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Writing and Selling Erotic Fiction

by Catherine Lundoff

Erotica is any literary or art form that arouses sexual desire or even love in an audience. Put simply, erotic writing is writing that has the potential to turn your reader on. That's a nice broad definition, limited only by the range of your potential readers' desires. Given this range, erotic writing can encompass any aspect of sensuality, from the sensual depiction of a hot bath to descriptions of an explicitly sexual act.

Erotic literature is a growing field and one that spans a multitude of genres, as well as being one unto itself. There is erotic horror, science fiction and fantasy erotica, literary erotica and erotic romance, just to name a few genres that are receptive to erotic writing. There are also sizable markets specifically for heterosexual, gay, and lesbian erotica, as well as a smaller number for bisexual and transgender erotica. "Sex sells" is a saying that's been around forever and for once, it's true.

Saleability isn't the only reason to write erotica, however. Writing erotica can improve other types of writing that you do by honing your descriptive skills and your awareness of how your characters occupy physical space in your stories. You're writing for impact so story line, characters and word choice have to work together even more closely than in many other types of fiction writing in order to be effective. All of this will serve you well if you go on to write in other nonerotic genres.

In order to have the most impact, your literary erotica needs to be more than just a long sex scene. For one thing, most editors and readers are going to want your story to have some sort of plot to make it more interesting. For another, since you are somewhat limited by the human body, you're unlikely to come up with a sexual or sensual description so wildly original that no one has ever written anything like it before. Make your story stand out with interesting characters and story lines instead. These should carry your story line forward, not the sexual situation alone. Below are some questions to ask yourself about your erotic writing. If you can't answer these questions or the answer is no, it's time to go rewrite:

  • Is there a story without the sexual angle? It is erotica, after all, so you have to have erotic elements to your story but they shouldn't be standing alone.

  • Do the erotic elements move the story forward?

  • How does the sensual/sexual scene affect you/your reader? Finish your story, then take some time away from it. Then go back and reread it or better yet, have someone you trust read it. Does it have an impact on them? On you? Is it what you're striving for?

Good word choices and descriptions are crucial for effective erotic writing. Adjectives and euphemisms for genitalia and sex acts are frequently used as building blocks for erotic fiction. When handled appropriately, they can help give your story a romantic gloss that might otherwise be missing. More often than not, they're overused and will make your story appear downright silly. Prune your adjectives and read some erotic scenes and novels you like to get an idea of how other writers do it. As a general rule, it's better to avoid euphemisms, especially when you are first starting out; a few well placed metaphors can be a lot more useful in conveying your images.

Erotic fiction depends on the physical actions and sensations of your characters for impact. Educate yourself about anatomy and any sexual activities you want to write about so you can write more effectively. Read your story out loud and check to see if something seems physically impossible or just plain uncomfortable. If so, it's going to make your erotica less appealing to your potential readers.

Remember that this is fiction, not thinly disguised memoir: try not to use your sex life as the basis for your fiction. Certainly, it can be inspirational but it shouldn't be where you get all your ideas. That road can lead to law suits or reduced dating prospects at the very least.

Should you use a pseudonym for your erotica? It depends. There is some danger that you will be taken less seriously as a writer because of the prevailing belief that writing about sex is "easy" and/or autobiographical. Some writers choose pseudonyms for this reason. Others use them if they write in other genres (such as children's books) or if they are concerned that it may negatively impact their daily lives. On the other hand, if you want to make a career out of erotic fiction, using your own name can make marketing easier. Ultimately, you're the only one who decides if erotic writing is for you so how or if you tell others is your personal decision. Any professional editor interested in publishing your work will respect your choice either way.

The majority of the literary erotica published in books, magazines and websites is in short story form. But don't despair if you want to write novels or plays or something else. There are a number of presses and markets out there to choose from, ranging from Circlet Press (science fiction and fantasy) to Random House and Penthouse. Novels are a comparative rarity because they are more difficult to write than erotic short fiction. This is due to erotica's dependence on impacting the reader: it's just harder to sustain an impact-laden story line and a series of sensually related events than to write one or two into the same story. Some writers are very successful at it, however, and there's no reason you can't be among them.

Before you submit anything, it's also important to recognize that most erotica publishers have certain kinds of stories that they are not interested in reading. These often include stories that involve rape, particularly that of children, bestiality and almost any sex act involving actual children (as opposed to role playing between adults). Some publishers will go further and request that authors concentrate on depicting safe sex while others will not look at any story that depicts any form of sadomasochism. These guidelines may arise from moral beliefs or fear of legal action and bad press, but either way, if they say they won't read it, don't send it. Always, always check the editorial guidelines before you submit.

You don't have to look very far to find examples of good erotic writing. Even mainstream literature is filled with "the good bits," the erotic paragraphs and scenes that tend to get dog-eared and read over and over again. In addition, many famous and well established writers have written works that are entirely erotic in nature, including Anaïs Nin, Anne Rice, Ramsey Campbell, Henry Miller, Samuel Delany and D.H. Lawrence, to name just a few. Other writers like Cecilia Tan, Pat Califia and Erica Jong specialize in erotic writing. The aspiring writer has only to look around to find examples of almost type of story he or she could want to write or read. Get familiar with some of the work that is already out there to see how established authors write about sex and sensuality.

There are a number of resources out there to help you get started on writing and marketing erotica. Erotica editor and sexuality expert Susie Bright's "How to Write a Dirty Story: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Erotica," published by Fireside Press, is a good introductory book. It includes recommended readings, writing exercises and other resources that are helpful to the new erotic writer. The Erotic Readers and Writers Association website includes how to articles, reviews, a chat room, and best of all, up to date market lists of anthologies, magazines and publishers.

There are also some publishers that include calls for submissions on their websites. Circlet Presspublishes science fiction and fantasy erotica anthologies and novels; be sure to doublecheck the reading period before submitting. Alyson Books, a publisher of gay, lesbian and bisexual titles including erotica, has a call for submissions page. Red Sage Publishing's Secrets Collection are anthologies of novella length erotic romances for women. Unbound Books publishes erotic novels for a variety of interests. Remember that this list is just a starting place. Check the market listings noted above for other opportunities.

Finally, once you've made a sale for $5 or more, there's a new professional organization for erotica writers, The Erotic Author's Association. These are only a few of the resources that are out there; check around for links off the websites and see what publishers are printing your favorite erotica writers. But most important of all, keep on writing!

Related Articles:

Is Erotica Right for You? by Tracy Cooper-Posey
http://www.writing-world.com/romance/romantica.shtml

Writing Erotic Mysteries, by Michael Bracken
http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/eroticmyst.shtml

Writing and Selling Erotic Fiction, by Catherine Lundoff
http://www.writing-world.com/romance/erotica.shtml

For More Information:

Erotic Readers and Writers Association
http://www.erotica-readers.com

Alyson Books
http://www.alyson.com

Circlet Press
http://www.circlet.com

Copyright © 2002 Catherine Lundoff
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Catherine Lundoff has written and published in several genres, including erotica, science fiction and fantasy, romance and nonfiction. She is a member of both Romance Writers of America and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her erotic short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, including The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica 2005,Best Lesbian Erotica 2001, Erotic Travel Tales 2, Electric 2: Best Lesbian Erotic Fiction, That's Amore!: Four Erotic Romance Novellas, and The Big Book of Hot Women's Erotica 2004. Check out her website at http://catherinelundoff.com/.

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