I am going to be reading my erotica in a couple weeks at Leather, Lace, and Lust, an event curated by M. Christian and held at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. I have a lot of experience doing live erotica readings, as well as a bunch of other experience doing public speaking and performance. Erotica readings feel like a different culture from the other kinds of readings I have been to and read at. As I select a piece to read for the event I have coming up, I’ve been thinking about my approach to doing erotica readings, and thought it might be worth sharing here.
How long should my piece be?
Ask how much time you have. I generally have been asked to read for 7 minute slots, occasionally 10 minute slots. Sometimes I only have 5 minutes, though that is rather short. I have found 5 minutes to be approximately 2.5 pages double spaced 12pt font, and approximately 700 words. It partly depends on your pace while reading, so I suggest practicing, and timing yourself, and leaving yourself a whole minute unaccounted for as you will likely read more slowly when you are up there. (I know I do!). With a 5 minute slot, there are a likely a lot of readers and you don’t want to step on their time. With a 10 minute slot, you are likely one of 5-6 people, so you have a bit less to worry about.
Do I read a piece with dialogue or not?
I generally don’t read a lot of back and forth dialogue. I find it awkward to read more than one voice outside of a really performative show, and erotica readings don’t tend that performative. Also, I generally have less time to prepare for them and doing voices takes time. However, as my work tends towards first person and often only one person dirty talking, I do try to include some of that dirty talking.
What kind of piece do I pick?
Here is where my particular POV comes in. I think folks come to erotica readings to have an erotic experience (often with their date, with the reading as a facilitator). It’s important to me to deliver an erotic experience, whatever other agenda I have. So, I try to find an excerpt with a satisfying narrative arc, and read the whole thing. (I sometimes have to do a bunch of editing to get a satisfying arc within the timeframe, but I find it really worth my while to do so.)
Lots of folks make a very different decision, and read an early chunk of their work, leaving off on an erotic cliffhanger. I don’t enjoy that as a listener. It doesn’t make me want to read your book. It actually makes me not want to read it, because it feels like a tease and denial game that ends on denial. I would prefer a full narrative arc, even if it doesn’t include much sexy stuff, that’s what makes me feel good as a listener.
So, given my experience as a reader and my choice to embrace the fact that folks go to erotica readings to have an erotic experience, I choose a piece that has a satisfying narrative arc, including an orgasm. I focus on reading the dirty parts (though for me that often is much of the story–I reveal the characters and conflicts through the sex and BDSM, not beforehand). I think it’s part of what people come to erotica readings for, and I want to deliver.
That said, I’ve spent many years doing community sex and kink education that includes a demonstration, have lots of experience having public sex and doing kink in public, and so may generally be less uncomfortable than many writers doing what I think of as erotic performance. I will say that I’ve heard folks read the dirty parts and sound embarrassed, or fumble the words repeatedly, or stammer multiple times, or generally not get into it and read it woodenly, and if you think that’s likely for you, I’d suggest not reading parts that will cause that reaction. That’s the worst, really, as far as reading goes, for me as a listener.
I also am invested in reading something that feels new to the listeners, so I often come with a few pieces, or do my research and pick something that is likely to be a new sexual perspective. (For me that can mean making sure I read heavier BDSM because I’m likely to be the only one, or be sure to read gay erotica because I’m likely to be the only one, but I think the principle can translate.) Part of doing my research means getting more information about my fellow readers ahead of time. For folks new to erotic readings, it’s important to note that this usually includes all the folks hosting or curating the reading.
I also think it’s important to read something that can stand on it’s own. I hate listening to folks give a bunch of backstory before they read. I never follow it, and it just feels like nervous avoidance to me, which is a big turn off and leads to me tuning them out. I also generally pick pieces that feel really finished to me, not works in progress, as otherwise I’m more likely to fumble words or get distracted.
How do I do the actual reading part?
When I’ve heard folks read well, it’s been mostly about eye contact and pacing, which I think practice can get you to if you attend to those things as you practice. That, and choosing a piece that you are comfortable reading. Practice is the best answer, and ideally practice in front of people as well as on your own. I often read each piece I am preparing to read aloud at least 5 times in the week or two prior to the reading, which also helps me cut down to the time I need.
It may be important to think carefully about when you are reading in the lineup, if you get a say in that, and even if you don’t. Is the first slot going to be good because you get to start off with a bang or will be less nervous? Is your work ill-suited to being first because of the content? Do you want to close the show? Is there someone you should or should not follow?
I’ve learned that my erotica is better received later in the lineup. Folks generally need a warm up. I’m often asked to read first both because folks know I’m comfortable doing it, and I’m known for being punctual. That said, reading later in the lineup may mean that I’m distracted by earlier readings, so I need to be careful about that as I’m listening. I do try to attend to other readers, or at least appear as though I am attending. I feel that’s part of showing respect for your colleagues. Similarly, I generally plan on staying for the whole thing (or I apologize if I cannot).
If you are using a mic (and you likely will be) it can be helpful to ask for audience feedback about volume before beginning. (especially if you have little experience with mics).
A note about bios
I have found that a traditional print bio (especially one listing publications) doesn’t translate well to being read by another person as an introduction, so I recommend writing a bio that reads aloud well and ideally gives a picture of you as a person and writer. I recommend bringing a copy of your bio in case the person doing the introductions doesn’t have it with them. Here is the bio I am currently using for readings:
Xan West refuses pronouns, twists barbed wire together with yearning, and tilts pain in many directions to catch the light. Xan adores vulnerable tops, strong supportive bottoms, queer activist communities, red meat, and cool, dark, quiet rooms with comfortable beds. XanWest.Wordpress.com
There is a reason I start my bio the way I do, and it’s not just because it’s true and personal. As a trans writer who does not use pronouns in bios or promotion of my erotica, I want to mention how sticky that can be at a reading. Most folks are not practiced enough to avoid pronouns when introducing someone. I do use pronouns in my life, and getting mispronouned is a pretty common (and awful) experience for me. There is something particularly challenging about having the person curating mispronoun me right before I’m going to read my erotica. It can be really distracting, and up my own sense of vulnerability, which can make it harder to read stuff close to my heart.
So, I start my bio by declaring my refusal of pronouns, and also have begun to make a point of introducing myself to the person/people curating the reading and telling them that I don’t use pronouns, and just to use my first name instead, or to use “they” if they really need to use a pronoun. Then I pronounce my name for them, a couple of times, so they are just a bit more likely to both pronounce it right and avoid pronouns.
Other Practical Nuts and Bolts
I try to read from an actual physical book if I can, because folks often have a romantic notion about reading, but I am also likely to read from paper if I’ve done a lot of editing to get the time right. I’ve seen folks pull off reading from phones or tablets but it’s rare that it’s not awkward, in my opinion.
I generally introduce my work by saying the name of the piece and where it can be found if it is available. I try to read things that folks can then go buy either from me right there or at an online or brick and mortar bookseller. But I am sometimes content to read something that is the best fit even if it is not yet published. I have begun including a short content warning before beginning. This is my own personal choice, reflective of my own politics, and is not normative for erotica readings. I am usually the only person who does it. It is often received by chuckles that sound both welcoming and sometimes tend toward enthusiastic. I have found that it helps build rapport with the audience. My introduction of a piece will generally go something like this:
“I’m reading an excerpt from “Missing Daddy”, which was recently reprinted in Best Gay Erotica 2013. As a heads up, it contains descriptions of intense pain play and Daddy/boy D/s dynamics.”
I generally arrive 30 minutes early so I can be sure to not be late and get the seat I need, have time to use the bathroom, greet people and build rapport with the audience, etc. This is part of my early training as a performer and particularly as an educator, especially when going to an unknown venue. There are likely to be surprises, things you had not anticipated. I find extra time helps me be more calm when I’m up there.
In summary, I would say the following things are particularly important:
- picking the right piece to read
So there you have it, a bunch of my advice and opinions about doing erotica readings. Please feel free to ask specific questions in the comments or email them to me at praxisproductions at gmail dot com.