On the comments area of my last post, on Circlet Press’ slush pile tweeting, a few people defended the act as being educational for wannabe erotica writers, as a way to humiliating them into observing publishers’ guidelines and paying more attention to their grammar.
It will certainly serve as a way to take down their slush pile. I definitely won’t be submitting to them. From the comments on facebook and tweets I’ve seen, neither will some very good writers. Budding new writers who are shy to enter the arena will also be put off. However, I’m almost certain that those too stupid to read their guidelines, or too lazy to improve their craft, and too arrogant to believe the rules of good writing apply to them will STILL submit their work to Circlet because they’re stupid, lazy and arrogant and those kind of people rarely believe any limitation actually applies to them anyway.
Nonetheless, I criticized Circlet Press on the basis of pedagogy; I said that studies show that humiliation is a poor form of education. I did not, however, suggest alternatives. I have a Masters in writing and I teach it. I believe this gives me an adequately informed opinion on the issue and I should be willing to suggest other ways of improving the quality of writing in the erotica community.
1. Take a basic course in writing. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t on erotic writing. What you want to do is get the fundamentals of writing under your belt. Diplomaguide.com has a magnificent list of Online Creative Writing Courses Offered Free by Top Universities and Educational Websites.
Remember that learning to be an eloquent writer will serve you not just in the field of erotica, but in may aspects of your life.
2. Join a writers group. This is a little more complicated. Most mainstream writers groups strictly prohibit explicit sex writing. ERWA is the best group I know. If there are others, please tell us about them in the comments area.
Being critiqued and having to give critiques are great ways to improve your writing. You will receive negative crits and they will sting, but when you step back and consider the legitimacy of the criticism, you will realize that someone just gave you an incredible gift for free. They care about your writing enough to spend time helping you improve it. Also, giving critiques of other’s work is very helpful. We can often see mistakes that other writers make that are also present in our own work. I remember reading a piece and thinking, this person uses speech tags way too much! And yikes! I do too!
3. Do you care more about the writing than you care about your feelings? I know it’s hard to get your head around, but there is a difference between the work – your story – and you. Here, in the privacy of your own head, if you can’t commit to caring more for the story, then you may want to reconsider being a writer. Because the writing is what counts.
4. Do you use your own experiences or your most treasured erotic fantasies in your writing? Can you gain enough distance from them? This is a bit of a continuation of the above point, but it is a specific hurdle in erotica writing.
The erotica genre is a strange beast. It has most in common with the mainstream genre because it deals with subject matter that is often part of everyone’s everyday life. Sci-fi and Mystery and Thrillers often use dramatically extreme situations – space, murder, espionage, etc. Most people don’t have direct experience of these things so it is easier to fictionalize them, dramatize them, make them compelling and exciting. There is also a very solid canon of works to aspire to in all of these genres.
This is not true for the erotica genre. There are very few ‘canonical’ texts and those that do exist are often not very good guides for you. Much of the Marquis DeSade’s work would never see publication today because it contains extreme violence, non-consensual sex and – if truth be told – the writing is pretty terrible. He was repetitive and hyperbolic. Anais Nin is a better member of the canon, but she has a few gloriously erotic pieces about fucking her father, and some in which the subject is well ‘underage’ by today’s standards. These would likely not see publication today. ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ is too tame for today’s market and Arthur Miller doesn’t get to the sex quick enough – and when he does, it’s not (in my view) all that erotically written. ‘The Story of O’ and Anne Rice’s ‘Beauty’ series are both arguably considered works in the canon of erotic literature. But it is worth noting that they are both dealing with very extreme forms of sexual deviance and, in my opinion (which is not at all humble), the Rice books would not have received the notoriety they have achieved if it weren’t for her success with her vampire novels. I found them lacking in depth and also quite repetitive.
So it means you are going to have to read a lot of work that is reasonably modern, and develop your own sense of whether it is good writing or not. Not just hot, but GOOD. I would also suggest that you don’t limit your reading to ‘erotica’. There are many works of fiction that are deeply sensual, sensory, emotional, honest and excellent examples of the kind of elements necessary to good erotic writing. They are often novels that work you up to the place where people are going to fuck and then shyly close off the chapter there.
A really fun writing exercise is to challenge yourself to write the ensuing sex that the mainstream author has negligently left out.
Erotica deals with subject matter that almost everyone already lives – desire, sex, love, lust, rejection, hope. We all have a lot of experience of these things. So writing about it in an interesting way is even harder. Your sexual or romantic experience may be interesting to you because you’re emotions are invested in it. But it’s not special to anyone else unless you can bring some special insight your written account. I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: sexually speaking, we all know what goes where. We don’t need you to write that.
Ultimately, if you are using your own experiences, your own very private pervy fantasies, or writing yourself into the story, then you have to be willing to have those things criticized in a story. And that’s hard – to gain that distance. Readers are judging the content of the story. Not you or your fantasies. But if you make them one and the same thing, then you have to be prepared to grow a tougher skin and learn to intellectually separate the two.
Erotica is FOR THE READER.
5. It’s for the reader.
Erotica can be breathtakingly beautiful because it’s about us at our most naked, our most vulnerable. It is an exposure of both our passions and our hideous flaws. Our destructive jealousy, our brittle pride, our hunger for what doesn’t belong to us, our need for the strange and the transgressive. The purpose of it is not to validate the acts or desires of the writer, but the erotic desires of the reader.
Many people write accounts of their erotic fantasies or adventures so they can relive them and enjoy them again. This makes excellent masturbatory material, but it’s not erotic fiction because it is primarily penned as an aide to self-arousal.
6. So, who are you writing for?
Be honest. If you are really only writing to enjoy the arousal of getting yourself off, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you can’t call yourself a ‘writer’. You’re a journal keeper or a diarist. To be a ‘writer’ is to accept, as your first purpose, to communicate to another. If you keep that in mind – that your first purpose is to offer your reader something exciting and fresh and arousing – it will help you judge your own work more objectively.
7. Submitting stories.
Before you submit stories to publishers, I would suggest you do a couple of things: start a blog and post some of your stories there. Keep the comment box open and solicit honest reactions. Be brave and post those reactions, even when they aren’t complimentary. Post your stories on free story sites that have feedback functions or star rating widgets. Take the feedback and the ratings seriously. Ask someone who isn’t presently fucking you, doesn’t love you unconditionally, or isn’t angling to ask you a favour in the near future to read it. Tell them that you really NEED honest feedback. Ask them specific questions about what they liked and didn’t like.
Read the publishers guidelines. Yes, no matter how good you think your piece is, they DO apply to you. Is your story, novella, novel the right length? If the call has a theme, is your story really within the boundaries of the theme? Does your story contain subject matter they say they will not publish?
When it comes to theme and length, most publishers have some wiggle-room. Feel free to send an email with a question. E.g. I believe my story addresses your theme, but is 500 words over your word-count limit on your *_* call. I have tried to edit it down as much as possible, but cutting any more is going to ruin the story. Would you consider a little leeway on this? Below please find a short synopsis of the story. Don’t send the story in if you don’t get a reply or if the reply is no. The editor is probably close to the outer edge of their book’s word limit and can’t be flexible. They are also frazzled and screen blind and you’re lucky you got a response. So, if you receive a ‘no’ letter, just thank them and wish them good luck with the anthology.
Or: “I have a story I think might plausibly fit into your themed call, but I admit it’s not a perfect fit. Below please find a short synopsis.” Again, if you don’t get a reply, don’t send the story. If you get a ‘no’ email, thank the editor for their reply and wish them luck with it.
Ultimately, it is much more productive to ask questions than to force your unsuitable work onto an editor. You have shown them that you have respect for their time and judgement. You have allowed them to save both themselves and you time and effort. Chances are they will remember you and read your next submission with more interest for it.
When editors read, they don’t read for enjoyment – which is easy. They read critically and analytically – which is much harder, takes a lot of focused concentration, and… it’s work! And if you’ve taken my advice and joined ERWA and done any critiques yourself, you will know this.
Editors aren’t villains. They are dying to find good work to publish. In fact, when they get good stories or novels, they’re very, very happy people. They are predisposed towards viewing your work positively because it is in their interests to find as many publishable works as possible in the smallest amount of time possible. If you deliver them something good, it will be very easy for them to say yes. But you also need to remember that most of them are not paid very well and they are doing it more out of love of the genre than for anything else. So imagine having to read awful story after awful story for days and days. It’s heartbreaking. It’s demoralizing. It can make them very bad tempered.
What is probably most difficult of all for an editor is getting a good story that just doesn’t fit – either in length or theme. They want it – they just can’t take it for now. So be kind to them, don’t torture them. Ask about length or theme in a short communication. Be nice.
8. What if I feel I’m a good writer but my content does not adhere to subject matter guidelines?
This is a legitimate problem. ERWA has no non-con, incest, bestiality and snuff rules. Literotica does not, but you’re also not likely to get much feedback there. I personally write stories that I cannot ‘test run’ in any forum where I’m likely to get helpful criticism. And, even though I publish them here on my blog, I notice that readers are shy to be overtly critical here.
I think you have to accept that you’ve chosen to write about something a lot of people find offensive. In my mind, you absolutely have the right to do that, but people also have the right not to read it. And I think it is important that you ask yourself if you are writing just to shock or because you believe that, in writing this transgressive content, you are tackling issues that cannot be tackled another way.
If you’ve answered yes to the second, then you and I will keep each other good, if fairly lonely company. Write your stuff, post it, tweet me a link. There are a number of writers and publishers who do feel that there are controversial subjects that deserve to be written about because of how their echos of address pertinent, universal questions. Chances are, it won’t see print publication. You will have to find satisfaction in the fact that you and a very small group of readers know that you’ve written a good piece on a hard topic. Can this be enough for you?
But specifically because of its controversial nature, it is imperative that your skill and your craft as a writer be excellent. Because otherwise, your work can be dismissed as crap on many levels instead of just the issue of subject matter.
9. The rules are the rules are the rules – aren’t they?
Well, mostly they are. Sucks, huh?
But… there are two exceptions:
a) writing style: very experienced writers can and do experiment with breaking rules of grammar, narrative point of view, tense, etc. They know the rules and they are intentionally breaking them for experimental or artistic reasons. They are absolutely aware of every rule they have chosen to break. However, if you are reading this blog post, you’re probably not that experienced. Those kind of writers are above us both, baby, and they don’t hang out here. When you get there, you will have forgotten about me.
b) taboo content: I am not completely certain about this one, but I’m fairly confident in saying it. If you have written a piece that is immaculate in its style, in its flow, in its craft, in its voice, but contravenes the rules against, for instance, necrophilia, I believe that there are a considerable number of publishers out there who will take a chance and perhaps break their own guidelines to publish it. The same is true for incest in certain circumstances and for underage sex where the participants are not so young as to morally offend the editor. Although in this case they may come back to you and ask you to take out any specific references to age.
There are publishers who have far fewer guideline limitations, for instance, mine – Republica – and Freaky Fountain. (There is another I know of, but I will not mention their name or link to them here because I found their contractual terms truly insulting to writers). However what you need to know is that these publishers are probably far pickier about writing craft. You might be able to get a quite poorly written romantic interlude story published in any number of places, but to get a taboo story published by Freaky Fountain or Republica, your craft has to literally kick ass. They are willing to publish taboo content because they feel they can absolutely and without question defend its artistic merit.
I hope this has been of some help. I hope you’ve found the post an encouragement to you, rather making you question whether you should carry on writing. This genre really needs good writers! And everyone’s first efforts are embarrassing – everyone’s! We all have pieces we read and cringe about. Some of mine are so bad, I’ve taken them off my site; I don’t want anyone to see them. But I never delete them. I keep them as a reminder of how far I have come.
You should, too. Keep writing.