All editors have their pet peeves; some are almost universal, such as single-spaced copy, lack of contact information, and writers who expect, even demand, a quick response. But over the years I’ve noticed a number of phrases and stylistic mannerisms endemic to the genre of erotica that cause me to gnash my decaying teeth and pull out my graying hair. Non-editors probably think I’m some kind of anal lunatic for being so disturbed by words or phrases; but anyone with the least bit of editorial experience is familiar with the stomach-clenching that occurs when forced to endure abuse of the English language. Herewith, then, a compendium of my pet peeves.
1. Gasp. I gasped. He gasped. She gasped. They gasped.
Think about it: do you really and truly “gasp” during lovemaking? A quick intake of breath is an inhalation, not a gasp. This melodramatic term connotes horror and fear of the kind elicited by Halloween movies and other overblown thrillers. We’ve had enough gasping in erotic literature to last until the next millennium; in 1999 I banished the word from the pages of my stories and anthologies, and haven’t seen any reason to lift the boycott yet.
2. Smiling or, heaven help us, grinning during hot passionate sex.
How often do you or your partner actually smile while you’re having sex? Not as frequently, I’ll wager, as it occurs in sex stories. My libido goes south every time a good hot sex scene is interrupted by something like He looked up at me and smiled, sometimes followed by warmly, wickedly, or lovingly. The last time my lover wore a big shit-eating grin was when he got the dog to poop in a sandlot. When he’s in the throes of hot and heavy lovemaking, he’s more likely to wear a look of intensity rather than a tepid smile on his face.
3. Warmly. Why do erotic writers rely so much on warm smiles, warm eyes, warm looks, and warm gazes as preludes to sex? It’s another tepid word that conjures up handshakes or welcome wagons, not passion.
4. Ever so. This phrase always reminds me of Marilyn Monroe, striving to appear upper-class in one of her movies. “Ever so,” she’d breathe charmingly. Do erotic writers think the phrase is sexy just because the ultimate sexpot planted it in our collective consciousness? I adore Marilyn–but ever so as in gently or slightly is supercilious and unnecessary.
5. Gently yet firmly. You’re laughing, aren’t you? Of course you are: out of context, this phrase can be seen for what it is: ridiculous. Why then do erotic writers swear that he took my hand gently yet firmly and, later on, gently yet firmly spread my legs?
I’ve concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the ubiquitousness of this phrase arises out of misguided political correctness: writers wanting to convey a firm, decisive lover, don’t want him or her to seem like a brute. Well, this is just lazy writing. I’d prefer precision, even if more words are required, to portray character.
6. Started to. Began to. He started to unzip his pants. I began to moan.
Talk about ubiquitous! I don’t know why this phrase runs rampant through erotica; I think it may have to do with hesitancy about sex–but then again, it might just be a phrase common to inexperienced writers. Whatever the reason, it’s almost always uncalled for. He unzips his pants, period. I moaned, period.
7. I felt. Another favorite on the erotica hit parade. I felt the cuffs against my wrists. He reached down and I felt his hand between my legs.
Fiction is not primarily about what the narrator feels. Perhaps because the genre is after all about physical sensation, these I felt‘s slip in unconsciously. But writing is more immediate when cuffs rub against wrists and lovers put their hands between legs…without the narrator constantly telling us she feels it happening.
8. Too many adjectives. The erotic genre seems to lend itself to overkill, i.e., her rich brown luscious perfectly formed stiff beckoning nipple.
I’m exaggerating, of course–but not by that much. More than two adjectives per noun is generally too many.
9. Overwriting physical position. She put her right hand on my left buttock and with her left hand circled around my waist and down my belly to my clit while my right pinky made its way into her anus and my left toe rubbed against her vagina.
Again, I’m exaggerating–but we rarely, if ever, need to know which hand went on which nipple. Right or left is almost always unnecessary, and too much physical description makes sex sound like Popular Mechanics.
10. Copping Out. Too many times women end their stories with some version of And then I woke up.
Male porn writers hardly ever do this; it’s one of the ways that women disown their sexuality. If erotica has done anything to change sex, though, it’s that women have permission to own their desires. So no more copouts–in sex stories or elsewhere.
11. Description of sexual activities devoid of plot, character development or motivation.
The short antidote to this is The Sex Is Not the Story.
12. Cliché, overused dirty words, hackneyed phrases, and a potpourri of bad writing that tends to creep into sexually explicit literature.
The erotic genre is particularly susceptible to cliché; after all, the terms available to describe parts of the body and sexual activity are limited and therefore overused. The more the genre expands, the more these terms are used, the greater the challenge to find fresh and original ways of describing sex. It is incumbent upon erotic writers to meet this challenge, or the genre will grow increasingly stale and tedious.
During one year I supported myself by writing two or three stories a week for the same venue. I quickly learned that writing sex could become tedious (until then I’d found it consistently exhilarating). Although the varieties of sexual experience are numerous enough to keep plots and characters coming (pun intended), the actual sex scenes were becoming a chore. So I’d write the story first, skipping the sex scenes, then go back later and fill them in. It took me far longer to write the sex scenes than the rest of it, as I labored to find new ways to portray acts that have been performed, and written about, zillions of times throughout history.
When I began editing more sex stories than writing them, though, I discovered that the best stories aren’t those with dazzling new terminologies for fuck and suck, but those in which character is revealed, and relationships are developed, through lovemaking. Even in erotica, the sex doesn’t have to be gratuitous, but rather a vital element of the story.
But, you might protest, this is a genre in which certain results are expected: readers expect to get off on erotica, or at least become aroused enough to finish themselves off later. Under this assumption, writers are pressured to deliver the orgasm, sometimes at the expense of the story. If such a choice has to be made–and it really doesn’t–I prefer good writing over good jack-off material.
Not that there’s anything wrong with good jack-off material; in fact, there are times and places where it’s precisely what is called for. Literary erotic anthologies, however, are not one of them.
Sex writers need to liberate themselves from the unreasonable demand that their stories produce orgasmic results. Nowhere else in literature is such a specific outcome de rigeur. Sexually explicit literature is always changing, and it’s we writers who are ultimately responsible for guiding the evolution of the genre.