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
     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 more slowly.


     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
     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.

Michael K. Smith
May 1997