What I didn’t realize until I was a published erotica author

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been fascinated by the power of dirty words. Back then it was weird little scraps of stories, scribbled down on spiral-bound notepads; then surreptitiously pecked-out text files saved to 3.5 inch floppy disc. Like most growing kids I saw my fair share of pornography, but that never replaced my love of the written word and it’s power to thrill.

For me, the tipping point in my obsession was the time I decided to go public with words of my own. For the unfamiliar, the Nifty Erotic Story Archive is a vast cache of filthy texts with an LGBT bent. It’s been around since 1992, its catalog filled with user-submitted stories that run the gamut from fairly mainstream through to more niche fare including watersports and BDSM.

It’s not inaccurate to suggest that quality levels there vary considerably. The criteria for inclusion focus more on formatting and a few litigation-avoiding instructions — making it clear, for instance, that if you’re writing celebrity fanfic it’s all entirely fantastical and not a comment about an actual person — than the content itself. Typos or vast blocks of unbroken text aren’t uncommon; neither is the sort of wooden prose interspersed with brow-creasingly specific details that leave you in no doubt as to the particular fetish of the author.

Length is another significant variation. Some stories are little more than a few scratched-out paragraphs of fervent imagination; others span dozens of chapters, tumble into multi-part sagas. Side characters get their own spin-offs and in-story universes develop umpteen timelines more convoluted and confusing than any TV soap opera. Its preference for plaintext makes file size the most telling factor beyond what category — “college” or “authoritarian” or “adult-friends” for instance — the archivist picks for your submission. Anything under 10K is likely to be too Spartan to be engaging; 20–40K is enough for a reasonable standalone or a satisfying chapter. Larger still, and you can be edging into saga territory.

If I prided myself on my ability to spot a peccadillo within a couple of paragraphs of reading, then my own interests were pretty clear from the get-go too. Luckily, my self-selected niche of confused not-quite-straight boys, with a healthy dose of swimwear and underwear, and just the right amount of soul-searching to not get in the way of a good old-fashioned hook-up proved appealing to readers, too.

My first submission, concerning a naive 18-year-old recipient of a crash-course in human sexuality by way of a multicultural cast of horned-up swimming pool eye candy — titled “On The Poolboy Payroll” [link NSFW]— made a splash bigger than the chlorinated antics of the fictional youths. I don’t want to sound like I’m conceited, but part of my enjoyment of the whole process was the writing itself: just because they were dirty words, that didn’t mean they needed to be slapdash or poorly formulated.

It’s actually fairly difficult to find well-written, effective, and free same-sex literature online

Or, at least, it has been in my years of reading. Before long I had an inbox regularly chiming with comments, or praise, or feedback, or just hopeful that a new chapter was due sooner rather than later.

When I grew bored of my swimming pool boys, I moved onto the next story. Meanwhile, I started a tumblr for shorter pieces and for the sake of self-promotion. Readers, generously, followed me from place to place, encouraging and cajoling and helping shape plots and characterization.

Things changed with what was to become my longest story, “Jockboy Auction”. By now I had the formula pretty much set: don’t stint on the action; don’t let the sex scenes get bogged down either in laborious moaning or unnaturally sounding medical terminology; figure on one part angst for each part sex; and, if in doubt, get someone — usually blushing — down to their underwear (or less) and see where the mood takes them.

The plot was fairly ridiculous. Closeted gay highschool geek “buys” the object of his unspoken affections — who just so happens to be a good-natured and increasingly open-minded jock — and together they explore their way to being boyfriends. Of course, along the way there was the inevitable role-play, threesomes, regretted infidelity, and more. If it worked, it was because I managed to somehow strike gold on a pair of likable main characters, and readers generally fell into one of two camps: either they wanted a perfect love story and begrudged anything that might derail that, or they enjoyed the titular sportsman’s constantly stretched boundaries being pushed to their limits, and were eager to read exactly how that went down.

It was at the suggestion of one reader — someone I trusted, and still do — that I considered the possibility of having a story published. At the same time, I was a frequent participant in the erotica subsection of a writers’ message board; they, too, encouraged me to seek out a publisher, and helped to guide me to submitting “Jockboy Auction” (renamed “Jock Auction” to avoid any “are these boys underage?” concerns) to Loose Id.

The world of published same-sex erotic fiction is a strange one.

There aren’t many publishing houses out there, and each has its own niche within the niche. Some prefer more vanilla stuff, the LGBT equivalent of Mills & Boon; others sway more to hardcore along the lines of “50 Shades”, or fantasy, or “anything you like as long as it has a happy ending”. Adding to the confusion — or, at least, my confusion — was the nature of the audience. While my Nifty submissions had been read, at least going by the stated gender in email correspondence, by women, the majority of readers were men.

Men, though, don’t buy erotic fiction: you’re actually writing for a predominantly female audience. And, just as Japanese women love their same-sex yaoi manga, so erotic fiction-buying women love same-sex stories of hardcore love. They’re not squicked out by the idea of two guys (or three, or sometimes more) getting it on; in fact, they often want it to be even more descriptive and even more entertaining.

To my surprise, and delight, Loose Id expressed interest in “Jock Auction” as an ebook (very few erotic titles are printed as physical books) and I started down a long road of getting it into shape for publication with an incredible editor. Months of back-and-forth, tidying up mismatched tenses and weeding out repetitive words and phrasing; arguing about plot points and characterizations.

The most difficult part, though, was distilling what I’d written for a male readership — people, in effect, like me — for a female audience.

Some of the tropes that resonated with gay men were (and I’m trying to keep this far away from NC-17, so I won’t be specific) considered less appealing for straight women. Much of the time I deferred to my (female; experienced) editor, a decision I still think was for the best.

As I said, months went by. The book itself began to lose its charms for me; the repetitive nature of editing robbed me of my affection for the characters. There was a renewed frisson of excitement when working with the ebook cover designer, but what I was really counting on was the thrill of release. I didn’t have crazy expectations for sales, but the idea of a book with my name on the cover — even if that name was a pseudonym, and that cover a digital-only thing — was a dream made real.

In the first week or so of release, “Jock Auction” made it to #5,169 Amazon’s paid Kindle chart. It was number forty in the Gay Romance category. Of course, those charts have fairly rapid turnovers and those categories relatively low demand, but I was excited all the same.

Then came the reviews.

If a published author has a guilty pleasure, it’s Goodreads. Actually, it’s more of a love-hate thing. On the one hand, these are dedicated, enthusiastic, hungry readers: it doesn’t take much for them to add you to their “Want to read” queue. On the other, though, they don’t hold back if they aren’t a fan.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d had negative comments by email before. Nifty readers, though, seemed more content to click, consume, and carry on. Messages that were critical were generally more about “I wish you’d had the guys do XYZ instead of ABC” than anything more scathing.

Some Goodreads users liked “Jock Auction”. Others… didn’t. One big point of contention was the absence of explicitly safe sex: I’d figured that, since they were fictional characters, I didn’t have to worry about condoms. Some readers felt very differently, and found that to be a real turn-off.

The other was the sheer amount of sex my fictional guys were having. There’s no hard and fast rule for what makes something “erotica” and what makes it “romantic fiction” or, indeed, what is considered “pornography” and every reader had their own interpretation of where “Jock Auction” fell on that ill-defined scale. Some reveled in the profligate excess. Others seemed to find it more of a tongue-in-cheek guilty pleasure than anything else: “can these characters really be having another sex scene?!”

Some of the most vocal critics, however, felt the sex outweighed the story.

I certainly concede that there’s a lot — a LOT — of filth in there, mainly because, when it was being released piecemeal on Nifty as I finished each chapter, I aimed to have some sexy-time in each fresh part. Spread out over the more than 12–18 months of that serialization, that didn’t seem overwhelming. Buttressed together one chapter after another on the screen of your Kindle or Nook, it turned out to be a different matter.

The third set, and in some way most challenging comments, took issue with the theme of the story itself. Not only was “Jock Auction” a coming-of-age piece but, it turns out, in erotic same-sex writing there’s a fairly large controversy over “gay for you” as a plot device.

Some readers, for want of a better description, hate it. I’d written my jock character with a sufficiently vague back-story that — in my mind at least — the idea of a supercharged blast of gay hero-worship from his geeky co-star unearthing some latent same-sex interest wasn’t unfeasible. As I saw it, I hadn’t explicitly written a “straight guy gets turned by a gay guy” story. If anything, my eponymous jock had been going through life on autopilot, not really considering the complexities of his sexuality, and it was as much a possibility that he’d been gay all along but playing the socially-expected role of a straight 18-year-old as anything else.

Clearly, I failed to make that apparent in the text.

Chastened, and more than a little confused, I pushed out a second ebook with Loose Id, “The Hitchhiker”. It’s shorter than “Jock Auction”, and with it I tried to address some of the more frequent criticisms that story had received. More character, less coitus; a nod to sexual safety; a more believable relationship. The splash was smaller, and though there were positive reviews, I think I knew from early on that it lacked some of the spark of its predecessor. Sales, unsurprisingly, have reflected that.

There is an inherent danger in turning a hobby into a job.

Ironically, that’s a lesson I’d already learned — or at least I thought I had — from my regular employment, which evolved from an interest in much the same way (albeit with a lot less sex). When I was writing for pleasure, I didn’t have to second-guess my readers. There were fewer mental hurdles and considerations to keep in mind. If something turned me on as I wrote it, I knew it had a place in the story: I was under no obligation to run it through a battery of filters and checks.

What’s been frustrating, personally, is that even though I’ve not really been writing with a mind to publish, the second-guessing hasn’t gone away. My editor at Loose Id periodically emails me to ask if I have anything I’m working on; she knows the reviews knocked my confidence in my own abilities, and tells me — just as other writers told me — that it’s better not to read them, that you need to get back on the horse that threw you.

Since then I’ve tried a couple of ideas, got a few thousand words or more through them in fact, but they grind to a halt. Perhaps, I find myself wondering now, my taste in erotica is really more a taste in written pornography, a much harder thing to squeeze successfully into a romance niche.

In the meantime, I’ve stopped visiting the writer’s messageboard and my tumblr has been idle for months. I still visit Nifty occasionally, and browse through the recent updates, though it feels like that too is in a fallow phase. Fewer stories seem to appear across the categories than they once did. Maybe the appetite for the written word has simply waned in general.

Or maybe not. The other day, I hit five thousand words on a new story. It’s never going to be something fit for publication, at least not with a proper publisher like Loose Id. It’s fantasy and fetish pure and simple, with no literary merit beyond the idea that — if your tastes align with mine — you might get a kick out of it. And yes, while those five thousand words have taken me longer to write than the chapters of “Jock Auction” ever did, I find myself proud of them all the same.

I may never get back in the saddle. I may never ride that horse again. But if that gets me my hobby back, that’s okay.