Feathers and Fur (Part 1): Doctored Strangelove or Sexual Stuntfest?

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What’s your stance on erotica? Haven’t settled on one yet? Well, don’t panic – as with sex itself, there’s an abundance of attitudes to choose from, so one is sure to take your fancy.

Let’s say you’re the upright type; well, you’re bound to be attracted to the missionary position, which means you’ll demonise any book that even hints at humpty-do. If, however, you’re more of a ‘cowgirl’ at heart, then you’ll happily bend over backwards for any old porn on the page.

My standpoint is different. When it comes to erotica, I prefer to play leapfrog. That’s right: I jump about, taking each text as it comes and trying to judge a work on its merits. Good writing excuses anything, I reckon – even a splash of the sauce.

Trouble is, I’m yet to put my approach to the test, having never really read any raunch. I like sex, so it’s not that I’m averse to its depiction in fiction; it’s just that I get bored by artless stories, of which there seem to be plenty.

What is artful erotica, then? As we writers are always being exhorted to ‘show not tell’, I’ve decided to try a little experiment. Rather than attempt to catalogue the qualities of the ideal erotic tale (as I see it), I’ll present for your delectation a purpose-written story instead.

More ‘doctored strangelove’ than sexual stuntfest, here then is the first stimulating instalment of ‘Feathers and Fur’.

‘I’m very passionate,’ she said, inspecting her nails in the light, ‘about the power of plumage.’

‘You’re into feathers?’

Goldie studied me for a moment. A long, searching moment.

‘Wait here,’ she said, before slipping from the room.

Groaning under my breath, I watched her go. She was swaddled in a sleek orange sari but had the kind of figure that would look good in a cassock. I mused for a minute, picturing her draped in a wet shower curtain. Not quite what I’d meant, but it proved my point – that for a woman she was remarkably well hung. Full and firm where it counted, like my fiancé, Christine.

Ex-fiancé.

I sighed and put down my pen. Fantasising about my clients wasn’t going to pay the bills. Maybe Chrissie was right – maybe the time I’d sunk into this ‘business’ of mine was all for nothing. Maybe I just didn’t have what it takes to be a freelance writer. I mean, I’d wasted an hour already this morning thanks to this woman and her cat.

‘Sorry,’ Goldie had called, as she’d come pattering across the street in her neat little sandals. ‘My puss usually wakes me at the crack of dawn, but I think she’s on heat or something. Went out through the bathroom window.’

Digging around in her shoulder bag for keys, she gave me the once-over. Twice.

We’d arranged to meet here fifty minutes ago, a full hour before opening time, so I could get some background for a puff piece I was writing on Goldie’s latest venture, a niche clothing store called ‘Feathers and Fur’.

Finding her keys at last, Goldie let us into the shop, a bright open space set out with racks of lingerie and outré outfits of all kinds.

‘So,’ she said, leading me across the room, ‘you’ve come to do a little digging.’

I dodged around one of the half-naked mannequins that dotted the room.

‘That’s the general idea,’ I said. ‘If you can still spare the time.’

She sniggered. ‘Oh, things don’t hot up here until later on. Actually, I’m kinda hoping you’ll warm these mornings up for me a little. You and your piece.’

‘I’ll do my best,’ I said, following her into a stylish office furnished with black leather couches and a desk. I glanced around. Two windows framed neat hedges and a strip of sky, while a door in the back wall opened on to what was presumably a storeroom.

‘The first thing to know,’ Goldie said, dumping her bag on the table, ‘is that this place runs on coffee. Good hot coffee.’

And she spent the next ten minutes fiddling with the espresso machine that stood on a bar fridge in the corner.

When I tried to shoot her a question, the response was swift.

‘No talking,’ she cried, over the whoosh of the machine. ‘Making coffee is my morning ritual. It grounds me for the rest of the day.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said, grinning at the pun.

Spotting my smile, Goldie decided I wasn’t taking her seriously enough, and launched into a detailed explanation of her ‘coffology’. To my discredit – I suppose I should have been taking notes – I tuned right out, preferring instead to visualise her in various forms of dress. The cassock was a flop, I decided, although the cross on a chain around her neck brought out two of her best features.

I was about to try her in a nuns’ habit when she turned and charged across the room, a cup cocked in each hand.

‘This’ll get you going,’ Goldie said, giving me one before dropping on to the couch opposite me with the other.

She drank with obvious relish.

‘Thanks,’ I said. A second later I was spluttering.

‘Some like it hot,’ Goldie said, with a smile. ‘I did warn you.’

I dabbed at my lips. ‘I’ll listen next time.’

‘Good boy. It’s the first thing a man should do. So,’ she said, settling back on the couch, ‘what’s your piercing first thrust?’

‘Well, I was going to ask about the mannequins.’

‘Wrong,’ she said. ‘People usually want to know about my name.’

‘Goldie. Right. After the actress, I suppose.’

‘Hell no,’ she said. ‘The metal.’

‘Gold. I get it.’

‘I was a weighty newborn, apparently, and soft – super soft.’

I pretended to write that down. ‘And precious too,’ I ventured.

‘Not half as valuable as my sister,’ Goldie said, with a pout. ‘Titty.’

I looked at her blankly.

‘Titanium,’ she added.

‘Of course. Atomic number 22.’

‘I’m impressed. Next question, Chemistry Man.’

‘The mannequins?’

‘Hooked on them, aren’t you. Trust me, you’re not their type. Let’s get back to my type. Your piece. Ask me something probing, about Goldie.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘The shop. Why’d you open it?’

And that’s when she said what she said.

‘I’m very passionate. About the power of plumage.’

And that’s when I said what I said.

‘You’re into feathers?’

And that’s when she disappeared, mysteriously, into the back room.

I sat and toyed with the idea of calling Chrissie. I’d promise to chuck this writing thing in and go back to being a photographic model. Doing shoots all the time was a drag, but at least I got paid for daydreaming. And, boy, what material I’d had to work with. Dress ’em up, dress ’em down. Back then, fantasising had actually paid off – it’d given me the hunky faraway look for which I’d become known.

‘Yes,’ Goldie said. ‘I’m into feathers.’

I looked up and saw a coppery feather boa shimmering in the doorway. Behind it was a body, mostly naked. Butt-naked, as far as I could tell.

‘You’re in feathers,’ I pointed out, somewhat pedantically. Then I raised my eyebrows, adding, ‘And now you’re not.’

To be continued, as they say, with apologies for the eroticus interruptus.

[Breaking News: ‘Feathers and Fur’ is now complete, its climax having been posted here.]

The New Fat is Thin: Why It Pays to Make a Pig of Yourself

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Fat is back! Well, not fat but fat. Whoa, boy – I think you’d better start again.

Fat is back! On your fork, that is, and not on your figure.

That better?

I saw something on the telly the other day that has all but saved my life: a ‘science’ show about fat. Guess what? We’ve had it all wrong. That food thing we’ve been calling ‘fat’ really isn’t – it’s ‘thin’.

Hearing this, I almost choked on my skinny latte, whatever that is.

I’ve been worried about my health for years, you see, ever since I first realised that ‘success’ was taking its sweet time coming. Hence the need to hang around indefinitely, by keeping myself healthy and rude. In rude health, I mean.

Science has stepped in to help. Not that my diet has ever been low in fat – buttered cheese triangles are a staple of mine and I won’t touch yoghurt unless it comes laced with double cream. It’s just that my menu was missing the best fat-bearing food there is.

Bacon.

To think I might have perished prematurely – all because I eschewed cured pig. Oh, the horror of it all, the horror!

Now, though, my diet is truly complete. Any day that doesn’t begin with a dose of bacon – ‘fatback’, of course, because there ain’t no other cut – lacks something special: a porcine slimming pill. I mean, look at pigs themselves. If we didn’t have to rend them into rashers, the poor swine would probably live for ever. How? They’re made of bacon. Think about it.

Because when it comes to being healthy, it pays to make a pig of yourself.

Oink, oink!

On Being a Back-to-Front Writer: Story-telling and Self-promotion

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What happens when, as a would-be writer, your illusions are shattered? When, say, one of your articles goes viral, only to be followed by – silence. No knocks at the door, no alerts in your inbox, no flutters, no tweets. No nothing.

Before long, those million or more hits you took really start to hurt.

What happens? You blog about your disenchantment, of course, as one Lily Dunn has, er, done. Shocked by the apparent insignificance of her overnight ‘success’ – of an online article making a massive splash – Lily admits to being a little disheartened. ‘I want to give up,’ she writes.

In an eloquent and engaging appraisal of her bruised state of mind, Lily wonders what it takes to kick-start a literary career. If good writing – writing that attracts millions of readers – is not enough to win you your first contract, then what the hell is? The answer she arrives at only adds to her angst: it’s shameless self-promotion, silly.

‘Being a successful writer is no longer about craft or talent or art,’ Lily writes. ‘It’s about who is the most provocative, who is the most visible on social media, who is the most aggressively self-promoting.’

As a fellow aspiring author, I feel Lily’s pain; I, too, harbour the hope that one day, come what may, good will out. Here’s the rub, though: I don’t really believe it. Experience has taught me otherwise. But that’s okay, and I’ll tell you why.

Self-promotion – that bugbear of many an unheralded writer – is not antithetical to story-telling, it is story-telling. And not just any old story-telling either, but the biggest and best kind there is. Why? Because self-promotion is about composing your ‘self’. It’s about creating a real life-story that has the power to validate and enliven not only you as a writer but every thing you’ll ever write.

In short, it’s about being a ‘back-to-front writer’, since it asks you to bring your ‘back-story’ to the fore – to the forefront of your mind. Get your back-story right and the readers of your work will become your readers. You – and not just your writing – will go viral, and ‘success’ is sure to follow. Prepare for knocks at the door and alerts in your inbox; for flutters and tweets. The world will come calling.

How else do we explain the irritating success of ‘celebrity’ writers and the undying appeal of our ‘classic’ authors? Sure, their works are often exceptional, but they always come with rich, ready-made back-stories, self-propagated and otherwise, in which readers revel. I mean, why buy one story when you can hook a whole series?

What we as writers ought to be creating, then, are multi-story constructions. High-rise ‘libraries’, if you like. For each of our works we must lay a foundation floor – the back-story that best supports any impending upper levels: the ‘front-story’ we want to tell, along with the stories others might one day write about us and our edifice. In this way, we end up with a veritable stack of stories, the height and heft of which determines the ‘standing’ of our work in the teeming cityscape that is the marketplace.

Worried about authenticity? Don’t be. As ever, the style of your back-story more than its content will trumpet the ‘true’ you. (Yes, I do believe in such a chimera.) Back-story not selling you well? Then write another, donning a costume your ideal reader will recognise and rate. Write better, work harder and, as always, trust to luck.

Personally, I find the prospect of crafting characters for myself daunting yet exhilarating. We authors are protean beings, so the possibilities seem plentiful. Too plentiful, perhaps. Sometimes the hardest advice to take is your own…

Like it or not, the stories we tell about ourselves are the weightiest we’ll ever have to write. For if self-promotion is, as I suggest, simply the telling of stories about ourselves, then our success rests in the right place: in our ability to write. It’s just a matter of learning to write the wrong way around.

Think about it. Are you a back-to-front writer?

Hanging on Every Word: Why Minor Moments Matter

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There you are. Stuck in prison for the rest of your life, a fraudster of the most despicable kind. For you, there’s only one way out, and that’s in a box. Since it’s only a question of when and not whether, you decide to end the suffering. Hanging it has to be.

But with what?

Cut to the future, where a couple of ‘lowlifes’ are busy quizzing your overwrought former wife about your demise. ‘What, did he use a belt?’ asks the short guy. A curt shake of the head. ‘A sheet, then,’ says the other, a muscled mechanic. The woman rounds on them. ‘No,’ she says, with a touch of pride. ‘He managed to get some rope.’

You did? What, then, does this tell you about yourself? That you wear suspenders? Probably not. That you wash your sheets daily? I doubt it. Nope, it tells you just what it told me: that you’re the kind of character you’re made out to be – a charming, well-connected confidence man.

Mission accomplished.

As writers, we’re told to make every word count. Here we see the mantra in action. It’s but a minor moment in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and yet it sticks in my mind, a fine (and funny) illustration of how the masters have us hanging on every word.

Off the Couch: How I Saved Civilisation

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In the ideal office, each and every drone would take messages. As it is, most simply leave them lying around, thus endangering the safety and security of all.

Not me. I safeguard civilisation by collecting, from desktops and drawers, these incendiary scraps of paper, which I publish on the internet as a service to society.

Here, then, is a message I removed from a desk today. Brace yourself…

Krystal 1

Now that’s how you take a message!

A Tale with Teeth (Part 1): Putting the Bite Back into Fairy Stories

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It was the last straw – again. There I was, blithely corralling kids’ books, when I came across a sheep in wolves’ clothing: yet another work in which an author has her wicked way with fairy tales. Enough’s enough, I thought, rough-housing the offending object into a corner; if I encounter another novel that neuters those venerable yarns, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll…

Do what? Scream like a girlie-man? Beat my hairy breast? Never! Such things are beneath me, as you well know. Instead, I thought, I’ll do my own bit of bastardising, so as to put the acid on these con-artists and the sting back where it belongs – in the tales, of course.

To my amazement and alarm, I got a chance to put my pen where my mouth is within hours. While ferrying Boy Wonder to a friend’s, I happened to put my daughter to sleep in the car. Rather than try and shoehorn the little dear out of her cosy capsule, I opted to ride it out – to sit behind the wheel and write.

It’s the fruit of this wee spree that I now want to share. Entitled ‘A Tale with Teeth’, the story goes something like this…

Once upon a time there was a wolf – a very sad wolf. His teeth were falling out, you see, and that’s enough to make any beast blue. One day the wolf woke up feeling so low that he just had to see a doctor.

‘Doc,’ he said, ‘I’m losing my teeth.’

‘Hmmm,’ said the doctor, fiddling with her phone. ‘I’d better run some tests.’

Tucking his tail under his furry flanks, the wolf sat and waited.

At last the doctor let out a shriek.

‘What is it?’ cried the wolf. ‘Give it to me straight, doc – I can take it.’

‘It’s my blood pressure,’ groaned the doctor. ‘It’s way too high. I need a holiday.’

And with that she raced from the room, grabbing her golf clubs as she went.

As you can imagine, that didn’t make the wolf feel any better. Not one to give up easily, though, he went straight to the dentist’s.

‘Come back when you’ve made an appointment,’ snapped the girl at the counter. The wolf sighed and did as he was told.

‘What seems to be the problem,’ asked the dentist, as he strapped the wolf down.

‘It’s my teeth,’ said the wolf. ‘They seem to be falling out.’

‘And I suppose you think I’m going to stick my head into your mouth to have a look,’ said the dentist.

The wolf nodded, miserably.

‘Gladly,’ said the dentist, and stuck his head right in.

He emerged a little later, feeling around in his ear for something sharp.

‘You weren’t foxing,’ he said, holding up a tooth. ‘Your fangs are dropping like flies.’

The wolf gave a groan. ‘But why?’

‘Not sure,’ said the dentist. ‘And don’t think I’m going in there again to find out. Who eats garlic for breakfast, anyway?’

It took the wolf a few months to pay his bill. As soon as it was settled, he rushed off to see a therapist.

‘I’m sad,’ the wolf told her, once he’d got comfortable on the couch. ‘And my teeth are falling out.’

‘Don’t let a little thing like that get you down,’ said the therapist, smoothing her slacks. ‘Is there anything else that might be making you unhappy? Your parents, perhaps?’

The wolf thought hard.

‘Well,’ he said, finally, ‘there is one little thing that’s been troubling me.’

‘Go on,’ said the therapist, pen poised above her iPad.

‘It’s just that I used to feel so big and bad. Hardly a week went by without me nibbling on a kid or two, and scaring some half to death.’

‘So that’s it,’ said the therapist, turning on her phone. ‘Nothing to do with your family at all.’

The wolf craned around to look at her.

‘Do you know what that does to a carnivore’s self-esteem?’ he said.

‘Yes, yes,’ said the therapist, briskly. ‘It’s an open-and-shut case. You’ve lost your identity and the new you doesn’t need teeth.’

She cast an eye over the wolf’s lithe figure.

‘Just out of curiosity, what do you eat?’

‘Shakes, mostly,’ said the wolf. ‘It’s a complete diet, only minus the children.’

‘Might be worth a try,’ murmured the therapist. ‘My sister’s getting married next month, you know, and I’d like to be looking my best.’

‘You go grrrl,’ said the wolf, giving her knee a squeeze.

The therapist threw him a grateful smile.

‘It’s just that my mother had such enormous –’

‘Hams?’ said the wolf.

‘Expectations.’

The wolf nodded, sympathetically.

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘but what about me?’

‘You? You’ve just got to find yourself again. Get back to being the real you. If, that is, you want to keep your canines.’

‘I get it,’ said the wolf. ‘I’m an open-and-shut case.’

The therapist looked at the clock.

‘Start now,’ she said. ‘Just open the door and shut it once you’re through.’

The wolf got up from the couch, feeling a little stiff, and padded out into the waiting room.

‘Hello,’ he said to a witch, her warty nose buried in a dog-eared Reader’s Digest. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’

Thank me later.

Sleep On It: How I Stopped Bowing to the God of Nod

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Here’s something my biographers don’t tell you: sleep used to keep me awake at night. For a time there in my twenties I’d sit up half the night reading books about the stuff and about all the sweetness and light it sheds on human life. The experts would tell me that –

Happily, I can’t remember what they told me, if anything. I seem to recall, though, that their texts were dotted with cautionary tales from history, just to give me nightmares. Titanic tales, you might call them. For if that iceberg hadn’t been asleep at the seal, then the ship of the century might never have sailed into the movies. Yes, that’s the kind of ‘experts’ they were.

I was worried, you see, because I seemed to be sleep-walking through life, unable to awaken. Something was wrong, I knew – I’m perceptive like that – but rather than blame my misfortunes on, say, me, I decided the problem was sheep.

Not sheep, but sleep. It’s funny, though, how often one concept invokes the other. Trust me, the link is more than linguistic.

Sleep. Opium of the masses, drug of the nation. Sleep. Superfine wool you pull over your own eyes. (That sounds pretty sheepish, doesn’t it.) Sleep. An alluring apparition you can have but not hold, and which shows itself only when your back is turned. Sleep. The word I keep repeating.

Shut-eye. Clearly, I was short of it. But how much did I need? In the end I came to a radical conclusion: none was enough – nay, more than enough. Sleep, I decided, was a waste of precious time, time I’d be better off wasting myself. Impressed by my logic, I wrote ‘Think like a bull’ on a piece of paper, pinning it to the wall with my horns. Then, in one extended sitting, I set out to finish the novel I was writing.

The sound I’m making now is the sound my brain made when it broke. Did I tell you my brain broke? Good, because it’s a secret.

Okay, it was a bad idea – having since heard about Operation Sandman, I now know that sleep deprivation is a form of torture, a fate worse than tickling. So, yes, I made an ass of myself, and, yes, my thinking was a load of bull. (My ‘novel’ was nothing to write home about either.) Verily, I had sinned against sleep and paid the price, my ship-like cerebellum being brained by the immovable iceberg that is science, or nature, or something. Unlike the Titanic, though, I got a second shot at going under…

Fast forward to the future, to the here and the now. My life is wide awake and fully dressed, even if my fly is undone. I’m a homemaker, a father, a husband; I’m the owner of a lonely blog. I am living, it would seem, at the coal-face of life. And yet (he writes in hushed tones) I’m still not completely sold on this sleep thing.

Fact is, I’ve had a bellyful of the whole palaver. Chased from the matrimonial couch by the late-season fruit of that union (a real little peach), I’m lucky to fit in twenty-two winks a night, let alone the full forty. Then there are bumptious beagles that bay, nocturnally, and an inner writer that mercilessly wags the dog – the Timm who tumbles me from my makeshift mattress in the early hours, so I can pen piffle like this. The wee early hours.

Sometimes, I’m just too damned tired to sleep. And, yes, I have tried counting to sheep, but, gee, they’re slow learners.

There’s a lamb nearby now, as it happens, in a neighbouring yard. A real one, I think, and not just an ethereal ewe sent to mock me. The little nitwit bleats mournfully at any hour of the day or night, weighed down, no doubt, by its woolly woes. Like me, the poor thing seems to struggle with sleep. Would some simple mathematical task help it nod off? Counting people, perhaps, as they jump through hoops? After all, what works for worn-out public servants ought to do for Ewe too…

See what I mean about sleep and sheep?

Chop, chop, I hear you say. My point, if you insist on hearing it half-baked, is this: the Sandman has feet of clay and the experts are dreaming – sleep just ain’t the holy grail it’s made out to be. Look at me. Six hours’ shut-eye and I feel terrific: I’m at one with the world and, best of all, the words are flowing, every one a winner. Enough said?

So here’s my advice if you’re thinking of bowing to the god of nod by going to bed early. Sleep on it, for heaven’s sake.