Lisabet Sarai

The Accidental Pornographer by Lisabet Sarai

I didn’t plan to become an author of erotica. I have always loved to write, and I’ve always been fascinated by sex, but these two passions only converged in my life by an odd stroke of chance. I was visiting Istanbul (travelling being my third great passion) and picked up a used copy of Portia da Costa’s Black Lace classic Gemini Heat. (In case you haven’t had the joy of reading this gem, it’s the chronicle of two identical twins of quite different temperament who are seduced by the same man, a sophisticated dominant who loves pushes them to the edge and beyond.)

That battered paperback was the most arousing thing I had ever read. Better than Pauline Réage. Better than Ana’s Nin or Vladimir Nabokov or Anne Rice. It was intelligent, genuine, graphic without being gross, and best of all, incredibly varied in its scenarios and emotions.

Being an American, I’d never heard of Black Lace: erotica written for women, by women. I was intrigued by the concept, and also challenged. “I’ll bet I could write something like that,” I thought. I had exotic experiences from my past life in Thailand to serve as background and a wealth of submissive fantasies to provide the action. I wrote three chapters and sent them off to Black Lace, not exactly as a lark, but certainly with no great expectations of success. My limited expectations seemed to be confirmed when I received a airmail postcard saying that due to the volume of submissions, Black Lace wouldn’t even be able to read my proposal for several months. I shrugged and filed the postcard away. Then less that a week later, I got an email from the Black Lace editor asking when I could deliver the completed manuscript.

Somehow I managed to finish the book, despite working full time at a demanding job. I struggled to adapt my English to British standards. (I never could get my mind around the word “knickers”…) I proudly shipped the manuscript off to London just before my deadline, only to receive a stern email a week later warning me that I was below my contractual word count and that if I didn’t supply an additional 15,000 words immediately I’d be in breach. So I spent a weekend writing two new chapters and an epilogue, despite a raging headache due to an impending case of flu. Innocently, I had assumed that the word count was merely an estimate; I didn’t realize that I was legally bound to provide 80,000 words of smut.

The rest, as they say, is history. (An extremely minor footnote, of course.) I went back to writing software and technical documentation. But things had changed. I was now Lisabet Sarai. I had a public. I had royalties. And I had new, ever more outrageous ideas for dirty stories.

I didn’t intend to become an erotic author. Now, three novels, two anthologies, and a couple of dozen stories later, I discover that I am one, despite myself. I feel a bit guilty. Because I don’t give my writing “career” the time or the effort that my colleagues seem to devote to theirs. I have a web site, but I’m lucky if I manage to update it once every quarter. I don’t keep a spreadsheet of my outstanding submissions, because there is rarely more than one or two at any one time. I don’t do any significant marketing or business development; I just don’t have the time. Of course, I could make the time, but while my writing is extremely important to my perception of self and even, perhaps, to my mental health, it’s not in any sense my business.

So, despite some success in publishing my work, I really view myself as an amateur, an accidental pornographer who writes for fun and excitement, not for a living, and certainly not because I have a burning need to share my visions (though sharing them is perennially satisfying.) I intensely admire those of you who send off three or four pieces every week, who need a database to maintain their submission records, who regularly find checks in their mailboxes, who do readings and go to workshops and blog about the writer’s life.

Why am I bothering to write this article, then? I have a feeling that there are other accidental pornographers out there, who might be feeling the same way I do: a bit guilty, a bit insecure, perhaps a bit of a fraud. I want to voice my conviction that what you do is worthwhile, even if you don’t do it full-time, or for a living. And I thought I might also share some of the things I’ve learned in my non-career as a writer of erotica, which may have contributed to whatever success I’ve had and which might be helpful to you.

Act professional, even if you’re not

Many articles here in the Authors Resources pages have emphasized the importance of carefully reading and following publishers’ guidelines, writing courteous and concise cover letters; of submitting nicely-formatted, carefully-edited work; of paying attention to contracts, meeting deadlines and so on. Even if your writing is just a hobby, it’s worthwhile to act like a professional when dealing with editors and publishers.

It makes life so much easier for them (believe me, I know, having edited an anthology of other people’s stories), and their happiness and contentment will color their perceptions of you. The world of written erotica is not that large. It takes relatively little time and effort for you to build a reputation as somebody who is polite, competent, businesslike — easy to work with. That translates, all things being equal, into a higher probability of being published.

Write what you know and/or love

I believe that emotion is the key to effective erotica. You can write extreme sex scenes with nubile bodies contorted in every imaginable way, addressing all orifices and mixing all genders. If your reader does not connect emotionally with your characters, you won’t get the reaction you want.

When I write, at least, I have to feel what I’m writing. I need to identify with my characters. I have to share their sensations and emotions. So when I sit down to work on a story, I’ll use people, places, and incidents that have special meaning for me. Anyone who visits my website and then reads some of my stories will immediately notice the commonality between the list of my “favorite” places on my site and the locations for my tales.

Of course, writing what I know and love doesn’t mean that I’ve actually experienced everything I write about. (Never, for example, have I been sodomized on a billiard table. Or burned at the stake.) Every story, though, has some germ of reality or fantasy that brings on a personal buzz. My goal, as a writer, is to pass on that buzz to my readers.

Know your weaknesses

Every writer has problem areas. If your time for writing and promoting your work is limited, as mine is, you can make that time more productive by choosing venues, styles or formats that play to your strengths. For example, I suffer from excess verbosity. I can’t write flash fiction or quickies to save my life. So I don’t bother to submit to collections, sites or contests that are asking for stories with fewer than 2000 words. I know that it will just be too painful, and though I might have a masochistic streak, it’s not that strong!

Another weakness is that I just can’t seem to write dark, edgy erotica, though I often enjoy reading it. So I’m not going to spend my time working on the kind of stark, cynical, shocking stuff that many of you do so well.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you should always write the same sort of tale, or that you never try to expand your limits. I do deliberately try to work on stories that break new personal ground. Recently, I wrote my first pure M-M story. It was rejected.

I’m not giving up on it, though. Maybe I need more practice, or maybe I need to submit it elsewhere. I doubt, though, that gay male stories are about to become one of my specialties.

Don’t ignore inspiration

If you are like me, you are constantly trying to shoehorn your writing into the crevices of your “real” life. One disadvantage of viewing yourself as an amateur is that you tend to feel that you must put life’s other responsibilities and activities before your writing.

Sometimes, when I’m in a crunch, I may go several weeks without writing any erotica at all. Then, all of a sudden, I’ll wake up in a sweat from a vivid dream that contains a story begging to be told. Or a character will emerge, full-blown, in my mind and start talking to me.

This kind of inspiration is rare, and precious. It’s also fragile. If you don’t seize it and use it, it’s likely to evaporate. Alas, I have a notebook full of story ideas that held the essence of divine fire when they struck me, but which now seem flat and empty because I put them off for later. So even if it’s inconvenient or impractical, even if it means paying your bills late or giving up a night’s sleep, allow yourself to succumb, occasionally, to the craziness.

The best things I’ve written were forged in the heat of inspiration, when despite the pressures and stresses of life, I just couldn’t ignore the nagging of my muse. Meanwhile, the experience of writing, inspired, is one of the most intense highs I’ve ever had. It even beats seeing your work in print!

Find a writing community

Writing is a lonely business. Just because that statement’s a cliche doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. For someone who writes as an avocation rather than a profession, writing may be even lonelier than the norm. It’s all too easy to lose confidence, to tell yourself that it’s not worth it, that after all this isn’t what you “really” do. If you tell yourself that long enough, you’ll succeed in discouraging yourself from writing at all.

That’s why having a community of writers with whom you can share your desires, your fears, and your words, is so important. Your colleagues, your fellow writers, can provide both moral support and practical assistance. They’ll help you become more professional. They may make it easier for you to recognize and address your weaknesses. And when the lightning of inspiration strikes, they’ll encourage you to follow your muse wherever the hell she might lead.

Finding the Erotica Readers & Writers Association (ERWA) website and participating in the email discussion list hosted by ERWA has been critical to my personal writing path. Members of ERWA community have congratulated me on my successes, commiserated with me on my setbacks, and offered insightful suggestions on how to improve everything from my plots to my grammar. I count some of them among my closest friends, even though we’ve never met.

Of course, if you’re reading this, you probably have already found ERWA. Nevertheless, let me personally welcome you, whether you’re a pro or just getting started — whether erotica is your bread and butter or your sinfully rich dessert.

You never know about chance. You can’t predict the weird, surprising, quirky twists your road may take, by accident. I never set out to be a writer, but now, it’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like, otherwise.

I suspect that you may feel the same.

Lisabet Sarai

“The Accidental Pornographer” © Lisabet Sarai. All rights reserved.

The End of Innocence by Lisabet Sarai

My first erotic stories were explicit fantasies written to please a lover. The characters were idealized versions of our selves. The only plot dynamic was the inexorable building of sexual tension leading to our mutual release. These tales had an intensity that still melts me to a puddle of lust whenever I reread them.

My first novel was a compendium of all my favorite BDSM fantasies. The heroine was younger, prettier, more athletic and more sexually adventurous than I was, but otherwise we had a lot in common. She had red hair, which I’ve always craved. She was a software engineer, like me. How many of those do you find in erotic novels, after all?

The exotic setting was assembled from my own experiences. The male protagonist was as tall and commanding as my own Master, but thinner, more mysterious and more extreme. The overarching theme was the main character’s awakening to her submissive desires, mirroring (emotionally at least) my own personal awakening. The plot rushed forward at breakneck pace from one overwhelming sexual encounter to the next, and resolved itself by having the heroine choose a life of permanent submission — a concept that I’ve toyed with in imagination many times.

I suspect that many writers of erotica began, like me, by exposing and exploring their own favorite scenarios of desire. The resulting writing often is often searingly sexy. The author has poured his or her personal libidinous imaginings into the story, with all the accompanying emotions. Readers pick up on the emotional truth, and react to it.

There’s a kind of innocence to this type of confessional erotica. The author is far more concerned with self-expression than with craft. Self-disclosive stories usually have little suspense, few complexities. The focus is on the fantasy. These stories are direct and intense. They hit you in the gut, or perhaps more appropriately, in the groin.

After a while, though, those of us who keep writing come to realize that sophisticated readers of erotica (whatever that means) want more. More than just the same fantasies, however exciting, recycled over and over. More varied characters, beyond the embellished images of the writer and his or her real or ideal lovers. More varied and ambitious plots, with the sort of obstacles and conflicts that build narrative (as opposed to sexual) tension.

If we’re concerned with satisfying this kind of reader (and some writers are not), we try to take more conscious control of the writing process. We push the id into the back seat. We read how-to books on plot and characterization and self-editing. We join workshops and take writing classes.

The result is often a far more skillful and elegant story: more challenging, more suspenseful, more complex. All too often, though, these new stories are less arousing than our original naive fantasies. Somehow, we’ve lost the spark.

How can we move beyond our own personal turn-ons and still write erotica that makes our readers hot and bothered? This is a question I’ve been wrestling with myself for the last few years. I’ve come to believe that to write convincing and exciting erotica, I somehow still have to tap into my personal fetishes and fantasies. At the same time I have to twist or transform them enough that that I am not writing the same story over and over again.

One trick that I’ve used is to swap the point of view. If most of your stories are from the perspective of the man in a heterosexual duo, try viewing your story through the woman’s eyes. If you’re personally turned on by the notion of a man going down on you, imagine, and describe, what his thoughts, feelings and sensations might be. Write his experiences, as you imagine them. If, like me, your core fantasies revolve around submission, consider writing the dominant role. The emotional dynamics and the physical activities are still there to excite you, but the revised point of view can result in surprising and arousing situations and reactions. For example, when working on my story “Incurable Romantic” (in Confessions: Admissions of Sexual Guilt), I realized suddenly that a dom could be as frightened by the total devotion and trust of his slave as he was aroused.

A second strategy I can suggest: extract the emotional essence of your fantasy, and transfer it to a different environment or scenario. What do I mean by this? The arousal that comes from a fantasy may be a physical reaction, but it derives from the emotions that your fantasy evokes. Why is notion of anal sex exciting? For me, there are two arousing elements: the violation of taboos, and the perfection of trust in allowing penetration in such a delicate region. So, to avoid boring my readers with yet another surrender of anal virginity to a dominant but caring master, I’ll try to take those emotional components and work them into another story, with different physical activities but the same emotional dynamics. As a reviewer recently commented, my story “Perception” (in Hot Women’s Erotica) incorporates the essential emotions of a BDSM scene (fear, trust, and surrender) without including a single whip, handcuff, or groveling honorific.

My third strategy is to use analogy. Think about some fetish article or activity that excites you. Imagine how you react to the presence of that item or exposure to that activity. Then try and transfer those emotions to a completely different item or scenario. In “Fire” (from the collection Fire), I tried to describe the guilty pleasure, the compulsion for secrecy, and the obsessive need for escalating intensity that I experience, but transferred to a character whose fetish is burning buildings.

These strategies are successful in varying degrees. Sometimes, I try too hard. I think too hard, instead of letting my subconscious speak its truths. My first novel, burning with my personal lusts, is still my most popular, even though when I read it now, I cringe at the clich’s.

I suspect that the most skilled writers of erotica are those who can arouse themselves by imagining by a wild variety of circumstances and activities. The more broad our sexual imagination, the more convincing our erotic writing will be.

Last month, I wrote a fantasy story as a gift for my Master’s birthday. It included the standard elements that turn me (and I hope, him) on: the charismatic, insightful, sexually outrageous dom; the reluctant, fascinated sub with the plump nipples; the sub’s gradual realization that submission to the dom is her true path to pleasure and even enlightenment. It used newly extreme toys and implements that I’d never attempted to write about before. It included (I’m embarrassed to say!) actual quotes from our past interactions. It was, in some sense, pure pulp, intended to arouse.

At the same time, the story was more than just a sex scene. It had a plot, a timeline, major and minor characters. It even included literary allusions to amplify the theme.

Once you’ve lost your innocence as a writer, you can never go back.

My Master loved it.

Lisabet Sarai

“The End of Innocence” © Lisabet Sarai. All rights reserved.

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