Marmite Moments: Writing Good Sex

There’s nothing like a touch of the erotic in a story to polarise the public.

MarmiteAround 15 years ago I wrote a series of erotic vignettes.  For a few intriguing weeks, a male friend and I exchanged intimate short stories with one another.  He wrote well and I cherished the notion that I held my own in this domain too, armed as I was with a reasonable grasp of the English language and a willingness to embrace the moment.  How wrong I was.

A few weeks ago, I was clearing out my old archive of stuff – you know – the odd bits of stuff you keep because it seems premature or a bit brutal, to discard them.  And somehow years later there they still are, in a box, tucked away somewhere.  In my archive of stuff there was a sealed envelope with a cryptic label. I realised immediately what I’d come across: my naughty stories.

I couldn’t help myself, I had to re-read.

But oh, oh… oh, how they made me weep.  I really, properly cringed at how wincingly, oozingly, butt-clenchingly ghastly they were.  What I’d remembered as intense and subtle scenes creaked with cliché, uncomfortable metaphor and the direst of dialogue. Mortifying. But at least this was all private, locked-away, shared with one other person in a mutually assured destruction kind of a way, destined never to see the light of day.

Writing sex is challenging.  When it comes to the erotic, what excites one person will bore another and offend still more.  You write about sex at your peril because it will polarise opinion, and you’ll never please all the people.  The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award bears awesome and awful testimony to this.

Writing good sex requires so much more than a grasp of the English language; so much more than a talent for creative storytelling; and so much more than an eye for imaginative imagery and metaphor.  You can have all that and still your sexual episode can end up as a damp squib, a corny joke or, worst of all, an embarrassment of inappropriate excess.  That’s because when it comes to writing sex, it’s about more than technique.  It’s about how it’s…  received.  There are two key components, about which you as a writer can do nothing at all; your reader’s personal, private perspective, and the mood of their moment.  So you write your sex and you take it to market and, like Marmite, there’s them that’ll love it, and there’s them that’ll hate it.

A couple of weeks ago, a newbie book club in which I’m participating was discussing which book to read first.  There was considerable support for Fifty Shades of Grey.  It surprised me that several ladies in the room hadn’t yet sampled its pages – and most of these ladies keenly desired the excuse/justification to read this notorious novel.

I’ve read it – the first book only – that was enough.  So have many others; a gazillion copies have sold across the world.  Hats off to EL James for that, by the way; because whatever I think of the writing and the fact that it’s not for me, she’s done very, very well.   Many readers have found her stories stimulating and exciting.  For some it’s even been a springboard to improving the quality of their own personal relationships.  And it’s churlish not to celebrate a book which achieves that for anyone.

But I’m not one of those; I’m one of the readers who found it dreary and insipid.  Am I betraying too much of myself to say that I thought it was tame, that it ventured towards a line, but then turned right around and ran home to mummy?  I didn’t like the repeated oh my’s or the euphemistic turns of phrase.  I thought it too sickly sweet and not nearly edgy or dark enough to do its subject matter any justice.   But that’s just IMHO – and those books sold and sold and sold, so what do I know?

A touch of the erotic in a story can feel dark and delicious, or it can come across as cheap and tawdry, depending on the mood of the moment. It’s the heat of the night, versus the cold light of the morning after.  It’s candlelight and Armagnac one moment, and the stained bedsheets of a run-down motel the next.

So what of my secret package of erotic vignettes? They had their little private ‘heat of the night’ moment and that’s where they should have stayed.  They don’t belong in the cold light of the morning after; fifteen years later, in the hands of someone who fancies she’s learned a little about life since then, not to say a great deal about writing fiction.

They don’t belong; they’ve embarrassed me quite enough. Now they’ve gone for good, courtesy of my office shredder.

So, are you wondering if there’s any sex in my first novel, Singled Out?  Are you wondering if I’ve been bold enough to have another go at the challenge of writing sex into my fiction?

I have, kind of.  I’ve written a story about a singles holiday, after all.  Whilst I haven’t written romantic sex scenes (it’s a psychological suspense novel, not Mills & Boon), I have toyed with sex in one way and another throughout the narrative. Here and there it’s become quite dark and unsettling too – I think, dark and unsettling enough, although others may feel I’ve wimped out.  But it’s all about personal perspective, isn’t it?

So one of these days, if Singled Out gets representation and wins the affections of a publisher, you judge those love-it-or-hate-it Marmite moments from your own personal, private perspective.

Food, Glorious Food

iStock_000002093969_MediumI enjoyed writing a few gastronomic moments into my novel, Singled Out, which is set on a holiday in Turkey. Food allows you to explore all the senses and it can be a prism through which characters’ personalities and passions shine.  People gather together to eat, so food and mealtimes are opportunities for making connections and developing relationships between characters.  They can be made to linger over meals – creating episodes rich in sensory detail and dialogue, and loaded with cues and clues.

Below is a short foodie excerpt from Singled Out. I’d love to know what you think, and to hear how you use food in your own writing.

Mehmet and Defne brought baskets of steaming pide breads covered with napkins, to accompany the assortment of dips – creamy cacik, hummus and iman bageldi – on the table. They deposited platters of succulent tomato and feta salad drenched in olive oil, and saucers of black olives. The bread was pounced upon, ripped and shared. Brenda loaded her plate with dips and slices of tomato. She scraped a hunk of warm bread through the hummus and took a bite. It was sticky and grainy and the tang of garlic and fresh lemon flooded her mouth with saliva.

‘You’re enjoying that,’ said Turner, an inscrutable smile spreading across his features.

‘Indeed,’ said Brenda. ‘Good food, a warm evening—’

‘And great company,’ he added. ‘Here, try this.’ He held out a piece of bread loaded with the cacik – slivers of cucumber, crushed garlic and mint smothered in velvety yoghurt. Brenda reached out to take it with her hand but he pulled back.

‘Take a bite,’ he said, holding it out towards her mouth. ‘Go on. I want to watch you eat it.’ The corners of his mouth twitched.

As she parted her lips he slid the bread on to her tongue. The chilled yoghurt softened in the heat of her mouth and she savoured the silken concoction as it slithered down her throat…

Let them eat cake

cakeIt’s a whole new linguistic world out there on Tuesday evening telly.

I’m loving Great British Bake Off (I’m finally on-board after poo-poohing it for three series).  And I’m deeply into series two of Top Boy too.  For those of you not in the know, Great British Bake Off is, basically, a baking competition, executed in a sunny marquee bursting with pansy-scattered aprons and chocolate sprinkles. By significant contrast, Top Boy has been labelled The Wire for Brits.  I’m not sure I agree, but it’s very good – hard-core narrative, compelling characters, dark places and lots of gritty, visceral action.

So, without further ado, and not for the first time, I’ll confess to a split personality.

But my two favourite Tuesday night programmes have presented me with a mini linguistic conundrum. At 8 o’clock on Great British Bake Off dough is used to make bread.  But an hour down the schedule on Top Boy they’ve said a fierce farewell to the traditional ‘crooks and drugs’ slang for money – that would be, um…,  dough or bread.   Money is now apparently paper.  And as for drugs, well, that’s apparently food.  Which, if nothing else, brings us back to bread, I suppose.

But I can guess what you’re going to ask.  Where would that gritty ‘crooks and drugs’ film, Layer Cake, fit in with all this?

Vive l’escargot

Exc1One of those morning writing practice prompts recently brought a particular food-related experience to mind (the topic was Eating Out).  I’ve written a lot of food into my first novel, so I embraced this exercise.  What came out as I kept my pen moving was not fiction, but a happy childhood memory:

I was accustomed as a child to eating out in restaurants for Sunday lunch – we did this perhaps two weeks out of four.  This was more than a little unusual in 1960’s and 70’s Britain.  But my parents had what were then considered to be exotic tastes, for garlic, herbs and spices, wines and dishes with names nobody could pronounce – all alien to the typical suburban dining table.

I remember the delights of Luigis, Trattoria Valeria, La Primavera and other regular haunts in North and West London, in the days when prawn cocktail and minestrone soup were the height of sophistication; when pollo sorpresa (or chicken kiev as we know it today), wasn’t something you could bring home from the supermarket in a plastic dish; when grissini sticks were a novelty.

A favourite of mine, and something you were guaranteed never to get at home – even in a home as gastronomically adventurous as ours – was l’escargots a l’ail, yes, snails in garlic butter.  I loved those half-dozen gummy grey blobs concealed within their shells and nesting in their dimpled tin dish.  I became adept at handling the special toolkit that arrived in place of a knife and fork; the intriguing tongs you had to squeeze to open in order to clutch the shell, allowing you to hook out its inhabitant with the tiny two-pronged pick.  I would empty every dribble of melted garlic butter from the shell into a puddle on the dish, then sweep my impaled snail round and around, harvesting as much of the glossy dressing on to my prize as I could.  Then the trick was to get it to my mouth before warm butter drizzled on to my Sunday best, then chew it hard, like a lump of bubble gum, until it surrendered.  Five more unctuous mouthfuls followed the first; then there was the basket on the table, crammed with chunks of crusty French bread to scrape and dip and mop with, until every last dribble of melted garlic butter had been soaked up.

My father, who is no longer alive, is central to my memories of Sunday lunches out. His craving for a mighty Chateauneuf du Pape, when Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and Black Tower were the order of the day; his delight in anything – anything at all – that came laced with garlic; his all-consuming sweet-tooth; the way he would engage with the proprietors who, when they realised his passion for their food, would produce special this, and extra that, and little treats, and even occasionally not charge for the flaming zambucas or brandies that always rounded off the feast (for the adults, only for the adults).  And their generosity was rewarded, for we would always come again, on another Sunday.

The Sweetie Snafflers

One aspect of learning to write more authentically is learning to listen and observe what goes on around.  I didn’t realise until I consciously started to do this, just how little I used to notice.

I’ve turned up the volume on the jangling hubbub of everyday life; the station, the train, the pub, offices and shopping centres, the park, the ubiquitous coffee houses.  All have become astoundingly rich sources of real-life dialogue.  Strangely, much of this, when you write it down, sounds, well, almost…. unrealistic.  Truth being stranger than fiction perhaps.

I work on occasion in a client’s marketing department.  Here we keep a table from which the salespeople are invited to help themselves to an assortment of sales aids:  brochures, DVDs, and few freebie giveaways and – most popular of all – a large bowl of mints in branded wrappers.

In my pursuit of observations on everyday life, it’s been fascinating to notice how people help themselves – for they do, all day long – from the sweetie bowl.

Some are surreptitious, not wanting to be noticed by the occupants of the four nearby desks.  They grab in passing, but it snares them no more than one or two mints at a time.  A slightly slowed pace past the goodies table, a quick flick of the wrist and –  success! – a mint in hand and nobody noticed.  Except they did.

There are the entitled. They stand directly in front of the bowl and engage in a bit of chit-chat.  They are in fact paying for their sweets with a few minutes of polite conversation.   Having passed the time of day with the marketing minions they have earned their dip in the bowl, and they do it with an, “I’ll just have a few of these whilst I’m here” – then they’re away.

There are the apologists – they are the opposite of the entitled.  They believe they should not be dipping into the bowl, but are tempted beyond their best behaviour by the sight of a pile of free sweets.  They pull twisted, apologetic faces and sheepish grins, expressing faux-innocence and helpless guilt, as they pocket one or two, or maybe even a greedy handful, of treats.

Lastly, there are the Alpha Sales – deserving of their capitalisation.  They are the double-plus entitled – the ones who don’t have to bother with the polite conversation to earn sweets.  For these dippers, it’s not about earning, it’s about there for the taking.  It’s about abundance and indulgence and an unquestioning self-belief.  Their pockets shamelessly loaded, they brazen it out with a charming smile and a wink, because that’s just what they do, every day of their lives.

Is it overly-simplistic to draw meaningful conclusions about individuals from the way they dip the bowl for mints? I confess our little team does it all the time.  But when you’re looking for ways to show-not-tell something about a fictional character, the  sweetie bowl snaffle is a delight.