Rachel Kramer Bussel is a New York-based author, editor, blogger and event organizer. She has written for numerous publications and has edited more than 40 anthologies, including Anything for You: Erotica for Kinky Couples, Suite Encounters: Hotel Sex Stories, Going Down, Irresistible, Women in Lust, Orgasmic, Fast Girls, Passion, Obsessed, Bottoms Up, Spanked, Tasting Him, Tasting Her, Gotta Have It, The Mile High Club, Do Not Disturb: Hotel Sex Stories, Best Bondage Erotica 2011 and 2012, and Best Sex Writing 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. She has presented, spoken and taught at conferences including Dark Odyssey, Erotic Authors Association, Sex 2.0, and SXSW. For five years, she hosted In The Flesh Erotic Reading Series in New York City, which featured 300 readers. Rachel holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and women’s studies from the University of California at Berkeley.
Tell us a little bit about your style of erotica. Does all erotica, in your opinion, hold a similar tone? Must it all be all sexy all the time, or are there styles that hold that back until say, the end?
It’s hard for me to gauge my own writing style. Sometimes I’m funny, like my story “Doing the Dishes” and my oral sex restaurant story “Secret Service,” and sometimes I’m far grittier. I aim for an immediacy with my stories, whatever style they take. As an anthology editor, I require different styles to make my books varied reads. I love to mix it up with first, second and third person, male and female protagonists, and a variety of scenarios. I like stories about new lovers as well as ones about long-term pairings.
Did you start writing with erotica, or did you come from another genre such as poetry?
The only fiction I’ve written or published is erotica, though I also write nonfiction, both journalism and essays. I’ve been writing letters to the editor since I was a teenager, but I fell into writing erotica during law school in my early twenties, when I was reading it heavily, and have been writing it ever since. Erotica has been an outlet for the kinds of sex writing I can’t do in nonfiction form.
How can a writer who is used to writing non-fiction learn to change her tone to erotica?
The beauty of fiction is that you aren’t beholden to the strict truth you are with nonfiction, so even if you’re telling a basically true story, you can play with the language and details.
I tell my students to focus on the fact that erotica’s main goal is to arouse; of course, it can do plenty of other things, but that is the guiding principle and largely what will differentiate its tone from other types of writing. You can easily write an essay and an erotic story about the exact same incident, but have them come out totally differently. Maybe the essay is written in the first person, sharing your experience, but the erotic story is from a character like the other person in your essay’s point of view, or imagined in another way.
Don’t be afraid to fully employ the magic of your imagination to fill in the details. Maybe in the erotic story, you tell it as you wish it had happened, or from a POV of a character who’s you without any inhibitions.
You have edited quite a few anthologies. How has that taught you to be a better erotica writer? What anthologies do you recommend a newbie writer read to get started?
Reading other people’s work in mass quantities, as I do when I edit anthologies, always teaches me something about different styles and approaches, as well as angles on sexuality I never would have thought of. A favorite example of mine is the story “Chemistry” by Velvet Moore in Orgasmic: Erotica for Women (though I believe that book is of interest to anyone) because it takes a topic, chemistry (the science) and delves deeply into it. The narrator has a very specific and unique fetish and Moore masterfully takes the reader right into the heart of what makes her tick.
Of my anthologies, I recommend Orgasmic, The Big Book of Orgasms and my latest, Come Again: Sex Toy Erotica, because all have an incredible amount of variety. Come Again surprised me with the number of ways writers took the theme of sex toys and turned it on its head, whether with sci-fi elements or invented toys or even a story from the point of view of a vibrator. I also recommend the Best American Erotica series edited by Susie Bright (now available in ebook form), the Best Women’s Erotica series, and the S.E.C.R.E.T. trilogy by L. Marie Adeline (you can sample those at secretnovels.com).
How can a writer translate real life experience while also exploring fantasy? Would you recommend writing from personal experience or taking on another personality, or both?
It depends on how close you are to the story and whether you think you can do it justice as fiction. If something has just happened, you may either want to wait until you have some chronological distance from it, or write it in your voice in a raw way. Or you could take the physical action of the story and transpose it onto a very different type of character.
The main thing I’d caution when writing autobiographical inspired fiction is making sure the reader knows who this character is. If you’re writing about yourself, you may be tempted to glide over details because they’re already familiar to you, so when you’re revising or having someone read over your work, make sure the reader has a sense of who this character is and what makes them tick, sexually and otherwise.
That being said, you don’t need to rely only on your own experiences, or write them as they happened. You can but you also have an entire internet at your disposal to learn about people with very different aspects of their sexuality.
Do you recommend taking a class, and if so what class? Or can a writer get started at home using advice on the internet?
I don’t think you necessarily need to take a class, but a class can be a wonderful way to learn more and find out about the market and get feedback about your writing, especially if you don’t have a writing group or someone else to show it to. I teach online at LitReactor.com (the next class starts August 13), where for 4 weeks, I give weekly lectures and writing assignments, and students get and give critiques of their fellow students. It’s limited to 16 people and you can be anonymous and sign up from anywhere in the world, and participate on your schedule. Building that camaraderie and support network can be helpful as you get started, and in my class, I provide Q&As with authors, both self-published and traditionally published, as well as editors and publishers so students can find out exactly what they want from new writers.
The biggest advice I have isn’t specific to erotica: read the publications you want to write for. So if you want to submit to a publisher, read some of what they’ve put out to see whether you think your work would be a good fit. That doesn’t mean your writing should mimic what’s out there or be exactly like it, but even reading some short stories or looking over plots will give you a sense of what those publishers or editors have approved so far. I think you also want to reread your work at least twice before you submit, ideally reading it out loud, and then move on and keep creating more work! Like anything, writing erotica gets easier the more you do it. And don’t be discouraged by rejection. For instance, for my upcoming Best Women’s Erotica 2016 anthology, I received over 200 submissions for only 25 spots in the book. I obviously can’t publish them all, so I have my work cut out for me as an editor, but that doesn’t mean that the 175+ I have to reject are unworthy; those will very likely find other homes, and I hope to have new calls out in the future and always welcome and encourage writers new to the genre to submit their work to me.
How should a writer submit erotica and start familiarizing herself with the community?
Submitting short stories to anthologies is an excellent way to get your name out there, make some money, gain publishing credits and become known to editors and publishers. Reading aloud is also an excellent way to meet people in your community and hear live reactions to your work.
I strongly encourage new writers to submit their work because editors always need new writers, and often the calls for submissions that are out can inspire a story idea you wouldn’t have come up with on your own.
If you have a manuscript completed, you can send that out but having published work out there is always helpful, as is having a social media presence. I like what writers like Tiffany Reisz have done; she has her popular Original Sinners series, but also has corresponding short stories that fit into the timeline of the series. They can be read as standalone stories, but are special treats for fans. If you often write about the same characters, this can be a way to further get to know them and to introduce them to readers in shorter versions before unleashing your longer work into the world.
I recommend getting on the mailing lists for all the publishers you’d want to submit work to so you can see what they are publishing and keep up with any calls for writing they issue, as well as following other writers and editors on social media.
Any other tips or things to remember when trying to write erotica for the first time?
I always say you can write erotica about literally anything. Try picking a room in your home, or a famous landmark, or a piece of furniture and using that as the focal point of your erotica. I believe the characters are almost always as important, often more important, than the specifics of what they are doing, so the more you get to know your characters, the more easily you can transport them into all sorts of settings and scenarios.