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The Big Damn Writer Advice Column

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It’s Thursday! Time to answer a question from the Big Damn Writer Question Box! Just one this week, because it was a bit labor intensive and the day got away from me.

Q: Why is good smut so hard to write / what differentiates the good (you) from the bad (EL James)?

A: Well, while I appreciate the compliment, I have to throw out a disclaimer here: there are many people writing better smut than I, and people writing much, much worse smut than E.L. James is. There are different kinds of bad, though. James’s smut is bad because her discomfort with the scenes is apparent to (some) readers. There aren’t a lot of grown-up words in the grown-up scenes; I’m not sure I ever saw the word “cock” in any of the first three. I think the strongest term used was “erection.” This, to me, looks like a writer who wants to write about sex but is uncomfortable overall with the language or mechanics of sex. Then you’ve got the bad sex written by authors who swing too far the other way. In their quest to be the most shocking and raw and provocative they use language that borders on juvenile. What’s supposed to be “dirty” and “shocking” just winds up embarrassing and unsexy. The characters don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. The sex is rushed, not detailed, and doesn’t further the story. There are so many ways that smut can be bad.

So, how do you avoid all this happening to you? Let me give you five tips.

  • If a word makes you feel uncomfortable and unsexy, it probably will come across that way to your readers. For example, some authors use the word “cum”. Some find it crude and will never have it in their books. Same way with readers. But if you type a word in your manuscript that you’re thinking, “Ugh, I just hate the way it sounds,” the reader is going to know that you hate the way it sounds, and it’s going to sound awful to them, too.
  • If thinking about a sex act makes you uncomfortable or you can’t fantasize about it without giving yourself the willies, don’t write about it. I sat on a panel once next to an author who made a big show about how outrageous and unique and hardcore her super dark and twisted erotica was. She described needle play and said that it was the hardest thing for her to write because it grossed her out. So…why write about it? It’s not going to read as hot and sexy because you don’t think it’s hot and sexy. And while most authors of erotica and erotic romance will admit that they write about things they’ve never done or would never actually do, but we almost always write things that turn us on. If you don’t see the appeal in a sex act, you can’t make it seem appealing to the reader.
  • Evoke the senses. Here’s an excerpt from Fifty Shades Of Grey:

And he’s inside me, quickly filling me. I moan loudly. He moves, pounding into me, a fast, intense pace against my sore behind. The feeling is beyond exquisite, raw and debasing and mind-blowing. My senses are ravaged, disconected, solely concetrating on what he’s doing to me. How he’s making me feel that familiar pull deep in my belly, tightening, quickening. NO…and my traitorous body explodes in an intense, body-shattering orgasm.

And here’s an excerpt from Begging For It by Lilah Pace (a book in one of my favorite series of all time, but which comes with a heavy content warning readers need to check out before they read the books).

He pulls the sheet down. Cool air ghosts along my back, my exposed lower body. Jonah groans slightly to see me naked from the waist down–he likes that.

Two fingers trace a line of heat along my leg, from the back of my knee all the way up to the hip, where he finds the crest of my pelvic bone. Back down again, closer to the cleft of my ass–and then his touch curves in toward my cunt. His rougher skin brushes against me, just enough to get slick.

Then I hear him lift his hand to his lips to taste me.

You’ve probably noticed that the first excerpt is much shorter, perfunctory, and covers everything from insertion to completion for the heroine. The reason it’s so much shorter is that it’s all telling and no showing. He did this, it made me feel [synonym for pleasure]. I was really into it, then I had an orgasm. The second excerpt is so much more different. There’s a focus not just on what the heroine feels, but how the hero feels and how sexy his response is to her. There are adjectives that describe the physical acts in a way that the reader can feel them; air “ghosts” along her back. Fingers “trace a line of heat.” Body parts don’t just touch, they have different textures. It’s like the difference between someone telling you about the sex they had and having sex yourself.

  • Your characters should enjoy themselves. The above excerpt from Fifty Shades Of Grey describes an orgasm, not enjoyment. Why? Because her body is traitorous. Because “NO.” And in a line before that excerpt, the heroine literally thinks, “Like I have a choice.” It’s not sexy if your characters aren’t enthusiastically consenting. It’s not sexy if they feel that pleasure is their body betraying them (unless, of course, you’re writing a scene where a sub isn’t allowed to come or something). Bottom line, the characters in your erotica or erotic romance are avatars the reader is experiencing fantastic sex through. They don’t want to have bad sex they’re not enjoying just because there’s a orgasm when there are hundreds of other books offering the mind-blowing bang of a lifetime.
  • Emotion, emotion, emotion. This is where I veer away from erotica and address erotic romance specifically. In erotic romance, every sex scene should develop the relationship and the way the characters feel about each other. It should start with intense emotion–even if that emotion is intense horniness–and end with emotional development or some kind of emotional closure.

Hopefully, this helps some of you out there trying to write your own dirty books.


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  1. Amy

    I have a few friends who’ve published romances on amazon before, and I always have to warn them, “be careful when writing about anal sex. lots of people are not so open minded.” Not gay sex specifically, just anything that sits outside the norm of basic mercenary sex. (and that’s what bothers me so much about fsg, it’s quite vanilla in its sex scenes. Clamps? Spanking? I’ll come back when Anna discovers Grey’s prostate, thank you)

    January 4, 2018
  2. cyevi

    The comparison between those two scenes is really striking. Great choice! For the inexperienced reader of erotica, that first sample might seem titillating because *s omg something naughty is happening (I think) */s. But paired next to the second sample, you suddenly realize how empty and .. frankly, odd, the first sample is. It’s like looking at a stale corpse next to a sleeping human.

    January 14, 2018
  3. Dig

    Definitely striking differences, but I really came here to ask this: How do you hear someone lift their hand to their lips to taste? Genuine curiosity, lol. I haven’t read this series, so I’m wondering if it’s supernatural hearing (I’m deaf so I’m always wondering how this shit works). I mean, it’s gotta be supernatural if you can hear a hand moving in air. . . I just moved my hand around and felt slight air movement, so I can’t imagine it to be audible enough. Maybe it’s the sucking sounds of tasting the fingers she heard?

    Ah well. Your advice is sound, tho! (Yikes. Pun unintended, ha.)

    January 25, 2018

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