Writing About Sex

I’m about to tackle one of the greatest challenges an Englishman can face – writing about sex.

I should be used to this by now as I’ve ghostwritten over a dozen sex scenes in four separate novels. But each time I freeze up at the thought. Right now, there are people out there in the world happily reading things that I squirmed at writing.

Part of this is my personal hangups. I live in a culture that’s terrible at talking about sex and I’ve let that shape me. Even with a partner, I find it difficult to talk about what we’re doing and what we both want. Such mundane activities as finding a condom can feel crushingly awkward.

But the culture that’s shaped me has also shaped the way we write about sex. Directness feels too functional. Metaphors create the accidental comedy of absurdity. Slang brings discomfort because we use these words as obscenities.

Obviously, people have found ways to tackle this. They depend upon the genre and audience, and often tread a delicate line of atmosphere and allusion. But even using those techniques, I clench up inside.

Some people write about sex with skill and panache. But until we’re better at talking about it as a society, we’ll be setting artificial limits on how we write. For an activity that’s so important to many people’s emotional lives, that’s a real shame.

Storytelling About Storytelling

I was recently given the chance to pitch a novel to a mainstream publisher. This forced me to do something I don’t do often – write a pitch.

Novel pitches are weird. Articles often describe them as condensing a story down into a single page. Except that that’s not really true, as I realised when a far more experienced friend gave me feedback on my first draft. Really, pitches are stories in themselves. They don’t tell your story. They let you tell a story about why people should be excited about your story. You do this by setting the emotional tone, showing some of the thrilling high points, and creating a sense of drama.

Pitches are stories about stories, and as such they’re a useful part of the publishing process. They refine and test a writer’s skills on a different scale.

But they are really weird.

Storytelling Books as Stories

“Storytelling, then, is born from our need to order everything outside ourselves.” – John Yorke, Into the Woods

In his excellent book Into the Woods, John Yorke talks about how other cultural forms, from philosophical texts to jazz records, are like stories. They all try to provide order in a seemingly chaotic world, something that humans instinctively do. It’s a way of giving life meaning and asserting some control.

Books about story structure follow this same pattern. They’re attempts to assert order out of the apparent chaos of words and imagination. Yorke’s own book fits the pattern he’s describing.

Good or bad, right or wrong, writing guides help us to assert order over writing. In doing so, they make us feel good, which perhaps explains why so many writing guides, of such variable quality, go soaring off the shelves.

These structures can be useful as well as satisfying if they give us enough feeling of control to grapple with the task of writing. And as Yorke shows, beneath their novelties, many of them follow the same underlying patterns.

At the end of the day, these too are stories – stories about how stories work.

Into the Woods by John Yorke

I read a lot of books and articles on writing. After all, you don’t improve at anything without learning from others. And one of the best ones I’ve found recently is Into the Woods by John Yorke.

Plotting Stories

The book cover of Into the Woods

Into the woods is all about storytelling. Specifically, it’s about the overarching shape of stories. Yorke takes a range of different approaches to this, including three-act structure, five-act structure, and the hero’s journey, and demonstrates how they follow a similar pattern. From this, he draws out a set of principles for how to tell stories.

One of the most interesting things about Yorke’s work is the variety of examples. There’s a lot of mainstream British TV here, as that’s his writing background. But he also takes examples from classic literature, Hollywood movies, and even indie films that claim to break the mould. He shows how they all, in their way, follow the same pattern.

Connecting Plot and Character

Like the best books on plotting, Into the Woods connects character and plot. It shows how the tensions and the thrills of a good story arise from the protagonist’s needs and desires.

More than this, Yorke brings together a lot of the hot topics in modern writing advice and connects them together. The gap between wants and needs. The centrality of conflict. Making the internal external. Showing versus telling. He artfully demonstrates how they aren’t just a useful set of tools – they’re an interconnected web of ideas from which a story is built.

My Favourite Writing Book Since Story

I’ve taken in a lot of good writing advice recently, from sources like the Writing Excuses podcast, the Mythcreants blog, and Lessons from the Screenplay’s videos. Some of that is as good as this book, and even reflects similar lessons. But as a book, a single substantial text on the subject, this is the best thing I’ve read since Robert McKee’s Story. So if like me you’re looking for lessons on writing, I heartily recommend it.

Making Myself Be Creative

I’ve been struggling with how best to cultivate creativity.

On a day-to-day basis, when I’m writing for clients, it’s something I can essentially force. Deadlines and the need to pay bills focus me on the task in hand. If I need to write a chapter about a shark fight then I’ll damn well write a shark fight, and if it’s not the best shark fight ever, it will at least be competently done and improvable in the edit.

But for my own work it’s different. Sometimes the words that come out match my vision and I get into the flow, creativity coming with ease and more enthusiasm than on other people’s projects. Other times I get stuck, unsure how to turn concept into narrative. Nothing I think of seems right. Without the pressure of deadlines or the distance of knowing that this work isn’t really for me, I struggle to just get something down on the page. I come to a crushing halt.

So how to move on from that? I could force it, as I do with other projects. But this is the time when I want to do better, when I want to present the most dazzling version of my writing, because it really is mine.

I could leave it and hope that, by letting the idea bubble away in my subconscious, I’ll find a way. But that doesn’t feel professional. It doesn’t feel like progress.

The answer may be a compromise. Go work on something else, knowing that at least I’m being productive. Let the thing I’m stuck on bubble away in the background and hope that an answer shakes loose.

Some people say you can’t force creativity, and that’s true in as far as it goes. But you do have to force yourself to be creative, to put in the time and the practice, to work at things until they’re done. Finding the right balance, and doing it without beating yourself up or giving in to laziness, that’s a very difficult thing.

Forward to Basics

cover of The Ode Less Travelled

Sometimes I’m shocked by how little I know about language. Hell of a thing for a professional writer to admit, but there it is. A lot of us never got taught this stuff.

I’ve recently been dipping into Stephen Fry’s poetry writing manual The Ode Less Travelled. One of the things Fry talks about is the rhythm of words, the way we stress or don’t stress different syllables, how that makes language sound and feel. Once it’s pointed out, this can seem kind of obvious, but it’s the sort of obvious that you need pointing out.

Before Fry’s book, I didn’t have a mental framework to think about this issue of rhythm, never mind the language to discuss it or the tools to use it effectively. And with decades of bad habits behind me, it’s hard to make thinking about that rhythm part of how I write. But it’s also useful and valuable, a way to make my words more effective.

I’m not saying this is the sort of thing that we should teach every kid. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The curriculum’s pretty crowded. But I wish I hadn’t waited until a couple of years ago to start learning about it. And it wasn’t until I started learning that I could think to have that wish.

How Innovative is Too Innovative?

People are a paradox.

We crave the novelty of the new but also the comfort of the old. You can see it any time a superhero gets a revamp – some people will love the bold new direction, others will cry out against it, and some will take entirely different views on the next controversy over.

One of the publishers I work for is trying to adjust its output. They want their content to be more modern in its style and more diverse in its content. But when they say this to me as a creator, I face the implied question – how much do you really want to modernise? How much do your readers want? How much will they take before they feel that they’ve lost something familiar and comforting?

I would be happy to play around with different story formats and to fill those stories with characters who aren’t white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied, and neurotypical. That would be a lot of fun for me and much more in line with how I want my culture. But if this publisher’s style moves too far too fast, it’s going to lose the audience. I want to change things up enough to keep readers entertained but broaden their horizons. I rely on the publisher to guide me in this, just as they rely on me to do it well.

Creatives and marketers face this problem every day. When asked, they’ll get lots of responses asking for new things. But if they actually deliver on that, they’ll often find that their audiences miss parts of what they had.

Captain Marvel looking badass
Oh no, she’s going to get lady cooties all over your man space!

Of course, some people will complain no matter what you do. You can see that in the pre-release complaints about the Captain Marvel film from entitled men who think that a trailer featuring a female superhero is feminism gone mad. To them I say, you can fuck the fuckity off. Superhero films currently have more white male leads played by guys called Chris than they do female leads, there will still be plenty of what the whiners want. Asking to be represented is fair. Asking for everything to be about you is bullshit.

But when writing for the rest, the question remains, how much challenge and change do people really want compared with familiarity and comfort? How much innovation is too much innovation for this audience? And that’s a question I face when I sit down to write.

Improvising and Rough Edges

Typewriters on a wall in a pub

I recently started attending an improvised comedy course – because apparently I don’t have enough wacky hobbies and creative outlets already. A lot of the fun of improv comes from jamming together things that don’t quite match, for example picking sentences out of a hat and then fitting them into whatever scenario you’re acting out, which for me led to a cave diving expedition turning into a misguided attempt to spark romance.

This reminded me of something I used to do with my writing years ago. When looking for story inspiration, I’d scour my notebooks for fragments of ideas and description, jam a bunch of them together, and then work out what sort of story they could make. It didn’t always go smoothly, but it led to some of my more successful stories, like the mutant whale hunting adventure Distant Rain, which made its way into an issue of Murky Depths.

Dion Winton-Patrick is currently running a similar exercise as a series of challenges for writers on his blog The Fine-Toothed Comb. Each challenge involves incorporating specific words and an image to create a story – words and an image that might not go together in obvious ways. The results are some intriguing and imaginative flash stories.

Why do I mention all this? Mostly because I’d gotten out of the habit of using this approach. These days, I’ll come up with one idea and work out from there. It tends to make my ideas more coherent, but you can go too far with that. A little randomness and eclecticism in the inspiration can give a story rough edges, pieces that are at odds or create interesting contrasts, just like in real life. This can make stories richer and more convincing.

I’m not saying it’s the cure to all writing ills, but I’m planning on picking up some of that approach again, taking a deep dive into a decade of notebooks and finding whatever fragments grab my attention. If I have time, I’ll also be rising to Dion’s challenge. Because right now, I think my writing could do with a few more rough edges. And hey, maybe it’ll be good for my improv skills too.

Filling the Gaps in the Past

I’ve been working on a comic script for Commando. Unusually for me, it involves real historical figures, not just fictional characters thrust into real events. During the course of the story, several of these real people die in battle. It’s important to the story that those deaths happen, and that’s going to work best if it happens on the page, as dramatic turns in the course of battle scenes.

So far so straightforward.

Here’s the catch – in every case, we don’t know how these people died. We know which battles they died in, but not who killed them or how. One has been the source of much debate, but for the other two, there’s just no evidence of the details.

That creates an opportunity, and with it a dilemma. Because of the uncertainty about these deaths, I could depict one of the characters doing the deed. It would add to the drama, and that’s a large part of what storytelling is about.

But that feels presumptuous to me. One thing I know is that my characters didn’t kill these people, because my characters didn’t exist. If I put the blood on their hands then I’m giving them a weight of historical significance, and I’m not sure they can stand beneath it. Maybe if the story was all about the man who killed such-and-such, then I could do it. But as a passing moment of drama in some other story? It feels like a stretch.

Do I give those deaths more emotional consequence in the story by involving my fictional creations, or do I acknowledge their real significance by keeping my characters out of it? I haven’t decided yet, but as a writer and someone passionate about history, it’s a really interesting question.

The End?

Endings are funny things to write.

I’ve started getting feedback on a big work in progress and one of the interesting questions raised has been about the ending. It closes off the plot arcs that I’d built the story around, but it also leaves a lot of questions open. One beta reader’s initial feedback was full of these questions – what happens next? what about character x? is this setup for a sequel?

Leaving such questions open is one of two ways to deal with ending a story.

On the one hand, you can deliver closure, providing neat endings for story arcs. This is satisfying for readers, in part because it’s so different from the uncomfortably open-ended nature of reality.

On the other hand, there’s ending with questions open. This leaves readers thinking about the novel, considering what they think happens next, potentially yearning for more. It’s more real, but lacks the catharsis of a closed arc.

Of course, most stories don’t just do one or the other. They’ll close some arcs and leave others open. The question isn’t which to do but which to do more of.

The answer isn’t going to be easy. It depends upon your taste, your audience, the nature of the story, the message you’re trying to convey, and a hundred other considerations of craft, inspiration, and business. But it’s not an answer you can avoid providing.

Every story finishes, but not every one has a neat “The End”. For the one I’m working on, I want a high degree of audience satisfaction, while still leaving some questions open. That probably means I need to provide more closure than I’m doing right now. For you, the balance might be very different.

And for now, I’ll just stop there.