I spent most of May 2007 hidden away in one of the reading rooms of the university library. It was the year of my finals, and the year I finally learnt how to revise. It turns out, if you’re reading literary criticism, revision doesn’t have to mean reading the same stuff you covered earlier in the year all over again. You can read new stuff, which is way more exciting, and copy out quote after quote onto A4 lined paper.
I’ve been a sucker for snippets of text ever since. Or maybe even prior to that, I’m not sure. When I read Kristina Lloyd’s Undone last summer, I wished I’d had a pencil to hand and that I’d underlined the bits that tapped straight into both kink and cunt. There were lots of them.
But I don’t read erotica that way. I don’t often read it two-handed at all, actually. But I do mentally file it that way: which is the story with the guy in the hoodie, the one where the description of the bar makes me weak at the knees, the one where the word snog seems perfect, not incongruous?
And I’ve been wanting to put something together on this for ages and ages, pretty much since I wrote this post and Kristina Lloyd said she enjoyed it and she’d like to see more like it. I’m not good at reviewing erotica, because it’s so rare for me to enjoy a story because character and plot and voice all come together. More often it’s because a single line connects with something fleeting and shadowy inside me, but you can’t guarantee that the same line will cater exactly to someone else’s kinks.
In the end, I remembered something I did as a teen, and decided to try and kind of recreate it. At the time, I was reading a lot of Mills & Boon, and saving for a copy of Romance Writing for Dummies. In the meantime, I bought something
great terrible great: The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book. And it truly is both great and terrible all at the same time. It’s basically a reference book of what it refers to as ‘tags’ or ‘short, one-line descriptions so skilfully tucked into dialogue and laced through the narrative that they usually escape notice.’ And given that the skill in writing category romance is being able to write to a tight brief and match reader expectations with very few surprises, it knows exactly what it’s doing. It contains such gems as ‘she tingled as he said her name’ and ‘her eyes held a gleam that no makeup could improve’ (always one of my favourites). My best friend and I used it to improve what could only really be described as fan fiction about our crushes at the time. Pity my GCSE French teacher, who was once described with the line ‘the smile in his eyes contained a sensuous flame.’
Good erotica doesn’t work like category romance. There are no guidelines about the hero’s expected income, the heroine’s sexual inexperience or a requirement to have a slick, big city setting. You can have a list of requirements in your head (e.g. cunt = good, pussy = bad, fuck = good, shag = bad) and you’ll almost always find examples that force you to reconsider. There’s no room for a dictionary of accepted, surefire phrases here, right?
Hmm, kind of. There are three things that I often stall on when I’m writing: kissing and orgasms, both his and hers. If a description doesn’t sound like it’s been used a thousand times before, I might like it for a day or two only to reread the draft a few weeks later and think ‘Jesus, what *was* I thinking?’ So what I needed was a reference bank that I could go to when doubting my own voice – a reminder that different authors describe these things in all kinds of ways and that words can work in ways you would never have even dreamed of.
It seemed to make sense to tie this post in with Erotic World Book Day. Because I only remembered this fairly late on, I’ve had to sweep through my collection of erotica slightly more briskly than I originally hoped. What I’ve come up with is three separate posts, each containing my top five descriptions of the following: kisses, male orgasm, female orgasm. Eventually, I might add a BDSM one and potentially others in the future. The plan is to update them as I read new stuff; these are not fixed lists of favourites, and stuff will be removed and replaced as I encounter more great erotica in the months ahead.
Doing this has been an interesting activity: yes, I’m open to a variety of writing styles and situations, but my kinks shine through in my choices. Semen features heavily in the male orgasm list; women who aren’t ashamed of how they sound when they come or are changed by the sex they’re having appear several times in the female one. The kisses vary much more than the other two lists – there’s a bit of everything from soft and gentle to hard and bitey, with some beautiful juxtaposition of ‘kissing like swooning lovers’ and fucking a near stranger. It’s an eclectic mix, hopefully.
I want it to serve a number of purposes. Inspiration, when my words dry up. A thank you, to all the great authors who continue writing in what I see as increasingly challenging market conditions. And a forum for recommending excellent reads to one another – please do share your favourite lines from what you’re reading in the comments section, either here, or on the posts themselves. I can’t wait to see what you pick!