I don’t read romance books. It’s a genre I still identify with my mother, who had towers of Harlequin novels stacked all around the house. My childhood friends and I would be chucking balls at each other at Chuck E. Cheese while my mom sat in a corner, nose deep in Corset Ripper No. 4839.
For that reason, I never took the genre seriously, much less imagined myself ever writing it. But after flipping through Fifty Shades of Grey for a few agonizing minutes at a bookstore, I had the same thought millions of others had: “Hey, I can write this crap.” A few years later, I got my chance to test that theory.
I was searching for writing gigs when I came across a job listing for an erotic romance ghostwriter for an ebook publisher. I was already aware of these types of jobs, and normally they paid peanuts, but this particular company said promotional opportunities were available that could lead to more cash. And money aside, it also just looked really fun. Getting paid to write about rich jerks and their outlandish sexcapades? What else am I using my English degree for?
After submitting a lengthy application, I had a quick phone interview and was offered the job on the spot. I got started on my first assignment later that week.
The way that it worked was that writers took turns writing chapters. Each novel had about 30 chapters that were 1,500 words each. The novel was already plotted, and so each assignment came with a summary of what was supposed to happen in the chapter. Since everyone was a ghostwriter, we all worked together under a pen name.
Erotica, after all, is big business and it’s the highest-selling genre on Amazon.
Honestly, it was a brilliant system that was incredibly efficient. You could easily have a team of 20 people working together to finish one novel in a week. Watching it all come together, from plot outline to an edited finished manuscript, was amazing to witness.
Erotica, after all, is big business and it’s the highest-selling genre on Amazon. Successful authors can easily make a six-figure income writing niche stories you can’t walk into any bookstore and find, like interracial “virgin/billionaire” romances or fantasy MFM (male-female-male) ménages à trois. They sound ridiculous, but people who read these books aren’t looking for the next Donna Tartt, they’re looking to be entertained and to be turned on. They know what their hard-earned 99 cents will get them, which isn’t much.
Despite the genre’s reputation for attracting amateur authors who can’t spell, the ghostwriters I worked with were professionals with genuine talent. If anything, since chapters had to be turned in within 24 hours, the speed of the process forced everyone to submit below-average writing that didn’t showcase their true ability.
A lot of times when I signed up for what looked like a fun chapter, I found myself spending less time building the character or creating funny dialogue than just fulfilling the mandatory word count. It was agonizing to be stuck in the middle of a chapter only to realize I was running out of things to say. I would remedy this by annoyingly going inside the character’s head and writing a meandering monologue.
For example, a common theme in the novels were characters who had the hots for each other but couldn’t be together because of #reasons. What ended up happening was that I would spend entire chapters thinking of dozens of different ways to basically say, “Don’t date him, girl! But that dick, though...”
As a non-erotica writer, I was cautious and nervous at first, but it got easier as I went along.
But sexual tension and buildup only made up half the book. Once the female protagonist and her love interest went through some perience together, it went straight to the sex.
As a non-erotica writer, I was cautious and nervous at first, but it got easier as I went along. The key was to get the tone right, which was usually something along the lines of, “I’m a confident, hot woman who’s not afraid to have sex in this locker room!”
Expletive-ridden exclamations were heavily used by everyone to a comical degree. Every chapter was peppered with “Holy sh-t!” and “Holy f―k!” I found it jarring at first, but once I started writing sex scenes, I realized it was easy to use them as a tonal crutch.
Since each chapter was written in first-person present tense, I lazily relied on these emotional bouts of stream of consciousness to get the reader to imagine herself in the protagonist’s shoes. For example, “He unbuttons his pants, and holy sh-t! He’s so huge! But f―k, he’s my boss!” It was superficial and sounded super trashy, but anything sexy or sensual seemed “off brand,” so I didn’t even try.
Honestly, it was all amusing at first, but after working on a few books, the novelty quickly wore off. Sometimes I would get stuck with a chapter whose only description was “Shower sex!” and I would have to figure out a way to write 1,500 words of that.
When writing an anal sex scene between a king and a princess, I found myself growing irritated over plot holes. Where would one find lube in this ye olde medieval kingdom? If it’s the princess’ first time, she definitely would not be “cumming buckets.”
There were also the types of characters I was forced to write about. Before starting each novel, the editor would send us a character summary. The main male protagonist was always some guy who looked like Liam Hemsworth and who was a rich jerk who was “misunderstood.” The female protagonist was always a blonde girl-next-door type who was a confident businesswoman who would gladly ruin her reputation and throw her whole life away for a 12-incher.
The underlying theme was always that successful women needed to walk away from their accomplishments if they wanted a man, and the book always ended with the woman pregnant, at home, and now completely reliant on an overgrown manchild who had been banging strippers literally just 20 chapters ago.
Why are you wasting your time writing garbage when you could be working on your real writing?” my boyfriend asked me.
But probably the tipping point of awfulness was when I was asked to work on a novel that was a little taboo. “Pseudo-incest stories are selling really well right now,” my editor told me. The assignment was a novel about hot, hot sex between a 19-year-old virgin and her bad boy stepdaddy. And before you vomit in your mouth a little, the topic is actually quite common within erotica circles, and you can currently find dozens of such offerings on Amazon.
I accepted the assignment anyway, but it was a new low for me. Unlike the other books I worked on that had a conventional plot structure of girl-meets-guy, girl-and-guy-have-sexual-tension, and girl-and-guy-have-sex-and-live-happily-ever-after, the pseudo-incest book was just graphic sex from beginning to end. Because I signed a nondisclosure agreement, I unfortunately can’t go more into detail about this, but whatever you’re imagining, that’s exactly what it was... times a hundred.
After the stepdad book, my loved ones grew concerned.
“Why are you wasting your time writing garbage when you could be working on your real writing?” my boyfriend asked me while I pounded through yet-another shower sex scene at 1 in the morning.
He had a point. I didn’t love erotica, had a naive assumption of how “easy” it would be, and was quickly realizing that it was slowly eating my soul. There was also barely any money in it to warrant staying. Why continue if it wasn’t nearly as fun as I assumed it would be? And so just like that, after about four months of work, I quit — well, I stopped answering my editor’s emails.
If I learned anything from the experience, other than new fetishes I never knew existed, it’s that fiction can be a business like any other medium. I know many people might balk at the harsh reality of “ghostwriters,” but the fantasy of the sole writer toiling away over their “art” isn’t always realistic.
It’s classic supply and demand economics. Women want to read smut and they’ll pay a few cents to do it. Besides, there’s an unlimited amount of desperate writers who are more than willing to try their hand being the next E.L. James. I just hope they’re ready for all the shower sex.