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Writing sex and ringing tills

When I was first asked if I'd be interested in writing an erotic story for an anthology by contemporary women writers I wasn't sure what to say. Yes, I like writing short stories, and writing sex, and yes, the general opinion seems to be that I do it well and yes, the advance for my one story would make a considerable difference to the domestic budget. But still... I was busy hammering out what was becoming A Secret Alchemy: could I put those voices, those worlds, on hold while I dreamt up something else? And would my writerly reputation - such as it is - be cast forever into the outer darkness of a genre almost as literarily unrespectable as doctor-and-nurse romances? (Though to my mind the campus novel is simply hospital romance for the literati.) And then I realised I did have a character I was really fond of, from a story which I'd never quite got right but whose central idea I still believed in and wanted to explore. And my agent reassured me that my reputation was not seriously at risk.

What with A Secret Alchemy being published, and my trip to Mexico, not to mention grappling with the PhD and every now and again having to take time out to cope with real life, I keep forgetting that I'll have another publication to celebrate in January. Indeed, it's already out in Australia. The conceit of In Bed With is that we're all writing under pseudonyms, so I'm not going to tell you what my story's about. But as you can see from the cover, I'm in some classy company.

I'm interested that whenever the subject of writing sex comes up (sorry: it's impossible to discuss without falling into a hundred snigger-making doubles-entendres) it's regarded as big issue. Many InBedWithLBwriters just don't, which is fine by me but sometimes sits a bit oddly with the fact that they'll happily write about everything else in their characters' lives in all its glorious, mundane, lifelike detail: why close the bedroom door so firmly when the doors of the pub loo, the marriage guidance office and the rabbit hutch where the fox got in are all flapping in the breeze? Others do write it but find it incredibly difficult and all too often it reads like that. Others again can only write bad sex, which is understandable in a novel where everything else is grubby and depressing too, but does make me feel sorry for the writer's partner.

What is it about writing sex which makes both writers and readers regard it as a whole different business (or affair?) from writing anything else? My flippant line is that you need a terrific imagination to write sex well, and the first thing you have to imagine is that your parents are dead. It's flippant, but it's an embodiment of a certain truth: even if we don't censor our thoughts, we've all had a lifetime's learning what's proper and what isn't to say to whom, and most of what you'd put in a sex scene you wouldn't usually say to anyone beyond your best friend in a quiet corner of a noisy bar. It doesn't help that most of us, starting to undo buttons, are visited at some point by a nightmare vision of tripping merrily up to receive our Bad Sex Award. Even when you avoided that in the writing, any such scene read out of its context in the novel can look horribly like a worthy winner. In other words, the kind of self-consciousness which that monitoring, or those fears, necessitate is the death of good writing, as fatal as the self-consciousness of trying deliberately to write a prize-winning novel, or one which proves a political point or follows a fashion, or one for which your publisher will buy the front cover of The Bookseller to advertise to the trade.

You may not believe me, but one of the main reasons I'm interested in writing sex, and relish the challenge, is exactly that it isn't any different from writing anything else. The problems are just the same, only worse. The pitfalls are bigger, and the path between them narrower and more precarious, but they're the same pitfalls, and the same path: on one side you have the mire of plodding detail, lack of affect and too much plumbing, on the other the chasm of fancy prose, clashing metaphors and excessive adjectives of feeling. Paradoxically, too, writing good sex is even more difficult than writing bad sex, despite the fact that on the whole we'd all rather have the good sort in real life. In fact, I suspect that the reason there's more bad sex in fiction than there is in a whole city-full of back-seat fumblings and wham-bam-lights-out selfishness is precisely because sex badly written can read like bad sex well written. Or is it just that it's easier to reassure your partner convincingly that it's not about them AT ALL if the book sex is terrible?

I think the sense of taboo, and self-consciousness that in some way this stuff is different, means that writers often lose track of their ordinary horse-sense instincts about how storytelling works. But if you concentrate on the fact that sex scenes need exactly what all other scenes need, it gets easier, whether the sex is good, bad or nightmarish. As ever Aristotle is your man for thinking about this: like any other, a sex scene needs to be driven by character-in-action/action-in-character, it needs to build up to a climax (no, not necessarily that kind: we're talking narrative drive here) and then build down to a sense by the end that something has changed in and/or for each character. Sensory detail, at least, usually comes fairly naturally, but it's as important not to get distracted by the mere description of action (however much you might be enjoying it and think that your reader will - that way pornography lies) as it is in writing a car journey or a bomb explosion: you only need to write as much of the scene, and as much of the detail, as needs to be in there for the larger purposes of the story.

Get it all right (ha! - so easy to say) and it won't matter if he never rings: editors will, and so will tills.