The Virgin Page: A Peek at Writing Erotica

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By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

People are sexual creatures. It’s not something everyone is comfortable admitting, much less exploring through creative writing, but it’s something we need to acknowledge about our characters. Whether you want to write flat-out erotica or just spice up your “vanilla” fiction or poetry, some of the tips and tricks for writing erotica could come in handy for developing your work.

Background Image: CC-by kori monster/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by kori monster/Flickr

What is erotica?

Erotica is sexually explicit literature and may be fiction or poetry. It can have several purposes but what makes it erotica is that it arouses the sensuality of the reader. There is nothing inherently “dirty” about erotic writing but unlike romance fiction, for example, the curtain is not drawn and words are not minced. Erotica is written for and by both men and women, although the majority of the audience for erotica is female.

Erotica is a hot, growing genre and erotica markets can be lucrative. Publishing houses like Ellora’s Cave are dedicated solely to publishing erotic work. There are several online and in-print journals devoted to erotica; Duotrope’s Digest and Erotica Readers and Writers Association are great places to begin searching for markets (and there’s a list at the end of this article). Some erotica journals and publishers run contests, if you’re looking to test the waters.

The world of erotica writers and editors is welcoming and as professional as other genres. Erotica writers take their craft very seriously. Note, however, that not every writing community allows erotica to be posted for feedback (this includes Toasted Cheese, but you are welcome to post a request for feedback via email); ERWA has forums where you can get critique from writers familiar with the genre.

Many mainstream writers also publish erotica under assumed names. In fact, many erotica authors use pseudonyms; this is something to consider if you’re concerned about maintaining your anonymity. Another benefit of using a pseudonym for erotica is that you can keep your credits and portfolios separate. Although things are changing, erotica writers aren’t always given the same respect as other genre writers. Sometimes listing your erotica credits isn’t a bonus to a mainstream editor, agent or publisher. I’ve learned that it’s best only to mention your erotica credits when submitting erotica and if you want to hint at it, say something like “other publications” in your queries and cover letters.

Are there any restrictions involved in writing erotica?

Most erotica journals and writing communities are restricted to those 18 and over. That doesn’t mean you can’t write erotica or use erotic elements in your work if you’re 17 or younger. You can write whatever you like. Publishing your work may be difficult, however, as some journals require that the author be over 18 and to see your work in print you would have to violate the journal’s rules. Getting feedback might be difficult as well but it’s not impossible.

Just about anything goes in erotica; you’ll find niche markets for certain kinds of erotica (bondage or BDSM erotica for example) so if you think something is verboten, you might be surprised. The erotica reader isn’t looking for pornography however. That’s not to say that your erotica can’t be raunchy or smutty. What it means is that she expects well-crafted writing alongside what’s lighting her fire. It’s certainly possible to write beautiful smut (or to write smut beautifully).

There isn’t really a good, clear-cut definition of pornography. What one person finds pornographic, prurient or obscene might not bother or even excite someone else. But the one thing that sets erotica apart from pornography is the artistic nature of the work. For example, a “letter to Penthouse” is likely to be labeled “pornography” rather than erotica. A short story in Clean Sheets might use the same subject or sexual acts as the “letter” but its execution sets it apart as literature and, therefore, erotica. Erotica is artistic and expressive first, sexually exciting second (or simultaneously). Pornography is meant to be sexually exciting without using artistic expression to achieve that end. Of course there are exceptions to these guidelines but in general, that’s how to differentiate.

Usually the restrictions you’ll come across are by publication. One publication might say “no S/M (sadomasochism) please” while another only publishes S/M. Some publishers have to obey the laws of other countries and are legally bound. In the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand—generally speaking—anything goes. For example, it’s not illegal to write erotica featuring underage characters or erotica with homosexual acts. Write without boundaries, no matter what you’re writing.

What sets erotica apart from other writing?

Erotica is just another genre, like sci-fi or horror. There are conventions and expectations. The basics of erotica writing are the same as any creative writing: rounded characters, a plot, action, dialogue and so forth.

It might feel silly to think about dialogue in erotica but when it comes down to it, it’s not the SAT. Silence is not required… or maybe it is and that’s an idea for a story right there. In general though, sexual partners speak to each other before, during and after sexual activity.

In fact, an erotic story doesn’t even need sexual action but it, like most any story, it will need some kind of action. All that means is that there is a journey between opening and closing paragraph. Your protagonist need never get out of her seat on the subway to have an erotic experience.

If you want to add erotic elements to an existing story, go for it. You know these characters better than they know themselves. What gets their engines stoked? Write some erotic scenes and if they don’t fit with your story, you’ve still gotten to know those characters that much better.

Erotica can exist alongside another genre in the same work (erotic western, erotic fantasy, erotic crime, erotic graphic novels, etc.). All you need is some sexuality and, hopefully, some sex. Erotica can also be an ingredient in a work that’s mainly in another genre (think single scenes in mainstream or literary fiction). You know, the “good parts” where library books have dog-eared corners.

The main thing about using erotic elements in mainstream work is that they need to fit with the feel of the remainder of the work. Use language that’s conducive to the language already in place. If your narrator wouldn’t use certain terms, save them for a stand-alone piece.

Speaking of four letter words…

Erotica embraces language—all elements of language, including words that some find offensive. The flip side of the offensiveness is that the words are also titillating. Erotica readers generally don’t care for pieces that use euphemisms like “member.” They want to read the blue words, especially the “Queen Mother of Dirty Words.” Erotica readers don’t want to dance around the sex; sex is what the reader expects.

It’s okay to be embarrassed about language or situations. Same goes for your characters. Not every written sex scene has to be the World’s Best Experience. Like a conversation, it can be bad, mediocre or fantastic. They might be embarrassed about what they’re doing so why not write that? Or if they’re uncomfortable, let us know. It develops your character.

If you’re not writing stand-alone erotica, it’s important that your scenes mesh with the surrounding work, not just in tone but as part of the story. Make sure you’re not shoehorning in some sex just for the sake of sex. The scene can change the dynamic between characters, reveal a secret, turn the plot 180 degrees, etc. It’s likely that your sex scene won’t just be a sex scene. If it is, you can always lift it and edit it into a stand-alone.

Back to the embarrassment factor…

You might worry about what people will think. The people who know I write erotica aren’t really surprised and are more intrigued than anything. If people don’t like it or don’t want to talk about it, they change the subject or clam up. In my experience, the reaction is more often, “Tell me about it.” People ask for copies of the stories and want to know when I’m writing more. Then again, I’m not terribly concerned about the opinions of others. You can be a highly successful erotica writer and no one need ever know it’s you. However, I’ve also found that when you’re “out” about writing erotica, you have a legion of volunteer editors happy to read your latest work.

How do I get started?

One way to get started is to do some exercises to help determine what you want to write. Do you want to write something new or add to an existing work? For a new piece, think about what you find erotic. Maybe it’s a dream or a fantasy you’ve had. Maybe you’ve had a real experience you could turn into a story. Hrm—that doesn’t sound so unlike regular fiction or poetry, does it?

Anyone can write erotica, whether you’re a virgin or sexually experienced, a great lover or a lousy lover. As I wrote in the opening paragraph: people are sexual creatures. Everyone has something that excites him or her. The key is not to be shy about it. If it works for you, chances are it works for someone else. Besides, you can always deny that it’s something you dig. That’s the beauty of fiction—you are not (necessarily) your narrator.

An excellent way to get started is to read erotica journals. There’s a list on online journals at the end of this article. Reading other work can help you learn what kinds of words are not only acceptable but expected. Even better: it’s fun to read! Erotica has a determined goal: to excite the reader in a sexual way but also in a literary way. What’s happening in the action of the story might not be your cup of tea but the literary effect could be quite stimulating. Writers are naturally turned on by words; after all, the primary sexual organ is the brain.

Write with emotion and passion. We don’t need to know whose foot is where or how they moved from position A to position B (unless it’s relevant). Sex is within and without, physical, emotional, and mental. Let us know what’s happening inside your character’s head and heart as much as between her legs or on her skin. How does she feel about what’s happening?

Of course we all want to be shown what’s happening. The best advice I can give on how to do this is to trust yourself and your writing. If it feels good, write it. The pieces you find in other journals can also help guide you in terms of how to set up your scene and what details you should include. Work at your comfort level but don’t be afraid to challenge your boundaries.

One great thing about writing an erotic scene is that you have a natural plot arc; erotica stories (and some poems) follow the pattern of sexual arousal, complete with climax (a term that’s the same in sex and plotting) and resolution. Of course you don’t have to follow that kind of plot arc. You can have a character’s climax in the first paragraph (or none at all) but if you’re anxious about getting started, it’s a convenient tool to help you structure and complete a story or poem.

You’re also likely to have a myriad of options for sensory detail, which is another reason we don’t need to know whose foot is where. Unlike real-life intimate moments, your writer’s eye can linger on spots, freeze images and pick and choose what is noticed by and conveyed to the reader. Again, your reader expects this kind of detail—it’s what makes your scene or poem erotic and sensual.

If you’re still a little wary or shy about writing erotica, remember that you don’t need to show your work to anyone. You can password-protect your work if you don’t want anyone else to read it. You might be pleasantly surprised by the freedom of writing in a genre anything goes with an eager audience on the other side just waiting to embrace your work.

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Books About Writing Erotica

Stephanie Lenz writes erotica as Eden Lenz and Ceilidh Lindsay. Her erotica has appeared in Amoret, Mind Caviar, Abby’s Realm, Asexystory and Best Women’s Erotica 2003. Her mainstream fiction has appeared in “other publications.”

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