Monday, July 29, 2013
Use Your Naughty Words
I used to say that you knew you were writing erotica when you had to make hard decisions as to which terms to use for body parts. That was shallow thinking on multiple fronts. For one thing, good writing requires making hard decisions as to which words to use for almost everything, body parts or not. Mark Twain said it best: the right word is to the almost-right word as the lightning is to the lightning bug.
I deal with erotica as a writer, editor, and reviewer, so I come at this from several angles. Being a reviewer requires the flexibility to consider the target readers of any particular work, and try to assess it according to their likely reaction, whether or not it does anything for me personally. This can be harder than even writing or editing, and the editor inevitably intrudes when I think that words are misused, or badly used, or repeated too often, especially when they’re words (or phrases) that call so much attention to themselves in the text that readers (or at least this editor) are apt to notice the repetition.
Any kind of writing, erotic or not, fiction or non-fiction (although I do think fiction is more complex in this regard) requires a sense of how the reader will react to your words. When it comes to sex, we’re conditioned by so many factors, from toilet training to our earliest recognition of the allure of the forbidden to hypersexualized media, that the specific words that turn us on can differ widely according to individual or cultural background. We need to take into account our own experience and understanding of certain words as well as that of the reader, and, most important, consider what words the fictional character would be likely to use, in thought as well as speech.
One nearly universal factor is that we get a thrill from thinking of sex as transgressive. Nasty, naughty, dirty, sinful, depraved, outrageous, even perverted; what erotica reader can resist stories described like that? And the language in the stories needs to fit. Anatomically precise words like penis, labia, vagina can work if the atmosphere of lust is amped up high enough, but there’s always the risk of being sex-positive to the point of sounding wholesome, or even clinical, and who wants to read about wholesome sex? Well, okay, some romance readers like their sex wholesome, sanctified, and barely even vanilla, but they generally prefer it to take place off-stage, too. They’re not our target audience.
Lisabet has already discussed the finer points of prick versus cock versus dick, and Lily has dealt with cunt in great depth. Cum versus come versus jism (or jizm) and multiple variations have been pretty well covered by Giselle. Ass versus arse is strictly a matter of national preference, although I have a sense that speakers of American English lean toward borrowing the British version because it’s just more fun to say. The various other alternatives to buttocks—butt, bum, bottom—we probably learned originally during that formative period of toilet training, which contributes to their aura of naughtiness, while buttcheeks or asscheeks have somewhat more visual appeal. Arsehole, asshole, anus are all pretty commonly used, anus even in spite of its more clinical anatomical origin, maybe because it includes a “u” sound--which leads me to stray aside into speculation as to why the way certain words sound seems to have a good deal of effect on their erotic appeal.
The “u” sound in cunt, cum, slut, butt, fuck (and of course buttfuck), has an earthy appeal, and single-syllable words have a certain blunt impact. The “k” sound in prick, dick, cock (surely cuckold must come from some early “u” version of cock?) buttocks, suck, and fuck adds impact, too. Some of these, I think, are considered to have an Anglo-Saxon origin, rather than the more courtly French added to the English language by the invading Normans under William the Conqueror (also known as William the Bastard.)
In any case, the English language has a wide supply of words to use in describing sexual matters, but writers, being who they are, like to vary their terms and create new ones, generally by way of metaphors. This is all very well in skilled hands, but the risk of overdoing it and throwing the reader completely out of the mood and the story is high. I mentioned repetition a while ago; well-seasoned terms like cunt, cock, breast, tit, ass, aren’t likely to set off my editorial alarm when they occur more than once on a page, or maybe even more than twice. But use a term like “delve” more than once in a book (yes, I’ve been seeing too much of this lately) and I’ll grit my teeth. Likewise saying “orbs” or “globes” in place of “breasts.” Tits are fine if you’re consistent.
Repetition isn’t the only problem. In one review of an otherwise fairly inventive period vampire book, I said that I’d been slogging through so many repetitive, florid, bloated, adjective-overladen sex scenes that if I’d been able to use the traditional editorial red pen on the manuscript it would have looked as bloody as any vampiric orgy. Too many “love-shafts,” “carnal lances,” “bags of love juice” (on males) and “torrents of love juice” (from females) even when love clearly had nothing to do with it. Too much repetition, and, when an attempt was made for original metaphors, too many that made me either laugh or cringe. Breasts like “juicy amber fruits” with nipples like “twin stalks” isn’t all that bad, until you see the terms “rising stalks” and “burgeoning stalks” applied to masculine appendages. The difficulties with portraying prolonged, ever-increasing lust are noticeable when at one moment a man’s “wild electric eel” is “thrashing” against his belly, and a few moments later, with even more provocation, it merely “twitches compulsively.”
Well, enough of my editorial triggers. My point, if I’m making one at all, is that erotica readers like dirty words, naughty words, earthy words, even though they have their own particular favorites. What they don’t want is anything that makes them laugh (unless it’s appropriate) or cringe (unless that’s appropriate, such as in a horror story) or in any way distracts them from the erotic flow of the story. If there’s any time a reader doesn’t want that flow interrupted, it’s in the middle of a sex scene. Use your words carefully, build to a climax, and never, never be guilty of literary coitus interruptus. (Or of careless use of Latin phrases. Do as I say, not as I do.)