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.