Let’s talk about sex

Sex. Yes, dirty word, sex. I’d like to thank the geniuses behind some of our biggest e-book retailers for inspiring this weeks’ column. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24491723.

The Well of Loneliness, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Delta of Venus…Classics? Well, I’ve only read one of them (I’ll let you guess which) but certainly they’ve all come in for plenty of flak in their time. They’ve all been banned. They’ve all been accused of encouraging (or exemplifying) ‘moral degeneracy’.

As I said, I’ve only read one of them – but I’ve read a lot in my time, read a lot of sex, and I think I’m moderately normal and no more degenerate than the rest of the herd. In fact, my first encounter with the adult world was through books. Of course, I’m not talking about the sort of things that’ve caused Kobo to temporarily suspend their entire self-published list. But take another look at the titles I’ve listed above: pederasty? Check. Homosexuality? Check and check. Public masturbation? You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think books about incest should appear on the screen when someone enters the word ‘daddy’. You have the right to be offended by this. But the stupidity lies on the fault of the companies, not the authors. Especially not by authors who made no attempt to hide the nature of their works.

Which leads me ask: why is it so notoriously hard to write a good sex scene?

Sex is one of the most natural things in the world. Most people who are looking to put out books will have had it at some point. It’s been depicted in the cinemas for decades, either via insinuation or full exposure and all degrees in between. So why do authors struggle so?

There are, I think, two aspects to good sex. One is the mechanical pleasures – the fleshly sensations of squishing together with your partner. The other is the emotional: the reading of the senses, the instincts for touch, for whispers: that which bonds you (or not, if you’re writing a different kind of scene) to your partner and has very little to do with sticking it in and wiggling around a bit.

I’ve never written a sex scene – not what I’d call a proper full-on graphic account of hot hard rumpy-pumpy. I was planning on putting two in Chivalry, but when it came to it I ducked out. This is partly because I believe that the most vital images are in the readers’ head and, with a good enough set-up, the reader will create anything better than I could. In this regard I’m influenced heavily by American films from the 40s and 50s, when the Hays Code was in force and film-makers were severely constrained as to what they could show on-screen. The response was to insinuate sex: oh, Lauren Bacall! Those classic films noir; never more than a kiss, but the subtext…

The other main reason for not writing sex – and, indeed, it can stop people writing at all – is that someone’s going to read what you’ve done. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? It may seem obvious – of course it’s obvious – but you’ve got to show what you’ve done to other people. Writing is a terribly personal thing. It’s so exposing. You’re putting your heart and soul into every word; the characters are a part of you – and not necessarily a nice part. It takes courage to present others with what you’ve done; you’re exposing your naked flesh to the world.  And sex – especially anything even faintly ‘other’ – can be a step too far for an author.

I’m a member of a writing group. Every month or so I’ll take an extract of my writing and read it out. I’ll then get instant feedback from a disparate group of people (alright, not that disparate. I do live in Oxfordshire). I’ve never tried a sex scene out on them. I’ve never heard anyone else try it either. It’s not at all as if we’re prudish (I’ve dropped a few ‘c’-bombs and an ‘mf’-bomb in my time to a complete lack of flabbergastedness) but still – how comfortable would I be about this?

And then there’s the fact that my parents read my work. Hi, Mum, if you’re reading this.

So why should you write sex? Why even try? Well, for one thing, sex is normal. Lots of people do it. It can very quickly look as if you’re a bit strange if you constantly skirt around the edges. And it’s popular. Who doesn’t like a good sex scene? And it can be comic, or threatening, or boring…

And that’s the real reason. And it’s why a good sex scene is one that shows how people are thinking: not only is it more involving, a good sex session can tell us far more about the novel’s protagonist(s) then almost any other type of scene. It shows us if they’re happy, dull, adventurous, dangerous… It can set up a novel (disappointing sex showing us the character is at the start of his journey), or be the big game-changing valedictory fuck in the middle. It is an incredibly useful tool for letting us know the dynamics of a relationship.

So why do authors get them so wrong?

The two main sins, I feel are to either be too mechanical (‘I did this. She did that. I cried out in joy…’) or to get all poetic and ‘literary’. I suppose this happens because – well, it’s what writing is, right? To find new, true, ways of saying what we all know; to describe events – ordinary or extreme – with subtlety and insight. That’s the aim. And a lot’s been said about sex over the years. How many new ways of describing the act can we come up with? ‘He ploughed her fertile delta, wondering – always wondering, dreaming, delighting, fearing – whether this time, this time, his seed would find purchase in her soil.’

So: problems technical and personal. That’s why so many people duck sex or write it badly. My advice? For what it’s worth, always keep in mind that these aren’t robots you’re describing (unless they are) – they’re people and have reasons for wanting – or just having – sex. And those reasons tell us a lot about the person you’re inhabiting.

My favourite sex scene? Actually, I don’t think it’s that erotic, but in the context of wonderfully drawn romance, my props go to Jane Fletcher and The Walls of Westernfort.

That is all.

The modern writer

I am a writer. I write, right?

I’m not too sure that the novelists of a hundred, fifty, even twenty years ago would recognise the job as it is now.

The clue is in the word ‘job’. In the current day and the current environment, writing is a job, a profession like any other. The days of an author producing his work and then returning quietly to his desk to crack on with his (or her – please excuse any lapses of this kind) writing are gone.

Once upon a time a writer could expect their work on a particular novel to end after delivery of the final manuscript to his or her editor. Maybe not quite end: there are always decisions to be made and publicity to attend, but they could rely on the publishing house to at least organise anything. The author might even get paid expenses.

Things are very different now. It’s not the publishing houses fault, more a condition of the industry. But these days the author is now expected to be an equal partner – if not more – in pushing their own work. The author’s job has changed. Now they not only have to produce a quality piece of writing, they’re expected to sell it too; to drum up their own audience.

So a writer has to produce their work and promote it. They also have to manage finances in a way they never had to before; writers are mostly self-employed, so they have to do their tax self-assessments and find their own expenses. And, unless they’re very lucky or very well established, they have to do all this whilst working a normal, paid job as well.

So why should we go through publishing companies at all? If we’re doing all the hard work anyway, why not just cut out the middle man and do it all ourselves?

It’s getting increasingly hard to give a convincing answer to that. Part of it, of course, is that there’s still a tremendous cachet to be published via the traditional routes, especially by one of the big houses. Another reason is that, although the editor’s role on individual projects may have slackened, they still do have many skills that most people – especially first-time authors – lack. The big publishers have copy-editors, art departments, legal teams, marketing and publicity sections who know who to go to in order to get good press. They can make it all happen in the way a lone individual simply can’t.

But how long will that last? In an era when you can pay $5 and get 1,000 Facebook friends, or where I could subcontract a stranger to write this blog, isn’t self-publishing the road to go down?

Hold on there, youngster. If you thought you had to do a lot for the traditional publishers, that’s nothing on what you have to do if you go it alone.

Okay, setting up internet payment systems is (probably – I don’t actually know) straightforward these days. Building a website won’t break the bank. Yeah, you can get open-copyright artwork fairly easily and you can find free software to format your book so it appears ‘right’ on the page. But are you prepared to phone up all the local bookshops in the area (or country) to get them to stock your book? That’s assuming you get physical paper copies at all: first you had to make the decision to trust a self-publishing or print-on-demand company with what, to me, would be a huge amount of money. Even here you have to know what you’re doing as the horror-stories, even with the most reputable self-publishing companies, are still doing the rounds. Make sure you know what you’re paying for. And whatever you do, don’t cough up extra for ‘publicity’.

As an aside, I’m aware of authors whose sales have mostly come from car boot sales, conventions, craft fairs and the like. Are you prepared to give up all that time to flog your masterpiece? Or would you prefer to be working on the follow-up?

So are e-books the answer? Well, I don’t know of any author who’d say they’d not prefer to have a physical copy in their hands, but, leaving that aside, the main problem with e-books is their invisibility. Do you know how many e-books are released each year? I don’t (and I did just try and check – honest – but my mammoth 5-minute search failed to reveal anything easily digestible). But it’s a lot. And believe me when I tell you that the big success stories (I’m looking at you, EL James) are very much the exception.

So you still have to do the work – you still have to do the publicity, to write your press release, to push your blog – whether with a publisher or not. This is where the publisher has the advantage, as their publicity departments will have the names and numbers of people in the media, the right contacts for endorsements… And they should be able to compensate for/work around/train you in any skills you lack.

So I’m a writer. I write. I’m also financier, lawyer, accountant, art director, publicity agent, relentless self-promoter, ego-maniac, schizophrenic.

Don’t call me an artist. I’m an entrepreneur. I am the brand.