July 27, 2015

Talking Shop: Writing Serious Erotica

Last week we discussed some of the obstacles erotic authors face in terms of how our genre is viewed by others. Thanks to preconceptions over sex writing, expectations of publishers over sex and story structure, and the fact that readers are often seeking erotica more for graphic sexual arousal than anything else, there’s little appreciation for erotica and romance as a legitimate and more complex style of storytelling.

But another reason good erotic authors struggle to be more fully recognized for their actual talent is because there are a lot of “erotic” works on the market that are written badly. It’s not a rule of the genre…but thanks in part to those previously mentioned obstacles and in part to the ease with which writers can now self-published, there are lots and lots of amateur, untrained, aspiring writers putting out material that falls short of skillful writing. As our friend Tamsin points out in her article, there’s a mistaken assumption that just because a writer may have great sex, they can write great sex. I’ll go beyond that even more to say that many aspiring writers out there believe that because they may have story ideas, perhaps a supportive group of friends serving as beta readers, and access to self-publishing services, they are ready to start selling books.

I’m going to admit here that many of the self-published romantic works I read are very poorly written.  This isn’t to say self-publishing authors don’t have the talent to be writing, but that they need a lot more polishing and a lot more dedication to the craft.

I’ve discussed before my belief that all writers should take writing and grammar courses of some sort, and more are better. Erotic writers should also be looking at the dynamics of their plot and conflict. These are basic building blocks of creative writing, and stories lacking development in these areas just don’t measure up to professionally polished standards.

If you’re like me and you’ve faced the challenge of submitting to agents, big publishers, anthologies, and etc., and if (like me), you’ve faced the letters of rejection and sometimes just a stamp on a blank page reading “does not meet our needs”…I sympathize. The professional writing market is highly competitive and rejection can be a bitch.

But if you want to be considered professional, you do need to act—and write—like a professional.  You can’t just start writing and put forth raw, unrefined material. You really, really must accept the reality of grammar, style, structure, and devices of storytelling. If you don’t know  about and understand these things, and if you have no intention to learn about them, you’re not at a professional level of storytelling.

You can find several good resources for learning about grammar and structure online, and you can find courses in lots of local community colleges or community learning centers. This is the beginning of good writing.

This blog post, though, is about writing good romance and erotica, and these genres have their own pitfalls that seem to crop up a lot. 

Foreplay and Fangs is a blog about writing erotica and romance, and we’ve looked at lots of specific elements of the craft. For now, we’ll be looking at some general observations I’ve had about the genre, but at the end of this post you can find links to some of our other Talking Shop posts.

So let’s talk about some common problems in our genre that we need to start eliminating, if we want romance and erotica to be taken more seriously.

Fresh Writing

Many things in romance get copied and regurgitated, including language, plot points, sex scenes, and romantic twists.

My personal feeling is, this is how romance writers think romance should be written, because this is how romance has been written. Most of the things that are revisited over and over are tropes many of us have read in books that have gone before, and the books which have interested us and inspired us to also write in the genre.

However, the key phrase there is that this is how it has been written. Before.  Already.  The authors of our youth got there before us and they get the creative credit for that language and those twists. If you’ve been reading the same phrases and plot twists before, you shouldn’t be writing them. Somebody else already wrote them.

I can already hear some of you saying, “but there are no original ideas anymore!”  In a very general sense, I can see why this is so easily believed. However, even plots which have gone before can be made fresh and new with your original perspective and characters. This is where you have a great opportunity to explore less-traveled avenues of relationships and sexuality.

As yourself “what-if” questions. If you feel compelled to write a common romantic plot, “what if” a key element of it is twisted in a different direction? What if your characters don’t follow the tropes others in their plot have before? What can you bring to this story that makes it uniquely yours, and not the same books you’ve already read?

A very good means to find fresh ideas is to expose yourself to new and different experiences yourself. This might not mean chasing down experiences personally—I don’t have any personal intention of having multiple-partner sex outside the realm of fantasy—you can look them up and discover more about them on this fancy thing called the Interne. This is where I find a lot of new interests and points to incorporate into storytelling.

(Remember to fully research!)

Thorough Writing

Every now and then I’ve actually had to tell a fellow independent author that I can’t honestly review their work and still give them a strong rating. In most of these cases I won’t actually finish the book. A few of the most common reasons I do this are:

1.    Unlikable characters. You might write a character who hits some combination of character traits you find enjoyable, but beyond these traits the character is completely undeveloped, and extremely unlikable. A character can’t just be a mathematical sum of clever phrases, sassy one-liners, and under-developed “good qualities”. Just because you tell me a character is winning doesn’t make them winning; you have to actually show them behaving that way. But all too often, romance authors commit the crime of the Mary Sue: too perfect, popular, talented, powerful, and loved; boring and without flaws, or even her flaws are somehow turned around to become “charming.”

2.    Meaningless plot. Conflict I don’t care about or that doesn’t hold up under examination. Sex scenes in erotica without any strong lead-up or well-founded setting to fit them (and yes, you can create a perfectly well-developed setting and plot even in a very short story). Insignificant complications that aren’t really complicated, or are made complicated with an obscure and unrealistic macguffin.

3.    Rules made to be broken. Zombie stories without even the premise of logic behind the source of zombie infection; magic and magical complications that exist as magical law—until they don’t; special professions with random complicated laws or rules built to create certain circumstances in a deus ex machina-like construct. These are all real inconsistencies in real romance/erotica stories I’ve read, and they all translate to weak storytelling.

Just because the focus in romance or erotica is heat, lust, and relationships, it doesn’t mean the rest of the story doesn’t matter. You are building a whole story, not just the sexy parts, and if you aren’t thorough, you’re not creating the full product.

There are lots of assumptions out there about what romance readers want, and I’m fairly certain most are just as false as the stereotypes about the genre as a whole. Romance readers are no different than any other readers. In fact, if you think about it, romance readers probably read a lot of other books in a lot of other genres as well. So why should they want less dynamic books in romance?

Don’t do yourself or your peers the injustice of acting like writing good romance is easy, and don’t half-ass it because you think the only important aspect of romance or erotica is sex. If we are ever to see our genre taken more seriously, we as authors need to be serious about what we write.

Check out a few more of my blog posts to see more in-depth posts about the craft of writing better romantic and erotic works:

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