Thank you to Melisse for inviting me here. Readers may notice subtle differences in spelling. I am an Aussie writer, so this article is in my Aussie-speak…
I’ve been writing (and published) in ‘erotic romance’ for over 14 years: paranormal (vampires, shape shifters, ghosts), futuristic, and m/m. Over that time I’ve seen so much change in the genre, and what would have been ‘taboo’ when I first started writing ‘erotic romance’ is now considered blasé. But the basics remain the same.
What is the most important ingredient in erotic romance?
Sex, of course! Really? Maybe. Maybe not.
To me, the most important word for writers of erotic romance (or any form of fiction) begins with ‘c’.
‘c’ stands for ‘characters’.
Characters create story: plot, tension, and conflict. They are also the ‘sex’ in erotic romance.
Readers identify with characters. Whilst they are reading a book, they want to live out the fantasy the writer has created. They want to become a participant to the action, not an observer. They want to engage with the story, and to do that, they must empathise with the characters.
What is a sex scene without the emotional engagement between the characters? Without that emotion, what are we reading? Just sex, just the mechanics. It might be hot and titillating, but how much of that wham-bam can a reader read, and as writer, how much of that can we write, without it becoming boring? Sex sells, but story for me sells better.
But how much story? As in a romance, the story is the developing relationship between two characters and too much ‘window-dressing’ blurs the main thrust of the story. Scenes need to drive the developing relationship forward to its conclusion.
Characters and engagement.
Characters engage the reader through their emotional rapport. Readers see the commitment between the characters. We are writing erotic romance. ROMANCE. If the characters have no true feelings for each other, how can the reader share any emotional depth? Emotional depth is the key to writing engrossing, page-turning erotic romance. A story is made from characters who have conflict with themselves, their fellow characters and their environment. The reader shares the character’s adventures, but more importantly—their emotions.
If a reader doesn’t engage with a character, then the hottest sex in the world may titillate for the short term, but will the story be memorable? Will the characters live on in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed?
Every best-selling erotic romance author I read, all have memorable story and characters. There are some I re-read many times because the story and characters are compelling; and the stories are emotionally charged.
There are writing skills to achieve this. Engrossing the reader is about writing that engages the five senses, to bring the scene, the story, and therefore, the character to life.
Taj slept and Ray stroked his back, listening to the cat-boy’s purr of contentment. Sometime later, Ray woke up to find his mouth full of thick lion’s mane, his body entangled with a golden furred body. Taj was deeply asleep, in his cat shape. Ray spat out the fur, teasing strands from between his teeth.
(extract: Fangs for the Memories).
There are several senses subtly ‘invoked’ in this paragraph. Ray strokes, he hears the purr, he spits out cat fur from his mouth. This last sense also includes two emotions for the reader – have you had cat fur stick to your mouth, or skin? How annoying is it? Also, the scene has a touch of humour—waking to find your mouth full of lion fur? If you can invoke a laugh or a smile from a reader = a winning scene.
Use the five senses to bring your scenes and characters alive. The five senses are: touch, taste, hear, smell, see.
For example: it has taste, (salty, perhaps or perfumed); when one touches skin, it can be smooth, or rough, dry or soft; to a cat shifter a human’s skin smells of… what? (or a vampire smells like… what?) Here is a chance for the author to create a unique sensory description; one can see skin colour and texture; and sliding silk over skin brings about a sound… and this brings about a response to the character, as well as the reader who knows that sound, that taste, etc.
This is invoking reader empathy/emotional impact.
Here is another example (simple use of familiar herbs to bring out a smell sense):
Reaching home, and after putting away his groceries, Alex showered and donned a fresh pair of silk boxers. Listening to opera from his iPod, he ate his dinner under the pergola. The night was warm, the scent of sage, basil, and rosemary drifting over him from the herb garden.
(Extract: A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
Characters and dialogue.
Dialogue between characters is an effective way to enhance character, reveal information and drive the plot forward.
Jaidyn held out his own much loved, tattered and many times patched green cotton dressing gown.
‘That?’ Leydan asked, his eyes narrowed. ‘Is this the best you can do?’
‘It’s my favourite.’
‘Then I pity you if your circumstances are so reduced that this… thing is your favourite. What sort of heathen place am I in?’
‘Suit yourself,’ Jai said. ‘Walk around naked, as if I care. But the cleaning ladies might enjoy the sight and want to buff your butt with their dusters.’
(Extract from The Cat the Vampire Dragged In)
Here, I’ve made a deliberate choice of words—‘suit yourself’ to give Jai a subtle twist of humour.
How much sex?
Some of the best-selling erotic romance authors I know have very little actual sex in their books. So, why are they popular? They write an engaging story, with fascinating characters, with sexual tension that blisters the paint from the walls. Often the consummation is left for the HEA scene.
Other erotic romance will have the characters engage in sex, or come very close to ‘it’, but back away. Most scenes are driven either by sex, or sexual tension—the story, the characters and the author’s style and voice and the publisher’s expectations will determine the level of sex.
Beware the ‘rule’ that says you, as writer, must have a sex scene every number of pages—this can destroy continuity of story, and often the sex is gratuitous and readers can ‘see’ the author at work: that is, the characters are puppets, not acting out of their own needs/desires. This leads me on to:
Characters in control!
Characters tell the story and it is they—not the writer—who determine the story. This is the way I write—I allow the story to be told through my characters. Other writers are meticulous in the way they plan each sentence and scene.
In my writing, the level of passion is determined by the characters. In my latest release—A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—my human hero (Alex) is an earthy character whose passions ignite upon the arrival of the cat-shifter (Kellyn). Alex undergoes a metamorphosis, blossoming from recluse to teasing and sexy. Here is an extract:
‘Yeah, I know all about that,’ Alex said pushing up from the chair. ‘Want a top up?’
Alex smiled. ‘Top up. More coffee?’
‘Top up has other connotations where I come from.’
‘That I can imagine.’ Alex laughed. ‘Stay here with me for as long as you want. Get well.’ He walked past Kel and squeezed his shoulder. Cat-boy rubbed his cheek against Alex’s knuckles.
(Later Alex tells the reader that this knuckle-brushing has been the most erotic thing to happen to him for years; it is a turning point in the relationship—but, no sex, just the frisson). Alex determines the pace of the romance, as well as the language, content and the eventual HEA consummation. Again, in this scene I have used dialogue (a double entendre) to create a spike of sexual tension – i.e., ‘top up’ and Kellyn’s reaction to it.
One reader told me that she had ‘fallen so deeply for these characters and this book was just so sweet’. Another said she was so pleased to have found this series, because of the fun, and the setting (in Australia), while another said she liked ‘how I play on the myths of the cat shifters and the vampires…’ Another reader/reviewer said she enjoyed Christmas Creek because of the witty dialogue, fascinating characters and innovative plot.
I have made mention of these to illustrate another point. Few readers have ever commented on the sex content in any of my books. I’d suggest then, that people are reading my books (and other authors’ books) not so much for the sex, but for the story and the characters and ultimately for the HEA ending. I’ve had emails asking me to keep the characters safe—they can be hurt, or made to suffer, but they cannot be killed! So, again, my stories and characters are being ‘owned’ by readers and they seek confirmation that none of them will be killed. This is a dramatic example of reader bonding.
My characters define the story, they control the plot and they do not like to be interfered with. It’s their story and they’re going to tell it how it is, not how I would have it. This is how I ‘create’ – regardless of genre.
Other writers prefer to have their characters clearly defined, totally controlled and know every word before it hits the page. This works for them, but not for me. I know the beginning, I know the end (HEA) and maybe one incident in the story (usually the pivotal moment), but how I get from start to finish unfolds as the story—as the characters act and react. If I am surprised, shocked, cry, laugh or despair while I am writing the story, then I’m fairly certain that my readers will also experiences these emotions, too.
Isn’t this why we all read? To live the fantasy and become the characters and lose the mundanity of life for a short time in the pages of fiction? It certainly is for me. And if my characters surprise me, then I’m certain my readers will also be similarly surprised. I get reader mail to say: ‘I didn’t see that one coming—wow!’ And that, for me as writer is the moment when I know I have done something worthwhile—my writing (and characters) have come alive. They may have also pushed boundaries.
While most publishers of the genre have submission guidelines and what they want and do not want, it is an author who must decide how much sex, what words to use, what story to write. These are tough decisions. A publishing contract and/or money doesn’t replace integrity; it cannot soothe a troubled conscience. Each writer must determine their line in the sand and write the story they feel comfortable with, using words and descriptions that suit the character, the plot, the setting as maintain the integrity of their own style and voice.
Because there are publishers and readers to suit every style and story.
Be true to your style and voice and write the story you would love to read. This is what I do and I am pleased to find readers who also share my passion.
So, that’s another thing I’ve learned—what words I can use, and what ones I do not feel comfortable with. If one uses words for the sake of titillation, or shock value, then I think as a professional author one has ‘failed’. The author has lost ‘control’ of their language skills.
Control – who is in control? The author or the character?
In my latest work, A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Alexander is an earthy character, strong of passion; he has no problem with expressing himself in his language. Alex developed his own unique style very early in the story and his passion (another surprise for me) made it a highly charged sexy story – but when you have a sexy cat shifter as a mate, a guy just isn’t shy for too long. The cat teases and brings out his mate’s true nature (as only a cat can do!)
I am writing m/m sexy paranormal romance, but I have also (and am writing) hetero romance. My Starlight series (amalgamated in the one special edition – available print or digital) has the hero and heroine discovering depths of passion and a new world view as a result of their commitment to each other. The story, set in the world 200 years from now, on earth and in space, also examines the meaning of life and what it is to be human (since so many of the characters are shifters).
Starlight began life as a 5,000 word story to fill a publisher’s release date ‘hole’, but in the writing of that story, my hero suddenly said: ‘My brother is felinus…’ Whoa! That brought me out of the story. ‘What’s a felinus?’ I asked. By the end of the series, 130,000 words later, I knew exactly what a felinus is. Boy, do I know! So, this is an example of how my free form writing taps a depth that leads me on a roller-coaster ride of discovery – it’s possible that if I wrote in a ‘controlled’ manner, I may never have stumbled across the felinus. I pushed boundaries… For more about this, please go to
So, I hope this has given you a few ideas about ‘how to write…’
Push boundaries, never be frightened to explore the possibilities created by a chance encounter or comment from a character. Above all – write what you would love to read.
Astrid’s books can be found at www.extasybooks.com
Her website is www.astridcooper.com