by | May 26, 2014 | General | 6 comments

by Jean Roberta

My latest erotic story was written in response to a call for submissions, and it involves the kind of plot/situation that erotic editors often ask for: sex with a Bad Girl/vampire seductress/or Lone Wolf/outlaw dude. Exciting sex between a character with whom the (supposedly average) reader can identify and a mysterious, unsettling Other sounds like a marketable concept. Whether this plot is believable on any level depends on each reader’s level of skepticism.

Persuasive character development depends on convincing the reader that this character would actually do that thing. Some writers, especially those who write first-time erotica (innocent youngish character loses his/her virginity in some sense by doing some sexual thing for the first time) try to pre-empt the reader’s skepticism by putting extreme ambivalence into the character’s consciousness. (“OMG! Did I really just accept the handsome stranger’s invitation to let him take me to his chateau alone? I can’t believe I’m doing this!”) The virginal character’s attempts to hang onto a clean and cautious image of herself (and usually this character is a her) ring false after awhile. Either she will or she won’t go to the home of a strange man. While there, either she will or she won’t take off all her clothes for him and let him tie her up. If she goes “all the way” (as it used to be called) and has incredible orgasms, then clearly she is the “kind of girl” who does that kind of thing. She can no longer honestly claim to be a virgin. Of course, she could still be a good person who treats others as she would like to be treated (and who harms none), but in that case, she needs to reject a shallow definition of “goodness” as sexual ignorance.

Erotica is often about transformations and epiphanies. Doing new things involves acquiring new knowledge, especially knowledge about oneself. This is part of the reason why character-driven erotica is interesting to read. However, critics will criticize a change that looks unbelievably extreme, OR a series of sexual adventures that leave a central character absolutely unchanged on the inside.

Writing plausible erotica is harder than it looks, especially since different readers have different thresholds for the suspension of disbelief.

Crits and complaints in ERWA Storytime and elsewhere often focus on whether Character A would really be attracted to Character B, and what action, threat or proposition can or should be regarded as a deal-breaker. If Character B (the handsome stranger) says, “A pretty girl like you should be stripped naked and tied up,” and if Character A (the ingénue) then falls into his arms, some readers will complain that she is Too Stupid to Live, and others will say that in real life, she would rush out the door and resolve never to return to the bar – and for good measure, she would stop speaking to the mutual friend who introduced them.

Some readers will ask, “But why would Character A (law-abiding citizen) be attracted to Character B (rake, seductress, criminal, spy, visitor from another planet) when they are so different?” (Obviously, opposites never attract in the real world, even on the rare occasions when they cross paths.)

Sexual identity is actually a slippery thing, but some readers expect clarity: Lance is a gay-male porn star who was performing in the nude since birth. Bob is less flamboyant, but he knows he is attracted to men, and this is made clear to the reader from the outset, even if he won’t admit it aloud. Bob could possibly be seduced by Lance, but Bob wouldn’t make the first move. Bob couldn’t be married with children, and he could never enter Lance’s profession.

Some feminist critics have commented on the general acceptability of female/female sex scenes in sexually-explicit writing – but only if at least one of the characters finds Mr. Right or stays happily married, because she is not really a lesbian. (The real ones always wear labels, or strap-ons.)

During the period of suspense between sending a story to an editor and getting a response, I worry about all the possible reasons why the story might be rejected. A perceived lack of plausibility is high on the list, even if the call-for-submissions asked for vampires, werewolves, zombies, or a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between members of different supernatural species. (But would any self-respecting bloodsucker really . . . ?)

If and when I write my memoirs, I expect them to be rejected by the first 36 publishers on grounds that 1) the story lacks continuity, and 2) it lacks plausibility. For one thing, even if the author/narrator really lost her virginity in her teens, this can’t be stated in print without possible legal repercussions. And would she really have been attracted to the older brother of her Mormon friend? Why did the attraction not develop into a relationship? The plot trajectory needs editing.

I suspect that a certain incoherence is actually typical of real-life narratives, especially if written while the subject is still alive. A fictional version of the story is likely to be pared-down and simplified rather than expanded. Embarrassing, unlikely or seemingly irrelevant events and characters need to be weeded out to give a story the coherence which would give a comforting impression of logical cause-and-effect. I can imagine an editor’s comments on the complete, unexpurgated, five-volume version of my life-story to date: What is the theme here? Where are you going with this?

So I’m waiting to hear what an editor has to say about my story about a passionate encounter between mismatched acquaintances, one of whom needs to escape from the police as well as from a criminal gang, while the other wants to experience the “wild side” just for a night, without taking any big risks. A safe apartment, a safe job and a safe income look almost unbearably desirable to one who never had them, but the one who takes them for granted can’t see it.

What is realistic and what is not? The longer I live, the harder it seems to write fiction with the unmistakable flavour of life, especially if it is based on reality that is stranger than fiction.


Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Kathleen Bradean

    It makes me happy to read this because I think while you might be feeling as if you've seen/written this sort of implausible thing one too many times, what I read in your article is that you are, like Diogenes, in search of truth. Erotica needs more truth. Bare, naked, raw, and exposed truth. So raise the lantern high a bravely quest into that world where people make good choices And Still Have Smokin' Hot Sex.

  2. Jean Roberta

    Heh. Thank you for comparing me to Diogenes, Kathleen. Erotica definitely needs more truth. However, if I delve into my actual life for inspiration, I can't honestly say that Smokin' Hot Sex has usually been the result of good choices. 🙁

  3. Annabeth Leong

    "I suspect that a certain incoherence is actually typical of real-life narratives, especially if written while the subject is still alive."

    I think about this all the time. I have plenty of true stories that I think would sound quite implausible if I wrote them down. I particularly suspect I could frequently be accused of being too stupid to live. In fact, that criticism, while popular, often makes me raise an eyebrow. Since when do people make smart decisions as a rule?

    Anyway, love this post and best of luck with the story.

  4. Lady Flo

    That seems to be the eternal problem: writing what we want and what we think is good, right, true for us or what editors and Readers want.

  5. Lisabet Sarai

    So many great ideas in this post, Jean.

    "Erotica is often about transformations and epiphanies." Maybe always. At least the ones that stick with me.


    "(The real ones always wear labels, or strap-ons.)"

    I have been thinking about putting together a collection of my lesbian fiction and realized that most of my characters in fact might not be considered "lesbian enough". My characters are often bisexual. In any case, they are women attracted to women who may or may not identify themselves as lesbian with a capital "L". And I worry that I'll be castigated by the audience of "real" lesbians.

    I can't wait to read your memoirs. I'd publish them in an instant!

  6. Jean Roberta

    Thank you for your comments, Annabeth, Lady Flo and Lisabet. Re writing that captures the essence of "real" lesbianism, I wrote several pieces for my column, "Stranger Than Fiction," in the now-defunct lesbian e-zine "Kissed by Venus," about how no writer can possibly please all lesbian readers. To please some, I think the work has to pass the "Bechdel Test" – there have to be at least 2 female characters, and they have to talk to each other about something other than men. Honest interest in each other seems to me to be the key — & much sexier than a list of body parts.

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