tony mcmanus

On writing, writers, books and publishing.

Shakespeare was a master of it. Ernest Hemingway almost perfected it. George Orwell advocated it. And every writer should obey and apply it, particularly in editing and revision. Observe it when writing a memo, email, a Facebook post, a blog or a prize-winning masterwork. It applies to every kind of writing. It’s rule number one, the most important and never to be broken. Make every word count. It speaks for itself when you think about it, yet, it’s a rule regularly violated. Why?

It’s apparent to me that most writers today don’t apply it. Maybe they’ve never heard of the rule and its importance in good writing. I got it drilled into me at school from strict teachers. “Make every word count.”

Writers disregard for it is especially evident in fiction writing, and more especially in self-published works on Amazon Kindle. It seems the opposite is now in vogue (see my blog: Padding it Out: Word Inflation in Fiction). We find writers deliberately inflating their work using a variety of methods such as redundant sentences, unnecessary sub-plots, overblown or meaningless dialogue, wordy descriptions of characters and places and, of course, vivid and gratuitous sex scenes.

I believe that writers often come up with a story idea that is essentially a good short story plot but doesn’t have the legs to be the heart of a novel or even a novella. Consequently, they pad it out, often under editorial encouragement. It’s common; it’s sad but true.

The corollary of the rule is: that every single word should build sentences and paragraphs that drive the plot forward, establish the setting and develop characters. If it doesn’t, take it out.

I know a talented lady writer of short stories and novellas in the romantic erotica genre; not a genre I follow, mainly because it’s usually poorly written. But she writes it well, impressively so.

On her site, she announced she was writing a novel; part one of a trilogy. A mystery thriller, set in an exotic Caribbean location, it opened well. But unfortunately, the story idea just couldn’t punch its weight. Consequently, the novel got the “padding” treatment; all of it, complete with an utterly gratuitous, and brutal, sex scene. I was most disappointed, but it’s par for the course.

The rule requires discipline and is not easy to apply. But if a writer keeps it in mind he goes a long way to achieving it. Reading good writing is also important as it shows how it should be done. In my view, a healthy literary diet is essential for writers and editors. It can, of course, be spiced it up with some literary junk with no harm done, but we become what we read. If a writer reads too much crap, he’ll write crap. If an editor reads too much crap, she’ll allow crap to pass her by uncorrected. The evidence for this abounds.

Shakespeare, as I mentioned, was a master of it. Go read him. Read a piece from one of his plays. Read a Sonnet. Then try to find a word you can take out. Here he is on Love:

                                           Let me not to the marriage of true minds

                                           Admit impediments. Love is not love

                                           Which alters when it alteration finds,

                                           Or bends with the remover to remove:

                                           O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,

                                           That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;

                                           It is the star to every wandering bark,

                                           Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

On Valour:

                                               Cowards die many times before their deaths.

                                                The valiant never taste of death but once.

                                                Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

                                                It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

                                                Seeing that death, a necessary end,

                                                Will come when it will come.

No redundancy there.

The rule also applies to the spoken word. Far too much meaningless verbiage comes out of peoples’ mouths and, no surprise here, politicians are especially guilty. Here’s a recent statement from British ex-prime minister Tony Blair pontificating on Muslim extremism.

The reality is that in parts of the Muslim community a

discourse has grown up which is profoundly hostile to

peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an essential

part of fighting extremism.” (Flabby and overblown).

“In parts of the Muslim community, a discourse exists

hostile to peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an

essential part of fighting extremism.” (Better).

“Among Muslims, discourse hostile to religious tolerance

abounds. In combating extremism, it is essential to counter

such discourse.” (Much better)

I think the last word must go to that wonderful text, The Elements of Style.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no

unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,

for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary

lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that

the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail

and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

So, let us cut the flab and do it. Here’s to better writing and better reading. Cheers.

Tony McManus

Chiang Mai

As a schoolboy I was fortunate to have a teacher who enjoyed reading stories to his pupils. Every Friday afternoon around 3.30 Mr. Cassidy would climb up on a desk and gather us boys in a close circle around him and for the final thirty minutes of the school day he would read to us.

Mr. Cassidy was from Ireland and had the God given gift of a beautiful voice. The first story he read to us was R L. Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island.” He didn’t simply read; he dramatized, taking us out of the cold Manchester grime and on down to the Cornwall coast to the Admiral Benbow Inn to meet Jim Hawkins, Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, Long John Silver and the good ship “Hispaniola” and the heroes and villains who sailed in her. Spellbound, I would often close my eyes and listen as he read. I’ve since read that book several times and always enjoyed it, but never quite as much as listening to Mr. Cassidy’s captivating narration.

Next up was “The Master of Ballantrae” followed by “Kidnapped” from the same author, Stevenson; stories written for boys to be enjoyed by men. And just before that year’s Christmas break, we got Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” What could be a better way to end the school year?

From this experience I developed a love of radio plays such as BBC’s Afternoon Theatre, A Book at Bedtime and Appointment with Fear. For me, a radio play beats a television drama hands down, simply because you are able to use your own imagination. I also came to enjoy reading stories to others and have often done so.

It’s to Mr. Cassidy that I owe my love of books. And over the years I’ve often recalled him, sitting on his desk in his rumpled tweed jacket, hunched over his open book reading to us, acting out the character’s parts and transporting us boys as on a magic carpet to distant lands and fabulous places. Memories.

“…that which we call the rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare reminds us. And it’s true of most things in the world, but not in the world of books; especially fiction. Here’s my take on things.

Ernest Hemingway believed a title should have magic. I’ll buy that. A dull title can kill an otherwise good book. An inspiring one can help make it a best seller. In my view, a title should at least hint at the genre and tone of the work. It should be intriguing. It should also be unique; a writer should always check his title against existing works. Type your title into a search engine or and you’ll get to know if your title is original or someone has beaten you to it. I’ve often found several books carrying the same title, so beware.

It may be a single word such as: Retribution, Poison, Vengeance, or two: Bangkok Retribution, Poison Harvest, or a complete sentence: Vengeance Wears Black. It should not be too long as it does seem that short titles work best.

In 1924, a young writer sent off the manuscript of a novel to the publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons entitled Trimalchio in West Egg. The editor abhorred the title and suggested the author make a change. The writer came back with several other titles, all getting the thumbs down. They finally settled on The Great Gatsby. A good move don’t you think?

Though not a book of fiction, as a young anthropology student I was introduced to Bronisław Malinowski’s great work: Argonauts of the Western Pacific; a terrific title that. But it could easily have been called: An Ethnography of the People of the Trobriand Islands in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea because that was what it was. Which is the better title?

It’s said that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And the word coming in from agents and editors is that a book’s title is the best impression of your work and of you as an author. It’s a manuscript’s title that first captures the publishing house editor’s interest. More than a book’s cover, it’s the title on the spine that impels the bookstore browser to reach out for a book and take it down. And then, if he or she likes the cover and the publisher’s blurb, perhaps buy.

Book titles have always fascinated me. For awhile, I wondered how great writers came up with their inspiring titles. Hemingway, for example, who gave us:

For Whom The Bell Tolls

   A Farewell To Arms

   The Sun Also Rises

And what vision inspired John Steinbeck to create:

East of Eden                

   The Grapes of Wrath

   In Dubious Battle

Then I discovered the mundane truth. They purloined them. They swiped, high-jacked or borrowed them. Take a look.

For Whom The Bell Tolls       Meditation XVII, John Donne

A Farewell To Arms              A Farewell to Arms, George Peele

The Sun Also Rises              Ecclesiastes 1:5

East of Eden                     Genesis 4:16

The Grapes of Wrath              The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe

In Dubious Battle                 Paradise Lost, John Milton

  1. Scott Fitzgerald took Tender is the Night from John Keats poem Ode to a Nightingale. Thackeray got Vanity Fair from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. James Jones’ first novel: From Here to Eternity was a bestseller, received critical acclaim and won him a National Book Award. Based on his Second World War experiences, it was made into a successful film starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Frank Sinatra made a hit record of the theme song. It made Jones rich and set him on the path of literary success. But it was Rudyard Kipling who supplied the title:

Gentlemen-rankers out on a spree,

Damned from here to Eternity,

God ha’ mercy on such as we.

The list of writers who outsourced in this manner is endless and includes Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neil, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner and so many more.

So fear not. If you’re stuck, just remember that the works of Shakespeare, dead writers and poets and the St. James Bible have proved a mine field for the writer seeking a good title. Writers have even been known to take a well-known phrase or verse and move the words around. David Halberstam did this with his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Best and the Brightest, the title of which he borrowed from Heber’s hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;

So, if finding a title for your novel is proving difficult go ahead and check out the Bard, ransack the Bible and dig into some old literature and poetical works. You’re in great company.

Would I do it? Would I steal a line from a Shakespeare Sonnet or a poem of Byron’s? Would I lift a quote from Ecclesiastes or Genesis for a book title? You betcha. And with no qualms at all I should add. In fact, I’m doing it now.

The novel I’m presently working on, an adventure thriller once called: The Company of Men has now been re-titled: The Sum of Things. I’ve “borrowed” it from a poem by Houseman:

These, in the day when heaven was falling,

The hour when earth’s foundations fled,

                                      Followed their mercenary calling,                                     

And took their wages, and are dead.


Their shoulders held the sky suspended;

They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;

What God abandoned, these defended,

And saved the sum of things for pay.


Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

A.E. Housman

It could be that further down the path I’ll change it again. But that’s how it stands at the moment. Cheers, and good title hunting.

Tony McManus

Chiang Mai


The best writing advice in the world has already been given. Written decades ago by Orwell and other masters of the English language, it’s worth its weight in gold. And it’s available to all on the internet. A few strokes on the keypad and it’s yours. It doesn’t need repeating. Yet so often a writer such as Joe Blow, Author, after selling a few books in Kindle and garnering a truckload of ***** reviews like: Awesome baby u did it agen: luv u, decides that he has enough standing and mileage under his belt to offer advice to his fellow writers on writing well and the pitfalls to avoid. And then, on his blog, lists that which we already know. It really pisses me off.

So it was refreshing to come across Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of good writing. Leonard needs no introduction. If you haven’t read his stuff and love thrillers you’re missing out, big time. For over sixty years he wrote superb novels; first westerns, then crime thrillers set in Miami and Detroit. Many of his books became notable films. And his list of rules is original and delivered with wry humour. Enjoy and remember them.



These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

  1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

  1. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

  1. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

  1. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

  1. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

  1. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

  1. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

  1. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Wasn’t that good advice, dear reader? Well worth noting and applying, I feel.

Ever picked up a novel, read it and come to the conclusion that it was not much of a deal, far too long, overblown and containing little meat? I’ve done it often, and no doubt will endure it again. I’ve read more than a few short stories that have been padded out and published as novellas or even full-house, novels. Maybe I possess what Hemingway called a “built-in shit detector” as I can sense this padding instinctively. It’s become a quirk that irritates me.

   I recently read, on Kindle, a novella in the crime-thriller genre. Though competently written, it was packed with unnecessary scenes, vivid scenery descriptions, subplots, dinner table dialog, and comments on the dishes being served. A good, serious, editor would have cut this excess baggage out and reduced it to the short story that it truly was.

   Is this inflation done by accident or design? I’d say both, but most often by accident. I’m sure many writers simply get carried away by their brilliance and feel they just have to put all this stuff in; they love it so why won’t the reader? I feel it in myself; the urge to write descriptive verbiage that reads great, but doesn’t advance the story one jot and even clogs things up. It’s a content editor’s job to bring us back down to earth. But what if we like it up there and don’t want to come down? In this time of digital self-publishing this is a problem, right? We can just go ahead and publish. I believe this is why padding is more prevalent today among indie writers than under the old regime.

   Many indie writers in this age of Kindle, reject editors seeing them as representing the bad old days of publishing house dictatorship, intruders intent on destroying the purity of their ideas and narrative flow. Why pay someone to criticize, cut your work to ribbons and make your story theirs? And wear a publishing house would exercise control over this foolishness and employ their in-house editors, today such writers are free to refuse all editorial restraint and publish.

   One of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Good Writing is: “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” A fine piece of advice I find. And with it in mind, I try to apply strict self-discipline. In the novel, I’m writing I had a description of how my protagonist, Mike met his Thai wife, Soraya, at the Ambassador’s Inauguration Ball in the US Embassy in Bangkok. A dramatic piece that read well, I polished it and made it better. Then, I remembered Leonard’s admonishment and reluctantly cut it out. It hurt, but as it didn’t advance the story, it was deleted. Who cares that Mike met Soraya dancing to Strauss?

   It’s important for writers to recognize who they are and what they are capable of. And a writer who knows his limitations holds a powerful asset. Few writers could seriously take on a War and Peace. It took a genius to produce David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol; but, like Tolstoy, Dickens was a genius. Such writers are thin on the ground.

   Apart from the ability to write well and tell a story, a fiction writer should have a good imagination. He should be able to weigh a story idea for what it’s worth. What might make a terrific short story may turn out a poor novel that requires padding to make the weight. But it won’t punch its weight.

   My short story, Ray, created a minor sensation when I published it on a Thailand website. I got emails suggesting I expand it into a novel. I thought seriously about it. I could do it, but it wouldn’t be Ray anymore, and so I rejected the idea. Ray is a short story, and it’s going to stay that way.

   Some writers seem destined for short stories. Jack London, always a favorite author of mine, was one. Jack, whose own life story reads like a Norse Saga, was a great writer yet he never wrote a great novel. He did write a great novella: The Call of the Wild a literary triumph that’s never out of print and been filmed many times. However, it’s for his superb short stories, tales of the Yukon Gold Rush and the South Pacific Islands; that he is honored. His short piece: To Build a Fire has been voted the best short story of all time. But try to find his novels.

   The indie revolution that ended the injustices of the old publishing house dictatorship has no stronger champion than me. I’m grateful for the big break it gave me. But has not the pendulum swung over too far? For it too has a downside we should recognize and face up to; it’s totally undisciplined. Now anyone can publish anything. And they do.

   Meet Priscilla Anne Case, a sweet, gentle single girl, 22 years old, working on the Costco checkout line in Laramie, Wyoming. She left school at fifteen and has never traveled east of the Mississippi River. She loves the television soaps, Facebook chat, and her smartphone. She’s never written anything above an email. But she’s about to write a romantic, paranormal saga, replete with vampires and neo-Nazi white supremacists, in the form of a two thousand word, bodice ripping, trilogy. She’ll write it in six months and self-publish it, free of editorial interference, on Amazon. She may even publish each book as a four part boxed set. Go for it, girl, there’s nothing to stop you.

   An adage has it that if you take one hundred thousand chimpanzees, give each an easel, canvas and a pallet of paints, in a year you’ll get a Rembrandt. In the indie world it seems we’re still waiting for our literary Rembrandts. But wait, hold on. I’m convinced they’re there. Look hard and you’ll find them; beautiful, superbly written books in all genres, waiting like buried treasure, hidden beneath the surface of that sad sea of bloated mediocrity that is Amazon’s slush pile.

        Good authors too, who once knew better   words

                    Now only use four-letter words writing prose

                                       Anything goes

                                                          Cole Porter


“Buddy, that sex scene you’re planning for your suspense adventure thriller. The one where Mike, your hero, makes his move on that lovely Japanese lotus blossom, Kitty, and gets her up to his hotel room and……”

“You mean the one in chapter four, just after she……..”

“Yes that’s the one; the hot, steamy scene where you go to town, stun your readers, and really show your mettle as a writer.”

“What about it?”

“Do yourself a big favor and leave it out.”


“It’s not necessary. It doesn’t advance the plot or enhance the story.”

“But it’s the best….”

“Believe me. Just leave it out and forget about it.”

Good advice I believe, but often spurned by so many writers of fiction. Even well-known, highly rated and respected authors have fallen into the sex scene trap. In my opinion, unless you’re writing in the genres of erotica and romance, intimate sex scenes are better left out. Written poorly, as they usually are, vivid sex scenes can kill an otherwise excellent novel.

In works of erotica, highly descriptive sex scenes are de rigueur; the reader expects them. That’s what the genre is about. Writers of romance novels usually don’t go that far, are more restrained, sailing as close to the wind as good taste allows. But in both cases, the love scenes should be well written and most often they are not. Writing credible and exciting sex scenes is a specialized skill few writers have. But, unfortunately, the temptations to go into that quagmire, the graveyard of so much good writing, are many and for some authors irresistible.

For so long it was impossible. In Britain, The Obscene Publications Act saw to that and other countries, such as the USA had similar draconian laws. But, in London in November 1960, an Old Bailey jury found for the publisher, Penguin Books, the defendant in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial and the floodgates cracked open. Writers pushed the envelope against the bulwark of Puritans and “defenders of decency” and eventually prevailed. They could now write anything they wished, and publishers could publish it and purchasers buy and read it. And so it was. And so it is. Anything goes.

But are we any better off really? Despite the strict censorship that constrained them, writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, and so many others produced beautiful books. Would their works have been improved by explicit sex scenes? Would The Great Gatsby be a better novel if Fitzgerald had included a hot scene with Jay Gatsby screwing Daisy Buchanan? Would A Farewell to Arms be a better work if Hemingway had added an intimate scene with Frederic Henry making love to Catherine Barkley? It takes a lot more than the freedom to write pages full of “F..k you, you motherf…er” or descriptions of sexual intimacy that would embarrass the mamasan of a Mumbai whorehouse, to produce an outstanding novel.

But sex sells, I hear you say. It sure does. And isn’t having sex what people do? Yes, there’s no doubt about it. And I think it’s fair to say that there’s nothing wrong with having your protagonist make out with a beautiful woman once in a while. Some suspense thrillers do have intense sexual passion at their core. It was this that drove such classics as James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But knowing how much to describe and how much leave up to the reader’s imagination is where the difficulty lies.

That accomplished writer and cool dude, Elmore Leonard handled sex skillfully in his novels, never intruding too far and as often leaving it out. And, given the zeitgeist of his time, Ian Fleming also handled it well. We know that James Bond made out with Vesper Lynd, Tatiana Romanova, Kissy Suzuki, Tiffany Case, Pussy Galore and others, but it happened in the reader’s imagination. Only once, in the case of Vesper Lynd, did Fleming take us into the bedroom, but he did so with reason; it advanced the story as Vesper was a KGB operative, a double agent.

Sex, the most intimate of human acts, usually takes place in the privacy of a bedroom with no witnesses. Writers should show their respect and keep it that way. But if an author feels impelled, he’ll find it much easier to handle if he’s writing in the first person because the narrator is also an actor in the scenes. Writing in the third person, however, is problematic. Following the lovers through the bedroom door the narrator intrudes, becomes a voyeur, a peeping tom observing the action on the bed and taking notes. I believe it’s better to take the lovers to the bedroom door, have them kiss and embrace and then walk away and leave it all up to the reader.

So do I practice what I preach? Of course. I’ll go so far and no further, mainly out of respect for the reader. Watching a movie is a passive activity. Reading a novel is an active pursuit. The reader’s imagination is involved, and I believe he should be encouraged to use it and that way he enjoys the reading experience more. If the writer does it for him by describing a love scene in detail, the reader may not like the way it unfolds. By letting the reader imagine the scene as he or she wants it is a far smarter move.

Here’s my take on it. In a time of total license, with no restraining hand, a writer becomes his own censor. He has to judge how far to go. Provided it’s not gratuitous, a well written, appropriate love scene can enhance a story. An inappropriate, highly descriptive, one will do the opposite. But why take chances? If it isn’t essential to the storyline, a writer should err on the side of caution and skip it. The last thing a writer wants is to make a fool of himself and become a contender for the Bad Sex Award.

Once a year, the British magazine, Literary Review hands out its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. And some of the prose that earns this dubious honor is hilarious. Ben Okri was the 2014 winner. Okri won the Booker Prize in 1991 and has received, among other prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction; awards I’m sure he’s proud of. But he didn’t have the guts to take his medicine and attend the Literary Review ceremony and accept his Bad Sex award. Instead, the insufferable diva issued a short and less than ecstatic statement: “A writer writes what they write, and that’s all there is to it.” But here for your edification and enjoyment is his winning piece:

“When his hand brushed her nipple, it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly, and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches, and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour.

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, until she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement, it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night, a stray rocket went off.”

Isn’t that something? It took some effort to create that hilarious nonsense. I’m just glad I didn’t write it.

No less a writer than Norman Mailer earned his Bad Sex Award in 2007 for a silly sex scene in his novel: The Castle in the Forest. And John Updike, poor chap, was awarded a Bad Sex Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. It is without a doubt the most dreaded and undesirable award in English literature and any writer worth his salt should avoid it like a poisoned chalice.