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Writing The Hot Stuff

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Writing is a little bit like prostitution. First you do it for love. Then you do it for a few friends. Then you do it for money.Moliere

Last week I posted a blog about publishing erotica, and foolishly promised I’d soon post another about how to write the stuff. I say foolishly because I normally restrain myself from making announcements of future blog posts—the beauty of the blog is the freedom to write or not, and I prefer not being pressured by commitments. Anyhow, a promise is a promise…and besides, regular readers may have noticed I’ve run out of gas regarding erotic stories, and haven’t posted a new one in a couple of weeks. I may post them again someday, and then again I may not…no commitments!

Herewith, then, some ruminations on writing hot lit, explicit literature, pornography, erotica, or whatever you want to call it: a rose by any other name, etcetera. (A similar version of this was published in Playgirl six or seven years ago.)

feet and shoesMy foray into professional dirty talk began one night nearly 25 years ago (can that be true?!) as I lay in bed fantasizing about the hot young truck driver who lived upstairs from me. I decided to postpone orgasm and use my mind and fingers to write the fantasy down on paper instead–a decision that propelled me into a whole new line of work. At the time I knew nothing about what makes good erotica. I just flew by the seat–or rather the crotch–of my pants. Having now written and edited hundreds of erotic stories by and for women, I have a more concrete idea of what makes a personal fantasy a marketable story.

• Sympathetic characters. The best fiction is populated by characters with whom readers can identify. In women’s erotica, housewives get it on with their husbands in unusual settings, high-powered lawyers seduce their clerks, genteel diners in fancy restaurants eat under the table. As long as the characters’ sexual conflicts or preferences are written about honestly, they can come from any walk of life—literally. The protagonists in my anthologies have been electricians, bikers, graphic artists, prostitutes…you name it.

• Down With Stereotypes. Women’s erotica and mushy sentimentality are not synonymous. For too long it’s been assumed that women prefer tentative touches and romance over raw, lusty sex. While women of course like romance, the stifling stereotype prevents us from admitting a desire for raunch, even in fantasy. Most good erotica has a rough edge, and readers respond more to honesty than to prettified euphemisms.

• Up with plot. Whispering a string of four-letter words into your lover’s ear might get him hard, but this alone won’t cut it in erotic fiction. It’s often been said that orgasms take place between the ears, meaning that context–or plot–is paramount. Although it has occasionally been done, it’s only the rare and gifted writer who can get by with sexual description devoid of story.

• Heat. An erotic story without at least one juicy scene is, no matter how intricate the plot, incomplete. Literary agent and author Alice Orr, who teaches love scene writing, says that if you’re writing about adult women and you leave out the sex, “You’ve lied–and you’ve squandered your dramatic power.”

• Sexual Tension. Dirty stories work best when there’s foreplay from the get-go, with the plot moving in a trajectory to the bedroom and climaxing in a scene meant to carry the reader over the orgasmic abyss. Because of this, a certain degree of predictability is inevitable–not to mention that if the story’s in a magazine like Penthouse or in an anthology touted as erotica, you already know the characters will get it on: that’s why you chose to read it in the first place. How to get around predictability and create the conflict necessary in fiction?

Creating tension within a predictable plotline is a challenge, but not impossible. Finding or creating conflict around sex isn’t all that difficult when you consider that we humans frequently feel ambivalent about doing it. A college student comes home with her boyfriend and takes him into her old bedroom, where childhood memories collide with grownup activities. Churchgoers sneak outside to rendezvous behind the building, where their lovemaking is accompanied by sounds of the choir praising God. These situations are rich with conflict and pleasure that bubble beneath the obvious excitement. Bringing those bubbles to the surface enhances and deepens the significance of the sex.

• She always comes. Former Herotica editor Susie Bright‘s first criteria for hot fiction is an affirmative answer to the bottom-line question, Did the woman come? In male-centered porn, this wasn’t always the case. Bright and Joani Blank began the series so that women would have a place to express and communicate the truth about our sexuality,and she says that soliciting stories for that first collection was “like pulling teeth.” But Bright was determined to create an erotica with a female sensibility, and after the first breakthrough edition, stories came pouring in. By the time of the last in the series, #6—edited by moi—we were averaging 300 submissions per volume. And Herotica has remained true to Bright’s original vision: female pleasure is central in these stories.

• Have Fun! If the writer gets turned on creating the story, her enthusiasm will come through to the reader. My stories are subject to an editing wet test: any additions needed to carry me over the edge go into the final draft. I’m not alone in my writing habits–many women have told me their stories undergo rigorous testing as well. As one writer put it, An orgasmic break is an erotica writer’s prerogative. Which just goes to show this is one genre where writers do it for love and money.


4 responses »

  1. I wonder at your terminology. “Dirty” stories and similar terms (“smut”, etc.) downplay the power and possibilities of erotica, its literary potential. I’m not talking about Penthouse Forum type crap, I speak of sexy, intelligent prose that is cerebral, appealing to the intellect AND the pleasure centres of the brain.
    Maybe “dirty” is the way that people in the biz refer to that type of writing but it seems derogatory to me. What do your other readers think?

    We’ll have to see if anyone else comments on your point. I suspect this is an age-related issue: I come from the old school, where “dirty” is equated with fun, with adventure, with sexiness. Marco Vassi, who Norman Mailer called “the foremost pornographer of our time” used to say of the “sex-positive” philosophy, “These people don’t understand–sex is supposed to be dirty!” Thanks for your thoughts.–MS

  2. A good discussion point–I think of “dirty” and I imagine shabby little magazines in musty boxes in the basement. But I see your point and where you’re coming from.

    Thanks for popping by my blog and I share your dismay with traditional publishing and its gate-keepers. We just have to keep on keeping on. And, anyway, it’s not the money and the fame, it’s the READERS who are important. If we keep them happy, everything else is gravy…

    A good way to look at it–but I confess I’m bitter.–MS

  3. and keeping the readers happy means that “dirty” can be a good thing. It’s one kind of reader that feels free to carry around Herotica 6 to read while the kids get their teeth cleaned, but it’s another kind that feels like they can only read it in their home, alone, and with an adult novelty of their choice hidden under their favorite feather pillow. Both are valid, but the readers may have different takes on how acceptable or dirty the stories are.

    Thanks for this little tutorial, Marcy – One of these days I’ll take the plunge and write something submittable. <— is that a word??

    Not sure about submittable–a better choice, though, might be publishable.
    I appreciate all your thoughtful comments.–MS

  4. p.s. love the cleavage!! I’m jealous.

    I confess it isn’t mine!–MS

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