Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Highly Acute Ms. Sharp

By Lisabet Sarai

Kristina's asked us to write about our first editor. I considered changing names, or avoiding using them altogether, but I realized upon further consideration that the identity of my first editor is a matter of public record. In 1999, when I submitted my first novel, everyone in the small erotica community knew Kerri Sharp, the dynamic editor who had made Black Lace a phenomenon in the fiction world.

I wasn't able to discover via Internet research whether Ms. Sharp served as Black Lace editor from the imprint's inception in 1993. I wouldn't be surprised. Certainly she authored the detailed, literate and slightly snarky guidelines I received (by postal mail, of course) when I sent my first inquiry. I was delighted to discover that I still have the original of that document in my files (despite having sold my house and moved halfway around the world since then!) I hope that it's acceptable for me to provide some quotes, which may tell you more about the estimable Ms. Sharp than any of my descriptions.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the editor's primary function to correct mistakes of English. The editor is there to give advice on plot, characterisation, house style, series continuity, etc. ... In any case, if a writer is unable to use English correctly, it is unlikely that she will have mastered the more refined techniques of writing.

Here's another gem:

If in doubt, go with the more comprehensible turn of phrase. Clarity of expression is a prerequisite of most well-written fiction. This is particularly so for erotic fiction....That is not to say that you should write blandly; or that you should restrict the vocabulary you use to that of a child; or that you should avoid artifice and tricks of technique. Our readers are not stupid, but impatient. As with all other writing, you should use your craft to the utmost; but the tricks you use should be much less visible in erotic writing. Your characters are marionnettes, but your readers should not be able to see the strings.

Reviewing these guidelines now, after more than a dozen years as an erotic author, I have a new appreciation both of Ms. Sharp's wisdom and her ability to articulate it. Back when I first received this document, which is thirteen pages long and tends to focus on what Black Lace definitely did not want, I found myself intimidated to the point that I almost dismissed the whole idea of submitting to them.

Almost. I'm infinitely grateful that I got over my feelings of inadequacy to the point that I could continue with my crazy plan.

I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk, struggling mightily with the British spelling and punctuation required by the guidelines. About two weeks after I mailed the chapters plus synopsis (hardcopy, in those days), I received a postcard acknowledging my submission and warning me that due to the size of the Black Lace slush pile, I should not expect any feedback for several months. I shrugged and stored the card in my files. The possibility that Ms. Sharp would want my book seemed quite remote.

Imagine my surprise when I got an email from her three days after the arrival of the card, offering me a contract! In particular, she wanted me to give her a date by which I could send the complete manuscript.

I hadn't a clue. I made a wild guess that quickly became a legal commitment, then set about fulfilling that commitment.

I was pretty pleased when I put the manuscript into the post (actually, I believe I Fedexed it), with a week to spare. Imagine my dismay when I received a stern email from Ms. Sharp informing me that I had not lived up to my contract. I'd contracted to produce a novel of 80,000 words. The manuscript I'd sent was only 73,000. I had no idea back then that the length really mattered. I spent a frantic weekend writing a new chapter and an epilogue and rushed them over to the UK.

Kerri Sharp's edits to my text were as numerous and exhaustive as one might expect from her guidelines. Although she didn't hold back from suggesting changes to structure or plot, the bulk of her modifications focused on my American vocabulary, spelling, punctuation and style. For instance, she wanted to change all my "panties" to "knickers". Meanwhile, I couldn't even think "knickers" without bursting out laughing. Men's clothing caused problems, too. I remember many a pair of "pants" that I had to turn into "trousers".

Perhaps the most controversial change she requested was in the final scene, a competition staged to allow my heroine to choose one man from among her three eager lovers. Of course Kate selects the dominant Gregory, who carries her off to the bathroom, binds her to the plumbing, and proceeds to screw her the way she wants. That scene originally ended with a golden shower, as Gregory claimed and marked his woman in the most physical way I could imagine.

I personally thought this was intense and erotic, but my editor made me remove it (although to Black Lace's credit, the list of forbidden topics in the guidelines does not include bodily fluids). Kerri argued that even though I thought this was sexy, many readers wouldn't agree. She also commented, with impeccable logic, that a man with an erection would have serious difficulty carrying out the action as described.

I gave in. Probably that was the right choice. At the time, Kerri Sharp was an authority figure. I could easily imagine her wearing black leather and carrying a whip!

I never had the opportunity to meet Ms. Sharp. Google tells me she is now a senior editor for Simon & Schuster, where I'm certain she continues to provide her signature mix of acuity and passion. After the edits were done, while I was waiting for the book to come out, I used to fantasize about traveling to London for a big release party - hobnobbing with the other Black Lace authors (who, I was sure, must be glamorous, sexy individuals) and finally getting the chance to greet - and to thank - Kerri Sharp. At the time I didn't understand that publishing was a nuts-and-bolts business often handled on a shoestring budget. I imagined toasting Kerri with champagne - along with Portia da Costa, whose book inspired me to write for Black Lace in the first place. The dreams of a newbie!

Still, today, six novels and scores of short stories later, I'd like to raise a virtual toast to my tough, competent first editor. Some of the editors I've had since have made me appreciate her all the more. She might have been a bit prickly, but she was serious about her job, and she performed it with consummate skill.

I'll leave you with a final quote from the Black Lace guidelines.

Finally, it's worth considering the thesis that erotica is the most difficult genre to write successfully. Achieving and maintaining the reader's suspension of disbelief is more important in this genre than any other. More significantly, erotica stretches your writing skills to the utmost. You are called upon to create believable plot, character and settings, but you know that a) much of the book must consist of frequent and detailed descriptions of sex; and b) the actual events described must not be so unpleasant as to detract from the book's erotic charge. Your writing, therefore, has to be very efficient. Not a word can be wasted, and you have to make large parts of the text serve more than one function... Writing an erotic novel will certainly hone your authorial skills.

Back in 1999, I didn't realize how very true this was. Kerri Sharp helped me (and dozens of other erotic authors) do just that.


  1. What a cool topic, and what a cool post. Thanks for sharing this, Lisabet! I've heard of Kerri Sharp, of course, and even seen you speak of writing your first novel for her somewhere else (don't remember where off the top of my head), but I found this more detailed account quite interesting—and the addition of the actual quotes from the guidelines made it all the more fascinating. What a neat experience to have had. I too am glad you wrote and sent off that first novel! :)

  2. Ooo! Ooo! Ooo! (Visualize me frantically waving my arms)

    Can I have it?

    You know what a craft freak I am, I want those thirteen pages so bad - pleez? Pretty pleez? I'll do anything you ask . . . anything baby . . . just whisper to me what you want me to do, you bad girl. You know what you want. But I know what you need. Woof. Baby, you're so mean to me . . .

    It's amazing to me to imagine you as a new writer because you;ve been at it for so many years and have so many books out there. But, you know, you were my first too.

    Can you send me those pages to stash in my notebook? Just the chunks you;ve posted make me want to read the rest. You should do something on them for your ERWA blog too. Definately worth it.


  3. Hi, Emerald,

    Yes, I do repeat myself...!

    I was so happy to find the actual guidelines. She could put things so much more elegantly than I could!

  4. Hi, Kathleen,

    There are many more observations in this document that are right on target. This is much more obvious to me now than it was then.

  5. Hey, Garce,

    You don't have to beg! I'll see if I can scan them and email them to you.

    But don't take them as gospel, okay? Remember that they're focused on one imprint. Black Lace was extremely specific about its audience and style.

    I should mention that Kerri Sharp rejected the other two proposals I sent her. She complained that Miranda in INCOGNITO "wasn't exactly the kind of kick-ass heroine they were looking for". Then I wrote RUBY'S RULES, figuring you couldn't get more kick-ass than Ruby! But she didn't like that book either.

    Beginner's luck, I guess!

  6. Great post! I always imagined her being seriously tough, based on those guidelines - but she's right. Especially with that last part. People think it's easy to write erotica, and it is. It's easy to write BAD erotica. It's excrutiatingly, agonisingly hard to write good stuff - and especially on that point about realism. I strive every day to write realistic erotica. It's so important to me to have it be believable!

  7. She was/is seriously tough. That's sometimes what one needs.


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