Erotica author, aka Elspeth Potter, on Writing from the Inside

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Tale of an Erotica Writer

How did it begin, that I became a writer of erotica?

I sent my first story, "Water Music," off to an anthology edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj called Aqua Erotica. Alas, it did not sell. Later, when I saw the anthology, I realized why; my story was considerably smuttier and less literary than what was chosen.

So, first rejection in hand, I went to Cecilia Tan (whom I knew already through a friend who’d sold to her) and asked her where I should send it. Cecilia suggested Best Lesbian Erotica, edited by Tristan Taormino. I can’t remember when I mailed the submission, but it was probably the winter of 1999. On June 30, 2000, I received this email, which astonished me:

TO: Elspeth Potter
FROM: Tristan Taormino
RE: Water Music
Thank you so much for your wonderful submission to BEST LESBIAN EROTICA 2001. I AM EXTREMELY PLEASED TO TELL YOU THAT YOU ARE A FINALIST IN THE SELECTION PROCESS…So, what does this mean? It means that you have made the final cut; approximately 50% of the pieces from this group will end up in the book.

Then, on September 11, 2000:
Dear Author:
CONGRATULATIONS!! You’ve been selected as a contributor to BEST LESBIAN EROTICA 2001.
WOW!!!

Next, I got serious.

Marketing Research

Having sold one story, I was afire to sell more. Also, since at that point I already knew writers and editors, I wanted to sell more stories as efficiently as possible. So I researched, using several methods.

1. Asked people. First Cecilia Tan, as I said, and also various editors I knew through friends and from science fiction conventions.

2. Read calls for submissions. The one I use now is erotica-readers.com, but it took a while to find it and decide that was my favorite over some other sources. Reading calls for submissions is more educational than it sounds. You get a picture of how the market might be shaped in the future as well as familiarity with ongoing series of anthologies and prolific editors, plus the more basic knowledge of what kind of story is in demand and what kind isn’t.

3. Read current anthologies. I can no longer remember how many anthologies I read, some in their entirety and some skimmed. I learned this way what had actually sold, and tried to figure out why, and compared what one editor had bought to what another editor might have chosen. I didn’t come to systematic conclusions in a formal list, but I formed valuable impressions. Then I got tired of reading erotica. Today, when I receive a contributor copy, I rarely read the whole thing. Sometimes, I read none of it, though I usually glance at my own story to make sure no glaring typos snuck in.

4. Made [more] contacts. Finally, I learned about the market by submitting, and editors could learn about me the same way, or at least become familiar with my pseudonym. Whenever there was a reading for an anthology I was in, and it was affordable to get there, I went, and met other writers and editors. I met Sacchi Green this way, at a Best Lesbian Erotica reading in New York. Years later, contacts like this began to pay off as editors to whom I’d sold something, or whom I’d met at a reading for an anthology, sent me private calls for submissions, or asked for reprints of my stories. Not that I knew at the time that this would happen. I just wanted to meet other writers.

So, while acquiring all this knowledge, I worked on more stories and tried to apply what I’d learned.

Applying the Research

Now I knew I could sell, and I had a good idea of what markets were out there and what they bought. I decided that I wouldn’t try to sell to every available market; writing doesn’t support my basic needs, it’s something for the soul. So if what I wrote wasn’t fun and challenging, what would be the point?

A call for submissions for something called Tough Girls attracted me. It paid the same as the anthology to which I’d already sold, and I quickly saw that, with a theme, a different kind of story like sf would be more likely to sell, so the editor could avoid repetition. (At the time, I didn’t know that the editor, Lori Selke, liked sf; I didn’t find that out until long after.) Thinking of tough women, I immediately decided I would write about a soldier. In Space! I love space opera.
I had a plot, and I finished a draft, but the story just wasn’t right. It felt flat to me, unconvincing. My third person limited narrative voice didn’t have the toughness and coldness I felt it needed, and I didn’t know how to make it happen; my own personal voice is nothing like that. I needed distance. For once, inspiration struck. I didn’t trust it at first, but it persisted. Make it second person present, my mind insisted. It’ll work. At least, I finally decided, I would be able to say I’d tried second person present!

So I started rewriting, a few pages on in the same notebook. And it did work. I immediately noticed how much wordage I was able to leave out, how sharp and punchy the prose became. I was more distant, in a way, so I could write the character more as I meant her to be, hard and a bit isolated from other humans. What a rush! I titled it “Camera,” thinking of the point of view, and the weird voyeuristic feel it gave. I typed it, edited on paper, edited again, and mailed it off, both to Tough Girls and to the next Best Lesbian Erotica, which accepted reprints.

Both bought “Camera,” and since then it’s been reprinted more than once. I’m still very proud of that story. I was so happy with it then that I decided experimentation and difference would be my approach to writing erotica from then on.

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