To Write Erotic or Not to Write Erotic

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 17 2007

I received this very interesting question recently, and like many of the questions I receive it’s one I think the author has to answer herself. . . .

I wrote this as an erotic romance because it’s what I know. I read erotic romances, I edit them, I critique them – it’s what I know. However, I grew up on tamer romances (Julie Garwood, Judith McNaught, Sandra Brown), and recently I’ve felt the need to make my own MS HOT, but not erotic, as I’d love my mother, my sister who’s a minister, and possible future daughters to read it without cringing, lol. I read Kresley Cole’s Highlander series and Carly Phillips’s Hot and Simply series, and they made me realize that I CAN do hot without erotic. But should I, when I’m already halfway through the book?

Do you have any recommendations to stay erotic or tone it down? Are you seeing one or another selling really well? I’m noticing more erotic romances on the shelves, but do you think they have staying power over books with less explicit language? Do you find higher sales with one?

Like we’ve discussed in other posts, I think you need to write what you feel passionate about and not what sells or what will have staying power. Because nothing really has staying power and everything does. When historical romances slowed down you still saw authors hit the New York Times list again and again with their historicals, and when erotica slows down you’ll have many authors gathering in the unemployment line and many others hitting lists and selling more copies than the last.

I think you need to write a book you love and that you’re proud of. I think rather than focus on the level of sexual intensity you need to worry about writing a great story with compelling characters. At this point it’s too early to tell what has staying power, and even if I could that wouldn’t be a reason for you to make your decision. It sounds to me like you would rather write hot than erotic, that somewhere along the way you’ve become unhappy with the direction your book is taking, and that’s reason enough to make a change.

What really interests me about this question is the idea of changing your book halfway through. Of discovering that somewhere along the way your book has taken a life of its own and that you’re not writing what you originally thought you were. I am sure many of my readers can relate to this experience and have much better advice than I do.


14 responses to “To Write Erotic or Not to Write Erotic”

  1. Jessica: I’ve had the experience of getting into a character’s head and having him suddenly change the course of what I had planned. I usually welcome it as a sign that the character is coming to life for me. I never fight it; I go with the flow.

    I was really interested in this post because, since my BAD GIRL came out last month, I’ve received a fair number of emails from people wanting advice on how to write an erotic novel. I’ve gotten so many emails that I finally blogged on the subject yesterday.

    I absolutely agree that you need to write what you feel passionate about.

    Having said that, I wonder if the writer’s anxiety over having her first published book be an eroromance dictated the change in tone as she wrote.

    Just a word of advice to anyone contemplating writing erotic romance: You need to embrace the experience. Hopefully, when your book is published, you’ll be doing signings and talking to writers’ groups. You MUST be able to do so with pride and composure.

    I personally think that women’s sexuality is beautiful and something to be celebrated. When I do a book signing, I invariably have people who stop by to make negative comments about either romance or erotic romance. When I smile and make the comment, “You might just be surprised what you’ll find in this book,” a lot of them stay to talk. And fifty percent of the sales I make during signings are to men.

    Unless you can enthusiastically talk about your book in public, erotic romance might not be for you.

  2. Great post, Jessica.

    I think we’ve all had stories take turns that we didn’t expect. Sometimes we have to grab the wheel and get them back on track. Sometimes I go back to the beginning and remap my path.

    Sometimes I think we should say we’re practicing writing, like doctors “practice” medicine. As someone said (and I can’t remember who) “I’m not that good of a writer. But I’m a better rewriter.”

  3. I solved this problem by having a pen name. I write contemporary and romantic suspense that is sensual, not erotic. My mother and family can read it without TOO much tut tutting. But I love to write erotic too. So, I got a pen name and published my erotic stuff. (Oh, I make that sound easy too. It took two years.)
    My characters let me know what they’ll do.
    I had one story where I put the wrong two characters in a series together. They balked at ANY sexual tension. (I think her response was “Ewwwwwwww”). When I gave them both their own love interests, they were good to go.
    You CAN do both.

  4. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Considering how many bazillion times a manuscript must be revised before it’s submission-ready, changing it half-way through the first draft is nooooo problem.

  5. Avatar Joe Moore says:

    My co-writer Lynn Sholes and I were on a panel at SleuthFest last year covering the topic of collaboration. The moderator asked, “Who makes the final decisions in our writing process?” My answer was, “Our characters do.”

    There have been times when we tried to ”force” a character to do something that wasn’t “in character” and had to change direction or worse, dump a chunk of prose. Throwing out words is painful, because every word comes at a cost. But you have to do what’s best for the story. If it means changing halfway through the manuscript and regroup, then do it.

    Regarding writing what you feel passionate about–if you do, the passion will emerge from your words and flow to the reader. Write the book you’re dying to read.

  6. Avatar Erik says:

    Maybe I’m wrong here, but I think the issue at hand isn’t what everyone else thinks. I don’t think it’s that the author feels a need to change the book for reasons of character, but because of something they are only hinting at.

    Yes, the correct advice is that you should always “write a book you love.” The problem is that people have mortgages they feel compelled to pay, and they often have this strange desire to eat once in a while. People who are very serious about being a novel writer often confound “what they love” with “what they can market”.

    The writer in question here never clearly states why she wants to change. But she’s asking an agent, fer goshsakes. And her line of questioning is very revealing:

    “Are you seeing one or another selling really well? I’m noticing more erotic romances on the shelves, but do you think they have staying power over books with less explicit language? Do you find higher sales with one?”

    While I think you gave the correct answer, I think there’s a matter of emphasis here. This question is really, “How can I make money as a novel writer?” as far as I can tell.

  7. I think you need to write a book you love and that you’re proud of.

    One sentence that makes the heart sing…

    Chiron O’Keefe

  8. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Jessica, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my question.

    Erik, actually, the issue is more what Maya hit on – the image to the world.

    I didn’t begin writing a book because I assumed it would be profitable. I’m in the publishing industry in a different capacity, and I KNOW what is possible to earn, and what most do. I’m not concerned about the money. Yes, it would be amazing to be la Nora and make the big bucks, but that’s not what I’m concentrating on. I touched on it because I wanted to be able to view everything from all angles to make a fully informed decision. While money matters, it is not my main focus on how I work this book.

    The dilemma currently engulfing me is my public image, and I believe that it’s important to think about when writing erotic romance. Because, in all honesty, it isn’t acceptable to everyone. While many authors truly don’t care what other people think, to be faced with the negativity during a book signing or in the newspapers or on TV (you can see I’m thinking big here *g*) is something that does worry me. Should it? Perhaps not. But I’m honest enough with myself to realize that it does, in fact, matter a great deal to me, and I also understand that whichever way I choose will affect my family.

    So, have I decided since I sent Jessica that e-mail? Nope, lol. I’m still weighing all my options, looking at it from all angles, and since I’ve had no time to write recently anyway, I haven’t “needed” to make that decision.

    But I will have to make it soon, since Sven is yelling my name again…


  9. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    This is a subject I feel strongly about. I write very explicit, dark and somewhat edgy erotic romance. My stories are not for everyone, but I feel such a strong connection to my characters and the storyline within the context of my series that I can’t imagine toning them down. I’m proud of my stories and the fact that, for all the explicit sex, they are the most romantic books I’ve ever written. I decided a long time ago that I would live MY life–not my mother’s, not my neighbor’s…mine. I don’t ask for their approval, nor do I need it. What I do need is the sense that I am being true to my need to tell my stories my way. I think we all have our own code. If we step outside our personal comfort zone, we’re going to know it. The story just won’t work the way it should. If you have any doubts at all about the erotic nature of your stories, maybe it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate the direction you’re taking. If an author isn’t comfortable with the subject matter, the reader will know in a heartbeat.

  10. Avatar Jan says:

    I just want to chime in and thank you for another great post. This blog is smokin!

    This issue affected me during my most recent project for some of the same reasons. I was thinking I should go for erotic love scenes, but ultimately figured out that it wouldn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story, which was definitely not erotic.

    So I settled for scorchingly hot (I know, not a lot of difference!). But I was definitely thinking about the market and how the heat level of the sex scenes might help me snag an agent. Time will tell either way (but i’m secretly hoping someone falls in love with the story).

    p.s. Kate, I am heading over to your web site to check out your books right now…sounds right up my alley as a reader!

  11. Anonymous: Kate Douglas is one of my heroes. I *met* her online and over the phone as part of Passionate Ink, the RWA chapter for erotic romance, where I was membership chair for about eighteen months. Her “Wolf Tales” series is great.

    I have to admit I wasn’t as comfortable about eroromance when I began writing BAD GIRL in 2005 as I am today. Like you, I wrote it because I enjoyed reading erotic romance.

    When Jacky fell in love with the story the following year and offered representation, I began to seriously examine how I felt about the book being released. Yes, I wanted to be a published author, but my family hadn’t asked to go along for the ride. I decided the fairest thing for everyone was for me to publish under a pseudonym.

    This will probably sound strange to you, but when I’m wearing my Maya Reynolds persona, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest to encounter people who know me by my real name. For a while, it was delicious gossip at the university where I work. I just smiled and said, “Hey, it’s all mine, not plagiarized and a lot of fun.”

    I had to go to Bethesda last month on business, got on the plane and found my boss reading BAD GIRL. Of course, he was trying to shake me up. I grinned and asked him if he’d learned anything. That was the end of it. Turns out he was very interested in publishing, and we talked about that all the way to Maryland from Texas.

    It’s all in how you approach it. If you’re going to do it, OWN IT! Hold your head high and grin. I promise people will take their cue from you.

    I live in Texas where one third of the people who walk up to me at booksigning are committed Christians. I’m open and friendly and always warn them, “This is a very hot romance.” The writers stay around to talk, the other thank me and leave. I have yet to have a bad experience.

    Sorry for the length of these posts. Hope they help.

  12. I have to agree with what Maya said; it really is about what you love.

    Frankly, we can’t please everyone all the time.

    The first time I gave my mother a finished manuscript, I chewed my fingernails until they bled, afraid of what she’d say about the sex scenes.

    She read it in one day and called me. “Where did you come up with this stuff?” (it was a story about a serial killer). I told her. Then I timidly asked, “what about the sex scenes, Mom?” She said “They were fine. I’m really wondering about you, though, the stuff this guy does to the heroine…” And that was the end of the sex conversation.

  13. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Thank you, Jan! (Now refer back to Jessica’s post about shameless self promotion!) And Maya, thank you, too, and you are so right. If you love what you do and talk it up without shame, it’s amazing how people will open up to you. I have to tell a funny story–I had lunch with my editor and agent and some fairly important people from one of the largest book selling chains, and after awhile this very nice man looked across the table at me and said, “You don’t LOOK like you write those books!” I laughed and said no, I probably looked like a married grandmother of four, which is what I am, but I absolutely LOVE writing those books! It’s hard to argue or criticize someone who loves their work, and to be honest, I have never really had anyone say anything negative to me.

  14. I know just what you mean about a character coming to life.
    I am a new (unpublished author) of historical romance. My writing started out as a journaling project. My therapist suggested that I try journaling to rid myself of childhood demons. I found that I could not journal in the traditional way… hence my first project was born.
    I needed to reinforce to myself what was normal sexual behavior between a man and a woman and what was not. So I hid my story beneath the cloak of a historical erotic thriller. The writing came easily, since I had plenty of material to draw from. I had some people (including my therapist) read my book and I am very proud of my work.
    It’s not what other people think (although you do want people to buy your book), as much as what you, the author think (and your agent, of course, LOL).
    Write what ever material you feel good about putting out there and if you put your heart into it people will see that content shine through. What’s the old saying????
    “If you build it they will come”
    Marketing comes and goes in cycles. What’s hot today is not the next. Stay constant with your readers and they will keep buying your material.
    Julie Haggety