By P.M. White
When it comes to erotic fiction, formulas rule. Even writers new to the genre can guess what they are. The most common: a rich man enchants a young, inexperienced woman, introducing her virginal life to the startling world of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM). Change it up a bit if you want. Make it about two men (M/M), one of whom has never been so attracted to another guy before in his life. Or make it about two women (F/F), one of whom is so successful that their lover is shocked she chose to bed her.
The other element? One of them, usually the lead, has to be surprised at their behavior—“Her legs followed the man with the zipper mask, while her mind reeled… Am I really going through with this? Little old introverted me?” For so many novels, this is the vehicle that drives the story and places the reader firmly into the seat of third-party exploration. There are a number of variations, but the common formula is plainly evident: take the reader to school by using a character new to whatever lifestyle.
For veteran writers, this may seem too easy, and arguably not the common formula for some. Writers draft manuscripts based on two factors: what they would read personally and what others want to read. Readers new to—and intrigued by—everything from erotica itself to various sex acts and lifestyles are to be expected, hence the fish-out-of-water formula. But what do seasoned readers want in their stories?
And what advice would book reviewers give to authors, whether new to the game or not?
Book reviewer Carol Conley, owner of the review site I’m A Voracious Reader, pores over a library of books in a month’s time—and she reviews far more than erotic titles, which makes her something of an expert on books across the board.
Writers, she said, should stick to erotic topics that turn their cranks on a personal level.
“If you feel that F/F stories are hot, write one of those, but if F/F doesn’t do anything for you personally, I think it’ll show in the story. Don’t write what everyone else is writing. Write what makes you enthusiastic. Also, don’t shoehorn in a sex scene just because you think we want it or just because there hasn’t been a hot scene in a chapter or two. It needs to fit or we’ll call you out on it. And as a personal pet peeve of mine, don’t make your characters think with their groins all the time. Especially in dangerous situations. Nothing turns me off faster than characters who are too stupid to live,” Conley said.
Terrance Aldon Shaw, writer and operator of the blog site Erotica for the Big Brain, said he wastes little time reviewing books that aren’t well written or completely edited.
“Having a compelling story is essential, but grammar, spelling, and punctuation matter in the effective telling of that story,” Shaw said. “Whether a book comes from an aspiring indie or from one of the Big-Six houses; if it’s poorly written, indifferently edited, or sloppily formatted, forget it. I have better things to do with my time, and woe to anyone who wakes my slumbering inner angry-tenth-grade-English teacher.”
He cited an example of a young author whose work could make her the next big thing, were it not for terrible editing.
“Her story was brilliant, original, and full of promise. The problem is that she seems to have relied on AutoCorrect to do her editing for her. After a few chapters dense with misplaced prepositions, confused tenses, and inscrutable word choices like “volcano larva”—I swear I’m not making this up— I simply had to chuck it in. I sent the author an e-mail, advising her to hire a professional editor. If she takes that advice, I have little doubt she could end up with the kind of success most of us only enjoy in our dreams,” said Shaw.
Both Shaw and Conley agreed that stories, even erotic ones, should never forsake plotting for gratuitous banging.
“I think to be called erotic it needs to have a plot. And no, just having sex, no matter how hot it’s written, is not a plot,” Conley said. “A story that revolves around little else than sex is written porn. There’s nothing wrong with those stories. I happen to love them. But a successful erotic story has a plot that includes hot sex. Think of it as a horse race. The horse is the plot and the jockey is the sex. A horse may cross the finish line without a jockey, but a jockey isn’t likely to cross without the horse. However, both working together have a much better chance at victory. Sex scenes don’t have to be overly graphic for me to enjoy them. Dialogue that flows smoothly and isn’t stilted or forced is also important. I also like humor and some quirky characters, but that’s just a personal preference.”
Shaw said, “First, don’t obsess about the amount of sex in the story, or whether you’re being explicit enough, going too far, or not far enough. Let the sex happen naturally in the course of the story, and allow your characters to express themselves honestly and openly about it. Whether the sex turns out to be transcendent or deeply disappointing, beautiful or disgusting, a source of bliss or of shame, the most important thing, when it comes to erotic narrative, is to narrate sympathetically, frankly, and artfully.
“Second; avoid repetition. This is a common problem in longer narratives, which careful editing can often eliminate. Repetition occurs at several levels. At the macro level, entire scenes can seem to recur again and again, as if characters (and readers) are caught in a time warp or experiencing increasingly unpleasant déjà vu. At the ‘micro’ level, writers sometimes get hooked on the same words, phrases, or syntactical structures, often without realizing it. A short story I read recently used the word ‘feral’ at least eight times, and a fairly unusual word like that loses its punch and potency rather quickly. It’s not always unusual words that are plopped down in too-close proximity, though. The best advice is to recruit good eagle-eyed beta-readers, or, again, hire a competent professional editor.”
Cliches, he believes, should be avoided whenever possible, particularly when it comes to character development.
“Beauty and sexual attractiveness are not necessarily the same things. Endow your characters with rich inner lives, not just bigger-than-average body parts. And do avoid tired phrases such as ‘it was like no pleasure she had ever known before’ or ‘it was the most amazing orgasm he’d ever had,’ that is, unless you want the most excruciatingly scathing one-star review you’ll ever read,” Shaw said. “When all’s said and done, tell a good story from the point of view of real people (fantasy characters are, essentially, real people, too); the kind of characters you and your readers can care about, and will want to spend time with.”
He stressed that writers should take their work seriously, from plotting to editing and beyond, and not simply write, throw their latest on Amazon, plug it through social media, and forget about it.
“I look for professionalism from the get-go; a sense that the people involved in creating a book care about what they’re doing, take the endeavor seriously, and put some serious effort into honing and refining the final product. I can generally tell from the first paragraph, or sometimes, even the first line, if this is the case,” said Shaw.
When vetting books to review for his site, Shaw pays special attention to intriguing characters, motivating passions, and titillating plot devices.
“As in any good story in any genre, I want to read about sympathetic, or at least relatable, characters with obstacles to overcome, and conflicts to resolve,” Shaw said. “In erotica, sex (or its lack) may be a source of conflict; getting it may itself be the obstacle to overcome. Or, sex may be the vehicle of change and growth through which a character’s dilemma is ultimately resolved. What I want, in the end, is a story that’s less about ‘plumbing,’ the clinical descriptions of what goes where and when and how much; and more about ‘wiring,’ the sensations, thoughts and emotions accompanying the act, and, most importantly, the ‘why’ of it all.
“Atmosphere is essential; a sense of erotic anticipation and expectancy that fascinates and draws us in, but also keeps interest alive over a long period,” added Shaw. “Writers like Shanna Germain and Elizabeta Brook are particularly gifted in this department. Germain’s stories are especially striking in the way the author establishes unforgettable, unique settings, evoking virtually palpable erotic atmosphere with just a few deftly chosen words. A writer doesn’t have to go into torturous detail to create a vibrant setting or mood, but without a rich, sustainable atmosphere, the story suffocates, devolves into tedious clinical description and quasi-pornographic ennui. Yuck!”
He recommends taking the time to nurture a large vocabulary, something Shaw feels is the difference between mundane story-telling and bombastic literature.
“English is so vast, flexible, and almost infinitely malleable, and yet, to read so many boring, unimaginative, repetitious, over-long erotic narratives, you’d think there were only about 6,000 words in the entire vocabulary,” he said. “The skill and the willingness to play with language, to explore its poetic possibilities, its rhythms and melodic potential is, I’ve become convinced, the difference between the writer of an ordinary piece of fiction and the author of a masterpiece. I am in awe of writers like Kathryn O’Haloran, Jeremy Edwards and, again, Shanna Germain, who seem to employ language so creatively, with such seeming effortlessness; it’s great craft, and great artistry, and truly inspiring.”
Terrance Aldon Shaw (TAS) is a writer, and the “man behind the curtain” at Erotica For The Big Brain, a site dedicated to intelligent, literary reviews of the most notable erotic fiction. Find him online at bigbrainerotica.blogspot.com.
Carol Conley is the owner of I’m A Voracious Reader – Book Review Blog, found online at imavoraciousreader.blogspot.com.
Writer P.M. White has toiled on a number of sexy stories over the years, including his newest novella Volksie: A Tale of Sex, Americana and Cars from 1001 Nights Press. His previous publications include the Horror Manor trilogy from Sizzler Editions: Eyeball Man, Desire Under the Eaves, and You are a Woman. White’s short stories have appeared in Sex in San Francisco, The Love That Never Dies, Bound for Love, Pirate Booty and many others.