Monday, March 2, 2015

Set in Stone

By Lisabet Sarai

Treatises for authors often recommend against editing as you write. Get the story down first, they advise, no matter how rough it might be. You can go back and refine it later. Write quickly, from instinct, without introspection. Analyze and revise after you’ve captured the flush of inspiration.

I recognize the wisdom of this proposal for some authors, but usually it doesn’t work for me. I have to make plot decisions, finalize my characterization and massage my prose while I’m creating my first draft. Over the years I’ve discovered that my writing has incredible inertia. Once I’ve finished a story, it’s set in stone, or something close.

Over the years, I’ve had many editors comment on how few modifications they needed to make to my manuscripts. That’s one external consequence of my writing method. I’m very grateful that most of my submissions have sailed through the editing process with only minor revisions. Because making larger changes turns out to be ridiculously difficult for me.

This fact became painfully clear last year, after I submitted my erotic romance novel The Ingredients of Bliss to Totally Bound. The book was part of a multi-author series that had some specific requirements. The first manuscript I turned in apparently did not meet those requirements. I realize now that, influenced by my erotica roots, the book veered too far from the canons of romance. Not only did my heroine Emily have two lovers (Harry and Etienne), but she was sexually attracted to the villain Jean as well. There were good reasons – Jean was almost the perfect double of Etienne, right down to the way he smelled, and she was trying to seduce him in order to rescue Harry and Etienne after they’d been kidnapped. Nevertheless, this sort of dalliance is verboten in romance, as it smacks of infidelity. Then there were strong hints of Emily’s attraction to the kick-ass lady cop who joins her in the quest to free Harry and Etienne. F/F eroticism in a straight erotic romance is the kiss of death from a marketing perspective. Finally, the tone of the book was far darker than the publisher really wanted.

I’d already committed to provide this book to the publisher. Indeed, it was a sequel to a short piece (Her Secret Ingredient) that I’d written for the same series. Hence, I was strongly motivated to address the editor’s concerns. I didn’t fully understand the discomfort I was about to endure.

Over the course of the next three months, I revised the entire book four times. I rewrote the scene in which Jean is coming on to Emily to make her disgusted and frightened rather than aroused. I cut all references to F/F attraction. I softened the language in the attempted rape scene. I completely excised Emily’s dramatic, bloody nightmare, in an effort to lighten things up.

At one point, deeply frustrated, I considered pulling the book and publishing it elsewhere. Unfortunately, for that to make sense, I’d have to reclaim the rights for the short piece as well. That would have been awkward and expensive. So I tried to twist the story into the form the publisher wanted.

The book resisted me, every step of the way.

The final result satisfied the publisher. However, after all that effort, sales have been miserable. Is this because The Ingredients of Bliss still doesn’t match the expectations of erotic romance readers? Or is it because readers can sense that the story isn’t wholly mine, that I compromised my vision to bring it into print? Or perhaps the edits did violence to the narrative integrity of the story. Maybe there’s a problem with continuity, or with consistency of my characters.

I’ll never know. All I know is that I don’t want to go through that again.

Although this is the most egregious example of inertia in my writing, it’s by no means the only one. A number of years ago I decided to rework a 5K short story, “Detente”, into a 15K erotic romance novella (Truce of Trust). The publisher wanted third rather than first person narrative. In addition, they suggested I remove the M/m interaction at the conclusion of the short story, making the book a straight M/F/M ménage.

I had a lot of trouble at first. I kept slipping back into first person, because that was the way I’d heard the original story in my head. Gradually I realized that I had to think of Truce of Trust as a different story entirely. Once I’d made that decision, the process became easier. I changed the names of the characters and moved the action from the west to the east coast. I added new scenes and modified some of the ones from “Detente” to fit my new vision. The final result shares some text with the source, but not much.

One sort of change that doesn’t give me too much trouble is simple expansion. I have several books that began as short stories and then grew. My erotic thriller Exposure began as a theme story (erotic noir) written for the Erotica Readers & Writers Association Storytime list. That story, “Private Dance”, became the first chapter of the novel. I hardly changed it at all. In fact, I had to work out the plot so that the later chapters fit with the first chapter, because when I wrote the story, I had no idea about the cause or motivation for the events that occur. I never really considered revising that first chapter, though.

In response to a request from a special reader, I also expanded Bangkok Noir, turning it from an 8K short to a 30K novella. Once again, I didn’t alter the original, aside from a word here and there. Instead, I shaped the latter events to fit the former.

I view the inertia of my writing as a weakness. A real professional should be more flexible. After all, words are infinitely malleable. Aside from being willing to try revising, though, I’m not sure what I can do.

In any case, it’s often hard to summon that fundamental willingness. By this time, I know better than to try to radically work something I view as finished. It’s rarely worth the pain.

23 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post, Lisabet. I think most traits have their upside and their downside. You have vision/it's hard for you to change that vision. I didn't realize Truce of Trust was based on Detente. Detente is one of my all-time favorite erotic short stories. Part of me wants to go read Truce of Trust immediately, but I'm also afraid that what got taken out is exactly what I liked most about Detente (I particularly loved the shape of the relationship outcome in that story—it wound up with a sort of symmetry that really appeals to me).

    As far as the advice about not editing as one writes, I appreciate that it's been helpful for many people, but I could not get stories finished until I stopped listening to it. To me, the raw pile of meandering that results from writing with an eye toward fixing it later is just too terrible to be faced. I have a pile of novels I wrote that way and never touched again. What works for me is to get about 25 percent in, then revise from the beginning, then write another 25 percent or so, and so forth. I think that's my way of dealing with those issues of plot decisions and character formation that you allude to at the beginning of your post.

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    1. Hello, Annabeth,

      I'm thrilled that you liked "Detente". To be honest, I like the original version much better than the "romancified" version, partially because of the symmetry you mention. Plus if you recall, in the original, there's some F/F attraction too, which definitely had to be excised from Truce of Trust.

      When I sit down to a WIP, I usually reread the previous chapter or two before getting started on new material. While I do that, I'm also editing. But I also massage paragraphs on the fly, reworking sentences and rethinking word choices.

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    2. Oh believe me, I remember the F/F interaction! There aren't many of my personal boxes that Detente doesn't check! (And aside from turn-ons, I have always loved its emotional depth.)

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    3. You and I obviously have quite a bit in common sexually.

      My first published short story featured a woman in two relationships, a D/s M/f relationship on one coast and a F/f relationship on the other. She finds herself in Prague, attracted to a cocky local guy with a sentimental streak. Unfortunately, that story was wasted in a terrible Black Lace anthology and I can't get the rights back without paying big bucks. Sigh.

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    4. Ah sad to hear that this one is unavailable. You got me interested!

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  2. In the examples you give, I see your inertia as more of a strength than a weakness. Artistically, it's a strength to know what you're going for (the vision, as Annabeth says). Naturally, the ability to compromise (and negotiate) can be an important skill in the "writer brings work to the publisher" phase of things; but when you're giving up some of what you wanted artistically in order to seal the deal in a business sense, it's no wonder it's an uphill struggle. Because we're not talking about resisting, say, an editor's ruling that a particular sentence is awkward or a particular image is problematic—we're talking about altering the fabric of the story in a major way, for reasons that are extraneous to the story.

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    1. You may be right, Jeremy. However, I can't help thinking that a true artist would have the ability to remold the creative clay.

      And I sometimes suspect there is an aspect of mental laziness in this inertia, or a lack of vision. Why can't I imagine a very different path for a story I've created?

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  3. When I know I've made an error or can state something better, or a more appropriate word pops up. If I don't go back in the moment, I may forget my idea for the change. I can usually tell if a sentence or paragraph is vaguely how I want it, otherwise, as Lisabet says, I massage it until I think it's improved Realizations wash over me as I write the copy, and I need to change it as it happens or it goes away. Then, By the end, I let the piece be for awhile and come back t it later for a full revue. Sometimes when I'm writing a short story (no novels as yet) I'll start from the beginning every writing session to 'get into' the piece. To me, Annabeth's comment about working with the inertia of the piece can come out in a garbled mess at the end, with lots of hard work ahead. Too daunting for me. I'd rather use that inertia while in the story.

    Having said that, there isn't a better feeling than in the zone, keys tapping, writerly brains going too fast for our fingers, stampeding in a spontaneous thrust. That's when I fully appreciate what we do.

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    1. Being in the zone is magic, Daddy. I wish that it happened more often.

      On the other hand, I suppose then it might not be so special.

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  4. And yet your original submission sounds like it would be far more interesting that the revised one. Sometimes, publishers really need to give more leeway if the story benefits from massaging the guidelines a little.

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    1. Well obviously I agree with you...!

      Interesting appendix. There's another TB author who published a book in the same series, her first novel, actually. I read it for a peer review and thought it was excellent overall. However, it had too much stuff tacked onto the end. I felt she should have ended it right after the resolution of the crisis.

      She told me that this was the way she had written it originally. The editor had suggested that she extend it.

      Obviously she should have pushed back, following her own instincts.

      By the way, I don't want anyone to think I am bad-mouthing Totally Bound. As you know, JP, they are amazing to work with. They just have very clear ideas about what they do and do not want, which may in fact be the hallmark of a successful publisher.

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  5. Lisabet, I remember your account of trying to make your "ingredients" novel more of a romance to please the publisher. That sounds like a nightmare! I edit as I write as well, and while I'm not sure I consider anything I've written absolutely finished for all time, I'm sure I would have trouble doing a major rewrite to fit the requirements of a genre, a series, or a publisher. I remember reading (in the Erotic Readers & Writers Association lists) about a process like this by a writer with at least 3 pen names (for different genres) who was told by an editor to cut 1,000 words from a short story and change the plot and/or the sexual pairing. The logical response would be: "Tell this to one of my other personalities." :) It probably would have been easier for you to put on a different persona (Lisabet Swoon-Sigh), and write a romance novel from scratch. I'm very glad I haven't had this experience - editors who don't like what I've written have no trouble rejecting it altogether. :)

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    1. I can barely manage one author persona, Jean!

      In any case, my work almost always spans the divide between romance and erotica. I wrote my first novel thinking it was erotica, but it has many of the hallmarks of romance. The heroine has a HEA with her Dom, the man who turns out to be her soulmate.

      I wrote that more or less blind. The only romance I'd ever read before that point was Daphne Du Maurier's FRENCHMAN'S CREEK. (Highly recommended, btw.) I knew nothing about the conventions of the genre, but I clearly had my own romantic yearnings that I worked out in the story.

      On the other hand, that novel includes F/F sex, M/M sex, menage, exhibitionism, and of course BDSM, and could be viewed as the account of a woman's sexual awakening.

      So was it romance? Or erotica? I think the answer, unpalatable as it might be for the market, is both.

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    2. I've had a few experiences with someone accepting something and making me wish they'd just rejected it, which Jean alludes to. My general feeling is that doing extensive edits is fine with me—as long as I feel that the editor and I share a compatible vision. If we don't, I'm often left feeling like I would rather they have asked me to write something else entirely.

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    3. It's hard to know when to agree and when to push back. For one thing, I can't always tell, before I start edits, whether I'm going to have trouble with them or not.

      A lot depends on how well I know the editor. There are some editors whom I really trust, even if they don't always see eye to eye with me.

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  6. I don't think that being a professional writer means being infinitely adaptable to an editor or publisher's whims and blind spots, although doing so can affect sales figures, so what do I know? Hmm, I'm not sure I have any clear idea of what being a professional writer means, so the above is more of a knee-jerk reaction than a considered opinion. Being a professional involves some success at getting into print, yes, and it's true that meeting the requirements of specific publishers and hypothetical readers is required for that, but I think you're right, Lisabet, about readers being able to tell when we're compromising our creative visions.

    I don't claim not to compromise. As an anthology editor, I've often had to let a publisher warp or even totally upend a theme I've proposed, and then I've had to write my calls for submission very carefully to get the quality of stories I want while keeping nominally within the publisher's expectations. As a writer of short stories, I'm with Jean--I get rejected or accepted, with very little in the way of requests for revision. And rejected short stories aren't huge deal; I like to think of them as inventory for when a better market comes along. With novels, though, you have so much more invested. Maybe I'm just as glad that I'm not a novelist.

    I've just realized that another reason I'm not a novelist is that I'm of the edit-as-you-go school, always backtracking before being able to accelerate into new territory, so my chances of ever completing anything of novel length are slim indeed.

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    1. I would be far less likely to compromise as an editor than as a writer, actually. An anthology is a much bigger artifact than a single story or even, I'd argue, a novel. There is a delicate balance involved, an interplay among the stories (as I'm sure you know from your own experience). Sometimes it's difficult to get the stories you're looking for - but having the publisher pull the thematic rug out from under me is something I at least would not accept.

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  7. Hi Lisabet!

    I was smilig inside when I read about your creative process because its so completely the opposite of my own, scatterered, asymetrical jigsaw puzzle process of writing scenes and then putting them together after the fact on the cutting room floor. Its amazing how you are able to visualize this process from beginning to end like some of the classical authors.

    Also I was interested again in the rules of romance writing and it reminds me this genre isn;t about imitating real life, which so often lets us down, but about offering a kind of ideal or fantasy from which a lot of its appeal comes from.

    I still haven;t been able to connect emotionally with romance novels, though I've tried, but later on I realized that I've always loved the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs which I later realized where romance novels written for boys and men.

    Garce

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    1. Yes, I've often marveled at your process, which is totally alien to me. For example, you mentioned in comments to your post that you are reworking the existing Nixie stories once more to try and get them to fit together. I wouldn't even try to do that, if they were my work. I'd let the reader find the connections (or disconnections).

      Sometimes I think I'm just lazy. On the other hand, I AM linear, not just in my wriitng but in the real world, to a large extent, as well.

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  8. I love this post. I was my own worst friend a couple times last year, betraying my vision for my perception of what a romance audience would prefer. I wrote at least one entire novel I just wasn't that into. Not going down that road again. It just left me feeling icky.

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  9. Once I get inspired by a character to write her/his story, the events play out in my head constantly. I imagine scenes as I wake up, dream of them sometimes, and fall asleep imagining how to make the scene better. Once I finally get the time to write, the story is largely "done" in my head. Sometimes a bit of dialogue will surprise me when I type it, or I'll have an inspiration that takes the story off on a tangent. But I know the story arc.

    I often tell students to "barf it out, clean it up later." I don't mean I write without grammar rules...just that second-guessing yourself on word choice is a losing game--at least for me. I need the flow to keep going. I edit each chapter from the previous sessions when I sit down to write again. That's how I get the "voices talking" in my head again.

    And I've found that when I write "the end", those voices are quiet. I had a hell of a time with my second novel. The editor didn't like the whole first chapter, and wanted me to rewrite it. I sat at my laptop, asking, "Come on, Patti, we need to talk. Tell me more about your life," She was hard to coax back into my head, since she thought the story was done. Eventually I was able to convince her I needed her again, and the rewrites pleased the editor. But that was when I learned that even though this creating is going on inside of MY head, I'm not always in charge.

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    1. Hi, Fiona,

      I like your comment about writing "the end" and the voices going quiet. I have never been able to manage a series (one of the keys to selling romance) for that reason. When the book is over, to a large extent, the story is over. This is true even when I left hooks for a sequel. I just don't have the inspiration to make it happen.

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