The Duchess, Her Maid, the Groom & Their Lover

About Writing Erotic Short Fiction

How did it begin, that I became a writer of erotica?

I sent my first story, "Water Music," off to an anthology edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj called Aqua Erotica. Alas, it did not sell. Later, when I saw the anthology, I realized why; my story was considerably smuttier and less literary than what was chosen.

So, first rejection in hand, I went to Cecilia Tan (whom I knew already through a friend who'd sold to her) and asked her where I should send it. Cecilia suggested Best Lesbian Erotica, edited by Tristan Taormino. I can't remember when I mailed the submission, but it was probably the winter of 1999. On June 30, 2000, I received this email, which astonished me:

TO: Elspeth Potter

FROM: Tristan Taormino

RE: Water Music

Thank you so much for your wonderful submission to BEST LESBIAN EROTICA 2001. I AM EXTREMELY PLEASED TO TELL YOU THAT YOU ARE A FINALIST IN THE SELECTION PROCESS…So, what does this mean? It means that you have made the final cut; approximately 50% of the pieces from this group will end up in the book.

Then, on September 11, 2000:

Dear Author:

CONGRATULATIONS!! You've been selected as a contributor to BEST LESBIAN EROTICA 2001.


Next, I got serious.

Marketing Research

Having sold one story, I was afire to sell more. Also, since at that point I already knew writers and editors, I wanted to sell more stories as efficiently as possible. So I researched, using several methods.

1. Asked people. First Cecilia Tan, as I said, and also various editors I knew through friends and from science fiction conventions.

2. Read calls for submissions. The one I prefer is, but it took a while to find it and decide that was my favorite over some other sources. Reading calls for submissions is more educational than it sounds. You get a picture of how the market might be shaped in the future as well as familiarity with ongoing series of anthologies and prolific editors, plus the more basic knowledge of what kind of story is in demand and what kind isn't.

3. Read current anthologies. I can no longer remember how many anthologies I read, some in their entirety and some skimmed. I learned this way what had actually sold, and tried to figure out why, and compared what one editor had bought to what another editor might have chosen. I didn't come to systematic conclusions in a formal list, but I formed valuable impressions. Then I got tired of reading erotica. Today, when I receive a contributor copy, I rarely read the whole thing. Sometimes, I read none of it, though I usually glance at my own story to make sure no glaring typos snuck in.

4. Made [more] contacts. Finally, I learned about the market by submitting, and editors could learn about me the same way, or at least become familiar with my pseudonym. Whenever there was a reading for an anthology I was in, and it was affordable to get there, I went, and met other writers and editors. I met Sacchi Green this way, at a Best Lesbian Erotica reading in New York. Years later, contacts like this began to pay off as editors to whom I'd sold something, or whom I'd met at a reading for an anthology, sent me private calls for submissions, or asked for reprints of my stories. Not that I knew at the time that this would happen. I just wanted to meet other writers.

So, while acquiring all this knowledge, I worked on more stories and tried to apply what I'd learned.

Applying the Research

Now I knew I could sell, and I had a good idea of what markets were out there and what they bought. I decided that I wouldn't try to sell to every available market; writing doesn't support my basic needs, it's something for the soul. So if what I wrote wasn't fun and challenging, what would be the point?

A call for submissions for something called Tough Girls attracted me. It paid the same as the anthology to which I'd already sold, and I quickly saw that, with a theme, a different kind of story like sf would be more likely to sell, so the editor could avoid repetition. (At the time, I didn't know that the editor, Lori Selke, liked science fiction; I didn't find that out until long after.) Thinking of tough women, I immediately decided I would write about a soldier. In Space! I love space opera. I had a plot, and I finished a draft, but the story just wasn't right. It felt flat to me, unconvincing. My third person limited narrative voice didn't have the toughness and coldness I felt it needed, and I didn't know how to make it happen; my own personal voice is nothing like that. I needed distance. For once, inspiration struck. I didn't trust it at first, but it persisted. Make it second person present, my mind insisted. It'll work. At least, I finally decided, I would be able to say I'd tried second person present!

So I started rewriting, a few pages on in the same notebook. And it did work. I immediately noticed how much wordage I was able to leave out, how sharp and punchy the prose became. I was more distant, in a way, so I could write the character more as I meant her to be, hard and a bit isolated from other humans. What a rush! I titled it "Camera," thinking of the point of view, and the weird voyeuristic feel it gave. I typed it, edited on paper, edited again, and mailed it off, both to Tough Girls and to the next Best Lesbian Erotica, which accepted reprints.

Both bought "Camera," and since then it's been reprinted more than once. I'm still very proud of that story. I was so happy with it then that I decided experimentation and difference would be my approach to writing erotica from then on. Be Different. Be. Different.

I was talking about experimentation and difference in the last post. I think my attention to difference is one of the reasons I manage to sell stories consistently.

Erotica stories, by their nature, are somewhat the same. The gender or sexuality of the participants, and the sexual acts involved, are barely an issue in the structure. I will break this basic structure down into an outline. Your mileage may vary.

Basic Structure of an Erotic Story

1. Introduction of the characters to the reader. Are they an established couple? Have they known each other for a while, and this story shows a change in their relationship? Are they meeting for the first time?

2. Establishment of conflict. Some stories skip this part; I call those "porn." This is, essentially, the plot's fuel. What does one character want, and how will he or she obtain it? Will it be obtained? What obstacle is in the way of either consummation of the relationship or pleasant consummation of the relationship? Etcetera.

3. Actual sex scene, which mirrors classic plot structure: rising action, climax, denouement. Frequently, the denouement includes the possibility of the relationship continuing into the future.

Therefore, because the structure is very similar across the board, the differences–the more salable differences, that is–are other than plot.

Characterization is my favorite. Write about people with problems. They're more interesting, and more memorable.

The other choice, especially applicable to genre writers, is setting. Two people meet in a bar is a common plotline, but if the bar is in, say, a spaceship, or in Napoleonic France, it's automatically standing out from the crowd. This technique can be especially useful when submitting to themed anthologies, because standing out is more difficult when not only plot structures but themes are already set.

Working on Difference

The writing process starts with an idea…well, if you want to be philosophical, the process really starts with the desire to write…or perhaps the writer's birth. Or conception. But anyway. My ideas sometimes come out of my head, randomly, the desire to write about a particular action in an interesting way, or a particular sort of character, or a particular setting. More often, the desire to write and thus the idea are sparked by a call for submissions. When I said I sold most of what I wrote, part of the reason is that I am often writing to a specific market, which helps improve my chances. Taking that initial idea and identifying the approach that will make it different from most of the other submissions, or at least more appealing to the editor, is the harder part.

Setting is one thing, as I mentioned before. So far, I have written and sold stories set in a spaceship in the middle of a war; a futuristic prison planet inhabited by giant people-eating turtles; an aid station in World War One; a fairy tale land with sea monster; and a pseudo-historical version of France.

Whenever I see an opportunity to write a genre story, I take it. I could write a story about a girl on vacation, or I could write it about a girl on vacation In Space. Easy decision. If I happen to be doing research for a bigger project, as I am with WWI, why not use that research for a short erotica piece? In fact, why not use it more than once?

As for characters, I like to vary them in their basics as well as in their more esoteric qualities. "Twisted Beauty" features a man with paralyzed legs; "Worship" an older couple, one of whom is becoming crippled with arthritis. The story can be more intensely involving if the characters have something specific to overcome. It needn't even be the obvious. In "Worship," declining physical condition was part of the problem, but the protagonist's own doubts were even more so. Trusting her partner, and herself, was the solution. In "Twisted Beauty," the protagonist's paralysis wasn't the issue for him as much as continuing with his sex life as it had been before, finding someone who would see him not as a cripple but as a man, who, incidentally, enjoyed a little domination.

I'm Too Sexy for This Story

Another way to make stories stand out from the slush is style. The problem is identifying which style will work in a given story and for a given editor; there's no absolute method of quantifying style factors. I can talk about style, though, as a method of making stories different. In "Worship," for example, I was trying to indicate the character's distance from her own crippled body and from her own life. I think the presentation of the story was at least or even more important than the events of the story.

I've tried first person several times. "Free Falling" was the first. Since I wanted a lighthearted, breezy story, that's the voice I used. Also, the narrator could use sfnal slang to aid in the worldbuilding. In "Poppies Are Not the Only Flower," first person enabled me to mimic early twentieth century formality, integral to the story's setting during World War One.

"17 Short Films About Hades and Persephone" is laid out in small sections partly because of the disparate nature of the myths about Hades and Persephone. There's not much continuity involved in the original sources, so writing an uninterrupted narrative would've been difficult and involved transitions that I didn't really think were necessary. Some of the sections are only a couple of sentences long, adding rhythm to the narrative and serving as summaries of intervening time, for instance showing that things hadn't changed in the relationship, or briefly recounting a failed attempt at change for humorous effect.

And Now?

Right now, I've had to put short stories aside while working on the two novels I sold to Harlequin Spice, but in the meantime, I've continued marketing my unsold short stories as well as reprints. I hope to write more short stories in the future. In the meantime, I'll continue to work on novels.

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