed possible.

The same artist did the covers for the next two novels, Divine Burdens and The Hallowed Covenant.

You’ll notice we kept a fairly similar golden-y colour tone for each of them – even the horror-themed ones. (We’re doing something unusual with this series: odd-numbered books are straight utopian, while even-numbered books are way darker). That, too, is a deliberate choice in contrast to the darker black/red/purple/grey types of colours you see on most erotica covers. These books are going to glow on a display shelf.

We oohed when we saw them. Hopefully you did just now too. 

Most importantly, every single one of our covers shows the character(s) in the midst of doing something they chose to do. They’re active, they’re engaged, and they’re not just there to be sexed upon. You’ll have to read the books themselves to find out exactly what sexing is about to happen, of course.

We’re incredibly proud of what we’ve made. And every cover just keeps getting better and better. I think we hit the mark pretty spot on.

What about you?

Welcome to the blog!

Image: Belinda Fewings

Welcome to the newly-formed Passionate Pantheon blog! 

The Meet-cute (aka where it all started): We met at an orgy in France. Then, at another orgy in Lincolnshire a decade later, we decided to write far future science fiction erotica together. Same old story, you’ve probably heard it a million times before, right?

When we finally stopped talking and started writing, Franklin wrote the first paragraph of the first draft of our first post-scarcity science fiction erotic novel on my back with fountain pens. And thus The Brazen Altar, first book of the Passionate Pantheon, was born.

We created this blog because apparently we have a lot to say. We hoped some of it might even be interesting to people other than us.

The far-future, post-scarcity, theocratic world of the Passionate Pantheon came from the depths of my strange, easily-distractible, demisexual mind.  I do love me some porn, but I’m too demisexual for two (or more!) people having sex to be interesting unless I know how and why they got there. More than “because this is how you tip the plumber for a job well done,” I mean. (Is there still porn like that? I’ve never actually seen any, so this is all speculation on my part.)

The world of the Passionate Pantheon is rich and complex. We have pages of notes—about fifty pages, last I checked—of background information that isn’t in any of the books, because there’s nothing more tedious than starting a book with an info dump. (Franklin tells me that this has a name in the publishing community; it’s called the “Tour of the Enterprise,” since a lot of particularly awful Star Trek fiction starts with a literal tour of the Enterprise. I wouldn’t know, I’m a Firefly kinda gal.)

When we’re working on these books, it’s not uncommon for us to spend ten hours on a Skype call, discussing the society’s history, traditions, origins, and values, and the motives and ideas of the characters. Never mind the major characters, any of the minor characters in the books could easily have a novel-length story told about them. For example, a side character in the second book is briefly described as having a scar—a rarity in a world with near-unlimited biomedical nanotechnology—and yes, we know why that character has that scar, how he got it, and why he keeps it. 

None of that is in the book, but we know it.

We created this blog because we wanted a place to talk about the philosophy of The Passionate Pantheon. If talking about the philosophy of porn seems weird to you, well, it’s an unusual world. (Also, porn without thinky stuff happening bores me, so I get distracted wondering why she’s tied up on that ziggurat about to have ritualised forced orgasms for a full day. Cos ritualised forced orgasms are hot, but story makes it better! ) We put a tremendous amount of thought into every element of those stories. If you ever find yourself wondering “well why does…?” or “but what about….?” or “how come…?” when you’re reading them, odds are pretty good we’ve thought about it too. And probably figured out ways to make it kinkier.

We aim to tell stories where nothing is gratuitous, everything serves a function. We’ve actually removed quite a few really hot sex scenes from the early drafts, when the sex didn’t serve the function of advancing the plot, showing you more about the characters, or revealing more about how the world works. (We’re thinking about putting up some of those outtakes as blog posts, in fact. Let me know if you’d like to see some of those!)

We hope you enjoy the books, but we’d also like to invite you on a behind-the-scenes look at the philosophy of the world. And if thinky porn is your jam, then hopefully you’ll enjoy this ride just as much!