On November 15, 2019, the ask@AAR posted the topic, “Can we discuss the term “clean” romances?” It was a great question that inspired a lot of discussion not just about “clean” romances but heat levels in general from no-sex to burning hot erotica. During this topic, Caz Owens kindly gave me a shout out, hoping I could provide an industry standard definition for erotica. Then Dabney Grinnan jumped in, saying there is a lot of confusion between erotica and erotic romance. Upon reading the posts, I was pleased to give what I hoped was a satisfactory response to their questions. As a self-published erotica and erotic romance author, I am not privy to the inner workings of traditional publishers of erotic literature. But I was flattered two members of the AAR team still thought I had something valuable to contribute to the topic. The next thing I knew, Ms. Grinnan asked me to write a guest blog post on the subject. So here I am, thrilled at the opportunity and ready to roll.
To reiterate my prior comments, let’s start with the basic overlapping feature between erotica and erotic romance: sex. Both erotica and erotic romance stories must contain explicit sex in order to be classified as such. There is, however, one exception to this rule: certain fetishes that do not involve conventional sexual practices. For a relatively tame example, a reader may have a fetish for women popping balloons. In this case, if the erotica or erotic romance author writes a heroine who pops balloons in a manner meant to entice the reader with said fetish, then the story can still be considered erotic despite the absence of explicit sex scenes of a more orthodox variety.
Now, let’s look at some of the differences between the two genres, starting with erotica. In erotica, sex is the foundation of the story. The character or characters are going on some kind of sexual journey, whether that journey is a one-night stand, a long-term relationship, or maybe even a personal exploration of some kind (i.e. a journey of self-discovery). Unlike romance, erotica industry standards do not require an HEA or HFN, although an erotic story may end happily- in more ways than one!
What separates erotica from pornography is an ill-defined line and the subject of much debate. I think of erotica as written and pornography as visual, but even this distinction may be overly broad. After all, both art forms are designed to entice and arouse. But erotica generally has a plot and explores the characters’ emotions. Pornography, on the other hand, focuses solely on the sex. The situations in erotica and pornography may be the same, but they differ in their presentation.
For illustrative purposes, let’s look at the cliché of a bored housewife answering the door to a pizza guy about to deliver the extra-large sausage. In pornography, we usually don’t even get to learn the characters’ names. As far as we know, they are just “Housewife” and “Pizza Guy.” If there is an explanation for why Housewife and Pizza Guy have sex after knowing each other for less than 30 seconds, it’s generally a shaky one- often with bad acting to boot. Then, in the course of the scenario, there’s a (probably) fake orgasm from the woman, a real orgasm from the man, and a rapid conclusion. And that’s about it. There is no story or an extremely thin one at best.
In contrast, let’s look at how Housewife and Pizza Guy may be presented in an erotica. Since most erotica works published through KDP are probably short stories, let’s pretend these characters exist in a world consisting of approximately 5,000 words. Naturally, an erotica can range in length from a 2,500 word short to a 100,000+ word epic, just like any other type of story. But 3,000 to 8,000 words is the sweet spot for self-published erotica titles. This means there isn’t a lot of room for storytelling, so the essential elements of goal, motivation, and conflict need to be compressed. But it is definitely possible.
To begin, Housewife and Pizza Guy in our erotic short story have names. Let’s call them Sherry and Mike. Now, because this is an erotica and not a pornography, there needs to be a reason why Sherry the housewife opens the door to Mike the pizza guy and why Mike has shown up at the door at all. In short, what is the plot? Did Sherry specifically call Mike the pizza guy because he has a reputation for seducing bored housewives? If so, why is she a bored housewife? Does her husband neglect her? Maybe her husband cheated on her and she wants to take revenge by having sex with an attractive young delivery man. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander! Or maybe Sherry isn’t cheating at all. What if, in an effort to spice up her love life, she and her husband Mike are actually roleplaying housewife and pizza guy, having fun pretending to be in a clichéd porn scenario?
With a goal of approximately 5,000 words for an erotica short, there isn’t enough time or space to go into a lot of backstory. Sometimes a sentence or two is sufficient to set up the scene. Another couple of sentences can be used to establish character motives. And then, this being an erotica, the brief introduction should quickly transition into sexy times for Sherry and Mike. But keeping in mind this is not a pornography, the author should describe not only the mechanics of their explicit sex but the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Does Sherry feel naughty for cheating on her husband? Turned on? Worried? Regretful? Or if she’s actually roleplaying with her husband, does she feel kittenish? Silly? Embarrassed? Totally into it? Whenever possible, the writer should show rather than tell the emotions in play. How exactly does Sherry show her feelings during sex? Does she giggle nervously, pretend to be shy by covering herself and glancing away, or sport a bold smirk as she gives Mike a playful slap on the rump? Maybe during the course of sex, she does all three and then some. Regardless of what the characters do in a given erotica, every action depicted should be revealing in some way- both physically and emotionally.
Here’s a quick aside: although an erotica writer can certainly write from both Sherry and Mike’s perspectives, which is common in romance novels, I prefer to stick to one viewpoint like writers are expected to do in other genres. For erotica in particular, where so little else is hidden, adhering to only one point of view can help keep the other character appropriately mysterious.
Let’s get back to Sherry and Mike. Like pornography, an erotic story can end after they each have an orgasm, but there are other possibilities for wrapping up the story. And being an actual story, an erotica should have some kind of satisfying conclusion. (This isn’t to say that mutual orgasms can’t constitute a satisfying conclusion!) For example, does Sherry’s affair give her a sneaky sense of accomplishment for getting back at her cheating husband? Or does she feel guilty? Does her husband discover her secret on the last page? If so, what happens? Given that this is an erotica, he might actually be turned on by it. Or if she wasn’t cheating, but roleplaying with her husband, did they enjoy the experience? Maybe they decide together that Sherry needs special deliveries of extra-large sausage a little more often. No matter what the conclusion, there should be at least a sentence or two to keep the story from ending too abruptly.
Phew! That was a lot to unpack. But now that we have some examples of what erotica is and isn’t, let’s look at erotic romance. Unlike erotica, erotic romance must follow romance industry standards. That means the story must have a central romance and end with an HEA or HFN. Considering many romance novels published today include sex scenes, what determines whether a story should be classified as an erotica romance versus a steamy one? Is an erotic romance dependent upon the number of sex scenes, the number of people having sex in a particular scene, the inclusion of BDSM, and/or the use of sex toys? Not necessarily. Both romance and erotic romance novels can include these extra racy elements. But in an erotic romance, the explicit sex scenes are integral to the plot, whether those scenes are kinky or more conventional. It is through sex that the characters learn, grow, and develop- and the plot moves forward. If the author were to remove the sex scenes from an erotic romance, there would no longer be a story. Trying to “clean the story up,” so to speak, would destroy the work irreparably.
Let’s look at a specific example of an erotic romance, and see why removing the sex scenes would make the story collapse. Some time ago, I read the HR erotica Improper Proposals by Juliana Ross, published by Carina Press in 2014. Even though I don’t recall anything kinky, it still qualifies as an erotic romance rather than a hot HR because the plot itself is heavily dependent upon the bedroom scenes. With the caveat that I am describing the plot from memory, I think it is useful to examine why this story is best suited to the erotic romance genre rather than general historical romance.
The beginning of the story could easily be a typical HR: the heroine, a vicar’s widow in 1870 Berkshire, has set out to write an advice book for young, overwhelmed housewives. The hero, unsurprisingly, is her publisher. But here is where the story takes an erotic turn: the first draft of Mrs. Boothroyd’s manual contains the usual how-to instructions for cooking, sewing, and other wifely arts, but her publisher shockingly suggests she should include information about the marriage bed. Furthermore, he wants her to explain not just the mechanics of the act but how marital sex can and should be blissful for women rather than a form of drudgery. From this scandalous suggestion, Mrs. Boothroyd and her publisher Mr. Cathcart-Ross begin a clandestine relationship in the name of “research.” As you can imagine, this premise is highly conducive to an erotic romance.
In accordance with the principle of “show, don’t tell,” the author brings the reader into the bedroom without censorship to demonstrate what kind of research the two leads perform in secret. She also shows how their, shall we say, literary endeavors, blossom into a loving relationship with the promise of an HEA. If the author were to leave the bedroom door closed, it would be akin to telling the reader how their relationship developed instead of showing the reader. True, romance novels outside of the erotica genre can definitely move the plot and relationship forward outside of the bedroom. But in an erotic romance, the majority of plot and character development occur during the sex scenes and pillow talk, so their explicit presence is essential.
So what’s a specific example of how erotic romance shows character development? In Improper Proposals, there is a pillow talk scene where Mrs. Boothroyd mentions how her first husband always had a stubbly face at night, which she found a bit irritating during sex. The hero then replies to the effect of, “So, why didn’t you ask him nicely to shave before coming to bed?” This is one of many pivotal moments for Mrs. Boothroyd. Despite her long and happy marriage, she felt inhibited in the bedroom, not by her husband, but by her perception of societal expectations for proper behavior from a vicar’s wife. These expectations, both real and imagined, prevented her from effectively communicating her desires. But with the help of the hero, she comes to realize there are kind ways to express intimate preferences to a spouse. And from her newfound sexual experiences with her lover, she recognizes the importance of including a section about positive sexual communication in her manual for young housewives. This type of conversation and the conclusions that follow are often best displayed in the bedroom, when the hero and heroine are in each other’s arms in the midst of afterglow. Setting their discussion in a less explicit location could feel forced and change the entire tone conveyed.
So those are the basics. If you would like to learn more about writing erotica for KDP, I highly recommend the YouTube video “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Writing & Making Mega Profits With Erotica Kindle eBooks”. This 2 hour 38 minute audio recording with a Power Point presentation covers the do’s and don’ts of publishing erotica through KDP and gives concrete, useful strategies for maximizing readership. The audio and Power Point slides are annoyingly out of sync, but it is a valuable resource that helped me get started. For more specific tips regarding erotica plotting, writing for men vs women, and so forth, check out erotica author JJ Stuart’s YouTube videos.
Looking for erotic romance resources? Harlequin has an interesting 10 minute video about the erotic romance genre here: https://www.harlequin.com/shop/pages/guide-to-erotic-romance.html. Although Harlequin does not publish erotic material in their category romance lines, their imprint Carina Press does. Carina Press’s definition of erotic romance is available on their Submittable page under the “erotic romance” tab: https://carinapress.submittable.com/submit. For examples of their published erotic romances, check out their catalogue: https://www.carinapress.com/shop/category/erotic-romance.html. While most of their erotic romances are m/f contemporaries, you will note there are also m/m, f/f, and ménage as well as stories in the historical fiction, science fiction, and paranormal subgenres. Just like other categories of romance, erotic romance can feature a variety of characters, stories, and settings.
If you have any questions about erotica or erotic romance that I haven’t answered in this guest blog post, leave a comment and I will try to answer. Thank you, All About Romance for giving me the opportunity to reach out to romance, erotic romance, and erotica readers on your blog. Happy reading and writing, everyone!
Nan De Plume is a self-published erotica and erotic romance writer who is the proud creator of the Joey & Johnny Forever Series of Erotic Novellas. There are currently nine titles in this smoking hot m/m erotic romance series that balances dark and light moments. But an HFN is always guaranteed! Since novellas are a tough sell in any genre, De Plume also writes unabashedly smutty standalone erotica shorts. All titles are available on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited. Joey & Johnny novellas are also available in paperback.