Note: I keep editing this as things occur to me.
So this is my sort of other side of the coin comment to Lois, because I found her comments on writing sex in non-erotic fiction
clarified a lot of my thoughts about writing sex in erotic fiction, and about erotic fiction in general. This stuff suddenly seems to make more sense when you can work with contrasts...
See, I've spent a lot of (in the end, useful) time grappling with the issue of genre-appropriate eroticism in what I write. For a long time, the notion of "toning it down" really collided with my worldview, probably because I was processing it as "(explicit, erotically portrayed) sex doesn't belong in serious fiction."
Which I... don't buy. And few things will get me as irked as the idea that sex in serious fiction is okay if it's unerotic or disastrous or horribly dysfunctional, but erotic sex is by definition 'gratuitous'.
But it doesn't belong in every piece of fiction, either, and there has to be some way to decide. And having tried and discarded the rules I thought I was seeing in use elsewhere, I have spent a lot of time trying to find a set that were helpful to me.
ETA: oh, good, I was useful after all; matociquala
has also posted on writing sex
, ETA2 twice, now
-- and apparently it's my fault for thinking at her. I'll cop to that. *g*
So today it occurred to me that if I gave the whole thing a quarter turn I get "sex, like every other story element, must contend with genre conventions." And genre conventions, as Lois noted, are a way of saying "reader expectations". You don't necessarily have to MEET your reader's expectations, but you do have to address them.
Ok, I can work with that.
Shortly thereafter it occurred to me, apropos of another bit of discussion, that erotic fiction isn't, by a very useful definition Lois put out there awhile back (don't know if it started with her, but she's where I got it) -- a genre is a group of works in close conversation -- or argumentation -- with one another -- exactly a genre. Yet.
ETA note by Lois: Yep, "A genre is any group of works in close conversation with one another" was my own, original line, and I'm quite pleased with it myself; if I'd been the writer of _Cold Comfort Farm_, I'd have given it three asterisks. (Stella Gibbons, iirc, highly recommended as the antidote for anyone who has overdosed on Thomas Hardy. Which is pretty much anyone who has read Thomas Hardy... but I digress.) Note I say any group of works, not just books, because painting has genres too. As does just about any other art or craft or hobby.
But Marna, you say. Erotica has been around forever! How can it be not a genre?
Well, yes. But each piece of it mostly floats around on its own, in isolation. The work is there, but the conversation is not. Or it is, in a sort of slow, muffled, crippled way.
I think that's changing, slowly.
There are conversations going on there, but it's kind of a bunch of semi-closed shops, and it's not a huge or really cohesive scene. Certainly not as compared to SF/F.
Some of that is probably about the particularity of erotic tastes, but then the SF/F community has all its specialised tastes too, and yet we sort of rub along and find common conversational ground.
Most of it, I suspect, is still about sex as dirty, sex as special case, sex as gratuitous content, etc etc etc. Or just that porn is purely functional, and as long as it more or less gets you there it need not have any 'wasted' beauty or grace to it. Which are reader expectations to be dealt with as well as possible, but they needn't necessarily stop us from reviewing, critiquing, discussing... from taking erotica seriously as a genre and talking about things like genre and subgenre conventions and how we want to work with and against them.
Considering erotica as a genre with genre conventions (which Lois also notes are basically a collective understanding of reader expectations, which I find a useful and true remark) allows for all sort of levels of erotica, including serious and deliberately plotful erotica, It also gives an interesting and I think a useful angle on many of the often heard personal objections to, say, slash:
It's absolutely true that most of the time friends are just friends, to take a recent example.
That doesn't mean that slash devalues platonic friendship. It means that slash is by and large romance, erotic romance, or straight up (sorry, ObBeing12 moment. The world is full of double entendres, and writing erotica teaches one to notice and use them so that they support and don't crossgrain your purposes. This, sadly, has the side effect of making some part of one's brain forever twelve ) erotica, and in erotic fiction, strong emotions tend to move towards the horizontal expression.
If you're reading a spy thriller, you may know very well that most real change in international politics comes about as a result of long, boring, complex actions and negotiations in which nobody at all gets stabbed in the back by their former partner, but you know that that probably isn't the plot you're facing.
And that's not a comment on one's personal reality. Genre conventions are to one's taste, or not, but they're not really a comment on reality.
prompted me to come up with a list of reader expectations for erotic work, and this is what I have so far. It occurs to me that the rest of this piece makes more sense if I add them here:
In an erotic story, the reader expects:
Attractive characters, conventionally or otherwise, but treated by the narration as appealing.
Mutually enjoyable sexual contact.
Generally positive emotions towards one another.
That the sex is recogniseably related to the characters and to the overarching plot, even if the sexless part of the plot is four lines either side.
That they will get to see not just the mechanics of the sex but a genuine look into the erotic response of the characters.
You can subvert any one of those in any story, you can maybe subvert two, but if you subvert all of them you have a story which may be good but isn't erotica, and if you just ignore them you have a mess, which if it turns anyone on will be because they have a truly bulletproof kink that will operate in any conditions.Here endeth the establishing remarks, and beginneth another round of Things Marna Thinks She Has Found Out About Writing Good Hot Sex For Erotica, with some remarks on tricks for the erotic story that wishes to find readers who are not already signed up to the kind of stimulus you have on offer this week.
1) Stylish, tight, good writing.
I value good writing in any genre, but in erotica I think it's an especially touchy issue; the effects of jarring the reader are more severe, for one thing, and the narrative voice has to establish itself as one you don't mind having around at a delicate moment. Even the much-decried Purple Prose has its place, or at least its younger and more modest sibling Lush Prose does. The human mind thinks in blood and roses when it comes to sexual pleasure, and you don't want to chill your reader with a good dose of clinicalism at the wrong time.
2) You don't get everybody.
Erotica has the same constraints as any other genre writing: you start out by assuming you have a certain percentage of people who actively want what you're peddling (this is one reason -- the other one being that slash and everything else are in the eye of the beholder -- why you can write a good, effective slash story, for example, about two characters where there is little or no homoerotic tension to most eyes and get readers. People who want slash want slash, and they'll do a lot to get it.) and then another percentage who wouldn't have it if it came with a pony, and you aim at group A.
Err. Not a pony in the story. In that part of the story. At least, that's not my readership. I hope, or they're probably fairly peeved at me by now, even if I do invoke fauna a lot for plot.
3) I'll note, as that just reminded me, that in plotful erotica there are all sorts of story elements you have to handle very very carefully that often don't really occur to the mind until you're in edit. Like, say, goats. The fauna and the rest of the set dressing must be deployed with great caution, lest you send your reader where nobody wants them to go. :)
4) On specifics/explicitness:
At the moment, I'm finding it very useful to think of this along genre lines at the moment, though I'll probably broaden out again when I'm done chewing this bit of meat.
So I'm mapping this to 'subgenre', as in the differences between, say, the difference between cozy country-house mysteries, police proceedurals, the detective-centric mystery novel of character, and the overtly literary mystery that wants to state a broader theme.
Sometimes you describe the blood spatter minutely. Sometimes you just say there's a body.
5) The case where you are a member of your own target audience requires careful handling. As does the case where you are not.
The best way I have yet encountered to deal with the whole writers-kinks versus narrative-requirements issue is to write your first draft long and detailed and exactly to your own taste and then edit the living heck out of it, if possible at a time when you're in an utterly unerotic mood. While eating oatmeal is good, I find ...
If you don't do the first, you risk never really getting any strong emotional resonance in the scene at all, not to mention you end up with amazing and amusing continuity errors from skimping your blocking.
If you don't do the second, well. The term for unexpurgated outpourings of one's own personal kinks is 'steamy love letter', and their natural audience is one person, already disposed to be tolerant. And even they can go horribly wrong...
6) Degree of detail does not equal hotness level, or even smuttiness level.
"All the details left in" is its own specialised subgenre, and even that doesn't _really_ leave them all in, it merely takes pains to add enough for versimilitude.
I mean, a certain consistency and tolerance for repetition is generally valued in the real life act, but it sort of kills the narrative. "And the rest of the night he was on 'er and off 'er" gets the point across nicely.
The trick to broadening the appeal of smut, if you care to do so, is, I find, strategic vaguenesses about mechanical detail coupled with a very tight narrative focus on the erotic and emotional responses of the parties involved. If you can entice your reader into the character's head, via methods that don't directly touch on sexual hot buttons, you can lead them for the space of the scene to want what the character so urgently wants, even if you stray a bit from what the reader would normally consider a good time.
There are limits to this, but you can get a pretty good run out of it.
Also, you can get away with a lot of telling detail in the more generally appealing bits, and there are always generally appealing bits, even in the most specialised erotica: like, just about nobody hates the smooching, and the smooching is usually pretty early on. If you can grab 'em and drag 'em in erotically with the smooching they'll probably stick for the ride. (I don't seem able to get away from the double entendres, do I?)
You can even get away with only writing the smoochies, pouring in enough detail to attain a suitable heat for making creme brulee, and then fade to black and people will hardly notice and tell you you are smutty as heck, when actually it's their dirty little minds, bless them, doing all the real heavy work. This is total stunt-writing, and sort of fun, in moderation. :)
And bits of telling detail in the non-erotic bits are also good. I think I once bought myself a whole pile of reader identification by deploying the phrase "and his knees, not to put too fine a point on it, were killing him." 'Cause most people can identify with THAT one; more even that can be gotten with smooching.
And there I run dry for a bit...
Addendum: Dealing With Erotic Cliches.
"Avoid them" doesn't totally work. Our main erotic and romantic goals as humans and as readers tend to be satisfaction, not wild originality; lots of human erotic behaviour is cliched for good reasons.
There are, however, things you can do to make them more palatable to the experienced reader: most of them add up to subversion, but not all.
For instance, you can have aware characters. (I'm sorry to fall back on my own work for examples, but the usual reason applies): I once wrote a character with a tall, beautiful blonde falling passionately into his arms. And made him notice that this was, you know, One Of Those Moments.
Also, playing with the tension between cliche and departure from cliche is good: said blonde was drunk. And needed a shave. And the falling was semi-literal, i.e. whups! tumbled over ... so, not VERY like a play, then.
And all that meant I could go cheerfully ahead with the basic Hot Damn! Hot Blond! In my lap! reaction of the character. Who is one of those guys who is aware enough to be amused by this sort of thing, but he really isn't gonna pass this up.
Or you can just deal with them straight on when they come up, and make sure that they're passing moments in your scene. This works best with those cliches ther's a reason for; actually, the first time you kiss someone you've wanted for a long time generally IS bloody explosive. If it isn't, you probably end up rethinking the sex thing right there.
And the bit right after the sex generally IS bloody awkward. Go ahead and let it be awkward; exert your originality on making them deal with it interestingly.
OK, that's all I got for now.
I think slowly but I get there: another way to make your erotica work better is to make your erotic detail do double duty: if you can manage to also make it forward the plot, the reader for whom it does not hit an erotic tender spot will still more readily accept it and is less likely to be tossed out of the scene, because it then "fades down" instead of sticking out like a sore thumb. So tie it to character or plot where you can; makes the erotica stronger, makes the plot stronger, means you can pack more detail in with less risk. Because you just never know what's going to hit a person's buttons, as I was reminded tonight when I passed a tall, thin blond man wearing a stripey scarf and didn't figure out for four blocks just exactly why that had hit me like a brick.
You know, nobody could predict that. When we say we're writing to a certain group's kinks, we're really only talking about the large print. The small print ... is luck. I'm trying to think of a good example of this except the really kind of squicky one in Elements
, because that's a special case where ambivalence was desired. Body movements or lines that can either be sexy or just tell you something about the character or what they are thinking. Environmental description, ditto. This may be best done via infilling on edit: oh yeah, I need her to smile like THIS later, when she lies, and to only do that when she's lying, and I can work it into the sex scene, cause she's lying there and also if you don't know that yet it's got a certain hot to it. Things like that.