Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Fulfilling Promises: Making the Reader Happy

Someone once sent me a dirty story.

This is years ago, before I had a publishing company. My guess is that it was a fan of my stories who wanted to write his/her own story to try and impress me.

It was just some random email I received and there was no subject line and the only content to the message was this story that this person had written. The story was maybe a thousand words long, two thousand at the most.

The set-up was intriguing enough. It was a gay BDSM erotica story told from the POV of the submissive. The dom pulled him into the bedroom and told the sub that he must be sure to comply with any and all sexual demands, lest he get spanked with the paddle sitting on the chair in the corner of the room. The sub was eager to obey and determined to please, but he eyed up the paddle every few paragraphs. He kept fearing that he’d do something to deserve a bruised ass.

The sex was brief and reasonably well told. But by the end of the story, the paddle had not been used.

That paddle might’ve been a motivator to submit to his dom and do his best to please, but for me as the reader, with all that build-up of how intimidating the paddle was… I wanted to see it in action.

While the author may have told the story they wanted to tell, the focus on the paddle created a promise to the reader — a promise that the author failed to follow through on.

If you mention something like that in such a context, readers expect to see it in action at some point. It’s like that old piece of writing advice — Chekov’s gun — if a rifle is hanging on the mantle in chapter one, it must be fired by chapter three. And if it doesn’t get used, it shouldn’t be there in the first place.

I never did reply to that anonymous emailed story. I didn’t really know why this person was sending it to me, nor did I know what they had hoped to get out of it. And I was still a rather newbie author at the time that I didn’t really understand the type of attention erotica authors can get online. (Now, though, I’ve seen so many unsolicited dick pics, I’ve had so many people hit on a female pen name I sometimes use, and I have so many submissives eager to enter into a dom/sub relationship via Twitter with one of my more masculine pen names. I guess you could say I’m a little older and a little wiser now and understand it better.)

I try to always fulfill the promises I make to my readers — even if they’re promises I don’t intentionally make and I’m not aware of. When I revise my work, I try to figure out what I’ve unintentionally set up and then I try to follow through on that promise — or excise that promise so I don’t have to follow through on it. I once had one character bite the nipples of the other in a way that implied the sex was going to be rough, which was not the case, so I revised it to a lick of the nipples.

That promise is part of all stages of writing and publishing a book. Your cover design, blurb, and how you market it are all part of the promise. Each of these things elicits a response from a reader and creates expectations of what they think they’ll find in the pages of your book.

Over-promising isn’t the only problem. Under-promising is just as bad.

With over-promising, you create expectations that are too high, which can lead to disappointed readers and bad reviews. But with under-promising, you might not be doing enough to even attract readers. (I talked a little bit about this last year; I found an “erotica” ebook whose cover was a poorly formatted shack in the woods. That’s it. It creates zero erotic promise for me so if I wasn’t specifically looking for bad examples, I wouldn’t have even given it half a second of consideration.)

Promises to the reader are something I continue to struggle with. In particular, the promise created by previous experience. Every book I’ve written has been loaded with sex and as I’ve gotten better at writing, the quality of the sex scenes have gotten better too. I’ve spoken frequently of a book I’m working on, New York Heat, which will be epically long and loaded with smut. Not only does it have to meet the promises internal to the book, but it has to meet the external promises -- the ones held by readers who are expecting each book to be better than the last.

In the past week I’ve taken a break from New York Heat to work on a YA gay romance novel — which, because it’s YA, has zero sex. I really struggled with it for a while. I’m so used to the promise being sex. Here, the promise is a kiss. How can I create an engaging and captivating story if there’s no fucking? I have the tone and style and plot down now, but there was a lot of self-doubt along the way.

I had to remember that I wasn’t promising the same thing. It was a completely different promise than I normally make to the reader — and as long as I fulfil the promise I make, then everything will be fine.

If not, maybe I’ll get my ass paddled.


Cameron D. James is a writer of gay erotica and M/M erotic romance; his latest release is Autumn Fire. He is publisher at and co-founder of Deep Desires Press, member of the Indie Erotica Collective, and hosts two podcasts, Deep Desires Podcast and Sex For Money. He lives in Canada, is always crushing on Starbucks baristas, and has two rescue cats. To learn more about Cameron, visit http://www.camerondjames.com.


  1. Excellent spin on the topic--but I worry about giving away too much to my readers, making my promises so obvious that any suspense goes out the window. That's my main beef with a lot of romance. Romance promises, above all, a happy ending. Still, for me to find a romance engaging, there have to be credible threats to that HEA, or better still, an ending that takes a twist I didn't expect.

    1. I've started writing with the idea in mind that it's okay that the reader knows how it will end. The exciting/interesting part is the journey from the start to finish. :)

  2. I worry about the under-promising bit, since I dislike a few of my covers. But as one who labors in obscurity, 9 years after becoming a published author, I don't really have that much say in what the covers of my books look like. If the covers more accurately reflected the stories, they'd probably be banned by most book sellers.

    But then again, maybe not. I keep hearing my sister-in-law's voice in my head telling me that my books are so vanilla. I wasn't even aware that was an insult until my brother gave me pitying looks while he nodded in agreement with her. BTW, that was the last book I gave them for free to read.

    1. Pearls before swine, Fiona!

      Vanilla isn't an insult, anyway.

    2. I agree -- vanilla is not an insult!

      I once had someone call one of my straight stories under my straight pen name "vanilla" -- but I think he was looking for one of those extreme fetishes. (Like, alien gangbang and forced milking or something.) Obviously, we were not an appropriate author/reader match.

      And in defence of vanilla -- a well written kiss can get me more hot under the collar than an explicit sex scene!

  3. In the last few days I've had to write both an introduction to an erotica anthology, and a blurb (two, in fact, one short, one slightly less short) for my first attempt at a novel. I doubt that the introduction will influence readers much, although I did manage to say a few words about each story, but the short blurbs that the novel's publisher will use for promotion do, I think, constitute a promise. The promise is fair enough, as far as it goes, but there's so much more to the book than could be hinted at in 400 characters that the blurb is really not an accurate description. Under-promising, I guess. But better than the blurbs my anthology publisher sets up on Amazon, etc. before I've sent in the manuscript, and even before I've decided on what I'll include. I used to be asked to do blurbs for anthologies that far ahead of time, but the new owners of the publisher do'n't do that, and I only find out by accident when they've posted a cover (which I usually haven't seen before.) Apparently anthology covers aren't intended in the least to be promises of what's inside, with a few serendipitous exceptions.

    1. Blurbs are the WORST! (Like, in terms of the struggle that goes into them. I hate them.) And the longer your work is, the harder it is to contain an accurate promise in the blurb -- and that goes double or triple for an anthology. I hope you got through all of this okay!

  4. Be careful of unsolicited manuscripts you receive. They can be used for a legal sting if you ever include anything like it in one of your works. A friend once sent an idea for a legal thriller to Grisham. It came back immediately, supposedly unread, sent by Grisham's agent, with a request to never do it again.

    1. Yup -- that was really the one and only time that happened, but I've become aware of some of the horror stories. I think it was Anne MacCaffrey that ran into some trouble with that -- she was involved in fan fiction based on her fantasy works and then a "fan" claimed to be the source of an idea she later wrote about in a novel. I think they had to cancel publication of that novel and MacCaffrey completely pulled out of her involvement with fan fiction.


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