Let’s Have That Sex Talk

Thea Devine today, talking sex.  Or writing sex, actually, based on a talk I gave at the NJRWA meeting this month.

I’ve been writing erotic romance for nearly all my writing career.  I don’t plot and plan all the sexual compass points.  I have an idea of something I want to do, like, oh say, nipple rings, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever started a book knowing just when and where I’d use something like that.  It all comes organically out of the plot and conflicts, and that’s overlaid by other things, like my watching an HBO show one night with a belly dancer and those rings, and thinking, after a week of walking around with my arms crossed over my breasts, what if the rings weren’t pierced, what if they hung there. Just so.  Just so you feel them.  Where could I use that?

As it happened, I was writing Beyond Desire at the time and the heroine was in a harem, and there were all these bare breasts and …  Beyond Desire was the first historical romance that RT reviewed as erotic romance.  That was 1993.

It didn’t cause even a ripple in the industry.  But in 1999 Kensington books shook up mainstream publishing when it released Captivated, a trade paperback anthology of steamy novellas. And they put the words “tales of erotic romance” on the cover.

Nobody fainted.  And the book blasted onto USAToday in about thirty seconds.  Fascinated, the follow-up, blew out of the stores and onto USAToday as well, proving — obviously — that women will pay for sex.

Erotic was suddenly the next new thing.

Then recently, for the last two years or so, there’s been a pull-back on the assumption that readers were going to the internet for erotic content because — why? more privacy, more variety, more tailored-to-the-taste choices, easier access, e-readers.

And then came 50 Shades of Grey , and erotic was suddenly the next new thing.

So what about erotic romance as a platform for you?  Can you write erotic romance?  There are editors who believe that authors who write it can’t NOT write it, that it’s absolutely integral to the way some authors write.

If you’re wondering what your husband will say, your mom, your sister, your minister, if you think people will wonder what goes on in your bedroom — then maybe erotic romance is not for you.

I never had those qualms.  I’ve written explicitly from the get-go, right from that scene in my first book where, as I’ve recounted elsewhere, I had the cornered heroine put her hand between the hero’s legs.  In that scene, I found my erotic philosophical footing — that adversarial relationship which gives a just-can’t-help-themselves edge to the sex and the story.

But when I first started out, in 1987, I couldn’t use four letter words, or proper terms for body parts.  We used none of those one syllable hard hitting hard-core words you would expect when writing a sexually explicit book.  .

Try to describe something which is essentially indescribable:  I mean, how do you describe a kiss?  And orgasm?  A man’s touch?  How do you do that without relying on those time-tested sex words?  There’s no language for it.  Yet we could — by using plain old every day household words to write about sex from a woman’s point of view.

I think that was extraordinary and a revolution all on its own.

Now, when nothing is off the table,  you can be as over the top as you want or care to get.

Is anything goes right for you?  How far are you willing to go?

I essentially write erotic male/female relationships, with the heroine and the hero constantly wresting for control, tons of sex, and a happy, or cusp of happy, ending.

My own guidelines from day one were:  no negative visual images (she isn’t on fire;  he doesn’t impale her with his molten rod). He doesn’t hurt her (he can, emotionally).  She has some control.  Sex is consensual (no matter what’s going on).

But you could push even further — orgies, male/male, triads, foursomes, bestiality, hard core bondage/domination/punishment, corset discipline …  There’s a place for all of it now, and readers for every taste, from graphic and raw to sweet and super romantic..  Only you can decide where to draw the line on how far you’ll go.

A guest at a conference once asked me how much of what I write is really me. That’s a question to strike full-blown terror in a writer’s heart. I really had to think about it.  And truthfully, in the end, some of it.  Not everything.  But that scary thought is huge barrier to some authors to actually put themselves “out there” that nakedly in fiction.  I mean, what if someone thought all of that sex toy play was all about you?  Was it?

If you have constraints but you want to write erotic, why not try?  It’s you and your computer screen.  No one ever has to see it if you don’t want them to.  You can let yourself go — or you can say NO — and delete before things go too far.

But if you really love to write explicit romance, write those scenes as if your characters are Adam and Eve and they just discovered sex — and you did too.

I have to confess I have been asked to tone things down a couple of times.  Once I was told there was too much semen in a particular novella.  Really, people, can there ever be too much semen — in fiction or in life?

You could view erotic romance as a love letter to men — or as a sex act in and of itself (lots of foreplay, climaxes and reader satisfaction).  It’s safe sex, and the best fun in the world.  And if you choose to play, I promise I’ll respect you in the morning.

Can we talk?  Do you write, or want to write, erotic romance?  What are your boundaries? What won’t you do?  What won’t you read?  How far can an author go with you?

Thea Devine is nearly done with Beyond The Night, the sequel to The Darkest Heart.  She is the author whose books defined erotic historical romance and the USAToday best-selling author of 25 historical and contemporary erotic romance novels and a dozen novella. She is looking forward to the reissue of His Little Black Book next month.


11 thoughts on “Let’s Have That Sex Talk”

  1. One of my favorite topics, Thea! Thank you for being so candid with us. My first two manuscripts were paranormal romances with a good dose of erotic content. I followed that with two romantic suspense stories that were still quite steamy. Honestly, that’s where I was in life. I had hit my forties, fallen madly in love with my dream guy and I think writing was an outlet for all that…um…hormonal upheaval.

    But as I was learning the craft of writing and storytelling, I realized my voice was clearer in writing first person narrative. I also realized that I wasn’t comfortable with people I knew reading what I was writing. As a massage therapist, you can understand why it might get a bit…er…sticky, pardon the pun.

    When I wrote Savage Cinderella and was trying to sell it as Mainstream fiction, I was told that it fell more in the YA genre. It took a bit of convincing, but after On Thin Ice poured out of me and then Heaven Is For Heroes right on its tail, I decided to write YA. I’d still love to go back and resurrect a couple of those first stories since I think they have merrit, but I’d have to publish them under a psedonym and starting over again trying to create a whole new brand is a prospect that gives me the sweats…not in a good way. Maybe someday, when this is a full time gig and the massage therapy part of my life is behind me. I do not need my clients wondering about a sex scene I wrote and where I got my inspiration while they are naked on my table…NOPE!

    Thanks for another great post. You always add such a nice bit of spice to the Scribes!

    1. I have a friend who used to call me the “sticky fluid lady.” Your journey is fascinating as well, PJ — erotic to ya … and you love what you’re writing right now. That’s no small thing. There is a huge component of “will they think it’s me” to writing erotic romance. My mother-in-law actually had some reservations about my using my real name, but — really … who wouldn’t? And I wrestle all the time with boundaries, taste and comfort levels because there are readers who love erotic romance as rough and raw as the author can write it, whereas I, author, might pull back from super-graphic descriptions (my comfort level) and choose to be a little more restrained.

      There’s something for everyone, really. And when you’re ready to write erotic, there will be a readership for that too.


  2. Hi! I have some ideas for erotic romance as well – but even written under a different pseudonym I’m afraid that it might impinge on my future success as a children’s author. After all, what elementary school is going to bring EL James in as a guest speaker, even if she wrote children’s stuff under another name? So, I’m back burner-ing those ideas for now. Thanks!

  3. Tell it like it is, girl! All hail the QUEEN of Erotic Romance….Ms Devine…is simply Divine!
    E.L. Who? Thank you, for being honest and for especially challening us to push ourselves farther than we dare to go!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Marian. Let me especially give credit to Kensington, my publisher at the time, who put no constraints on what I was writing.


  4. Thea, another wonderful post. Getting to know you, getting to know all about you . . . at the same time, getting to know all about me. I fit all those reservations you touched on Thea. But, I took that course last month on writing sex. I told myself, I only want to know how to approach the subject, keep it at bay and sophisticated. I never planned to have a blatant sex scene in my Historical Romance book, but I did it, and I enjoyed it, got good grades for it, and expect to leave it in my WIP. And in doing my character studies homework, I actually called my antagonist an asshole, and sent it to my instructor. My stomach was doing flip-flops as I hit send. I worried she would think me a fool, so I followed up with a correction. She never saw the correction, and didn’t blink at my use of the word. I will be curious to hear what my editor has to say. Thank you for touching on this subject of written sex. Great post.

    1. Hey Gail — we could talk about erotic language and degrees of it forever — as I mentioned, that one reader’s graphic as it gets sensibility versus on e authors oh-I-wouldn’t-touch-those-words-with-a-ten-foot-pole. Which is why the idea that you could
      convey the erotic without those hard core words is so revolutionary to me.

      FOr me, being free to use hard core words was liberating, but I still find myself really parsing out what words I want to use where. Erotic romance isn’t a dirty word spew. There is real thought behind how you phrase things and how you plug and play.

      I hope you’re finding writing more explicitly is liberating, exciting and enjoyable.


  5. Great article from my wonderful friend, Thea Devine. I am writing about adults who fall in love and usually when that happens, they make love. I do have some very descriptive steamy and erotic love scenes in my books. I can’t wait to read your sequel … is it available yet?

  6. Thea, you must have been born with tons of courage and no Catholic priest telling you you were going to hell for thinking lusty thoughts and hoping to hear your lurid confessions. You’ve done what many of us wish we could do-let go, Thanks for a great blog. I loved reading it.

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