writing good erotica

Writing Good Erotica, Part 6: You Talk Too Damn Much

We’re now getting into an area where there are few clear rules, only guidelines. But it’s time to address how to do dialogue.

Years ago, in a fiction writing seminar that I took from a moderately famous author, I got a comment back on one of my stories to the effect that, though he thought it was “very good,” it suffered, among other things, from “an over reliance on dialogue at the expense of scene description,” a comment he immediately qualified with a parenthetical: “(though of course there are no rules and a piece can consist entirely of dialogue).”

I can quote these twenty-plus-year-old comments exactly because they’ve stuck with me ever since. What they’ve meant to me can be drawn, in part, from the fact that the very next story I turned in, in fact consisted entirely of dialogue. (His thoughts: “It works, but in a limited way, like a joke that waits for its punch line.”)

What are we to take from this? Dialogue is tricky.

There are really only two absolute, ironclad, inalterable rules when it comes to dialogue:

  • You should have a specific goal in mind every time one of your characters opens his or her mouth.
  • Your characters must sound like real people.

My guess is that the second rule is more of a problem for most writers than the first. So we’ll address these in reverse order.

One of the biggest hallmarks of Erotica That Sucks is bad dialogue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started something that seems interesting, gotten to a stretch of dialogue, and just thought to myself: This is not how real people talk.

The root of bad dialogue, at least in erotica, tends to be the same as the root of bad characterization. It’s a desire to serve fetish before writing. Dialogue is just seen as a tool to serve arousal and hit all of the tropes of the particular genre.

Some people, as I’ve said before, don’t care about this. They enjoy silly, contrived, stilted dialogue just as long as the characters are yelling things the stereotypes in that genre are supposed to. This sort of stuff is common in large part because it’s easy. Rather than think about what these characters really might say, were they real people in this actual situation, the writer stuffs a lot of words in their mouths lest they derail the train speeding toward fulfillment.

Me, I need more than this. It isn’t that I have a problem with various types of genres, I don’t. I enjoy reaching outside the sort of stuff I’ve enjoyed in the past. I love encountering talented new writers. Seriously, this is one of the great joys of reading for me. But all of you, I’m begging you: Don’t be lazy.

You probably know where you want to end up when you start a piece of erotica. I do the same thing. But don’t rush it. Come up with some realistic characters. Breath some life into them. Then let them get there on their own. Rather than stuffing words in their mouths, listen to them. If you’ve done your job up to this point, you have some real people in your head who want out. Let those people talk. Don’t do the talking for them.

I will be the first to admit this isn’t easy. It takes practice and patience. It requires slowing down enough to prevent your desire to get to the money shot from overrunning everything else. But think how much hotter the payoff will be if you can arrive there with some real, living people instead of department store mannequins.

Now, if you suffer from the first problem, as I do, it may seem to be a problem worth having. In some respects, it is. If your characters never seem to shut up, it’s probably because you enjoy writing dialogue and feel like you’re good at it. My stuff, if you’ve taken the time to read any of the snippets I’ve posted, tends to be on the talky side. I have an ear for dialogue, but this is not necessarily a good thing.

That is because, while you want to give your characters some free rein to talk the way they actually would, you can’t let them off the leash entirely. They don’t know where you’re trying to go. They’re in the moment, enjoying things. It’s your job to keep the narrative focused.

How much dialogue should you use? This is where we have to fall back on the foundational rule of writing: Whatever works. I’ve been told by some other writers with strong opinions on this subject that dialogue should be treated like salt at a fine French restaurant: used very sparingly and only with great deliberation. This has always struck me as overkill. Human beings interact mostly by talking, and if you’ve got a cast of characters who rarely talk to each other, that doesn’t seem to me to be very realistic, especially when it comes to romance and erotica. Human beings in particular tend to talk a great deal before they have sex.

That being said, you’ve still got to use just the right amount. Every time your characters open their mouths, you should feel like they’re advancing the plot somehow. Think of this as observing a conversation that you can listen to, but not participate in. As long as there seems to be a point to what these people are talking about, it’s worth listening to. But when it starts to meander with no clear destination in mind, your readers are going to start getting bored, just as you would be getting bored listening to this aimless conversation in real life.

I’ve found it can help to read dialogue out loud, or at least to yourself (I can’t read mine out loud since I have three school-age kids). If it sounds stilted to you, it will surely sound that way to your readers. Back up and think about what you’re trying to do. Are you talking, or is it your character?

Mastering dialogue is one of the toughest parts of fiction writing, but it’s a hurdle you have to get over if you don’t want to suck.

Writing Good Erotica, Part 5: Who’s Your Muse?

Of all the posts I’ve written in this series, this is perhaps the one least likely to be of any use to anyone else. Writers draw their inspiration from about as many different sources as there have been people who have put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. But this is an issue that needs to be addressed at some point—not all muses are created equal.

Those of you who have read my earlier stuff will have noticed a particular female archetype—short, impish, naturally blonde, naturally busty—showing up repeatedly (those of you who haven’t will have to wait a bit longer). That’s a certain woman in my life, or at least elements of her. Even when I didn’t pull that archetype from the casting couch, I have frequently drawn on my love life in writing my erotica. Quite a bit of the first half of Faith, Hope & Charity—in a literal sense—as well as a lot of The Needle and the Dungeon—in a (somewhat more) metaphorical sense—is patterned after things I’ve done.

All that being said, almost nothing I’ve written could be called a roman à clef. That simply isn’t what I do.

What’s the distinction? It’s not altogether different from how you put together realistic, believable characters for your fiction. I don’t sit down and transcribe my episodes of lovemaking. I’m not interested in inviting you into my bedroom any more that you really want to stand there watching me. What I do, however, is break apart the things I’ve experienced into distinct, interesting chunks. Then, like Legos, I put them back together, mixing in other things I’ve thought about or read about or watched (porn or otherwise), in order to create something that seems like it might be objectively arousing for other people.

There’s a lot of erotica out there that seems to fall into one of two categories: Here Is What I Do With My Significant Other, or, Here Is What I’d Really Like to Do With My Significant Other if S/he Shared My Kinks/Sex Drive. Both of these, unless the author is really, really talented, have always struck me as more pathetic than arousing.

Some people do enjoy this sort of thing, and if you do, don’t let me stop you from getting off on it (see the opening paragraph). But as my goal in this series is talking about how to be an objectively better writer of erotica, I want to point out here that getting turned on with your writing is not the same as turning your readers on. What you want out of your sex life isn’t necessarily going to entertain anyone else.

Good writers take reality, break it down, and create something new. If all you’re doing is repeating reality (actual or imagined), you’re not really a writer. You’re just a stenographer.

Writing Good Erotica, Part 4: Your Cover

I’ve long felt that much of being an adult, and a professional whatever-it-is-you-hold-yourself-out-as, is knowing what you’re good at, and what you’re not.

You do the things you’re good at. The things you’re not good at, you either learn how to do competently, or you find people who are competent at them to take of them. (n.b.: A brief aside here: Competence is the point at which other people are willing to pay you for your services, not the point at which you feel like you know what you’re doing. There is far too little competence in this world. I don’t care what your IQ is; I care whether you’re competent at whatever it is you want me to pay you money for.)

I am a competent writer. I have been supporting myself and my family in this profession since the late 1990s. I am not, however, a competent graphic designer, as much as I would like to be.

Good graphic design is both an art and a science. The art should be obvious; the science, however, is less so.

To someone without formal training in the field, it can be difficult to appreciate what separates the good from the bad. You may be able to feel that one example is better than another, but the why of it can be elusive. I hasten to add here that “formal training” can consist of self-study; there are many awesome graphic designers out there who are entirely self-taught. These folks, however, have taken the effort to study what works and what doesn’t, to compare things that look good with thing that look like crap and understand what separates them, to learn the specific mechanics of creating good design, and to spend an awful lot of time practicing all of this stuff.

There is in fact some established science behind why the human eye prefers certain color combinations, how certain designs direct the eye rather than confuse it, and why a whole array of design conventions are more effective than others. It isn’t just a matter of creating things that “look nice.”

This brings us to self-published book covers. And here there is really little point in belaboring the fact that the world judges your book by its cover. Simply put, an amateurish cover tells your prospective readers they’re getting an amateurish book.

All of the covers I’ve revealed here were created by professional graphic designers. I could certainly have saved myself the $350 or so I’ve spent so far on covers and done them myself, since I’m not completely unacquainted with Photoshop and Illustrator. They would, however, have looked quite a bit less interesting than the ones I’ve gotten.

Part  of the reason is that a graphic designer, being disconnected from the book you’ve just written, is able to think about it in a way that you, as the author, cannot, and is able to think about how best to present it to the world in a far more objective fashion.

This matters.

Pretty much every cover I’ve commissioned has come back looking very different from what I had originally envisioned, and every single one of them has looked better than the cover I would have created on my own. I don’t regret a single cent I’ve spent so far.

If you want to convince the world your writing doesn’t suck, you need to get that world to read it. And getting it to read your writing requires an intriguing cover.

Don’t sell yourself short.

(P.S.: I’m supposed to get the draft cover for The Needle and the Dungeon tomorrow. Between you, me, and the fence post, I can’t wait to see it.)

Update: The cover is in, and you should see it in the post below. This is precisely why I don’t do my own covers.

Writing Good Erotica, Part 3, or The Virtue of Editors

There is no writer on earth who can effectively edit his or her own material.

I could have stopped this post right there, but the self-evident truth of that statement is probably quite a bit more self-evident to someone who has spent nearly all of his or her adult life writing and editing things for publication, as I have. So for the benefit of those without professional publishing experience, we will dive into why this is so.

Writing is in many ways a conversation with oneself. The words form in your head, and must pass out of your brain, down to your fingers, past the keys, and thence onto the screen. That’s quite a few intersections where you can unintentionally t-bone an impulse going a different direction. The problem is that the piece being written on the screen is being simultaneously etched into your memory, and in the process of re-reading your work, very often that internal text overlays the external one enough to conceal errors. You think you’re reading what your eyes see, but in fact you’re listening to your brain read that text in your head. This is why you can read over a text and not see a typo until you’ve read it 10 times or more.

Someone else reading that piece has no internal text to trip them up, so they are more likely to catch these errors you miss. This is why you should never, ever publish something that has seen only one pair of eyes.

Consider for a moment what happens with a book that sees print publication.

Most experienced authors of fiction have developed a habit of getting someone—very often their spouse, but sometimes a friend or two—to read their work before anyone else sees it. Not all authors do this, but the successful ones almost always do. When the book is submitted to an agent, it is often read first by the agent’s manuscript readers. Most agents get far too many submissions to read everything that comes across their desks, and so employ readers to sift out the gems. If the reader recommends the book, the agent will then read it. Should the agent decide to represent the book, it will then undergo a comprehensive proofread and copyedit by the agent, and—depending on the size of the agency—one or more copyeditors before it gets submitted to a publisher. What happens upon submission depends on the size of the publisher. There are small indie publishers in which the owner handles everything, but with larger publishers, and especially the big ones, it will be read by at least two or three acquisition editors before a decision to publish is made.

In the event the publisher decides to pick up the book, it will then be assigned to a managing editor (who may or may not be the same person as the acquisition editor), whose job it is to shepherd the book from manuscript to bookstore. At this point, it will undergo another comprehensive proofread and copyedit by the managing editor and possibly several copyeditors. This process will be repeated at the manuscript stage, the galley stage, and the final proof stage before anyone has a chance to actually buy the book.

What this means is that the average book on the shelves at your local bookstore, as well as the ebooks from the major publishers, may have been read by upwards of 20 people—all of whom make their living preparing things for publication—before you get your eyes on it. That, in a nutshell, is why it looks so polished and professional.

Compare this to the process that most self-published erotica goes through. The author writes it, slaps together a quickie stock image cover, converts it to ebub or mobi format (or maybe just uploads it to Smashwords as a Word doc), and that’s that. This, in a nutshell, is why stuff like this looks so amateurish.

Self-publishing has its virtues, to be sure, but cutting the professional editors out of the process is not one of them.

What can you do to avoid this problem? If you can’t recruit a spouse/significant other to read your stuff beforehand, you can at least recruit advance readers to help out. When I was writing for the Usenet years ago, I accumulated a stable of seriously nitpicky proofreaders who were happy to proof my stuff in exchange for getting to read it before anyone else did. Making this happen takes time, but the effort is worth it.

Writing Good Erotica, Part 2

Yesterday I decided to vent a bit about bad erotica, and that vent created a bit of a stir for a three-day-old blog. Having established why so much erotica sucks, I promised to offer my thoughts on how not to suck.

Therein though lies a problem, because tastes in erotica vary so widely. It’s impossible for me to offer much one-size-fits-all advice. All I can really do is explain how to write erotica that I think doesn’t suck. There aren’t a lot of objective standards here, for obvious reasons.

This is also much too big a subject for one blog post, so tonight I’m going to focus on one problem in particular.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you had at your disposal two (or more) fully animatronic, anatomically correct robots. You can make them fit whatever your personal preferences may be, and dress them (or not) according to your personal fetishes.

Now, let’s imagine them having sex, or doing whatever it is turns your crank at the moment. Would you find this arousing?

My guess is that, unless you have a Real Doll fetish (and apologies to those of you who do—I’m not passing judgement here), the answer would be no.

They’re just robots. They’re fake. You’re watching a mindless conglomeration of metal and silicone, not flesh.

Why does that matter? It’s because sexual arousal caused by things we see is directly connected to our ability to empathize with what’s going on, to imagine ourselves as part of the experience or to recall similar experiences of our own. Without that connection, we’re left cold.

This is one of the biggest problems I see with poorly written erotica. The characters are no better than robots. They’re shallow, soulless stereotypes. Some people can deal with this, or just don’t care, but for me, I have a very difficult time getting into a story unless I can envision the characters as real people. No matter how extreme they may be, a good writer can give them enough touches of reality to let me connect with them.

Effective characterization is a skill that good writers have to master, and it starts with being a good observer of people. And here I mean real people, not, for example, people you’ve only read about in other erotica. That’s one of the rationales behind my warning in the first post about how being an avid reader is not enough to make you a good writer. Because if you get too far into the genre, you can start seeing those frequent stereotypes as living, realistic people when they’re anything but.

The ironic thing is, though, that creating believable characters is really not that difficult. Mostly it’s envisioning the sort of person you need for the narrative, and then giving them some details you’ve observed in other people. Take the way your college roommate liked to talk, and add in a background element from one of your neighbors, plus a cool hairstyle you saw on some girl in the mall. Is there someone you once met who had a personality quirk that’s stuck in your head ever since? Try adding it in here and see what you get.

Doesn’t quite seem to work? Replace one element, or tweak it a bit. Keep playing with it until you’ve got someone you can envision as a three-dimensional person, someone you’d recognize if you ran into them at the grocery store.

Obviously, the process isn’t quite this easy or straightforward—often you want to just let your characters create themselves as you write—but you should get the basic idea. Not building your characters like this and just inventing everything from whole cloth (because it’s easier or you have a stubborn fantasy that wants out) usually means you end up with a story filled with synthetic people.

“But,” you protest, “I just want my characters to fuck.” Fine, let them fuck. But you can make them real with as little as a few sentences (or, if you’re really good, only a few words). The key to this is not forcing things as if they were robots. Don’t envision the action and make them dance; envision the characters and let them do and say what seems natural. Don’t rush it. Just let it happen. Think of them as people, not sex-bots. What would they do?

Now, having said all this, I want to stress one important point. The problem with weak erotica is less the absence of characterization than it is incompetent characterization. It’s actually quite possible to write an effective piece of erotica with no characterization whatsoever. The unidentified characters are there, and immediately begin fucking. While making this work takes some care, it can be done, and done very well.

Where so many authors go wrong is trotting out the same tired characters they’ve read 100 times before because it’s what they’re used to, or slapping together something that bears no resemblance to live human being because they’re too impatient to get to the sex.

That’s what sucks, and I want it to stop.

Writing Good Erotica

It’s no great reach to point out that there is an awful lot of erotica out there that is Not That Good.

Why is this so? Well, as a threshold problem, writing well is not easy. But erotica carries with it some unique qualities that affect both how it is created and how it is consumed. There is really no other genre in which bad writing can thrive the way it does in erotica.

This is because of the simple reason that people read erotica not just to be entertained but also to be aroused. Readers of erotica will put up with an amazing level of bad writing as long as the story hits one of their fetishes effectively. Glaring typos, stereotypical characters, hackneyed dialogue, and preposterous premises can be blithely excused just as long as the sex gets their juices flowing.

What this does, though, is create complacency in writers of erotica, and complacency is invariably fatal to good writing. I have seen some writers churn out crap for years because they have somehow reached a critical mass of fans who don’t care about the quality of the writing, just the quality of their one-handed reads.

Is this necessarily bad? Well, if you’re one of those readers, maybe not. And if so, this post is not for you, so you should probably stop reading now.

Still here? Okay. The flip side of this problem is that being a good writer does not automatically mean you can write good sex scenes. I have read more than one otherwise well-written story that fell flat when the author got to the sex. Being able to write well, and write good sex, is an unfortunately rare combination.

What makes one a good writer of erotica?

It’s probably more useful to consider first what does not. First, having had sex, and enjoying sex, does not make you a good writer. This might seem an obvious point, yet too many “authors” seem to stop at this point and go no further. They have fantasies and want to get them down on paper, and that’s that. While no great vice, this is no virtue either.

Next, merely being an avid consumer of erotica does not make you an effective author of the same. It’s a good start, to be sure, but that’s all: it’s the beginning of your path, not the end.

Readers who have gotten this far but have no clue who I am, or who MichaelD38 or Richard Bissell were, may be forgiven for wondering where I get off dismissing two-thirds (hell, let’s call it three-quarters) of the authors currently working in the genre. As to that, any answer would constitute an appeal to authority fallacy. My being a great or lousy writer of erotica doesn’t change any of the above. (But, if you must know, I’ve been a professional journalist and editor for upwards of 20 years.)

How do you know if you’re a good author of erotica? Your fans are probably not going to give you the best answer (as to why, see above). But if there’s one quality I’ve seen rise above all others, not just in erotica but in all writing, it’s that good writers are insecure, typically harboring a deep-seated fear that they will one day be exposed as the hacks they worry they really are.

This insecurity breeds obsessiveness about one’s writing. Nothing can be trusted. Everything must be read, and re-read until it’s become so familiar that editing is impossible. A piece is never finished, only abandoned when the author can no longer stand to keep revising it. This approach can take a lot of different forms: Hemingway is supposed to have averaged about one page a day, because he would pore over every single word as it came out, spending hours on each sentence. Other writers will vomit forth reams of prose, then spend months reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading it until they give up and publish it simply to finally be free of it. (I will confess to falling into the latter category.)

Why does this matter? It’s because this meticulous, obsessive process is what turns decent writing into great writing. The last thing you ever want is to get complacent about it.

There’s more to good erotica than just that, but we’ll cover that another day.