Many years ago, as an experiment, and I admit a bit of a joke, I submitted the first three chapters of an erotic book to the publishers Black Lace. I read their guidelines carefully and made sure I ‘hit the ground running’; and although I must also have submitted some kind of synopsis I really had no idea where the book was going after those initial chapters.
So I was both amazed and shocked when the publishers got back to me remarkably quickly (my manuscript fell out of the pile on the editor’s desk apparently) commissioning me for the whole book. The only condition was I ‘cut out some of the sex’.
Writing about sex isn’t easy, I discovered. It’s not just a question of vocabulary, though that’s a big consideration, it’s a question of tone, not to say taste. If you are writing for an imprint like Black Lace the remit is simple: readers are looking for erotica and the story must be driven by sex – which doesn’t, as I discovered, mean consummation has to take place on every page. The challenge lies in finding new and interesting locations, and situations, not to say modus (or should that be modi) operandi.
My story featured a young woman – a free spirit in her twenties who regarded sex as a (virtually full-time) hobby – who enjoyed multiple liaisons with all sorts of men in all kinds of places and refused to recognise promiscuity as a dirty word.
My next book, a romantic novel, also featured sex, but this time the female protagonist was terrified of it and on her first encounter with her boyfriend lay in bed with her legs clamped together and the sheet drawn right up to her chin; a scene that drew howls of recognition, and laughter, from many women readers and proved that (contrary to some people’s opinion) sex can be funny.
While it may seem odd to say so I have never written about sex with the express purpose of turning the reader on – though I suppose you could say it’s inevitable, if you’re doing it right. When it comes to writing about sex featuring older women however, the challenges multiply.
My latest novel The Unlikely Adventures of Claudia Faraday, set in the 1920s, features a fifty-two year old respectable mother of three discovering the joys of sex, via her first introduction to the clitoris – and not at the hands (so to speak) of her husband.
Far-fetched? Not necessarily. She is English, for a start, and growing up in Victorian Britain she has done what most other young married women spent their nights doing: lying back and thinking of England. After all it was only in the 1920s that Marie Stopes wrote openly about sex, and – sensationally at the time – suggested that it was perfectly all right for women to enjoy it for its own sake, and not just for purposes of procreation.
In the course of my book my heroine goes from a bored, lonely woman with a moribund marriage, an absentee husband and children who have fled the nest, to a go-getting, open-minded Seizer of the Day; and all because she has been re-energised and reawakened by sex. There’s more to it than that of course, and all this takes place over nearly 300 pages. And while the book is intended as a light-hearted piece there is a serious purpose to it too, which is to show that older women can and do enjoy sex right up into old age, given half a chance. And how wonderful is that?
But try writing about it or talking about it and you can just see the reader squirming. When did you last see a sex scene on screen featuring an older couple? (Apart from 45 Years, and that was brave.) Come to that when did you last see a sex scene on screen featuring a couple who were fat, or oddly shaped, or just not very beautiful? – ie like the vast majority of the population?
Sex can be terrifying and embarrassing and tedious and hilarious, but you don’t often see or read about that. It can also be sexy and titivating and mind-blowing, and a fascinating insight into another person’s psyche. However when I blogged recently about my book I seemed to attract the attention only of porn sites, dildo manufacturers and guides to brothels in Melbourne. None of them read the blog itself, they just clocked ‘sex’ in the tags.
Knowing who one’s target readership is (in this case, mature women) is one thing, knowing how to find them is another. Choosing keywords for Amazon is tricky. If I mention erotica, or sex, readers of Fifty Shades will be disappointed; if I choose ‘sexual revolution’ people may think it’s a feminist tract; ‘sexual discovery’ suggests self-help.
In the end I’ve plumped for ‘Downton Abbey meets Lady Chatterley’.
Would you read that?
Patsy Trench lives quietly and for the most part respectably in north London. Shy and reserved by nature, Claudia’s diaries show a side of Patsy that is perhaps little known to her friends and acquaintances.
Her previous book The Worst Country in the World, about her family’s history in Australia, is an informal yet informative account of that country’s early colonial beginnings. When not writing books she teaches theatre and organises theatre trips for overseas students.
In an earlier life she was an actress in the UK and Australia, a scriptwriter, lyricist and co-founder of The Children’s Musical Theatre of London, creating devised musicals with primary school-aged children.
Find out more about Patsy on her website patsytrench.com