Let’s get a little personal, shall we? I think people like my parents and most of my friends would be surprised to learn that I’ve dived head-first into writing erotic romance. Frankly, I think they’d be surprised I’m writing romance at all. See, I didn’t exactly grow up reading Harlequin romances or bodice rippers. There were no bare-chested men with flowy linen shirts leaning against stone castles or the bows of boats lining my bookshelves. No, ma’am.
The Road to Erotic Romance
When I was a kid, I was really into Stephen King, R.L. Stine, and a bunch of classic YA reads like The Baby-Sitters Club series. In high school, I developed a deep love for contemporary literary fiction like A Clockwork Orange and Less Than Zero. And that love only bloomed greater as I entered a creative writing program at a small liberal arts college in New England. Junior year, I fell head over heels for The Beatniks and Post-modernism, and then I discovered their predecessor, Surrealism. I was never the same again, honestly.
All three movements delivered a rawness that instantly drew me in. I loved how often the authors’ lives blended with the fiction on the pages. They weren’t afraid of sexuality or violence. While reading the works were freeing enough, attempts to emulate their styles in my writing pushed me to explore parts of my craft that I didn’t know I could. Their works remain aspirational for me to this very day.
No matter what I read, my favorite part of any story has always been the romantic relationships. I’ve always been drawn to stories that explore falling in love, heartache, and recovery. As we all well know, sex, intimacy, and desire are important ingredients of any relationship. So, it’s not really a surprise to me that I’m writing erotic romance novels now. It’s been a natural progression, and I feel more myself as a writer than I ever have. (More inspired and more confident, too.)
Suppressing My Deepest Desires
I’d spent years avoiding romance. Graduating from creative writing programs that centered around minimalists like Raymond Carver and heady writers like Denis Johnson, romance seemed too low brow and too genre, which is a pretty funny thought since so many of my creative peers were into other kinds of genre work. They had an especially high regard for sci-fi and speculative fiction.
But romance, I think, was held to a different standard. There was a stigma and a pre-conceived notion of what romance was, that a clear divide between “literature” and “romance” existed. There was a prevailing mentality that unless you were Anais Nin or Henry Miller, sex in novels was meant to feel like a made-for-TV movie: a little grinding is OK, but anything too graphic is fair game for censoring. (What’s worse is I bought into it.) Basically, you had to be writing a certain type of erotica that fell within some not-always-so-clear-to-define boundaries to be considered good writing.
More horrifying, I still remember in my master’s program there was a female writer who wrote erotic memoirs and short stories. I don’t think most of us knew how to handle this writing, and collectively, we judged her pieces kind of harshly. It was a revisit of the mindset that had developed in undergrad: you can talk about sex but getting too graphic crosses some sort of line.
I thought she was a badass chick, but I still felt pressure to keep the status quo. At that time, I just didn’t have the language to discuss why erotic romance in its many forms appealed to me, and I certainly hadn’t consumed enough of the genre to say what made good erotica and what made for bad erotica. I’m disappointed now that our group was sometimes too immature to handle reading this writer’s pieces about self-pleasure. Instead of looking at the piece as art, we giggled like middle schoolers in a sex-ed class. In the end, it just confirmed for me that erotica or erotic romance wasn’t something “great or even “good” or even “just OK” writers aspired to. Jeez, what a crock. (Cue eye roll.)
Next Stop: Overcoming Undue Fear and Shame
For a decade, I flirted often with the idea of trying erotica on for size. I always wanted to go deeper with the sex scenes in my fiction, exploring the relationship between emotional and physical intimacy, but I talked myself out of it every time. “It’s not appropriate,” I’d tell myself. “Once you start talking shafts and cum, you’ve lost your credibility.”
I think a lot of my fear also had to do with my lack of exposure to the genre. Not to mention the saturation of the market. How would I stand out? Would I make a fool of myself going up against these other erotic romance writers who’ve been in the game for years if not decades?
It’s scary to start out at the bottom. We’d like to think that we’ll be the breakout smash hit of the year, but that’s not usually how it works. I mean, it happens for some, but it’s not a very realistic expectation. It often takes years for a romance writer to gain any sort of traction.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about romance writers, it’s that they deserve a tremendous amount of respect, especially the self-published ones. The tenacity, self-belief, and persistence required to make it in any niche or sub-genre of romance are truly remarkable.
I think a big shift in my mindset came in 2015 when my first short story was published. “With All the Grace of a Feather” is about a girl who had been held captive by a serial kidnapper and suffers from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome upon her release. She fell in love with her captor, who is now on the run, and leaves her life behind in search of him, desperate to find him before the police do.
The story felt really erotic to me (I guess you’d call it a dark romance story), and it got published in the now-defunct online literary journal Ink and Coda alongside some other fantastic pieces that worked with darker aesthetics and plotlines. Publication of this particular story showed me that there was a space in this world for me as a writer and that space could include explorations of the wildest, strangest, and darkest sexual desires that’d I’d always wanted to write about. I like this story because they didn’t have sex, but there was such a deep chemistry and a warped I’ll-do-anything-I-have-to-do-to-have-him kind of desire. A dangerous desire that knows no bounds.
It kind of felt like a Fever Ray song, which makes sense because I was listening to a lot of Fever Ray at the time.
Writing Erotic Romance: A Never-ending Journey
Am I where I want to be? No, I’m still finding my voice, but I’m happy with how I’m developing as a writer. This is why it’s so important for me to keep reading as much as I can to fully immerse myself in the genre so I can absorb lessons from some great writers while also gaining an understanding of what’s already out there so I can then sniff out what’s missing.
While I look up to so many absurd, bizarre, and creative literary movements with very specific aesthetics, I think I struggle to bring these influences into my own work. It’s my greatest challenge as a writer. Achieving that goal is what keeps me writing. I think my truest voice lies somewhere in that cross-section of erotic romance and those literary movements I hold so dear. Each novel and short story is an opportunity for me to explore that connection. Sometimes, I’ll concentrate on one specific link of that connection in my work, and other times it’s about developing a whole plot around my surrealist fantasies. Some of these exercises I publish and others I do not.
A writer’s job is never done. There’s always more to explore and learn. Just as my characters play around with their darkest fantasies to discover more about themselves and test their boundaries, I play around with literary elements and erotic romance themes to explore and define the boundaries of my craft.