As an author of erotic romance, the title of my piece might come as a surprise to the uninitiated. They’ll argue, ‘of course sex sells’. Sex has been an important and much-used marketing tool throughout the decades. Put a voluptuous model next to a new car at a trade show and an audience will gather. Use provocative photos—like Abercrombie & Fitch is prone to do—in advertisements, and a product will get noticed. Even the most naïve among us knows that.
However, will the underlying product satisfy?
There’s the rub. Too often those who want to write erotic romance (and those who criticize it), believe that it’s all about the sex. Trust me, it’s not. (Note: please don’t confuse erotic romance with erotica, which is generally about sex and nothing but. I’m talking about erotic romance here). The important thing in any romance is the actual love story between the lovers whether it’s male/female, male/female/male, male/male or whatever combination the author chooses.
It’s the connection between the people that ultimately sells an erotic romance novel. The sex is a very small part of it.
I learned that early on while I was reading the genre. The best stories…the ones that pulled me into the plot, made me root for the lovers, cry for them, bleed with them…always had a very good reason for the sex. It was the proverbial icing on the cake or the cherry at the top of the sundae.
I found the other books, the ones that were heavy on sex and short on deep POV, plot or motivation, quickly forgettable. They truly were like a porn film. Shocking (if you’re new to the genre), somewhat titillating, but ultimately unsatisfying leaving you hungering for more.
That more is relationship, genuine intimacy, the wonder lovers see in each other’s eyes and feel in each other’s arms while also battling conflict, the external and internal odds that are there to keep them apart. That’s what makes readers turn the pages as quickly as they can to see what happens next. It’s definitely not the sex.
When I began to write erotic romance, I wanted my brand to state simply and eloquently what I was trying to accomplish with my stories. After much thought, I settled on ‘Heat with Heart’. To me, that says it so well. My erotic romances do have a lot of steamy sex, but there’s always a reason for it within the tale.
Take for example Illicit Desire, Book Two of my Outlawed Realm series, which combines romance with paranormal and a bit of sci-fi. In it, Lukan and Arez, are pleasure slaves on E4, the fourth dimension of earth (in the series, there are five dimensions or realms). Arez and Lukan were created for one purpose—to serve their masters in whatever carnal way possible. They’ve known no home, parents, hope, freedom, only endless servitude with harsh punishment for any display of disobedience, including withholding of food and death by being hunted in the jungle. Even in such a harsh existence, love blossoms. Unknowing to the rulers who own them, Lukan and Arez have bonded as a man and woman who cannot live without the other. When Lukan escapes the Pleasure Palace his only desire is to rescue Arez. To give her freedom she deserves as a human being. To bring her to the outside world she doesn’t even know exists. Her entire life, like those of the other pleasure slaves, has been lived entirely in the palace.
Their tale has lots of sex that’s steamy, arousing, titillating. The kind that makes you drool and murmur, ‘oh yeah’. However, beneath it is always Lukan and Arez’s unquenchable need for each other. Their bond. Their desire for something more. Romantic Times gave Illicit Desire four stars and wrote in their review: “It’s a rare treat to find an oft-used trope crafted into such a touching, sensual page-turner. A meticulously detailed realm of subhumans, werewolves and genetically enhanced sex slaves provides the backdrop for an intense story of identity, desire and freedom. Peril and sexual exploration are well balanced with insight, making for a reading experience as thought-provoking as it is exciting.”
‘Heat with Heart’.
In each of my stories, I use mainstream elements to enrich the tales and the sex. In Unending Desire, Book One of my Outlawed Realm series, I explored a totalitarian government (E2) that outlaws emotions, love, the messiness of feelings. For Nikoli, my hero, that’s not living, it’s existing, especially after he sees Regina who lives in Seattle or E1 as he calls it. A dimension where emotions rule. Yes, there are conflicts, wars, what seems to be endless misery. But there’s also indescribable joy. The pleasure of a man craving a woman so deeply he’ll become a traitor to his own realm to have her, to experience that carnal and emotional joy.
That is taking a plot beyond the sex. It’s giving it a reason for being included in a story. I never have my characters jumping into bed for no good reason. After writing countless sex scenes, I’m certain I could make the carnal moments sensual as hell, downright drool-worthy, perhaps even shocking. But I’d never be able to make them gratifying. There has to be a connection between the participants, a spark of intimacy before the sex truly becomes pleasurable and memorable. You can do that with a look, an unexpected touch, a smile or even a few words that connects the characters in a way that paves the story for their future romance.
I’ve done it countless times, most recently with Illicit Intent(ménage), Book Three of my Appointment with Pleasure series. It’s Piper’s birthday. She’s a full-figured gal who’s just turned thirty. Piper doesn’t consider herself beautiful or sexy. Her long-time boyfriend just dumped her. Let’s face it, she’s pretty down. Her BFF hires two escorts, Guy and Joel, to spice up her night. They certainly do, but not only with sex. The three of them have an immediate connection…they like each other as human beings. We’ve all experienced a moment of meeting someone for the first time and feeling as if we’ve known them forever. You simply click with them. That happens with Piper and her men. Their budding friendship turns to something far more that enriches the sex, making their intimate moments that much sweeter.
The next time you finish an erotic romance, think about what stays with you. Was it the wild sex or the private smile the lovers gave to each other? Was it the voyeurism, BDSM, the hot-and-heavy bed play that you recall? Or was it the moment when the lovers knew they were meant for each other? When a touch became more than that, it grew into their reason for living where they’ll risk everything to be with the person they love.
That’s what really sells and brings readers back for more.
Tina Donahue is an award-winning, bestselling novelist in erotic, paranormal, contemporary and historical romance for Samhain Publishing, Ellora’s Cave, and Kensington. Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, Romantic Times and numerous online sites have praised her work. Three of her erotic romances (Adored, Lush Velvet Nights, and Deep, Dark, Delicious) were named finalists in the 2011 EPIC competition. The French review site, Blue Moon reviews, chose her erotic romance Sensual Stranger as their Book of the Year 2010 (erotic category). The Golden Nib Award at Miz Love Loves Books was created specifically for Lush Velvet Nights, and two of her titles (The Yearning and Deep, Dark, Delicious) received an Award of Merit in the RWA Holt Medallion competition (2011 and 2012). Take Me Away and Adored both won second place in the NEC RWA contest (different years). Tina is featured in the 2012 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. She was the editor of an award–winning Midwestern newspaper and worked in Story Direction for a Hollywood production company.