How to Write an Excellent Bonking Scene

There is a popular Australian writer (I won’t name) whose success, to me, is a mystery.

 His plots are painfully predictable, following the same pattern every time, which is reflected in his sex scenes. I’d estimate he averages four sex scenes per book and has published over 20 books.

 Every sex scene is exactly the same.

 That’s about a hundred sex scenes, all described in graphic detail, and every one of them using the same set up, following the same sequence and even using the same euphemisms.

 This is not sex! This is a collage of clichés cobbled together in some vague approximation. It is a one dimensional sexual cipher with as much allure as pencil shavings. It is, I suspect, what people imagine sex is like when they’ve never done it themselves.

 Clearly, I’m not a fan, but what gives me the right to judge?

 *     *     *

 John Barth, in his masterpiece Chimera, suggested that: writing and reading, or telling and listening are literally ways of making love. There is a bond between teller and told that is by its nature erotic. Its success depends upon the reader’s consent and co-operation which can be withheld or withdrawn at any time…and the author’s ability to arouse, sustain, satisfy and even impregnate with ideas and images.

 When you are writing, you are inviting the reader into a relationship. You must woo them, tease them, excite them, fulfil them and leave them gasping for more, and if actual sex is involved it must be genuinely woven into the fabric of the story. Not just tacked on like a grubby afterthought.

 I have three rules for the writing of excellent bonk scenes:

  • the reader must desperately want the characters to do it (the set up);
  • the scene (and even the sex) must be meaningful to both plot and characterisation (the context); and
  • the scene must be different to every other bonk scene in the history of literature (the action).

 The set up is all about getting the reader interested in the characters and (hopefully) developing an emotional investment in them. This need not be sexual (at least in the beginning) – particularly if they (or at least one of them) are main characters. What you’re really aiming for is to get the reader to identify with the main character and enjoy his/her amorous activities vicariously. In my book Mr Cleansheets, the reader is in Eric’s head most of the time and is privy to all his hopes and frustrations, and (hopefully) rapidly comes to like him. Eric takes a while to start getting properly interested in Doreen, but the reader thinks he should be interested from the moment he meets her. Then, when he finally does get interested, there are a couple of false alarms before they finally do the deed, by which time the reader is positively gagging for it.

 The context has several aspects. For a start, the lead up to the scene, PLUS the scene itself must reveal something about the characters (or at least one of them).

 Secondly, the scene (or at least the formation/consummation of a relationship) must be relevant to the plot. (I wonder what percentage of literary bonk scenes describe the first time a couple have done it? Well over 90% I’d imagine.) By relevant to the plot, I mean that both characters have a back story leading into the relationship, but those stories are thenceforth to be combined with both characters giving each other (and the reader) something extra in order to navigate the story’s problems going forward.

 There needs to be something unusual about the context – possibly the location; the way the opportunity to ‘do it’ came up; a particular peccadillo that one of the characters has; the way one or both characters responds to the sex; how it finishes; and what the consequences are (there are always consequences). For example, in my novel THEM, the main character, Lasseter, falls in love with Ari. The problem though is that Ari is so perfectly androgynous that Lasseter is uncertain as to Ari’s gender. Lasseter is therefore confronted with the fact that he is in love with someone who may turn out to be a man. Ari’s gender is not revealed until the actual bonk scene, but you can imagine the fun I had with this in the lead up, and the reader’s curiosity is off the scale by the time Ari finally gets his/her kit off. (The issue of gender is, of course, a key sub-theme of the book.)

 How you impart the information is also important. In THEM the reader gets some information about the developing relationship between Lasseter and Vera (another love interest) from the archived reports of undercover agents. In my recently finished (yet to be published) Straight Jacket, a particularly intense scene is described from the perspective of a non-participant – a character with a massive crush overhears the woman he loves having sex with a man who is not her husband.

 Finally we come to the sex itself. As I said in the dot points, the sex scene (especially the way the action is described) must be different to every other bonk scene in the history of literature. As for the description – it must be enough, but not too much. (Not enough description is far better than slightly too much. Too much is pornography.) Of course, what exactly IS too much is dependent on the type of story – a gritty urban drama will warrant much more description that a lightly comic romance.

 The atmosphere is key to the sexiness of the scene. Always remember that the reader brings their own experience of sex to the scene so the key is to tap into that well of experience and unleash the reader’s own primal sexual imagery. One of my most effective sex scenes involved no description at all. It was all about the set up and context, where Eric and Doreen go into the woods armed with a pictorial book on tantric sex. I have had several readers tell me it was one of the most powerful sex scenes they’d ever read, who were then rather nonplussed when I pointed out that no sex was actually described in the scene. The thing is, everyone has had at least one sexual experience in the bush/woods/forest (or has at least fantasised about it) so they bring that imagery to the scene. Mainly through careful description of the set up and location and then with some olfactory images (sex in the bush seems to really lock smell into place as part of the memory) the reader’s own sexual imagery floods forth to fill the gaps left in the narrative.

 *     *     *

 The funny thing is, I’ve never set out to write a book with a view to putting in bonk scenes – they just happen as they ought to happen when healthy adults find themselves in unusual situations. On reflection, it occurs to me that there is quite a lot of sex in my books – but I’m proud of the fact that every scene is different and (more or less) obeys my rules regarding set up, context and action.

 In the end, it strikes me that there is a fourth bullet point – sex scenes must be memorable. How many bonk scenes from literature occasionally drift into your thoughts? If the reader is still remembering your bonk scenes ten years later, you’ve done a good job.

 As for the bloke I referred to earlier, I can’t remember one of his bonk scenes, even though he’s written it a hundred times!

 

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Advice for the Newly Published: How to Cope with a Bad Review

OK, you’ve spent years or decades hammering away in that lonely garret and you’re finally in print (either physically or online).

 To put your achievement in some sort of meaningful perspective – imagine a game of musical chairs with a thousand people playing and only one chair. Those are about the odds of getting your work published so, to have your work accepted by a commercial publisher, you have to really stand out from the crowd. You have to do something really new, or really well, or have really rich and powerful friends.

 Assuming you don’t have rich and powerful friends, you have legitimately been included within the great cultural museum of our epoch. Your work has been deemed worthy of emphasising and preserving because, on some level or other, it encapsulates or exemplifies the zeitgeist of the early C21. That is why you won the musical chair.

 So congratulations.

 Now comes the hard part.

 *     *     *

 The first time I was published, I thought I’d made it. But having finally clawed my way to the top of the pile, I was utterly dismayed to realise that an even tougher Darwinian struggle awaited me – the bookshop.

 No longer was I competing only with the rest of the great unwashed. All of a sudden I was competing with my heroes: Orwell, Tolkien, Hemingway, Heller, Fraser, Cornwell, Irvine Welsh, Janette Turner Hospital – and they all wanted me dead!

 Once your novel hits the bookshop shelves, it is fighting for survival with all the new books PLUS all the old classics. You have about six weeks to make a splash or your cherished masterpiece will be banished to the limbo of the backlist – never to be seen again.

 So what keeps you on the shelves?

 I will now reveal the great secret of publishing success… “Lots of people have to like your book and tell others so that they will buy it too.”

 Bet you never saw that coming!

 This is why reviews are crucial. Any sort of decent review, in a place where lots of people will see it, is worth money in the bank. Conversely, a bad review can kill your book, and your writing career, stone dead.

 So what do you do when you receive a bad review?

 I’ve never had a bad review, but I have had a less-than-good one, and where was that? The Age! FFS!

 The review did point out what the reviewer regarded to be the novel’s strengths, but it was mostly damned with faint praise plus a couple of lines where the reviewer was clearly enjoying himself, blending football analogies with sarcasm – plot overextended like a bad knee!

 In fact, I laughed when I read that, but also I was extremely disappointed. I’d had plenty of good reviews, but the only reviewer who hadn’t gone into raptures over my novel just happened to be the most influential in one of Australia’s key literary forums.

 There are any number of ways I might have responded – ranging from mass murder right down to nothing. Nothing, is pretty much what I did, and nothing is what I recommend that any disappointed writer do in case of a bad review.

 Of course, the whole thing is so much more complicated these days with the blogosphere crammed with opinions (like this one). Readers can post their impressions for the whole world to see, and no matter how good your book is, not everyone will like it and some will hate it. Being hated by some is part and parcel of having a public profile so get over it in advance.

 The net represents the biggest ever change in the author/reader relationship. Readers have never had such immediate access to writers as they do now and there are any number of consequences – not least the loss of authorial mystique. Once you engage with your audience on their turf, you’re fair game and you’d better know how to behave.

 You will be tested – for example, you may read a review of your book which you absolutely hate. If you must respond, limit yourself to addressing what you regard as errors or misinterpretations. Do not, whatever you do, engage in online debates with critics of your work. Stuff you post on the internet is there forever and can be flung back at you years after you thought it was forgotten. The only way to avoid that kind of embarrassment is not to post in the first place. No matter how wrong they are and how right you are, you will only end up losing your mystique.

 Some tips for responding (or not) to bad reviews:

  •  Before you respond at all, talk to someone about it;
  • No matter how personal the criticism, don’t take it personally. Internet hate is purely statistical (unless it’s your mum posting);
  • Limit yourself to correcting errors and misinterpretations and do it in a friendly or humorous way no matter how insulting the critic might have been. A dignified and humorous response to criticism can win you fans;
  • Once you’ve posted your correction, do not continue to post – this is how you get drawn in to debates;
  • Never post late at night when you’ve had a few;
  • Never post in the guise of someone else (either praising your own work or responding to criticism). This is utterly puerile behaviour and there is a strong chance you will be found out. If you are, your reputation could be destroyed before it even gets off the ground;
  • Never forget that everything you write/post is another chance to entertain and inspire more interest in your work.

 Apart from all that – enjoy it. This is a really exciting time to be involved in publishing.

Orwell’s Most Human Novel?

Whenever lists of the ‘greatest ever’ books are compiled, you will always find a couple of Orwell’s masterpieces close to the top.

 Animal Farm and 1984 are undeniably works of genius – in fact, I would go so far as to suggest that 1984 is the greatest book ever written in English. But there is another of Orwell’s books which rarely rates a mention which, to me, is a mystery as I regard it possibly as the most human of his novels.

 Keep the Aspidistra Flying is the story of Gordon Comstock and his longsuffering girlfriend Rosemary. Set in 1935, before the welfare state and the contraceptive pill, Gordon has made war on money. He believes that money has infiltrated, cheapened and commodified all human values and relationships, especially love. Therefore he has rejected the money world and lives a mean existence, scraping by on a bare minimum which enables survival but excludes the niceties.

 And yet Gordon craves the niceties. He loves beer, good food, cigarettes, literature, conversation and human contact, but will only accept them on his own terms. And Gordon’s terms are hard.

 He will not accept charity from Rosemary (because that is unthinkable in the patriarchal pre-war 30s).

 He will accept limited charity from his rich and generous friend Ravelston, but that acceptance is heavily conditional and when ultimately forced upon him he despises Ravelston. (Ravelston is that rarest of creatures in the 1930s – a rich socialist.)

 Most importantly, Gordon accuses Rosemary of not loving him because she refuses to sleep with him. Premarital sex was a big deal in the pre-pill era, especially in the lower middle class where genteel affectations were most prevalent, so it is difficult for modern readers to really relate to this important aspect of the novel. For Rosemary it is a moral matter, but Gordon is convinced that money is at the heart of it because if he was rich she would have no qualms about possible pregnancy.

 Gordon also has literary pretensions. He is a poet – author of the slim octavo volume Mice (shows exceptional promise said the Times Literary Supplement) – but the only genuine success he has achieved is to inspire the interest of the New Albion Advertising Agency which values skill with words. “But what is advertising,” thinks Gordon, “but the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket?”

 It is impossible to read Aspidistra without being aware of the parallels with Orwell’s own life. Orwell worked in a North London bookstore, had ‘difficulties’ with his romantic attachments (in particular, his unrequited feelings for Jacintha Buddicom) and of course he famously himself made war on money when he resigned from the Burmese police to become down and out in Paris and London.

 To some extent, that parallel is the key to the story’s flaw. Despite his best attempts, Gordon never truly did reject the money world. It was always possible for him to return to middle class respectability because he knew from Day One that the advertising agency respected his skill with words and would take him back like a shot. Similarly, middle-class Orwell, educated at Eton, was always able to go back, if he chose, to the support of his family, and while he never quite did that, he certainly extracted many favours from his large network of friends and admirers before achieving success.

 It is a small flaw. Aspidistra is a masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation and is also a superb historical document. It is amazing to think that it was set only 77 years ago, and yet much of the everyday experience of humans in that world is utterly alien to our own.

 It is tempting to suggest that both Gordon and Orwell are forerunners of the 1960s flower children, but I’m fairly certain Orwell would have hated hippies. He was pro-establishment in the end although it must be emphasised that he never saw a viable counter-culture despite having fought for one his entire life. One wonders what he might have produced had he lived to see, and be part of, the cultural revolution of the 60s…

Orwell died very early at 46 in January 1950. If he had lived until 1984, he would only have been 81 years old. What classics have we missed out on?

No, Prime Minister

In normal circumstances, it is The Book Hammer’s sacred duty to slag off books – especially good ones that don’t deserve it. However, this week I am making an exception and slagging off a play – a bad one.

 Back in the 80s, discerning TV audiences were delighted by Yes, Minister and subsequently, Yes, Prime Minister featuring the hilarious antics of Minister Jim Hacker and his civil servants: the machiavellian Sir Humphrey and the egregious Bernard Woolley. It was that rarest of popular TV shows – a scripted comedy that dared to rejoice in its intelligence and wit. We have rarely seen its equal.

 Skip forward three decades and, like a geriatric rock star on a superannuation tour, Yes, Prime Minister limps onto the Sydney Theatre stage and collapses in less time than it takes to give a dead horse 20 lashes.

 Lame, ham-fisted and obviously rushed (it felt like a first draft), I couldn’t believe I was watching the work of the celebrated Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay who had sparkled so in the 80s. I was prepared for the fact that the actors would be different (only one of the main three is still alive) but they weren’t to blame. Mark Owen-Taylor, who played the Prime Minister, was very good and even seemed to channel the late Paul Eddington at times. John Lloyd Fillingham also, playing Bernard, was quite good and Sir Humphrey, played by Philip Quast, while nothing like Nigel Hawthorn did his best with the material.

 But the material stank.

 Free comedy tip to Lynn and Jay: paedophilia is not funny. A Prime Minister and civil servants conspiring to obtain a minor for the purposes of prostitution to entice an advantage from a foreign potentate is a long stretch for comedy – even longer than this sentence! Yet that was the central dramatic device, and when it was revealed you could hear the sharp intake of breath all around the theatre. Fortunately, they didn’t go ahead with the scheme but not through want of trying.

 For all that, none of it was particularly funny. There were a few salutes to the original paradigm; for example a couple of verbose obfuscations from Sir Humphrey when threatened with the loss of his privileges, but in the main they fell flat. Most disappointingly, there was none of the even spar we usually saw in the TV episodes. Typically, the Minister or Humphrey would both have an agenda for which they would fight and somehow reach an amusing compromise after both had lost a bit of bark on the way through. This time, all the problems were the Prime Minister’s and Humphrey’s secret agenda was identified and crushed all too quickly. So quickly, it felt tacked on and didn’t add to the plot.

 Likewise the conclusion – somehow pulling global warming out of the hat to save the PM’s bacon was just plain ludicrous. Yes, the topic did get an early mention in a vague attempt at covering tracks, but it had no relevance to the unfolding plot and so was an unlinked and unsatisfactory tool in its resolution. As for Humphrey getting a plum new job at the end – he hadn’t been angling for it as part of some devilish scheme so it didn’t make sense and just wasn’t funny.

 All in all, this was a major disappointment. Too obviously an attempt to cash in on an ancient classic, it was rushed, ribald, wrongly pitched and painfully rendered modern. It will seriously dent the reputations of the writers (although they’ll care less about the reviews when they read their bank statements).

 At least with the aging rock stars, they play the old material and you don’t mind paying for their superannuation. This play was like Mick Jagger stopping halfway through Brown Sugar and trying to rap with his homies.

Do you agree that Lynn and Jay have utterly ruined their reputations as brilliant writers of sitcom by trying to cash in on their 80s classic without a decent editing process?