The quest for a creative safe space (and the necessity of finding one)

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Photography by Rafael de Oliveira. Image via Flickr CC.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything creative outside of work. Too long, I would argue — unless you count a particularly risqué parody of One Direction fan fiction written as an Easter joke as creative, then my last proper piece of writing was a half-baked short story, left abandoned after Christmas ended.

Truth be told, it’s been hard to get the words flowing ever since I moved out of my parents’ home. At first, I attributed it to work — after all, it’s easy to suppose that being part of a marketing agency, where I have to write copy for most of the day, does put a strain on coming up with new ideas outside of work. But I’ve had plenty of ideas that I’ve done nothing with. I then figured it might have something to do with time, and while it’s true that I’m always busy, my level of free time outside of ‘working hours’ isn’t that different to when I was at university. Finally, the only thing left was the place in which I was writing — a place I just couldn’t get feeling right.

At my parents’ home, I had my bedroom — a space that was my own and nobody else’s. While it wasn’t luxurious by any means (a fairly average desk chair, an overly large desk that was full of crap and a bed with a fairly rigid and back pain inducing headboard) but it was mine. I could retreat upstairs with ease, pick up whatever I was doing and not worry about a thing. I felt safe to explore whatever ideas I wanted to explore — even if that was cheesy tales of vampiric woe or self-indulgent music reviews.

Although this new house is warm, and cosy, and has everything I might need (like copious amounts of coffee and fluffy blankets), I still haven’t found my corner. It is a house that is filled with love and support and yet my creative safe space is still missing, lost in the ether, like the words that run through my head in the car and never make it onto the page. As soon as I start to write, it feels cold and aloof, like an empty hotel lobby where the wifi doesn’t quite work properly and the concierge keeps staring in your direction because he has nothing better to do.

I’ve tried the living room, both the sofa and the dining table within it. Neither feel right. There are too many distractions, and nowhere comfy enough for a mammoth novel-planning session. The bed just doesn’t seem right — it’s not just my own but shared, and even though I have that feeling of warmth and safety at night when his arms are wrapped around me, that doesn’t extend well to my laptop. The garden? The wifi doesn’t stretch that far and I hate bugs. The spare room is my boyfriend’s studio so that he can record his songs, and I can’t help but feel jealous that he has his own room where he’s free to play, but I suppose we make sacrifices for those we love. Those bastards.

Maybe my new safe space isn’t in the house, but coffee shops in provincial towns can be so dreadfully inconvenient, with their sensible closures around teatime. The pub’s not an option — I don’t fancy beer on my MacBook Pro — and I haven’t even set foot in the tiny library. I can’t even return to my true home, that childhood home, because my room’s been repurposed into a perfect, placid guest room with no more posters on the wall, no more idle Post-it notes and no more dismal Ikea desk.

I constantly envy those creative troubadours that can just plonk themselves down onto any coffee shop sofa with a latte and a laptop and bash thousands of words out at the blink of an eye. But perhaps there’s a way of training myself to become one, of refocusing the mind so that I can carry my safe space with me. For now, the quest continues, so if you see me in a café, tapping away in vain, just leave me to it — you never know, I might just have discovered my crafty corner.

About the author of this post

13231227_10209425815752741_151755471_nRobyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

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Creatives in profile: interview with Pondering Media

 

In the latest of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce you to Karen and Michael Healy – the brother and sister duo behind the award-winning original comedy production company, Pondering Media.

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Karen Healy – Pondering Media’s founder, CEO and perennial lead performer.

Karen Healy is Pondering Media’s founder, CEO and perennial lead performer. Her work on Pondering’s award-winning shorts has earned her strong press attention, including write-ups in the Irish Post. Her credits include RTE’s IFTA-nominated Irish Pictorial Weekly, numerous roles with famed immersive theatre company Reuben Feels, and countless other adverts, shorts, and performance art pieces. She’s also a fixture in the London stand-up comedy scene. Karen is a passionate advocate of women in the arts and is a big supporter of recently launched Bechdel Theatre Festival in London.

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Michael Healy – seen here on set of his debut cinematic short, ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

With a background in marketing, Michael Healy has helmed numerous projects for commercial clients over the last five years, as both writer and director, including commercials for radio. With a focus on comedy, his online shorts have attracted press attention in both the UK and Ireland. He holds a first class degree in Film Studies from Trinity College Dublin and Would You Like Some Toast is his debut cinematic short.
Founded in 2014, Pondering Media has gone from strength to strength – building a reputation for the weird, the eccentric, and the sometimes upsetting. You can check out their videos on Youtube, and follow them on Twitter here. We hope you enjoy this detailed interview…

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

 

PONDERING MEDIA

Michael – I’m Michael, I’m a writer and film director working mainly in comedy. I come from a background of hopeless, awful, soul-destroying marketing work. And I guess my ethos is to have a unique voice, but to put the audience first. I want to avoid self-indulgence, and also avoid ever working in marketing ever again.

Karen – I’m Karen, I’m a producer, actor and new to the scene stand-up comedian. I come from a background of dropping out of college and happily working tearing theatre tickets, selling ice-cream and pointing out where the toilets are. I suppose my ethos is depicting entertaining, strong female characters. I’ve never been drawn to roles in which the character’s main function is “the girlfriend”, which is very difficult to come across. Michael and I are on the same page when it comes to what makes an appealing character and we share the same sense of humour, which is great.

 

INTERVIEWER

Have you always known you wanted to work in comedy?

 

PONDERING MEDIA

M- You know, I didn’t really set out to be a comedy specialist right away. Like most obnoxious filmmakers, I wanted to make heavy stuff about the grim realities of life that only middle class college students ever understand. But my natural response to basically everything dark in life is to laugh. Funerals, wars, executions – all full of awkward hilarity. And when you’ve got that kind of pathology about you, you’re stuck in comedy forever.

K- I knew that if I ever decided to get back into performing it would be in comedy. I think it’s my default setting. It comes naturally to me to always see the humour in a scene, regardless of its premise. Nothing beats the buzz on a set where everyone is laughing. And who doesn’t like playing with prop moustaches?

 

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

PONDERING MEDIA

M -Fellini is my stock fancypants answer to this question (not sure how fancypants you guys want to get). He’s one of the few artists that managed to be both absurd and extremely human. I also go back to Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismaki as comedy directors all the time. Both masters of depicting sublime, painful failure in comedy.

K -I just finished watching Horrace and Pete and was totally blown away. I think Louis CK is incredible at creating socially important conversations and fairly representing all sides of that particular argument.
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City are two heroes of mine at the moment. They have created a very funny show that depicts an unwavering female friendship and makes little to no reference to relationships or career-pressure. Hurrah!

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges facing aspiring artists – particularly comedians – today?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Actually, I think aspiring artists have more advantages today than artists have had in the past. It’s easier to network, easier to create, easier to find a platform. I think artists are usually their own worst enemies, and I include myself in that. I’ve found producers and executives are quite open to giving people opportunities – but they want to find organized, audience-focused people and have no time for self-indulgence and daydreaming. Which sucks, because those are great craic.

K- I can only speak from my experience but at the moment there’s such a huge platform for comedians who are starting out. You will find an open mic every night of the week in London which is great for practice. The only thing is it can be mildly soul-destroying. Most of the people you performing to are other comedians waiting for their turn. It’s a good idea to keep an eye for any competitions for new-comers. “Funny Women” are a fantastic organization who provide support for new female comics.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about Pondering Media, and how you established the production company?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Karen and I were both drifting from gig to gig, her as an actor and me as a writer, and at around the same time we both realized we needed a proper plan and a bit of direction or we’d never get anywhere. So we got organized, started handling our own corporate gigs, published some stuff for the web, had a couple of viral bits do well and now we’ve just wrapped on our first full, cinematic short. All inside a year or so.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any projects or films you’ve made that you are particularly proud of?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- I gotta be boring and say the film we just completed is my favourite. We had a bigger crew than we’d worked with in the past and the whole process was a huge learning curve. Seeing it finally get proper laughs from audiences is the best feeling in the world.

K- I have to agree. I’m very proud of how “Would You Like Some Toast?” turned out, majorly thanks to our producer, Richard Wade. He gathered a brilliant cast and crew and it really is a credit to them as it was made on such a low budget.

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On the set of ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

INTERVIEWER

What are the key differences between performing on stage to a live audience and performing to a camera? How do you adapt your performance depending on the different medium?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- I have more experience acting on screen so performing on stage for me is still pretty daunting, but exhilarating at the same time. I think you have to be aware of adapting your performance depending on the atmosphere in the room and the general reception you’re getting from the crowd. In stand up anyway.
As for acting on screen, sure there’s room to try something in several different ways but there’s almost just as much pressure as you’re often under time constraint and everything is heightened on screen. You can’t fake it when the camera is fully zoomed in on your face.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of comics and spoken word artists talk about a fear of ‘dying’ on stage – has that ever happened to you, and how do you cope with the fear of that happening?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- There is always the fear of that happening. I don’t think that ever goes away. Some jokes could land well with an audience one night and could be greeted with bemused silence another. I had a gig recently where I completely bombed. I was half way through my set and I realized this was not gonna get any better. But I gave it my all, finished it and bowed. I was obviously slightly disheartened afterwards but woke up the next day singing, “I BOMBED LAST NIGHT!” That’s when I really felt like I was doing stand-up. You can’t grow as a performer if you don’t have the occasional crap gig.

INTERVIEWER

For you personally, what makes a ‘good’ gig?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- I think when there is a happy, up-for-it atmosphere it makes performing a lot easier. When the audience gets on board with immersing themselves in the night it feels more like you’re having a chat with them rather than talking at them. I’m delighted whenever something new gets a laugh, that way I can go home and expand on it. I’m also relieved when I manage to not burst into flames.

INTERVIEWER

What is comedy for?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Comedy’s all about exploring the parts of our lives that don’t fit in with how we like to view the world. We like to think that we’re part of a clear narrative, with proper goals and challenges and destinations. Comedy is about showing up how dumb that idea is.

K- Comedy is an opportunity to be more honest than you would be in everyday life. Being honest is what the audience relates to, it’s what gets them on your side. Tears and laughter are one in the same. Laughter is just another form of release and that’s what comedy is for, to provide the audience with a release, an escape.

INTERVIEWER

In our digital world, with so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard.

PONDERING MEDIA

M – Slowly and steadily, and with the support of collaborators and other pros. And also, by incessantly emailing people who are higher up the ladder than us are and asking them for favours. That’s probably the most important part.

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Still from Pondering Media’s ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a bit about some of the future projects you’re working on?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- We’re finishing up the fundraising for our next project, a short set in a political campaign hit by a sudden scandal. There’s a lot of prep work to do now, given the size of the budget and the extent to which we could catastrophically screw it up, so it’ll be a few months before we’re in production. And we also have a top secret, mad ambitious project in development too, but we can’t talk about it until we’re sure it’s actually going to happen or we’ll look sad.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for aspiring writers and comedians?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- 1. Be a professional and treat it like a job, even if that means faking it.

  1. Understand that producers and editors invest in people, not just projects. They want to support people who are easy to work with and have a plan.
  2. Have a plan. Even if it’s a crap plan. You’ll eventually figure out what a not-crap plan looks like.
  3. Be brutal with yourself and always think about your audience. There are no points for creative intent or grand gestures. If the audience can’t walk in and get a strong impression of you and your work right away, you’re wasting your time.
  4. Don’t be a diva, and treat your collaborators with respect.

K- Just keep doing it. Even if you’re dying on stage every night, just keep getting up there and doing it, you will eventually find your voice. That’s what I’m doing.

Hilary Mantel’s ten rules for writing

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Hilary Mantel – photography by Chris Boland. Image via Flickr CC.  

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.

Last time out we brought you the sagely advice of the one and only A.L. Kennedy, who reminded us of the importance of humility in writing, and also having the willingness to defend your own work.

We’ve also featured Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements the writing commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel. Enjoy!

 

  1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
  2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
  3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
  4. If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.
  5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
  6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
  7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.
  8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
  9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
  10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.

 

 

For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the excellent musings of ground-breaking Scottish author, Iain Maloney; and complement that with some priceless advice from Kurt Vonnegut, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!    

 

Poetry competitions for 2016

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Amigos, comrades, friends, companions, chums, mates, partners and pals; as we continue to bring you a multitude of creative insights and discussion points, we thought you fine folk would appreciate the following list of upcoming poetry competitions, which you may wish to submit your work.

We’ve previously brought you a whole host of writing competitions you can enter this year, and while they were – for the most part – prose-based contests, we wanted to make sure you had all the resources you need to get your poetic musings out there.

Included in the list below are details about deadlines, poetry submission length and direct links to each competition.

If you’d like to add a poetry competition to our list then please feel free to contact us!

 

  1. Wigtown Poetry Competition 2016

The closing date for submissions is 27th May 2016.

An international poetry prize, based in Scotland, open to poets of all shapes and sizes.

The main prize is £1500, with £400 awarded to the runner up, £250 awarded to each the winner of the Scottish Gaelic Prize and the Scots Prize, and eight additional entries will receive prizes of £25 each.

There is a £6.50 entry fee for your first poem. Please see the contest’s website for further information.

 

  1. The Frogmore Poetry Prize 2016

The closing date for submissions is 31st May 2016

The Frogmore Press was founded in 1983, since when The Frogmore Papers, its bi-annual magazine, has published hundreds of new, neglected and established writers. For subscription and submission details see the main menu. The Frogmore Poetry Prize has been awarded annually since 1987 and attracts entries from all over the world.

If you’re a fan of old currency, this is the prize for you. The winner of the competition will receive two hundred and fifty guineas and a two year subscription to the Frogmore Papers.

There is an entry fee of £3 per poem. Please see the website for further information.

 

  1. The David Burland Poetry Prize 2016

The closing date for submissions is 31st May 2016

Now in its 10th year, the competition continues to attract writers from many countries and once again the prize this year is open to both English and French Writers.

The prize is open internationally to poets aged 16 years or older.

First prize is £500, second prize is £200 and third prize is £100. Prizes are presented for poems in both French and English languages.

There is an entry fee of £9 for your first poem, and £5 for each subsequent entry.

See the website for more information.

 

  1. Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition

The closing date for submissions is 31st May 2016

Poems may be on any subject or style and must not have been previously published, or posted on a website or blog. Poems posted on members-only writing groups for workshop purposes as part of the creative process are not deemed to have been previously published. Poems must also not be under consideration for publication or accepted for publication elsewhere. Poets of all nationalities living anywhere in the world are eligible to enter.

The winning poet will receive £200, with the next two runners up receiving £100 and £50, respectively. All winning entries will be published in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly magazine.

The entry fee changes depending on the number of poems you enter. It looks like this: £4/1, £7/2, £9/3, £11/4, £12/5, £16/7, £22/10.

 

  1. The Bridport Prize

The closing date for submissions is 31st May 2016

A big name prize. The Bridport Prize was founded by Bridport Arts Centre in 1973 and has steadily grown in stature and prestige. Right from the start the competition attracted entries from all parts of the UK and from overseas.

The winning poet will receive £5000, with the second prize winner receiving £1000, third prize £500 and ten further runners up receiving £50 each.

There is an entry fee of £9 per entry. Further information about the prize available here.

 

  1. Women’s Poetry Competition 2016

The closing date for submissions is 13th June 2016

First prize is £2,000, 2nd prize £400, 3rd prize £200, and 17 other finalists each win £25, plus a retreat at the beautiful Cove Park and a mentoring session with The Poetry Review editor. There is also have a special prize for unpublished poets, to make this a brilliant opportunity for both new and experienced writers.

There is an entry fee of £7 for up to three poems.

 

  1. South Bank Poetry Competition

The closing date for submissions is 15th June 2016

This competition is for London poems. Poems should have a London focus or context – any explicit London connection, past, present or future, is acceptable.

There are five prizes: First prize is £300, second prize is £150, third prize is South Bank Poetry Membership (worth £50), fourth prize is a two year subscription to South Bank Poetry magazine, fifth prize is a one year SBP magazine subscription. Additionally, five commended poets will have their poems published in SBP Issue 24, along with the prize winners. There will be a reading at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, London. All those included in Issue 24 will be invited to read at the subsequent launch readings at the Poetry Society’s Cafe in The Poetry Place at 22 Betterton Street with extended readings for the prize-winning and commended poets.

There is an entry fee of £4 for the first poem, £3 for the second and £2 for the third and each subsequent poem.

 

  1. The Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

The closing date for submissions is 8th July 2016

The judges would like to read poems written in response to Ravens; The City. These can be found in Ted Hughes’s Collected Poems (Faber & Faber). Poems must be written in English and unpublished elsewhere.

Poets may enter up to three poems, at a fee of £5 per poem.

The winner receives £400, with the two runners up receiving £100 and £50, respectively.

 

  1. PENfro Open Poetry Competition 2016

The closing date for submissions is 31st July 2016

The competition is open to anyone aged 16 or over. Poems should be in English, they must not have been previously published, nor be currently submitted for publication or competition elsewhere.
Poems must be the original work of the entrant, they must be typed single spaced on A4 paper and be no longer than 40 lines. See RULES for full details.

There is a maximum length of 40 lines per poem.

First prize is £300, second prize is £125 and third prize is £75.

There is an entry fee of £4 per poem.

 

  1. Winchester Poetry Prize 2016

The closing date for submissions is 31st July

The Winchester Poetry Prize aims to surprise and delight, and strives to give serious recognition to the winning poets.

First prize is £1000, second prize is £500 and third prize is £250.

There is an entry fee of £5 for the first poem and £4 for subsequent entries.

Please view the rules for more information about this competition.

 

  1. Poetry and Politics competition

The closing date for submissions is 31st August 2016

Poets are invited to write a political poem. The theme of this poetry competition is poetry and politics, so in order to enter your poem it must be about any aspect of politics. Your poem can be about international politics or instead be about something political much more closer to home.

So, you can express a vision on world politics, or indeed about a decision made by your local council. For example, you can address politics and religion, or the political aspects of war. The poem can be about civil liberties or threats against them, about social injustices, or even about the politics of the use of certain words or language. The opportunities of this theme are endless.

The judges don’t have to agree with your opinions, but they do want to be touched in some way by your poem, inspired by its imagery and, of course, look for a beautiful use of language.

First prize is £200 and publication. The competition welcomes entries written in English by poets aged over 18. The maximum line length is 50.

There is no entry fee.

 

  1. The Manchester Poetry Prize

The closing date for submissions is 23rd September 2016

The prize is open internationally to new and established writers aged 16 or over.

The winner of the competition will receive £10,000 for the best portfolio of three to five poems (with a maximum combined length of 120 lines).

There is an entry fee of £17.50

 

  1. The Bedford International Poetry Competition

The closing date for submissions is 30th September 2016

The competition is open to international submissions to those poets aged over 18 years.

First prize is £200, second prize is £100 and third prize is £50.

There is an entry fee of £5 per poem (with a discounted rate of £3 for students).

 

  1. Annual Gival Press Poetry Award

The closing date for submissions is 15th December 2016

This competition is open to all poets from across the world. Poetry must be original; but there are no restrictions on any form or style.

The winner will receive US$1,000 and their poetry will be published by Gival Press.

There is a reading fee of US$20.00

Find of the day: Raymond Carver reading ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’

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Described by the New York Times Book Review as “surely the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th Century”, Raymond Carver is perhaps best known for his celebrated short story – and short story collection – What we talk about when we talk about love.

It’s incredible therefore to have stumbled upon this audio recording of Carver reading his most famous story. In fact – as far as we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are aware – this is the only known recording of Carver reading his signature story, taped in a Palo Alto hotel room in 1983.

You can listen to the story here: https://beta.prx.org/stories/42401/details

The program not only presents What we talk about when we talk about love, read aloud by Carver; it also provides a detailed introduction, setting the scene of that 1983 morning in a random motel. After a short conversation, philosophical and sometimes funny, Carver reads his celebrated story.

Crucially, this is the edited version of his story, which was originally entitled Beginners. In fact, What we talk about when we talk about love has raised important questions about the subject of the editorial influence on writing – and much has been made of how much influence Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, had in establishing the unique minimalist style that pervades the writing. You can read more on this here at the New York Times.

While there is much to discuss about Carver’s writing, for the moment, take this rare opportunity to enjoy a truly brilliant example of short fiction writing; read aloud by its creator.

 

Fancy seeing more cool stories like this? Sign up to our free, regular newsletter of everything interesting. Join the gang!

 

Rules? Where we’re going we don’t need rules. Charles Bukowski on writing and creative passion

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“Write what you want. Write how you want. Write where you want, why you want, when you want, who you want. It’ll either work or it won’t. There’s no right way”, acclaimed Scottish author, Iain Maloney observed while lamenting the tendency to believe in perceived “rules” for writing.

Few writers are – or, indeed, have been – totally comfortable in breaking with perceived literary conventions. Yet one author to whom going one’s own way seemed to come natural was that great literary curator, Charles Bukowski (16th August 1920 – 9th March, 1994). A writer of strong opinions and undoubted skill, all of his writing – his poetry, his prose, and his correspondence – is electrified by an unapologetic and unique sense of aliveness.

Consider, for instance, his classic poem on writing and creativity – So, you want to be a writer? (Don’t do it). You can read the poem here, or watch it in the video below:

It’s difficult not to be struck by the passionate, frenetic energy Bukowski both writes with, and also argues is necessary for success in all creative pursuits. And this same energy and style seems to come so naturally to Buk, because it’s entirely of himself. You can see it on show again and again not only in his writing, but also in his thoughts – both typed and spoken.

For example, see this extract of a fantastic interview with the great man himself.

Consider his words, here: “when you write, your words must go like this: bim bim bim, bim bim bim; each line must be full of a delicious little juice, flavour – they must be full of power. They must make you want to turn a page – bim bim bim, bim bim bim.”

Writing well does not mean conforming to rules or paradigms. But about something more honest and real – more human and more passionate.

Bukowski establishes these thoughts in more detail in a 1959 letter to his friend Anthony Linick, arguing that the only thing of importance when it comes to writing (in this specific instance, writing poetry), is not what the poem is or what it does, but that it is – a notion that gets at the heart of all great art:

“I should think that many of our poets, the honest ones, will confess to having no manifesto. It is a painful confession but the art of poetry carries its own powers without having to break them down into critical listings. I do not mean that poetry should be raffish and irresponsible clown tossing off words into the void. But the very feeling of a good poem carries its own reason for being… Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.”

And in a letter to another friend, he suggests that what really matters in writing is that the writer writes what they want to write: and not to let their writing be corrupted with what or how they think they should be writing:

“It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Indeed, in another letter to Linick, Bukowski traces his style of writing back to a distaste for restrictive rules, even – or perhaps especially – those of grammar:

“I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.”

And in another letter, he continues:

“I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors, and, furthermore, his interest lies in the wider scope of subject and spirit… Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Saroyan were a few that reshaped the rules, especially in punctuation and sentence flow and breakdown. And, of course, James Joyce went even further. We are interested in color, shape, meaning, force… the pigments that point up the soul.”

Indeed, while Bukowski railed against manifestos and rules, he puts down – in a letter to the poet, novelist and film and television writer John William Corrington – what could be taken as a manifesto for all creative pursuits. Arguing that, in order to be a writer – or a photographer, or an artist – what matters is the courage to create something outside formulaic conventions:

“The sanctuary of the rule means nothing to the pure creator. There is an excuse for poor creation if we are dithered by camouflage or wine come down through staring eyes, but there isn’t any excuse for a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says: form, form, form!! put it in a cage!

Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick. Things happen — the priest is shot in the john; hornets blow heroin without arrest; they take down your number; your wife runs off with an idiot who’s never read Kafka; the crushed cat, its guts glueing its skull to the pavement, is passed by traffic for hours; flowers grow in the smoke; children die at 9 and 97; flies are smashed from screens… the history of form is evident.

[…]

Really, we must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary. The sense of the ordinary is always ordinary, but there are screams from windows too … an artistic hysteria engendered out of breathing in the necropolis … sometimes when the music stops and leaves us 4 walls of rubber or glass or stone, or worse — no walls at all — poor and freezing in the Atlanta of the heart. To concentrate on form and logic … seems imbecility in the midst of the madness…

Creation is our gift and we are ill with it. It has sloshed about my bones and awakened me to stare at 5 a.m. walls.”

So, if you’ve found yourself awakened with creativity sloshing in your bones and come to spend the early morning hours staring at walls – think of it as a good sign! And, if you want further inspiration from the mind of signor Bukowski, why not check out the letter he wrote explaining why aspiring writers should quit their soul sucking day jobs and pursue their creative passions.

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Rise of the machines: will computers replace human beings in the publishing industry?

 

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We’ve previously written about the way data on reader’s habits stands to revolutionise processes in the publishing industry. But while so-called “big brother analytics” might change the way publishing houses choose which books they invest in, a general assumption was that the ultimate decision would be made by a human being. This might sound overly obvious; but a recent development could potentially change all that.

In fact, we may be moving toward a world in which computers – rather than human beings – have the final say as to which books are published, and which books companies invest the heaviest amount of marketing funds in.

This all hinges on the success of a new project by data-driven publisher, Inkitt, in collaboration with Tor Books. And the two companies are now set to release the first novel selected by a computer algorithm for publishing.

Bright Star, a young adult novel by Erin Swan, was discovered using predictive data that analysed reading patterns on the Inkitt platform.

“This book deal sends a clear signal to the publishing industry that predictive data analysis is the way of the future,” says Inkitt’s Founder and CEO, Ali Albazaz. “Inkitt is at the forefront of the movement to use predictive data in publishing and this deal shows that our business model works. We are so excited to be able to help Erin kick off her career as a novelist – and we already can’t wait to get our hands on the next book in the Sky Rider series.”

Self-described as “the Hipster’s Library”, Inkitt functions as a platform that allows users to read books that haven’t been published yet – or to “fall in love with novels before they go mainstream.”

While some may point out that there isn’t very much hipster-esque about a company that has to tell people how hipster it is, what is interesting is how these developments may change traditional publishing models. Indeed, could this spell the end for the standard process of a qualified literary editor reading through manuscripts and deciding to invest in those they believe are the best fit for both their company, and for the wider literary industry?

Well, perhaps there is reason to believe so. Some of the most commercially successful novels – think Harry Potter or Twilight – were ignored by a succession of mainstream publishing houses before being picked up by organisations that ultimately reaped huge financial rewards for doing so. Using an algorithm to test what works best with readers could – in theory – help reduce the chances of a publishing house missing out on the opportunity to publish these sorts of best sellers.

But there are of course many caveats here. Not least of which is the fact that we are yet to see how successful Bright Star will be. But furthermore, we may also wish to question whether we truly want a publishing industry built upon the decisions of machines.

It’s true that other algorithms have been designed to make it appear as though computers can write poetry (and some of these AI poems have even been published). Yet there is something innately human about literature and writing. And with books occupying such an important part of our culture, it does seem a risk to remove the human being from the equation.

A further risk here, of course, is that an algorithm designed to identify books that have the greatest financial value in them may not actually be the best books. Fifty Shades of Grey may be taken as an example here – for it stands as an example of a trilogy of books that have sold tens of millions of copies, despite the writing being of questionable quality. These are the books, after all, described variously as “stilted and cliché-ridden” (New York Review of Books), “reading as though women never got the vote” (the London Review of Books) and even as “extremely dangerous […] [because] the themes of the novel – love alone can make someone change, that abuse from a spouse is acceptable as long as he’s great in bed, that pregnancies should always be carried to term even if the parents are not ready to be parents, and the ridiculously antiquated, Victorian idea that the pure love of a virgin can save a wayward man from himself – are irrational, unbelievable and dangerous”.

What are the risks that, should the publishing industry come to rely on computers to make decisions – rather than experienced editors and industry professionals – we come to develop a cultural void in which every book is published not for its merit, but because of its ability to sell copies? What are the risks that we create a cultural imbalance within literature, where our literary canon is filled of, essentially, thousands upon thousands of books like Fifty Shades of Grey?

This is not to disparage readers of the E.L. James novels – but to argue that our culture relies on variety, rather than similarity. The great thing about books is surely that they can cater to all tastes – and anybody can find familiarity and connection with some book, somewhere. And it seems that an industry run by machines motivated purely by the pursuit of commercial success can only serve to narrow the selection of books available to us.

There are already signs that this is taking place already. As pointed out in this Litro Magazine article points out, “there is an increasing focus on mimicking commercial success, rather than striving to create something that is new.” And the influence of modern neoliberal capitalism has seen the publishing industry gradually follow the film and music industries in only investing in pieces of art that seem geared towards bringing in money, rather than new ideas. As such, the industry is increasingly dominated by novels that are copies of novels, which are themselves copies of other commercially successful novels.

In fifty years, will Inkitt and its publishing algorithms be regarded simply as a minor curiosity? Or part of the start of an AI revolution within human culture? If it’s the latter, we may have just witnessed what will come to ultimately eliminate and replace human beings from publishing. Ultimately, it’s up to you, dear readers, how you feel about that.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Professor Wu’s essential spring time reading list

Spring has sprung, which means it’s time for us to share our seasonal reading list! And, depending on the weather, it’s also time for you to open your windows, enjoy the springtime sun and while away the hours with a good book/time to batten down the hatches, hide away from springtime showers and unexpected hail storms and cosy up inside with a good book (delete as appropriate).

Since this is the season of all things new, in this reading list we’ll be hoping to introduce you to some new books, which will open your mind to all the possibilities in the world.

Here, Nothing in the Rulebook’s very own Giant Chinese Salamander – and littérateur extraordinaire – Professor Wu, gives us his essential literary picks for spring 2016. Enjoy!

 

River of Ink – Paul M.M. Cooper
River of Ink

So, what gives? Welcome to thirteenth century Sri Lanka – the setting of this searing debut novel by Paul M.M. Cooper (read our interview with him here). Here we meet Asanka – an initially timid court poet whose written words come to change the world and fight injustice and tyranny.

The pen is mightier than the sword. Well of course. Cooper’s real skill here lies in bringing mediaeval Sri Lanka – and its inhabitants – to life. Indeed, the reader quickly becomes submerged in this world of steaming jungles and half-lost ruins; thanks in part to Cooper’s extensive research, and his ability to convey his world clearly through concise – and, appropriately, poetic – language. From these solid foundations we are presented with an ancient world, which nonetheless holds a mirror up to our own. And at a time when the world seems, at times, to be descending into chaos, with tyrannical world leaders, corruption on a global scale, and devastating conflict, Cooper’s novel reminds us of the importance of both reason and of art and culture.

Verdict: More than ever, we need stories like River of Ink, which remind us of the unstoppable power of ideas – and therefore also the value of the written word. This fable about resistance to tyranny and the suppression of culture and ideas is exactly what the doctor ordered. As Tracy Chapman sang, it’s time we started talkin’ bout a revolution.

 

 

The Inevitable Gift Shop – Will Eaves
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So, what gives? Well, everything, to be quite honest. Spontaneous, unique, and packed with artistic risk, Eaves’s book stands as an example of writing that not only challenges traditional literary frameworks and structures; but poses a clear alternative to them.

So what does that look like? Episodic. We might call it a book for want of a better word, since The Inevitable Gift Shop combines prose with poetry, as well as with literary critique and philosophy. It is memoir; it is collage. Sections range in length from a single line to two or three pages, and in each of these mini-narratives and episodes, Eaves explores new ways of looking at the world. We are presented with countless new ideas, new styles of writing. And the writing never loses its ability to surprise us. Subtitled “A memoir by other means”, there is something incredibly personal about the book, which is surely appropriate for a memoir, and in the end it leaves you feeling as though you’ve spent a long while in the intimate company of a stranger, who nonetheless somehow feels achingly familiar.

Verdict: Irrespective of whether the weather is sunny or overcast, dry or wet, find a quiet place to sit in the company of this novel and let the episodes wash over you. Immerse yourself in these funny, wry, acute and startling observations – and allow your imagination to be stirred; your horizons widened.

 

Kingdom – Russ Litten

KingdomJPEGSo, what gives? As we wrote in our full review of Litten’s latest novel (read it here), few books capture your attention from the first page in the way Kingdom’s quasi-surrealist opening does. And the magic of this book is that it retains your attention for the length of the entire novel.

Go on… With pleasure! This is a book about the gradual exploration of both the world and the self, and throughout it runs Litten’s infectious writing style. Indeed, with his crisp, fast writing, Kingdom presents the reader with a vivid depiction of working class inner city life. The novel’s protagonist, Alistair Kingdom, is a newly risen ghost (so we may, therefore, call this novel a ghost story), who must gradually rediscover the world, and also himself. We follow Kingdom on his quest – which is both physical and emotional – and through his eyes we are presented with some of the realities of modern Britain that are often left unmentioned and unseen.

Verdict: Litten’s remarkable writing skills are on display throughout Kingdom, and play a key role in making this an extremely political – and potent – book for the 21st Century state of the United Kingdom. On paper, we might describe it as a ghost story; but it is so much more than that.

 

So, where can you pick these books up?

 

Comedians should be allowed to be offensive, they just shouldn’t be

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When it comes to comedy, is “being offensive” really a quality?

One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in myself after a year of regularly performing comedy is a broadening of my comedic tastes. If you’d asked me a year ago what comedy I thought was good I would have replied with very strict and narrow parameters. “Stewart Lee is good.” I would have said, “I like all those British alternative comedians. People with clever, nuanced material. I’m not a fan of the more observational, mainstream comedians. I’m not a fan of ‘edgy’ comedians like Frankie Boyle.”

Often, looking back, I defined my taste more through what I didn’t like, rather than what I did. ‘What do you like?’, ‘I don’t know exactly, but I can tell you what I don’t like and in great detail.’

A year in and I basically just enjoy good comedy. Of course, I still love many of the alternative comedians; people who are doing interesting and clever stuff, but honestly I’m happy enough listening to observational comedy done well. A couple of weeks ago I shared a bill with a comic who did a long bit about the different mouth shapes men and women make when thanking people. It was little more than ‘look how different men and women are! Look at this weird thing we all do!’ A year ago I would have scoffed at it, but  I enjoyed his set a great deal. It was well performed, it was slick. If there’s one thing that trying to succeed in comedy teaches you it’s that comedy is bloody hard. I respect anybody who can do it well.

There is, however, one type of comedy which I retain a strong dislike for, anything that defines itself by how edgy it is. Anything which seeks to offend, to push boundaries for no reason other than the idea of doing so. As soon as anybody describes themselves as a dark act, or difficult, or offensive, I steady myself for a five minutes that I will not enjoy.

There’s probably a couple of people reading this thinking, “hang on Dan, we’ve seen your act. You’ve got plenty of offensive jokes. You’ve got more than one gag involving paedophiles, you’ve made light of the Syrian refugee crisis, hell, the routine you’ve done the most, your ‘feminist routine’, is basically just you saying sexist stuff for about four minutes. You are a hypocrite. How can you look at yourself in the mirror. You are a disgrace.”

Firstly, calm down. Secondly, it’s difficult to justify one’s own, possibly offensive, material directly without coming across as more than a bit of a pompous tit, so I’ll attempt to do so indirectly over the next few paragraphs and hopefully only come across as a tiny bit of a tit.

I’m not annoyed by self proclaimed edgy comedians because I’m personally offended by their jokes. There’s not much that offends me, honestly. I am a white, straight, able-bodied (with a few caveats), relatively good looking (with a few more caveats), upper middle-class man. There aren’t really many jokes which can be made at my expense, and those which can are usually some variation on the theme of: “look how great you’ve got life, you massive privileged twat.”

I’m not really even much offended on the behalf of other people. I usually don’t feel that it’s my place to feel outrage on the behalf of marginalised groups. I’ll stand up to bullies when needed, but l sometimes feel that it’s difficult to know what crosses the line when you aren’t the person a joke is directed at. Offence is a complicated thing and it’s probably best to leave it to the marginalised and support them when needed. Life is too short to do take up every cause and claim it as your own.

Obviously I hate racism and whatever as much as the next man (and the next man to me happens to be Nelson Mandela) but there are plenty of comedians I love who do material that skirts on the edges of the various isms. Broadly, I feel that intent matters most with this material. People often speak of a punching up, or down, dynamic but I think it’s possible for a member of a more privileged group to do a joke about a less privileged group as long as the joke is not intended to belittle. In my year on the stand up circuit, watching hours upon hours of comedy, I don’t think I’ve seen any comedian make a joke which has actually offended me.

So my gripe is not with the existence of dark material but with its deployment for its own sake.

What I love about comedy is its inclusiveness. That you can unite a room full of strangers in laughter with ideas that you’ve conjured up in your own head. I cannot understand why anybody would enter comedy with the intent of making jokes that are going to make a lot of people unhappy.

Jokes should be written with the express intent of being funny. That’s what they are, they’re jokes. Obviously with that comes a whole load of other stuff, underlying subtext, a political point or whatever, but the laughter is the actual point of doing the comedy. If the through-line to that laughter comes across something difficult, or offensive, then so be it, but that’s not the end point.

Daniel Kitson, as is his way, said all of this far more sufficiently and better in his show ‘Weltanschauung:

“I find anything that proclaims its own danger in comedy or art or music just immediately just a bit tedious and wearisome. Ooh it’s dangerous, ooh it’s edgy. Ooh it’s dangerous and edgy. Is it? Wouldn’t it be better if it was just good?”

I’m distrustful of anything which has the central selling point of possibly upsetting somebody. A total reliance on something other than the actual quality of material, or performance, to carry an act. Of course comedy can have qualities to it other than raw humour, my favourite acts sell themselves on that very thing, but is ‘being offensive’ really a quality?

The ludicrous interpretation that what was good about Bill Hicks was not, “he was really funny and had an interesting unique way of expressing his viewpoints” but instead “he sure ruffled a lot of feathers.” By all means ruffle feathers but don’t break into an owlery with the express intention of doing so.

Furthermore, I’ve always felt there’s a smug superiority to writing material that you’re certain is going to be ‘too much’ for your everyday, BBC2 watching, people-carrier driving, chain restaurant-eating chumps. As if they’re thinking “I can make and enjoy this material because I am better than you.” That the comedian is some kind of worthy pariah, that they are making a necessary sacrifice, their own popularity in exchange for some higher artistic goal. That without their voice saying these things some vital part of public discourse would be missing. There is nothing of great importance found in being abrasive. Anything worth saying can be said to everybody.

There are lots of caveats to all of this of course. Firstly, as a response to the predictable braying of the ‘PC Gone Mad Brigade’, I’m not calling for offensive comedians to be banned. I’m not attacking free speech. I’m just calling them a bit shit. Secondly, there are lots of comics I love, respect and have gigged with who have emptied rooms because the audience felt they were offensive. Just the other week an audience member, after a gig, said that my material was offensive and sexist. This man was a fucking moron. There are always going to be audiences that misunderstand intent behind great comedy, and that’s not a shame. Some things are divisive, that’s just not all they should be.

About the author of this post

danoffenDaniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty four year old man and will talk about them at length. He deals primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.

Sex in fiction: What we shouldn’t write when we write about sex

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Your sex scene doesn’t have to include every position featured in the Kamasutra. Photography by Roberta Cortese.

Frenzied penises, bulbous salutations, bulging trousers, howling, groans, sighs, minty-flavoured tongues, awkward positions and spasming muscles: these all things you would expect to find in some of the winning entries of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Since its debut in 1993, the #BadSex award has been a somewhat light-hearted – with quasi elements of seriousness – spectacle. First created to highlight those authors who have “produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel”, the award nonetheless also stresses an important purpose: “to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory, or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction, and to discourage them”.

The awards have increasingly grown in status and are an ever more eagerly anticipated literary event. We’ve previously compiled extracts of all the winning entries (which can be found here), and reviewing these certainly helps us identify those “outstandingly bad” sex scenes the folk at the Literary Review seek to discourage. Consider, for instance, last year’s winning entry from 2015 – from Morrissey’s The List of the Lost:

“At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”

While this account of full figured copulation may not get the pulse racing in the way the author initially hoped, and may even (gasp! Shock! Surprise! Never!) cause some readers to snicker and giggle in amusement; is simply highlighting perceived examples of “bad sex” enough to stamp out cases of these scenes in fiction? It seems more thorough analysis is needed in order to help identify just what it is about these scenes, such as Morrissey’s, which should be avoided by writers – and what authors can do to avoid adding their name to the growing list of Bad Sex in Fiction award winners.

It is, of course, well known that one of the toughest tasks facing writers is to write well and honestly about human sexual relations. It is, after all, technically difficult to convey passion in a way that does not end up sounding either absurd, cringe worthy, or strangely perfunctory and clinical.

Perhaps a problem here is that, in writing about a subject that is still – for whatever reason – vaguely taboo, authors sometimes have a tendency to forget one of the first rules of writing: to “show”, rather than “tell”.

Indeed, it may be more important for writers to focus on the emotional aspect of any sexual encounter between characters, more so than the physical aspect. The physical side of things may be important, but the emotional side may be even more so – especially if there’s a connection between sex and identity.

Often, it seems as though writers have a tendency to forget this rule, and instead begin to overthink their sex scenes. This can see awkward similes begin to invade the text, as with 2001’s Bad Sex award winner Christopher Hart’s Rescue Me, in which sex is likened to a Ranulph Fiennes Antarctic expedition:

“Her hand is moving away from my knee and heading north. Heading unnervingly and with a steely will towards the pole. And, like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Pamela will not easily be discouraged. I try twitching, and then shaking my leg, but to no avail. At last, disastrously, I try squeezing her hand painfully between my bony thighs, but this only serves to inflame her ardour the more. Ever northward moves her hand, while she smiles languorously at my right ear. And when she reaches the north pole, I think in wonder and terror….she will surely want to pitch her tent.”

Such similes are again on show in 2005’s winning entry – Winkler, by Giles Coren – in which a character ejaculates “in thick stripes on her chest. Like Zorro.”

And this tendency to overthink things can also make it seem as though writers are sometimes reaching for a thesaurus, when they would be better off reaching for a simpler alternative to better convey their intended meaning. As such we have Tom Wolfe’s character in I am Charlotte Simmons exploring a character’s “otorhinolayngological caverns” (if you have no idea about what otorhinolaryngological means, then join the club! But a quick google search will tell you it relates to a medical practice involving the ear, nose, and throat – so we’ll leave you to decipher just what Wolfe was trying to get at in his description of sex, there).

One of the clearest results of writing in such a way is that any frisson that should be conveyed during the scene is lost: so instead of sincerity, the writing distances both themselves and the reader from the scene being described.

Part of this may come down to a lack of confidence – which may seem strange considering some of the authors who have won the award are literary titans who have won some of the biggest prizes in literature. Yet, as erotic romance writer Lily Harlem has said, “A lot of writers aren’t confident enough to write about what’s actually happening. They talk about other things like stars exploding above them, rather than talking about how it actually feels and the emotions. You need to get into the heads of characters for realistic emotion, and dialogue as well is importance – people very rarely have sex in silence.”

It is perhaps this lack of confidence which can also see many writers begin to rely heavily on cliché and euphemisms. Again, this might seem strange considering the calibre of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award recipients. Yet writing about a character’s throbbing “manhood” or “bulging trousers”, accompanied by “screams of passion” or “gasps and sighs” will do to the writing what clichés and euphemisms do to any other scene – which is to make the writing feel awkward, tired, limited and unoriginal.

These are important points to make, because the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is not about bad sex; but rather, about bad prose. In an article for the Financial Times, Jonathan Beckman, senior editor of the Literary Reviewexplains:

“’Bad’ refers to the quality of the writing rather than the nature of intercourse. Unsuccessful, unpleasurable or abortive sex does not qualify per se; nor does kinky, brutal or unwanted sex, however unpalatable that may be.”

So, if you find yourself in the midst of writing a sex scene, and you start thinking it could be improved by using as many adjectives, similes and metaphors as possible to describe “eager manhoods” and women crying out “making a noise somewhere between a beached seal and a police siren” (thank you to 1997’s winner Nicholas Royle’s The Matter of the Heart for that one), just take a moment to step back from your writing and think about the way you’re approaching your description of sex.

Sometimes, changing your approach to the way you’re describing the scene at hand may pay dividends. However, perhaps the most important question to ask – beyond whether you should copy a writer of Phillip Kerr’s calibre and opt to use a word like “gnomon” to describe the male sex organ (quick answer to that question: you shouldn’t) – is whether the sex scene you are writing is absolutely necessary.

This is because good and effective sex scenes should be integral to the story you’re trying to tell. They must advance the narrative and/or character development in a meaningful way, and if they fail to do so, they will look out of place. It’s important to remember that one of the reasons the Bad Sex in Fiction Award was originally founded was in response to a seeming trend among publishers who would insist an author or writer include at least one sex scene in their story – regardless to its relevance to the plot or story – simply reasoning that “sex sells”.

Such logic is a poor excuse for the inclusion of any written action if it is irrelevant to the plot of a novel. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action”. Therefore, if your sex scene fails to do either of these, the best way forward may be to hit the ‘delete’ button, roll up your sleeves, and start afresh – perhaps leaving the scene out entirely. This is not to discourage authors from writing about sex; it is about encouraging them to write well.

 

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