Thursday, July 17, 2008

Confessions of a Literary Streetwalker: 10 Commandments of Smut

(the following is part of an ongoing series of columns I did for The Erotica Readers & Writers Association on the ins and outs and ins and outs and ins and outs of writing good smut)

I. Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain

“Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod” need I say more? The same goes for any other kind of onomatopoeia: “ooh”, “urg”, “gack”, “mmmm”, etc. Use your words, people; use your words!

II. Thou Shalt Not Own a Thesaurus

An exaggeration, of course (to get that vicious Roget off my case). The need to change a descriptive word after every sentence or paragraph is the clear sign of an amateur. Example: ‘cock’ in the first paragraph of the sex scene, becomes ‘rod’ in the second, ‘staff’ in the third, ‘pole’ in the forth ... and you get my gist. The same goes for the silly need to be ‘polite’ in describing either a sex scene or various body parts. Unless you’re writing a Victorian homage (or pastiche), women don’t have a ‘sex’ between their legs, and a ‘member’ doesn’t live in a man’s trousers. If you can’t write ‘penis’, ‘clit’, ‘cock’, ‘cunt’, or the rest of the words you can’t say on television then find another job - or just write for television.

III. Thou Shalt Not Equate Dirty Movies with Erotic Writing

Films are films and stories are stories and very rarely do they meet. Another stigmata of the greenhorn is thinking that a smut story has to have the deep characterization and suburb plotting of a porno film. Even a story written for the lowest of markets has to have something aside from sex scenes. So face it, just siting down and writing out Debbie Does Everyone won’t do anything but bore you and the reader.

IV: Thou Shalt Not Exaggerate (too much)

I’m big, but not the biggest - my girlfriend’s tits are nice, but not the nicest in the world. Same should go for your stories. Unless you’re being silly (or surreal), keep your proportions to a human level. Every cock can’t be tremendous, every pair of tits can’t be the most beautiful, every cunt (or asshole) the tightest, etc. It’s okay to hedge a bit, frame it with “- right then, at that moment -” or some such, but keep in mind that it’s a cheap-shot at both sex and your readers to assume that desire can only be the result of seeing (or fucking) something of inhuman proportions: it only makes you look like the biggest of amateurs.

V: Thou Shalt Not Be Ignorant of Sex

Okay, it’s perfectly reasonable not to be too realistic in describing sex - after all, smut stories are supposed to be entertaining - but pointing out every nasty smell, or ... ‘shortcoming’ will make the reader anything but turned on. But there’s still no excuse for making anatomical errors or perpetuating sexual myths. For example: simultaneous orgasms, “sucking” orgasms (“My g-spot is in my throat’), masochists who are automatically subservient, gay men who are attracted to every male who walks by, every woman is a potential bisexuals, etc. TI recommend research and empathy, trying to understand, explore what sex is and what it isn’t. Virgins (and the ignorant) after all can certainly write porno - they just can’t write good porno.

VI: Thou Shalt Not Be Too Clever

I loved Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, and The Usual Suspects - but they worked because the screenwriters brilliantly knew how to tell an unusual story. It’s another common myth that a story needs something mind-blowing to be entertaining - so many newbie writers will often try to toss in so many devices and situations because they’re scared of boring the reader. As in all things, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Don’t try to be too elaborate or devious - half the time the reader can see it coming a mile away. Rather than elaborate plotting or grandiose story constructions, concentrate instead on characterization, description, dialogue, a sense of place, pathos, wit, and THEN plot. Simplicity and subtlety can be dynamite, shock and surprise are just firecrackers - they don’t move anything, and are often just annoying.

VII: Thou Shalt Not Write Porn

- unless, of course, that’s what you’re writing. I explain: too often editors get erotica that reads like something you’d buy in the bus station. Now if you’re trying to write erection-producing materials suitable for long-distance public transportation then do for it. But if you’re sending something off to, say, a ‘respectable’ editor or publisher you should at least have a slight clue about what’s being written and published for that market. A good technique is to throw out the idea what you’re writing something that’s supposed to get someone hard/wet (or anything betwixt/between): just tell a good damned story about sex. Just a long, drawn out sex scene with bad writing, no characters, no plot, atrocious dialogue, etc. isn’t a story - even if you start with a title and conclude with THE END.

VIII: Thou Shalt Not Do Everything

Just because humans have cocks, cunts, clits, assholes, tits, nipples, mouths, noses, and hands doesn’t mean you have to put them all, in their many and varied sexual interactions, in each and every story. After all, unless you have a free weekend and a Viagra IV drip there’s no way you could do it all - so how can you expect your characters in your story to? Simplicity again: sometimes a story screams for a blow and fuck, sometimes all it needs is a long, lingering kiss. The story will often speak for itself - don’t bow to the pressure of “Okay, I’ve done A, B, and D, so all I need to do to finish it off with E,F,G, and the rest of the alphabet. Good smut is sweet, simple, and hot - bad smut is clumsy, forced, and obvious.

IX: Thou Shalt Not Be Sterile

Nah, I don’t mean well-scrubbed or squeaky clean; I mean that sex can be emotionally complex, that it can bring up a wide range of emotional states in the course of one romp in the hay: joy, happiness, ambivalence, exhaustion, anger, fear, disgust, guilt, etc. A story that’s just about the sex, where everyone is happy, healthy, and horny is dull - the characters don’t change, nothing is revealed or explored. A story like that can lead to only one kind of emotion in the reader: boredom. Be daring, be risky, be dirty (and not just sexually) with your character’s emotions. Use what you know, what you’ve been through, not just what you want to have happen. Life is icky, tricky, and messy - and what’s what makes it great. Use it!

X: Thou Shalt Not Forget the Writing

It’s easy enough: plot, characterization, description, motivation, and all the rest of it, the pieces of a good story, are so in the forefront of our minds that the fundamentals slip through the cracks. Now, I’m not talking about the real basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation (though they are important), but rather the real key of any story, smut or not: the writing. After all, when you write a smut story you’re writing a story first, that it happens to be about sex is secondary. Plot, characterization, description, motivation can add up to nothing if the writing itself is stilted, flat, or clunky. Writing should flow, sparkle, crackle, and evoke. It’s a tough act, but really the most important. Don’t let those obvious pieces get in the way of what you’re doing: you’re a writer, and telling a story.

The bad news is that you can follow all of these “Commandments” and still fail if the writing isn’t good, but the good news is that if you can do it - if you can amaze, amuse, or arouse with your words - then you can break any rule.


Anonymous said...

I don't know who YOU'VE been with, but believe me, simultaneous orgasms aren't a myth. Someone else just said to me recently that she thought multiple orgasms were made up by Cosmo writers! Both simultaneous orgasms and multiple orgasms are features of couples who are graduates of "sex school" and have good control of their PC muscles and their abilities to let go at the right time (learning to meditate helps this).

Simultaneous orgasms between partners were the ideal at one point, but most real (and fictional) partners enjoy alternating, so they can watch, hear, smell, and taste their partners coming.

Other than that, you are right on with your observations and commentary. I started writing erotica in 1985, and I concur with you all the way. But just like some partners are better at it than others, some writers are bound to be better at writing about it than others! Viva la difference!

Shon Richards said...

I think rule 8 is the one most new writers never beleive. I wish people would frame and keep that rule by their desk because it is so very true.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why an automatically subservient masochist is a myth. I am one.

Still, neat article. I have to say, I don't read much erotica, but if I ever do, I now have some evaluation points. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a masochist, and I hate that my partners assume it automatically means I'm subservient. It's common in porn too; aren't there any more 'Venus in Furs' type stories out there? I for one would love to read about manipulative masochists. And this was a good article; I came here from Violet Blue. I'm going to check out the rest of this blog now.

Anonymous said...

The S/M dynamic is independent of the D/S dynamic in a relationship. There are masochistic dominants and sadistic submissives out there, albeit fewer than you can find in the "traditional" roles.

It is fairly easy to see that ordinary people have problems grasping the beautiful emotional dynamic between a sadist and a masochist and revert back to an easier to understand relationship: the dynamic between a dominant and a submissive. It is just so easy for an outsider to assume that the one inflicting pain is dominant, and then infer that the recipient is submissive.

As a sadist, I too want to read stories that delve deeper into the pure masochistic and sadistic mindset, into a realm of emotional connection where power exchange is incidental or an after-thought. It means that commandment IX is close to my heart, I suppose, but I will print out the entire article for the day I work up enough courage to write the Next American S/M Novel.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

Question from someone who came here from Greta Christina's place: who is this directed at? Officially, it's directed at writers of "smut," and is said to be written on behalf of an organization with "erotica" in the name, but contains sentences such as "throw out the idea what you’re writing something that’s supposed to get someone hard/wet" and "when you write a smut story you’re writing a story first, that it happens to be about sex is secondary." In my experience as a reader of fiction, there are sex scenes that (even if they play some other role in the story) clearly fall under the heading "supposed to get someone hard/wet," and succeed. And there are sex scenes that play a define role and aren't "supposed to get someone hard/wet," and stand very little chance of doing this for anyone. You seem to think that there's something wrong with this distinction--what's going on?

Fluence said...

Some good points, I'll try to bear them in mind!