Twenty-Minute Sprint

by | March 26, 2016 | General | 5 comments

by Jean Roberta

The Saskatchewan Writers Guild, to which I belong, has a long history of paying writers to do readings and run writing workshops in public places, including schools and libraries. Several years ago, I was hired to be “Writer in Residence” for one week in a public high school.

Now that I am known to the guild as an erotic writer, I’ve been invited to give a talk on how to write erotica in the “Write After Lunch” program in the guild office in June. Here is the catch: these talks are supposed to last for twenty minutes at the very most. They are scheduled between noon and 1:00 p.m. on weekdays, presumably so that attendees can squeeze a little writing advice into a flexible lunch hour.

What to say about erotica in twenty minutes? Of course, so much depends on the audience: will these be journeyman writers who have already written for publication, but haven’t written explicitly about sex? Will they be fledgling writers? I simply don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone in the guild office can foresee who will show up.

Since I can’t assume a lot of knowledge in the audience, I think I will tackle the myth that a story can be made erotic by the addition of sex scenes. As several other people have mentioned in this blog, the sex in an erotic story or novel has to be consistent with the rest of the plot and the cast of characters. Actual sex or a sex fantasy in the mind of the narrator has to be foreshadowed from the first paragraph. Who is attracted to whom else, and how is that attraction expressed? There is usually an obstacle to the fulfillment of desire, if only in the form of social conventions that tend to prevent new acquaintances from ripping their clothes off and doing it in the streets. Think about how you can use the obstacle(s) to prolong the erotic tension.

If I have time, I will mention stereotypes: characters with enormous body parts (boobs or dicks) are likely to seem like cartoons, which is fine if your intention is to write parody.

To think outside the usual, consider Elphaba the green witch in the musical Wicked: she grows up thinking of herself as ugly, but eventually, she meets a man who finds her beautiful in a different way from the women he has been raised to consider attractive (e.g. Galinda the Good Witch). Think about how to create an Elphaba character: an apparent loser in the competition for a date whose appealing qualities can be shown to another character as well as to the reader. Another way to describe this exercise is the way Lisabet does it: how can you subvert the conventions of various literary genres, or turn them upside down?

I suspect I already have enough material for at least a forty-minute talk, which means that I will have to cut to the chase, much like the writer of a flasher.

I’m glad I have so much time to prepare. Brevity is probably not one of my more noticeable qualities as a writer, so this exercise will probably be good for me. Luckily, there will be time for Q & A after my talk. I assume that’s when I can tackle questions about research, and whether (or how) to describe sexual activities outside one’s experience.

If you had never read or heard any advice on writing erotica, what would you want to know? Comments welcome.

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. Donna

    I like all of your plans!

    Clearly this could be an ongoing series (and maybe should be?) but one thing I've tried in erotica workshops is giving participants two pieces of different chocolate, asking them to pay close attention to the sensual aspects of tasting each slowly, and then pointing out that this is what erotica does–highlight the sensual experience of a physical act we don't usually bother describing so carefully. With such a short window, you definitely want to pick one or two main take-aways for attendees to think about. And maybe even tease them with more at later events?

    Please give us a report on how it went!

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    If I were giving this talk (though the notion of keeping me to 20 minutes is almost laughable!), I think I'd focus on "mistaken beliefs about writing erotica". For example:

    – Erotica is wall-to-wall sex without any sort of plot or emotional interaction
    – Erotica is mostly about bodies, especially big boobs and massive cocks
    – Erotica is simply fiction with sex scenes inserted (as you already mention)
    – Erotica has to be extremely explicit about sexual activity
    – Anyone who has ever had sex can write erotica

    People who haven't written erotica — even if they've written — often don't have any understanding of the genre.

    You might also prepare snippets from your work or the work of others to illustrate each of these points.

  3. Jean Roberta

    Thanks for commenting, Donna and Lisabet.

    Ah, the issue of self-promotion. I've been thinking of illustrating my points with snippets from my own writing or those of people I know & like. I've also been wondering if this would seem tacky. Possibly not, since I was chosen to discuss sex-writing in the Writers Guild library. 🙂
    Thank you for the advice — and the idea of handing out chocolate never occurred to me! This would be a sensuous experience that is nonetheless suitable for a diverse, fully-clothed group.
    I think debunking the myths is a good approach.

  4. Martin Gross

    Since I write erotic horror, what do you think would be the best way to fuse the scary with the sexy?

  5. Jean Roberta

    Probably to keep track of your dreams and especially your nightmares, and note where the sexual overlaps with the scary. Then the challenge would be to change the strange imagery and abrupt transitions of the dream-world into a story that would make sense to a reader.

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