Writing Good Erotica, Part 11: Getting the Sex Right

We now turn to address the elephant that’s been waiting patiently in the drawing room since I began this series.

If you’ve done any reading at all in the genre (and I’m going to make the reasonable assumption that you have or you wouldn’t be reading this post), you know that certain pieces turn you on while others turn you off. What’s the difference?

Part of it, of course, is the type of sex being depicted, and since preferences there are inescapably personal, some care needs to be taken in laying down guidelines. There’s no question that a piece that arouses one reader may leave a dozen others cold, and no amount of writing advice is going to change that. But there are guidelines no matter the fetish involved, and since there tends to be plenty of self-selection here—that is, you likely won’t turn off readers who don’t enjoy your fetish because they won’t read your story in the first place—we don’t need to spend a lot of time on this.

There’s an old piece of advice when it comes to writing, Write What You Know. Like all writing guidelines, this one can be used for good or ill. Many novice writers make the mistake of thinking, “I know nothing about this subject even though I’m interested in it, does that mean I can’t write about it?” The answer is both yes and no.

Obviously, if you strike out on a subject or genre knowing little or nothing about it, your chances of producing a quality piece are slim. You’re likely to confuse readers who also know nothing and annoy readers who do know the subject. So do you give up? No.

This where an essential element of quality writing—research—comes in. Back when I first began writing fiction in the early 1990s, this was a serious challenge. There was no internet to speak of, which meant having to visit the library and find people who did know things and ask them. Not only was this hard work, you were not necessarily guaranteed to find what you needed.

Things have, of course, changed. When I write these days, I am constantly flipping out of Word and into Chrome to run searches on things in my books. Well into The Witches’ Covenant at the moment, I have 16 different tabs open in the book’s dedicated Chrome window, everything from Google Maps of Germany to Wikipedia entries to a wonderful anthology of hundreds of European folk tales. Every time I come to something I want more detail for or understanding of, I head to Google. I’ll be frank in saying I would never have been able to write the Twin Magic series without Google.

So back to the sex. If you’re going to write a piece that is intended to appeal to or explore a certain fetish, you need to understand it first. This might seem obvious, but I’ve read too many BDSM stories that were written by authors who had little or no understanding of the genre and had clearly made no attempt to gain one.

Ditto for erotic romance, Bigfoot erotica, paranormal/vampire/urban fantasy, and so on. It’s not that you should imitate what others have written—we’ve been over that one—but you need to understand the tropes and conventions before you make them your own. As Picasso said, you need to learn the rules before you start breaking them.

So: Read, research, understand, write. But your job is not yet done.

It’s a common misperception that erotica is nothing more than words arranged into clinical descriptions of sex acts. Such a thing may well be arousing, but it is not erotic. Not only that, the clinical descriptions are not strictly necessary. I have read some very erotic pieces in my life that were not particularly clinical. D. H. Lawrence, for example, wrote some awfully erotic books that were very thin on clinical descriptions.

The difference is the ability to reach into your readers’ heads and make them both visualize and care about what’s going on. Part of the reason I waited to discuss the sex in this series is because making your readers to think and care about your characters when they’re having sex requires getting the other stuff right first. Believable settings, interesting characters, and realistic dialogue.

Another element is giving your readers not all the details but just the right details. The key point to understand here is that readers who want photorealistic descriptions of sex acts can get them from, well, photos. Instead, your readers are after a participatory experience that they don’t get from photos or videos. Your job as an author of erotica is to not just draw them into the process but make them want to be a part of it. Give them enough details to make them want to finish the job in their heads.

This is a good rule for all fiction writing, but it’s especially important in erotica because you want to leave your readers room to tailor what they’re reading into what’s most arousing to them. You, for example, may be visualizing a female character as resembling a girl you knew in college, but your readers are likely envisioning their favorite actress or their next-door-neighbor or just some girl they saw at the grocery store. Be careful not to shut that down.

Is there a lot more to this? Absolutely. There is an art to writing effective, arousing erotica that only comes with time and practice. And, some writers simply have more of a talent for conveying eroticism in print than others. Just as you’re never going to be able to throw a football like Peyton Manning, you’re likely never going to reach the level of the most famous and successful erotic authors.

But you can get to a level of competence at it that makes the best use of your own talents and makes people want to read your books and stories. All it takes is a commitment to learning and growing as a writer.

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