#75: Guest Post: Writing Inclusive Erotica

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve started a project that’s purely for fun and low pressure. It’s a collection of short erotica stories with genre flavor. Fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, maybe a dip into some public domain stuff like Arthurian legend.

I want to make my collection diverse and not just feature people like me. It would get boring and unrealistic if only white, bi, depressed cis women were featured! But since I’m writing erotica I’m worried I’ll fetishize people and include harmful tropes. I know about some tropes to avoid like the plague, but I’m not an expert. I don’t want to hurt people with my writing! How do I avoid this stuff?

Yours,

Social Justice Pornographer (she/her)

Dear Social Justice Pornographer,

What a great question! Since this is outside my area of expertise, I invited guest contributor Cecilia Tan (she/her) to write a response.

After over 20 years publishing erotic science fiction with Circlet Press and writing erotic fiction herself whenever she could get the time, Cecilia made a career pivot into erotic romance. She’s now an award-winning romance writer, but her heart remains in erotic SF/F, she’s still the editorial director of Circlet Press, and she’s launching an erotic urban fantasy series with Tor Books in September with the book Initiates of the Blood.

Many thanks to the Patreon patrons and others (including you, letter writer!) whose support enabled me to pay Cecilia an honorarium for her work. (You can also support Circlet on Patreon.) I’m very pleased to be able to bring her words to you.

Cheers,

Story Nurse


Cecilia Tan writes:

Dear Social Justice Pornographer,

I’m honored to be asked to address your question and must confess right off the bat that your collection sounds like the kind of thing I’d love to read. Given that I’ve been reading Circlet’s slush pile and submissions for 26 years, I can assure you your concerns are valid, but by being aware of the issues you’ve already taken the major first step toward being able to address them in your work.

I feel every writer may benefit from the understanding that their work does not exist in a vacuum, and that there is a relationship between writer and reader. Sometimes it’s important to temporarily “forget” that while in the act of creation—if your muse is prone to clam up when you think too much about the reader, for example, or if considering the reader empowers your internal censor to the point that you don’t write anything at all—but ultimately, after the story is written, if you’re thinking about publishing it, you are thinking about sharing it with other human beings who may be affected by it. Fiction has a special ability to slip past internal defenses, which is why it can hurt so deeply if we feel betrayed by a story.

The fact that you are concerned about fetishizing people likely means you already understand that fiction can perpetuate harm. Stereotypes can be a vehicle to perpetuate bias, racism, or misogyny. Fetishization is erotic fiction’s special catch-22, in which stereotypes are not only present in the story, they’re exploited for sexual gratification. And yet… isn’t sexual gratification the point of an erotic story?

Let me say first that I don’t believe exploitation for sexual gratification to be “worse” than exploitation or harmful representation of other kinds. Sex is not a crime, and liking sex or writing erotica is not inherently morally reprehensible, even though some segments of society would like us to think so. However, if fiction already has the power to slip past our defenses and cut deeply, erotic fiction in particular cuts right at the core of many people’s most closely guarded private selves. As an Asian-American woman, I might find some racist caricatures of Asians laughable and ignore them, while Asian fetishization in an erotic story, though equally dehumanizing, might feel much more personal and difficult to ignore.

Likewise, erotic stories often feel especially personal to the author, which can make accepting criticism of them much more difficult, too. When we write down erotic fantasies, it can be a very empowering act, very freeing to the self and the psyche, but it can also make us very vulnerable by exposing such privately held thoughts to the world. But that is also why erotica is crucial writing, and especially important in the midst of our largely sex-negative, sex-judgmental culture. Erotica truly can be social justice work.

That’s all preamble to my actual advice which is, first of all, write. You can’t fix what doesn’t exist, so don’t let the fear that you might do wrong paralyze you into not writing in the first place, nor stop you from trying to do good in the world by writing diversely.

The second step is to examine the stance of your story toward the characters in it who are not like you. “Othering” is a verb that encompasses many possible things, all of them bad. Have you set them on a pedestal as an example of all that is noble? While that might seem laudable on the surface, it’s still dehumanizing and othering. Are you using your trans character as a metaphor for your own desire to remake yourself as a new person? People aren’t metaphors, but it can be argued that all fiction is. If the only reason a trans character is there is to be a metaphorical stand-in, then once again they’ve been dehumanized. Have you portrayed a character as a three-dimensional, realistic human? Then you’re doing well and it’s win-win, because fully three-dimensional characters aren’t just less likely to be harmful representations, they’re also good writing.

The third step, after you’ve examined your perspective, is the hardest part, which is to have others examine your perspective as well. From within we can only expand our vision so much, and it takes the help of others to extend that view. When writing erotica it’s important to find beta readers and sensitivity readers who aren’t of the opinion that all porn is inherently exploitative. (There are still some people who think that.) And ideally, if you’re writing about a member of a certain group, you’ll want feedback from members of that group. Only the people you are writing about can tell you whether they feel respected or disrespected by your representation.

Finally, it’s good to bear in mind that the more marginalized the group or identity of the person, the more likely they are to have been subjected to harmful representation, and so the more likely they are to be critical. When people see the same mistakes again and again, they may get less patient about correcting them. Rather than being defensive if you are called out on a common mistake, try to realize why you made that mistake (from your more privileged position, did you imagine the experience of a marginalized person inaccurately? Did you put yourself in the position of “savior” in a way that dehumanized those you were supposedly aiding? etc.) and don’t just pledge to do better, but examine whether you can improve your perspective to avoid that pitfall in the future.

I truly believe in erotica writing as a form of social justice. Our society heaps so much guilt and shame onto sex and sexuality, but a writer who breaks past that to celebrate and empower their own sexuality can empower their readers to do the same. Imagining and inhabiting spaces free of that shame via fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have toward creating those spaces in real life, and it’s laudable to want that freedom for all.


This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#74: A Sympathetic Character Who Resembles a Real-World Villain

Dear Story Nurse,

I know this probably looks like a troll letter, but I swear it’s a real problem I’ve got with one of my characters! Even I had trouble believing it at first. Long story short, I spent ten years working on a manuscript and just now accidentally realized that one of my secondary protagonists sounds a lot like Hitler.

This fellow is an elected monarch who is doing a terrible job of running his kingdom. He’s cut off his citizens from having very much direct contact with him, and he has an art hobby that has taken precedence over his actual duties. Amazingly, over several decades, he barely improves. It’s not the kind of art hobby that can be quickly changed to something else, either.

He was once a refugee from an aggressor continent that frowned upon the arts in general, and his poor artistic abilities directly trigger the driving conflict of the story. I know, this sounds like a neutral character at best, but the main protagonist ropes him into their quest in the third act, when his kingdom’s been taken over and he’s in hiding, because they’re the only person in the kingdom who genuinely likes looking at his art. He’s practically the visual artistic equivalent of Florence Foster Jenkins here. Eventually, the exile, coming clean about his part in accidentally creating the antagonist, and reconciling with some friends he’d abandoned over the years convince him that the townspeople don’t all hate him as much as he thinks they do, and he’s still redeemable as both a monarch and an artist. It doesn’t happen as neatly and easily as it seems to for the purpose of this letter.

I seriously considered turning him into a woman, because that’s solved a lot of quandaries in the past for me, but that would affect another plot point involving (independently of each other) a plot-relevant shirtless scene and a small handful of one-sided romances. I’d really like to keep this as PG as possible, so topless lady NotHitler is out for now. I figured the best way to attack this problem from here was to research Hitler and Nazi Germany and make sure this guy isn’t doing anything else that runs suspect. My browsing history has probably reached full-on “IT’S FOR A BOOK I SWEAR!” saturation.

NotHitler never commits a genocide or any unprovoked acts of aggression towards other world powers or groups of people. If I make him even more of an introvert and significantly more often taking a defensive stance than an offensive one, would that be enough, or would I have to seriously uproot a good chunk of this story’s foundation to make it work? I may not be a troll, but I know a lot of trolls would probably be quick to jump the gun if they see anything even remotely Hitlery. The last thing I’d want in my life is a bunch of readers accusing me of being a Nazi sympathizer because I redeemed a character that reminded them of Hitler.

If you’ve made it this far, I cannot thank you enough for staying with me. I can barely believe this is a real problem I’ve run into. But hey, better to go down as the guy who realized he accidentally wrote Hitler before publication than the guy who had to be told he accidentally wrote Hitler by the readers, right?

—Not a Nazi (he/him)

Dear Not a Nazi,

You are vastly, vastly overthinking this. Leave the character as he is and don’t worry about it. If you really want to be careful, run it past a targeted beta reader who’s an expert on WWII, or show the character enjoying a steak dinner and talking about how much he hates facial hair. But nothing in your description makes me think “whoa, totally Hitler!”, even with the context that you think this character is Hitleresque. I think you’re safe.

This excessive concern over a minor matter sounds like the product of an anxious aversion to declaring the book finished. If you’ve spent ten years on your manuscript and you’re starting to fuss over non-problems, I recommend submitting or self-publishing it as quickly as possible so you can move on. When you’ve worked on one project for that long, it can be hard to imagine your life without it, but both you and the book need some closure. Empty your browser cache with a clean conscience and keep moving toward The End. You’ll be glad you did.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#73: Counteracting Envy of Other People’s Success

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished novelist with a number of first drafts and one that is much closer to the endpoint of the process (like, a couple of revisions from done). I’ve been writing for a long time and feel that I’m getting to the stage where I might even be able to get published, but after years of writing privately without any kind of reassurance that my work is worthwhile, I’m really struggling to keep my anxieties from drowning me.

The thing I’m struggling with right now is professional jealousy of my friends—a couple of them have contracts and while I’m pretty good at stopping it from affecting my face-to-face friendship with them, I’ve had to mute their Facebook feeds and I am plagued by feelings that I have failed where they have succeeded. I acknowledge that this is definitely amplified by other life circumstances—SAD and work stress are adding to it—but unfortunately when I’m already having mental health problems, these thought processes are spiralling more and more.

The usual advice I’ve read is that my success isn’t impacted by that of my friends and they’re doing something completely different to me, so it shouldn’t affect me—to just put these thoughts aside and get on with the work. But creative work requires passion and a degree of blind faith that what I’m doing has value, and while I can dismiss these thoughts ten times a day, the eleventh time will still grind me down and cause me to obsess over my failure. That in turn affects my confidence in pushing on with my work.

The parts of writing that have always been hardest for me are consistency of enthusiasm and self-belief, and both of these are taking a fairly hefty hit from these upsetting thoughts right now. On top of that, much as I don’t want my relationship with my friends to suffer, any successes of theirs, even ones that are only tenuously related but indicate that they’re respected as professionals in their field, are causing me to feel resentful and leave the conversation. Since I care about them and want to be supportive, this is proving really tough. I never want to make them feel bad for their success (which is why I don’t want to talk to them about it), but when hearing about it messes with my brain, it’s difficult to maintain those friendships. I feel like I’m so close to success but just falling short, and yet they’re light years ahead.

Your previous posts have been really helpful in understanding why I feel the way I do about my work in the past, so I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this.

—Hopeful (she/her)

Dear Hopeful,

Jealousy is a beast, isn’t it? It’s one of the hardest emotions to handle, along with guilt and grief. And it sounds like you’re maybe feeling some of those things too: grief over the career you don’t have, guilt over your perceived failings.

The idea that you shouldn’t be affected by your friends’ successes is absolute nonsense. If you were thrilled for them and cheering them on, no one would tell you, “Whoa, slow down there—you shouldn’t be so happy! Their success has nothing to do with you!” We all understand that having feelings about what’s happening in our friends’ lives is perfectly normal. But when those feelings aren’t positive, they become less socially acceptable, and then you have another guilt burden laid atop the rest of the things you’re feeling. So let me relieve you of that burden: there’s nothing morally wrong with being envious of people who have things you want, and you’re not a bad person for feeling that way.

Continue reading

#72: What Is Revision?

Dear Story Nurse,

I finished the first draft of my novel a few months ago, and I really want to get it published soon. But every time I try to revise it, I just end up “polishing” it—line-editing or cutting sentences within scenes. I guess at a basic level, I don’t know what writers mean when they say they “re-write” drafts. Do they literally re-write their entire novel, page by page, from scratch? Or do they only re-write the scenes that don’t work? (I know everyone is different, but I also feel like no one gets it right the first time, so I want to know how people go about fixing it).

It took me years to finish the first draft, so the idea of re-writing the entire thing feels really daunting to me. At the same time, I don’t want to simply rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic—I want to save the ship (to borrow from Justine Larbalestier’s metaphor on rewriting). I want to fix any major structural issues. I want the novel to be the best it can be, even before I let beta-readers see it.

What should I do? At its most basic, rudimentary level, what does re-writing a draft mean? What exercises can I do to take baby-steps towards re-writing?

—(Another) Confused Reviser (she/her)

Dear (Another) Confused Reviser,

What a wonderful question, and I’m glad you were willing to ask it! You’re absolutely right that people talk about revising without ever talking about what it can or should entail, and that does a real disservice to writers who are just starting out.

Every draft is different, and every draft needs a different amount and type of rewriting. It often helps to find a good beta reader or three who can point you in useful directions for your specific work. Every writer’s revision process is different too, but I can still make some general suggestions that may help you get a foothold. Continue reading