I’m excited to have USA Today bestselling author, Sierra Cartwright, as my latest participant (victim?) in my blog feature, The Art of Writing Erotic Romance. I discovered Sierra’s books a few years ago. She’s one of my “one-click” authors as I know her books will always be romantic and steamy. Sierra’s characters are well crafted, and the plots are believable and compelling. And then there are her Doms. They’re sexy as hell, both with their hands (and other body parts) and minds. Sierra gets the importance of good dialogue and inner thought when writing a BDSM scene. That’s what keeps me turning the pages and panting for more.
Author Sierra Cartwright
When Sierra agreed to participate in an interview with me, I was very excited. I’m fairly new in my writing journey, so to peek into her mind and see how she approaches her writing is a true treat for me. Sierra’s written over forty novels. Her most recent series is The Donovan Dynasty, with the latest book, Boss, having been released in February. If you haven’t read this book, go acquaint yourself with Nathan. Now. <fans self>
Sierra, tell us a little about yourself. I know you were born in Manchester, so I’m curious what brought you across the pond?
I’ll never forget my first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty as we flew across the Atlantic Ocean. And then…the staggering disappointment as we landed in Denver and were met by a car and not a horse-drawn wagon. There were televisions, too! And strange, strange tasting chocolate. That I will never forget!
My Dad was bit by wanderlust. Even as a youngster, he had ambitions that couldn’t be contained by the British Isles. He applied for jobs all over, and he was offered several in America. I think it might have been a pin on a map that made Denver the final destination place! He arrived in this country with $72 in his pocket. Six months later, he sent for my mum, my sis, and I.
Even now, when most people are slowing down and retiring, my Dad just bought an RV and a boat. He plans to live on the boat. Later this year, he’s going to crew a yacht headed for Mexico.
I think it’s fair to say I inherited a fair amount of his blood. About two years ago, I went to Galveston to celebrate my birthday. While I was there, I signed a lease and called my employer to tell them I wasn’t coming back. Yep. I took a leap and packed in my full-time job.
You’ve written four successful and award-winning series. Can you talk a little bit about Hawkeye, Mastered, Bonds, and The Donovan Dynasty?
I love developing a series. With continuity issues, they can be a challenge to write, but it’s fun to stay in the same world for a long time.
The first series I wrote was Hawkeye. Back in the day, I wrote for Harlequin/Silhouette. With a co-author, I wrote romantic suspense for the Intrigue line. Suspense has always been a love for me, and combining suspense and BDSM? Swoon. So for readers who like a little intrigue and danger, the world of Hawkeye, protecting the world’s most valuable things, is a ton of fun!
The Mastered series… Where do I start? Totally Bound’s brilliant CEO had been after me to write a series. So over time, I conceived a series, made up of three books. I put together a series proposal, and Claire said she wanted all of them. And every time I sent in a different story or we had reason to discuss anything, she always asked for them! As I began writing, more characters took shape. In The Den was supposed to be book three, but it ended up being book six! I loved the exploration of BDSM that occurred in this series, and some of the books were very personal to me, including In His Cuffs. The title is double-edged. Of course I mean handcuffs. 😉 But I was also referencing a pair of figurative “golden handcuffs” that keeps a person tied to a job they no longer want. At the time, I was tied into a contract with an employer, and it was difficult to walk away. My ending wasn’t as happy as our heroine’s!
The setting for The Den is an actual house I visited in the location I described. And the opening for With This Collar? It was inspired by the wedding at that house. I spent all my formative years in Colorado’s mountains, skiing, vacationing, hiking, enjoying nature. I love all of my Colorado settings.
My visits to Texas inspired the Bonds series. I love techy-gadgety things. I’m one of those people who embrace rather than scowl about new technology. I want the new phone, the new computer. And I want the pace to pick up, not slow down. There’s so much more I think technology can and should do, and I’m impatient. I want a Hello, Molly for myself. Right now. I kind of believe I was born a hundred years too soon. I want a jet car, a self-cleaning house, coffee that’s served hot and strong the moment I wake up. So I have a fabulous time in Bonds creating the world I want to inhabit.
Crave is a bit of a personal story, too. Unexpectedly finding a collar in a Dom’s drawer sends our heroine into shock and flight. And, uhm, yep, that was me.
The original idea for the series was a trilogy of successful men who had been friends in college. My favorite character, Julien Bonds, was meant as the “glue” that held them together. Nothing more. He was eccentric, fun, ridiculous, not tied by any convention, someone I wanted as a friend. He was never supposed to be a main character. Damn him.
But Julien has sort of taken on a life of his own. I’ve had more readers write to me about him than any other characters. I’ll get emails like, “I love Lara and Connor. When is Julien getting his own book?”
So…yeah. That’s happening.
I’ve just wrapped up The Donovan Dynasty, about three very different, but equally devastatingly dominant brothers.
Almost three years ago, a writer friend and I took a brainstorming retreat to Galveston. I fell in love with the history and stories of the families that settled the area. And I was also enchanted by Houston. The energy and vibrancy of the fourth-largest city in the US is astounding. It’s uniquely Texan, but it also attracts people from all over the world. The high-rises and the high stakes of business became the backdrop for The Donovan Dynasty.
Two of my brothers are executives, and the third is a cowboy. Gotta love me a cowboy. Cowboys may be my first love. I wrote a number of them for Harlequin. And a cowboy story, Over The Line, won Best BDSM Book of the Year!
For a change of pace and to allow me to stretch my creative wings, I’ve started a new series, Master Class. Those will be short, fun, sexy reads. Sort of like a midnight snack while my bigger books are the feature films!
Oh, I’ll be all over Master Class! And yay for Julien. I’m glad you’ll be filling my Kindle for time to come!
One thing that’s great about many of your books is that they can be read as standalones. I think I read all of the Mastered books completely out of order because I gobbled them up so fast. Same with the Bonds books. What’s been your favorite book or series to write so far?
All of my series can be read as standalones. I love that readers can find one that intrigues them and potentially be introduced to a whole new world. And picking a favorite? No way. Whichever I’m writing is the most difficult to write. EVER. (Well, not true of Boss! 😉 It’s my goal that my best work, my favorite book ever, is still ahead of me.
That’s a good attitude. I’ll bet it keeps you striving to create that next, best story.
As I said when I was introducing you above, what I love about how you write your Doms is that you really get the mental piece. You depict great body language, and when your heroes open their mouths, I just purr inside. Maybe outside, too. What helps you get into the mindset of writing from a Dominant POV?
Aww, thanks! I love writing Doms. I’m really fortunate that I know a lot of Doms and a few Dommes. People in the lifestyle are generally easy to speak to and happy to answer questions.
And, of course, I’m aware than at least ninety percent of my readers are women. There are certain things that I think we’re looking for in our books. And maybe once or twice, I’ve pulled from personal experience.
Let’s chat now about the genre of erotic romance. Are you private or open about your erotic fiction writing with friends, family, and in your local community?
Can you imagine me being private about anything? My minister knows. My parents know. My gynecologist knows. I’m proud of my books and of what I write, and I will shove a hot pink koozie with my name on it in their hands in a heartbeat.
Now there’s a picture: A minister holding an official Sierra Cartwright pink koozie!
Do you think there’s a difference between erotica and erotic romance?
I think readers of erotic romance have the expectation of a HEA (happily ever after) or, at the very least, a HFN (happily for now) ending. The romance between the protagonists will take center stage. And we’ll see their character arcs set against the struggle of the relationship in a way that allows the reader to root for their success.
What I appreciate about your writing and your depiction of BDSM is that you’re never over-the-top about it. You often feature everyday people, and there’s a great sense of realism. What made you want to write about Dominant/submissive (D/s) relationships?
When I returned to romance writing after a several year absence, I started writing erotic romance. When I was published by Harlequin, there were times I felt constrained by their rules—such as not being able to use anatomically correct or slang words in sex scenes.
In my personal life, I’d gone through a painful, unwanted divorce. As a result, I had a lot more life experience, and some of it was in D/s.
This was in 2007, and I was fortunate that there was a budding interest in erotic romance novels. Obviously, I’ve never looked back. ☺
And I’m glad you’ve never looked back. I’ve talked about your heroes, but let’s chat about the ladies. I love your heroines because they’re confident, sometimes sassy, and successful. They rock their daytime jobs, and then at night, we see them on hands and knees climbing a set of stairs to start a play scene. How do you approach creating your heroines?
Ha! You’ve figured me out. Honestly, all of my heroines are a compilation of the women I know. I have outrageous friends, courageous family members. I borrow a little bit from all of them. Lara Bertrand got the class that my step-mother exhibited. All of my heroines have my mother’s resolve. My most recent heroine, Ella (maybe influenced by your name?), is uncompromising in her need to have a relationship based on love, like my sister. My sister astounds me. She has a heart as big as the world, and yet she’ll kick your ass to make you into a better person.
Each heroine also gets a bit from me, too. Yeah, I’m that friend, the one who will embarrass you at dinner. I walked into the hair salon the other day, threw myself in Yvonne’s chair, and shouted, “Do me, baby!” Fortunately, she cracked up. The older lady next to me did not. The salon owner goes, “Oh. Sierra must be here.”
Speaking of naughty, you’re a Mistress when it comes to writing sex. What’s your biggest piece of advice for someone writing their first ever sex scene?
This is excerpted from an article I wrote about crafting love scenes.
Well-chosen dialogue is one of the many areas to have a look at. Dialogue in stories shouldn’t sound like your conversation with your BFF. It needs to reveal information, increase the stakes, or, in a romance novel, advance the relationship or make the reader tingle.
Meg Ryan’s iconic line from Top Gun, “Goose, you big stud. Take me to bed or lose me forever,” is a stellar example of how to create a memorable line of dialogue that makes a reader care for your characters. In the scene, we see Goose, playing the piano. His wife calls out the line, and he responds with, “Show me the way home!” We see them happy, laughing, and we know they’re in love. Since she has shouted the words in a busy bar, we know the couple is not afraid for the whole world to share their love.
Later in the movie, the line is repeated by Kelly McGillis, who plays the female lead. There’s been a lot of sexual tension between her and Maverick, played by Tom Cruise. He’s been pursuing her. And when she’s finally ready to be intimate with him, she says, “Take me to bed or lose me forever.” Making the same line work double duty is writing brilliance. (Spoiler ahead…) When Goose is killed, the line then takes on a new meaning, becoming emotionally laden, a reminder of the happiness all of the characters once had.
Dialogue is perhaps the greatest tool at a writer’s disposal. The choice of words, syntax, even subtext changes meaning and breathes life into characters. “Let’s make love tonight” causes a different emotional reaction than, “Wanna fuck, baby?” And yes, our hero can say either of those things and still be heroic. It just depends on the context surrounding them
Great example, and now I want to see Top Gun as it’s been years. You’re right, dialogue is key, and I think you’re great with pacing a scene as well. It’s very easy for me to imagine your characters together, even the silent moments when the words are few and far between. I can easily forget I’m reading and just have that movie of your book playing in my mind.
So this August, you’re going to be the keynote speaker at the BDSM Writers Con in New York. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the intent of the conference is to instruct and inform writers about the BDSM community/scene so they might write believable relationships and play scenes. Can you share a bit about your upcoming keynote and what advice you have for writers?
I’m fortunate to have been invited to be the keynote speaker. And so I hope to bring motivation and inspiration, maybe even a few techniques about the craft itself. In addition to publishing over sixty novellas and books, I have taught writing workshops, and I’ve been a professional editor. I am also a certified professional business coach. And I successfully ran a multimillion-dollar business. So I hope to bring something helpful to the conference this August.
As for tips, this is a business. It’s not fun and games. (Though you can enjoy it, or certainly parts of it, tremendously.) There are real business concerns, marketing and promotional budgets, building a readership, creating a product. There are a number of different approaches, depending on what a person’s goals are. So it helps to understand the entirety of the business, craft, publication, business, etc. The glamorous stuff!
Yes, glamorous indeed! That whole side of the writing world has been an eye-opener for me. But I digress…
When reading BDSM erotic romances, have you seen any stereotypes and/or depictions about D/s (and M/s) relationships that you want to set straight?
Like all the writers I know, I’m a voracious reader. I have my favorite authors who are one-click buys. Most of the authors I read are very respectful of the genre, and many have personal experience. I love the beautiful depictions of negotiation and the struggles the characters face as they grow and claim their relationship. I’d say, in general, authors do a great job of describing safe, sane, consensual scenes. And those who don’t explain that, too.
A reviewer once took me to task because my characters had shared a laugh during a BDSM scene. Her words were something like, “humor has no place in BDSM.” Well, to me, the beauty of a scene is that each is different. We all bring our individual personalities to everything we do. And let’s face it. Sometimes sex is funny! There’s not one true way. (And yes, I’ve giggled during a scene. Last night, even…)
Sex is definitely funny at times, and I love reading sexy times with a dash of humor. It makes them seem that much more real. Speaking of sex scenes, I’ve always found yours to be unique, not repetitive. What’s your trick?
You know, there’s so much more to sex than tab A into slot B. A lot of times, in my books, sex doesn’t happen for quite a while. And when it does, it’s unique between each set of people. Just as sex in real life is different with different partners, so, too are the sex scenes in my books. I want it to be, more than anything, emotional.
In an erotic romance, each sex scene must advance the plot. I start with Goal, Motivation, and Conflict worksheets. For example, let’s look at Connor Donovan and Lara Bertrand in Bind.
Because of his background—his father falling in love with a woman who wasn’t his mother—Connor is committed to being loyal. He’s experienced and seen the harm caused by a man who isn’t faithful. So marriage is something he prizes.
Lara is happy to trade her freedom, temporarily, because she is desperate to save her family business. But she has no long-term interest in marriage.
So when she walks into his office and asks him to marry her, there is immediate tension.
He agrees to help her, at a price. It will be a real marriage.
So each BDSM scene adds to the internal conflict. They will grow closer together, learn about one another. None of the sex is gratuitous because it furthers the tension. And because each set of characters and their problems are unique, it’s my intention that the sex is also unique.
I think that’s another reason why I love your books. You have your readers salivating by the time your characters get together. I’m a big fan of unresolved sexual tension that builds and builds until finally the two (or three…) just can’t take it anymore. Talk about a great payoff.
My last question, if I may, where do you see the erotic romance genre in five to ten years?
What an exciting question… I think we’re already seeing the evolution. One of my favorite sayings is, “A mind stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimension.” That also works for popular fiction. Once we’ve “gone” someplace, there’s no going back.
Many mainstream books are becoming sexier. And there is always the next big thing out there, creating a resurgence of interest in a particular genre and bringing a whole new set of readers to our books. I’m grateful for Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and the Fifty Shades franchise. I’m anxious to see what the next mega-seller will be. And damn, I hope I can be the one to write it! Wait, I digress…
I was saying that in erotic romance, the boundaries have been pushed. There will always be a demand for that kind of fiction. There will be sub-genres that are more popular than others for a while. Paranormal, suspense, etc. But we may not ever see the kind of interest that there was for a couple of years. And that’s part of the natural evolution of pop culture.
Thanks for having me, Elle. I appreciate it.
No need to thank me. It’s an honor to have you on my blog. I can’t thank you enough for all the thought you put into my questions. I’m sure you’ve provided some great takeaways for other writers reading this post. Thanks so much, Sierra, and I can’t wait to meet you one day (soon).
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