How do we write about sex?

It happens most at friendly times of year like this. And when the Literary Review magazine holds its annual Bad Sex in Fiction award  honouring the writer who has described sex in the most dreadful way. Somebody in my writing groups will ask how to write about sex.

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Above is Tracey Emin’s bed, currently in the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, with a Turner seascape in similar hues in the background.It’s a masterpiece of show-not-tell, letting stories tell themselves, whispering into the reader’s own echo chamber, ‘slant’.

Here are some thoughts worth bearing in mind before you step into this minefield:

  • Write through your character, through that particular person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations as closely as you can. That’s all there is to it really; anything else is erotica.
  • That means being aware of that person’s mood. If your character is nervous, angry, sad or jubilant, does that change as the scene develops?
  • What is high in your character’s worry list? What other things are going on in their lives that might affect this scene? What’s their ‘context’?
  • Your character will want something – several things – deeply, beyond what’s happening in the scene. That influences what is said, done and thought.
  • Remember how vulnerable we all feel from time to time. Bring that to your reader. And how much we can surprise ourselves.
  • Memories, hopes, dreams, dreads from the past and future keep flickering across our minds all the time.
  • Bring all this together and, no matter how carefully you or a character may have thought the scenario out, it may not go to plan.
  • Leave the clichés (situations as well as words and phrases) to other writers – you can do better. Try not to be obvious. Less is often more.
  • Always keep the plot moving and the stakes rising.
  • A single point of view (staying with one character at a time) will make the reader’s experience more powerful. We’re so used to cinema and television drama that it feels right to observe several characters in the action from afar. But fiction has an extra talent that television, cinema and theatre can only envy, that of allowing us to experience the depths of the story from inside the hearts and thoughts of each character. Nothing can beat it.
  • Watch your tense. Have you written in the past tense so far? ‘He had loved her for years but this time was going to be different.’ Some people naturally slip into the historic present when telling/remembering a big story: ‘We were in the same pub, the one we met in, and somehow, I don’t know, he’s having the exact same effect on me as if he never went away, he’s pulling me close.’ Moving into the present tense could feel right but be aware when and how you bring us back to the past tense again.
  • You can be stylised in your writing. For example, you (or your character) can describe a fight as a dance, or sex as a cross-Channel swim.
  • Remember the power of what is thought or known but not said (subtext).

 

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EXERCISE – 5 minutes

Describe your first happy kiss. Go back in time to that place, remember how warm or cold you were, what you wore, what you’d eaten or drunk, who was with you, what your circumstances were at the time, how you felt in your skin, how it felt having that other person close to you. What happened. How it felt. What happened next. Why you remember it.

Describe the last kiss you saw in a film.

How do the two compare?

Our job as writers is to be real. Let your characters be as imperfect as we all are.

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Next Sunday is Christmas Eve so I’m afraid I’ll be away with Santa and his elves. This blog starts again on Sunday 7 January 2018. If you are enjoying the holidays, your characters might have a tendency to head off into the wilds without you and it can be tricky to coax them back to your desk. You can keep them close by refreshing their timelines or dipping back into my character questionnaire.

I wish you and yours a very happy break and, if you get the chance, happy writing!

 

 

Old friends

‘You can’t make old friends’, said the late Christopher Hitchens. Romantic love can come and go but a really solid friendship year after year, there’s no treasure like it.

Whenever we’re writing fiction, there’s pressure to edit out everything that doesn’t propel the story along, so a main character can have just a friend or two, or none. In reality, most of us gather friends through every phase of our lives.

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SHORTCUT

You can save first draft time, once you know your characters well, if you give some thought to what binds friends together. Stand back from your main story and plot their friendship over the years like a love story: how do they meet, what obstacles does their relationship face, how do they stay together, or not? In the usual scribble-chat way, ask each of them separately to answer these questions for you, taking as long as they like:

  • How did they meet?
  • How are they together when they’ve only known each other a short time?
  • What do they have in common at the start?
  • How does their warmth develop?
  • What is in it for each of them?
  • Where are the tests in their bond? What difficulties have they recovered from, or not?
  • How do they work things through together?
  • How are they when they’ve known each other ten or more years?
  • What secrets do they have from each other?
  • What do other people think of them and their friendship?

Not all of this needs to go into your draft but you may well discover useful things that give you the nuance and plausibility you’re after. Old friends’ answers don’t necessarily match of course.

Some of the most memorable stories have friendship at their centre, dating right back to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, written around 2000 BCE. It’s often opposites who attract, not just because it makes the story bubble but because it happens in life. That’s why we believe Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are great mates, Horatio and Hamlet, Frodo and Sam, Ratty and Mole. Jane Austen uses the friendship between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas brilliantly to point up the economic crises they both face in Pride and Prejudice, and solve differently. Jane Eyre and Helen Burns bring Bronte’s particular palette to Jane’s story from its outset.

My favourite of all is the exquisitely written friendship between Jack Aubry and Stephen Maturin in the Master and Commander series, that survies war, poverty and wealth, even their being in love with the same woman.

What are the things to avoid whenever we’re writing close friends?

  • No exposition please or dumps of backstory where they tell one another things they already know. Sometimes we do this with each other as a rove down memory lane but swathes of dialogue where they tell each other how they met and who their girlfriends are? Just delete it, your readers will catch up.
  • Friends have familiar or code words that mean more to the two of them than to anyone else. Watson understands who Holmes means when he refers to ‘the Woman’, for example.
  • They are likely to have usual places where they eat, drink, laugh, maybe described with a code or nickname.

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Friendship doesn’t always go well of course. Banquo could tell you that, after his old friend Macbeth has him and his son Fleance killed. Shakespeare allows Banquo some wonderful supernatural – or is it psychological? – revenge.

Sometimes friendlessness is the point: Ralph is a decent soul in Golding’s Lord of the Flies so his isolation in the face of appalling bullying is all the more heart-wrenching.

We writers are always snappers up of life’s unconsidered trifles so next time you’re with your dearest friends, take a close look at how you are together. What are the traces of your friendship that anybody can see from across a room? Where are your depths, how the two of you hide them from the world? I’m not suggesting for a second that you betray your friends, just study how you are together. Your fictional friends will benefit.

The hillside exercise

This writing lark can feel like an uphill slog going nowhere. Especially at this time of year, when our writing time can melt away in the festivities and well-meaning loved ones ask us difficult questions like ‘How’s the writing going?’ Not all of us can report a new publishing contract, launch or shortlisting for a prize. So now and again it does us good to sit and rest, look back and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come.

The last time I was among my favourite writing friends, my hillside exercise was this:

2007-06-01 12.26.10I’m up the Mournes, County Down on a clear June day, a bit of bite in the air, pleasure in the body as my boots meet the grass, contentment in being here doing what I’m doing.

There have been dreadful times, toiling hard in squalls on the lower slopes with hailstones driving hard into my back, plastering my hair wet to my face, freezing the rims of my ears. There have been steep patches where the only way I could get anywhere was to narrow my eyes to the square metre in front of me and keep plodding, silent, alone.

People have joined me from time to time – Anji, my first proper agent (then at AP Watt), and Dennis my poetry publisher being my kindest and most lasting champions.

I remember a brush of brief success when a Guardian reviewer asked my publisher to put my novel up for the Guardian First Novel prize. But it wasn’t my first novel – my children’s novel edged to publication first – so she couldn’t, and now that experience feels like a brush from an angel’s wing, a dreamt blessing from another world. But there have been breaks in the clouds, widening patches of clear blue on leaden days, when a contract for publication of my children’s novel arrived eighteen months after submission with no chit chat or connection in between. And when Dennis Greig of Lapwing accepted my submission of poems, with incredible speed and enthusiasm, in 2010.

Lately, the going is grassy, warm, brighter. A few wee flowers cheer me. Now and again I even sing to myself as my palms press strength down through my knees into my boots. The higher I climb, the higher the sky rises. The air is fine and free. It’s time to turn around and glance back.

The tough bits of the climb are invisible. No shale and scree meet the eye at all, just stretches of green, the odd boulder and a surprisingly clear, neat path. Cows in fields below are smudges of a sharpened pencil. Cars are glints in the granite. My climb, my effort in getting here, where is all that? Gusts in the heather, rufflings in clouds.

On a peak not far away, there’s a happy launch for my next book of poetry.

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The ground dips between here and there, masked by whins. I can’t see what the going is like. Further off, steep, sharp, dignified, is a beautiful granite summit garlanded by pale mist. Its slopes are white-grey, luminous in the sunlight, and I’ll need all my skills to climb it – publication of my non-fiction book-in-progress.

I’m up off this boulder now, ready to keep at the climb. Happy with the privilege of being here, in love with this writing world.

I wish you joy in your writing climb too, wherever it takes you.

Love and many thanks to my late father, RR Johnston, for these photographs. He adored and climbed the Mourne mountains all his life.

Fictionalising real people

Flaubert said of Madame Bovary that she was himself. We can’t help putting something of ourselves into just about every character we create. What if the basis of your fictional character is someone you know but you don’t want them to know it?

A warning. Imagine that your book has been published and your friends are around you at your launch.

2009-06-30 19.00.13The minute they open that book of yours, many of them will scour it looking for themselves. And they’ll find themselves in the most unlikely places.

This seems to be first cousin of their belief that everything in your book literally happened to you, no matter how far your book’s world is from your life. All we writers can do is shrug and say we made it up:

‘So you killed your husband and buried him in a volcano in Borneo?’

‘It’s fiction but if you want to think that, feel free.’

‘But that sober, handsome warrior chief who’s seven feet tall and wins prizes for his shortbread, he’s the image of your husband, isn’t he?’

‘If you want to think that, feel free.’

As long as they buy your book, they can think what they like.

You do want to avoid libel though, as it’s expensive and exhausting and publishers do not enjoy it. So how do you fictionalise a real, living character?

It’s simple really: just change a few vital things.

On one side of your page or screen, jot down a few details about the real person you want not to write about: full name and nickname, physical description, age, ethnicity/provenance, education, finances/job, family status, address, living alone or not, essential elements of personality, sexual orientation, secrets and world view. A few sentences of pub conversation are enough for that last one.

Down the other side of your page, name your fictional character and take a few minutes to imagine him or her. Then, opposite the list you’ve made for the real person, describe your fictional character aspect for aspect.

Make sure that some important aspects are radically different from the real person. Two or three will be enough.

Now you are ready to do your character interviews afresh to build and discover this new person. Drill down deep, unlock those secrets and that voice, and soon you should find yourself in the company of someone unrecognisably different.

That’s all there is to it! It’s especially important to give your fictional person a different name from the real one – please don’t be tempted to give them the same initials or even the same rhythm in the name – and this exercise works especially well if you alter age, gender, education, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation.

It’s worth giving a thought to why you are incorporating a real person into your novel when there are so many wonderful characters to be made up. Have a private scribble about why you feel you must write about this person. Why do they fascinate you so much? Do they encapsulate something about your story’s theme that makes their presence invaluable? Or – it’s important to be honest with yourself now – are you writing this real person into your work because you want to have the last word in some way, even revenge?

If the last is the case, your book may well suffer. My character interview shows you how to combine closeness to your characters with (towards the end) the vital detachment that keeps your story in balance and stops it straying into cliche.

Next week we’ll look at how we write about long-term friends.

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Have a happy writing week!