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'08 Authors Insider Tips

Everything About Epublishing
by Angela James
Epublishing: A Different Way
Choosing an Epublisher
Your Milage May Vary
Understand Your Contract!
Reasonable Expectations

by Louisa Burton
The Publishing Biz
Critiquing: To Give and ...
Commerical vs. Literary...
Antiformalism for Fun &...
So You Want to Write a Novel
The Story Idea
Planning Your Novel...

The Write Stuff
by Ashley Lister
5 Steps to Success
Opening Passages
Let's Get Critical
Writer's Block
Learning Lessons

Two Girls Kissing
by Amie M. Evans
Be a Finisher ...
Listen to Your Characters
Conferences: Act Now ...
Starting an Erotic Story
Exercises & Writing Prompts
Revising & Rewriting
Copy Editing
The Manuscript Critique
How to Submit Your Work
Reading as Craft

Guest Appearances

Adventures in e-Publishing
by Lisabet Sarai

For the Love of Man
by Laura Baumbach

How to...Influence Editors
by Alison Tyler

Marketing your e-Book
by Brenna Lyons

2008 Smutters Lounge

Ashley Lister Submits
by Ashley Lister
Role Play
Busy Doing Nothing
Picture of a Fish & Chip...
What I Did With My Summer

Cooking Up A Storey
by Donna George Storey
Naughty Cookies...
Tie Me Up, Please …
The Smut-Writer’s Holiday
Never Trust the Narrator ...
Compare and Contrast
Following the Pen
Naked at the Farmers Market
Iím Easy, But Iím No Slut
Good Girl Gone Bad
Pleasures of the Dark Side
Slow, Spare and Sexy

Get All Worked Up
with J.T. Benjamin
Raising Daughters
Jamie Lynn
The Good Old Days
Election '08
Traditional Marriage
Campaign 2008
Free Will

Pondering Porn
with Ann Regentin
Masturbating on SSRIs
Sex and Disability
Besides Ourselves
Adjusting our Contrast

Sex Is All Metaphors
by Jean Roberta
Sex Is All Metaphors
Turn-ons and Squicks
Sexual Truth
Fickle Muse
Porn, Erotica & Romance

Provocative Interviews

Between the Lines
with Ashley Lister
Alison Tyler
Ashley Lister
Debra Hyde
Donna George Storey
Jeremy Edwards
Kristina Wright
Rachel Kramer Bussel

Erotic Hot Spots
by William S. Dean
Interview with Tilly Greene
Interview with Devyn Quinn

Getting Graphic
with William S. Dean
New Times for Readers...
The Future in Words ...
Interview with Fantagraphics

On Writing Erotica

The Accidental Pornographer
by Lisabet Sarai

The End of Innocence
by Lisabet Sarai

Get Them Off in High Style
Helena Settimana

So, You Want To Write Erotica?
by Hanne Blank

Web Gems
Hot Movies For Her

So, You Want To Write Literary Erotica?
by Hanne Blank

Tips For The Aspiring Author

So You Want to Write  EroticaAs an erotica writer and editor with several years of webzine and other editing and three print anthologies under my belt to date, I fairly often get asked for my advice on the matter of writing erotica. I'm certainly not the first person to have spoken to this issue (more info, and many other views, can be found in places like The Erotica Readers & Writers Association [hey, that's us!] and Susie Bright's †How To Write A Dirty Story), but after being asked today—for the umpty-fifth time—if I would please scatter a few pearls of smutwriter wisdom for the general audience, I've decided to add my voice to the throng.

The most frequent misapprehension about writing erotica is that if you can fuck, you can write about it...and get it published. The truth of the matter is that writing erotica does in fact require more than merely being in possession of genitalia, a reasonably firm command of written language, and some sort of writing implement. I know this seems odd, perhaps even unreasonable, but Heaven knows—perhaps because Heaven has taken a gander at the stream of submissions that flow into my inbox every month—that this is painfully true.

Really, erotica is no different than any other kind of writing. This is true on many levels, among them the fact that erotica, like other writing, comes in many gradations of artistic merit, craftsmanship, technical skill, and stylistic acumen. Accuracy of spelling and usage, relatively competent grammar and punctuation, and readability are what my undergraduate writing students used to call the "butt-basics." Those who get off on misspelling and the rape of English grammar are more than welcome to peruse the Usenet, but that's not quite the type of smut I'm prone to write, work with as an editor, or want to read, and therefore, it's also not the type of smut about which I speak here. Literary erotica, the type of thing that I publish at Scarlet Letters and include in the anthologies I edit, is called "literary" for a reason.

This is not to say that there is no room for a broad range of expression in literary erotica, because there is, just as there is in fiction or writing as a whole. A great many styles can coexist within the bounds of basic, fundamental principles of writerly craftsmanship and skill. Virginia Woolf can sit side by side on the shelf with Daniel Pinkwater, Dylan Thomas with Tom Robbins, Arundhati Roy with Quentin Crisp. Their differences are greater than their similarities, but what they share is the thing that makes them worth reading: they have something to say, and what they say is well said.

This leads me to the paradox in the gut of erotica writing: erotica can have something important, even powerful to say, but much of its content is necessarily not going to be all that original. Due in large part to the limitations of human cultures and human bodies where it comes to sex, erotica's content is generally closer to the formulaic end of the spectrum than it does to the heights of innovation.

This is actually quite all right. The purpose of writing erotica is not to inform the reader that human beings feel desire, nor yet even that they have sex in any of the various ways of which human beings are capable. Erotica presupposes that this is true. What makes erotica worth reading in any kind of sophisticated (or even semi-non-Cro-Magnon) way is that it can tell us something about why we experience desire and sex the ways we do, what it means that we do, why it's interesting to us to feel it, why we seek it out, what we expect of it and what hopes we have for it.

Erotica can tell us a great deal about the jewels in the lotuses of our sexual selves, whether those are gems of spiritual revelation, physical beauty, psychological clarification, sensory fulfillment, or any of a number of other kinds of epiphanies. These insights need not all be glowing or uplifting: good erotica can be stormy, troublesome, dark, violent, and any number of other useful and fascinating negatives. They need not all be tremendously profound, either.

But there must be something there on which to hang your hat! A story doesn't have to be a masterpiece of plot or riveting insight to work. There are many wonderful pieces of erotica that are wonderful just because they are as sheer a sensual delight as the desire and sexual action they describe. Certainly this has its place in a genre whose raison d'être is the nerve-singing exhilaration of sexual pleasures.

When erotica does these things, it lets us see and feel, if incompletely and only for a moment, what sexuality can be like for someone else, using the compelling draw of sex and desire as a way to try to bridge the gap of ontological difference. It is, of course, not an ultimately true bridging of that gap, as nothing outside our own experience ever can be, but it can stand as an intelligent, honest, open-hearted attempt just like any other work of art.

The fact that erotica deals with sex is, as I see it, an asset in this regard. We're all sexual creatures, and finding things that speak to us on this kind of primal, even autonomic level, yet still go beyond it to at least splash around a little in the shallows of thoughtfulness, observation, and reflection, is a way to harness our primal selves to our civilized selves. We can yoke the two without undermining either the sexuality, the desire, or who we are as whole people—hook the Id to the Ego, but without leaving the body by the wayside. Good, well-crafted, interesting, thoughtful smut is, if I can say this without sounding too damned highfalutin' (or G-d forbid, New-Agey), a way of integrating, even repatriating, the sexual and sensual parts of ourselves, the parts we're taught not to express or take seriously. Excising them, as our culture promotes so fiercely, compromises our wholeness; integrating them enhances it.

And that, Gentle Reader, is the yardstick I use when I read erotica, both for my own pleasure and professionally. I realize that not every piece I read is going to come up to those standards, or in every way. That's fine, that's normal, that's healthy, that's the way in which variety is (as they say) the spice of life. But those are the qualities I look for and the characteristics I strive for, and the things which I find reward both my readers and me best.

What that means practically speaking, in a writerly sort of way, manifests itself on many levels, and I will try to articulate them in a way that might be helpful to my fellow writers, particularly to those who are interested in writing for any publication in which I might be involved.

Issues Relating to Sex

You know the old adage "write what you know"? Stick to it. If you don't know much about the type of sexual activity or milieu you're describing, either do meticulous research or go out and get some experience before you write... and preferably both. This goes for anatomy (I've gotten more than one submission in which a male was described as fucking his female partner's clitoris, for instance), but also for cultures and subcultures. You'd be amazed by how easy it is to spot someone who isn't first-hand familiar with how lesbian subculture and lesbian communities work just by how they write about lesbians in a piece of erotica, for instance.

Corollary: if you are writing about BDSM, but have never actually participated in BDSM in any way, do a lot of research and then ask someone who is or has been in the scene to read your work. I see enormous, simply enormous, numbers of BDSM-related pieces that bear about as much relation to what actually happens (and what is actually even feasible) in BDSM as I do to Lawrence Fishburne, which is to say not much at all.

It's fine to write about bodies and body parts, but try to bear in mind that not everything has to do with size, shape, or aesthetic perfection. Some of the dullest erotica out there is the stuff that uses generic, idealized physical description—you know, the "needless to say, the redhead's 38 DD knockers and 118-pound, 5'8" long-legged frame got me instantly hard as a tire iron!" kind of crap—as a sort of smut shorthand for "boy, this person sure was physically desirable!" If the person is physically desirable, either to you or to any of your characters, tell us why in ways that make us understand it. Tell us about the heartbreakingly perfect shape of the inner curve of her breast, or the tantalizing way his wiry, muscled leg disappears into darkness when you sneak a peek up the leg of his shorts... not that she was a 34 C and he was a jock.

It's wise to assume that you don't actually know everything there is to know about sex. Making generalizations about things sexual rarely works in erotica unless you're trying for either irony or satire. Stick to the specifics of the sexual situation(s) that are directly at hand in your piece and you should be fine.

Physiology and topography play a large role in what we try in our real-life sex, and so they should in written sex too. Some things may sound hot, but either aren't physically possible, or wouldn't be possible in the context in which they are described. I am reminded specifically of one submission I received in which the narrator described his protagonists, getting busy while on an overnight transcontinental flight, a woman working a vibrating dildo into her male lover's asshole while they were both seated, covered by blankets, in their airplane seats. Not only is it highly unlikely that anyone could do such a thing without the commotion being noticed, but given the way the rectum and asshole are built, inserting any stiff object into the rectum in the sitting position necessitated by an airplane seat would put one at risk for some significant pain or even injury—bumping the sigmoid curve with a hard object doesn't make for what I'd call a fun flight. And let's not even go into how hard it'd be to lube someone up in that position in order to make insertion reasonably easy and pleasurable (not to mention the excuses you'd have to make up to explain the wet spot to the flight attendants!). It isn't that the idea of someone getting buttfucked with a vibrator in an airplane full of people isn't potentially hot... it's just not very probable.

If what you are writing is getting you off, chances are good that it won't do the same for your readers. It is wise to develop a sense for what is erotic, what is hot, what works that is independent of your own immediate arousal. This is because when we are aroused, we tend to write without regard to whether or not what we're writing will be received the same way by another reader. It works for us—so we assume that it will work for others. The opposite is most often the case. Besides, if you've got one hand down your pants while you're writing, chances are good that you've made quite a few typos, so keep your focus where it belongs by keeping your hands on the keyboard where they belong. If you must, jerk off later.

Issues Relating to Style

Sex acts don't drive erotica, the people who engage in them do. If your characters are not ones about whom your readers would at the very least be curious, they're certainly not going to be ones about whose sex lives anyone is going to want to read. Characters don't have to be loveable or even lustable, but they do have to be interesting in some way or other, or we're just not going to give a damn who they've got the hots for or whether or not they get laid. Stories about disembodied genitalia—or people who are basically only vehicles for bobbing erogenous zones—aren't terribly good stories from the standpoint of crafting a story, and what's more, they're not usually very sexy, either.

Show, don't tell. Relating the action of any story as if it were a television sports play-by-play sounds...well, it sounds like a television sports play-by-play. It doesn't read well, and it gets awfully boring to boot. The English language is quite rich, I'm sure there are a hundred thousand ways to describe sex and desire and such that even I haven't thought of yet. So get crackin'.

Believability can be a tough issue in erotica. Some folks are a soft touch (as P.T. Barnum said, "There's a sucker born every minute."), some folks are diehard skeptics ready to take apart absolutely everything. What can make the difference between believability and a failure to suspend disbelief is how you draw the characters and how you create the context for their interaction. Pay as much attention to the non-sexual elements of a story as you do to the sexual ones, and you've got a much better chance, even if your story is way out there in terms of its sexual content.

Sexual language is another tough issue in erotica. As a general rule, the language you use should fit the mood of your story. References to genitals and acts can run the gamut from terms bordering on the downright medical—"fellatio," "pudendum," "mons veneris"—to the robust and colorful but classic, to the historically accurate—"cunny," "yard," "queynte"—to the rough and ready and raunchy, and far beyond and between. It's a great idea to vary the terms you use somewhat, so that you don't end up repeating the same words too much, but do remember that the words you use contribute to the mood you create and choose accordingly.

Corollary: Eschew goofy euphemism. It's not sexy, it just makes people snicker. Yes, as Georgia O'Keeffe proved, cunts do sometimes resemble flowers, and vice versa. But if you want to present that image - and it can be done well—you've gotta do better than something like "the delicate flower of her sex" or "her nether orchid-petals" or whatever. Likewise, penises can be many things, but when they are "monster man-meat" or "drooling battering ram" or something like that, I (and many readers) can only react with helpless laughter. Same goes if you're writing Sci-Fi style smut. Don't invent your own dialect of Klingon to refer to the naughty bits, stick to words we all know. The Klingons will translate it for themselves when the time comes.

Be aware that erotica has a tendency to become formulaic. There are only so many different ways human beings can engage in and with sex, after all... and some of them are much more popular than others. Avoid the strongly formulaic where possible, unless you're quite certain you have a stylistic, point-of-view, or other take on it that will allow it to transcend the walls of the formula-smut ghetto. If you're not sure whether something is formulaic, read more smut. You'll be able to tell after a while.

The Technical Stuff

Spellcheck is your special friend. Use it. But bear in mind that a spellcheck is not a substitute for close and careful proofreading. Homonyms are only the tip of the heaping, quivering pile of errors that spellcheck won't catch. Do keep in mind that many spellcheck programs don't know bupkes from many words you may try to use in a piece of erotica... mine has quite a colorful vocabulary now, because I continually add words that it doesn't recognize. It saves a lot of time.

Dictionaries are also your special friend. (For you young whippersnappers, dictionaries are what people used before there was spellcheck.) If you'd like an excellent online resource, I also recommend that any sex writer keep a medical dictionary on hand. You'd be surprised how often you'll end up checking it, just to be sure.

Reading any piece of writing aloud is an excellent way to catch lumps and bumps and moments of awkwardness. However, you must read it to someone else...reading it aloud to yourself doesn't help nearly as much. Pause whenever you need to to make notes about what you want to change.

If you're unsure of yourself grammatically, get a friend whose abilities you trust to read your work and mark necessary changes.

Fiction is fiction. Non-fiction is non-fiction. Do not try to write non-fiction and pass it off as fiction. Doing so puts you at serious legal risk. It also puts any publisher with whom you work at legal risk. This is considered unfriendly. It is also exceedingly bad karma.

Corollary: Fictionalization is a process which requires more thoroughgoing change than just changing the names of the characters or putting a disclaimer on your work stating that "any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental." Neither one will protect you if your work is ever challenged in court.

Getting Published

Familiarize yourself with any publication to which you plan to submit work. This means more than just knowing it exists, it means reading some of their back issues first - at your own expense, thankyouverymuch - so that you know what they're likely to be looking for.

When you submit work to an editor, put an extra line return in between the paragraphs so that paragraph breaks are clean and clear. Section breaks can be marked with a section break marker (§) or two, or, alternately, by putting the words "section break" in parenthesis at the relevant place and leaving line breaks on either side. The end of a complete story should be indicated either by writing "END" or by using the old journalist's convention of putting "##30##" at the end.

Read submission guidelines carefully. Many editors are very clear about how they do and don't want things to be submitted. We all appreciate it greatly when people show us that they've done their homework by submitting things as we've requested them.

Research your markets so that you know what to send where. Don't send work that is inappropriate for a given call for submissions, expecting the editor to magically be able to come up with a place to publish it. It doesn't work that way.

Take no for an answer. A rejection letter is a rejection letter, and that's all. It's not a rejection of you as a human being or of your efforts as a writer on the whole, it is merely a statement that a particular editor and publication are not interested in a particular piece of your writing. Most editors you work with have enormous rejection-slip collections of their own, they do know how it feels. It happens to everyone. Get over it and move on.

Take no for an answer, Part Two. Editors do not have the time (nor do most of us have the inclination) to give every piece that is submitted a thorough critique. That's also not our job: we are here to choose works to produce a publication, not to give feedback to individual writers or to teach people how to write. You can ask for feedback, but do take no for an answer if that's the answer you get; I guarantee you you won't endear yourself to the editor by being a pest. If you are looking for extensive critique and feedback, find a writers' group, or better yet, start one!

Happy writing!
Hanne Blank

"So, You Want To Write Literary Erotica?" © 2003 Hanne Blank. All rights reserved.

About the Author:†
Editor, Zaftig: Well Rounded Erotica (Cleis Press), Editor, Shameless: Women's Intimate Erotica (Seal Press); Co-Editor, Best Transgender Erotica (Circlet Press)

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