This year, I’m not taking part in the Smut Marathon…however, I’m finding it fascinating to be part of the public reading contingent. It’s a very different seat to be sitting in for this competition. I’m not a judge, so I don’t have the heat on my shoulders that they do to really evaluate the writing for style, rule-following, and technique. And I’m not one of the writers, so I don’t have the stress of living up to anyone else’s expectations. I’m just little Jane Public enjoying the view from a comfy chair with my cup of coffee. But, the public vote carried me all the way to the 8th round last year, so I think there is a lot to be said for the power of the readers. And having been a contestant, who did fairly well, I’m going to offer a few pieces of unasked for advice (yes, I know what they say about that, and if you don’t want it, don’t read it…I won’t even be offended).
#1 Know Your Audience
The public readers.
So this audience is dedicated, I can tell you that. There are currently 102 contestants, and that means a hell of lot of reading and time dedicated to making a decision. The majority of readers will just vote, and you’ll never know why or how they made their decisions. The readers you should definitely look into are those who comment on the stories. If a reader takes the time to read AND offer criticism, they are likely to ride out the entire competition, continuing to provide valuable feedback. Those the readers you will need to make happy if you want to continue moving forward, so it is worth really reading what they have to say and asking questions if you have them. Reply to them with questions, maybe even contact them if you feel comfortable doing so.
For the most part, you can’t just call up your readers and ask them what they like or don’t like or what they’d like you to improve or change in your writing. So, you will likely have to do a bit of investigation on your own. This is what I would do.
First, I would look carefully at the top 3, according to public vote:
9) Cutting Edge (Wriggly Kitty)
He twisted the knife, his blade doing the work. Her eyes became soft and unfocused as she crumpled from his arms, and he noticed how piercing a shade of blue they were, even as they faded. The assassin shook his head in sorrow; it was always the pretty ones.
I almost picked this one. It was in my top 10, so I can see what drew others to it. It starts with an action. It’s perfect, grammatically speaking. It offers up a conflict (murder) with characters and good description. The word choices are good (twisted, unfocused, crumpled, piercing, faded) without sounding like the writer got out a thesaurus to impress us. The ending is satisfying.
I’m surprised in some ways that this piece was chosen, because I don’t find it all that erotic. Last year, there was a divide between the readers and the judges on this point. It seemed the judges wanted much more viscerally sexy smut than the readers.
34) In Hand (Justine Elyot @ The House of Elyot)
Had she known, when he offered his hand to shake, that these were the fingers that would one day be wrapped around the handle of the riding crop painting stripes of fire across her rear, she might have paid it more attention.
I didn’t pick this one. It’s a long sentence and I see no style, word choice, or technique that sets it above anything else. However, readers liked it. So why? It DOES hint at a story, and might be a great beginning to one later. It does have a nice ending that connects with the beginning. Eventually, when this writer begins entering longer pieces, this will be a critical technique.
102) Medusa (@ChloeSheila)
He wanted to see her. To have more than an unseeing fumble. He begged, he pleaded, he whispered beseechingly into her soft thighs. She reached out from under him and flicked on the lights. Naked and trembling, she lay before him like an offering.
His heart stopped.
The short sentences create momentum, and once again…there is good word choice (fumble, beseechingly, flicked). As a reader, I didn’t choose this one. I didn’t understand the connection between the story and the title…however, because it did so well in the public vote, it’s important to understand that the readers liked something about it.
All three of the public choices are very different. So, it’s hard to find a clear connection. One is almost a run-on sentence. Another is made up of short, choppy sentences…little images like lines of poetry. And the final made of varied sentences structures that flow nicely. So style isn’t the draw for the public, yet. All three start with an action (a knife twisting, a hand shake, wanting). Two start with pronouns, which I learned to avoid last year, so it will be interesting to see how that turns out over time.
None of the pieces I voted for placed. But “Unbuckling” (by Selkie) and “Food Court” (by Elliott Henry) placed in the top 10. I chose both of these pieces because they were entire stories. They had characters, conflict, description. They made me care about what was happening and made me want to know more.
My two favorites were “Food Court” and “Living Fever” (by Owen Latchkey). I felt that “Living Fever” was a terrible title, but this one did the best job of actually telling an entire story. I cared the most about this situation, of all the stories. It, along with Elliott’s, were the most realistic and simple, story-wise, and therefore seemed most plausible. “Living Fever” was a little sexier, with the sweatshirt detail:
82) Living Fever
Smoke drifted from her ripped Columbia sweatshirt that didn’t reach far enough down her bare hips. Wisps of moisture steamed from her thighs into the chill night. I offered her my Edgar Allan Poe throw as firetrucks wailed to the apartments. She wreathed it around us both, and smiled.
I liked the specifics of this piece. The Columbia sweatshirt and Poe throw made it easy to picture. I also liked that it started with a strong image rather than a pronoun and had good word choice (steamed, wailed, wreathed) and sentence variety. In my opinion, this piece did everything I love most about writing. It was the cleanest and, stylistically, the strongest. But, I can see that the specific details may have been jarring to other readers. We all have things we love and hate about writing. I found it interesting that it placed so low. And maybe that says something about why I only made it to round 8 last year. What I like most isn’t necessarily what other readers and judges like.
I had a very difficult time satisfying the judges last year. But, I didn’t go to this level of investigation. So, let’s take a look at what the judges chose, identify the qualities and connections, take a look at their comments, and then compare it to what the readers selected.
Here’s what the judges picked:
Looking at the spreadsheet, the jury’s numbers were all over the board, so they don’t agree on what they like. That’s both good and bad. Since they don’t really agree, it will be hard to pin point what they are looking for and fulfill their wishes. Also, since the don’t really agree, there is more opportunity for different types of writing and styles to make it further in the competition.
Let’s take a look at the “winners”:
18) Stair Case
A tight turn of landing at the top of the flats, eyes catch in passing, a shimmy, a grin. He’s a big lovely lump, all shocked hair and glasses, she’s sine waves of chestnut, and freckled cream skin.
I am a huge fan of E.T. Costello’s writing, and have followed his blog for some time. He is amazing with imagery and word choice, and his sentence structure and style is unique and captivating. As you can see, his writing ability is obvious. It’s poetic and original, so it is bound to stand out. What I didn’t like about it is that is was one of dozens that fell back on the “eyes caught in passing” theme. And there is also no real story happening. But it won, for the judges, this round. So, it’s important to see that they obviously are partial to unique description, word choice, and style. If that were the only thing I were looking at, this would have been a stand-out piece for me, too.
**Note: There was a bit of talk on Twitter today about ensuring that the images you choose are understandable and common to both a U.K. and U.S. audience. I’m assuming this was the piece in question. So, making sure the words you choose and the images you create are universal may be something to take into consideration, as well.
24) The Waterfall
The cold black water rushed over the cliff, onto his dark curls, and taut chest. He moved slowly, carelessly wiping the soap across his sun-burnished body, and absently fondling his cock. He was startled to see her; staring, fingers deep in her cunt, and pleasure on her face.
This one got a lot of mention in the comments, too. So, it’ll be important to gauge what E.L. Byrne has done here. I’m surprised this piece scored so high with the errors…but that shows the judges are less concerned with grammar and focused more on the content. That could really help some writers out. Last year, there was a lot of conversation about the importance of punctuation, which got a few writers, readers, and judges pretty fired up on Twitter. This piece has three comma errors, a missing hyphen, and an incorrectly used semi-colon. But it is very successful in imagery and word choice (taut, sun-burnished), so I’m guessing that is why it was chosen. It is also very sexy, arguably the sexiest of all the “winners”…so there’s that. It manages to be both written well, aside from the punctuation, and creates a strong mental picture.
6) Drawing Room
The robe slides from her shoulders, a slow reveal of a ripe, lived-in body. Rounded, soft. A body she’s sharing with me. With us. Like Goya’s ‘Naked Maja’, she reclines on plump cushions. Smiling. Watching. I smile back and lift my charcoal to the paper on my easel.
This is another that was on my original top 10 list. The language is tight and poetic. The sounds of the first sentence – robe, reveal, ripe, slides, shoulders, slow – blend into the sounds of the second – Rounded – and the fourth – reclines. The images are beautiful and unique…her body is ripe and lived-in and I am provided a specific comparison to help me imagine it (Goya’s “Naked Maja”). There is a lot of action in this vignette (slides, reveal, sharing, reclines, smiling, watching, lift), which makes it strong. And I like the ripe, lived-in body that is rounded and soft against plump cushions. The imagery complimentary and creates a congruous piece that is also soft. The sentence structures are various, as well. Very tight writing…I can see why this one was selected.
All three of these pieces are very different, just like those that were selected by readers. All three were heavy on imagery…every sentence a mental picture. That may be important later. Specific, tight description seems to be a preference of these judges. Word choice may also play heavy. And all three pieces started with action…just like the pieces chosen by the readers:
He twisted the knife
he offered his hand to shake
He wanted to see her
A tight turn of landing at the top of the flats
The cold black water rushed over the cliff
The robe slides from her shoulders
The sexiest (in my opinion) of the winners were “Medusa” and “The Waterfall,” so it will be interesting to see if readers and judges continue to choose the more subtle smut over the more obvious. Last year, that was not usually the case, and it is why I struggled so much. My writing tends toward the subtle, as do my preferences in other people’s writing. Only two of the “winners” were even in my top 10, so I’d take my advice with a grain of salt. I am simply one reader in a sea (there were an astounding 158 votes…and that’s saying something considering the dedication it took to read, re-read, and read again before deciding).
#2 Know Your Craft/Medium
10 Suggestions for Writing Really Good Erotic Stories
1 – Imagery: don’t use too many metaphors or similes, just your strongest and most unique; consider the 5 senses, and make sure to create a mental picture for the reader with targeted description of the most important people, places, and things
2 – Sentence variety: play with different lengths; watch for run-ons; use short sentences or fragments sparingly and with purpose; start your sentences with different words (avoid pronouns and articles – a, an, the); try different structures (verb phrases first, noun phrases first, independent clauses connected by semi-colons, simple sentences, complex sentences)
3 – Word choice: avoid word/phrase repetition; don’t try too hard (it will be obvious if you over do it with the thesaurus or use too much alliteration – avoid purple prose); choose specific adjectives, and use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, yet purposefully; don’t overuse pronouns; be thoughtful about the language you use for anatomy (this can be tough in smut writing, but words like “dick” and “cunt” can be jarring unless they really fit your story and style…plus, it can be hard not to repeat them, and odd terms for penis and vagina can also be off-putting)
4 – Context: explain as much of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the story as your word count allows; create conflict at the heart of your story; follow the story arc if possible (scenes and vignettes can be successful, but whole stories are more satisfying for the reader…most of us like to know something of the before and after)
5 – Title: remember the title can be part of the story and can pull the whole thing together…or ruin it; the title can answer one of the 5 Ws/H that your story hasn’t…it can also announce the theme
6 – Emotion: humor can be great, if you are good at it; make your reader feel something about your characters – if we don’t care about them, we won’t care about your story; also, remember, it needs to be HOT, whatever that means to you – this is erotica, after all!
7 – Originality: avoid cliche like the plague…try to be unique and unexpected; when you are up against over a hundred other writers, your piece needs to stand out, and the only way it can do that is if it is creative and different; take a risk
8 – Character development: once again, if we don’t care about your characters, your story will not do as well as others – why are they?, why are they in this situation?, what has happened to them before?, what is their motivation?
9 – Opening/Closing: your first and last line are your most important…make them count; it’s also nice if the first and last line pull the story together in some way and make it feel complete (like strong book ends); last year someone suggested I start with the scene rather than a person, and I’ve also had the advice of starting with action
10 – Follow the prompt
#3 Trust Yourself
You’re the writer, after all. You’ve had the guts to sign up for this contest, and you know what you like about your own writing. Sometimes, there is nothing else to do but write what works for you. Bending and twisting yourself to an audience or a group of judges can backfire and ruin your writing in the process. Read the criticism and take it in stride. Take from it what you can, because, after all, part of this process is about learning to be a better writer and challenging yourself to grow. Last year, I kept a little post-it on my computer with a list of advice that I thought the most helpful, just so I’d keep it in mind while writing.
However, while it is important to consider what your readers want and to follow the prompt, it is also important that you are proud of your submissions. That way, even if the readers or judges don’t “like” it, you can still feel good about what you have pushed yourself to create. Write the best piece you can. Because, in the end, that’s really all any of us can do.
Related post: 6 Ways to Provide Writing Feedback
Other Smut Marathon related posts, including some of my pieces from last year: CLICK HERE