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FOCUS Magazine #64, Summer 2015
PLEASE NOTE: This is a short FOCUS Sampler.
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We hope you do too!



No. 64


or how I became a writer of speculative fiction


first read Roadside Picnic, by the
Russian writer-brothers Arkady
and Boris Strugatsky, when I was
about fifteen years old. I borrowed
it from Worthing public library,
where I was gradually working my
way through their stock of Gollancz
‘yellow-backs.’ I was enthralled by it,
mainly by the world it described, in
which whole tracts, zones, of our own
world became transfigured overnight,
became alien and pathogenic to
us, of Earth but no longer of Earth,
something mysterious and forbidden.
I had some experience of such
places. There was an overgrown
plot of disused land near our house
that my brother and I called the
Three Acres. We would take picnics
up there and forage for things – old
pram wheels, the rusted components
of shattered machinery, splinters
of wood or sheets of corrugated
iron, glass bottles choked with mud
– anything that might be used to
construct a lethal weapon or to fit out
a spy’s retreat. One day we stumbled
across a large rectangular pit, some
twenty feet long by ten feet wide,
dug to an even depth of about three
feet. We were fascinated by this, by
what it could have been for. Still more
fascinating was the fact that after
that day and in spite of searching for
it many times we were never able to
find it again.
Such was our zone and such
were our artefacts. This, I think,
was a lot of what initially drew me to
science fiction, the fact that it alone
of all literary genres seemed to be
in sympathy with the way my mind
worked. Far from describing strange
new worlds or lost civilizations it
more clearly defined a world I was
already part way to identifying, the
inner reality – or hyper-reality – of
the space I had always inhabited.
My early reading of SF was fairly
indiscriminate – I read what I found,
and that first encounter with the



It’s both the most frustrating question a writer can be asked and the question
that most fascinates readers. Harlan Ellison got so tired of it, he said he picked
them up from a factory in Poughkeepsie. Ignoring their feeble protests, Focus
goes where other’s fear to tread and asks writers: “Where do you get your ideas
from?” First in the firing line is Nina Allan.
Strugatskys was definitely more luck
than judgement. My next Road to
Damascus experience – some ten
years later at the age of twenty-five
– also had a fair amount of luck in
it. I was talking books with a friend
of mine when he suddenly asked me
if I’d ever heard of a writer called
Christopher Priest. I said no, and he
recommended I read a novel entitled
A Dream of Wessex. I still remember
with the utmost clarity the way the
book affected me, as much with the
beauty of its language as anything
else. Here was the Zone again,
but this time it wasn’t somewhere
across the Atlantic, it was evoked
at the heart of a landscape I had
myself visited on childhood holidays
and come to know more intimately
through the novels of Thomas Hardy.
I was blown away by the book.
I hadn’t known such radical
reinvention was possible. I quickly
found more of Chris Priest’s novels
- and found them to be even better.
What had started in Wessex as
symbolic representation of the
gaps in quotidian reality became
in The Affirmation and The Glamour
a metaphorical examination of the
same conundrum. In these later

works Priest seemed to suggest that
such a landscape could be written
into existence, that the book itself
was the Zone, the writer was the
Stalker and the Dream Archipelago
could thus be found anywhere you
chose to look for it. What I responded
to most in Priest’s work was, once
again, this sense of hyper-realism,
a vindication in letters of the way I
myself viewed the world. The most
valuable lesson I learned from him
at that time was that, in writing as
in life, the angle of perception is as
important as what is perceived.
When I started to write in earnest
one of the first things I did was to
read Roadside Picnic again. I was
nervous about it. I was afraid, I
suppose, that the book would fail to
live up to my memories. I needn’t
have worried. Far from becoming
diminished the Strugatskys’ book
revealed itself to me as the truly
great novel it is. On this second
reading I saw that it wasn’t just the
concept that was brilliant but the
execution of that concept. The tight,
lean construction of the work, the
spare use of language, the neat
shifts of narrative viewpoint – these
points of technique immortalized the

Strugatskys’ ideas in a manner so
deftly articulate, so consummately
perfected, that it enabled you to
return to the Zone again and again
and find it as marvellous and deadly
as when you last visited.
I was also better able to
appreciate the brothers’ subtleties of
characterisation. Redrick Schuhart,
a complex and ambiguous blend of
idealism and pragmatism, honour
and treachery, is as well-rounded
and compellingly drawn as any hero
or antihero in any work of twentieth
century literature. The Strugatskys
seemed as concerned with literary
values as they were with their ideas.
So was Priest. The combination of
such artistry with the verve and the
sense of wonder that is the hallmark
of all great SF was irresistible to me.
It seemed to me that books like
Roadside Picnic and The Affirmation
transcended genre and because they
defied categorisation their authors
were free – to write whatever they
wanted, to imagine without restraint,
to adhere to those values – be
they literary or ideological - which
mattered most to them.
In a sense the characters in the
novels – the Strugatskys’ Redrick
Schuhart, Priest’s renegade scientist
David Harkman in A Dream of Wessex,
the soldier-poets of The Dream
Archipelago – were symbolic of states
of mind and being that the authors
sought repeatedly to convey. Lawless
and subversive, alienated, freethinking, driven, they represented the
epitome of the artist’s struggle.
Almost thirty years after Roadside
Picnic first appeared in English there
came a novel that used the title of
this essay – a direct quote from the
Strugatsky novel – as its epigraph.
That novel was Nova Swing by M.
John Harrison. I had discovered Mike
Harrison’s work in the late 1990s and
had read everything he’d written with
delight and gratitude. I read Nova
Swing before it was even published
– a friend generously gave me a proof
copy he had acquired from a trade
rep. My excitement at the appearance
of a new Harrison novel was
tempered with some apprehension:
would he trespass too directly on a
work I considered sacrosanct?
In Vic Serotonin I immediately
recognised Redrick Schuhart’s
spiritual brother, just as it was
immediately obvious how the
Strugatskys’ Zone had in some sense
inspired Harrison’s Site. But far
from being a trespass this audacious
and glittering novel proved to be
the natural extrapolation of certain

ideas, a dedicated homage to earlier
masters, and most importantly of all
a work of art as individual in tone and
unique in itself as Roadside Picnic
had been three decades earlier.
Nova Swing is nu-noir – Serotonin
and Aschemann pursue each other
through the rain-soaked streets
and dingy bars of Saudade like De
Niro and Pacino in Michael Mann’s
glorious Heat – it is poetry, it is SF
at its most marvellous, it is literature
at the cutting edge of virtuosity and
As a child I wrote passionately,
compulsively and constantly, creating
stories of my own with as little selfconsciousness as I devoured those
written by others. Writing was what
I did, it was as simple as that, and it
seemed simple then because I had
no idea of how hard it was. As I grew
older things quickly desimplified
themselves and for some years I
almost stopped writing entirely. It
took people who knew what they were
doing to remind me of what I had
wanted, to put me back on track.
As writers, what is our job if not
to describe the zone we inhabit to
those who might wish if not to enter it
at least to understand it better? I am
at the beginning of my journey as a
writer and have a long way to travel.
But I doubt I would have come even
this far without the guidance and
inspiration of those who have mapped
out the path ahead of me.

Gareth L. Powell

this may be the last message
that you receive from us
we are far beyond pluto
our engines are pushing us
to a respectable fraction
of the speed of light
this seems to be
distorting our
so we must bid you farewell
go in peace
we will try to send word
when we reach our
we trust there are
no hard feelings

Nina Allan’s first, and excellent,
collection of short stories A Thread of
Truth was published earlier this year
by Eibonvale Press. Nina has been
shortlisted for the BSFA and the
BFS short story awards. Her work
has appeared in Interzone, The Third
Alternative and the World Fantasy
Award-winning anthology Strange
Tales from Tartarus.




ike most writers, I’m often
asked about the processes
behind my work. Other than a
general tendency not to do much in
the way of planning (although that’s
certainly not a hard and fast rule –I’m
doing a massive amount for the new
book, by my standards) I find that
my stories and novels all seem to
arrive from different directions, and
to evolve in unpredictable ways. That
said, I have come to recognise some
rough and ready “tricks of the trade”,
related to both the conceptualisation
of a story and the actual mechanics of
writing it, which may be of interest.
I thought it might be useful to
talk about one story in particular,
not only because the circumstances
behind it are fairly fresh in my mind,
but because it’s not particularly
hard to track down. That story is
“Zima Blue”, which I wrote in 2004.
(The title comes from a poem by
Yevtushenko, which I happened
to have lying around). It appeared
in Postscripts Number 4, in the
summer of the following year. It was
reprinted in The Year’s Best Science
Fiction, Twenty Third edition, edited
by Gardner Dozois, in 2006, and
appeared in my own collection Zima
Blue And Other Stories, published
by Night Shade Books in 2006, and
in the Gollancz edition of the same
book, in 2009. Even if the story hadn’t
been reprinted, though, I would still
be very fond of it. It remains one of
my personal favorites, and perhaps
uncharacteristically for me, it’s not
really “hard” science fiction by any
objective measure.
Spoilers ahead, as they say.
Late in the summer of 2004,
Christopher Priest and I had cotutored a week of writing instruction
at the Arvon workshop in Devon. It
had been a fantastically stimulating

exhausting (Chris and I both had to
read, and critique, a huge amount of



Alastair Reynolds on the many connection
material each day) but also massively
inspiring. It was a week in which, in
extremely convivial surroundings, a
bunch of people did nothing but sit
around and talk seriously about this
business of writing. And eat quite a
lot of biscuits, too.
Chris and I were exposed to many
different styles and standards of
writing that week, and the students
in turn were exposed to our ideas
about character, viewpoint, and
so on. We spent almost the whole
week saying nothing about science
fiction itself, concentrating instead
on the fundamental elements of
writing itself. It’s really pointless to
start worrying about the ecology
of an alien planet, when you still
haven’t grasped the rudiments of
dialogue, paragraph handling, scene
breaks, basic grammar, punctuation
and so forth. (Some of our students
were already displaying great

competency, I hasten to add – better
than competency in a few cases - but
I think it was instructive for all of us
to go back to the basics, and really
think about why we make these
decisions). Half way through the
course, Molly Brown parachuted in
to give us a great reading from one
of her stories. The whole week was
terrifically enjoyable, and I came
away from it fired up with an almost
manic determination to sit down and
write a story.
It was the perfect time for it. I did
not have any immediately pending
deadlines, nor was anything else
making demands on my time. It was
just me and my computer, with no
distractions, and a head buzzing with
writerly insights. No one needed a
story off me on a particular theme,
so my head was free to roam. I could
write literally anything I desired, and
worry about selling it when I was


ns that make a story
The story wouldn’t come, though.
I had a notion of the theme I
wanted to tackle. I don’t know about
other writers, but there are always six
or seven ideas somewhere at the back
of my mind - vague, ill-formed but
there nonetheless – that I hope will
one day become stories. Sometimes
I make short notes on my PC, little
more than sentence fragments, but
as often as not I don’t bother. If an
idea is sufficiently compelling, it will
keep asserting itself.
Sometimes I will be attracted to
an idea that is a recognisable science
fiction trope, but which I feel merits
closer examination. It may be a
recent idea that hasn’t been looked at
in all its ramifications, or a neglected
one that could be fruitfully updated
and re-examined. For a long time,
I’d been thinking about Asimov’s

story “Bicentennial Man”. Asimov is a
writer not much in favour these days,
and perhaps with some justification.
Nonetheless I read almost his entire
output when I was growing up, and
there’s no escaping the fact that it
has shaped me as a writer.
“Bicentennial Man” interested me
for two reasons. The notion of a robot
slowly altering itself to become not
only humanoid but organic struck me
as a fascinating one, worthy of being
taken seriously. Was the robot really
human at the end of the process?
What did “human” really mean?
Secondly, the story encompassed a
long span of time. I’ve always loved
that in SF: stories that pack a sense
of history’s relentless, accelerating
pace into a few pages. But I didn’t
want to simply “rewrite” Bicentennial
Man, adding a few post-cyberpunk
curlicues to the existing narrative
framework. I couldn’t have got away
with that if I tried: it’s a well known
story in the SF canon, and having
recently been filmed, it had reached
a far wider audience than the original
Instead I wanted to do something
“new”, but which nonetheless came
at some of the same questions. In
my half-formed conceptualisation,
the story would be about a robot
that began as a relatively primitive
machine – perhaps not even
“sentient” as we would understand
it. A simple robot butler, perhaps.
But this robot would be passed down
through successive generations of
ownership, each time becoming a bit
more sophisticated: the way a family
might keep adding floors and wings
onto a house, only internalised. In my
mental folder, this story was “robot
as heirloom”. And there it rested, for
a good few years, until I came back
from Arvon with the determination
to actually write the thing.
As I’ve said, though, it just wasn’t
happening. I spent several days

staring at the PC screen, making
abortive attempts to get started on
the piece. But each time I began, I
knew at the back of my mind that
something was missing, some vital
spark, and that this attempt was as
doomed to failure as those preceding
Because a story needs more than
just one idea. “Robot as heirloom”
is a reasonable starting point but
it’s not sufficient in and of itself.
Every story of mine that has ever
worked, and received any kind of
external recognition, has involved
the juxtaposition of more than one
idea. And, typically speaking, the two
ideas are not on the face of it closely
Not that this is a breathtaking
revelation. I’ve seen something
similar stated in dozens of other
places, especially with regard to the
basic craft of short fiction. (A novel
probably needs several additional
layers of complexity, but an effective
story can be just two wackily different
ideas mashed together). That’s all
very well, though. As writers, we’re
always being encouraged to adopt
disciplined working practises. To me
that implies that we should be able to
draw on a toolkit of methodologies,
with a specific implement for each
problem we’re likely to encounter
– much as a skilled bricklayer or
electrician knows what to do when a
particular snag presents itself. Some
of these tools are indeed effective:
there are efficient, fruitful ways to
do research, for instance, and less
efficient ways, and the competent
writer will eventually figure out the
one from the other.
Coming up with ideas is harder
to proceduralise, though. Some
writers of my acquaintance are fond
of saying “ideas are ten a penny”, or
“ideas are easy”. I’ve never felt that
way: ideas are hard bastards! What
those writers really mean is that ideas



Anthropometries of the Blue Period by Yves Klein

aren’t necessarily the main creative
bottleneck: it’s what you do with
the ideas that matters. But still, I’ve
never been more grateful than when
I get an idea, especially one that feels
immediately right, just the thing I’ve
been searching for. Even if an idea is
never sufficient on its own.
So: to get back to “robot as
heirloom”. That’s an idea, but it’s not
really a fresh one. For the story to
work, it’s going to need something
oblique and unexpected – something
that will position the narrative
sufficiently far from “Asimov” that
the initial seed won’t be evident. A
second idea, coming in at an odd,
unexpected angle.
In my experience, it can’t be
forced: no amount of staring at the
screen, swearing or head-scratching
will make any difference. When
stuck for inspiration, I’ve often sat
down with a big pile of magazines
(New Scientist, New Yorker, National
Geographic – it doesn’t really matter
what) and started paging through,
looking for that one nugget or article
which will give me what I need. But
the success rate for that approach is
so low as to be negligible. That’s not
to say that reading widely is wasted
time. Far from it: but what matters, I
think, is not the reading you do now,
but the reading you’ve been doing,
the cumulative input over many
months and years. Not just reading
widely but allowing that material



time to mulch down in your memory,
to fester and compost and sprout
weird, tentacular connections with
other things.
My background in astrophysics
has undoubtedly shaped my writing.
It’s also provided a useful marketing
handle, something to make me stand
out from the crowd. But I’ve always
been careful to read widely outside
my field, to soak up influences that
wouldn’t necessarily be associated
with a space scientist. I’ve had a
long interest in modern art, and
in fact I’ve spent far more time in
galleries than I ever have in science
museums. I keep art books on hand
in my writing room, and when I’m
stuck or need a break I’ll often pull
one off the shelf and flick through it
(one of the reasons, incidentally, that
so many of my spaceships are named
after surrealist paintings). While
the likelihood of getting any direct
inspiration from a painting might be
small, the cumulative effect of all
that browsing can’t be overstated.
At the time that I was trying to write
my “robot as heirloom” story, for
instance, I was already aware of the
artist Yves Klein. I was also aware
that Klein had patented a particular
shade of blue paint: International
Klein Blue, or IKB. None of that was
in the forefront of my mind at the
time, though: it was just down in
there somewhere, lodged deep in my
memory, along with a million other

useless factoids.
though? Why
not International Klein Red, or
International Klein Mauve?
As it happens, I’m also interested
in neuroscience, with a particular
admiration for the writings of Oliver
Sacks, the author of Awakenings and
the bestselling collection of case
histories, The Man who Mistook his
Wife for a Hat. Sacks’ work has long
been compelling to me: elegant,
human, wide-reaching, and as weird
and unsettling in its way as any
SF. As a consequence I’ve always
been keen to catch his occasional
appearances on television. And I
remembered watching at some point
a documentary in which he discussed
his almost obsessive quest to track
down a particular shade of blue,
encountered once and then never
seen again. In fact I’ve forgotten
the particular circumstances of the
obsession, but that’s beside the
point: what mattered was the idea
that there was something specific
about blue, something in that range
of hues capable of exerting a unique
hold on our emotions. We don’t talk
about getting “the greens” or “the
oranges”. It’s the blues.
So there’s something going on
with blue, and I’d read and absorbed
enough outside influences to be at
least peripherally aware of it. But,
as I’ve said, I wasn’t thinking about
that. I was just trying to jump-start a

story into life. Waiting, in fact, for my
subconscious to do its bit: to provide
that intersecting idea, dredged up
from that soggy, poorly catalogued
mulch of memories and impressions.
After two or three days of
frustration, with nothing to show
for my efforts but a handful of
sentences, I gave in to the inevitable.
Writing can be difficult, and you
have to learn not to give up at the
first problem. No story wrote itself,
and unless you’re prepared to put in
the hours, to force yourself to work
even when the words won’t come
easily, you’ll get nowhere. But I also
believe there’s a point at which it’s
sensible to just walk away from the
keyboard. If I’ve been hitting a brick
wall for three days, then I’ll generally
accept the fact that I need to put that
project aside. The temptation may
be to turn to some other writing task,
another story or book, but I’m not
convinced that this necessarily helps.
You’re not giving your mind a chance
to free-associate, if you immediately
upload another set of writing tasks.
Better, I think, to go for a
long walk, or cycle ride, or even
watch a film or two. Anything that
disengages, for an hour or day, the
writer part of your brain.
What I did was go for a swim.
I’d been going to the local
swimming pool for a while, but I’d
never really paid much attention
to what was under the water. That
day, though, I remember diving
underwater and looking down at the
floor and sides of the pool, all gloomy
blue-grey colours and trembling,
gridded perspectives. It wasn’t a
particularly new swimming pool, and
for as long as I’d been going there’d
been talk of it being demolished.
Looking down at the base of the pool,
indeed, I found myself thinking that it
looked a bit past its best. There were
little square tiles missing here and
there, and the tiles themselves were
not as brilliantly clean as they might
have been. Not that it was filthy, just
a bit run-down and lacklustre. And
then, thinking of grubby swimming
pools, I remembered the first time
I’d seen one of those pool-cleaning
robots, a slablike machine toiling
away underwater in the grounds of a
Turkish hotel. I’d been fascinated by
it, because until then I had no idea
such things existed.

And in a flash, I had my story.
Robot as heirloom: But the robot
would have started life as a poolcleaning robot, a simple machine
with an equally simple function.
Over years – decades, centuries,
even – it would have been added-to
and improved, until a point where
it was not only sentient, but almost
humanoid in appearance. And
this robot, because it was so old,
because it had changed hands so
many times, would have only a faint
understanding of its own origins.
It would not remember that it had
been a pool-cleaning robot at all. But
it would remember being immersed
in the shimmering aqueous light of a
swimming pool.
And now the robot would be an
artist – obsessed – like Yves Klein with a particular shade of blue.
I won’t say that the story wrote
itself, but from that point on I knew
that I would be able to write it, and
that all the remaining problems
would be tractable. I framed the
story as a piece of reportage,
done by Carrie Clay, a character I’d
already used in another piece – she’d
interviewed a futuristic celebrity in
that one, so it seemed to make sense
that she would be in a position to
interview the artist here. Since the
story was shaping up to be about the
fallibility of memory as much as art,
I found a way to bring the reporter’s
own experiences into the plot: as
a very old woman, in a posthuman
future, she was struggling with a
personal decision related to the way
she managed her own memories.
Her meeting with the artist not
only enabled him to get his history
across – the main bulk of the story,
recounted in reverse flashback – but
also enabled Carrie Clay to come to
her own decision and, so to speak,
“move on”. “Zima Blue” need not
have been set in space at all, but
the use of the Carrie Clay character
gave me a pre-existing backdrop and
the license to cut loose with some
frankly over-the-top imaginative setpieces, including a reconstruction of
Venice on an alien planet (tieing in
with art and immortality) and some
of the larger constructions of the
artist himself. (Tangentially, once I’ve
nailed the basic structure of a story,
I go through it looking for places
where I can incorporate exactly the

kind of widescreen imagery that
might look impressive on a magazine
I knew when I’d finished “Zima
Blue” that it was a good piece, at
least by my own standards: I felt I’d
broken through into a different area
of SF. It was one of the first stories I
wrote which, while clearly informed
by science on some level, wasn’t in
any sense “hard”. On the other hand,
it felt personal – I couldn’t imagine
that anyone else on the planet would
have been in a position to form the
necessary connections underpinning
this story. The story was reasonably
well received, although it didn’t set
the world on fire. But I’m still pleased
with it, and the circumstances of its
writing taught me a lesson as much
as anyone else. You never know
what constitutes useful reading or
experience, so be as omnivorous
as possible. And trust in the
subconscious: be willing to let your
mind process those connections,
even if it means – sometimes –
stepping away from the keyboard.
Writing this now, I’m aware of
an additional connection that I don’t
think has ever been apparent to me
before, but which may also have
played a subtle role. “Bicentennial
Man” was filmed with Robin Williams,
who also appeared, in the role of
Oliver Sacks, in the film Awakenings.
Was my mind already following the
consequences of that exceedingly
tenuous link, even before I went for
a swim?
Or am I just misremembering?
Alastair Reynolds is the author of ten novels and
around fifty short stories. He has a background
in astronomy and worked for the European
Space Agency
becoming a
full-time writer
in 2004. His
next novel,
which is due to
be released in
January 2012,
will be Blue
Earth. A
Doctor Who
novel, Harvest
Of Time will
appear in 2013.




The best way to learn about how others live? Ask them and
listen to what they tell you, says Lauren Beukes


riting The Other is a
sensitive topic. It should
be. Not least because it’s
so often been done so very, very,
But the truth is that unless you’re
writing autobiography, any character
you write is going to be The Other.
I am not a serial killer. (Unless
my multiple personalities are hiding
something from me.) I am also
not a fifties’ housewife, a parking
attendant, a car-jacking reality TV
star, a Ugandan email scammer, a
Tokyo mecha pilot, or a future-world
stubborn-as-heck gay anti-corporate
activist. And even though my novelist
friends Thando Mgqolozana and
Zukiswa Wanner like to joke that I’m a
black girl trapped in a white girl’s skin,
I’m not Zoo City’s hip, fast-talking,
ex-journo, ex-junkie black Joburg girl
protagonist, Zinzi.
I don’t have a lot of patience for
authors who say they’d be too scared
to write a character outside their
cultural experience. Because we do
that all the time. It’s called using your
The other people I don’t have
a lot of patience for are the ones
too lazy to do any research. I heard
a radio interview recently with a
poet who had written a whole book
of verse about the sex workers in
Amsterdam’s red light district and the
incredible empathy she had for these
women and how she tried to climb
inside their heads to really expose the
painful reality of their experiences.
Number of sex workers she
interviewed or even tried to engage
in a casual chat to get that in-depth
insight into the painful reality of their
Sometimes imagination isn’t



enough on its own. People are people.
We love. We hate. We bleed. We itch.
We succumb to Maslow’s hierarchy
of needs and traffic makes us pissy.
But culture and race and sexuality
and even language are all lenses that
shape our experiences of the world

and who we are in it.
The only way to climb into that
experience is to research it, through
books or blogs or documentaries or
journalism or, most importantly and
obviously, talking to people.
I was lucky to have good friends

and recommended I sacrifice a black
chicken) and did follow-up interviews
with other traditional healers to make
sure I was on track on the details
before I twisted them to my fictional
purposes. And I spent a week just
walking round Hillbrow and talking to
As my official “culture editor”,
Zukiswa Wanner busted me a couple
of times on inaccuracies – almost all
of them on inner city living details,
like Zinzi stopping to buy a single
Stuyvesant cigarette from a street
vendor. “No ways, dude, I’m sorry, it
would be a Remington Gold. That’s
the cheap generic,” or providing
the correct slang for the ubiquitous
plastic woven rattan suitcases used
by refugees: “amashangaan”
“But is Zinzi black enough?” I
asked her, after going through all the
notes in her commissioned reader’s
report which hadn’t addressed the
point even once.
Zukiswa laughed at me.  It hadn’t
occurred to her.
“Oh Zinz is hip and black enough,”
she said, “Fuck anyone who questions
that. What does that even mean?
Don’t worry about it. I too am going
to be catching flak. I write purely from
the male perspective in Men of the

South so you’ll have company.”
No-one (yet) has given me flak for
being a white South African writing
a black South African. And Zukiswa’s
Men of the South was just shortlisted for the Herman Charles Bosman
prize.  She says she only gets flak from
people who assume she’s a man and
that Zukiswa is a pseudonym.
In the end, I think my question
should never have been “Is Zinzi
black enough?” but “is she Zinzi
enough”? Because it’s not about
creating one-trick ponies that reflect
some quintessential property of
what we think being Other is about.
It’s about creating complex, deep,
rich characters driven by their own
motivations and shaped by their
People are different. There are
things we don’t get about each other.
Usually it’s because we haven’t asked.
So ask.
And then write.
Lauren Beukes is the South African author of the novels Moxyland
and the Clarke Award-winning
Zoo City. This article was originally
published on The World SF Blog
(http:// http://worldsf.wordpress.

Nearing Zero

like Lindiwe Nkutha, Nechama Brodie,
Verashni Pillay and Zukiswa Wanner
who were all willing to take me
round Johannesburg AND read the
manuscript afterwards to make sure
that I got the cultural details of the
people – and the city – right.
I read books on Hillbrow, like
Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207, watched
documentaries and movies and
turned to Twitter to get expert firsthand info on city details like storm
drain entrances and good places to
dump a body (!).
I chatted to music producers
and journalists to understand the
South African music industry and
interviewed refugees like Jamala
Safari to get insight into what he’d
been through (and referred him to
my publisher when he mentioned
he’d written a novel about his journey
from the DRC to Cape Town – his book
will be published later this year by
RandomHouse Umuzi).
I visited the Central Methodist
Church where four thousand
refugees were sheltering in the worst
conditions that were the best possible
option for them in that moment, got
bounced from The Rand Club, paid for
a consultation with a sangoma (who
diagnosed a dark shadow over my life



How Annoying Are You?
Martin McGrath goes wandering, and provides a rather
handy spotter’s guide to those very annoying critters...


n my experience, all writing groups have at
least one annoying member*. Sometimes, I
have to confess, the annoying one has been
me. Sometimes not. People tend to move in
and out of the roles — but, at any given time, most
writing groups will contain at least one person who
isn‘t being particularly helpful. This is a brief spotter‘s guide to the most common varieties of unhelpful critter in the hope that awareness of their habits
and behaviour will help us all avoid being that person or, more truthfully, help us avoid being that
person all the time.

The Lover
The Lover is a particularly insidious kind of annoying critter because at first they don‘t seem annoying
at all. Having someone tell you your story is great
and that you are great and that editors who reject
your stories are idiots and that we‘re all going to
win Hugos next week often feels brilliant. But, let‘s
be honest here, if you really believed that your writing was perfect then you wouldn‘t be in a writers‘
group, would you? Writing groups that become mutual appreciation societies are great for the ego but
useless for the writer because, at best, they fail to
encourage you to become better at your craft and,
at worst, they reinforce the errors and shortcomings
in your work.

The Hater
The Hater is more easily identified as annoying
because everything he or she says is negative and
everyone hates being told that they‘re bad at what
they do. Developing an ability to offer realistic critical appraisal of other people‘s work is an essential
skill for someone in a writing group but being critical is not the same as being rude. In a writing
group, especially one like the BSFA Orbiter groups,
where people from different backgrounds are
thrown together you are likely to find yourself critiquing the work of people who write in styles you
would not otherwise choose to read. Finding a way
to see positives in such work is good for you as a
page 26

from FOCUS #60,
Summer 2014

writer because it means you are starting to look
beyond the surface of the text, to understand how
different techniques work and when they fail. But,
also, if all that members of a group receive from a
fellow writer is an unending stream of negativity,
they will soon tune out and ignore the advice.

“It can feel like you
are being asked to
write the story on
their behalf.”
The Nitpicker
Line edits — pointing out errors of spelling, grammar and continuity — are an exceptionally useful
part of the writing group process. No matter how
carefully you scour your own text for errors, you‘re
likely to miss stuff that a fresh pair of eyes will spot.
But, line edits are not the primary purpose of a writing group. A critter who only points out typos and
does not engage with issues relating to character,
setting, structure and theme is not fully contributing
to the process.

The First Drafter
In some ways the obverse side of the coin to the
Nitpicker, the First Drafter is a writer who submits
work to the writing group that clearly isn‘t ready to
see the light of day. Filled with errors and containing
passages that are obviously little more than placeholders, the First Drafter presents his or her fellow
writers with many frustrations, not least is the sense
that they are being asked to do an unfair amount of
work on behalf of their colleague. It can feel like you
are being asked to write the story on their behalf.

FOCUS Magazine #60, Summer/Autumn 2013

The Rule Giver

The Unreflective One

The Rule Giver peppers their critiques with phrases
like ―show, don‘t tell‖ or ―write what you know‖
without demonstrating that they‘ve really understood what they mean. I once read the comments
on another author‘s story. They‘d written a sentence
that was something like: ―John visited Sheffield, Birmingham and Bristol before returning to London.‖
The critic had written ―show, don‘t tell‖ next to this
sentence. But this was meaningless. The journey
was not important. The purpose of the sentence
was to move the story forward as swiftly, efficiently
and unobtrusively as possible and the author was
right to skip over the details. If you‘re going to recite
some rule you‘ve had passed down to you, make
sure you‘re applying it correctly. And always remember what Orwell almost said: break any rule sooner

Writing ―this is good‖ or ―I don‘t like this‖ is not useful criticism. You need to tell your fellow authors why
you think something works and why it doesn‘t — that
way your fellow writers have some idea of what they
might do differently or how they might replicate their
success or whether they just disagree with you and
can safely ignore your worthless wittering.

“...always be aware
of exactly why you
joined a writing
group in the first
place — because
you wanted to be a
better writer.”

than write anything outright barbarous.

The Argumentative One
Remember, you asked for these critiques. So,
when you get one you don‘t agree with, writing a
pissy response that makes clear you think the other
members of your group are worthless idiots who
don‘t deserve to share oxygen with an author of
your genius is both stupid and pointless. Suck it up
and shut up. But if you really have to write your
whiny response, for God‘s sake don‘t send it.

“Getting better
involves change
— hard though
this may be to

Writing groups are good for getting other people‘s
opinions, but they‘re even better for helping you
develop the ability to look at your own writing and
judge what works and what doesn‘t. If you‘re not
developing those muscles by offering a proper critical analysis of your fellow group members then
you‘re not taking full advantage of the opportunities
available. That‘s why one of the key jobs you
should set yourself when you join a writing group is
to become the best critter you can, and that means
trying not to be one of the people on this list.
Almost everyone will, at some stage, stumble into
acting as one (or all) of the characters sketched out
above. The trick, I think, to avoiding getting permanently locked into any of them is to always be aware
of exactly why you joined a writing group in the first
place — because you wanted to be a better writer.

The One Who Never Learns
There‘s little more depressing for everyone in a
writing group than an author who keeps making the
same mistakes again and again. One definition of
madness is that a person keeps doing the same
things over and over, each time expecting a different outcome. The same could be said of bad writing. Getting better inevitably involves change —
hard though this may be to accept.


* For anyone with whom I’ve ever been in
a writing group, don’t worry, I’m not talking about you.

page 27

Promoting your work is good for a writer and good for readers,
says Juliet E McKenna


s always, at this time of year,
there’s been a fair amount
of discussion about awards
and award etiquette. It’s time for
nominations and/or voting on a good
few genre awards; the Hugos, the
BSFA Awards, the David Gemmell
I’ve been watching with interest,
because, yes, I have a dog in this
fight. I am on the long list for the
David Gemmell Legend Award for
best fantasy novel, with Dangerous
Waters. I’m also an Arthur C Clarke
Award judge this year and next, and
judging the James White Short Story
Award. While these are different in
that they’re juried and judged rather
than voted on, it’s fair to say I’m
taking a closer interest in the whole
awards business than has been my
There are some very strong
opinions out there about what
level of mention an author may
reasonably make of such things.
There are those who seem to think
so much as mentioning their own
novel’s eligibility for nomination
crosses some invisible line into the
unacceptable. Others see nothing
wrong in writers actively canvassing
through their blogs and regularly
tweeting Vote for Me! Vote for Me!
Then there’s every shade of opinion
in between.
I have a good deal of sympathy
with those who think that an author’s
work should speak for itself. That a
book should prompt others apart from
the writer to speak for it, if it is to have
any claim on a nomination or votes.
Personally I cringe at the thought
of waving my new novel at people
uninvited, still less urging them to buy
it with the extravagant self-praise that
I occasionally encounter, in person or



online. I was brought up to consider
such behaviour utterly reprehensible,
no ifs or buts. Besides, in today’s book
trade, such behaviour is all too often
associated, fairly or unfairly, with the
most deluded of self-published nohopers.
Except – how are people to know
that an author’s book is eligible for
nominations or long/short-listed, if
no one tells them? It’s no answer to
say that if readers are following an
award they will already know. What
if they’re not even aware of that
particular award? Is it a publisher’s
responsibility to tell potentially
interested parties? Insofar as they
can, yes it is, and they do (though

I’ve seen that criticised as well). But
what if an author’s fans don’t happen
to follow that publisher’s website or
Twitter feed? I am getting fed up, in
this age of information overload, with
being told I should/must follow dozens
and dozens of feeds, blogs, social
media manifestations and networks,
that I have some sort of nebulous
obligation to keep current with such
things, if I am really committed. Sorry
but there are a great many other calls
on my time and the number of hours
in a day is unaffected by my personal
level of commitment.
straightforward way for me as a reader
to learn what’s going on with the

specific authors I am interested in is to
check their personal feeds and blogs.
So why should they be discouraged
by online hostility insisting they’re
not allowed (and who exactly decides
this anyway?) to tell me about their
eligibility, nominations etc? With that
insistence followed by threats that
if they do, such behaviour should
automatically stop any right-thinking
person for voting for them now or
in the future! When, incidentally,
publishers’ marketing departments
and publicity officers for these awards
will be encouraging those authors
to share exactly that information,
in keeping with their own job
descriptions. When one of the most
valuable functions of awards is to
prompt the debate and discussion so
vital for keeping a genre developing
in ever more interesting ways for
readers and writers alike.
What about what happens
after that? If such self-promotion is
acceptable, where does one draw
a line? Is it acceptable to let people
know your work is listed/eligible for
an award? But not to openly solicit
votes? But not to post, for instance,
a short story online for people to read
for free? But not for an author to
privately email all their contacts who
might be eligible to vote, offering to
send them a copy direct, at once?
Because I’ve seen all those things
go on. And yes, I can see how the
latter practises might well skew a
vote, if one candidate’s material is far
more accessible than another’s. But
who’s going to decide these things,
given subjective opinion on what’s
acceptable behaviour can vary so
widely between different people?
More practically, who on earth is
going to enforce any such rules that
might be made?
I’ve seen similar hostility directed
towards authors retweeting or linking
to favourable mentions of their books.
But why shouldn’t we direct potential
readers towards information which
might help them decide if our book
is likely to be to their taste and is
something they might like to consider
buying? This is a business after all and
authors operate in an increasingly
hostile environment. Changes in
bookselling have pretty much done
away with the days when a reader
could browse a shop’s shelves and
expect to see the new releases and

the midlist authors displayed on
equal terms with the big names, for
the reader to pick and choose.
I remember the first time I was
on a panel at a US convention when
the moderator blithely announced,
‘I’ll ask the panel to introduce
themselves and plug their latest
books.’ Everyone in the room
stiffened, sitting up straighter on
their chairs. Me with shock at this
challenge to my Traditional British
Reserve. The audience with keen
anticipation, clearly eager to hear
about new books and authors new
to them. My fellow writers by way
of preparation to inform potential
customers about their work in a
friendly and professional fashion,
standing their books up on the table
to show cover art, etc.
Why should an author feel awkward or embarrassed about offering
such information? But at UK conventions I often see writers barely making
mention of their own work, brutally
self-deprecating if they do – and then
I hear con-goers afterwards asking
each other for more information on
a panel member’s titles, where that
writer’s work sits in the genre, trying
to work out if someone whose contribution they’ve appreciated in that
discussion is also likely to write books
to their taste. If such information’s
available in the programme, all well
and good, but all too often it isn’t.
How does such reticence encourage
that broader conversation that keeps
a genre vibrant and evolving?
When considering hostility to
self-promotion, I think there’s a
clue in that word ‘pimpage’, which
grates on me like fingernails on slate
whenever I hear it. I don’t care if it’s
being used ironically, post-modernly,
other justification might be offered.
Writers are not pimps and our books
are not whores. We are not sleazy
money-grubbers demanding cash for
something that decent, clean-living
people otherwise exchange for free.
We are offering our work-product
and inviting the reader to purchase it,
to give us a return on our endeavour.
How is this different from any other
commercial transaction, where goods
and services are exchanged for a fair
Ah but TS Eliot had to work in a
bank, we are told. We read infuriating

articles like a recent one in The
Guardian insisting that ‘real writers’
don’t seek monetary reward for their
art. We see the enduring literary
snobbery that insists a commercial
best seller must self-evidently
be devoid of true merit precisely
because such popular appeal can
only be meretricious (from the Latin,
meretrix, a whore). Such snobbery
then promptly inverts itself, insisting
a ‘challenging’ or ‘important’ novel
must be lauded, even if it’s sold
under a thousand copies. Presumably
because only the clever people can
understand it. Sorry, but I cannot read
these self-selecting, self-regarding
critics without wondering if they’ve
ever heard the story of The Emperor’s
New Clothes.
Such people have clearly never
studied basic logic. A best-seller can
indeed be devoid of literary merit.
A chair can have four legs. A bestseller need not be devoid of merit.
Something with four legs need not be
a chair. It can be a racehorse. With all
respect to Dr Johnson, I don’t know
a single author who writes only for
money. This is not in the least the
same as saying we cannot justifiably
expect for a fair reward for our writing.
To return to the subject at hand.
Ultimately every reader and writer
will find the level of self-promotion
that they’re comfortable with. I
have decided that am not going to
be discouraged from offering useful
information to potential readers, such
as links to reviews online or a brief
introduction to my work if I’m on a
panel discussion. I see nothing wrong
in letting people know that one of my
books is eligible for consideration for
an award. What readers choose to do
with that information is then up to
Juliet E McKenna is
the author of the
fantasy series The
Tales of Einarinn, The
Aldabreshin Compass and The Lescari
Revolution. Her latest
novel, Darkening
Skies (available now
from Solaris) is the
second book in her
latest cycle of novels,
The Hadrumal Crisis





ince we are going to
discuss how to write about
sex and not how to perform
it, let’s start by defining terms
and establishing what certain
descriptive words actually mean.
They are often used wrongly or
interchangeably, and therefore
misleadingly. Our business is
with words, not nookie, so let’s
be clear about what we mean.

This is a word everyone knows
and likes to use. Pornography
(‘porno’, ‘porn’) is widely held
to be a bad thing, associated
with corrupt depictions of
sexual activity, sold to seedy
people in an underhand
way. Calling someone a
pornographer is usually
meant as an insult. Calling a
work of art pornographic (as
in a pornographic novel, or
a pornographic film) usually
means that it is inferior work
that contains material which
it is thought some people will
find shocking or offensive.
There is also the pornography
of violence, a charge usually
levelled at films, comics or TV
that contain what is deemed

‘Look away now,’ is the
traditional warning ... which
many people interpret to mean
‘Come over here and have
a look at this!’ It is time for
Masterclass to issue the same
warning, because what follows
is not for the prudish. It takes
a close interest in what goes
on below the belt: naughty
bits, bonking, rogering, rumpo,
bouncy-bouncy, people wanting
to do it or actually doing it or
even doing what they do after
they have done it.

In other words it is about:

to be an unnecessary amount
of graphic violence. Too many
guns, knives, explosions, and so
on, too much cruelty, too much
sadism. We are all familiar with
But let’s think about what
the word really means.
Etymologically it derives from
two Greek roots: porne, meaning
a whore or harlot, and graphein,
meaning to write. Pornography
therefore means the writing
of a whore, or in a slightly
looser sense the drawings of
a whore. Some of the earliest
known examples of this kind
of pornography were found on
the wall of what was probably a
brothel in the ruins of Pompeii.
What possible motive could a
prostitute have for writing or
drawing something, other than
to arouse sexual excitement in
her clients?
Pornography should therefore
always be used to describe
something that has that intent:
a drawing, film, painting,
photograph or piece of literature
that is designed to stimulate a
response, usually a sexual one.
Is that such a bad thing?
All art intends to induce a
response: laughter, romantic
longing, nostalgia, excitement,

suspense, terror, wonder ... and
many more. Sexual activity is
not a taboo or forbidden act – it
is a natural human function.
Therefore any literature or other
art that sets out to make people
sexually excited is in my view
essentially harmless.
The word ‘pornography’
should never be used in a
negative sense. Don’t worry
about the people who haven’t
thought this through – writers
should always use the word with
pride, as a description of artistic

Now here’s a novelty. How many
books on sexual technique give
you advice on how to write? The
answer is none. But because
we are superior beings, here is
some advice on writing that will
tell you

Christopher Priest is an award-winning
author of novels such as The Separation,
Fugue for a Darkening Isle and The Prestige, amongst may others.

We move on to less aesthetic
ground. Obscenity is not
pornography, and the distinction
is important.
‘Obscenity’ is a legal term,
which although not intended
to mean the same thing as
pornography can include it.
Obscenity can also be applied
to non-literary activities, such
as nude dancing or live sexual
performances. Those who
legislate against obscenity are
normally busying themselves
with public morals. They believe
obscenity is harmful, especially
to children, and that there
should be controls on it. They



try to define an obscene act
as something that will tend to
deprave or corrupt those likely
to come into contact with it.
I’m not concerned with the
pros and cons of obscenity
law here, merely attempting
to elucidate terminology in a
way helpful to writers. A useful
definition of obscenity, as
opposed to pornography, would
be that something obscene
is offensive or outrageous to
generally accepted standards of
behaviour or morality.
For a writer, another useful
distinction would be that
obscenity includes an unnatural
or exaggerated degree of
closeness, or displaying an
interest in detail that is greater
than normal.
Pornography can certainly
include obscenity, and obscene
material can sometimes be
pornographic, but just because
each can contain examples of
the other does not mean they
are the same thing. Pornography
is intended to excite or arouse,
obscenity will often intend to
disgust or repel or corrupt.
(The etymological roots of
‘obscene’ are in doubt: Latin
obscenus means ill-omened or
disgusting; caenum means filth.)
This is another legal term, not
dissimilar to ‘obscenity’. In
one sense it is a lower or less
extreme kind of obscenity. It is
usually applied to behaviour in
public – somebody getting up to
something that they know will
outrage or shock others: perhaps
exposing their private parts.
Does it have artistic
connotations? Is there, in
other words, any such thing as
indecent literature, indecent art?
Perhaps art can depict indecency
(such as in a movie) without
itself being indecent. Literature
can certainly describe it without
becoming it.
We leave the law behind
and return thankfully to art.
Erotica is only art. It is the
depiction through words
or images of erotic things:
acts, performances, people,
images, even symbols. Good
or successful erotica (a plural
Latin word, but rarely used in the
singular, like ‘data’, ‘bacteria’
or ‘media’) induces a feeling



of pleasant or heightened
sexual awareness. Erotica, like
pornography, is essentially a
Good Thing.
The difference between
pornography and erotica is
slight, but as a general rule
pornography is created by one
person for the pleasure of others.
Erotica need not have that
intent. For instance, a sexy
poem written about a lover
would be a form of erotica,
even if no one but the poet ever
read the words, dreaming or
remembering. Photographs or
drawings shared between lovers
could be erotica, without being
pornographic. On the other
hand, much erotica might seem
pornographic to a third party
for whom it was not intended.
Pornography can be erotica;
obscenity and indecency are
almost never erotic, except to

While still thinking about words,
one of the traditional problems
for any writer in English who is
writing about sex, is that the
vocabulary is in some ways
extremely restricted.
Most of the words for sexual
organs are either anatomical,
scientific or crude. There’s hardly
any middle ground. Familiar or
commonplace names for sexual
organs or sexual acts are usually
private, an intimate shorthand
between two people. That sort
of thing doesn’t travel. A few
familiar terms have migrated
into general use. ‘Willy’ and
‘pussy’ seem to be widely
accepted, often with comic
undertones. Some words have
an annoying ambivalence:
‘fanny’ means one thing in
Britain, something else in the
USA. The familiar ‘Anglo-Saxon’
words have a special, exact
meaning when writing about
sex, but because they are so
often used as obscenities or
swear-words they are still laden
with an offensive quality, even
though their use is becoming
commonplace on TV and in films.
Writers are left with a difficult
choice. That difficult choice is
the main subject of this essay.
How best should we use words
to describe the actions that are
memorably summed up in the
last three lines of a limerick?:
They argued all night / Over

Erotica is only art. I
through words or imag
acts, performances, peo
symbols. Good or succe
induces a feeling of ple
sexual awareness. Erot
is essentially a good t

who had the right / To do what,
with which and to whom.

So how do we go about writing
sexual material?
If you accept the four main
categories above, it’s not
immediately obvious where
narrative sexual material might
fit into them. That is, writing
the sort of sex scene most
writers will want to describe
at some point. It might be
neither pornography nor erotica,
yet still be descriptive prose
which makes it clear what
is happening, and why, and
between whom, and with what
outcome. I’m calling it Narrative
Sex, and I nominate it as a fifth
descriptive sexual term.1
Let’s ask ourselves more
specifically: why do we wish to
write narrative sex? The motives
are various, and here is an
incomplete list of some of them:
To write pornography, as
defined here, to give the
reader an erotic experience
simply from reading.

To shock or outrage, to
draw wider attention to the
book or story for its sexual
content, perhaps to become
a cause célèbre, to sell
more copies or to become
notorious for having written
a sexually frank book.

To give a deeper insight into
the relationship between
two characters.

It is the depiction
ges of erotic things:
ople, images, even
essful erotica ...
easant or heightened
tica, like pornography,

To pad out a scene, giving
the characters something
to be getting on with while
other plot matters are
gathering around them, or
to suggest the passing of

To make a plot point that
can only be established
through the fact of a sexual

To reflect the belief that
sexual activity is as normal
or unremarkable as eating
or breathing, and therefore
to reflect human life fully.

To write erotica: in other
words to describe a
personal experience or
memory through the
medium of fiction, a way of
pleasantly recollecting an
erotic encounter.

To release oneself from a
perceived or real inhibition,
to prove to family and
friends that you have grown
up and now understand
what goes on between two
people in private.

To depict with honesty
every aspect of a natural
physical encounter between
two people, one which
informs and deepens their
relationship, while adding
a dimension of sensuality
and realism to the literary
qualities of your story.

The last of these is probably
the ‘mature’ reason, the one
that sums up the literary instinct
in the best possible way, but if
we are honest then elements of
most of the others will also be
Let’s look at some examples
of narrative sex.

The first is from a commercial
novel, published some time ago,
but of fringe genre interest. The
intention here seems to be at
least partly pornographic: in
other words, to make the reader
feel randy. The lovemaking
scene occurs early in the story,
at the first meeting between the
male protagonist and a woman
of almost androidal beauty, with
the sort of physical dimensions
seen only in Playboy. The first
sexual encounter occupies more
than 1,000 words, of which the
following is a mere extract. Look
away now:
... he buried his face against
her. Her nails grazed his
back as her long legs jerked
convulsively upwards. Her
ankles locked against his
spine. He moved slightly
upwards to her core, sucked
it into his mouth. Her loins
rolled upwards in powerful
thrusts as she cried out, his
tongue and lips constantly
moving until he felt her
shuddering against him,
heard her scream, the
tenseness dissolving out of
her, and wetly, heatedly,
she drew him up towards
her, her fingers seeking
him, her lips wildly on his,
wanting him in her now, at
this precise moment, more
than she wanted anything
else, to continue the



exquisite heat she felt, to
give him pleasure as he had
given her. Her sex felt like a
furnace as she guided him
into her.2
That is not, incidentally, the
climax. If I may put it that way.
More description, more narrative
sex, follows, but I think what
we have here is enough. This is
terrible writing, of course, almost
entirely without merit. It is:
Repetitive – three uses of
‘upwards’ followed by ‘up
Illogical – ‘he buried his
face against her’ – you
normally bury something
in, but that wouldn’t make
sense, even here;
Euphemistic – what is a
woman’s ‘core’ and how
do you suck it into your
mouth?; Syntactically
chaotic – one sentence
contains thirteen commas;
Inconsistent – The
viewpoint flops around
to and fro – ‘[he] heard
her scream’, then in the
same sentence ‘[she was]
wanting him in her now’;
Overwritten – ‘the
exquisite heat’; ‘her sex felt
like a furnace’ – a furnace?
Forget the dreadful style for
a moment. What is allegedly
going on is also ridiculous. In
the real world, having perfect
sex with someone you’ve
just met is a fallacy. Sexually
inexperienced readers, seeking
information about this stuff,
would be horribly misled, in the
way Hollywood films and dime
novels have been misleading
naïve audiences from time
immemorial. And what is this
face-burying, ankle-locking,
nail-grazing, leg-jerking,
core-sucking, loin-thrusting,
shuddering, screaming, furnaceing, upwardly mobile couple
going to do the next time they
are in bed together? What’s left
to do?
But for our present purposes,
let’s remember we are talking
about the craft of writing. The
believability or otherwise of
the sex scene is actually a side
issue. What function does a
narrative sex scene like this
serve in a novel?
It doesn’t build or develop



character, because the whole
passage is full of clichés
performed by unrealistic people
barely described except by
their unconvincing actions. It
doesn’t advance the story – on
the contrary, it holds things
up for a while. It doesn’t tell
you anything interesting about
the sex act (see above). It’s
certainly not erotic to read, even
if the author’s intention was
pornographic, because it’s so
badly written and unbelievable.
No information is conveyed
about characters, plot, story,
background or anything.
It is a waste of space. The
following sentence contains
everything in this long and
implausible passage. It conveys
the same information, it’s
grammatical and it’s much
They went to bed together
and made love.
Unfortunately, sentences like
that don’t sell books to a mass
audience. There must be a better
way of doing it.
Attempts at humour are
probably not the answer,
though, as our next sexually
sophisticated author is about to
show us. Look away now:
Whimpering and grinding
his teeth, Shiva swung
open the gate and entered
another of the fields on his
funny farm. He herded the
cow into the hoof‑cratered
corner by the water trough,
then slipped his trousers
off so he could mount
her. His first wife Sandra
bucked and mooed beneath
him. Despite the tumult
of upheaving flesh Shiva
still noticed – with lofty,
Brahminical pity – the
sprinkling of livid spots on
the inside of her anal cleft.
Sandra’s conical fingers,
which resembled jeweller’s
ring trees, dug into an
earthen bolster, and her
high‑pitched bellows rent
the rapidly compressing
How on earth does incoherent
writing like this get past a
slushpile reader, let alone a
professionally trained editor? For
one thing it’s almost impossible
to discern what’s going on: is the
man actually having it off with
a cow? Or is the author making
heavy-handed satire on the

woman (Sandra is Shiva’s first
wife, implying the relationship
was not going to last), by saying
she was a cow? You grant that
metaphor suspiciously for a few
moments, but then the author
says she was literally bucking
and mooing and renting the
atmosphere with high-pitched
bellows. Were the bellows
renting the atmosphere, or
did the author mean rending?
Incoherence mounts: a Brahmin
is either a high-caste Hindu or
a cow/bull; are both meanings
being referenced here? What is
the meaning of the blue spots
in her anal cleft? ‘[Her fingers]
dug into an earthen bolster’
– a bolster is a kind of pillow,
or sometimes a chisel; what
is an earthen bolster? What is
making the atmosphere rapidly
Or did the writer think this
distinctly unerotic passage
might be funny? The writing is
incompetent by any standard.
As narrative sex it’s hopeless,
and it’s definitely not in the least
funny. Not even that.
Speaking of metaphors, they
too can present horrible traps
to over-excitable writers. I shall
leave the next passage for
someone else to take apart with
gleeful malice. For everyone
else, it’s time to look away
again, please:
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.4

One can quote bad, funny,
embarrassing or annoying
examples of narrative sex

forever. Fantasy and science
fiction books are full of them,
including several famous lines
quoted fondly and predictably
whenever the subject arises.
(Use of the word spung will
almost always get a laugh.)
There is even an annual award
for the worst sex passages in
novels5, and if you’re interested
Google will find most of them for
When you’ve satisfied your
curiosity, and now I’ve had my
fun with this nonsense, the
question unavoidably arises:
how then is good narrative sex
to be written?
One might as well ask how
any kind of good work should be
written. The answer, naturally,
is: there are no rules. A strong
argument can be made for the
belief that good writing largely
consists of avoidance of the
bad. This applies to all areas of
writing, and the removal of any
of the passages I’ve quoted in
this essay would immeasurably
improve the books in which they
But in the words of Cap’n
Barbossa, we pirates have
‘guidelines’ instead of rules.
Here are a few that might apply
to narrative sex (it’s safe to keep
Anything you describe of
people having sex should
be consistent with their
characters, as established
in the rest of the story.

Only describe sexual
activity that is relevant,
either to the characters, the
plot or the overall mise en

If the sex scene you are
describing slows up the
story, or distracts from it,
or betrays the personality
of the characters, or is
included for purely titillative
reasons, get rid of it or
replace it with a bland
statement of fact. They
went to bed together and
made love.

Always think of sexual
activity as a normal human
act, perhaps comparable
with eating, sleeping, and
so on. How much of a story
do you devote to narrative
breathing, narrative
yawning, narrative farting,
etc? Why should narrative
sex get more space?

Because we think it’s more
interesting, perhaps ... but
why? Make it so, if that’s
what you think. Don’t if you

When using the vocabulary
of sex, the names of organs
or activities, be responsive
to the vocabulary of the
characters. Those technical
terms are horrible, so avoid
them. No one ever says,
except perhaps as a joke,
‘Will you copulate with
me?’ (Or ‘fornicate’, ‘have
intercourse’, ‘have carnal
knowledge’, etc.) If your
characters have a private,
intimate slang for what
they are getting up to, use
it, but make sure you depict
them as the sort of people
who do that, and reveal it
in other non-sexual areas
of their relationship. If they
seem likely to shrink from
four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms,
you should too. If they are
loud-mouthed assholes who
f— and c— and everything
else, go for it! And you
can also use vocabulary
to reverse things, to show
a side of the characters
hitherto not revealed: a
sexual braggart might
suddenly become inhibited
when confronted with the
real thing, and the maiden
aunt, stripped of her stays
and with the bedroom door
firmly closed, could turn out
to be a randy old raver with
a taste for salty language.

If your narrative sex has
a moral point to make, it
should be one that is true
to the characters or their
situation, not a voicing
of your own views. Never
lecture the reader.

Keep it stylistically true to
the rest of the story. If for
instance you have gone in
for elaborate or detailed
descriptions of scenery,
feelings, actions, etc.,
would it be right to turn
down the picture definition
suddenly and go a bit
vague about the hot scene
in bed? Remember, coyness
is a literary sin, just as
showing off is.

story. By writing narrative sex
you are bringing into public
view an act that normally takes
place in private – maybe there’s
a good reason for privacy? On
the other hand, what is there
to be ashamed of? What is the
point you are trying to make
by describing the physical act
of love, already known to and
practised by just about every
adult on the planet?
In the same way as you should
never write any scene for base
or ulterior motives, narrative sex
should be written responsibly
and with integrity. Perhaps this
means that your scene should
follow your characters as far
as the bedroom door, but then
should wait outside while they
hurry in on their own. (Should
you peer through the keyhole
to find out what they’re doing?
That’s another subject, I think.)
Above all, if when you’ve
written the scene and it has
more upward core-sucking and
loin-thrusting than any other
book ever written anywhere, and
something about it still doesn’t
feel right, then cross it out.
Use an X.

1. The term ‘narrative sex’
can also be applied to, e.g.,
mainstream movies with
sexual elements, which are not
intended as pornographic films.
2. The Ninja by Eric Lustbader,
3. Dr Mukti and other tales of
woe by Will Self, 2004.
4. Rescue Me by Christopher
Hart, 2001.
5. Literary Review Bad Sex in
Fiction Award - literaryreview.

In short, always think about
what you are doing, question
your motives, try to keep a
balance with the rest of the