Sunday, August 25, 2013

Erotic Writer's "How To" Roundup: Ashley Lister, Susie Bright, M. Christian et al.

We note the death this past week of renowned western-, suspense-, and crime-fiction writer Elmore Leonard. Those familiar with his work know that he was a master of a certain style of gritty minimalism, which, while fairly light on conventional description and detail, placed a strong emphasis on character as conveyed through dialogue, often stripped down, quasi-realistic, but always essentially revealing, and, more often than not, mind-blowingly entertaining. In the immediate wake of his passing, Leonard’s short essay on writing has been ricocheting around the internet under various titles including Elmore Leonard’sTen Rules for Writing. Notwithstanding a tone that occasionally approaches the dogmatic (not uncommon in “celebrity how-to” writing), Ten Rules is an interesting piece, with a nugget or two of wisdom and some good sound advice, well worth a looksee. Yet I think it might more accurately have been titled Ten Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard. Not that there is (or was) anything wrong with writing like Elmore Leonard . . . for Elmore Leonard. Gritty minimalism has its place, and artful economy should never go out of style; but pulling it off successfully—and making it look easy—isn’t something just anybody can do. Leonard’s writing, so unique in its mastery, may appear effortless, but was, in fact, highly refined, forged in hard work, constant practice, and an unerring sense of precisely when and how to break “The Rules”; efficient procedure was deeply internalized; technique became second nature. Leonard’s “genius” was a phenomenon more of familiar, well-traveled synapses than magic flashes of inspiration.

In my last post, I asked the question; what does a writer—specifically, a writer of erotic literature—need to do in order to be taken seriously? No doubt there are as many “right” answers as experienced professionals willing to set down lists of rules, or talk about what works for them.  Perhaps the simplest answer, though, is this; in order to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to take yourself seriously. You need to take what you do seriously. As Elmore Leonard once remarked, “your style comes out of your attitude.” If you’re immature, repressed, guilt-ridden, green, overly obsessed with the novelty of your own naughtiness, it will all show up on the page. Likewise, if your approach to sex is jaded, pompous, snarky, ignorant, showy, superior, misanthropic, pushy, patronizing, intentionally scandalous, gratuitously “dirty” or just plain bat-shit crazy, it’s all going to be there for your tiny circle of sycophantic followers to admire. Don’t count on others to respect your work when you can’t be bothered to respect your own subject matter. The world, for the most part, is not going to encourage your endeavors. Particularly when it comes to erotica, the planet is heavily overpopulated with snobby sex-negative naysayers, bound and determined to quash any and all earnest, mature discourse on human intimacy—anything they are too indolent, ignorant, intellectually bankrupt, uncomfortable with or outright scared of to deal with in an open, honest, grownup way —by conflating it with smut and labeling it “pornography”, the magic word that puts an end to all debate. (Are you listening, Maureen Dowd?) Authors working in other genres can be especially dismissive of and catty about what we do.  

For the aspiring writer wanting to make sex his or her central theme, finding a source of sound information and advice can be daunting. Inspiration may be even more difficult to come by; affirmation nigh on to nonexistent. Good general books on the craft and business of writing are plentiful, and many of them are extraordinarily good pieces of writing in their own right. (Stephen King’s On Writing may well be the best single-volume treatment of the subject.)  Such books can be a helpful place to get started. But what about those issues specific to erotica? Where do we go to find out about, say, effective, realistic dialogue in explicit scenes? Where can we learn how to tailor our work to the needs of genre-friendly publishers? More broadly, where can we find encouragement in a world that hates us insofar as it despises anything having to do with sex? Fortunately, the news isn’t all gloom and doom; there are a few titles out there just for us. We’ll briefly consider four of them. The newest is Ashley Lister’s Howto Write Erotic Fiction and Sex Scenes (How-To Books (UK), 2013). The others are How to Write and Sell Erotica by M. Christian (Sizzler Editions, 2010), Susie Bright’s How to Write a Dirty Story (Fireside, 2001), and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for FictionWriters by Elizabeth Benedict (Story Press, 1996).  

We can dispense fairly quickly with Benedict’s The Joy of Writing Sex. The book was clearly aimed at aspiring literary authors and would-be writers of mainstream genre fiction. Aside from a subtly biased tone apparently born of an overarching, peevishly PC-ish need to be “inclusive” (without actually including hetero males), the book is now in many ways hopelessly dated in its treatment of certain themes and issues, such as BDSM (still pretty much an underground phenomenon back in 1996), HIV/AIDS, and an obsessive concern over the portrayal of safe-sex practices.  The title may yet live on and be considered valuable if only for Benedict’s now-famous and oft-quoted four organizing principals of a good sex scene:   

A good sex scene is not always about good sex, but it is always an example of good writing.

A good sex scene should always connect to the larger concerns of the work.

The needs, impulses and histories of your characters should drive a sex scene.

The relationship your characters have to one another . . . should exert more influence on how your write about their sexual encounter than should any anatomical details.

Interesting ideas to be sure, and there are a few more to be found salted through the text, though the author seems to deliberately establish her definitions with the aim of excluding works in which sex with an intent to arouse is the central focus (that is, pretty much anything you would care to classify as erotica). One gets the impression of a woman in full hazmat gear, stiffly detached from her subject matter, replete with latex gloves and surgical mask, deathly afraid of having her “thoughtful” literary endeavors infected by the evil cooties of carnal spontaneity. Benedict’s examples are chosen accordingly, unwitting, perfect illustrations of Elmore Leonard’s principal that style proceeds from attitude. Funny, and certainly ironic if not embarrassing in retrospect, how many of the cited authors ended up receiving one of the British Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction awards. Twee metaphor and turgid simile abounds, along with an abiding distaste for even the simplest portrayal of illicit nooky.

By contrast, Susie Bright’s How to Write a Dirty Story is much less formal and a good deal more personal; part creative-writing course, part pep rally. More about inspiration than technique, Bright’s style is sympathetic, warm, personable and always engaging, aimed at helping her readers cast off their inhibitions and hang ups, open and expand their erotic imaginations, and take their first steps on the liberating journey of honest self-expression. I can personally attest that her approach works! The best how-to books can, on occasion, change lives, and this one certainly changed mine, encouraging me to get over my guilt and reticence about the sex writing I had been doing in secret for many years, an intense guilty pleasure I never imagined sharing with anyone. Along with a series of exercises for testing and stretching the limits of our imaginations and better visualizing our fantasies, some of Bright’s most powerful and valuable insights concern the ways in which a newly inspired and “out” erotic writer deals with the attitudes and reactions of his or her family. Reading this book helps us understand that we must be better than the bigots who despise us; we must outsmart them; out-enlighten them, and out-write them. We cannot—must not—displace one strain of reticence with another equally unhealthy form. Silence is death! With some very good, practical advice on the craft of writing to go along with its quiet rabble-rousing, How to Write a Dirty Story is a deep, cool wellspring of knowledge and bracing encouragement.  Wholeheartedly recommended.


M. Christian’s How to Write and Sell Erotica is a collection of short essays drawn from his regular blog postings on the ERWA website. As one might expect from their origins in the blogosphere, the style of these pieces is personal, pithily opinionated and, at times charmingly irreverent; informal but always informative. Topics are wide ranging, touching on numerous issues of concern to established and aspiring writers of genre (i.e. non-literary) erotica. I especially like Christian’s definition of erotica as works that “do not blink” when it comes time to describe sexual activity—a healthy counterweight to the sort of prissy detachment on display in Benedict’s book. His repeated observation that, in our society, if you cut off somebody’s head “you get an R rating; if you show someone giving head, you get an NC-17” is right on the money in addition to being funny as hell because it’s so maddeningly true. I find moving his suggestion that, perhaps, someday society will achieve such a level of enlightenment, frankness and maturity that erotica will disappear as a separate genre—would that it could be so in our lifetime. Like Bright, Christian does his share of cheerleading, offering encouragement and inspiration, though usually with a healthy dose of realism and a plea to maintain a set of realistic expectations. There are so many marvelous quotable passages in these essays I find it hard to choose only one; so updating the ancient practice of sortilegium for the Age of the E-Reader, here’s one at random:
One more thing you could do [by writing erotica] is help people. We don’t like sex in this country. Sure, we sell beer and cars with it, but we don’t like it. We’re scared of it. Living in this world with anything that’s not beer and car commercial sexuality can be a very frightening and lonely experience. Too many people feel that they are alone, or that what they like to do sexually is wrong, sinful or sick. Now, I’m not talking about violent or abusive sexual feelings, but rather am interest in something that harms no one and that other people have discovered to be harmless or even beneficial. If you treat what you’re writing about with respect, care and understanding, you could reach out to someone somewhere and help them understand and maybe even get through their bad feelings about their sexuality—bad feelings, by the way, that maybe have been dished out by the lazy and ignorant for way too long.

As with any book of this type, readers will not always agree with the author on every point—and that’s as it should be. For instance, I don't agree with Christian--or Stephen King for that matter--who argue that a writer should never resort to a thesaurus. (As the compiler of The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus on this site, you can bet I disagree!) Nor does Christian like the idea of constantly “changing up” descriptive words in a text, especially where bodily parts are concerned. Others may be horrified, recalling nightmare critique sessions in creative writing class where they were admonished to avoid repetition and parallelism like the plague. Christian could have a point, although his tone may be a tad too ex-cathedra not to wrinkle a few noses, I remain skeptically neutral on this particular issue, while Christian is happy to inform his readers that he never got much out of those creative  writing courses. He also doesn’t particularly like being reviewed—“shut up!” I think were his exact words. All I can say is; tough titties, dude; the book is recommended, so suck on it!


Published earlier this year in the U.K., and still awaiting its long-delayed American e-book debut,  Ashley Lister’s How to Write Erotica and Sex Scenes might best be described as "Erotic Writing 101". It makes a near-ideal primer for those just entering the strange, bewildering world of the more unconventional creative endeavor known as genre erotica. A well-known author, poet, editor and educator in Britain, Lister has apparently transcribed one of his own writing courses—as evidenced by the odd typographical style of the print edition, in which the author's own words appear in quotation marks. (First time I’ve ever seen that! An excess of humility, perhaps?) Material is presented matter-of-factly, and everything is very much to the point. Perhaps a little too much so, as the book seems rather dry in spots, akin to a rudimentary classroom syllabus. Topics are laid out neatly and patly at the beginning of each chapter, discussed briefly in the middle, and cursorily summarized at the end. Serious-minded readers (a student is literally "one who is eager"after all)  may well appreciate this more formal, stripped down, academic approach. I wonder, though, if this same approach might well discourage the ones who need a book like this the most; those casually laid-back, if no-less curious or potentially talented auditors lurking in the back row, waiting to be inspired?

Lister has included frequent and generous examples of “good practice”, excepts of first-rate erotic fiction drawn from the top of the A-list; the work of some of the most talented writers in the business sprinkled like cereal-box prizes throughout the text (rather like Lucky Charms before they added sugar-coating to the oat (i.e. non-marshmallow) bits). Yet, at times, one might have wished for more in the way of inspiration from the author himself a la Bright and Christian. Then too, I would have liked to see expanded and more deeply probing discussions of certain topics. I'd love, for example, to hear more about the differences between literary and genre erotica. (Lister suggests that genre erotica is almost always sex positive, while literary stories more often than not portray sexual relationships as broken, dysfunctional or unhealthy.) It would be fascinating--and fun!--to learn more about how erotic writers can use adult films as a source of inspiration. I suppose it would be possible to write entire books—or at least several extensive chapters—on those heavily-charged topics. As noted, Lister's outline is well-organized and thorough, yet I do think it might have benefitted from a little more depth in places. Perhaps he may do so in a sequel, say, "Erotic Writing 202"?

My impression is that if one were to take out all mentions of erotic fiction here, and replace them with a discussion of classic English literature or some other popular genre, one would still have a fairly decent general introduction to the basics of fiction writing. As it is, the book includes a lot of valuable general information, the sort of which one might expect to find in any respectable entry-level text. This leads me to wonder if, perhaps, more people might be encouraged to try their hand at writing if the prospect were sweetened, as it were, with sex; writing as a form of personal liberation; a way to express our too-long repressed erotic selves? Ashley Lister has given us much to think about. May the conversation continue for a long time, indeed. Recommended.



1 comment:

  1. VERY COOL! This is such a treat - so glad you liked the book!!