Sex For Money is a semi-regular blog series about my experiences in writing, publishing, and marketing gay erotica and M/M erotic romance. All of this information is from my own experience, so your experience may differ. It’s hoped that sharing this information might be helpful to new and aspiring erotica and erotic romance authors, as I see a lot of questions and a lot of misinformation out there. To read more Sex For Money posts, click here.
I was asked to read a romance manuscript that a friend wrote, and, while they used poetic sentences in their first chapter, there were some serious flaws that would hold this writer back from ever obtaining a publishing deal or gaining real success as an indie. With her permission, I kind of tear it to shreds here for the sake of pointing out the three common flaws I see on first pages (of unpublished, self-published, and traditionally published books). While it is possible to succeed while doing these things, you will succeed much more if you avoid these three mistakes:
1. Inaccessible Language
Remember how I described the opening scene as having “poetic sentences”? That actually wasn’t a compliment. This writer had utilized uncommon words for… well, I don’t know why, I guess, but my assumption is that she was trying to go for a certain feel and felt that using grand language would help achieve that.
That’s a fatal flaw.
If you look at the greatest works of any genre you’ll find very few odd and unusual words. What you’ll find are common, everyday words, that have been strung together in a beautiful way. (Your results might vary if you look at older works that are considered great — but writing, publishing, and language itself have evolved since that book was published. For best results, look at modern bestsellers.) An occasional poetic word or rarely-used word might be thrown in here and there, but that’s usually to emphasize a point of some sort, not to create a lyrical style.
Ideally, 99% of the words you use should be part of your everyday vocabulary. No matter what genre you write. (I guess, the exception being realistic historical fiction, but even then you still need your book to be accessible.)
And that’s the crux of this — inaccessible language makes your book inaccessible. People will stop reading due to poor choice of language. Or, if they make it through the book, you will get poorer reviews than you deserve, simply because your language ruined the story.
So, in the case of this romance manuscript I keep referencing — the author needs to rewrite the whole thing and kill all the strange words.
2. Slow Zoom-In
This is one of the biggest flaws I see in self-published works and one of the deadly flaws in this chapter I read. Movies and novels are entirely different methods of storytelling. Yet, I’ve found lately that a lot of authors are writing their books the way it might appear on the screen.
To give you an example — this chapter I read opened by following a leaf on the breeze. By following this leaf, we slowly zoomed out to see the world beneath us, then zoomed back into the leaf as it tumbled through the air and came to gently rest next to the person we assume to be the main character. (More on that in point three.) Even then, once we finally met our character — four paragraphs into the thing — the author took even more time describing the setting, the forest, the wind, the stars, and on and on and on.
That opening, however, sounds like a fantastic opening to a movie. It would help set the tone and mood of the film and allow us to ground ourselves before jumping into the plot. But, movies are a visual medium. Novels are not.
If I had picked this book up in the bookstore and checked out the first page, I would have put it back on the shelf before even finishing the page.
Your first page needs to be gripping from the first sentence. If not the first sentence, then at least by the end of the first paragraph. It doesn’t matter if it’s a thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, erotica, or romance book — your first sentence has to suck readers in immediately, or else you’ve already lost half your readers.
Very few shoppers in the bookstore will make it to the fourth paragraph to finally meet a character… and then wait another five or six paragraphs to finally read something gripping.
3. Not Rooted in Character
Remember I said we didn’t meet a character until the fourth paragraph, and even then we didn’t return to him until several paragraphs later? That is a killer for reader engagement and sales.
The way to make your first sentence or first paragraph gripping is to root it in character — and through the character we can then see the surroundings. Characters allow us a window to see the world that we create — without them, we are removed from the story and we don’t care what happens.
How about some examples?
I pull these examples from my own writing. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but strengthening my openings is something I’ve been working on. If you look at my older stuff, it’ll be weaker, because it’s taken time to really grab hold of this.
Here’s my first paragraph from my short story, Bathhouse Nights:
“I need you, Daniel. I need you to fuck me. I want you to be my first.”
In that one snippet of dialogue, we’re rooted in the situation, in the character, and in the world. We don’t yet know the speaker’s name, but from what he says, we know immediately that he’s about to have sex (which is often a good opening for erotica). There’s also the added excitement that the speaker is a virgin. Do we know the intricate details of the setting? No, and we don’t need to. As the dialogue continues, we find out this is a jock and a twink in the bathhouse. But to explain at the beginning, then get into dialogue, would result in zero tension.
Here’s my first paragraph from Bump and Grind, part one of Go-Go Boys of Club 21:
[This chapter opens with the header “Liam” — so we already know the character’s name.]
We’re the go-go boys of Club 21. We dance, we fuel fantasies, and we give ourselves to the beat. We bump, we grind, and before each shift we have a jerk off competition; the order in which we come determines who gets the most desirable dance platform.
We’ve zoomed in immediately to the scene, we’re rooted in Liam’s thoughts, and the language is all fully-accessible. Plus, this is enticing, as readers know that a jerk off competition is coming up in the next couple paragraphs. This opening pulls readers in. You’ll also notice that this paragraph evokes a mood or tone, but still uses everyday language. You don’t need obscure language to set your mood and tone — you achieve it by how you construct your sentences and your choice of which (common) words to use.
And now I present the opening paragraph from my forthcoming, as-yet-untitled erotic novella I’m writing with Sandra Claire:
Jay watched the trees zipping past the car window. He so rarely got out of the city that this camping trip was the highlight of his summer—and the fact that he was going with his best friend, Mike, and Mike’s dad, Mr. Carter, only made it better. “A camping trip to turn you into men,” Mr. Carter had called it, a celebration of the two of them having turned eighteen.
This one is a little rougher since it hasn’t been edited yet — it’s just a first draft. However, we are rooted in the character of Jay — and through Jay we see the trees zipping past and we immediately learn we are on a camping trip — and it’s all told in accessible language. Also, with the “A camping trip to turn you into men” line, well, I’m sure that opens up all sorts of dirty scenarios. This is the hook that pulls readers in. From there, we immediately learn that Jay is lusting for his friend’s dad.
So, the conclusion?
Make sure you use accessible, everyday language; immediately zoom into the plot and don’t waste time on setting a mood or tone; and root the reader in a character. And… do all of this in the first paragraph.