Writing Erotica

by Mathilde Madden

Being a published author is fantastic—there’s nothing like it—but being an erotica author has a pretty unique status.

The other night, I was out at a comedy show supporting a friend who was performing on stage, and I bumped into another comedian who knew me from my own performing days. He seemed disappointed that I was no longer getting up on stage myself. Despite my long-winded explanations that I had a two-year-old daughter and another baby on the way, both of which made me rather less inclined to spend every evening in a smoke-filled underground room prancing around on a stage, he remained unconvinced that I was still an interesting and worthwhile person.

“Oh,” he said, “so you’re just a mum now then?”

Now, I realise the correct response here would be to berate the man extensively for his use of the phrase just-a-mum, but I didn’t do that. I desperately wanted to appear cool and, more to the point, I desperately wanted to show I was still in the creativity game. So I told him my first novel was being published in January. And believe me, in the right circles, having a novel published can earn you respect quicker than having a Nobel Peace Prize. He gawked, he gaped, he checked I wasn’t doing vanity publishing, and he all but threatened me (comically, I should add) for stealing his dreams and making them mine.

But I never told him it was an erotic novel. Don’t ask me exactly why, but something told me that if I admitted this it would be like telling him I wasn’t a real writer.

And that’s the biggest downside of writing in the erotica genre, rather than, say, science fiction. Even though you have to stick just as many words on to the page as a writer of any other genre, create characters and plot, and find ways of including lots and lots of varied and interesting sex, an erotica writer will never quite have the caché of the non-filth merchant.

It’s because of this lack of respect that erotica can be seen as a soft option for budding writers. My publisher says that a lot of the novel proposals she gets sent are from people who are simply desperate to get in print and think erotica might be the route in. This is probably the worst reason to write erotica.

Erotica is a genre, like romance or science fiction. The only reason anyone should chose to write in any specific genre is because they love it. If you don’t buy and read erotica for fun it’s pretty unlikely you will enjoy writing it, and if you’re not enjoying it, it’ll show in your writing. So the first rule of writing erotica is read some erotica. Actually, no, the first rule is to already be someone who buys and reads Erotica—so get reading, sharpish!

So look around. There’s the stuff I write and read, which is written mainly for heterosexual women; there’s the stuff for gay men; there’s BDSM stuff; there’s the stuff for heterosexual men (an awful lot of which I dislike, but there’s something for everyone); and lots more.

Once you find the stuff you really enjoy reading, turn over the book and see who is publishing it. Simple! Get hold of copy of their submission guidelines, and then you are all set. You’re sure that erotica is for you, you’ve fixed on a type of novel, you’ve identified a publisher for the stuff you want to write, you’ve looked at their submission guidelines for any rules on length, taboo topics and anything else you need to know. All you need now is a plot, a handful of characters and a smidge of writing talent.

And, yes, you do need a plot. Descriptions of people having sex will sometimes suffice for an erotic short story—and even then you’ll need to be an exceptional writer to pull it off. But with a novel you need something more for your characters to do.

Basic ideas work well—giving your protagonist a goal to achieve, to get somewhere or solve a mystery. You could look at some basic writer’s guides if you need some inspiration, as they often cover plotting basics.

Try and keep it simple though; if your twisty-turny plot gets too thrilling it might get in the way of the sex scenes. Sex scenes need a lot of room; probably about 1/3 of your novel will be sex or stuff leading up to sex. If your plot takes over and you can’t fit enough sex in, maybe you ought to consider writing a thriller instead—albeit one with some hot sex scenes!

You will also need well-developed characters. Again, putting these together follows the same principles as for writing any novel (although, as with plot, you might find you need less characters than you would for a mainstream novel). You need people who will engage the reader and make them want to find out more.

One mistake in erotica is to make your characters too unusual or exotic. Just because it’s an erotic novel doesn’t mean you need to fill it with dominatrixes and go-go dancers. The best erotica novels are about ordinary people who pursue their sexualities in interesting ways. 

Also, try to resist the temptation to give your characters outlandish names. Names need to memorable and distinct, but plausible—so if you are tempted to call your main character Tatiana Chastity, you might be better off writing humour. On a similar note, I prefer to write and read about pretty normal looking people, or at least a good variety of pretty and ugly types. Just because you are writing erotica doesn’t mean everyone has to be a gorgeous.

One reason why I find conventional, male orientated erotica so alienating is that it seems to be populated entirely by 22-year-old blondes with tiny waists and huge boobs (not to mention insatiable libidos). I’d like to think there is erotica by and for men that is breaking this mold, though, and if there isn’t, perhaps it’s time someone wrote some.

Thankfully in women’s erotica realism is very much the fashion. And why not? A lot of very sexy fictional characters are not conventionally attractive, which makes them far more interesting to read and write about. A leading lady with bad hair and glasses, playing against a short, ginger leading man is much more interesting than Ms. stunning 22 year old blonde with huge tits and Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome.

And talking of tall, dark and handsome—although it’s not always the case, erotica can be very similar to romance. A lot of the conventions and devices of romance writing transfer over quite well, and one that I would suggest you consider is sexual tension.

Maybe I like writing sexual tension because it’s what I like to read. Seeing a couple bicker and wanting them to get together is so perennial you almost have to watch out your plot doesn’t become a cliché. Placing a lot of obstacles in the way of your leading man and lady and their declaration of true love/falling into bed together is a definite way of keeping the pages turning (although because of the cliché problem you’ll need to have more to your plot than just that).

However, sexual tension can be problematic in erotica novels, because all the time that tension is staying unresolved you need to find somewhere else for your frequent sex scenes to come from! Keeping your main couple apart is great for plot, but if you’re writing erotica, someone needs to be getting some.

If you decide to cover this point by having some additional characters who are providing much-needed relief from all the sexual tension, you will probably discover why a lot of erotic novels have more than one viewpoint character. I prefer to write from one viewpoint only, but that does put an awful lot of pressure on one character to keep being the centre of sexual attention, and does stretch your creativity to the limit to stop the sex scenes getting samey. Which, as with life, is an all too common problem.

When it comes to writing the sex itself, it will either come easily or it won’t (excuse the pun). It helps if you can be flexible with your schedule and write the sex scenes when you’re in the mood. A method that works for me is that when I sit down to write I usually have a go at some sex scenes first—that way I’ll quickly discover if I am in the mood or not. If I’m not, I write the non-explicit parts of the book (leaving gaps if need be to come back later), and if I am in the mood I try to keep going as long as I can before I burn out.

Writing sex—rather like having sex—can be particularly hard if you are distracted by other events in your life. Writing in the evening seems to help me, and also writing when I actually would rather be having sex. If I get desperate and a key scene seems very blocked I have been known to abstain from having sex for a week or so. Drastic, I know, but sometimes you just want something that will work!

I certainly would recommend writing erotic novels as a slightly lucrative hobby/very badly paid career. It has its own unique challenges and if, like me, you spend most of your time thinking about sex anyway, why not earn a little money from it?

And there is one advantage to this career that never fails to impress me: if you write erotica, you end up with your own tailor-made fun. My own work, because I’ve written it, touches every one of my hot buttons. I’m an avid reader of erotica, as I said, but there’s always a little something about the sex that is not quite my taste, or doesn’t quite fit my kinks. But not with stuff I’ve written myself. It’s always perfect.

Perfect sex every time…who could ask for more?

Useful links:

The Erotica Readers and Writers Association
An excellent resource and a good place for Calls for Submissions etc.

Black Lace Books
Check out their submission guidelines.

Mathilde Madden's novels include Peep Show, Equal Opportunities, and the Silver Collar trilogy. She has published shorter works and serials in Scarlet Magazine, Lust Bites, and Perplex City (an alternative reality game). She keeps a blog and website at mathildemadden.co.uk.