I posted this about a year ago, but I'm bouncing it back to the top, partly because I'll be doing a panel on the subject at the Arisia convention this weekend, and partly because I'm taking submissions for my next anthology, Best Lesbian Erotica of the Year Volume 2, up until February 15th.
This is a compendium of various article and interviews I've done on the subject. Sure, there's some repetition, but if I repeat it, it's important, right? Right?
I come to praise erotica, not to define it. Considering who’s likely to be reading here, erotica doesn’t need any cheerleading from me, but I’ll do it anyway. The erotic is such a subjective concept that I don’t need to define it, just know it when I see it, and know what I like. It also happens to be my business to know a certain amount about what other people might like. As editor of twelve anthologies categorized as lesbian erotica (two of them Lambda Award winners,) with more in the works, I get to decide which submitted stories work as erotica for that particular niche-within-a-niche. My publishers have the final say on all the stories, but they’ve never yet rejected one of my choices on the grounds of not being erotic enough. Come to think of it, I’ve very seldom rejected a submission for not being erotic enough.
My basic requirements for erotica are a high level of sexual tension, and an orgasm for at least one character. Explicit language is fine, but not required; a really good writer can make a scene intensely hot without having to make decisions about what to call various body parts, or even to list those parts. Get your characters’ feelings and sensations across well enough, and the reader’s imagination will do the rest.
For me, though, the best erotica is about more than sex. Just because a story provides enough of an erotic charge to be called erotica doesn’t limit it, or mean that it can’t do more besides. I know all too well how little respect erotica gets—“Plot? What Plot?” And there are the surprisingly numerous reviews that start out with, in essence, “I never read erotica because it’s all trash, but this book, to my astonishment, is an exception!” Clearly they’ve been reading the wrong erotic books, or more likely not reading any at all. And I know all too well the condescending attitude of “Erotica? Surely you could do better than that!”
Better than what? Than a full-frontal approach to an essential, complex facet of human existence? Besides the physical stimulation, erotic interchanges can be as revelatory of character as any other basic human activity, and more so than most, since they deal with heightened emotions and senses and, in some cases, heavily weighted baggage from past experience. They can also provide ways to slip in details not revealed in calmer moments; shyness or confidence, impulsiveness or self-control, tenderness, aggression, vulnerability, repression, or raw, unapologetic sensuality. The various flavors of BDSM are about more than sex as well, even though they’re intensely bound to sexual fulfillment. In LGBT erotica, which is most (though not all) of what I write and edit, there are the added complexities of gender presentation and cultural taboos even more deeply rooted than the general squeamishness about sex.
Fiction that deals explicitly with sex can be as well-written, thought-provoking and creative as that in any other genre (or the non-genre that likes to call itself “mainstream” or “literature.”) Settings can be as varied and vividly evoked; different periods in history can be as well-researched and essential to the plot or story arc; characters can be as multidimensional. There’s nothing wrong with short, sharp, no-frills, cut-to-the-chase-and-clinch erotica, but that too can be done with consummate skill.
My point here is that erotica can and often does go beyond its stereotypical reputation. If our wider culture weren’t so obsessed with sex as “sinful,” some of the best writers in our genre could be publishing their sexually-explicit work in venues outside the erotica ghetto. The flip side of that, of course, is that the perception of sex as sinful draws many readers to erotica, and I’d never discount the way a sense of transgression and flouting (even mooning) authority can spice up sex of any flavor.
Here’s another piece, written for writer and reviewer Ashley Lister’s blog about his book How to Write Erotic Fiction and Sex Scenes. He asked some writers and editors to contribute suggestions of their own. We were limited to five suggestions each, which was a good thing; otherwise I'd still be going on about it. Anyway, here are my suggestions.
1) Tell a story as only you can tell it. Be familiar with other writing in your genre, but don’t imitate anyone else. As an editor I look for an original approach and a distinctive voice; something to set a story apart from all the thousands I’ve seen before. Surprise me!
2) Make your characters so real that the reader can tell them apart just by the way they act and speak, even when you don’t specify who’s speaking.
3) Pay attention to the rhythm of your prose. Vary the length and structure of your sentences (unless, of course, you use short, choppy sentences or long, rambling ones to make a certain point or define a character.)
4) Don’t assume that grammatical constructions you see over and over must be correct, or should be used over and over. There’s no need for sentence after sentence, or even paragraph after paragraph, to begin with a participial phrase such as “Opening the door, she crossed the room.” Think about that. Is the room so small one could cross it while still in the process of opening the door? Even when there’s no such grammatical problem, overuse of “ing” looks amateurish (and is, obviously, one of my pet peeves.) There are other more varied ways of avoiding too many sentences that start with “she” or the character’s name.
5) And speaking of pet peeves, particularly when dealing with erotica, PLEASE be sure you know whether your character’s movements and actions are physically possible. I’m not talking about superhuman endurance, or strength; I’m just considering logistics. Remember whose various parts are where, and don’t tie the reader’s (and editor’s) mind in knots trying to figure out how what was up is suddenly down, and why what faced one direction (and was, in fact, tied that way) is suddenly available for full frontal play. This sort of thing can apply to any scenes of concentrated action, erotic or otherwise, but interrupting the flow of a sex scene is especially, well, frustrating.
This next question-and-answer piece is from an interview I did with superb editor Rachel Kramer Bussel for an article she was writing.
Rachel: Do you have any advice about the specifics of writing historical erotica and romance? Your guidelines for Thunder of War, Lighting of Desire say "research it until you know it more intimately than you remember yesterday." Can you elaborate on how an author can go about doing that? For those that do have a grasp on the time period they are writing about, is there any leeway to bend convention in terms of what probably would have happened for the sake of a good story?
Sacchi: My statement about research was a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. When you’re into the actual writing process, part of you does need to be, in a sense, deeply submerged in the time period you write about. You can do a lot of research online, about the geographical and political and cultural aspects of the place and time you write about, but it’s also essential to read works by people who lived in those times and places, if at all possible. You want not only the facts of their history, but the idiosyncratic style and cadence of their speech as it comes through in their writing, even though you’ll need to balance the authenticity of their prose with your own sense of what your readers will find comprehensible. Memoirs are especially useful. And you need to know the small details, too; I remember a story that had a character wearing nylon stockings at least ten years before those were invented. While it’s true that very few readers would notice that, why take a chance when you could Google it? What you can’t Google as easily is the erotic component of people’s lives in different time periods, so we have to use our imaginations. They obviously had sex, or we wouldn’t be here, and despite what every generation seems to think, there’s nothing we do now that hasn’t been done before (unless it requires advanced technology.) As far as bending conventions, my preference is not to pretend they didn’t exist, but give the characters credit for managing to get what they want in spite of the obstacles.
Rachel: Since these calls are for 3000-5000 or 6000 word pieces, how much of the story should be focused on the erotic and romance vs. the historical aspect? Is there an ideal balance between the two, or does that depend on the story?
Sacchi: This varies, of course, according to the editors and publishers. Ideally the romance and erotica blend seamlessly with the plot and historical aspects. You don’t want an info-dump of everything you know about the history, just the parts that are necessary to your story and the atmosphere you want to construct. And you don’t want—or at least I don’t want—sex scenes that don’t flow naturally from the structure of the story and the characterization. But you can fit a lot of sexual tension between the lines, so to speak, and build up to the explicit parts so that they feel inevitable.
Rachel: This is actually an issue I had when attempting to write a story for your Lesbian Cops anthology, which I never completed: how can an author tell if their story sounds authentic if they haven't personally experienced the topic they're writing about?
Sacchi: Sometimes we just can’t tell, but we do write about plenty of things we haven’t experienced. In the case of the Lesbian Cops book, I knew that many readers would be looking for stereotypes, or even caricatures of cops, but I didn’t want to go that way. It was more important to show the human side of being a lesbian cop, a woman in a job more usually held by men, the conflicts, stresses, emotional trauma, and the way sex gets intertwined with these factors. Police procedural details could be left a bit fuzzy, but any of us who write about the emotional and sexual lives of women could extrapolate to the special intensity of being a strong woman facing crime, danger, mayhem, and crude misogyny on a daily basis.(It also wouldn’t hurt to have watched TV shows like Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Streets, NYPD Blue, and/or any of the many police procedural shows currently showing.) If you’re interested enough in a topic to want to write about it, chances are you can find ways to learn enough of the details.
Rachel: What makes a particular story stand out for you as an editor and select it for your anthologies?
Sacchi: I like work that feels original, told in a distinctive voice, without appearing to strain to be different. Writing that flows with the right pace for the moods being evoked is always a plus. Characters should have enough individuality that it’s clear in much of the dialogue which one is speaking, even without telling the reader. Sex scenes can be described at first in terms of what an observer might see, but the focus should eventually be on the sensations of the central character so that the reader can be swept along by the rising tide of passion—and the writer had better find some fresher image than “the rising tide of passion.” Stories that manage to be about more than just the sex stand out, too, and depending on the theme of an anthology, sometimes they really have to be about more than the sex. It’s also perfectly possible to ignore all these things and still write a story that startles me into loving it. One more factor to bear in mind is that the anthology as a whole needs to have the right balance of types of stories, so even an excellent piece can turn out not to fit into the shape the book ultimately develops. If it’s good, it will fit some other book, so keep on trying.
Rachel: As an anthology editor, is there anything you can share about what you'd like to see in addition to your guidelines you can share? Pet peeves or things you wish people did with their writing that you don't see enough of?
Sacchi: I usually cover quite a lot about what I want in my guidelines, but it’s true that sometimes I don’t know exactly what I want until I see it. I do have pet peeves, mostly about habits writers pick up from other writers until it seems like it must be right because everybody’s doing it—but it isn’t right. The prolific (and often incorrect) use of participial phrases is a major pain I see too often. “Knocking on the door, I strode across the room…” Really? You kept on knocking while you were striding? But even if the phrases are used correctly, piling them up two or three to a paragraph and a dozen to a page will make me cringe. I know writers are sometimes trying not to start too many sentences with “I” or “she,” but this isn’t the way to do that, at least not if you’re writing for me. Another thing I see too often is the use of terms that might have seemed fresh and original the first time you saw them, like the rather archaic “delved” applied to the actions of tongues penetrating mouths, but when you see them time after time they get to standing out like, well, sore tongues. If you absolutely must use them, don’t do it more than once in a short story.
Rachel: Any other thoughts?
Sacchi: No matter what I’ve said above, write your story the way you think it should be written. And pay attention to work by other writers that really impress you, not so you can copy them, but to remind you how many different and unexpected ways there are to write memorable fiction. I’m still startled by that “wow” factor every now and then, and sometimes the feeling is almost better than sex. Almost.
I’ll end, at last, with a chapter I contributed to Fran Walker’s Lavender Ink: Writing and Selling Lesbian Fiction from Bedazzled Ink (Chapter 10), titled, obviously, “Sex Scenes”.
What is it about sex scenes in books? Our culture’s conflicted attitudes toward sex are not only reflected, but magnified, in our reactions to the very idea of writing or reading about sex. No other section of a book, except, possibly, the ending, inspires so much flipping through the pages. Some readers will be avid to find the “good parts” and devour them first, while others will want to make sure they know which pages to avoid. And it’s equally true that some writers can’t wait to get working on the erotic bits, while others, pressured to include them by editors or by their own assessments of the market, avoid writing them until everything else has been done and they can’t procrastinate any longer.
I won’t try to tell you, as a writer, that whatever method you use is wrong. If you can make it work, that’s great. But I will tell you what kind of reader you should write for: one who opens herself to your characters, gets drawn into their lives and emotions, and follows wherever the story leads because it’s so compelling that she can’t bear to miss a word. Not even words she might usually avoid.
Your first responsibility is to give this reader what she needs. Being true to your characters is just as essential, but you’ve seduced the reader into some degree of identification with your POV character, so it amounts to the same thing. And what she needs, besides an emotional bond that intensifies into a physical one, is a scene that flows naturally from what comes before and advances the characterization and story arc at least as much as any other element of the work.
Sex scenes serve many purposes beyond satisfying an editor who believes that they sell books. Erotic interchanges can be as revelatory of character as any other basic human activity, and more so than most, since they deal with heightened emotions and senses and, in some cases, heavily weighted baggage from past experience. If you’ve already developed your characters fully, aspects of their personalities and histories can be emphasized in sex scenes, but you may also find that these scenes provide ways to slip in details not revealed in calmer moments. Shyness or confidence, impulsiveness or self-control, tenderness, vulnerability, repression, unapologetic sensuality; these are only a few of the traits that can be surface in the heat of a sexual encounter. The characters may even surprise themselves with their own reactions.
The sex scene can also serve less complex purposes. Sometimes your characters (and the reader) just need to have a really good time, whether as a counterpoint to the stresses of whatever else is happening in your story or as a pacing device to vary the mood from scene to scene. And eventually you have to deliver the implicitly promised payoff to all the emotional and erotic tension you’ve been building.
You have been building erotic tension, haven’t you? It’s a huge mistake to think of a sex scene as a single obligatory lump of action inserted into your story with no relevance to the rest, sticking out like a sore thumb. (Yes, that’s an unforgivable cliché. Yes, I could think of several metaphors more in keeping with our topic, but I’ll leave those as an exercise for the reader.)
When it comes to building toward sex scenes, foreshadowing is like foreplay. It’s not going to be convincing for your characters to leap suddenly into a passionate clinch without ever having given hints, in thought or deed, of a growing sexual attraction. Even if your plot involves repression or denial, you need to find subtle ways of showing that something is simmering under the surface. The reader, as well as the characters, has to be ready for an eruption. In a novel that isn’t specifically erotica you don’t want to overdo the sensual foreshadowing to the point of distraction from the other essential elements, but it does need to be part of the blend.
So now your characters, setting, and emotional connection with your reader have been established. You’ve drawn on all the senses, using sight, hearing, scent, touch, and taste wherever they might be appropriate. Erotic tension has mounted, and you’ve reached the point when a sex scene is the natural next step in the progression of their relationship (and your story). Many writers, as well as readers, would prefer to leave the rest to the imagination, but if you’re reading this we’ll assume that for one reason or another—editorial pressure, personal inclination, recognition of the importance to the story as a whole--you intend to create a fully developed and explicit sexual encounter.
Just how explicit is explicit enough? I used to say, when asked, that a story crosses the line into erotica when the writer has to make decisions about what terms to use for parts of the body. It was a stupid answer. It’s quite possible (and an intriguing challenge) to write intensely arousing and satisfying scenes without naming body parts at all. Anyone reading your work is likely to be familiar with the anatomical territory, and will understand what’s going on from the context and the reactions and dialogue of the characters (assuming that “Yes, there, please, right there,” counts as dialogue).
Nevertheless, the language you use to describe sex can have nearly as much impact on the reader as the actions you’re describing. For better or for worse, sex has accumulated so much baggage in our culture that “dirty” words can carry an erotic jolt of their own, positive for some people, negative for others. You can’t predict how each reader will react. All you can do is be familiar enough with your characters to know whether they’d say “cunt” or “pussy” or “vulva”; “clit” or “clitoris”; “labia” or “lips”; “ass” or “buttocks”; or…well, you get the picture. Even the choice between “breasts” or “tits” or “boobs” says something about the character’s personality, background, and mood. “Tits” is a perfectly good colloquial version of “teats”, a term currently more in use in animal husbandry, but these days “tits” has a certain edge to it that might or might not be what you’re looking for. “Boobs” feels to me like a more casual, flippant usage, which can have its place as well. Just be glad that in lesbian fiction we don’t have to deal with labels for male genitalia, unless in a metaphorical sense, but really, let’s not go there right now.
My advice, from the perspective of just one reader/writer/editor, is to get as much mileage as you can out of non-controversial terms, and then use the others, but sparingly. Hands, fingers, tongues, thighs; few descriptions are more erotic than getting any of the first three moving between a pair of the fourth. When the focus inevitably becomes so narrowed that you do need more specific (or “explicit”) language, keep it short and non-clinical. I know readers for whom “clitoris” triggers book-against-the-wall syndrome because it seems to them too stilted and affected. Others prefer it. Go figure.
The one time above all others when you don’t want to throw the reader out of the scene (or have the book thrown against the wall) is in the full heat of a sexual encounter. Or a good fuck, if you prefer blunt to stilted. The word choices mentioned above might have that unfortunate effect on a few readers, but an even surer way is to get carried away by a desire for originality. If you’re going to try your hand at new ways to describe, say, hardened nipples, you might come up with something creative and right to the point, but you’d better run it by an unbiased beta reader or two. (Acorns and berries and snails and pencil erasers have already been overused, just so you know.) Even a term that might be successful in the context of poetry or high fantasy could interrupt the erotic flow for a reader if she has to stop and think about it. I’m not saying that you should never be creative, but you need to be aware of the hazards. All of the other advice you’ve seen about keeping adverbs and adjectives to a minimum applies here, as well, and ellipses, especially tempting in erotica since so much reaction is non-verbal, need just as firm a hand.
Another word-choice issue, one inherent in same-sex erotica, is the problem of pronouns. Which “she” is touching which “her” with whose hand? Maybe this is a trade-off for not needing to describe the reproductive apparatus of the opposite sex. In any case, a scene won’t work well with confusion as to these vital details. A first person point of view takes care of the problem, but deciding what kind of POV works best for a story should be based on other factors.
So what can you do? Ideally the context, the individualized personalities of the characters, and their relative positions at a given time (if one is standing and the other is sitting, we know who’s reaching down and who’s looking up), will make some of the interactions clear. When these aren’t enough, don’t be afraid to use their names, even if it seems repetitive. Don’t give in to the urge to use too many adjectives, at least not in the form of “the darker woman” or “the whimpering girl”; these distance the reader from the action at just the worst time. This doesn’t mean that you can’t get away with some physical descriptions to indicate who’s doing what—“dark hair brushed her skin”, “her large hand moved faster”—but don’t rely on them too often. When you need to use a name for clarity, do it. If you’re handling the rest of the scene well enough, the reader will be too involved to notice.
This brings us to writing the scene itself. You’re getting tired of so many warnings of what not to do; now let’s try to focus on what you should do, and how to do it. “Focus” is the key word. Focus on what your characters are feeling. You do this throughout the book, of course, but it’s especially important in scenes dealing with romance and sex.
People read for the sensations it arouses. The stimulation might be intellectual, or something along the lines of sense-of-wonder, but far more often they’re looking for an emotional and sensual charge, something that stirs the body as well as the mind. A romantic scene can do this as well as an erotic one for many readers. There’s a physical reaction; the heart seems to swell, the pulse quickens, the face may flush, there may even be a hint of tears. It’s no accident that something with emotional appeal is often termed “touching”. Taking it to the next, erotic, level should build on this physical response, extend it to more areas of the body, and intensify it.
There’s no single required structure for a sex scene. For one thing, the scene doesn’t stand alone, unless it constitutes the entirety of a short story. You may have got your characters (and the reader) so worked up that they go right at it the moment they’ve made it to a private corner, or the tone may not even be overtly erotic at the beginning, until some catalyst triggers a reaction that becomes an irresistible force. You’ve been leading up to this, building erotic tension at various strategic points, sometimes subtly, sometimes with more emphasis. You may have established a pattern this way that echoes the overall structure of the plot, with advances, retreats, and barriers to overcome, but by the time you reach the “real” sex scene the flow should be almost entirely forward. There can be exceptions; your plan for character development might call for one or another of the lovers to show hesitation, or experience painful flashbacks, or something along those lines; but your ultimate goal is an uninterrupted stretch of accelerating heat that comes to a satisfying conclusion. You don’t necessarily want to reach that point too fast, though--getting there is a whole lot of the fun.
While there’s no single approved structure, and we’ve all seen far too many scenes that seem to follow a porn-by-numbers formula, there’s one type of progression to bear in mind and to follow unless you have some clear artistic or plot-building reason to depart from it. Think of it as concentric circles of awareness, with the POV character’s focus progressing from outward to the center. The focus of the other character in the scene—or more, if you have them, but it makes my head hurt to imagine the complications then in describing which “she” is doing what to which proliferation of body parts—will be narrowing similarly, as perceived by the first character.
You begin with an awareness of the setting. This may have been already established before the scene begins, but a few details can help to set the initial mood. Distant sounds of music or voices, perhaps, or the pinging of an old radiator; the scent of hay in the loft or rain on the night breeze; whatever fits your setting. Then the focus retracts to a small space containing only the characters themselves, and then to parts of their bodies (at this point clothes probably come off, although not necessarily), and then to the POV character’s sensations as she touches individual body parts or is touched. At the ultimate point of inward focus, her consciousness is fixed on her own center, her body’s needs and the sensations that finally fulfill them.
This pattern is only one among many possible scenarios, and runs contrary to certain perceived traditions. In lesfic especially, there’s often an emphasis on paying as much attention to your partner’s pleasure as to your own, and simultaneous orgasms are portrayed rather more frequently than actual experience would indicate. That’s fine; we’re talking about fiction, after all. But my preference is for letting the reader focus most intently on entering into the POV character’s experience, and then, after a pause for breath, sharing that character’s pleasure in fulfilling her partner’s needs. The more non-simultaneous orgasms, the better.
I’m not going to go into any more explicit detail about how to make your sex scene hot. The crucial point is to make it hot for your characters, and to get their feelings across well enough to draw your reader into them.
Writing about what turns you yourself on is the best bet, but good writers share the secret superpower of imagination. If you can expand your mind to the point of understanding how someone else could find certain things arousing that you would never actually want to do, and have drawn your characters accordingly, a reader who has followed them this far will probably be primed to go the rest of the way. You must, though, be sure you know what you’re talking about, especially when it comes to BDSM and related kinky practices. Your research can involve books or observation rather than personal experimentation, but there are complex nuances to such concepts as consensual power play, and uninformed assumptions can get you into trouble.
Don’t feel that you have to include acts that you actually find distasteful. If, for instance, the thought of using teeth on tender parts makes you cringe (and assuming that cringing is not something you enjoy on any level), or anal sex squicks you out, or feather-stroking strikes you as merely annoying, don’t use them. There are plenty of other options. A scene where everyone remains fully clothed and the major friction comes from thighs pressing into crotches can be as erotic as naked slippery bodies performing complex contortions. You just have to do a good enough job of showing how intensely the participants are enjoying it to convince the reader and take her along for the ride. Focus on the feelings.
But what do editors look for? Don’t they require a certain amount of explicit language and hotter-than-life sex? Probably some do. There are anthologies, for instance, with themes like bondage or fetishes or one or another edgy practice, but if you’re aiming at those, you already know what you want to write and what audience you’re writing for. Some publishers, especially of e-books, do seem to have fun devising colorful rating systems to describe the “heat” levels of their various lines, which tends to strike me as silly. I can’t speak for editors of novel-length work at all, since all my experience is with writing and editing short fiction.
I can only speak, of course, from that experience. I’ve edited or co-edited a dozen erotica anthologies, and I’ve never consciously established any kind of quota for sexual content. Well, if it’s an erotica anthology, there should be sexual tension, and someone, at some point, should reach orgasm, but I’ve never tried to quantify any of it. An involving story, interesting characters and setting, and any other creative quality that makes a story stand out from a sea of same-old-same-old pieces does it for me more than a specific percentage of pages involving explicit sex. Sex has to be a significant part of the story, but it needs to have a good story around it, and I especially like it when even the sex is about more than sex.
Many other editors feel the same way. Time after time I see guidelines practically begging for creative, convincing, diverse work. Readers can sometimes have a comfort zone—or arousal zone—that draws them to choose the same kinds of stories over and over, but editors have to slog through so much material that it takes something different to catch their attention, even if the difference is in how well the story is written and just how intensely the reader is made to feel the emotions and experiences of the characters.
That’s really all I can tell you in general terms about writing sex scenes, and I suspect you knew it all already, on one level or another. Create characters, setting, plot, and sensory details that will draw the reader into the story, and when a sex scene is the natural next step, focus on feelings. Do it just as you would in any other part of the story, but even more so, because there is something special about sex scenes.
So that’s all I have to say about that, not that I haven’t written more such things, but there is such a thing as too much repetition. Maybe the best advice of all is to write a story as only you can write it, the way that feels right to you, and don’t bother with any advice at all.