Thursday, 26 September 2013

Erotic vs just sex

Writing erotica is not the same as writing about sex. Or writing about sex is not the same as writing erotica.

For instance let's consider the sex in GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. I personally love these books, and as they're grown-up fantasy, their characters do have sex lives - rarely easy ones; Cersei and Jaime share an incestuous love that must not speak its name, Jon Snow falls in love (or lust?) but has to break his vows as a member of the Night's Watch, Tyrion the dwarf thinks he's found love but has actually found a whore who's worked out where her best prospects lie for the moment, and Daenerys, poor Daenerys, is married off by her mad as a snake brother to a barbarian who doesn't understand the possibilities of anything other than doggy-style in public. Blimey.

As you might expect from that summary, GRRM doesn't necessarily find sex a complete turn-on. More often, it's bound up with his characters' weaknesses and failures. This is what I love about his sex scenes; they're intensely in character - just another part of the world in which his characters live, play politics, lose friends or battles or in some cases their lives.

Iain Banks has one marvellous scene in Against a Dark Background which (I'm doing this from memory, so bear with me if it's not a hundred percent correct) Sharrow and her on-and-off lover have sex on a hotel room balcony - and a city explodes in the distance. Nice; because it's all linked in to the plot, it's all part of the incredible darkness of Banks's world view in this novel, and it's an acerbic take on a big old fireworks cliché, typical Banksian wit. Done very economically, too. No lubricious description. Just enough.

Whereas when you're writing erotica, though those links to plot and character are there and have to be there, that's not what your readers are primarily interested in. They're interested in the... how shall I put it? ... ins and outs of the action. You need to have enough imagination and enough character and plot to make it work, but the sex is important in a way that it isn't in Martin or Banks.

It's actually quite difficult to do. Some authors seem to work by numbers in rather a porn-film way; "have we done the anal sex yet?" It's like going through the Kama Sutra one position at a time. But you need an element of that, because otherwise, missionary position fifteen times is going to get a bit boring. I've found you also need an element of either humour, or danger, at least some of the time; whether that's "can they get it on without her husband finding out?" (Don Giovanni and Donna Anna, before the Commendatore bursts in) or "will they fall off the balcony?" or perhaps "what a time to find he'd put his boxers on back to front."

I suppose it all comes down to seeing the world with erotica goggles on. It's the same world, and erotica authors are doing the same job of telling a story; it's just a story with a rather different slant.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Images get me writing

I really felt devoid of inspiration the other day. I looked through my notebooks, usually full of little ideas that get my brain started - nothing 'caught'. It was like fishing a trout stream with nothing biting, no matter how many times I cast my line.

So instead, I looked through a directory of images I've accumulated over time. Many are landscapes; some are architectural shots; but the ones I was looking for were those showing small moments of narrative.

Two men are talking on a quay; behind them, a huge crane.

A woman comes into a room; her shirt is open.

A huge apartment. A bed, unmade. Clothes on the floor. (True, no people in this one.)

A student climbing a massive gilded statue. What's she going to do when she gets to the top? Unfurl a banner? Get her photo taken? Why is she climbing?

Sometimes art history gets in the way. I don't really want to know the story behind the painting; I have to reinterpret it myself. I don't want Diana and Actaeon to be about a man turned into a deer and ripped to shreds by his own hounds for daring to look at the goddess; I want it to be about... I don't know, maybe myths of Cernunnos the Lord of Beasts, something about "beastliness" in a positive sense; perhaps I want Actaeon to have just realised Diana is more interested in the nymphs than she is in him...

Every writer should have a notebook. But every writer should have a scrapbook, too.

Monday, 23 July 2012

50 shades of opinion

Having been writing erotica for several years now, I'm rather annoyed that the media seem to represent 'Fifty Shades' as the first erotic book ever written, or written for women, or by a woman. ('Story of O', anyone? Anais Nin?)

Opinion seems to be polarised. On the one hand there are the nay-sayers. It's really badly written, it isn't Anna Karenina, there are some annoying verbal tics (like the way the heroine keeps saying 'Aargh', a vocalisation more usual in the esteemed pages of the Dandy and the Beano).

On the other hand there are the pro-Greys. They praise the plot, the sex, the fact that they get off on it. They don't (and this might be important) praise the writing or the characterisation, for the most part.

From what I've seen, the book is pretty competently written. It's not Ulysses, it's not Hamlet, it's not the Aeneid or Dante's Divine Comedy, and to be honest, what is? I don't hear people dissing Chuck Palaniuk because he's not Cormac McCarthy.

I just have two problems with the book.

First, the heroine. Argh! (you might say) - what a limp, characterless, dim little bimbo. I really hate this kind of erotica. (It seems quite widespread, perhaps along the lines that fat, plain, frumpish readers want to read about fat, plain, frumpish girls getting soundly fucked. Unfortunately they don't have the wit or the appealing eccentrities of the original, Miss Bridget Jones.)

And secondly, the fact that it's not really serious S&M. Cable ties? Surely not! And to my taste, it doesn't really explore the emotional territory that goes with bondage and domination - the feeling of danger blended with trust. You can get a lot closer to that just by putting on a blindfold and having a friend guide you around the house with it on - something actors often do as a trust exercise in the early stages of rehearsals. To be honest, I felt anyone who has done any sort of mask work as an actor, or used trust games of this sort, understands more about S&M than Mr Grey, who is just a pervy sort of Gordon Gecko.

Yes, I'm annoyed that the press thinks '50 Shades' is the be-all and end-all of erotica. And I do wish I made a bit more money at the writing game. Perhaps if I did a '50 shades of Agatha Christie's Mousetrap', with a murder mystery set in a dungeon, or '50 shades of pink' (the Lesbian version), I'd make a fortune... But heck, I'm going to carry on doing what I'm doing - writing my own imaginations and my own fantasies. Because that's what writers do.

Disclosure: No, I haven't read the whole series. But I have read quite a few chapters, and quite a lot of the comment on the books.

The Austen-Leigh Erotica Paradox

I came across a nice piece of writing by Anais Nin on Letters of Note, via 'The Millions' (an interesting literary RSS feed):

It's absolutely right. He-fucked-her-with-his-big-cock stories, and 'aaaah! fuck fuck fuck I'm coming' dialogue, are all very well for a quick wank if you really have to - but they're totally disposable. You have nothing invested in them.
  • Nothing invested in the characters, because a 44 FFF blonde just isn't a character. She's a blow-up doll. (In fact, I rather liked a piece of erotica where the fuckee character was a blow-up doll:
  • Nothing invested in the language. It's either Anglo-Saxon obscenities or - which personally I find worse, because it reminds me of visits to the gynaecologist - medically correct terminology. (On the other hand, witty use of language brings an erotic story to life; the wonderful pastiche of fantasy books in 'The Barbarian King' makes the story memorable and amusing. Steve Isaak's 'Blasphemos gamisia', marvellously, takes the deck of cards, cuts, shuffles, and makes an erotic fantasy out of a hand of poker.)
  • Nothing invested in the setting. So the characters are, as it were, screwing in a vacuum. Just because you're writing erotica doesn't mean you can't evoke interesting settings, whether gritty urban streets or the canals and carnival masks of Venice, deep Russian forest or the genteel streets of Regency London. (I spent a lot of time getting my Red Shoes just right in this regard. I don't think it would be quite the same story if I transposed it to modern London or New York.)
  • Nothing invested in the plot, because it's always the same; fuck, orgasm, and repeat ad infinitum. Monotonous as it is making a loaf of bread, at least after all the kneading and resting, kneading and resting, you finally get to put it in the oven and bake it. But even the most simple story can use wit, or a non-sexual obstacle, to create a plot that works. (At the extreme, my How not to have sex is almost all obstacle - though it packs quite a bit of sex in as well. Julius' story 'Second Serving' does it by introducing one couple actually doing it, and a third party getting excited by it... and has a neat surprise ending.)
So to some extent, the more you write about sex, the less exciting it gets; whereas the more you write about other things - whether that's cards, ballet, weightless environments in space, painting, or blackmail, whatever it is - the more exciting the sex becomes. And that, dear readers, is the Austen-Leigh Erotica Paradox.

Thursday, 21 June 2012


Fabrics are incredibly erotic things.

Naturally, anything you wear close to your body can be erotic. But many fabrics are sensuous, inviting - how many times do we hear the rustle of petticoats in a Regecy romance? Herrick's poetry, which I love, is full of the sound and movement of fabric - 'the liquefaction of her clothes', he says of one of his mistresses' silks. (And underlines it by extending his rhymed couplet into a three-line epigram which flows smoothly to its conclusion.)

One striking encounter - being shown a superb shawl from the early nineteenth century, still with its paisley patterns vibrant and even lurid in colour. You don't realise the sheer size of one of these Norwich shawls till you see them - they're not little scarves, but massive shawls that were intended to almost cover your dress; they are almost unmanageably huge, flowing over your fingers, soft, the colours glowing and the patterns changing as you feel them. Woven on a jacquard loom, they have incredibly intricate patterns. I must do something with a shawl like this, I think... a story starts to emerge!

Another experience, seeing a pashmina drawn through a ring to demonstrate its fineness. If you've ever been in a souk or a bazaar in Turkey, the Middle East, Morocco, India, you'll have seen this done - it's a cliche, but it's still impressive. The wonder of such fine materials is their softness, their thinness - sometimes their transparency, too. They are silent - they don't rustle, or scratch, they simply flow.

So there's a lot for me to think about there. Perhaps, also, some silken rope...

By the way, I was rather pleased recently to find a new (at least to me) review of the Diligence de Lyon - Someone liked it! And I do like the no-spoilers reticence of the reviewer, too.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Where do ideas come from?

One of the questions I most dread as a writer is 'where do you get your ideas from?'

It's like my turning round to you in the pub and saying 'How come you decided to talk about...' [the FA Cup Final, how David Cameron is getting fatter and fatter the longer he lasts as Prime Minister, the death of Princess Diana, Peter Greenaway films]. The fact is, there are so many ideas out there that it's impossible to move for falling over them - they're in the newspaper, in other books, in conversations that I'm participating in (or sometimes eavesdropping on), in observations of daily life (the little girl so absorbed in a book her mother can't get her attention, the toy monkey someone left sitting on a wall in the next street). It's like shooting fish in a goldfish bowl.

It's not where the ideas come from that's the problem. It's recognising the good ones (and knowing why they're good for me, which is quite a specific thing), and developing them from the status of a good idea to a fully worked up story.

So, for instance; 'How not to have sex'. I'd been watching a film - some eighteenth century costume drama, I seem to remember - where the lead characters came so very close to kissing so many times, but never quite did - someone else always came into the room, or someone called for one of them, or something happened... and I thought it was an interesting idea, but how could I make it work in erotica? Then I thought well, instead of gently touching like the film, let's have it quite comic - and then I thought of all the ways a planned quickie just might not happen, and it went on from there.

Sometimes it's just an image, and you worry it round your brain for a few weeks before it catches fire. The red shoes... that's a title with a lot of hinterland, and the image of a little pair of shoes was rattling around my head. Then I thought the cobbler, rather than the wearer of the shoes, would be an interesting focus. But where? Then Hampi in India came to my mind - the bazaar, the backpackers, the clash of cultures - and I adapted it slightly but tried to keep that atmosphere. By then I'd got the main characters, the setting and the rough story - the rest was refinement. (That story's at

Then sometimes a novel gives you a chance to rewrite history. I've always been convinced that Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray had an affair. They went off on the grand tour together, and came back not speaking to each other... Well, in A grand tour I had a chance to write history the way I wish it had happened; I did change one of the names, as history is only the setting-off point.

So... ideas are everywhere. It's what you do with them that counts!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Another story: Red shoes

I've just had another story published on Every Night Erotica - "Red shoes".

It's nothing to do with the ballet story of the same name! In fact it grew out of some of my travels in Asia, as you may be able to guess when you read it. And no, I'm not the girl in the story.

I've also now got a good few of my books available on, for Kindle -