by Michael K. Smith
It has been represented to me recently by at least two readers that there must be "some secret" to writing sex stories that work, some patented formula they might apply, if only they knew what it was, which will turn drab, coarse prose into sparkling erotica that would leave even English teachers panting with arousal.
Well, no. There's no secret. But there's no reason, theoretically, that anyone with a couple of years of lit classes behind them, an established habit of reading, and the willingness to work seriously at developing their skills, couldn't improve the quality of their writing many-fold. To that end, I shall try to lay out the ingredients I believe must be considered in writing erotica -- which, it turns out, are almost exactly the same in writing any sort of fiction. I won't talk about gerunds and indefinite pronouns, though; that's been done elsewhere much better than I could do it.
Why me? What gives me the chutzpah to set myself up as a writing consultant?
Well, . . . (1) people have been paying me to write a wide variety of things
for more than a decade, (2) I've been fixing other people's writing for
half again that long, (3) I've taught the occasional writing workshop before,
and (4) I'm
entirely lacking in false modesty.
Perhaps this is too obvious a point, but the first necessity is to be able to think of a story. Small children do this all the time, making up tales to tell their teddy bears and concocting elaborate adventures for their toy soldiers.
The question most writers dread being asked is, "Where do you get your ideas?" (Harlan Ellison's reply is "Schenectady.") But ideas pop up all around you. Do you ride the bus to work? Good: You're trapped in a miniature mobile community for the duration of the trip. Look around at your fellow passengers; they're the leading characters in the stories of their own lives.
The proper-looking secretary trying to put on her lipstick in the jouncing bus may be wearing a red thong beneath her skirt. Maybe she's planning to seduce her boss. Maybe her boss asked her to wear it. Maybe she's blackmailing her boss and next week she'll be driving a new Mustang to work. Maybe she lives with a man and a woman and is intimate with both of them. Maybe she's having to re-apply her lipstick because her husband got horny and nailed her on the breakfast table just before she left to catch the bus.
And I promise you, that paragraph was written off the top of my head just now, spun out as I imagined sitting on the bus. If you're a college student, you also are a part of numerous communities filled with potential characters for a story: Your classes, your dorm, the MacDonald's across from campus, the parties you go to, the library just before term papers are due.
. . .
Okay, try the library. Make that the front steps of the library. Specifically, the girl sitting on the second step from the top, shading her eyes as she peers down the path, clutching her book-bag rather nervously. She's waiting for someone, obviously. Maybe she fears she's pregnant. Maybe she's been playing slave/master games and The Man is late. Maybe she has a crush on that other girl.
See? It's really not hard.
Characterization and Plot
Some writers are strong on devising a plot, some are better at inventing characters and dialogue. But you have to become at least competent at both. The ideas churned out in the previous section have mostly to do with characterization, without which I maintain there *is* no plot. I'm speaking for myself here, but my stories are almost always character-driven -- but that's true of nearly all erotica, which is primarily about the interaction of people.
I carry around a fat little notebook in my pocket nearly all the time (most writers do something similar) and when I overhear odd bits of conversation, or see an interesting-looking person, or am struck by someone's name, I jot it down. Later, when I'm trying to think what to write about, I'll browse my notebook. Then I'll just start elaborating on a physical description, or I'll extend the conversation and see where it takes me. Very often, I'll go back into my own memories and experiences for "pieces" of several people I've known and see how they might be fit together. Eventually, a character emerges and takes on a life of his or her own, and all I have to do is follow along behind and take notes. I very often do not know where the story is going to take me. I admit that other writers will shudder at this perhaps casual attitude toward plot, but it works for me. The writing muscle in my brain seems to concoct the plot-line on its own and it's usually ready when I need it.
Be aware that for a story to work, the characters in it *must* have
depth. Nothing is more dreary than a plot inhabited by flat, two-dimensional
characters with no color or detail to them. And I don't mean the size of
their genitalia, either. The rule is "always know more than you tell."
Take the time to construct at least a minimal back story -- the earlier
life and activities that produced the person you're writing about, that
formed the psychological makeup that will
practically force them to behave in a certain way under certain circumstances. If you don't know what that is, how are you going to communicate the character's individuality to the reader?
From this, you may also infer that writing a good story takes time.
You may be stuck by inspiration and dash off the main action and characters
of your story in a couple of hours (it happens), . . . but that's only
the beginning. You still have to become intimately acquainted with the
main participants in the plot. You have to study them and play "what if"
with them. This produces parallel plots and spins off subplots and gives
depth and individuality to the players. Often, this process leads me to
abandon my original plot idea in favor of something that comes to light
How many really awful stories have you read on a.s.s. that were actually only isolated scenes, apparently ripped from a nonexistent larger narrative? There's no beginning or end, just a chunk of action that starts from nowhere and stops somewhere else, and you can tell it took only a half-hour to write and was posted immediately. This is not a story. Length isn't a criterion, either; an exquisite short story, after all, is preferable to a lame, formless novel.
What the structure looks like is up to you, but it must exist. And it
must include some kind of action. That is, things have to happen. Perhaps
the reader is yanked into the midst of furious action, like a James Bond
movie, and is thrust ahead at breathless speed. It's difficult to successfully
maintain a pace like
that, but it can make for rousing erotica.
Maybe the story is treated as a symphony, building slowly, then climbing sexual arpeggios to a thundering crescendo, then tapering off to an afterglow. This pace generally is easier to manage.
This is not to say that the action must be external. It's perfectly legitimate to tell the whole story from the perspective of, say, a character locked up alone in a dark closet. But why is he there? What's going through her mind? Those things still constitute "action."
How you end a story is also up to you, but it should be obvious to the reader that the narrative is coming to a close even without putting "END" at the bottom of the page. Personally, I have a tendency (an unfortunate one, perhaps) of nailing down the last sentence or paragraph with some bit of recursive information, or a closing laugh-line, or a telling observation by a secondary character.
I also have a personal preference for happy endings, which -- for me
-- seem to go very nicely with an erotic story. But then, I'm an infamous
romantic. (And, in case you didn't catch it, the previous sentence is just
the sort of wrap-up device I was talking about. . . .)
I say this as a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction: The story must be believable. If it isn't, the discerning reader will mutter, "Gimme a break," and go on to the next story. Does the hero have fifteen geyser-like orgasms in thirty minutes? If you're writing a Superman parody, perhaps -- though Larry Niven wrote a classic essay about that. Does the heroine scream with pleasurable anticipation at the prospect of sex with a whole herd of Clysdales? If she's deeply twisted, perhaps she'll fantasize about it. But you've lost me.
Okay, this is my own bias speaking, I'll admit that. I don't get off on Smurf sex or Star Trek plots, though I might enjoy them otherwise as stories. (Well, probably not Smurfs.) But the essence of erotic writing, to my mind, is the ability of the reader to project himself (or herself) into the story, to imagine he's part of the action. Isn't that what even a rudimentary masturbation fantasy is all about? If the reader can identify with one of the protagonists, can imagine the setting, can share in the plot development, . . . then you've got him.
Some of the fan mail I've received that has pleased me the most has been from readers who've said things like, "My relationship with my first lover was just like that," or "Wow, I could practically feel that happening as I read it." I take such comments on a story's believability as major compliments.
Are you limited to real-life occurrences? Of course not; erotica is a form of fantasy, after all. These are the things the reader *wishes* would happen. And, for that to be possible, the reader must be able to believe that the plot and the action *could* happen.
Another factor in believability is verisimilitude -- attention to telling detail. Don't just have the girl leave the house: Have her step out on the porch, shiver at the unexpected cold, and step back in to put on her new quilted jacket, the one her fiance‚ gave her that matches his own. Such details make the story more real. Don't just say, "He came," or even "He came over and over again." Say, "He gasped as her cunt muscles squeezed his cock; he felt the semen begin to bubble up from his straining balls." Or whatever. Paint a picture the reader can see, hear, feel, and experience.
Anyone whose has read more than a couple of my stories can probably figure out a number of biographical facts from the geographical and chronological details, because I use "furniture" that's familiar to me. You don't have to be explicit about exactly *where* a story takes place, but you'll do a better job of describing the setting if you start with a real location.
In one of my stories, the girl lives in an upstairs one-fourth of an old house that's been carved up for student housing. She got the original bathroom and a huge old clawfooted tub -- and the tub figures in the story. Guess what? I used to live in such a house (though I had the original kitchen, downstairs).
In another story, the hero ferries a car from Texas to Florida. I never did that -- but a good friend in high school did, and I remembered the details. And I got out my Rand McNally Road Atlas and worked out how many days the trip would reasonably take and where the driver's nights would be spent.
On the other hand, being too explicit about locale can be dangerous. I read a story several years ago in which the protagonist is a Harvard student who goes out into Harvard Square to stroll among the trees and reflect on his problems. Actually, anyone who's ever visited Cambridge knows the poor guy is more likely to be run over by traffic or trampled by students flooding up out of the 'T' station!
Adapting real memories and facts is almost always easier, and more successful,
than making everything up from scratch -- even if that were possible, which
I doubt. The classic advice is, "Write what you know about." Personally,
I don't think you can *help* doing so, so you might as well do it constructively.
No, I don't mean you have to get paid for what you write. (Though it's certainly nice when they *do* pay you . . .) I mean you must have respect for your audience. If you don't, they'll know it and they're unlikely to bother with you next time.
Take the time to edit your work -- several times. Perhaps you'll even improve on the story itself, as well as fixing the grammar and the spelling. I've rewritten the opening paragraphs of this essay at least four times even before reaching this point. If you can't spell well, ask someone else to copyedit for you. (Swapping manuscripts with another struggling writer is nearly always useful.)
Don't rewrite someone else's story; come up with ideas of your own. Yes, we all "borrow" bits and pieces from each other, but change and adapt what you borrow and make it your own. Originality is always more interesting to the reader. If you're dry, try the getting-started exercises I mentioned earlier.
Take your writing seriously. I don't mean you shouldn't have fun with it -- Nabokov said "Lolita" was the most enjoyable writing experience he'd ever had, and I *know* Anne Rice had fun writing "Exit to Eden" and "Belinda" -- but the act of writing should be important enough to you to invest time and effort and care in it. If not, why bother? (This is the main reason I object to calling what I write "pornography." That word has a sneer built into it that implies it's not worth doing.)
Listen to friendly criticism. In fact, seek it out. It will only improve you. You don't have to do with your story what your critic thinks you should do, necessarily, but you should listen.
For myself, a corollary to taking seriously what I write is ignoring flamers who don't. Religious and moral zealots -- especially when it's some nineteen-year-old parroting his parents -- are not interested in discussing the pros and cons of your writing, believe me. I'm always willing to discuss (or argue) criticism of plot-lines and characters and subtexts and social relevance, . . . but I have to assume, up front, that I'm not just wasting my time.
Practice. Write. A lot. Read even more, and not just erotica. You can
never write too much, and reading is never unproductive. Hone your skills.
Go to the library, check out books on writing techniques and word usage,
and read them. Pay attention to what's going on around you and work it
into your writing. And then write some more. When you find yourself rewriting
and copyediting the note you leave for the milkman, you've begun to get
the idea. And when your boss begins bringing you drafts of his outgoing
memos, you can start introducing yourself to strangers as a Writer.
--- END ---
Copyright 1997 by Michael K. Smith. Copies may be made and posted elsewhere
for personal enjoyment, but all commercial rights are reserved.