The Ground Rules
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Today, I worked on my story. Not the next chapter, but outlining some of the Mal/Inara stuff I have planned for close to the end of Eidolon, and getting the rough ideas down before I forgot about it. Stuff that I'm going to have to make very carefully sure that I cut off appropriately before it could potentially become smut.

It's a bit embarrassing for me to be writing anything like that. I mean, first it wouldn't be believable ( anyone?), and I have issues which makes it all really uncomfortable (Mal has NOTHING on puritanical), and lastly, because the characters are acted by real people, it's almost kind of a whole privacy thing for me.

Strangely, I'll READ smut... Just don't, you know, TELL ANYONE.

But in order to make sure I stay within an allowable zone, I'm laying down my own personal rules. First is to not show anything that wouldn't be shown on Firefly the series or Serenity. That means artsy fartsy conveniently covering bedsheets, camera angles, no graphic descriptions of breasts or other privacy concern areas. Vagueness is also a useable tool. No onscreen orgasms, no description of the, erm, rhythm, no overly specific description of the touching. And, most likely, probably will cut away before even undressing has occurred, and certainly before anything starts in earnest.

Hopefully that will keep things from being awkward. But, the reason I'm posting this blog, is that I'm interested to see what kinds of advice or anecdotes I can get from you other authors. How do you all deal with this issue?


Saturday, November 14, 2009 9:57 AM


You got me, this is something I've been planning to hint at and explore in my story. Pretty soon, even.

River called Mal a ball of string once, a complicated tangle. In glimpses, I'm trying to unravel some of the bases of these issues. All of the crew have issues stemming from their backstory that I'm going to try to look at. Kaylee, Simon, and River's issues have the most obvious explanation. Jayne, Zoe, Mal, and Inara are quite a bit more complicated. I have the most information on Mal, so I've been able to make more decisions about him.

Saturday, November 14, 2009 9:31 AM


Very astute observations and speculations! I had to post again and say I'm really excited to read what you are writing. I have every confidence that whatever you produce will be interesting, respectful, and worthwhile!

Saturday, November 14, 2009 7:08 AM


He has a rapport with Zoe, and I imagine that Kaylee's open affection took some getting used to. The first time she tried to hug him he probably yelled at her, which made her cry and made him feel bad, which is why he tolerates it more from her. But every one else on the crew (even Zoe) there's either physical and/or emotional distance.

And, of course, the issue of PTSD may be involved here as well. He's pretty defensive, which exacerbates his usual unease with physical contact and emotional intimacy.

At the same time, a lot of his self-expression oddly does involve touch rather than emotional outbursts. Like his concern for Inara, touching her split lip, or hugging Kaylee in Ariel. Getting angry and punching Simon in the pilot. The important thing to note is that HE initiates the contact, almost ALWAYS.

I still think it's a lot to do with upbringing. I'll concede that maybe it isn't all his faith (or remnants of it), but I also think there was some tough love involved here, that he was raised to "be strong" and not seek comfort from his mother if he was upset. This might even have been inadvertent, perhaps something happened and his mother didn't notice he was hurting, perhaps she was affectionate in her own way, hence his own small displays of affection, but damage was accidentally done.

Saturday, November 14, 2009 6:34 AM


"uneasy about sex AND romance" - yes. For me, reading this was an aha! moment, one that got me thinking about the question in a different way. It's intimacy of any kind that he avoids - going beyond what he has or hasn't done, has or hasn't experienced. And if Zoe is the only living person who knows him intimately (emotionally, mentally), it'd be a huge problem for her to marry someone else.

Of course, it's another interesting question, why does he avoid intimacy like he does? And there are any number of possibilities.

Friday, November 13, 2009 4:34 PM


I agree that Mal's not particularly interested in saving Kaylee from the wickedness of her sexual escapades (or seeing them, or hearing about them)...

I also agree with your assessment of Saffron. It's just, even with Nandi, he hesitates for a moment and tries to make an excuse to go check on preparations or something. If innocent-play-acting Saffron was not okay in his playbook, Nandi would have been, yet I can draw parallels to his behaviour and reactions in both. And I'm not going to take the simple way here and say Inara (though that's probably part of it in that case).

I think he's uneasy about sex AND romance. I think he might have a similar reaction if Inara came onto him, possibly more so because of the way he pedestals her.

How much is influenced by religion is difficult to tell. Outwardly, he tolerates the goings on around him, but he resisted Zoe and Wash getting together, even when they were going to be married and were he more religious, that might have put him at ease. That partially may have been a fear of losing Zoe. And whenever I see that scene in Jaynestown, I always think Mal is very unsympathetic about Simon messing up with Kaylee. Likely for similar reasons.

There's different ways for people to show discomfort.

Friday, November 13, 2009 4:01 PM


I agree about the religious upbringing. But I think it might be possible that the young Mal might have loved his God and his faith and not dwelled overlong on the celibacy rule. I'm not insisting on it, but I think it could be.

When he finds Kaylee and Bester, he doesn't look appalled, just annoyed IMO. And when he finds Kaylee and Simon intertwined and passed out in the bar, he doesn't look upset or surprised. He handles Kaylee's crushes and sexual interest (the little we see) unflappably and with tolerance until the "run on batteries" comment, which was extreme TMI. All in all, my inclination is that if Mal hadn't sown some wild oats, he would be very uncomfortable and maybe unable to handle the idea of Kaylee sowing hers.

I always attributed his skittishness around Saffron to his moral code - he didn't see her as giving informed consent, he was worried that she felt indebted or infatuated or some other naive idea. And with Nandi, I read a quote from Nathan to the effect of, Mal finds it very hard to just be a human being with human needs. There are so many things to complicate that interchange, and Inara isn't the least of them. And he's been alone for a long time - that kind of thing becomes a habit after a while, whether we will it or no.

Friday, November 13, 2009 3:29 PM


Very tricky business with Mal about his past, seeing as how the movie seems to suggest he's almost 50.

I'm one of the people who just think that the Alliance actually isn't very careful with record keeping unless it matters. They did spell his name wrong. Suggests to me they probably got his age wrong too.

Plus, we only hear about the ranch, the war, and a year or so of "wandering" during the aftermath before buying Serenity. But I suppose there could be some untold part of the story between the war and the ranch where for some reason Mal honed his criminal skills. Maybe a LOSS of the ranch or something.

But none of Mal's semi-official bios suggest anything like that. Would be interesting to explore. But I think Mal's in his thirties, and he cultivated his criminal skills as a rebellion against his lost faith and also due to feelings of insignificance post war. I see Mal very much as a sort of death seeker (another tvtrope, sorry).

People who love Jesus and love making out but who also become extremely skittish the moment anyone remotely attractive makes a sexual advance?

I think Mal's religious upbringing, even though he tends to eventually give into his vices, is still very much a part of his character.

Friday, November 13, 2009 2:48 PM


Had to post again to lol at the comic you linked!

Also, because another thought crossed my mind: I've seen Mal's character treated as relatively inexperienced sexually because of the religious beliefs that we infer he grew up with. May I say that there have been many young people who grew up loving Jesus who also loved making out?

Friday, November 13, 2009 2:34 PM


That was very much on our minds in A Midnight Clear - what having sex was like for them in terms of what it meant, what they each and together allowed it to mean. And thanks, it's gratifying to hear that it was apparent in the story.

Regarding Mal's background and attitudes, I can see a number of different possibilities being plausible. How old was he when he left home? Did he go straight from the farm to the army? What about schooling? What kind of community was the Reynolds ranch in? What kind of transportation? What was the nature of his experience in the several years of military service, was it all front line? Other things would affect him too, including, as you mentioned, the nature of his responsibilities at home, his relationship with his mother and her expectations.

Friday, November 13, 2009 2:26 PM


Friday, November 13, 2009 12:10 PM


That's a thought, and I can see what you mean, like when you and Charlie did A Midnight Clear. Chapter 1 kind of establishes Mal's nervousness, Chapter 2 is about the first steps across the gap, Chapter 3 is about the people around the two of them who wish them well, Chapter 4 is anticipation, and chapter 5 is a whole bunch of things, kind of deeper expression of underlying feeling from chapter 2, and playfulness, and hope, all leading up to a scary moment where Mal almost gets his feet pulled out from under him and then both of their determination. Character study and character development.

I've only written some of the conversation that might happen before anything like this... This is all very preliminary. It's likely I'll still have to figure out the placement of some of the minor events after the major event that would lead up to this conversation. I plan to have a few chapters of resolution prior to my epilogue, mostly because there's a lot of stuff that happens that a breather is needed, and also because there's still some character issues to work through prior to this that I don't want to rush.

Friday, November 13, 2009 11:33 AM


Great question, awesome answers! I have had some of the same concerns - I wouldn't want to write anything gratuitous or that I would be embarrassed to hand, in person, to any of our beloved actors. What I try to keep in mind - the story is about the people, not about the sex they are having. Which is not to say that an erotic give-and-take is by definition any less meaningful than another kind of act. But who does what to whom, for how long and how well? Kinda pointless.

What makes an intimate scene special, and what I have no doubt you'll do beautifully, is how the characters feel in their hearts.

Friday, November 13, 2009 7:26 AM


And yes, I looked.

"I remember reading a story once where Mal came first, and Inara was furious - right in the middle of the sex! Isn't that wonderful?! Real, human emotion and reactions. It adds to the story, and that's the important part."

That's just hilarious. XD Poor Inara... I suspect that might actually be a regular problem for them if they ever had a relationship.

I read a series once about where, because of all Inara's experience, after building things up so much in her mind, she's disappointed by the sex she has with Mal, which leads to damaging Mal's ego, and relationship problems, which are resolved in a nice way.

But this is another good point. Mal probably isn't very good at this! Endurance obviously requires a regular work-out, so to speak, and considering Mal's upbringing, he's probably not overly wild with positions or techniques. He wouldn't be able to hear advice from someone more experienced without getting thoroughly squicked (though imagine Kaylee giving him advice! XD). And I doubt he has much experience himself, he's not a virgin, but I suspect willing women have been somewhat scarce for Mal. First with the ranch (which would have been hard work, and I don't think his mother would have let him run wild), then with the war, then after, when his temperament has been so fouled.

As neat as that scene with Nandi is, I've always wondered where that came from, and also Inara's immediate assumption that Mal's performance would have been impressive.

Friday, November 13, 2009 7:08 AM


Ah, thanks for pointing that blog out to me, there's also been comments there that are enlightening on this subject.

Clio, I also feel VERY much the sense about the readers expecting a "pay-off." I probably am not comfortable with writing smut/erotica (my shower fic entry didn't have any for precisely this reason), but how can I balance that with not disappointing people and their expectations?


Only read that article! Probably it's also wise to not look at the lists AFTER the article as well.

And don't read these articles!

Since it's relevant to this conversation, though, Inara has a listing on the "modest orgasm" page. And yes, there is such a page.

Friday, November 13, 2009 5:01 AM


Sex? What's sex?

(Or, I'm with you. I posted in Aliasse's blog entries about NC-17 stories the closest I ever came in a story to a sex scene: the other side of the door.)

Friday, November 13, 2009 2:53 AM


Thanks for that link, that was a fun read :o)

To smut or not to smut. Good question.

The key for me is that the sex has to be a part of the story, integral to the story. That's what, for me, makes the difference between what I guess I'd call erotica (affectionately known as smut) and pure porn.

Of course, people's definitions of what differentiates porn from erotica may vary from mine, but as you're doing for yourself, I've set my own 'ground rules' for what I'm comfortable writing and what I'm not interested in writing. So I think you're on the right track there; it's very individual.

When I write NC-17 fic, there are a couple things I very specifically avoid - one is the use of slang in my descriptions. There are certain words, for me, that either push the story over the line into porn, or conversely, make me shake my head at how juvenile it seems.

On the other end of the scale, I avoid too much flowery language or metaphors. I try to walk a balance between the two extremes.

I try to keep the sex realistic. No impossible acrobatics, no fresh erections after five minutes, no perfect finishes, etc. Real sex can be messy, awkward, uncomfortable, frantic, beautiful, fast, etc. etc. etc. It's not perfect every time, and I think it's far more interesting to see it portrayed that way than everyone fitting perfectly, knowing exactly what they're doing, and are perfectly satisfied at exactly the same moment in a blissful crescendo...

I remember reading a story once where Mal came first, and Inara was furious - right in the middle of the sex! Isn't that wonderful?! Real, human emotion and reactions. It adds to the story, and that's the important part.

Even if I'm just in the mood to write smut for smut's sake, I still have to work out the story around them (them being Mal and Inara of course), I'm not interested in writing flat out jerk-off fic - not to say that there's anything wrong with that, but it's just not what I'm into. Again, it all comes down to the individual, and what you want to do with the story.

I fully believe that you could write your story twice, one time showing the sex, and one time not, and make them both equally effective.

We don't always need to see the sex, in fact, I'd love to see a few more *love* scenes, as opposed to sex scenes... that being said, I also don't mind seeing the sex from time to time ;o)

So, ultimately, it's like everyone's said, write it the way you're comfortable writing it. If it comes down to it and you feel it would add to the story to show them having sex, then go for it. If you're just as happy with a fade to black, then that's just as valid a way to write it. I'll be looking forward to reading it either way :o)

Thursday, November 12, 2009 5:19 PM


Jane: "I think that's a pretty good rule of thumb, by the way. What are you trying to show? Is it appropriate within the story you've written? If you don't go the whole way, does it matter?"

That is an extremely good point, and I can think of answers to go either way.

On one hand, I'll be dealing with themes such as trust and intimacy issues, with feelings and whether or not those feelings are real. I think it's pretty clear that Mal doesn't seem to trust Inara's sexuality, her "wiles," if you will, and actual sex could be a form of resolution for that... *IF* I did it well.

On the other hand, ultimately, would it change the story, either to have the sex or to show it? No, because it'd be at the end, all the plot twists have already happened. Would it even constitute character development? No, probably not. So if I included it, no matter how "tasteful" I tried to make it, it would just be gratuitous.

But definitely you've given me some ideas to think about that I'll have to address even if I DON'T write sex. Dot dot dot cut away could definitely be a viable technique...

Angellemarcs: As could vague poetry, if I get there and it really does seem like I'm missing something.

Aliasse: I think you may read more than any person I've ever met. :) Maybe I should check out your influences. The grand sum of my experience pretty much consists of this community. We've got some very good stuff around here, but I sometimes I notice after the fact that ideas I THOUGHT I came up with all by myself, I didn't. Heck, I once accidentally plagarized Joss Whedon himself, quoted from an episode when I thought I'd come up with the line. Bad Byte.

This brings up another interesting question, which might be suitable for the forum threads. Just how far do Mal's intimacy issues go?

Thursday, November 12, 2009 12:06 PM


Okay, first of all patented Aliasse YAY, since you insist :) Secondly, I wouldn't dream of advising you. My own feelings about smut in fic and in fiction generally have been honed in response to everything I've ever read, which makes it highly personal. A particular book made a real impression on me - 'A Book of Memories' by Peter Nadas - which had the most graphic yet affecting passage in it. It totally turned me away from more euphemistic ways of writing sex. But that's just where I am personally at the moment, and it'll probably change. On the other hand, another passage which I'll never forget is from 'Fathers and Sons' by Turgenev, and all that happens is that the main male character kisses the main female character. But it sears! There just isn't a right way of doing it. What Jane says is true: be true to yourself, respect the reader, pray that you have a little bit of talent. And presto! - a lovely bit of not-quite-smut.

Thursday, November 12, 2009 5:57 AM


Great advice there, Jane. My biggest advice to you, Byte, is try to use words that are tawdy...or words to explain things that are happening in more of a poetic form instead of the normal. It helps me...

Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:17 AM


The old 'dot, dot, dot' can be quite effective, since most people (particularly Browncoats) have a good imagination! I know I've written a few NC17 fics, but it was extremely difficult to start. It had just got to a point where I wanted to show a loving relationship between Simon and Kaylee, how they trusted each other. And then when I finally got River and Jayne together, I wanted to make it clear he loved River for herself, and it was a good way of doing it.

I think that's a pretty good rule of thumb, by the way. What are you trying to show? Is it appropriate within the story you've written? If you don't go the whole way, does it matter?

You could always try writing the smut, leaving it for a while, then coming back to read again. If it makes you squirm, or you're embarrassed, take it out. Besides, you can write a very effective love scene without being clinical, it just takes a lot of thought. Porn is easy - love isn't.

But most of all, be true to yourself. If you aren't happy writing it, don't. Leave that up to the rest of us dirty-minded fic writers out there :-). And I for one can't wait to find out what you come up with.


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