writing good erotica

Dealing with eBook Piracy

So, it’s been a bit quiet here lately, a fact I will attribute to some post-release burnout and a new book I started last week. (Not Twin Magic 3—I’m letting that percolate in my head for a bit). But I wanted to relate something I’ve been dealing with for the past couple of months.

If you’ve published any ebooks, especially if they’ve sold well, there’s a pretty good chance they’ve been pirated somehow. If they’ve sold well enough to get on a bestseller list, they’ve almost certainly been pirated.

Pirating ebooks is not difficult, since it’s a matter of pulling the .mobi or .epub file off your reader, something that is easy if you know what you’re doing. The various forms of ebook DRM that exist are basically worthless and can be removed easily with the right software.

What happens then depends, but most often the files get uploaded and shared much like pirated movie and song files. In my experience, the worst offender is a site called Mobilism, where people can share pretty much any kinds of files: videos, songs, apps, books, and so forth. The quirk of Mobilism is that it doesn’t actually host the files. Instead, people upload them to various file sites and post links. This, you might guess, is supposed to get Mobilism off the hook when it comes to accusations of piracy.

The ebook section claims to host somewhere around 2 million ebook files. Just glance at the front page, and you’ll see a long list of obviously pirated content. What happens is usually that people will post requests for one book or another, and someone else will post it. There is a mechanism by which you need credits to download things, but we don’t really need to go into it.

I first came across The Wizard’s Daughters on Mobilism in February. I wasn’t terribly surprised, but it was still annoying to see that more than 300 people had downloaded it. I’ve been in the publishing/copyright field long enough to know that 90% of these people (at least) likely would not have bought the book anyway, but still.

What can you do when this happens? Well, fortunately, the download sites that host these files are used for hosting all sorts of things, many of them legitimate. The people who own them are in the business of making money from banner ads and such things, not to get sued. So every one I’ve come across has a straightforward DMCA takedown process. If you follow their instructions, the file will get yanked, sometimes in minutes.

The bad news, however, is that as easy as it is to get your files removed, it’s even easier to put them back up again. In my case, I’ve been playing a game of whack-a-mole with the person who uploaded TWD to Mobilism. The links in the post are currently dead, but they’ve been changed twice so far and I suspect will be replaced again. I check every day or so to see what’s going on.

If you’re wondering about sending a DMCA notice to Mobilism, I’ve tried, twice. They seem to have ignored them even though they claim to accept such requests.

There are plenty of other places that host ebooks, often as torrents. I’ve been successful getting them removed from everywhere I’ve found them except The Pirate Bay, which, if you’re familiar with it, you’re aware is a lost cause in that respect. But you’ve got to find these files, and Google is not always the best approach because some of the worst offenders (like Pirate Bay) have been removed from Google’s search results.

Still, unless you’re prepared to give up and let people steal your books, you’ve got to do the grunt work to protect them.

[Update 4/9/15] I finally heard from one of the mods at Mobilism and that post is now gone. But in true whack-a-mole fashion, I found that someone has posted a request for The Witches’ Covenant. I asked for that to be taken down as well; we will see.

Writing Better Erotica, Part 3: The Revision Process

Last time we talked about the dangers of listening to other writers’ advice on the creative process. I noted then that you have to find your own way when it comes to writing, but that revising your draft is a different matter with more well-defined best practices. Today, we’ll get into that.

There’s certainly no shortage of advice to be found on this subject as well, and I don’t for a moment suggest that any of this is the last word. It is, however drawn not just from my own writing experiences but from my two-decade career as an editor and journalist. That being said, just as with writing itself, you have to experiment to find the methods that work best for you.

The key thing, however, is that you must have a method. You can afford to lose yourself in the writing process, but for revision, you must remain focused. Writing is a creative process; revision is a deliberate one. You cannot revise effectively unless you approach it in an organized, disciplined fashion.

For me, the revision process has three main elements, each of which is not just critical but a prerequisite of the next: Wait, Read, Fix. That may sound awfully basic, but there are good reasons to break it down like that.

First, wait. Why? Because, however excited and proud you may be to have finished your draft, you’re too close to it to start revising right away. I explained a while back about the conflict between the inner text (the one in your head) and the outer text (the one on the screen) and how this interferes with good editing. When you’ve just finished your first draft, that inner text is in control. You need to give yourself some time to forget it.

Over the years, I’ve found that the best way to is replace it with something else. Go read another book or story, or, better yet, write one. This latter approach is something I’ve done many times myself. I wrote both The Hunt and The eGirl after I finished the first draft of The Wizard’s Daughters but before doing any real revision on it. When I came back, I found myself much more able to look at it objectively. I finished The Witches’ Covenant last week, and, thanks to a comment from Connie Cliff, began work on a sequel to Vector. I got about 10,000 words of that done before turning back to TWC.

Now, the read part might seem obvious, but it’s not. You aren’t just re-reading your book. You must read with purpose. You aren’t doing it for your enjoyment; you’re on a search-and-destroy mission for things that need fixing. But with so many things to think about, you can’t look for them all at once without missing things.

This is why seasoned editors employ the approach of editing at different levels, which is to say, editing only certain things at a time so as not to divide their attention. Editing for style and plot is a very different thing from editing for spelling and grammatical errors. You’re going to need to do multiple passes with different targets.

Further, the order that you do this matters. You can’t do your copy-editing first, then go back and make major changes in the plot, because you’re just going to be introducing more errors with the new things you’re writing. That’s why it’s best to go from large to small: Do a read as if you’re a reader: Does the overall plot work? Are there holes and inconsistencies? Is it engaging? Then, when you start to be satisfied with the structure, look at smaller stuff: Is the dialogue realistic? Does the prose flow? Are there uneven sections that need smoothing out? Then, and only then, should you get into serious copy-editing. (Note: This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fix obvious errors when you come across them, just don’t let them bog you down.)

Finally, the fix part is not as straightforward as it might seem either. I’ve often come across statements that a draft should shrink by 10% (or some other arbitrary figure) with each revision. This is fine, if your writing tends to be wordy and bloated. If you keep feeling that things are moving too slowly and your characters are doing and saying things that don’t advance the plot, and that your prose seems larded with throat-clearing and other useless words, keeping an eye on your word count and aiming to bring it down can be very useful.

But not all writers suffer from this problem. My prose, by contrast, tends to be pretty sparse, and I’m constantly finding spots that seem to move too fast or need more fleshing out. My drafts almost always expand during the revision process.

This leads us to the main point here: You need to have a good feel for the problems in your writing. All writers have these sorts of hiccups: expressions you use too often, bad habits with grammar and syntax, words you habitually misspell, plot devices you fall back on too many times, and so on. Some writers like to revise with a list of these things at hand, though I’ve found that to be overkill in my case (which isn’t to say I don’t have a list; it’s just in my head). Things like this are often susceptible to rapid fixes with find-and-replace, which should be a part of your revision process.

All of this needs to happen at least once before you send your book to your editors or beta readers. (This why they’re called beta readers, not alpha readers.) Then, depending on the feedback you get, you’ll need to do it at least once more.

Revision is rarely much fun, but having a disciplined approach to it will ensure you’re not wasting your time and that your book will be improved by it.

Writing Better Erotica, Part 2: Other People’s Advice is Worthless

The dirty little secret of being a writer is that none of really feels like we know what we’re doing.

We’re insecure. We worry about our work. No matter how much praise you get, how well your book sells, how much you may like it yourself, you can always find another author (and usually droves of them) who are selling far better than you, who garner far more glowing accolades, and whose writing you like better than your own.

This makes us susceptible to what I like to think of as The Advice Trap.

What is the Advice Trap? It’s thinking that how other writers do things is how you should do them. That’s a problem because, besides writing, a favorite activity of most writers is talking about writing. It’s fulfilling and makes us feel like writers. Plus, it’s an excellent work avoidance technique. Writing blog posts about writing is a very easy way to avoid going back to that unfinished book you really need to finish. (Yes, yes, I know.)

The result of this is that there is a crap-ton of writing advice out there if you’re inclined to look for it. (Go on, Google “how to write a novel”; I dare you.) You can easily waste days reading posts and random bloviating from other writers on how they write and how wonderfully their methods work for them.

If you’re just getting started and haven’t done much of anything yet, doing this kind of research probably can’t hurt. But if you’ve already got some work under your belt and you’re looking to improve, it can be very dangerous to your productivity.

After 20-plus years in this business, I am continually amazed at how many different approaches to writing I’ve come across. And the one common denominator is that none of them do things exactly like I do. I still occasionally read these “how I do it” posts, but I can’t remember the last time I really came away with anything useful. They’re an interesting look into other writers’ heads, but I find them of little value in polishing my craft.

If you’ve got good habits down, by which I mean you’ve been able to complete works you feel are ready for other people to read, worrying about how other writers do it is more likely to tie you up in knots than improve your writing.

This is the main reason I’ve tried to stay away from instruction lists in this series, instead trying to discuss things writers need to think about when they’re writing. How you translate that into good prose is something you have to figure out for yourself.

(One important aside here: I’m talking about the act of creation, not the task of polishing your first draft into something publishable. That’s an entirely different process that does in fact have some best practices that are worth following. But we’ll cover that another day.)

Here, the opening to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is applicable. He was talking about families, but he could have just as easily been talking about writers:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

You’re going to spend a lot of time being unhappy with your writing. For the most part, you’ll be going it alone.

Writing Better Erotica, Part 1: Fuck Bad Reviews

Up to now in my writing series, I’ve been focusing on fairly basic stuff. I’ll be continuing the “Writing Good” posts, but I’m going to start addressing topics for more experienced writers as well. Today we’re going to deal with one of the biggest bugaboos, bad reviews.

This is a big subject with a lot of elements, and I don’t pretend for a moment to have everything to say on the matter. But having been writing for publication for a decade and a half, I suspect I have a lot more experience dealing with negative reader feedback than most indie authors. In this, I’ve developed a simple, straightforward approach to dealing with unpleasant responses to my work, and here it is:

Fuck Them.

But Learn from Them.

Is that clear enough? Either way, we’ll now get into the details of it.

I’m a little more than two months into my indie author career, and the organic (as opposed to solicited reviews) are starting to come in. Naturally not all of them have been positive, and some have been downright negative. I’ve not yet gotten any abusive or trollish reviews, but I’m sure those are coming.

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that writing is hard, and putting your writing out there for the world to pick over is even harder. Getting bad reviews and negative feedback can be highly destructive to your ego and desire to write.

If you’ve gotten that point, there are few things you need to do to reclaim your mojo.

First, acknowledge that you’re publishing because you want an audience. Otherwise, you’d be Emily Dickinson, hiding all your work away until one of your sisters finds it and publishes it all. You’re putting your stuff out there because you want people to read it. Own that decision. Those reviews didn’t magically float down on your head.

Second, acknowledge that you have limited control over your audience’s reactions to your work. You can—and should—do your best to make it as professionally polished as you can, but some people are just not going to like the things you want to write. That’s on them, not you.

Third, and finally, lay claim to your status as an artist and don’t let go. The world is largely divided between creators and critics, and in the long run, it’s not the critics who count. Maybe you’ll be a complete failure, but at least you gave it your best shot. You’re doing more for the human race than people who sit back having opinions but never creating anything of their own.

Those three are the elements of Fuck Them. But you can’t stop there.

Being able to say Fuck Them allows you to look at negative feedback objectively. This is important because plenty of negative feedback has value. As long as it’s delivered constructively, you can pull some useful nuggets from it.

In my case, the two worst reviews The Wizard’s Daughters has gotten so far—a 2-star and a 3-star—have both complained about things I felt needed to be improved for the next book in the series: the shortness of the book and the relative lightness of the plot. So having seen that I’m not alone in being concerned about this gives me motivation and a road map for improvement going forward.

Most negative feedback does have some value, but you have to be able to check your ego at the door. Take what works and forget the rest of it. Your growth as an artist will be severely stunted if you simply shut out all negative responses to your work.

Is there feedback that has little or no value? Definitely. I put Goodreads’ silly star rating system there. Some people have given me 5-star ratings and some 1-star. But what do I do with this? All I know is that some people liked the books and some didn’t. It tells me nothing about why.

Trollish and abusive reviews are also a waste of your time. Again, Fuck Them. Some people are toxic assholes, and you should avoid them online like you would do in person.

Fuck Them also enables you to avoid doing something you really need to avoid doing, and that is engaging with your reviewers. The only time I ever respond to comments about my work is when I get the occasional thoughtful email or DM from a reader. But public reviews? Never.

The reason you should not do it—even with positive reviews—is not unlike the rule at sporting events about not going down on the field and athletes not going into the stands to respond to hecklers. Disaster often results when that happens. You’re breaching a wall your readers don’t expect you to breach. Most of them want you to stay out there in that nebulous mental zone where we keep all celebrities: Not One Of Us.

When you do it, even to respond positively, you’re disrupting that relationship, and risk creeping out readers who may feel they’re being stalked. Online book review culture is in many ways best viewed as a cocktail party you’re not invited to. Lots of people enjoy discussing books amongst themselves much as we all enjoy (however much we may deny it) talking about other people behind their backs. If those people overhear or wander into the conversation, it naturally makes everyone involved feel awkward and embarrassed. This goes double if the unexpected guest wasn’t even invited to the party.

Responding to negative reviews intensifies this reaction, because you’re lowering yourself to the level of your critics. If the review, however negative, is objectively reasonable and constructive, you come across as an angry crank. If the review is objectively trollish, you’re rolling around in the mud with pigs. Both situations are going to turn off the readers who have to watch it. Bestselling authors can get away with being angry cranks because they have legions of fans who will rationalize their behavior and keep buying their books. But you can’t, so you’re best off not even starting.

So the next time you get a negative review, Fuck Them. But then come back later and see what there might be to learn from it.

Mea Culpa, or, How Not to Do Twitter

Yesterday, in a poorly thought-out attempt to renew interest in this blog, I decided to tweet links to all the posts in my “Erotica That Sucks” series. What I didn’t stop to think was how a steady stream of “Erotica that Sucks” tweets would come across to people unfamiliar with the posts.

Not surprisingly, more than one person thought it was some sort of diatribe against erotica. Worse, not content with reaching my own following, I appended all the tweets with several retweet group hashtags, most notably the Erotic Author Retweet Group. Anthony Quill, who runs the EARTG (which you really should be following) finally called me out on it early this morning.

So, after apologizing to Anthony (and I apologize to anyone else who was annoyed or offended by it), I set about considering what might need to be changed. “Erotica that Sucks” was one of those things that you do simply because you’ve been doing it a while and have just stopped thinking about it. I realize now it sends a message I didn’t really intend. Those of you who have been reading the series know (I hope) that my intent was just to offer writing advice.

I’ve decided to rename the series to something more positive, and have retitled/edited all the posts accordingly. I can’t, unfortunately, change the URLs without breaking all sorts of links across the blog; I may fix that at a later date when I have more time.

I intend to continue the series, but we will be concentrating on things that suck in a good way going forward.

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.

Writing Good Erotica, Part 10: Hobby vs. Business

So, about a month into my self-publishing experiment, I would say I haven’t sold as many books as I would have liked, but I’ve sold enough to feel like it hasn’t been a complete waste of time. I’m not yet into the black on this project based on what I’ve spent on covers and other stuff, but with the lion’s share of the start-up costs behind me, I feel like I should start turning a profit within another month or so. At the very least, I should have a nice tax deduction at the end of the year. My marketing plan hasn’t panned out quite the way I expected, but I’m starting to feel like I see how things should work and what the best approaches should be going forward.

If any of you are thinking “start-up costs?” “tax deduction?” “marketing plan?” that may be your problem.

There are two ways of looking at writing: As a hobby, or a business. If you look at writing as a hobby, you should stop worrying about what you’re selling or what you’re making, because in all likelihood, it will never be anything worth mentioning.

These are all signs you’re treating writing as a hobby instead of a business, regardless of what you think you’re doing:

  • Not keeping careful track of your expenses
  • Not having a plan for what you’re spending
  • Throwing your work out there and hoping for the best
  • Not thinking about how you’re presenting yourself to your readers
  • Not doing anything to boost your profile
  • Just writing one book or story and then sitting back to see what happens
  • Not doing a lot of reading to see what’s working for successful writers and adjusting your plan accordingly

To give you an idea of how seriously I’m taking this, I’m planning to deduct the $12 or so I’ve spent so far on the stories I’ve reviewed, because I view these as marketing expenses. If the IRS has a problem with that, then they can take it up with me next year.

If that sounds like overkill, sorry. Publishing is a brutal, soulless business, and if you want to succeed, you can’t treat it like fun and games. I can testify to that having worked in this field since the mid-1990s and having seen plenty of good people get tossed aside and worthwhile books wither on the vine while unimaginative crap like 50 Shades of Grey hit the bestseller lists.

Making it in this business requires a certain amount of luck, to be sure, but there’s an old proverb that works well here: Luck is what happens when preparation and opportunity meet.

Writing Good Erotica, Part 9: The Problem with Alternate Realities

I actually meant to address the subject of this post last time, but as that one was long enough, I decided to wait until the next installment. What we’re going to talk about today is the subtleties of suspension of disbelief.

Probably my favorite movie of all time is Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner, a work he’s been chasing for the last 30-plus years yet never quite matched again. This is the greatest science fiction movie ever made, and if you disagree with me, well, dust off your pistols and we can settle things tomorrow at dawn.

Blade Runner, if you weren’t paying attention the first time around, is set a scant five years from now. It includes a variety of speculative elements such as extraterrestrial colonists, flying cars, street slang that has degenerated into an incomprehensible mish-mash of dialects, and, of course, self-aware androids. Even in 1982, some of these, especially the androids, seemed like reaches for a mere 37 years in the future. None of them are close to having come to pass—in that respect the movie was way off in terms of being predictive.

But that didn’t really matter, and it still doesn’t. I can still watch it knowing the Los Angeles of 2019 that Scott envisioned bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Los Angeles of 2014, and I expect I will still enjoy it when we reach 2020 and there are still no self-aware androids.

The philosophy behind suspension of disbelief is controversial in some quarters, but the general idea is that if a writer can create an internally consistent world, readers will ignore inconsistencies between that world and theirs. This is essential to enjoyment of fantasy, science fiction, much action and adventure, and even to some extent, romances. There is one element of this, however, that is not always recognized, and that is that, no matter how fantastical the setting, readers general expect the human beings in the story to behave like human beings they know, were they to exist as the author has described them.

It is on this point that a great deal of erotica falls down.

I am not here speaking of characters who don’t talk and act like real people; we’ve done that one before. Rather, I’m talking about settings that require ongoing, active effort from the reader to ignore the ways in which the story departs from reality, even if the reader accepts all the author’s premises.

Let me give an example to make this more clear. A common trope in erotica is the character who is kidnapped or otherwise coerced into some sort of sexual slavery, very often into some sort of Secret Bondage Society. This SBS, if  you will, exists despite the author having set the story into Here and Now, everything else being what the readers are presumably familiar with. But the main character, having been spirited off into the SBS, has for some reason—despite being portrayed as unwilling and seeking to be free—somehow lost the ability to pick up the phone and call the police or otherwise seek rescue as a normal person in such a situation would do. No attempt is made to explain this—the main character continues to blunder around in (usually) her restraints, seeking nothing but her next orgasm rather than her freedom.

This is not terribly unlike the characters in the average low-budget horror movie who continue to avoid the obvious means of escape and instead keep falling into the villain’s traps.

Let me pause here, as I have often done in this series, to stress that there is a lot of very entertaining erotica that employs this particular trope; I have to confess to being a fan of it myself. Still, I can never quite shake off the feeling that the story I’m reading, however hot it may be, is fundamentally a bit silly.

So why complain? Because it isn’t truly necessary to fall back on this rather tired device.

It doesn’t really take that much more effort to craft a setting in which the SBS makes enough sense not to require ongoing suspension of disbelief. As just one example, I will refer again to Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series. Here we have a very large and complex, though not terribly S, BS. But set as it is within a fairy-tale world, it requires no suspension of disbelief beyond the first page. Rice has given us a setting that makes internal sense, and having done that, we can go merrily on our way following the naked Beauty through all her travails. At no point must we wonder why she is not doing this or that; she behaves in a logical, consistent fashion through the entire trilogy.

So, my point here? Must we say this again? Apparently so.

Don’t be lazy. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Take the extra effort to create something that works. Your readers will thank you.


Writing Good Erotica, Part 8: Trope Tripe

A rejection letter I once got from a literary agent assessed my hopeful first novel thusly: “Sorry, there’s too much going on here and too much mixing of genres.”

This particular book, which I am not re-releasing (it really isn’t very good, trust me), might be best described as a cyberpunk-mystery-thriller-erotic romance. It began as short-story fanfic set in the Cyberspace RPG world and took off from there, becoming the story of an attempt to blow up a corporate board meeting, followed by subsequent betrayals, deaths, and a cross-country chase. To make it less fanfic, I added on a backstory involving the narrator’s tortured history with his wealthy-but-distant father and the somewhat mysterious nanny who takes his virginity. The nanny ultimately turns out to have been a corporate spy, and reappears later in the book to complicate the budding romance between the narrator and the beautiful blonde he meets early in the book. So, yes, there was indeed a lot going on.

This work wasn’t exactly erotica, but it contained some explicit sex in certain drafts that I kept taking in and putting back depending on how I thought it worked. The final—i.e., abandoned—draft had the sex; this is the version I ultimately put up on Ruthie’s Club just to call it done and get rid of it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that breaking genre conventions is something to be done with care. With this book, I basically took a bunch of tropes and conventions and threw them into a blender; the result, not surprisingly, was something of a mess.

But tricky or not, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it from time to time.

Before we go any further, it’s useful to distinguish between conventions, tropesstereotypes, and cliches, since these terms sometimes get thrown around interchangeably when they’re distinct ideas.

Conventions are essentially the defining elements of a genre—basically, the details of plot, setting, and character that set one genre apart from another. You can spot these by just listing a few and thinking what genre comes to mind:

  • Horses, six guns, wide dirt streets, cowboy hats, saloons
  • Robots, ray guns, spaceships, aliens
  • Viruses, flesh-eating, collapse of civilization

If you thought Western, science fiction, and zombies, then you see what I mean here.

Tropes are related to conventions (and can be considered a type of convention) but are most accurately thought of as commonly recurring plot elements and characters for a genre. For example, a common trope in erotica is a woman forced into sexual promiscuity because of a sudden change in circumstances: this is a plot you tend to see fairly often. It’s important to stress here that the use of a trope is not in itself a bad thing; the romantic trope of the star-crossed lovers was old well before Romeo and Juliet, for example.

A stereotype is a commonly used, well-understood concept, often a character. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad; stereotypes can be useful in moderation, especially if it appears in a scene where those particular details aren’t really important or where crafting something new would serve as a distraction.

A cliche, finally, is any element—convention, trope, or stereotype—that has been so overused that its appearance is a signal to the reader that the author is too lazy or lacking in confidence to come up with his or her own ideas.

All of these things are building blocks for your story. Like real blocks, some fit together better than others, some can support more than others, and some look better than others. I’ll mention only in passing the obvious point that a story built only of cliches and stereotypes is going to collapse of its own weight and focus on the more advanced idea that genre elements need to be assembled with a certain amount of thought and care.

You can build a decent, readable story using nothing but common tropes and conventions for your preferred genre. But just as if you build a house with nothing but square blocks, it isn’t likely to be anything terribly memorable. And, you’re going to need to work harder at characterization and plotting to keep your readers engaged, because you’re giving them a lot of things they’ve read many times before. They’re going to be asking, “Okay, what’s new about this one?”

Again, I don’t want to suggest there’s anything wrong with this. Plenty of readers are happy with familiar tropes as long as the characters are real, interesting people they care about.

But the question I’ve always asked myself is, Why limit your writing to familiar building blocks? Why not see if these blocks can be put together in some new and interesting way? Why not see if a trope from some other genre would work in this one?

Since I brought up Westerns, let’s consider the classic Western film, The Magnificent Seven. As any film buff knows, this was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai. The now widely familiar trope of a band of misfit heroes being assembled to conduct some mission or adventure was largely established by Kurosawa with this film, but it draws on established conventions from classic Japanese literature, particularly the ronin, or masterless samurai.

Sticking with the Western, Stephen King’s masterwork, the Dark Tower series, illustrates another way careful blending of genre conventions can create something highly readable (King also draws on Kurosawa in these books). And since the focus of this blog series is erotica, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy shows how you can create effective erotica by repurposing conventions from other genres as well. There are of course many other examples.

But the flip side of this is that not all conventions work together so well, and even good ideas can misfire in their execution. The numerous abortive attempts at making sci-fi/Western crossover movies, most of which have been embarrassing failures, are good examples. Sometimes in mixing genres, you get The Magnificent Seven, other times you get Wild Wild West.

Still, I would encourage you to try it. The way to do it though, is to have a plan in mind. Your goal should be trying to create some good narrative possibilities that don’t work with the existing tropes and conventions of your original genre. Trying to mix things together simply because the combination seems cool generally does not work so well (this was the problem with my first novel).

If you made it this far, you’ll see my point here is what I’ve been saying all along: Don’t be lazy. Be bold. Stretch yourself. Your readers want something new, and sometimes you need to reach outside your usual bag of tricks to deliver it.

Writing Good Erotica, Part 7: The Madness of Modifiers

One thing that seems to characterize bad erotica, and bad writing in general, is an overabundance of adjectives and adverbs. Weak writers often get into the habit of larding up weak nouns and verbs with strong modifiers, instead of just starting with strong nouns and verbs and not trying to amp them up even further.

I’m not in the business of calling out other writers, but I have to share a snippet of something I just came across, which illustrates well the point I’m trying to make with this post.

She took solace in the hard, gray walls and thick iron bars that held her there. The chaotic thoughts of her overactive mind eased away. Her mind was consumed by an acute awareness of her shivering body covered only by a transparent white chemise.

We have here two sentences and 44 words, of which a whopping 10 are adjectives (I’ve bolded them above just to make things clear). Of the nine hapless nouns in this passage, only two have escaped some sort of modifier. Three of the poor things are carrying two adjectives on their backs.

This is a writer trying to do way too much of her readers’ work for them.

There are two problems going on here.

The first is stuffing too much into your readers’ heads. Perhaps the hardest part of fiction writing is letting go and understanding that your readers are going to envision things differently than you did when you wrote them. There is simply no way you can avoid this, and trying to stop it by sketching out every possible detail of every single scene, as the writer above appears to be trying to do, is just going to slow them down and annoy them.

The other, larger problem is that weak nouns and verbs cannot be strengthened to any great degree by strong modifiers. Since we’re discussing erotica, a metaphor that might work here is trying to cure erectile dysfunction with a penis extension. Simply put, it’s no replacement for a good solid hard-on.

Nouns and verbs are the framing of your writing; adjective and adverbs are just window-dressing: okay in moderation and when carefully placed, but not capable of holding up the house on their own.

If you want your writing to feel strong and vivid, you need to start with a strong, vivid frame. When you feel yourself reaching for a modifier to shore up a weak noun or verb, stop and ask yourself if there is a strong noun or verb that could stand alone without the decoration.

How might one have drafted the passage above without all those modifiers? Here’s my attempt:

She drew comfort from the stone and bars of her cell. Her mind was stilled, drawn instead to the chill of the dungeon, which her chemise did little to ward off. 

I’ve cut this from 44 words to 31, largely by excising every single modifier. Instead of trying to describe what’s going on here, I’ve merely suggested it. We don’t know what color the stone is, nor what the bars are made of, nor the details of the chemise, but do they really matter? Stone is usually gray and always hard, and bars in these situations are typically iron. Chemises by definition are thin, and the color here is irrelevant. We don’t know that she’s shivering, but the reader can easily imagine it—what else would she be doing in a dungeon, dressed in nothing but her underwear?

Making your readers work for their supper is how you get them engaged in your story. Don’t force feed them; make them come to the table and serve themselves. That’s how you get them coming back for more.