A decision

Oneiromancer is with my beta-readers. I am entering the long, dark, tea-time of the soul and the only answer is more work. After the adrenaline rush of finishing a draft I just want to bury myself in a new project – at least until the feedback comes straggling in and I’m enveloped in another round of editation.

So it’s time to self-publish.

I still like the idea of going through the traditional agented route. I write with the hope of finding a backer who’ll take me onto bookshop shelves. The good thing is that it’s becoming more and common for authors to take both paths; self- and traditional publishing are complimentary, not competitive.

The truth is that I don’t have the time or the energy to push my back-catalogue any more. This is work I believe in, that I’ve spent countless hours on. So I’m faced with a choice: I can put those novels into the bottom drawer and forget about them, or I can try and push them out myself.

I’m not doing this for riches – I’m not so naïve – or for acclaim; I know how few connections I have and – perhaps more to the point – I know how lazy I am, how easily distracted. I’m not planning a great marketing campaign or to spend my weekends shivering ignored at car-boot sales. I’m not even planning on getting hard copies – ebooks are my way forwards, even though it seems like sales have peaked. My sense of timing is, as ever, impeccable.

But I want to get my work into the public domain. I want to call it finished. I want to fill my Twitter-feed with rampant self-promotion and egomaniacal desperation and delusion. And I want to know how it’s done; to go through the process of cover design and formatting and all the other things that I know only from the outside.

And I want to do it without spending any money.

It will be an adventure. It will be a challenge. It will be an experience. And even if I fail, even if I decide it’s all too much for me and I can’t do it to a sufficient standard for it to be worth doing at all, I will at least know that what I’ve been saying on this blog – all my discussions and criticism and analysis – has been based on ignorance and idiocy.

Or I can learn new skills; develop myself and (possibly) my brand, and have new things to talk about on this blog. I can confirm or confront my preconceptions and be able to talk authoritatively about things I’ve so far only guessed at. Either way it will be worthwhile.

And you get to join me through the process. Aren’t you the lucky ones?

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The propaganda war: how to sell your masterwork

Okay, here’s how it works: if you’ve just released a book – self-pubbed or trad – and you’re wondering how to promote it then you’ve already got it wrong. Sorry if that’s a harsh message, but it’s true. In order to successfully promote your work then you have to have been building a presence on the internet (because what else matters?) for months – if not years – prior to your first release.

It’s a rare thing that anyone will buy a book simply on the basis of its cover or its glowing Amazon reviews or on the endorsement of people they’ve never heard of. Studies (that I can’t quote, sorry) show that you have to have heard an author’s name (or a band, or an artist) at least five times before you’ll consider buying one of their works. I’m proof of this. I’m on Twitter. Some names I come across with regularity. Those people – whose comments I appreciate and enjoy – are the ones I’m going to take a punt on. The one-note shouters will never see my money, thank you very much.

Selling books is not an overnight thing. You are fighting the long war, deep in the longue duree. That’s why I’m writing this blog. That’s why I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have no product to sell – yet. One day I will have. And I’ll have a body of work – more than that, I’ll have a personality. I’m (hopefully) not just another barker shouting on the street corner. I’m a human being and people are much more impressed with humans than they are replicants.

That’s what I think, anyway.

With that in mind, here’s my incomplete list of methods of promoting your book and a few thoughts thrown in, just for good measure.

Social media

o Twitter

Twitter is my favourite method of social-mediaising but one that is magnificently and amusingly misused. Anyone whose tweets consist of nothing but self-promotion will soon find themselves followerless. There is a rough guide or rule known as the 50-30-20 breakdown: 50% of your tweets should be other people’s posts retweeted; 30% should be your own thoughts/comments; and only 20% should be promoting your own work. Personally I’d say it should be more 45-45-10

o Facebook

I’m not quite sure why authors use Facebook other than to separate their personal and professional lives – which is not an insignificant thing and is something I intend to get round to doing at some point. I’d say that the same rule applies here as given for Twitter. Don’t just use it as a selling-point. The best thing you can do with all thee things is to get people looking at your blog/website, on which more later

o LinkedIn

LinkedIn isn’t a selling platform and shouldn’t be used as such. It is, however, a good way of communicating with other authors and building up networks, as well as finding interesting debates and learning more about other people’s perspectives/experiences

o YouTube

I’ve never done this, so my experience is perforce somewhat limited. But I gather that it’s increasingly common for authors to promote their work with book trailers and/or audio readings. I’m not too sure what to make of this. I’d suspect that you’d need something really well-produced (which is not the same as flashy) to make an impact. If anyone’s tried this I’d be interested to see how it worked for them

Being Nice to People

This section was originally called Networking, but people get the wrong idea about this. They think that it’s all about schmoozing in trendy Soho winebars (or, if you’re American, insert a poncy area of New York), or trying to catch an eye at a party, of pushing yourself beyond human decency for the sake of a small advantage. Hell, you’re probably thinking of the casting couch or something, aren’t you?

It’s not. It’s none of these. It’s about looking around you at your friends and asking yourself who they know. Or what they do. It’s about asking favours. It’s about being polite and respectful and not pushing – but asking nonetheless.

Just take a moment to think about your friends and acquaintances. Where do your colleagues work? Might they be willing to ask a favour on your behalf? Are they easily bribed with wine or chocolate (because a favour deserves a thank you)? By this stage in your career you should be in a writing group; there, already, are a lot of people who might have thoughts or ideas or contacts. Ask them. I wager they’ll be willing to help. The only price, save the aforementioned wine, is that you’ll be expected to return the favour.

Example: in my writing group there is a local writing festival organiser. There are a few who work for major (non-fiction) publishers. There was a professional copy-editor. At least one is agented: several past members are fully published. This is only a small selection – and here I’m only looking at professional activities. I’ve not even touched on their friends.

There is a reason why Six Degrees of Separation is a game/concept. You know people who know people who know people. You don’t have to push, you don’t have to dig, you don’t have to be some arrogant Hollywood big-shot to network. Just be polite. Be nice to people. Help others. And they’ll be a lot more willing to help you in return.

Personal appearances

Whether public appearances work for you or not really depends on your personality and the nature of your work: it’s a lot harder to do school visits if your work is a Regency Bonkbuster or The New Stephen King than a nice educational children’s book. Below are a few ideas, tailorable to your particular idiom:

o Book release parties
o School visits
o Library visits
o Care home visits
o Workshops
o Stalls in markets
o Book Fair appearances/stalls

A few notes: I don’t know about you, but the idea of most of these fill me with horror. The best way to overcome your fear is to combine your efforts with those of other local authors. If you’re not in a writing group then you’re missing out. The mutual support is invaluable.

Secondly, make sure you invite everyone. Not just your friends, but contact the local press, any book-bloggers you might be following on Twitter (not for school visits: they’re a bit fussy, these days, about who walks in to chat with the kids) – hell, take punts and invite celebrities. Remember what I said about having to have heard a name five times before it settles in the brain? Most people you invite won’t come. But really – what have you got to lose? Email is free. Just be polite and unpushy. Invite literary agents because you never know who might be in town. Note, though, that if you’re theming the event – for example if all the authors appearing specialise in science-fiction – then you’ll lose credibility if you send a group email to every single entry in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

Actually, never send group emails. To anyone.

The Written Word

There aren’t enough journalists these days. Those that still exist are overworked and underpaid and are desperate for copy to fall on their desk that they can shove in the papers without any input from them. So whatever you do make sure you write a press-release and send it out to the local rag. And when I say ‘local rag’ I mean any rag that you’ve ever been local to. For example: I was born in Bradford, moved to Norfolk, went to university in Belfast and now live in Oxfordshire. So that’s four places to which I am local, every one of which has multiple papers to target.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of writing a press release here. I’m sure you can find guides around the internet. A few quick notes, however:

o  Attach a photograph of you and your book
o  Say you’re available for interview (which can be done over the phone, Skype or other modern contrivance, so don’t worry too much about travel)
o  Personalise your letter to the area you’re targeting: for example, in my letter to Bradford I’d say how the local libraries shaped my writing growth
o  Try and make it ready to be inserted, as is, into their paper. Minimise the work the editor has to do to make it ‘fit’
o  Don’t send a copy of the book but do make it clear that you’ll provide a copy for review upon request

If they get back to you and invite you for an interview (don’t laugh; it’s happened to people I know) then for heaven’s sake take them up on the offer!

o Reviews

Before your book is released you should be contacting all the book-bloggers you’re following on Twitter (you are doing this, right?) and asking if they’re willing to review your book. Many won’t: the biggest will be choked with people like you. But you can only lose if you’re rude or abusive. And some will take it – and if you do a get a review, be grateful – even if they say you’re a horrible writer whose entire back catalogue should be ritually purged and all mention of your existence be expunged from history.

o Merchandise

It’s always worth getting some bookmarks (which double as business cards, with your internet presence highlighted – probably not email address: Twitter, Facebook and your website/blog addresses will be fine) to give out at any events you do host or take part in. Bear in mind that many people aren’t prepared to spend money on the spot. Most people like to go away and reflect before committing to a purchase. Make it easy for them. Chances are that if they have to hunt to find you they’ll just give up. Don’t let that happen.

o Your personal blog/website

I’ve left this until last because it’s the single most important thing you can have. It also ties together everything I’ve mentioned above. It doesn’t have to be anything like this: it doesn’t have to consist of regular musings on your life and of your irritations with the way the world is persistently ignoring you.

What you need is a portal from which people can see everything I’ve outlined above. It’s a place for people to springboard onto your Twitter feed, your Facebook group. It should outline your work and provide links for people who want to buy it. You can copy (or link to) any mentions you get in the press. Any events you’re involved with should be mentioned (and, if it’s an open event, this is where you place the invite).

Publishers and literary agents do look at these things. A good website might not sell you a deal but a bad one – or an absent one – might lose you one.

If you’ve not got one of these, do it. Do it now.

A final note (or two):

Perhaps the best thing you can do to promote your own work is to promote the work of other people. That might sound counterintuitive but it’s true. People remember nice people: not only the person you’re helping (who might well return the favour) but the casual Twitter-stroller will notice, maybe not even consciously, and will lodge you somewhere in their brains as someone to do – so to speak – later. I’ve followed many people because they’ve shared something I’m interested in: never heard of them before; oh, they’ve put something up. Let’s have a look at their profile…

It works. Try it.

Finally, just remember what I said about the longue duree. This isn’t a sprint. These things don’t happen overnight. No one single thing is going to make you the next Hugh Howey or – god help you – EL James. It takes sustained effort, time and patience to make a career as a writer. But it is doable. Relax. Take your time. Enjoy the process.

Remember: nice guys finish first.

The case against self-publishing

On Twitter I am the (mostly) welcoming recipient of a lot of puff. There’s always loads of authors looking to claw together sales, and, through tweets and retweets, a fair bit of it ends up at my door. Some of it interests me. Sometimes I might take a punt. Sometimes I look at it and think ‘well, that’s not for me but it’s an interesting idea.’ Some of it I find just totally infuriating.

I can forgive the odd typo (there are enough in traditionally-published works, after all) and the occasional clumsy phrase if the story carries me through. I’m not a massive perfectionist – not in other people’s work, at least. But what I cannot forgive are errors in the promotional material itself.

Now I’m in a bit of a bind here. You want examples, right? Thing is, I don’t think it’s fair on authors – who I’m sure have put a lot of time, maybe a bit of money, into their work – to humiliate them in a public forum. See, there by the grace of Picard go I. Had the e-publishing revolution happened five, maybe ten years ago, I’d have been in this very position myself. You can bet your bottom Florint that one of these would have been available for purchase right now – and it’s likely (probable) that I’d have made the same mistakes in my enthusiasm and idealism. I am not anti-self-publishing. It just angers me to see stupid self-publishing. The sort I’d have produced five years ago.

Some egregiousnesses, all taken from tweets I’ve received in the last week or two:

  • Promotional material containing the phrase ‘Three times in the least.’ I mean, come on. I’m never going to spend money – or waste my valuable reading time – on something that promotes itself with such bad English. ‘At least three times.’ Come on, it’s not hard
  • ‘Tatsier’. On a cover. I know typos happen and I know they’re right buggers to find. But on a cover? No. If you only have half-a-dozen words to proof-read then I expect it to be error-free. ‘Tastier’. Again, not hard
  • The cover looks fine, no typos in the puff, all elements present and correct: so you follow the link to Amazon, click on the ‘more details’ tab… And what’s revealed looks like it was written by a student. Of astrophysics.

And all that’s before we get to this batch of beauties.

This stuff matters, folks. I will never buy a book if it looks as if the writer can’t be bothered. Right or wrong, if you can’t use good English (not necessarily ‘correct’ or grammatical English, but language true to the book’s contents) in your promotion then I can have no faith in the words beyond the cover.

I get angry about this. I have to work really hard not to fire off sarcastic tweets – I’ve been criticised myself, I know it hurts and I don’t want to inflict this pain on others. Sometimes I think I’d be actually helping the author by pointing out the flaws – but I don’t think I could hold my annoyance out of sight and I don’t want to be that person. Who am I, after all? Hey, at least these people have got work out there in the public eye. I’ve only got this blog, and nobody gives a damn about that.

Why does this annoy me so? Partly because I’m that sort of person: not quite a grammar Nazi, maybe more the Castro of correctness or the Amin of anality. But there are consequences. Every ‘bad’ book that’s self-published makes it harder for the good ones to be seen. And – I’ll say it again – there are some really, really good stories to be found. There is no filter on the industry. We are drowning in a tide of mediocrity and, whilst I really don’t want to squash the unique voices that would never get a trad-pubbed released, we need help to find a way back to the shore. We need an island, a reef where we know these self-pubbed books are of genuine quality.

[Irony alert: after drafting this entry but before posting I received the Great Rejection of Doom. I may well be joining the ranks of the self-published myself, sooner rather than later. You can’t write the same book forever – sometimes you just need to get it out there and move on.]

For what it’s worth, let me finish by promoting the following self-published authors, who I know write good stuff and – I believe – are worthy of your time:

Finally – finally finally – I’m going to be away (on honeymoon, no less) for the next coupla weeks. That means no blogs for a little while. You have fun – and behave yourselves – whilst I’m away, mmmkay?

Ambiversion

I’m currently reading a fascinating book about introversion; about how we live in a time where personality, not character, matters most. Where volume is rewarded above quiet reflection and decisions are evaluated on presentation, not on substance.

You might think that writers are immune to such cultural trends. After all, although not all writers are introverts, it is a field that requires time spent alone, in a comforting environment (which will vary from person to person), with a lot of time spent in one’s own head. It’s no surprise that some of the best-sellers are considered introverts: the Bronte’s; JK Rowling; Virginia Woolf and JD Salinger are just a few examples.

In the past this wasn’t much of an issue. Writers could send manuscripts to their agents or publishers, receive comments back by post and, bar the occasional meeting and maybe a quick book-launch, barely had to leave their homes to produce quality material that would sell.

Things are very different now. The industry has changed dramatically. Writers are now required to actively promote themselves; they’re expected to appear in public, doing lectures and readings and interviews. Although much promotion can be undertaken online, the fact remains: those who shout loudest get the most sales.

This isn’t right, isn’t fair, and risks the best novels slipping between the cracks to be replaced by mediocrity and blah. It’s a consequence of the way the publishing world has retreated, saving money by pushing promotion onto authors. Some, naturally, cope better than others. I consider myself to be an ambivert and personally have no problem speaking in public. But many do.

It’s no different in the world of self-publishing: it may be possible to quietly slip out your masterpiece and to avoid the limelight but no-one’s going to read it if no-one knows it’s there. The best way of promoting yourself remains the personal appearance – at conferences, in shops, or at the car boot-sales where you hope to offload a few of the thousand copies that are currently preventing use of the spare bedroom.

Don’t think the internet’s a way around this. Most bloggers and tweeters (myself included) are locked in a circle of writers reading writers, reaching very few people in the buying world. Even though the internet has been a liberation for introverts everywhere (they can metaphorically dance and sing behind their keyboards, engaging only when and how they want), the fact remains: introverts don’t like to shout. It’s an incredibly slow, incremental journey for those who prefer to pick and choose their interactions with the outside world.

It seems to me that the publishing world is doing a massive disservice to both readers and writers. Books are signed not only on the basis of their quality but by how well the author can push themselves. Some people are good at this, others aren’t – but literary merit does not reflect this difference. Similarly, many readers are introverted. Don’t they deserve to hear the experiences of people like them, as well as the big noises that live in big worlds of parties and friendships and society? We’re not all Gatsby’s and we don’t all want to read about them.

The driving force of publishing is money, not talent. That’s not to say that publishers don’t like quality writing – they most certainly do – but that even the best-written book in the world will be overlooked if it ain’t gonna be a unit-shifter. Bear in mind that many (most) debut novels are bought not on their own merits but on the potential that the industry sees behind its author. It’s a risk-averse world, one in which quiet courage isn’t rated as highly as the ability to stand up and shout – no matter what bollocks is being shouted.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Thoughts?

This is a low

I am tremendously lucky. I’ve got it so easy. My fiancée works full-time and pays the rent and the tax whilst I work half her hours and get to write in the gaps. My parents are writers and provide free proofreading services. I’m friends with writers and I can turn to them in hours of creative need.

I’m very lucky. And what it means is that I feel a real pressure to achieve. Because I know I should be spending time looking for better jobs and sending off applications. I have a future to think about, a wedding to plan. There are so many more things to do than write; things more important, more worthwhile. And I waste them doing this damn hobby of mine.

I like writing. I love those precious moments when you get in the zone and there’s no effort, the words just pour onto the page. I like the intellectual challenges where most of the work is done pacing up and down, deciding which leg of the trousers of time you’re going to push your protagonist down.  Somebody shoot me but I even like the editing, going over the same old piece for the umpteenth time.

But how long can I keep doing this for? I mean, it’s not as if one day my ship will come in and I’ll get a six-figure publishing deal. Unless I’m astonishingly lucky I’m going to be raking in pennies, just a little pin money for the end of the month. The most I can hope for (dreams are different) is to make enough to make my total earnings up to full-time equivalent. Why not just skip the writing altogether and try that ‘career’ thing?

Or, alternatively, why don’t I self-publish now? I’ve got product, I’m clued up enough to do a bit of computer-based promotion. If I’m only ever going to get pennies, why not get them now? I seriously wonder if part of the self-publishing boom isn’t generated by an increased awareness of how the publishing industry works. People are less willing to take all the time and effort in getting first an agent and then a deal when they know that it’s almost a closed industry, what with all these celebrities releasing novels. No room for the rest of us. So why not just get those pennies and squeeze out a novel a year?

Isn’t it time I grew up? I want a family, I want to live comfortably and repay my debts to family and friends. I’ve been living this semi-respectable, semi-bohemian lifestyle for over ten years now. Isn’t it time I got my act together and picked up on one of those ‘future’ things?

But I live writing and I want my work to be read by as many people as possible. That’s my ego right there. And I think my ego is best served by taking the traditional publishing route. And I love what I do enough to keep me going every day, despite the uncertainty of the future and despite the doubts about my ability.

Damn it, though, real life can’t be put off forever.

An interview with Marissa de Luna

As promised, this week’s blog is an interview with Marissa de Luna, author of Goa Traffic and The Bittersweet Vine. In fact, she’s at the launch for TBV almost as I type (Monday night).

 

This is the last halt on Marissa’s innovative ‘blog tour’; I’ll copy the details of her previous stops at the end of the interview. I know her through Abingdon Writers’ Group, of which we’re both members, and she’s been good enough to read through some early drafts of both Night Shift and Australis and provided much-appreciated feedback.

 

Hope you enjoy.

 

Author Interview with Marissa de Luna – Part 3

 

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

 

The Bittersweet Vine is a psychological thriller set in England. It tells the story of a traumatized abduction victim, Maria Shroder, who is abducted from her workplace but wakes in her bed physically unharmed. Having no recollection of the days that have passed Maria discovers she is suffering from hysterical amnesia; her mind is protecting her from a terrifying truth. Desperate to pull into consciousness the secrets her mind has buried, Maria must first uncover the lies hidden in her past.  

 

Do you see writing as a career?

 

In an ideal world, yes. But in reality I still need a full time job so that I can pay the mortgage. I love writing. It’s in my blood and even after a tough day at work I still feel compelled to write. As many writers will tell you – you write because you love to and not for money. The money is a bonus.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

 

I am proud of The Bittersweet Vine as it stands I wouldn’t change a thing. I really spent time on the manuscript and believe it achieves what I set out to do! But I’ll let the readers be the judge of that.


Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

 

I remember always wanting to write but I never really having the courage to pick up a pen and actually do it. In 2007 I took a year out to travel and afterwards I spent some time in Goa, where I grew up. Inspired by the culture and the people I decided to write my first novel, Goa Traffic. It snowballed from there!

 

Do you have a specific writing style?

 

I think I am still developing my writing style. I enjoy the use of moving from the present to the past to create a sense of heightened suspense. I did this in Goa Traffic and the book starts with the protagonist looking back over the last year of her life. In The Bittersweet Vine the main character is on a journey but she too needs to look into her past in order to find clues to her future.

 

What’s your favourite part of The Bittersweet Vine?

 

There is a lovely scene when Maria and Alice (sisters) let go of their pride and their egos and just tell each other how they feel. To me that part of the book is special. They were close growing up and somewhere along the way they lost each other. From this scene onwards they start to learn about each other again. After they disclose their insecurities to each other they are able to pick up from where they left off. I think this is a pretty poignant scene.


Who is your favourite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

 

At the moment it has to be Sophie Hannah.  I plan to read a chapter of one of her books before bed and three hours later I’m still reading. Reading one of Sophie Hannah’s books is like being on a roller coaster in the dead of night. There are so many twists and turns and sometimes you just don’t see them coming.

What was the hardest part of writing The Bittersweet Vine?

 

Not being able to get my words on the page as quickly as I would like. I found with The Bittersweet Vine ideas were forming rapidly in my mind as I wrote. What I find most difficult with writing a novel, such as The Bittersweet Vine, is the drafting and re-drafting process. It is, of course, essential but it’s laborious and hard work!  

Do you have any advice for other writers?

 

Persistence. With Goa Traffic I didn’t have an agent or a publisher and so I decided to self publish. It was a great experience because I learnt so much along the way. When I finished writing The Bittersweet Vine I was tempted to just self publish after the success of Goa Traffic, but I decided to try the traditional route once again and after countless rejections I finally got a bite. It was worth the wait.

 

While you are going through the submissions process you can always improve your writing by polishing your writing skills. Start a blog or take up a short course. I have two blogs and I’m getting pretty savvy with social media. Having an on-line presence is a must for any new author.  Ensure that you have an up to date website and use various social media platforms such as Twitter, Pinterest and a Facebook Page.  It all helps when you finally launch yourself as an author.

 
What are the major themes of your work?

 

There are several themes running through The Bittersweet Vine. Trust is one of the main topics explored. Maria is estranged from her sister and her ex-lover, her supposed soul mate, has left her. Maria has lost her confidence and so she seeks the help of a therapist. When her best friend begins to doubt her, Maria does not know who to turn to making her plight even more arduous.

 

Sibling rivalry is another theme within the novel. Alice and Maria had an idyllic childhood. But when they first meet in the Bittersweet Vine they are estranged. The book explores the fragile relationship between sisters.

 

Previous ‘Blog Tour’ entries – and much more besides – can be found at…

 

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On the 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

 

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

 

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers’ blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

 

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog. http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from hockey player to author.

 

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog. http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

 

And, finally, Stop 6 is the one you’ve just read!

 

 

The Bittersweet Vine is available now
The Bittersweet Vine (ISBN: 978-0-85728-094-7, Thames River Press, paperback and e-book.) at Amazon or other on-line stores and in selected bookshops.  For more information about The Bittersweet Vine or about the author see www.marissadeluna.com 
Find Marissa de Luna on Facebook www.facebook.com/marissadelunaauthor 

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.