Poison Pens Writing Guide
Poison Pen's Guide for Amateur Writers of Erotica (v 1.0)
by Andrew Nellis, aka the Poison Pen
There is a perception that writing short stories, particularly erotic
stories, requires little or no effort. While this is perhaps literally
true, the same could be said for erotic artwork -- yet few of us would
dare to publicly display a poorly executed drawing.
With the explosion of narrowly-targetted sexual interest groups on the
Internet, there has been an equal growth in the production of amateur
erotic fiction to feed that interest. Many of these stories are as
well or even better written than anything available from the commercial
markets. All too often, however, such work stumbles into one of the
pitfalls common to most novice writers. This guide is not intended
for those with a professional interest, who have probably already
discovered and overcome such pitfalls. Rather, this is for the use
of the amateur, who likely has little interest in being professionally
published, but who wishes to contribute to the body of work available
in his or her particular genre.
Spelling and Grammar:
One of the main criticisms with most novice writers is a disregard for
the proper spelling and grammar. Yes, writing is a creative enterprise,
but before you break the rules, you should at least know what they are.
Nothing will draw a reader back out of a story faster than a glaring
spelling or grammatical error. Learn the basics first. Invest in a
good dictionary and thesaurus, the paper kind. And not one of those
little pocket editions either.
Learn to use quotation marks properly. Dialogue is a crucial element
in most fiction, and deserves correct treatment. "Remember," he said,
"that closing quotation marks go on the outside of the punctuation,
not the inside."
Always use proper paragraphing! Paragraphs are NOT optional! It is
extremely difficult to read a story which is simply one huge block of
text. Not only is it hard to scan, but the lack of paragraphing
creates confusion for the reader. Each paragraph in a story is a
series of related thoughts; every sentence in a paragraph should
relate to a single subject. If there is a new idea, begin a new
Dialogue should be separated by paragraphs. Each time a different
character speaks, this should start a new paragraph, even if it is
only a single word.
Pronouns should be avoided in the first sentence of every paragraph
when making reference to a person, place, or thing for the first time
in that sentence. Use the full name of each person, place, or thing
being referred to. Not only is this grammatically correct, but it
helps to avoid confusion.
Punctuation is your friend. It helps the flow of the words in the
reader's mind, and it helps make the meanings clearer. Too much
punctuation, however, is as bad as too little. Some of the most
common errors made with punctuation are outlined below.
Commas should be used to indicate a very brief pause in the flow
of a sentence, and are normally used to link two related, incomplete
thoughts (that is, to separate clauses in a complex sentence), to
separate a list of items, or to separate adjectives and adverbs when
there is more than one. Use commas sparingly. If there is any
question as to its appropriateness in a given case, it is probably
better not to use it. Too many commas can draw the reader's attention
away and make a sentence difficult to scan.
Punctuation [semi-colons, colons, periods]:
Colons and semi-colons are vastly underused in most amateur fiction,
when they could be used to great advantage. Do not be intimidated by
them; their function is not a mystery, nor difficult to grasp. Colons
and semi-colons are used to represent pauses in flow much the same way
commas are used. A semi-colon (the ";" symbol) is a pause of "two
beats," or about twice as long as you would pause for a comma. A colon
(the ":" symbol) is a pause of "three beats," or about three times as
long as you would pause for a comma.
Periods, also known as "full stops," represent a complete halt in the
flow of a sentence, and are used to indicate the completion of a
Punctuation [elipses and elides]:
The elipse is possibly the single most overused punctuation mark by
amateur (and many professional!) writers. The elipse is represented
by three periods (or "pips") in a row ("..."). It is NEVER less than
three or more than three. It is ALWAYS three.
An elipse is used to indicate an incomplete thought, and takes the
place of a period. It should NEVER be used to represent a pause! If
you wish to indicate a pause, a comma, semi-colon, or colon should be
used instead. Generally, gramatically complete sentences should not
end in an elipse. Only sentence fragments (those sentences which do
not possess a subject, verb, and object) should end in an elipse.
Punctuation [question marks and exclamation marks]:
After the elipse, the question mark and exclamation mark are the most
overused punctuation. It is almost never appropriate to use more than
one exclamation mark, and it is NEVER appropriate to use more than one
question mark. If you find yourself inclined to use more than a
single exclamation mark, try describing the loudness of the sound
instead; it will likely make for a better story.
When writing a rhetorical question in dialogue, it can be effective to
avoid using the question mark. This nuance should indicate to the
reader that the speaker is not actually asking a question, but is
making a statement in the form of a question.
The apostrophe (the ' symbol) is used to show possessiveness or that
a word has been concatenated. It is NEVER used to show that a word
is plural! If one wishes to show possessiveness in a word which ends
in an "s" then one adds an apostrophe, by itself, after the last
letter. For example, to indicate that something belongs to Jess, one
would use Jess'.
In a concatenated word, the apostrophe takes the place of the missing
letter in the word. So, for example, "do not" becomes "don't."
There are certain exceptions, the most important as follows.
"Its" is used to show possessiveness. "It's" is a concatenation of
The possessive form of "her" is "hers."
The first thing you'll have to decide when writing a story is which
perspective the story will be told from. For the beginner it is
best to avoid the potentially risky literary trick of switching
perspectives part-way through the story. The three major perspectives
from which a story can be told are listed below.
Perspective [first person]:
In a story which uses the first person perspective, a narrator
describes the action for us in his or her own voice. This can be
a very effective technique when used well, but often reads like
"What I Did On My Summer Vacation" if it is done badly.
Remember first that the narrator cannot describe what he or she did
not witness or is not aware of. This is one of the weaknesses of the
first person perspective. For this reason, it is recommended that
beginners avoid the first person and stick to third person. If you
are going to use first person, one tool which can be useful for
avoiding this problem is telling the story in the first person from
the perspective of more than one character, switching between
characters as required.
In particular, avoid falling into the trap of beginning every sentence
or paragraph with "Then I did this." If your story is nothing more
than a laundry list of the narrator's actions, it would be much better
to use third person.
Perspective [second person]:
In a story which uses the second person perspective, the story tells
the reader what he or she did or is doing. "You did this, and then
you did that," would be an example of second person perspective. It
is with good reason that this is not an often-used perspective, since
it requires considerable skill to keep it from sounding clunky and
awkward. It is highly recommended that the beginner avoid using this
There is a definite role for the second person perspective in erotic
writing, however. Since the purpose of erotic writing is to sexually
engage the reader, and since the easiest way to do this is to draw the
reader into the role of participant within the story, second person
enjoys a usefulness in the genre that it does not in most others. Be
wary of overusing this tool, since its effectiveness diminishes with
Perspective [third person]:
Third person is the most common perspective used in stories, and is
the easiest for a novice to master.
The most usual variation of the third person is known as "third person
omniscient." With this perspective, the author writes from the
effective perspective of God, able to look into each character's head
and read his or her thoughts, moving from place to place and character
to character with infinite speed. One weakness of this variation is
that it removes the ability of the author to lie to the reader. Since
the perspective is omniscient, all the statements made in the "voice
of God" must be absolutely true. It is difficult, though not
impossible, to maintain secrecy from the reader; this must be done by
omission, and it must be done cleverly or the reader will become
suspicious and any surprise or tension will be lost.
A second variation is the "third person semi-omniscient." In this
case, while the author writes from the effective perspective of God,
it is with limitations. For example, the thoughts and motives of the
characters may not be available by the author. This perspective can
be useful when trying to maintain some mystery in a story, since it
allows characters to hide things from the readers without drawing
attention to it.
The other major variation of third person involves a fallible, non-
omniscient perspective. Using this voice, the author can actually
state deliberate lies to actively fool the reader. For example, to
keep the gender of a character a mystery, the author may refer to a
"him" as a "her" and vice versa, until this subterfuge becomes known
by the characters in the story. This can be a difficult perspective
to use, and it is recommended that the novice avoid it.
One of the most common mistakes of amateur writers is confusion of
tenses. Make absolutely certain that you use the same tense all the
way through. If your story is told in past tense, it should remain in
the past tense. An experienced author may be able to get away with
breaking this "rule" as a stylistic flair or literary tool, but this
requires a great deal of expertise and should be avoided by anyone who
lacks extensive experience.
For the beginner, past tense is the best option. It is easiest to
master, and is familiar to all readers. Having already happened, it
allows the author to shift backward and forward in time as required to
tell the story.
Present tense can be an extremely effective tool when used right,
since it drops the reader right into the action, and gives the story
a sense of immediacy, particularly when combined with first or second
person. This is a difficult ploy to use, however, as it requires a
great deal of skill to maintain proper pacing and flow. It should
absolutely be avoided by the novice. This is NOT a tool for the
beginner to use, and in the wrong hands can make a story painfully
While I have never seen a story written in the future tense, it is at
least theoretically possible. Such a story would require incredible
skill to write properly, and would always be awkward for the reader.
Do not use the future tense.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to style, since every author
will eventually develop his or her own. This section will lay out a
few of the more basic elements of style, and point out a few of the
most common stylistic mistakes made by novices.
Describing the appearance of a character as if he or she was being
written up in a police report is a common mistake. There are far
better ways of telling readers what a character looks like than giving
them a rundown of height, weight, build and hair colour all at once on
first introducing them. One method many writers use is to have the
character look into a mirror at some point, describing what the
One of the major tenets of fiction writing is: "Show me, don't tell
me." By this, what is meant is rather than baldly stating a fact
within a story, the fact should be shown to the reader through the
actions or dialogue of the characters. For example, rather than
stating that a character is rude, it is better to have the character
ACT rude and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
This can also apply to physical descriptions of characters; instead
of telling the readers that a character is physically attractive,
try having other characters within the story react to that character
in a way that tells the reader the same thing. Your story will read
and feel more natural.
Character histories should be handled in a similar way. Rather than
simply informing the reader of a character's background, allow it to
be revealed a bit at a time throughout the course of the story. This
will heighten reader interest, and bestow a hint of mystery.
Erotica Versus Pornography:
Erotica is not pornography, though it can contain pornography. The
primary difference is that the single purpose of pornography is to
sexually arouse the reader, period. There is not much of a plotline,
if any, and there is no character development. Erotica, on the other
hand, tends to have a genuine story, which helps to emphasize the
erotic elements. There may be character development through the
course of the story, and there is a much greater emphasis on the
thoughts and emotions of the characters. Make sure you know which of
these you are writing before you start.
Remember that first and foremost, a story must be a good read. We
read Homer's Iliad thousands of years later because it's a great
story, not because it was a paragon of style, or sent the right moral
message. All the clever wordplay in the world won't help you if you
don't have a story which will capture the reader's imagination. And,
vice versa, if you can capture the reader's imagination, a whole host
of literary sins can be forgiven.
The temptation is to get right into the "good bits" and forget about
the rest as unimportant. You will find, though, that the story which
surrounds the "good bits" can help to heighten the eroticism. This
also allows the sexual tension in the story to build, resulting in a
more viscerally powerful experience for the reader when the "good
bits" finally arrive.
Write what you know. If you write about things unfamiliar to you, it
will show. There are plenty of things in everyone's life which will
seem strange and exotic to others. Just because it's old hat to you
doesn't mean it's of no interest to anyone else. If you work in a
bank, for example, the day to day activities which seem so ordinary to
you will be a fascinating glimpse into something mysterious for
everyone else. If your hobby is model trains, including accurate,
detailed descriptions of locomotives in a story can add an air of
If you absolutely must write about something with which you have no
experience, do not stint on the research. Learn more about it than
you think you could possibly use. If you don't, your lack of
knowledge will make those who know better justifiably furious, and
your lack of confidence will bleed through into your writing.
As a last resort, if you're going to try and bluff the reader, do it
with as much confidence as you can muster. State things with absolute
assurance, even if you know it to be false. A reader may forgive you
for flubbing a detail, but he or she will NEVER forgive you for
destroying the suspension of disbelief with hesitancy.
If you're going to swear, swear. Do not play little games like
replacing a few letters with dashes or symbols. This will only draw
the reader out of the story, and really isn't fooling anyone. Each
writer will have his or her own style, which may or may not include
regular use of profanity. Be aware that if you do not use profanity
regularly in your stories, when it is used, it will have much more
Decide before you start writing how explicit you want your story to
be, and maintain that level of explicitness throughout. This is
especially important in erotica, where explicitness makes up such an
important part of the story.
The most arousing stories do not contain anatomically detailed
descriptions of "tab-A into slot-B." Rather, they draw the reader
into the story, and then allow the reader to paint a picture for him-
or herself. The reader will always be able to manufacture a more
detailed and more erotic picture that you can describe, and the trick
is to make the reader see this picture without painting it for him or
her. There is no simple way to do this. Doing this right will
require a lot of practice and a lot of skill.
When writing sexually explicit material, avoid euphemisms. Calling a
penis a "throbbing gearshift of love" is not going to arouse anything
but laughter. It is perfectly acceptable to use words like "cock" or
"cunt" when writing erotica, but if you do, use these words throughout
the story. Don't suddenly switch to medically accurate terms like
"penis" or "vagina." Likewise, if you use medically accurate terms,
don't switch to colloquialisms part-way through. You want to avoid
doing anything that will jar the reader and remind him or her that
they are reading a story.
There is no easier way to lose your reader than to make a hilarious
anatomical mistake. The clitoris is on the top, not the bottom.
Women do not exude "sperm." Men cannot ejaculate fifteen times in a
row, and the amount of semen involved is measured in teaspoons, not
gallons. All of these mistakes, believe it or not, I have seen made
in stories by amateur writers.
When writing about sex, either draw from your personal experience, or
study reports published by reputable sex researchers like Masters and
Johnson. Try, when possible, to avoid cliches. Not all women are
lesbians, and not all men have a nine inch penis.
Target Your Audience:
Most erotic fiction written by amateurs is for themselves first and
their audience second. There is nothing wrong with this, and if this
is the case, feel free to write your story while sexually aroused.
If, however, you are writing for your readers, it is a good idea NOT
to be sexually aroused when you're writing. After all, you want to
write a story which will arouse other people, and not necessarily
yourself. Your own personal turn-ons might well excite others, but a
clinical detachment and thorough knowledge of the sexual proclivities
of your target audience will be far more effective at accomplishing
Finish what you start. If you find that you are only inspired to
write when you are sexually aroused and you can't complete the story
before needing (ahem) gratification, then write the story over a
number of sessions.
Unless your story is novella-sized or larger and each chapter can
stand alone as a story unto itself, try to avoid releasing it in
parts. Wait until you have completed the whole thing to release it.
Your readers will thank you for it, and more people will be likely
to read it. Collecting chapters over the course of several weeks or
months can be frustrating, especially when so few amateur writers
seem willing to devote the time and effort necessary to complete what
they start. For this reason, many people will give your story a pass
if it's not whole and complete on its own.
When publishing over the Internet, whether by website or newsgroup,
ALWAYS use plain ASCII text. Formats such as HTML, Word Perfect
documents, or RTF may make your work look pretty, but it will also
alienate a portion of your potential readership. The only format
which is even close to universal is plain, 7-bit ASCII. If you wish,
you may also provide your story in other more attractive forms, but
an ASCII version should also be available.
A story will live or die on its merit as a story. Not even the most
attractive packaging will save a poorly written story.
There are a number of reasons why you may wish to use a pen name when
writing a story, particularly erotica. For one thing, you never know
who will read your story: a parent, a teacher, a boss. While writing
erotica is not a shameful thing, not everyone agrees with that, and by
using a pen name, you avoid the risk of the wrong person seeing it.
While my real name of Andrew Nellis is freely available, I prefer to
use a nom de plume so that my real name does not become associated with
stories that may damage my reputation as a "serious" author. Years
down the road, I need not worry about being haunted by something I
wrote early in my career, since few people will recall that Poison Pen
Another reason to use a pen name is to make yourself more memorable to
readers. A catchy name will stick out, and people will remember you
the next time you write a story, allowing you to build a body of fans.
Unfortunately, one good reason to use a pen name is the spectre of
censorship. Many of us live in countries with repressive laws which
attempt to control what we are allowed to think and read. Hiding your
true identity may be a necessity to avoid prosecution, persecution, or
even, in some countries, execution.
Expect criticism. Often your story will be completely accepted by its
readership, and when this happens you can sit back and bask in the
glory of your accomplishment. From time to time, however, you will
receive less than flattering reviews. Do not become angry or
discouraged by this. Even the finest writers who have ever lived
receive criticism. Anyone who displays the fruits of his or her muse
to the public must be willing to accept the brickbats with the
accolades. If you can't handle criticism, even and especially vicious
criticism, then you have no business displaying your stories to the
When you do receive a bad review, read it with an open mind and ask
yourself if there might not be something useful in it. Remember that
even the nastiest, most brutal review of your story reveals that the
person writing it had at least some interest in your story, or this
person would not have even bothered to read it, much less take the
time to comment on it.
Never take criticism too seriously. You will never please everyone,
and trying to do so will only damage your work. Remember the old
adage: "Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, criticize."
This document is intended as a public service for novice writers of
erotica, and may be freely archived and distributed, providing that it
is not sold for profit, nor altered in any way. Over time, I hope
that this guide will evolve, hence the version number. Most notably,
I will be soliciting and incorporating tips from other experienced
writers of erotica.
Like all other writers, I enjoy hearing from people who have enjoyed
or made use of my work. If this guide has been useful to you, I would
love to hear it.
Send your e-mail comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org