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.

Faith, Hope, and Snippets

Herewith I offer another excerpt from another one of my forthcoming reissued books, Faith, Hope, and Charity: A Novel of Virtue and Vice. This book is about a couple, Kevin and Faith, who meet and fall in love in college. The two of them begin writing erotica together, and in the process discover that Faith’s secret fantasies aren’t willing to be repressed forever. Kevin wants to make her happy, but even after they get married, he worries that her desires may drive them apart. As Faith explores the depths of her needs, she realizes that what she wants is another woman to submit to the two of them. But Kevin isn’t ready for this, and he soon has to decide whether keeping Faith happy is worth letting his darkest impulses into the light of day.

Amity was from San Francisco. She was up here with a gay friend of hers (she pointed him out across the bar), on vacation from a job as a graphic artist. She and Faith chattered at each other for nearly an hour while I sat there wondering what I was supposed to be feeling. They dragged me out onto the dance floor several times, and if I wasn’t sure if I was having a good time, I was at least able to make them think I was. Eventually Amity suggested, with a sly look in her eye, that we go back to our hotel.

Faith reached over and squeezed my hand.

“Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

Amity went across the bar to talk her friend, and Faith looked up at me.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I am.”

“Are you sure?”

In all honesty, part of me was looking forward to this, to watching two women make love. The wild card was that one of them was my wife. I wasn’t precisely upset about that or even nervous, I was just lost in a fog of emotion over it. But Faith wanted this, and I wanted to make her happy.

Amity returned to Faith’s side. We climbed out of the bar and went back to the room.

It went more smoothly than I might have expected. I sat in the corner while Faith and Amity began undressing each other. I felt another stab of jealousy the first time I saw Amity caressing Faith’s naked breasts, but the excitement in Faith’s eyes was enough to stifle it.

Faith overcame her nervousness at this new experience quite rapidly. Soon they were writhing together on the bed, kissing and fondling each other. Faith kept looking at me and smiling. A couple of times she asked how I was doing, and I assured her I was fine. When Amity began kissing her way down Faith’s body, my arousal began beating back the uncertainty. I watched Amity’s dexterous tongue, long and pointed, flicking back and forth over my wife’s neatly trimmed pubic mound. If there had been any remaining doubt about Faith’s bisexuality, that scene blew it away. She was lost in a sea of arousal, gripping her breasts, arching her back, crying out, and finally coming hard into Amity’s mouth.

When they switched places, I watched for any hesitation on Faith’s part but saw none. She went right to work on returning the favor and had no trouble bringing Amity to orgasm. They squirmed into a sixty-nine position after that and buried their faces between each other’s thighs.

I had an erection by now. This wasn’t turning me off, exactly. Part of me wanted to dive into bed with them, and I suspected from the looks Amity had been giving me throughout the night that she probably would not have objected. But I stayed where I was.

They stopped to rest after about an hour. Faith lay on her back with Amity lying on her side next to her, facing me. Faith propped herself up on her elbows, grinning.

“Hi, honey.”


“You must be getting stiff over there,” Amity said.

I grinned a little. “You could say that.”

She reached down to play with Faith’s wet pussy, slipping a finger into her. “I got it all warmed up for you.”

“I’m okay.”

Faith pretended to pout. “Don’t be a party pooper.”

“Yeah, come on,” Amity said. “I want to watch you fuck her.”

Both of them stared at me invitingly. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, but I knew that if I turned them down, it would precipitate a very awkward scene.

I stood up and began undressing. When I was nude, Faith sat up on the bed, leaning forward. She took my erection in her hand and gave it a few quick slurps. Then she looked at Amity, who smiled at us, appearing to think for a moment, then sat up beside Faith. Faith moved aside, and Amity bent to take me into her mouth. I looked at Faith, knowing that this was outside of our agreement, and I couldn’t quite read what I saw in her eyes. Then Amity withdrew from me with a final wiggle of her tongue and lay backwards, pulling Faith with her. I climbed onto the bed and the two of them guided me forward.

I slipped easily into Faith, finding the way well-prepared. She pushed herself up at me, moaning, and wrapped her arms around me. I kissed her, closing my eyes, and began making love to her.

I felt Amity’s hand caressing my butt as I moved in and out of my wife. She lay still beside us, watching. When I rose up on my arms, Faith twisted her head over to kiss Amity. Amity returned the kiss, reaching in to tweak Faith’s nearest nipple.

Part of me was turned on by this, and part of me didn’t know what to think. I did the only thing I could, which was to make Faith feel good. It wasn’t difficult. Whatever my reservations, she was as turned on as I had ever seen her. She came deeply and strongly only a minute or two into it, bucking her hips up at me and clawing at my butt. Her reactions and the long delay did not help my control, not that she appeared to want me to hold off anyway. She whimpered, urging me on, and I soon lost myself in her body, spurting off deeply inside her.

Amity left about twenty minutes later, after she and Faith made plans for the three of us to meet at breakfast the next morning. When she was gone, Faith lay down beside me, snuggling under my arm.

“Have fun?” I asked.

She nodded.



Neither of us said anything else. We fell asleep eventually.

The cover for Faith, Hope & Charity: A Novel of Virtue and Vice is being prepared by Wicked Book Covers. I hope to have a reveal for it soon. [Update: Now added above.]

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.

A (Very) Early Teaser for a New Book

I’ve teased two revised novels. It’s time now to talk about a new one. What you see above is a snippet from a sketch for its cover by the awesome Ellinsworth.

I’ll say no more than that this book will be entitled The Wizard’s Daughters, and it’s a fantasy/alternate history novel set in pre-Reformation Germany. It will be the first novel in series called Twin Magic. I hope to be able to release it with the older stuff later this month, but it still needs a bit more time in the oven.

What’s the Vector, Victor?

The next old novel of mine that I plan to re-release, Vector, is also one of my all-time favorites, because it’s just so fucking bizarre. It’s difficult to really explain what it’s about because much of what goes on the first half seems to defy explanation, and much of the rest bounces back and forth between historical flashbacks and an increasingly confused present.

Essentially, Vector is the story of a college professor named Victor Hayes, whose life abruptly goes haywire one day when his fantasies suddenly start taking life. A girl in his class, who’s shown no interest in him whatsoever, suddenly becomes obsessed with him. Impossible things begin happening: his cat starts talking to him, his class erupts into an orgy one afternoon, yet no one else notices anything unusual. Worse, the fantasies start and stop without warning, afterwards reverting to his normal life as if nothing has happened.

I can’t say much more than that without creating spoilers, but I can tell you that Vector wraps together Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo da Vinci, Bill Buckner and the 1986 World Series, the First Crusade and the sack of Jerusalem, Judas Iscariot (who proves to be not at all what everyone thinks he was), and a whole lot else, with enough hot sex to short out your iPad. How, you might ask? Well, unless you read it the first time, you’ll just have to wait until I get Vector and everything else ready to go in a few weeks.

A Teaser for a Teaser

What you see here is the first completed cover for one of my reissued books, The Teaser.  I published this novella near the end of my Usenet days, just before starting Ruthie’s Club. It remains one of my favorites, and was generally well-received. Readers praised the depth of plot, and I got a fair amount of fan mail from people who couldn’t stop thinking about the two main characters and how their difficult relationship evolved. This new version has been updated to clear some anachronisms and other errors.

If you missed it the first time, The Teaser is the story of Tom Dempsey and Kate Armitage, who meet as undergraduates at Yale. They soon become fast friends, but anything beyond that is impossible. Tom is the grandson of a federal judge, the son of a prominent New York City lawyer, and has a bright future ahead of him, but none of it is enough to impress Kate’s family, which traces their lineage back through 19th century railroad barons to colonial Virginia. Through the ensuing years, as Tom and Kate explore the boundaries of their almost-but-not-quite relationship, Tom must decide whether chasing what he can’t have is worth destroying what he has, and Kate must make a choice between love and money. Kate’s engagement to a wealthy friend of the family finally brings their dilemma to head.

The Teaser will be released with the rest of my works in October.

In Which We Get Caught Up on the Past 15 Years

One day in 1998, I wrote a short story at work.

At the time, I was employed at a badly overstaffed company, and found myself with way too much time on my hands. Out of sheer boredom, I began to write. The story wasn’t much, it seemed to me, but I felt like sharing it. What to do? A while back, I had stumbled across the adult Usenet newsgroups on AOL (yes, I used AOL like everyone else back then), and thought I might post it there. I wasn’t anticipating much of anything, I just felt like seeing if anyone might like it.

That first story, Sunset on Roses, ignited something I didn’t anticipate. An audience is like crack to a writer, and I had found one without really meaning to. The first few stories I posted became so popular that I soon found myself being hounded by readers for more of them. Over the next three years, I wrote and posted about ten novels and upwards of 50 short stories, all of them tossed out for free to the Usenet. Within the admittedly limited milieu of alt.sex.stories, I was a god.

I would eventually found an erotic story site, Ruthie’s Club, with several other writers. But as Ruthie’s Club took off, I began to realize that I was getting burned out on all of this. One day, I thought to add up the word counts of every single thing I’d written, and the total came to a shocking 1.5 million words.

I had had enough.

I bailed from Ruthie’s Club, had Google—which had just started Google Groups—purge my entire oeuvre from their archives, and deleted my MichaelD38 AOL account. I would be lying if I said I never looked back, but I was at peace with the decision.

But I never lost the desire to keep writing. After my batteries recharged over the next few years, I often ran through potential stories and novels in my head but never wrote anything. Part of the problem was family: My wife and I now had three young kids, and I simply didn’t have time for the uninterrupted blocks of writing I needed. I had also changed jobs. My new responsibilities were much more demanding and got more so as I advanced.

In the intervening years, Amazon rolled out the Kindle Direct Publishing platform. A few years ago, I began bouncing around the idea of republishing some of my stuff as ebooks. But Michael Dalton seemed like a phase of my life I’d left behind for good, and I never did anything with it beyond wondering.

The change came a few weeks ago. My kids were now older and more self-sufficient, and I’d begun a new job working from home. I’d had a book idea floating around in my head for a while, and one night after a discussion with some friends about my writing career (though not the salacious details), I sat down and started writing.

Two weeks later (yes, two weeks), I had a novel. This was fast even for me, and it told me things were still there. So I finally set about reviving my old material.

What’s going to happen here? Well, not all of my old stuff is fit to see the light of day again, for various reasons. I’ve selected and revised some of my favorite pieces (some of it needed a lot of updating). I’ve commissioned covers and started converting the cleaned-up files to epub format. I hope to have things ready to go in October, but as I want to roll out the entire group at once, it will be a few more weeks before it’s all ready.

I’m excited about getting back into writing, and I hope (if you’ve gotten this far), you’re intrigued enough to want to check out my new book when it’s available. I’ll have a post about that one soon, but I think it’s the best thing I’ve written so far.

See you soon.