Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Heat and Craft

By Lisabet Sarai

I'm starting to wonder whether craft is the enemy of heat.

My first novel poured from my imagination onto the page in a breathless rush of passion. Looking back, I remember the process as almost effortless. Nothing seemed to block the flood of fantasy. My heroine Kate was my personal proxy, indulging in ever more transgressive erotic scenarios as she explored her sexual identity. As she surrendered to her master Gregory, I was reliving and perfecting my own odyssey of submission and then moving beyond recollection to conjure the imagined scenes I never had the opportunity to try. I wrote the whole book in a peculiar state of arousal - not exactly on the edge of orgasm, but with an exaggerated appreciation of every sexual stimulus, both internal and external.

Readers of Raw Silk tend to get turned on. The book has been called “scorching”, “outrageous”, “intensely erotic”, and “explosive”. And when I reread my favorite bits now, they still make me wet.

At the same time, I cringe when I notice the many flaws in the book. My sentences seem too long and complex, overly influenced by my academic training. The dialog strikes me as unrealistic and wooden. (This was before I learned to allow my characters to use contractions when they speak!) Repeated words, phrases and sentence structures jump out at me. And I realize, with a sinking heart, that some of the interactions that have the most visceral effect on me are overworked BDSM clich├ęs.

In the dozen years since that first publication, I've matured as a writer. My prose is far more polished, less flowery and more direct. My characters can converse without sounding as though they've been filtered through Google Translate. I have conscious control over issues I used to manage by instinct – foreshadowing, flashbacks, suspense, sexual tension, narrative flow. Originality in premise and execution have become critical concerns. When I address a theme or a subgenre, I deliberately try to find a treatment or a twist to distinguish my work from the thousands of other authors writing erotica and erotic romance.

I was an amateur back then. Now I'm a professional. All my self-conscious craft, though, seems to have smothered the spark that used to kindle my readers (and me) into vicarious flames.

It's much more difficult now to write a truly sexy scene. There's too much going on in my head. Instead of simply reveling in my personal perversions, I worry. Is this too stereotyped? Is this too raw for romance? Is this too tame for erotica? Haven't I written this same thing a million times before? Sure, it pushes my buttons, but didn't I just read more or less the same thing in someone else's story? And what about that sentence? I used “cock” twice already – should I change it to “prick”? Have I already used a storm metaphor for orgasm in this tale?

As a result, all too often these days I seem to find myself in a state of literary paralysis. The horny flow of erotic ideas has dwindled to a trickle. Sure, occasionally inspiration will seize me and a whole story will pour out of me in a few hours. I treasure those experiences – especially since they've become so rare.

I know that part of the problem is hormones – or lack thereof – as I age. And how could I not have become a bit jaded? I've probably read a thousand erotic short stories since I turned “pro”. I admit I'm almost as critical about other authors' work as I've become of my own. It's inevitable, I suppose, that one's first story about anal sex is going to be a good deal more exciting than the fiftieth. You're only a virgin once.

Still, I sometimes wonder whether I should stop being concerned about craft and just write “Sucking Daddy's Big One” or “Slave to the Cruel Professor” or “The Pirate's Whore” - the type of books that Amazon tells me people decide to purchase after viewing my recent BDSM story collection. It's true - the stories in that collection are more subtle, surprising and literary than Raw Silk, but they're not as hot. I don't know if I COULD silence the analytical voice in my head, or ignore my concerns for originality and freshness, but if it were possible, would I be able to recapture the glorious searing intensity of my early work?

I'm a snob – I know it. A while ago I read a BDSM novel for purposes of a review and was appalled by the poor quality of the writing. Glaring grammar mistakes, incorrect punctuation, inappropriate word choice, confusing and inconsistent point of view – the book broke practically every rule of craft. Meanwhile, the story trotted out all sorts of stock BDSM elements: the stern but voluptuous employer in her tailored suits and spike heels, the innocent “natural” submissive with an inexhaustible appetite for abuse, the male “assistant” called into service to train the new slave. It had bondage, spanking, flogging, suspension, butt-fucking, medical play, pseudo-Victorian costumes... I wrote a pretty scathing review, but at the same time I have to admit (as I did in the review) that some parts of the book turned me on. The awful writing ultimately did not prevent me from being aroused.

So maybe, just maybe, the craft doesn't matter. Could that be true? I know it's possible to produce a supremely well-written erotic story that also has the power to arouse me – some of my favorite erotic authors do it all the time. And yes, elitist that I am, I find wonderful writing exciting in its own right. Perhaps, though, that aesthetic thrill could be teased apart from my baser (and more basic) sexual reactions.

Then again, perhaps not. The aspects of BDSM that arouse me most have to do with the emotional and psychological currents flowing between the dominant and the submissive. It takes a certain skill to bring those dynamics to life. Whips, handcuffs and gags by themselves won't do the trick, at least not for me.

Does too much craft interfere with heat? Are the two independent, addressing totally different levels in the reader's psyche? Should I switch to writing pure porn? Could I?

I really want to know what you think.


  1. I totally relate to this Lisabet. I know that the pleasure of writing has often been lost because of focusing too much on craft. It would be great to get that inhibited passion back. Maybe porn isn't such a bad idea!

  2. I think it's a constant balancing act - two things help us with this (since we're a married pair writing under our pen name). The first is plotting together, sharing the excitement, throwing ideas around, feeling the buzz. The other is the "don't look down" draft - just throwing words on the page to capture the buzz before it's gone. Even so, it's a constant struggle.

  3. I've found I can write from one of two mindsets. For lack of better terminology, call them the creative brain and critical brain. The creative brain just *goes* and is where the heat resides. The critical brain is the far better editor and knows all the rules of craft.

    What I've been trying to do, as I improve as a writer, is continue to do all first drafts from the creative brain side I want to save the critical brain for editing and creating the second draft, or, better, get to the point where the 'rules' are so internalized that they just spill out as the creative side plunges forward.

    Tour de France bicyclists don't think about the technique or craft of riding during the race. I'd like to be in a similar spot when it comes to writing that first draft.

  4. A fascinating question, Lisabet! Experience and thoughtfulness do bring some benefits, but there's no question the thrill of the new is an essential element in the erotic. Sometimes I wonder if the erotica reader just borrows the general ideas a story presents, the Victorian costumes and stock power roles, and lets his or her own imagination write the real story. In other words, they don't CARE what's on the page, they just want prompts.

    On the other hand, I think there is a smaller, but discerning audience who does appreciate attention to the language. I myself prefer to give my reading time to an author who returns the gift by taking the time to create richer levels of story.

    Now if lots of quick money is a writer's goal, and there's nothing wrong with that, then go for it. But I am glad there are a variety of writers who create for other reasons. I do believe that not every story we write will be our hottest, but the next one might be that perfect blend of control and release :-).

  5. I absolutely understand what you're saying. I don't think it is the craft getting in the way of the heat. It is us as authors getting in our own way. We're so fixated on making our manuscripts perfect before submitting them that we over think things and get in the way of the flow of the story as it translates from what we see in our head to the page. It's not our fault that we do this. It's all the past rejections we've received messing with our minds. That's the reason that first novel you wrote flowed so easily. Because you never got caught up second guessing yourself. I've recently realized I was doing this myself and in the end had nothing to show for my efforts. This is when I decided to just write the story the way I first hear and see it and then going back over it and make craft corrections. This way I can be sure to put as much heat and craft in each of my stories as possible.

  6. I think it comes down to passion. I get excited about stories only if it is a new idea for me. Then again, I write all over the board, but there are times when I'm working on a serial when I realize... nope, done it too many times (the current one got in danger of that).

    Of course, I'm still working at writing characters that didn't come through Google Translate. :)

  7. I can't honestly say I relate, although I don't feel nearly as compelled to put the sex scenes in if the story doesn't need them. And, honestly, I'm not having to work to the same level of reader expectation that you or Keziah does, but I think that perhaps a stint of writing porn isn't a bad idea.

    But from what I've seen from porn I've read, it really lacks variation. The memes involved in triggering the instant sexual reaction from readers aren't limitless either.

  8. This happens with me as well. I find I'm lucky if I get aroused during the process of actually writing something, which my recently foray into an erotic novel incited quite often (to my delight). However, what matters is when I reacquaint myself with the draft six months later and start to edit. Does it turn me on or am I cringing because of bad word choices or turns of phrase?

    So I let myself focus on the mechanics and getting everything more or less in the right spot the first time around ... then I wait awhile and give it a test run. I find it like it better when the writing is clean, with my works as well as other people's. I'm more likely to return to it, or remember it. Average or mediocre erotic writing may get me off, but it's likely a one-off. Still, there are some stories I come back to time and again, because it's good writing as well as good porn.

  9. Heat without craft is porn to me. It's that simple for me. When I write love scenes it's sex that comes from emotion not just hormones. I have to have that to write a convincing scene and then to put myself in the place of my characters. If I fall in love with my hero, writing a love/sex scene is a cinch.
    The stories that suck me in and keep me reading are all about craft first.
    Guess I'm a snob, too.

  10. Sometimes I find that I get stuck on the craft while writing instead of writing it all out first. I have to remember to just write, then go back and fix. I think we can all agree that there well-written books and some that are not. I want to be able to write to the best of my ability. I know I've gotten better since I started and I want to keep doing that. With writers, we can be so critical and it does take away from the simple joy of reading sometimes. Having said that, there have only been one or two books in my life time that I haven't finished because the writing was so poor. Usually there is something about a book that keeps me reading until the end. If I didn't find it particularly well-written, it may deter me from buying any more from that author, but to each his own.

  11. Hey, Keziah!

    Actually, writing is a bit like marriage. I guess you have to work on introducing novelty in order to keep it fresh and exciting.

  12. Adriana - I've never tried writing as a member of a pair. I think that might help get the juices flowing - especially if your writing partner were also your lover.

  13. Hi, Ed,

    My critical side seems to be smothering my creative side, at least some of the time. Time to tie it up and show it who's boss, perhaps...

  14. Greetings, Donna,

    "Sometimes I wonder if the erotica reader just borrows the general ideas a story presents, the Victorian costumes and stock power roles, and lets his or her own imagination write the real story. In other words, they don't CARE what's on the page, they just want prompts."

    This is exactly what I mean, though you've phrased it far better than I did. Sometimes I feel so frustrated - as though the craft and care don't matter at all. And then other times I wonder whether I'm just writing for the dozen or so other authors who like my work.

  15. Hi, Shaushana,

    My first novel was a lark. I wrote it purely for fun, to see if I could do it, to play with all the fantasy ideas I had flying around in my dirty little mind.

    Now the whole process seems a great deal more serious. I think I need to go back to treating writing as play.

  16. Greetings, t'Sade,

    Passion. That's really the key, isn't it. Letting the passion flow. Stoking it to a fever pitch before you begin letting the words out.

  17. Hi, RG,

    I don't feel compelled to put in sex scenes - but sometimes I feel as though I'm writing the same scenarios over and over.

    You're right about reader expectations, though. With my first novel, I wasn't even thinking about an audience. I was just writing for my own pleasure.

  18. Hello, Aurelia,

    "Still, there are some stories I come back to time and again, because it's good writing as well as good porn."

    Yes! Of course that's what we all aspire to write. Not easy.

    As for me, if I don't get that fire into the first draft, it's not going to be there. Once I've got something written down, it resists change. I can't infuse arousal into it later.

  19. Jean,

    Welcome to the club!

    I don't care if people call what I write porn - but I shudder to think that someone might read one of stories and snicker at the poor writing.

  20. Hi, Kellie,

    Thanks for dropping by. I'm stubborn - I hate to give up on a book. But terrible writing will usually have that effect.

  21. Hi Lisabet,

    Such a good post and one so close to me, too. Everything from the hormones, to writing my first novel in a rush, to being utterly turned on by it and then, later, being appalled by the writing style.

    I have to say, though, the too-familiar tropes are perhaps too familiar for a reason. I know as writers we don't want to keep dragging out the same old crap, over and over, but we should remember that those themes are popular because people really like them. I know I still get turned on by the castle, island, manor house, alternate female-led BDSM world. I almost never write it but I Love to read it.

    I think part of the problem is that, like you, I wrote the first Melinoe book for me. Getting it published was something that happened later. I wrote it because I'd always wanted to try my hand at writing a novel and I wrote it to entertain myself. (I was very entertained.) Now, I never write just for myself. Now I write to calls for submission, with the occasional novel or novella thrown in for my amusement. Unfortunately those take backseat to the stories for specific books and editors and so they sit there, unfinished, even though they turn me on fiercely.

    I cringe when I read poorly written and/or edited stories and it gets worse as I do more editing. I can't read anything anymore without wanting to take a red pen out. I don't think that's particularly great, either, but I do love a well-written, well-edited story that pushes my buttons. Of course they seem to be few and far between. That said, my first book is still my "go to" book. Even though I sometimes cringe, it always takes me there. And, actually, I'm amazed that parts of it are so good. I just wish I'd had an editor before it got published.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.