Mindless Smut

Image by Andrea Altini from Pixabay

When I started publishing erotica, more than two decades ago, my work tended toward the more literary end of the genre. Reflecting on my personal erotic adventures, I wanted to explore the nuances of desire, the ways in which lust challenges and transforms us. I was particularly fascinated by the emotional and spiritual dimensions of dominance and submission. Indeed, along with fellow ERWA member S.F. Mayfair, I edited a collection of BDSM short stories in 2003 entitled Sacred Exchange.

If you pick up any of the tales from my first decade as an erotica author, you’ll find an earnest focus on conflict, characterization and language. There’s sex, of course, but less than you might expect given the genre label. I was at least as interested in the experience of arousal as I was in its consummation.

Writing serious erotica was hard work. Furthermore, as time went on, I began to feel as though I was repeating myself, rehashing the same themes, especially when dealing with my first love, S/M. For recreation and relaxation, I started publishing what I would label as “mindless smut”: stories without any deep message in which all the characters are perpetually horny and gleefully eager to act on their carnal impulses.

Much to my astonishment, and somewhat to my embarrassment, I discovered these uninhibited and rather superficial tales sold fairly well. Furthermore, creating them was a blast. Once I’d decided to slip into smut-monger mode, the words just flowed. I’d never succeeded before in writing any sort of series, but my outrageous, somewhat silly novella Hot Brides in Vegas had barely hit the shelves when I started getting ideas for a sequel. Eventually the Vegas Babes series grew to five volumes of mindless smut.

In fact, writing this sort of fiction does require some craft. Although you (of course) need to include a lot of sex, you also need variety. If every scene involves the same activities, eventually even the most dedicated one-handed reader will get bored. I’ve noted in a previous post the importance of escalation. As the story unfolds, the sex scenes should become more intense and/or more taboo. Even porn needs a story arc, with a big climax (or ten!) and a happy ending for all. Every chapter should push the characters closer to the edge – or maybe I should say, pull them deeper into depravity!

I just published a brand new piece of unmitigated smut entitled Alex in Tittyland. It’s a loose (in several senses!) parody of Louis Carroll’s classic with a harem theme, inspired by discussions with a young male friend. In the process of penning this story I realized once again (1) how much fun it is to let my sexual imagination run wild and (2) how much thought is nevertheless required in order to create effective porn.

But it was still a lot easier than writing erotic romance or historically plausible steam punk.

I have to admit, however, that the prospect of producing nothing but mindless smut makes me uncomfortable. It feels too easy, and yes, a bit exploitative. In addition, I suspect that much of the audience doesn’t care in the least about premise, plot, characterization or even grammar. They’re just looking for the dirty parts. While I believe that my emphasis on craft makes my smut more readable, I’m not sure that my efforts constitute a competitive advantage when it comes to sales.

So I’ll probably continue to swing from one extreme of erotica to the other, delving into the emotional complexities of sexuality in one book, engaging in orgiastic fantasies in the next.

Adaptability is always a virtue, right?


It is Not Just Sex

Sex is exactly like magic, except for one very important difference. Both have an air of mystery about them, and practitioners who speak in hushed tones. Both have their rituals, their Words of Power, and both traffic in what some would consider to be dark secrets.

But the biggest, the most important difference between sex and magic is that the wizard who learns every conceivable spell known to man, becomes exalted. More often than not, they are elevated to the rank of grandmaster.

Nobody gets elevated for knowing everything about sex.

At least, not in the way that gets talked about at parties.

You see, while wizards are allowed to experiment, to test the bounds of human experience, the sex mage who screams, ‘I’ve mastered the reverse-cowgirl levitation technique!’ gets buried beneath Azkaban without a ceremony.

It’s not fair. It’s not even really funny, but…there you have it.

The ironic part about all of this is that sex is at its best when it is discussed openly, but even that open discussion can be twisted so easily.

I for one, have always been leery of those who speak of sex in metaphysical terms. Who talk of souls meeting, or celestial bodies, as though by speaking frankly about what they want, they might somehow sully themselves.

But equally as bad, if not worse are those who simply shrug and say ‘It’s just sex,” as though they can’t possibly understand what all the fuss is about.

Telling a devout Catholic newlywed who has to go from demure protector to wild, kinky sex-kitten in one night that it’s just sex, doesn’t do anything except undermine her faith and her identity.

For a woman who has never had a pleasurable experience in bed due to vaginismus, the words do nothing to alleviate her pain.

And for the guy who was so nervous the first several times he tried to have sex that he couldn’t perform, (unashamedly raises his hand) the phrase doesn’t eliminate the nerves. Because by that logic, sex is just a matter of ‘get up and go’ and if he can’t, then he’s left with the exact same fear as the newlywed who can’t turn on a dime, or the woman who can’t ‘just relax.’

The fear that there’s something wrong with me.

Sex, in a lot of ways, is actually better than magic, because it’s defined by the people who take part in it, which means its impact or relevancy changes depending upon the person. Whether it’s to fill a void, relieve stress or forge a connection (however celestial) sex is a pillar of any relationship. Not the most important pillar. Far from it. But neither dressing up sex, nor trivializing it will help those who dread being bad at something that society says they shouldn’t know too much about anyway.

Honest, awkward, flush-faced conversations are easy to talk about, not easy to affect.

(We can all be hypocrites, deep in our hearts. Let’s be honest here.)

But what problems these conversations come with are immediate and often fade just as quickly. The alternatives however, the shame and hushed tones and fear we’ve all lived with for far too long, those effects can last a lifetime.

And that, to me, is the real shame.

Steering a Series

Image by Artist and zabiyaka from Pixabay

Marketing data consistently indicate that series sell better than single titles. That’s not all that surprising. If you can hook a reader on your characters and your fictional world, they’re going to want to return for repeat visits.

Due to my abnormally strong craving for variety, I’m probably less susceptible to the appeal of a series than many readers. Even so, I devoured the Game of Thrones books (and I’m still desperately hoping against hope for the next one), so I understand the effectiveness of spinning multi-volume tales. I’m a sucker for Stephanie Plum’s antics, too, though those books are so similar to one another that it hardly matters in what order you read them. (Janet Evanovich has just published the twenty seventh installment of Stephanie’s adventures. It’s hard for me to get my mind around that!)

For the first decade and a half of my writing career, I wrote only standalone books. Somehow whenever I got to the end of writing a novel, I felt that I had nothing else to say. I actually did leave the door open for a sequel to my MM dystopian sci fi novel The H-Gene (2012, originally entitled Quarantine) but I could never motivate myself to start writing it. When I wrote “The End”, the curtain closed and it was time for me to move on.

Then in 2017, something shifted. I published a light-hearted, smutty novella (Hot Brides in Vegas) which did quite well. After Hot Brides, I planned to return to more literary projects, but I found I had lots more to say about the Vegas babes. Whenever I thought I was done, new and outrageous notions popped into my mind. The next thing I knew, I had written five books, two of them close to novel length.

The Vegas Babes project was accidental. For the past two years, however, I’ve been working on a deliberate series. The Toymakers Guild is intended to be a trilogy. I just finished the second book, The Journeyman’s Trial. I’ve learned a lot in the process. In particular, I’ve discovered that writing a series is really hard!

Writing the first book probably isn’t much different than a standalone novel, except that you’re constantly juggling ideas, deciding what to use now and what to save for later books. I know some secrets about my characters that I plan to reveal eventually, but when? I don’t want to bring out the big guns too soon.

The second book introduces all sorts of difficulties. One big issue is consistency. When you write as slowly as I do, you tend to forget earlier details. What is Archie’s last name? What color are Amelia’s eyes? Which side of the Master’s face is disfigured due to his tragic accident? Questions like this come up all the time, and of course, I can resolve them by going back to the first book or the earlier chapters. What I worry about are the details I don’t check, especially related to the (frequent) sex scenes in the series. What have I forgotten that I’ve forgotten? I remember reading an erotica novel in which the heroine had her first anal experience… in two different chapters! I shudder to think I might make a similar mistake, and that readers might notice.

Another question relates to character development. Unlike some series, The Toymakers Guild follows the same set of characters through multiple books (adding some new ones along the way). I need to show these people growing and changing over time, based on their experiences. If they remain static, the books will be both unrealistic and boring. On the other hand, there has to be continuity – changes in the characters’ thought patterns or behavior can’t be so radical that they’re implausible.

A third point is the need for escalation. Escalation means holding back at first, starting gradually, then building up the tension (both narrative and sexual) as the book, or the series, continues. To keep a reader engaged, you need to continually up the ante. This means that the challenges that face the characters in Book Two need to be more serious than in Book One. Book Three should put them in yet more desperate straits. Meanwhile, if you’re writing erotica, the sexual situations in Book Two should also be more extreme, intense, or unexpected than in Book One. You don’t want your readers to get bored.

Possibly the trickiest aspect to the series challenge is deciding how to integrate back story. How much of Book One should you recapitulate in Book Two? In an effective series, it should not be essential that a reader start at the beginning. An author needs to give sufficient details about past events and relationships that the current book makes sense. More than once I’ve tried to read a series book out of order and found it incomprehensible because I didn’t have enough information about the background. At the same time, you don’t want to bore readers who did read the previous books by retelling too much. You certainly need to avoid the dreaded info dump in the early chapters; whatever clues you do provide should be scattered through the new narrative rather than concentrated in one place.

It’s a delicate balance. The ideal situation is to have some beta readers who’ve read the earlier books, and some who haven’t. Alas, we all know how hard it is to find any beta readers at all.

Anyway, I’m in the process of editing The Journeyman’s Trial, which should be out by the end of the month. Meanwhile, I’ve started juggling ideas for The Master’s Mark, which is intended to round out the trilogy. I’ll never be George R. R. Martin, but I hope I can keep my readers coming back.

Gallows Hope

Not long ago, I sent a story off to some friends, one of whom came back and said she thought it was beautiful and powerful, but far too bleak. She said I dropped my main character into a brutal, misogynistic system, dragged her through hell and then killed her. That’s it. ‘Where’s the hero’s journey?’ she asked. ‘Where’s the moment when the main character sees the system for what it is, beats the thousand to one odds and then changes things for the better?’

I wrote back to my friend and said, ‘I get it, I do.’ We all need a hero’s journey, and every writer has their own literary hero. But by asking for a hero’s journey, my friend was missing the point of the story. Because in order for there to be one man who beats the thousands to one odds, there has to be nine hundred and ninety-nine others who don’t. Before there can be a Final Girl, you must first have victims.

Let me back up a minute.

When I was coming up, my literary heroes were King, Rice, Bradbury, and Stine. They not only taught me how to write, they showed me that magic, real magic, isn’t found in words like abracadabra or hocus pocus, but in smaller, plainer, less flowery spells like, it can be done.

And from the moment I first thought those words, they began to grow inside me. Stretching and reaching until they became a new spell altogether. One which had me sitting up far too late at night, gripped by the sense that I needed to whisper this spell, because even then I was afraid the words wouldn’t come out right. But into that darkness, I said, if they can do, I can too. 

And then I set out to beat the odds.

But for as much as adults might shun the idea of magic, there’s a secret to it which only we can know because we’ve lived with it long enough. Magic has no rules. There are no laws, no guidebooks, not even a roadmap. Just a series of mutually agreed upon arrangements wherein Harry Potter can be rejected twelve times, Carrie thirty and Roots two hundred before they could become classics. The same unfathomable arrangement which implies, but never states, that buried amongst all of those slush piles we secretly dread, are masterpieces which will never be found, not because the writers weren’t talented enough, or didn’t have thick enough skin but because they committed themselves to a system which is wonderfully, bafflingly, borderline abusively incapable of explaining itself.

Even in writing this article, I’ve broken several of the ‘rules’ of writing. I’ve started a sentence with ‘when,’ I’ve used ‘and’ far too many times and I’ve switched tenses so often that I’m sure it’s driving some of you to distraction. But if you’ve come with me this far, I’m hoping you’ll go a little further. Because whether this article works or it falls flat, isn’t the point. The point is that no one in the industry can properly explain to you why, one way or the other.

We are, all of us, very much on our own, which is exactly the reason it’s taken me days to conjure up an ending which falls somewhere between wish-fulfillment and nihilism because the bittersweet truth is that both of them are right.

In our quest to be the hero of our own journey, we might very well die trying, much like the main character in my story. She’s the one who doesn’t get away from the serial killer because there will always be more victims than Final Girls. But failure is only ever certain when we give up the fight.

So perhaps the next time we take up the pen, after our latest rejection or the dreaded ‘it’s just not what we’re looking for’ refrain, we do so not with a bright-eyed belief, but with a gallows hope. The sort of pitch-black resolve which drives us to take up the journey, while never losing sight off the bodies which litter the way. A plain, stark acknowledgement that while the odds against us are tragic and potently bleak, they are also true and most definitely…a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

Don’t be a sheep!

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

In my own quiet way, I guess I’m something of a outlaw. For one thing, I write smut – generally not considered a socially acceptable activity. My life hasn’t followed the standard script for women of my generation. I’m an engineer, a field often viewed as male-dominated. I left my birth country nearly two decades ago and have permanently settled half way around the world. Although I’m married, my husband and I have an open relationship. We’ve both kept in touch with former erotic partners, and we’ve experimented with swinging and polyamory. He and I have no children. However, we’ve founded several companies together.

My path has been a bit torturous but mostly enjoyable. While I don’t go out of my way to flaunt societal norms, I like to make my own decisions. Certainly, arguments based on popularity or mass appeal hold little weight for me.

I trace at least some of these attitudes to an incident in the early sixties. I was in fourth grade, living in frigid New England. That winter we had snow banks three feet high and weeks of temperatures in the teens (Fahrenheit). I had to stand outside with the other kids for twenty minutes every day, waiting for the school bus. Much to my embarrassment, my mother insisted that I wear padded snow pants under my dress. I hated this; only babies wore snowsuits! Furthermore, I had to tuck my skirt into the pants so I could hook the elastic suspenders over my shoulders. I looked even chubbier than I was.

“But Mom,” I argued one icy morning. “Everyone thinks I’m weird. Nobody at the bus stop wears snow pants!”

My mother, a strong woman with definite opinions, peered at me through her glasses. “Who cares about everyone else? Do you want to be a sheep?”

I was about to tell her I didn’t mind, but the deep contempt in her voice stopped me. I could tell from her tone that she’d never let the majority dictate what she should do. Wanting to make her happy – and amazed at the strength of her convictions – I donned the hated garment and headed out to catch the bus. I still felt conspicuous and silly, but I was also toasty warm. I noticed that the girls who had bare legs huddled together, looking distinctly uncomfortable.

Maybe she was right. Maybe being like everyone else didn’t matter nearly as much as I’d thought.

I didn’t consciously decide that day to ignore the opinions of the masses, but looking back, I think she planted some of the seeds for my future independence. I remember other situations when I realized that I didn’t have to follow the social rules if they didn’t make sense to me. I’ve chronicled one potent (and erotic) incident in a previous blog post. As I grew older, I started to make choices that were different from what most people expected.

I’m still doing that now, especially when it comes to writing. Over my twenty year publishing career, I’ve seen the rise and fall of multiple fads and genres. Vampires, billionaires, virgins, step-brothers, cuckolds, reverse harem, Navy SEALS, mafia, aliens, motorcycle clubs – every few months there’s something new that “everyone” is writing. In a recent email, a friend who makes her living writing erotic romance was bemoaning the fact that she can’t keep up with what’s trendy. I told her (but I’m not sure she believed me) that it was hopeless, and recommended that she write what she enjoys, what sparks her personal passion. I could have asked: do you want to be a sheep? But that wouldn’t have been kind, or polite.

Sorry, but I don’t care what “everyone” is writing. Of course I have that luxury, because for me writing is a beloved avocation, not a career. But I also believe it’s impossible to gain either success or satisfaction trying to suss out what the masses are going to want next. Nobody can write fast enough to keep up with the fashions.

Meanwhile, I know from experience that my best work comes from tapping into my personal kinks and fantasies, not from writing to the market. For years I tried to produce the kind of romance my publisher wanted. I won’t say I failed completely, but trying to clip the wings of my nasty imagination resulted in books I now view as mediocre.

Not all my colleagues agree. Another friend has been analyzing the stats from Amazon, working to determine which genres have the best sales for the least competition. He’s very deliberately writing with an eye toward financial gain.

I wish him luck.

As for me, I now realize that my mom’s advice was precious, no matter how I resented it at the time. Her wisdom might not have brought me wealth, but I’ve reaped an abundance of joy.

Pesky Participles

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When I’m reading, editing or critiquing others’ work, improperly deployed participles are a pet peeve. I’m utterly incapable of ignoring them. Other readers notice comma confusions, tangled tenses, or missing modifiers. They might be especially sensitive to excessive alliteration. I can sail past a lot of nits without noticing, but an incorrectly constructed participle modifier will jump out at me like raincoat-clad pervert from behind a tree.

I know grammatical terms make a lot of people wince, so let me give you some examples from recent reads:

a) No longer aware of her physical surroundings, uncaring of the others watching them, he had become her world.

b) Nearly blinded, instinctively, Callie’s hand went for the gun in her purse.

c) Measuring the length of his dick still waiting to ravage her burning cunt, Nina’s eyes flew open.

Here are a few simpler, synthetic examples:

d) Panting with excitement, her heart pounded like a bass drum in her chest.

e) Entering the room unannounced, Joel’s attention flew to the naked woman sprawled on the couch.

f) Silenced by embarrassment, my cheeks flushed bright red.

I know some of you are probably thinking: What’s the problem? These are perfectly fine sentences. The meaning is crystal clear.

I beg to differ. The author’s intent is clear in most cases. However, if you apply the conventional rules of English to interpreting these sentences, you end up drawing some strange, even nonsensical conclusions. Silent cheeks? A blinded hand?

The complexities of English grammatical structures are the bane of many. There are dozens of different ways to express the same idea. A single sentence may consist of many clauses as well as modifying phrases.

In the face of this complexity, we fall back on the principle of proximity. When you have a modifier, that is, a phrase that describes some entity in the main clause of the sentence, we assume that the modifier is describing the subject of the main clause, which normally follows right after the modifier.

If the modifier is a participle (that is, a verb turned into an adjective by adding “ing” or “ed”), it is assumed that the implied subject of this verb is the subject of the following clause.

Here’s the crux of the issue in the ungrammatical sentences above. If we follow this convention in our interpretation, the results are silly or confusing.

In a), both the adjective (“no longer aware”) and participle (“uncaring”) modifiers clearly have a female subject. Yet the subject of the main clause is “he” – not the person who’s “uncaring”.

In b) the conventional rules would indicate that Callie’s hand was blinded.

Example c) is a bit more nuanced, since Nina’s eyes might well be what she used to estimate the length of her partner’s cock. More likely though, the true subject of “measuring” is Nina herself – not her eyes as suggested by the interpretation rules.

The three synthetic examples make the problem more obvious. In each case, the real subject is a person, while the implied subject is a part or aspect of the person.

Now at this point, you might be thinking: who cares?

Well, that’s your right. However, when I encounter this sort of ungrammatical construction, even in an otherwise well-written story, I cringe. Furthermore, my opinion of the author’s skill declines a bit. Perhaps that’s not fair, but I expect serious authors to be conscious of the rules of the language – implicitly if not explicitly.

Elitist? Maybe. However, I can’t help my reactions. I suspect I’m not the only reader who feels this way.

So – assuming you’re editing your tale, and notice one of these errors – what can you do about it?

There are three basic solutions:

1) Change the subject in the independent clause to match the modifier;

2) Expand the modifier into a clause that explicitly specifies a subject (which can then be different from the independent clause);

3) Make the modifying clause into a separate sentence.

Let’s look at example (b) and apply each of these solutions.

Solution 1: Nearly blinded, Callie instinctively reached for the gun in her purse.

Solution 2: As the flash nearly blinded her, Callie’s hand instinctively went for the gun in her purse.

Solution 3: The flash nearly blinded her. Instinctively, Callie’s hand went for the gun in her purse.

The best revision depends on stylistic concerns, as well as on the specific sentence. For example (a), I think the sentence should be split, since the subject of the modifiers and of the main clause are totally different.

She was no longer aware of her physical surroundings, uncaring of the others watching them. He had become her world.

In addition to fixing the grammar problem, this revision (I feel) increases the impact of the sentences.

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

If you’re willing to admit that this sort of construction is a problem, how can you improve your ability to notice your own errors?

Alas, we’re all somewhat blind to our own faults. You can begin, though, by becoming more conscious of your choices when framing a sentence. Should you use a modifying phrase at the start of a sentence? A dependent clause? Would your ideas be better expressed by splitting the thought into two sentences?

Normally people use modifying phrases like this to convey a relationship. When you use a participle, you are implying a temporal relationship. A present participle (“ing”) indicates two concurrent actions. For instance, Joel noticed the naked woman on the couch at the same time as he entered the room. A past participle (“ed”, or “en” for some verbs) suggests sequential actions. A flash blinded Callie, then she instinctively reached for her gun.

Be sure that this implied temporal relationship makes sense, and is what you really want to convey.

You probably should not try to think about this sort of issue when you’re writing your first draft, or you’ll get bogged down. However sentence structure alternatives should be one of your considerations when you’re self-editing.

Of course, the best approach may be to have someone else read and critique your stories, helping to shine light on your blind spots. You can offer the same service to someone else, since their weaknesses are likely to differ from yours.

Luckily, you can do that easily at ERWA. Just sign up for the Storytime email list. Get sincere, balanced critiques from your colleagues. Share your own opinions and insights.

And get the chance to read some steamy and original erotica in the process!

The Writer’s Toolbox: Dialogue

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

I’ve written about dialogue before on this blog, but it seems an important enough topic that I wanted to give it another go.

The Functions of Dialogue

An author has many techniques and tools available to help her tell her story. One of the most useful is dialogue. Dialogue is the literal speech of characters, often in conversation with one another.

Example A

Louisa asked me what I planned to do today. I replied with something non-committal.

Example B

What about today?” Louisa asked. “What are your plans?”

I’m really not sure. Depends on what I find when I check my email.”

Example A above is not dialogue. Even though it refers to characters’ speech, it does not include the actual words spoken, as provided by Example B.

Dialogue supports story telling in a variety of important ways. First of all, dialogue reveals the nature of characters. The words that the characters choose can convey information about the characters’ emotional state, educational level, ethnicity, and style of interaction. Also, dialogue can clarify the relationships between characters. Are they intimates or casual acquaintances? Is there a power differential, e.g. between an employer and an employee, or a royal and his servant? Consider the following variants on Example B.

Example C

What about today?” Louisa asked. “What are your plans?”

Dunno. Depends.”

Example D

What are your plans for today, sir? Will you be needing me?”

I’m not sure, Louisa. Perhaps. I’ll ring if I require your assistance.”

In Example C, we can surmise that the second speaker is close to Louisa, given his informal grammar. He might also be a surly teenager! Example D makes it obvious that the second speaker is in some sense the master, and the first is his subordinate.

Dialogue can also be used to advance the action in your story. Well-crafted dialogue can substitute for describing what the characters are doing.

Example E

Quick! The ceiling’s on fire! It could collapse at any moment!”

If I can just get this damn window open – argh, it’s stuck – wait, it’s moving – there! Come on, I’ll give you a boost!”

Example E (hopefully) makes the characters actions clear while also revealing something about their emotional state.

Finally, dialogue can inform your reader about backstory or reveal information that is essential for the plot.

Example F

We found an empty gasoline can in the back yard, and half a dozen burnt kitchen matches. Must have been arson.”

I’ll bet that it was Henry Jones. He’s had it in for me ever since Joyce chose to marry me instead of him.”

As the author, I could have described the first speaker’s actions in finding the evidence. Perhaps I could have introduced the envious Henry earlier and explained his history. However, using dialogue I can convey this information while also giving the reader some sense of the characters’ personalities and styles.

In all the examples above, I have presented only the characters’ words, along with the occasional speech tag (see below). It is quite common, though, to intersperse speech with descriptions of actions or emotions:

Example G

Charanjit came to the door as Benton sat eating the last of his sweet rice, sometime around noon. “We are ready to roll, my friend.” His clothes were soaked from head to toe and his puttees were spattered with mud, but his smile was cheerful. “The radiator is fixed.”

Good.” Benson smiled back. “I owe you for last night.”

Charanjit cocked his head. “It is nothing. Only a trip to Darwha – you have already paid for the radiator.”

Benton chuckled. “No, not that. I was talking about the woman. You’ll have to tell me what I owe you—whatever you paid, it was not enough. She was very fine.”

Charanjit frowned. “What woman, Joseph? I did not pay for a woman.”

(from “Monsoon”, by Arinn Dembo, Best Fantastic Erotica, Circlet Press 2007)

Example G uses dialogue to convey plot information and character relationships, but relies on physical description (smiled, cocked his head, frowned, etc.) to explicate the characters’ emotions.

It is perfectly possible to write a story without any dialogue at all. At the same time, I have read stories which were dialogue only. The entire background, plot and character development were all communicated by what the characters were saying. As an author, you need to decide how to best use dialogue in your writing. However, there are several pitfalls in using dialogue of which you should be aware.

Common Problems with Dialogue

Punctuating Dialogue

Dialogue should always appear inside quotation marks. In American English, the text of the character’s speech should be enclosed in double quotes “like this”. Some publishers who use British English specify that speech should be enclosed in single quotes instead, ‘like this’. In either case, a reference to someone else’s speech inside a quotation should use the opposite style of quotation mark. For example:

Example H

“It wasn’t John F. Kennedy who said ‘I have a dream’. It was Martin Luther King,” Robert insisted.

(American English style)

Many authors are unsure of how to punctuate dialogue when it includes so-called speech tags such as I said or Robert insisted. The general rule is that the punctuation of the sentence being spoken goes inside the quotation marks. Futhermore, instead of using a period to punctuate a statement, one should use a comma (as shown in Example H). This is only true when the quoted speech is followed by a speech tag. Example J below shows the correct American English punctuation for statements, questions and exclamations, with and without speech tags.

Example J

“Dialogue is easy,” Mary said. “It’s creating a plot that is difficult.”

“How can I tell whether to use dialogue or not?” asked Jim. “Can you explain?”

“Easy!” exclaimed Mary. “Can you hear the characters talking in your head? If so, use dialogue!”


When a character has particular ethnic or social background, it’s tempting to try to indicate this in his dialogue by using non-standard or phonetic spellings.

Example K

“Youse guys are dead meat,” threatened Joe. “Yer not gettin’ away from me this time.”

“Y’all sher gave me a start. I hain’t seen anythin so black in a week a Sundays.”

“Sher, and she’s a wee bairn.”

Used judiciously, dialect, and especially regional vocabulary or idioms, can enhance your dialogue, making it more colorful and expressive. Most editors, however, frown on non-standard spellings like the ones employed in Example K. Instead of distorting the spelling of words, you can use typical cadence of speech from a particular ethnic group as well as distinctive expletives or expressions. Be careful, too, in using foreign terms or words that are likely to be unfamiliar to your readers (like “bairn”, above). This can be a particular problem with historical fiction. You need to consider whether the context will be sufficient to clarify the meaning. When in doubt, it is better to use common or standard words then to employ a special term that might confuse or confound your readers.

Conversational versus Formal Style

One of my personal problems when I began writing was that my dialogue was far too formal. My characters all spoke in full sentences and rarely if ever used contractions. In fact, except in special circumstances (such as public speeches), people tend to use much more informal language in speech than in writing. Sentence fragments are common, as is slang and contractions. Interjections (words like “Hey!”, “Huh?”, “Um…”) are interspersed with content and help to convey emotion. My early dialogue sounded stiff and unnatural, and all my characters talked as though they had PhDs.

A strategy for making dialogue more natural is to try reading it aloud. Do your characters sound realistic? Do they interrupt themselves? Do they express emotion as well as information?

Improving your dialogue

Learning to write realistic dialogue takes practice. Listening can help. Tune in and eavesdrop on the conversations you might overhear on the bus or waiting in line at the grocery store.

Then, when you sit down to write your own dialogue, try to listen to your characters. Imagine them speaking. Hear them in the your head.

Another great way to practice is to write all-dialogue Flashers. In case you’re not familiar with the term, a flasher is an entire story in only two hundred (or some people say, one hundred!) words. That’s tough to do – but it becomes even more of a challenge if you try to use only conversation to push the plot forward.

Sundays in the Storytime email list are dedicated to flashers (and poems). If you’d like to see how it’s done, or try your hand yourself, you can join the Storytime list here.

Meanwhile, I’ll end with an all dialogue flasher I wrote a few years ago. It’s particularly appropriate since I’m currently immersed in a steam punk erotica WIP!


By Lisabet Sarai

Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”

Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”

No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”

But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”

To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”

Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”

We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”

I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”

All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“

Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”

But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”

Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”

You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”

Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”


Sex versus Story

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels


I’ve always been a story teller. I started reading other people’s stories when I was four. Without any particular prompting, I began to create my own. Of course, my dad served as a model, regaling my siblings and me with his wildly original tales of ghosts and monsters, and my early teachers encouraged my knack for narrative, but I probably would have written stories even without those influences. It’s just part of who I am.

During the third decade of my life, I began producing erotic stories – stories about the experience of desire, and its fulfillment. My own rather broad experiences as well as my still-unrealized personal fantasies inspired my early erotica. Those tales included a lot of sex. This didn’t get in the way of the plot or character development, though, because these books were in some sense sexual coming-of-age stories. They chronicled the heroine’s journeys as she explored and came to understand and accept her own sexuality – especially her interest in power exchange. In a sense, the sex was the story, the escalating intensity of the erotic encounters teaching the heroine who she was – a sensual, polymorphously perverse creature destined to live outside the bounds of conventional “morality”.

When I began writing erotic romance, the shape of my tales changed. Now the plot was about the development of a loving relationship, as is traditional in romance. Still, this was a sort of journey, and once again sexual interludes formed the milestones along the way.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been experimenting with a different sort of erotica: sex-first, over-the-top tales with many characters, all of whom are engaged in outrageously lewd activities with one another, without, in most cases, the societal whitewash of romance. For want of a better label, I’ll call this genre “stroke”, though this term has some negative connotations. The basic idea is to provide readers with plenty of heat and variety, without any angst. My Vegas Babes series epitomizes this genre.

It’s great fun to write stroke fiction, because I can let my dirty imagination run free. I don’t have to worry about delivering the sine qua non of romance: fidelity, a focus on the protagonists’ relationship only, and a long term commitment. Even when my characters are in love or married, they can enjoy themselves with other partners. Furthermore, I can mix up MF, FF, and MM interactions in the same book, a practice that romance readers seem to loathe.

So I just started a new stroke series. The genre is steam punk erotica, with tongue firmly in cheek. However, I appear to have a new problem. For the first time, story is getting in the way of sex.

Let me explain. My current WIP, set in an alt-Victorian world, follows the progress of a brilliant young female engineer, Gillian Smith, as she tries to win a place in the secretive Toymakers Guild, an organization that creates bespoke sexual devices on commission from the wealthy and influential. As might be expected from a group of people who design outrageous sex toys, a lot of carnal activity goes on in the remote Devon mansion where the Guild is located. Gillian is an enthusiastic participant – confirming the fact that she’s well suited to be a member – but her ultimate focus is on being accepted as an official apprentice, not on getting her rocks off.

My rough mental outline has her proving herself to the Guild, demonstrating not only her technical competence but also her resourcefulness and her loyalty. Along the way, she succumbs (willingly) to various lures of the flesh. That’s a good thing – I wouldn’t have a stroke book if she didn’t. However, my efforts to introduce the necessary characters and to sketch out the conflicts that will come to a head later in the book are making it hard to include as much sex as I’d like – or perhaps I should say, as much sex as the book requires.

As a rule of thumb, a stroke book needs some sex in every chapter. Otherwise, the folks who are reading only for the naughty stuff will start to get bored. But I find myself balking at the idea of throwing in truly gratuitous sex scenes that are unrelated to the plot. Even if I try, I can’t just write disconnected sex scenes. That’s not a story. There’s no build-up, no narrative arc, no crisis and resolution. And without those essential dynamics, readers who are looking for more than just sex are going to be disappointed.

Hence I find myself struggling, trying to figure out how to make each sex scene an organic part of the story, when for once my story is not fundamentally about sex.

Maybe that’s the crux of the issue. Perhaps I need to revisit my ideas about Gillian’s motivation. It could be that in order to make this book work, her journey has to become sexual, as much as emotional and intellectual. I’ve planned some femdom scenes for later – perhaps this book is really about Gillian becoming a Domme, not about her finding a place as a Guild apprentice.

Interesting thought. Maybe that’s a path to the synthesis of sex and story that I’m seeking.

Other Eyes


Writing can be a solitary occupation. Sure, your characters may be clamoring in your head, haranguing you and trying to hijack the plot, but ultimately you’re sitting by yourself in front of the keyboard, making the decisions and turning those choices into (hopefully) engrossing and sexy prose. It’s your book, and when you’re stuck, you’re more or less on your own.

We’re all a bit in love with our own work – I am, at least, and I suspect if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll probably confess to the same feelings. To be emotionally invested in our writing makes sense. If we didn’t care about both the process and the result, why would we bother? However, this makes it very difficult to be objective about the stories we create.

We can edit from dawn to dusk, yet still might not see some of the glaring flaws in our masterpiece. No tale is so perfect that it cannot be improved. No matter how imaginative we are, no matter how experienced in the writing craft, we all have our blind spots. That’s why participating in a critique group can be so worthwhile.

Submitting your work to a critique group allows you to see it through the eyes of others. A story offered for critique must stand on its own. When you’re reading your own work, you can’t help being aware of the background: your intentions, the origins of the premise, the characters’ back stories, all the ideas you’ve considered but decided not to include. Someone reading to critique evaluates the tale solely on its own merits. For instance, a passage that’s crystal clear to you might be judged as confusing, because you have extra knowledge that didn’t quite make it into the text. No matter how ruthless you try to be in self-editing – no matter how willing you are to kill your darlings – you can’t completely separate yourself from the process of creation, a personal process that will never be accessible to your final readers. An insightful critique can highlight gaps where critical information exists in your mind, but is missing on the page.

In a productive critique group, members tend to have different foci and different skills. Some people excel at noticing typos, misspellings and grammar gaffes. Others are particularly good at pointing out problems with sentence structure: excessive repetition, awkward phrasing, run-on sentences, sentences that are too long or too short. One critique might highlight issues with pacing or continuity; another the use of anachronisms or terminology inappropriate to the time or setting; a third, “head-hopping”, that is, slips in maintaining a consistent point of view.

Members of the ERWA Storytime critique group also tend to comment on the sexual content of the submitted stories. Maybe the sex develops too abruptly. Maybe the erotic pace drags. Maybe the characters’ actions or reactions are not plausible. Perhaps some aspect of a tale has the potential to trigger readers’ traumas, or makes it more likely that a tale will be banned by more mainstream sales channels. Many crit groups won’t deal with sexually explicit content; the members are too embarrassed. Storytime may be unique in this regard.

Of course, every author wants to receive critiques that read like rave reviews. This is even more true for erotica than other genres, I believe, because authors of erotica can’t help but inject a lot of their personal sexual interests and emotions into their work. Storytime provides a unique opportunity to test the erotic appeal of our favorite sexy scenarios on a sympathetic and broad-minded audience.

Ultimately, though, objective criticism is more valuable than unbridled enthusiasm.

I’ve been a member of ERWA for more than twenty years, and during the first few was an active participant in the Storytime list. (Yes, Storytime has been around that long!) Then I stopped subscribing for more than a decade, mostly due to lack of time. I returned when we started working on the ERWA anthology Unearthly Delights, since we planned to use the list as the submission mechanism. I’ve stayed because I enjoy the diverse authorly talent represented in the group, and for the invaluable advice I’ve received on my own stuff.

I don’t have the time to read and crit every piece that comes through the list, and I don’t submit every story I write, but I try to maintain a good karmic balance. Meanwhile, I can say without reservation that every piece on which I have received crits has become much stronger due to the process.

Not that I follow all the advice I receive. Working with a crit group is different from engaging with an editor. With an editor, there’s a power differential, unless you’re paying out of your own pocket. The editor assigned by a publisher plays the role of enforcer. He or she is tasked with making sure that your work fits the publisher’s style guides and follows their content rules, in addition to correcting typos and grammaticos. I’ve had editors make some pretty ridiculous “suggestions”, which I was more or less forced to accept.

In a contrast, everyone in a crit group understands that a critique represents one person’s view, and should be viewed as advisory rather than prescriptive. We are a community of equals, dedicated to helping one another hone our craft.

I’m writing this on Sunday, 16 February, and feeling somewhat bereft, because Storytime has been offline since last Wednesday. The tech folks are working on the problem, but meanwhile, my Sunday is a bit emptier without the usual flashers. Indeed, I have a flasher of my own queued up, targeted at one particular member of the group whom I know likes this particular sub-genre. Alas, I’ll have to wait to share it.

I do hope that by the time this blog post appears, on Friday 21 February, the issue will be resolved. I can write and publish decent stories (or perhaps I should say “indecent”) without receiving crits, but I know my work will be both technically improved and more appealing to readers if I can have the benefit of other eyes.


Jekyll and Hyde

When I started in this business, more than twenty years ago, I wrote mostly literary erotica. Despite the sometimes extreme sexual situations in my tales, I tried for a sense of realism. My early novels spent a lot of time setting the scene and conveying atmosphere. They offered fairly complicated plots with a myriad of characters. In penning my short stories, I focused on original premises, character development and conflict. Given all the poetry I’d written before I started publishing prose, I guess it’s not surprising that I was very aware of linguistic choices, rhythm and prosody, connotations and allusions.

These days, I still write literary erotica – some of the time. I like to think that my Asian Adventures series, my speculative fiction (The Last Amanuensis, The Antidote) and my paranormal work (Underground, Fourth World) all offer some measure of “redeeming social value”.

Sometimes, though, I have the urge to write pure smut – stories where people get involved in all sorts of outrageous carnal activities, with only the most minimal motivation or conflict. My stroke stories make no pretense of realism. The male characters are capable of astounding numbers of erections. The multi-orgasmic females never get tired or sore. Nobody uses condoms. Nobody gets pregnant.

I offer only the faintest nod to social convention; it’s not at all unusual to find my characters getting it on with one another within five minutes of meeting. In public, even! Also, the people in my more pornographic works are incredibly open-minded, from a sexual perspective. They’re willing to try anything – partner swaps, multiple partners, same-sex encounters (both MM and FF), sex toys, spanking, dominance, submission, gang bangs, pegging, you name it. (Sometimes all in the same story!) To be honest, after writing inside the rigid box of traditional erotic romance, I love their experimental, gender-bending ways.

So I’ll spend a few weeks or months indulging myself, penning some absolutely filthy story that nobody could call “literary” (though I do try for readability and correct grammar). Then I start to feel embarrassed, even guilty. I’m pulled back to write something more traditional, something I wouldn’t be ashamed to show my real world friends (though most of them don’t know Lisabet Sarai exists).

Before long, though, I have get the itch again, the rampant, ungoverned Mr. Hyde of my imagination taking over, forcing the more refined and craft-conscious Dr. Jekyll into the shadows.

For instance, about a month ago, I decided I wanted to publish a holiday story for my fans, most of whom are romance readers. Cherry Pie and Mistletoe was the result, a sweet, hot, painfully realistic tale about the attraction between two sexagenarians.

No sooner had that book hit the virtual shelves, though, then Mr. Hyde reared his head. I got an idea for a stroke story entitled Santa, Baby!, about a nerdy young guy who’s hired by a dominant older woman to play Santa at a very naughty holiday party.

I hope to finish Santa, Baby! this weekend. (I’d better, because Christmas is next week!) But Mr. Hyde keeps pouring out the smut. The story’s already over 10K. I might not even announce it to my usual readers; they might find it too raw. That actually doesn’t seem to matter; my stroke fiction seems to sell much better than my more literary efforts.

Maybe after the book’s out, Mr. Hyde will fade back into the shadows.

But maybe not.

Meanwhile, this dual identity is a major marketing pain. I mean, what’s my brand? Exquisitely crafted, poetic prose that tugs at your emotions? Or wildly over-the-top fucking and sucking?

I’ve heard that readers like consistency. They want to know what to expect when they pick up a book from one of their favorite authors.

With me, you never know. Will it be Jekyll, or Hyde? I guess what I really need is to find the readers who enjoy both my alter-egos.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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