More lessons from the smutty slush pile

Over the month of June, I read over 100 smutty submissions for the New Smut Project anthology series. Back in March as my co-editor and I were reading our first few subs, we  wrote a bit about what we were seeing. Here, though, is a more extensive list. I’ve developed further ideas about what works and what doesn’t in an erotica submission. I have lots of snark. But also some encouragement for writers who want to know how to stand out–I hope it’s as educational for you as it has been for me.

[Note: all instances of complaint have been prompted by more than one, and usually more than three, stories. Oftentimes they're informed by my reading beyond the slushpile, too. No individual authors are targeted. If you think you see yourself here, you are in good company. Or at least company.]

1. “Show, don’t tell” is a cliche of writing advice, but it’s cliche for a reason, and that especially holds for erotica. There’s only so many sex acts that human bodies can possibly contort into. The job of the smut writers is to provide readers with an experience they couldn’t come up with on their own–which means details and uniqueness of action, as well as scenario, characters, and sensations. “And then he stuck his dick in, repeatedly” is not new to us, and it is not very exciting.

Okay, but the problem can get more subtle. We received a number of stories with titles that served as warning signs–titles that were high-concept or a premise in themselves. Everybody who does bondage has tried it for the first time. A story titled “The First Time I Attempted Bondage” doesn’t suggest a novel angle. Now, we did get some excellent first-timer stories, including ones with premise titles, that nevertheless had a unique angle. They were about specific characters and the unique challenges and delights they experienced in their experiments, rather than Platonic Ideal of Man and Platonic Ideal of Woman experimenting with bondage/petting/impact play/etc for the first time. I should note those Platonic Ideals tend to be white, heterosexual, and male-led. That’s part of the reason Pasi and I listed diversity as a thing that makes us squee.

“Show don’t tell” goes for relationships, too. Many stories opened with scenes or paragraphs of backstory summarizing how characters met, how the world operates, what the details are of their poly or BDSM setup, what the fetish explored is, what the genre elements are–all fun stuff we’d rather find out slowly, organically, deliciously. Don’t inform me, seduce me.

1.5 There’s only so many ways people can have sex, BUT. Some ways get written about more than others. The thing is, Pasi and I were marinated in smut looong before we started editing this project–fanfic, original fic, classics (a review of Fanny Hill is forthcoming on this blog soon), the works. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re very near jaded. So sitting down and reading yet another story that’s little more than a stream of hackneyed cliches… did someone have fun writing that? We didn’t have fun reading that (except from the occasional drinking game or mental bingo board). We sort of wished the writer had written something else, less hackneyed, more fun.

Maybe writers don’t realize they’re writing hackneyed cliches? Maybe they know, but can’t escape the treadmill? Heaven knows I’m trying to escape some personal cliches of my own–and one writer’s personal cliche is another’s branding. But there’s a difference between doing the exact same thing over and over again, and doing the same thing in slightly different ways, and doing the same thing a hundred other people are doing more or less in the same way. It’s that last that’s really tiring. In fact, you could probably create an entire brand, or subgenre, or something just through pushing back on some of the most excessive cliches. Y’know what I’d like to read, just once, before I die? How about a story about a man with a smaller-than-average phallus, who nonetheless brings his partners to ecstasies? Stop needless dick inflation. For crying out loud, “size doesn’t matter, and I’ll prove it” has to be somebody’s fetish, right? It might even be my fetish, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve never read a story that’s awakened me to it!

2. In short, we vastly preferred stories where the sex was about something, not just stories about sex. Sex is limited as a destination (and made even more limited by endlessly regurgitated cliches), but as a launchpad to explore intimacy, physicality, embodiment, emotions, relationships, psychology, fear, desire, grieving, triumph, life, death…

3. Pasi and I had several conversations about what makes really good fanfic really good, often better than original fiction. The ingredients appear to be many, but one that I find really essential: fanfiction writers write for love. And one place where this shows is love of character. When a writer actually cares about the characters they’re writing, it shows. It shows wonderfully. When they view these characters as real people, magic happens. We know all the porn stereotypes (is there an echo in here? Well, there were some echoes in the slush pile, too). Why should anyone pay writers to retell them?

A warning sign came when authors summarized their stories by describing their characters in ways such as “the male” and “the female” (as if there’s necessarily one, and only one, of each in every story :/). Or when they use trope names like ‘femme fatale’ and let them stand on their own. Granted, a cover letter is necessarily condensed, and some so-so summaries translated into wonderful writing and engrossing plot (this happens beyond the slushpile, too)–the real trial comes in the story itself. But even there, some writers use an equally soulless ‘wares on display’ method, describing supposed human beings purely in terms of breast size, butt shape, hair color, and cock size–big, of course–making it obvious that the writer isn’t so interested in making characters as fucktoys. Sometimes it was just apathy for characterization, which had a simple fix on our end–rejection. But a few other stories did contain characterization and aroused an emotional response. Characterization of loathsome people. An appalled emotional response.

I’m here to vicariously enjoy some fictional people’s orgasms. Why should I get invested in the sex life of someone I can’t stand? Is some of this a cultural hangover when we thought people deserved to be punished for having sex?

It’s not that I don’t sometimes kink myself on eff-ed up people having effed-up sex. But that sort of thing breathes dark menace from the page. You can tell the writer is enjoying the eff-edupness, too, and probably secretly loves those messed-up beasties of characters. It’s a fine art, and tricky to pull off, but I think a few things are key: first, characters who feel contempt for everyone else in the story, including the ones they’re sleeping with, come off less as delightfully naughty and more as tiring misanthropes. Second, again, consider that you’re working with a jaded reader who knows most of the ways people can have sex and realizes they’re reading erotica. We know these characters are going to have sex. The trick is making us want them to.

For a fun exercise, try writing a female character who has a few lines of dialogue before the description of her breast size.

4. I’m tired of men who hate women, in life and in fiction. I wind up encountering way more of them in my reading than I wish–but the good thing about that is, I can just close the book on the ones I read about. And I do.

This tendency seems to crop up in monogamous heterosexual pairings, y’know, the one where a woman is 50% of the story. Treat that half of the story with the respect she deserves! And the man never comes out well either, when he’s demanding, borderline abusive, charmless, aggressive, aggravating, odious, and possibly a rapist. 

Even if not in jail, I want these characters far, far away from me.

It’s not just a problem with heterosexual couples, though–a number of male characters were written in relationships with men they despise, mostly because they had sex with other men. Internalized homophobia is a genuine problem, a heartbreaking one that can be handled movingly in fiction. Even in short-form erotica. But when a character is judging his intimate partners, too (often to the point that there’s an underlying threat of violence), and he’s making no apparent effort to overcome it, it doesn’t do much for the mood. Much more rarely, although often enough that it bears mentioning, we received stories with women who had sex with women they despised. Sometimes this carried the implication that it was a personal grudge (which was interesting and exciting–yaaay, hatesex!), but other times we just got the impression that these women were being written by authors who don’t like women.

Also, statements like “all women are sluts at heart” or “women need to be owned” aren’t shocking or titillating, they’re boring. I’m not even mad about the many stories I’ve read with these lines. At one time I probably would be, but right now I’m just…yawn..what was I saying?

5. Grossness is gratuitous. Yes, we know what other things the genital area is used for. We know sex is sweaty and messy. Bodies are funny and sticky and sometimes stinky. Fluids will be involved, as well as other secretions. Psychological studies have shown that when actually aroused, people’s disgust threshold rises; they are willing to endure more grossness–presumably because the filth has its rewards, oh yes. But that doesn’t always carry over well on the page, where the wrong detail is going to take the mood you’ve built up, stake it through the heart, and throw it on a bonfire. Successful eroticism is all about detail. Specific, sexy, filtered details. Please do use your filter.

6. Fetishization is pretty darn gross and also gratuitous. Let your characters be beautiful and sexy as individuals, not as Types other people want to bang. We received some great submissions with diverse characters coming together. We also received some where the author clearly had good intentions but fell into some cliches, or could have gone deeper with characterization. But then there was the third group. I guess a guideline to use is “Am I aware that people belonging to the same group as my character might read this story?” Or that they exist in real life, with feelings and opinions and preferences as individuals, at all?

A related addendum: fetishization of real-life incidents of sexual assault (really, any form of assault occurring in real life) makes a poor basis for erotic fiction. I vary between feeling this is extremely poor taste, or… Well, listen to Princess Bubblegum.

7. Gender essentialization. Gratuitous. Gross. Assuming All Men are Type A, or All Women Are Type Z (and an issue that way too frequently overlaps on another aggravating Venn Diagram, All True Tops or All True Bottoms) is sexist and cissexist, is lazy, is annoying, is bad craft.

8. All this advice comes from my personal lens, but this piece more than the others: consider sometimes catering to readers who aren’t into “”Alpha Males”" (or, as I call them with far fewer scare quotes, Alphaholes. The term is not original to me but boy does it speak to me). Especially single-dimension Alphas. I’m really unclear about what’s appealing in men who are just demanding jerks. Especially when his constant, petty demands make him come across as an overgrown toddler. But sometimes the toddler persona drops off, and what’s underneath is far more disturbing than thrilling. Now, I do enjoy some twisted stuff, and I want to be willing to work with the story. Give me a reason to like that demanding asshole. (See also #s 1.5, 2, 3, 4, and 7).

9. Character and premise aside, make love with language. Don’t be cliche, tired, crass. Nor, for that matter, ridiculously purple. And while everyone has a different definition and tolerance for crass or purple, at least pick where you stand and stay there for the duration of the story (character voice absolutely matters when it comes to level of language, too).  You may disagree with John Cleland that “machine” and “furniture” make awesome euphemisms, and that’s okay. Personally, I disagree with him that big penises are all that fascinating, although I am impressed to discover this obsession was already peaking in 1748. Let it go. 

10. I discovered one of my own cliches, and that is: the sex scene/story ends with characters falling asleep. I understand why many do, but I hadn’t quite realized just how many do this, so I hope this marks a turning point where we all decide to dedicate our final sentences to something else instead. Let’s not fix this, though, by deciding to end the story mid-climax. That’s really disappointing. And yes, Pasi and I read several stories that ended either just after a character orgasms (but before they fell asleep) or just after the sex properly got going (a sort of tease-and-denial that didn’t quite work in this genre). In any event it’s very easy to fix by the authors just adding a bit to the end.

My personal preference would probably be a final sentence that uses telling detail to reveal or imply how the characters have changed through the experiences of the story (if the sex had no impact on them whatsoever, why are you telling me about it? See #1 and #2).

11. Another thing I learned: Google is your friend (do your research! enjoy your research! in an incognito tab if necessary!), but Google Translate is not (when writing in a foreign language, find a native speaker or grab a For Dummies book to check your tenses & diacritic marks). Some awkward foreign phrases will not break a story–that’s what editing is for!–but it will throw off any readers who are actually fluent.

12. So far this has been a list of things going wrong. Stories that work are harder to categorize–every successful story is successful in its own way. That said, things I know the NSP would love seeing more of in future anthos, and which many readers are probably hungry for:

*Uncertain doms, polite doms, tender doms, vulnerable doms (we always enjoyed seeing these in stories, and would love to see even more)

*Forward subs, demanding subs, sassy or bratty subs, tender subs, gently guiding subs (these are rarer even than the ‘soft’ doms, but equally delightful)

*Forward women (submissive or otherwise)

*In Negotiation submissions especially, but really all submissions, we liked seeing characters who say no to specific acts, or having a particular liking or disliking for things. “No penetration” remains fruitful ground, as do things like “don’t touch me there” or “don’t touch me at all“. Some writers may find these character’s boundaries limiting. We find them freeing, a chance for writers to exercise creativity, accurately represent real-life sexuality with all its confusions, preferences, and alternative desires (especially when real people with these desires too often get written off as prudish or freakish), and to deepen characterization.

*Characters who objectify and prey off others aren’t really our favorites for these anthologies, which were based on characterization and consent. But in general, it seems refreshing to have women do more of this, and men do less. Just to mix things up.

*We’d also like to see men who are ‘in control’ in their daily lives and need to ‘let go’ during sex or D/s. Usually this explanation for the psychology of submission is used for female subs. It’s almost as if people think men are more likely than women to manage being in control in every aspect of their lives. Funny.

*We love to see continuing diversity of all sorts. One form of representation we’d especially be delighted to see more are narratives celebrating trans women, especially stories written by trans women. So far as I recall, we didn’t receive any submissions with trans women as characters, so I want to highlight our desire for them in the future. Other markets seeking fiction representing trans characters include Riptide, Harmony Ink, Gressive Press, and Storm Moon Press.

*Nonbinary characters are also extremely welcome. We’d especially like to see more human nonbinary characters, but any binary character handled with humanity is wonderful.

*We’ve accepted one story that included a recipe. Food and sensuality go together excellently in my experience (I have a forthcoming blog post on that, too), and it’s something I want to throw out for every writer to consider in their next brainstorming sessions. Also consider other experiences that explode the senses–crafting, athletics, painting, costume design, long walks in the woods.

*Subversions or evasions of cliches, from small dicks to…well, a list is coming below.

*More polyamorous relationships, more open relationships handled in a way respectful to all characters, more love triangles rather than love-Vs. More stories, too, where the poly relationship is a fact of life but not all the story is about.

*Slice-of-life stories that live. Give us a glimpse into someone else’s life. Yes, we’re voyeurs. That’s why we read.

*Fuckbuddies who respect each other. Friends with benefits who remain friends. Genuine hatesex between people who respect each other. Lovers who are on the way to no-longer-lovers but still enjoy sex together. Relationships that break beyond the binary of either “we have sex and are bound together by the power of True Love for life” or “we have sex but I have no clue why, because we despise everything about each other” (both sides of that binary have a time and place, and I wouldn’t want to erase true love from the world. I’m a sap like that. But exploring the nuances in between is also incredibly fun).

*Vivid historical fiction (we saw some good stuff here, and some stuff that was okay but where the history felt tacked-on), intriguing science fiction, and other genres as well. Erotic mystery? Why not! And erotic horror, but ‘smart’ erotic horror, even tasteful erotic horror–we’d rather it not be gross or so very disturbing that it kills the mood. I’ll continue seeking out examples of what I mean (perhaps for future blog posts?), but one story that’s haunted me is Lucy Debussy’s “The Taste” in Body Parts magazine. The style–and I do mean that–of NBC’s Hannibal can also be very successfully sensual and intimate, even to the point of the erotic.

13. The following didn’t all strike me as cliches before opening to submissions, but here are some themes we saw multiple times over–often enough that I began to categorize them. Just because other people are writing it doesn’t mean an individual story can’t stand out. We accepted some, and rejected others:

*Bosses seducing subordinates. What Secretary won us in this regard, 50 Shades of Grey may have taken away.

*Subordinates seducing bosses (usually coyly).

*Sex with therapists–this actually brings up a lot of ethical issues we didn’t feel fit with our consent-themed anthology, and Pasi’s training has made her especially sensitive to it.

*Characters being cornered/trapped in rooms as part of their seduction. The seducer was not always male, but often gave off a wiff of Alphahole to me. I’ve enjoyed the occasional captivity narrative, but in my experience it’s a fine line to walk (it has to remain a) safely fantastic, and b) the captor has to be appealing in some way) and in any event these setups neither fit well with our anthology themes nor stood out from the competition, as again, we saw a lot of this. Also, and this is important: even if the captive is enjoying this, we don’t know what their captor’s motives are, and the captive’s consent is often not given aloud or even nonverbally. In a story where we want to sympathize with both characters, it’s unsettling when one character seems perfectly willing to be a rapist.

*A couple of stories had erotic action centered around men (always men) masturbating to images of women (always women). Both image and viewer received varying levels of characterization. Some of these worked better than others, and some even worked very well to me, although in the end we tended to pass them over in preference to stories with more on-scene characterization. I do think it’s interesting to note we received no same-sex or female-gaze masturbation stories. Perhaps the female-gaze version is the Schrodinger’s Rapist captivity narrative above (although that did happen along more varied gender lines). Both types of stories are wrapped up in a single person’s sexual psychology, with their partners hardly characterized at all beyond erotic image (sometimes literally) or behavior. Hunk McBeefSlab is an unstoppable bully but, to the protagonist, a sexy one—yet this contradictory presentation, without motive or complexity, does not make him a character. Leaning rather dominant myself, I like to see doms who are more than just torture machines. 

*We received a number of stories featuring class reunions or other reunions, with the focus often being on the character overcoming past or present insecurities vis-a-vis the group. Plotlines ranged from wish fulfillment (hooking up with the class hottie; turning into the class hottie) to revenge-fantasy (actually pretty similar, but with more chance to gloat about it). For some reason, none of these really clicked with us–I don’t think it’s a problem with the concept itself, so much as us being somewhat picky in execution. The opening mood of these pieces tends to be one of insecurity, distrust, unhappiness, even misanthropy, and that can be hard to overcome to build a happier, sexier mood. In some cases, we felt the character’s problem was either too deep to be fixed by sex in the supply closet, or was already fixed ,making the sex merely celebratory or superfluous. The pattern, in any event, seems worth noting.

*Cheating setups were not uncommon, and did not fare well. The characters are doomed to come off as unsympathetic, and while backstory can sometimes moderate this, the backstory has to be presented deftly. There’s a lot of baggage to unpack here. I’m not saying no one should write these, but it is very, very tricky.

*On the other hand, we did accept two very different, very appealing stories about queer lady pirates. As in a few other instances, we shuffled stories between the two anthologies to make each tables of contents distinctive and fresh. There’s a lot of life in this genre yet, and we look forward to what* comes next!

*or who; yes, this is an opportunity for dirty punning, well spotted ;-)

2 thoughts on “More lessons from the smutty slush pile

  1. This is fascinating. I second the need for more fuck buddy fiction—especially where they *don’t* realize they’re totally in love and couple off by the end of the story. It’s common in the real world but underrepresented in erotica for two people to be attracted to one another, respect one another, and like one another but just not want to get together for whatever reason. I try to write realistically about hookup culture and can’t wait to see my story in print in the fall!

    1. Definitely! And hookup culture, well, writers find pitfalls there too–I’ve read stories centered around hookups that made me feel greasy, not because of subject matter but because of the tone the author takes. It sort of ties in to liking/respecting the characters (and especially women, who can get targeted with a sort of slut-shaming embedded in the style). It’s much more refreshing to read about women having sex with people they want to have sex with, because they want to, without this being a horrible thing for very unclear reasons.* Another reason I really loved your story!

      *Just kidding, misogyny’s not that unclear.

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