Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sinking Ships and Miraculous Rescues

My first three erotic stories were written in response to a call-for-submissions for lesbian erotica from Lace Publications (of Colorado) in 1988. I mailed my babies off, and was delighted to get a written acceptance from two pseudonymous editors. One was named "Moonyean."

Then the publishing company went bust. It seemed unlikely that I would ever meet the two marvelously accepting but shadowy lesbian editors from California.

History repeated itself ten years later. In 1998, I was blessed with two months off work, but with full pay, and I decided to make the most of it. I spent eight-hour days at the brand-new computer that my sweetie and I had acquired, composing a lesbian novel full of sex scenes and local colour: I managed to link a real-life political scandal to the real-life murder trial of two young men who had tormented and killed a sex worker for sport. As far as I knew, no one else on the Canadian prairies had ever written anything like this. I sandwiched in one of my first three stories as a chapter in the novel. This was "The Princess and the Outlaw," a kind of lesbian folk tale in which the outlaw, Yora of the Forest, is a female bandit who hates the royal family and especially the heiress to the throne. But lust conquers all.

I printed off the 56,000-word manuscript of the novel, stuffed it into a manila envelope and mailed it to Masquerade Books in New York. This was the one erotic publisher I knew of. No answer.

After several months, I sent a follow-up email, and got a response from an editor whose name I honestly can’t remember. She informed me that while there was much to admire in my novel, she had rejected it a long time before.

I re-read this message several times to suck out the juice, the message at the core. An erotic editor (my third, so to speak) had found something to admire in my writing. But she had rejected my whole novel, including the story-within-the-story, without letting me know. This seemed like a coded message from the Oracle of Delphi: important but hard for a mere mortal to understand.

Then Masquerade disappeared, much like Lace Publications.

I joined the Erotic Readers Association, as it was called then, and felt the warmth of an on-line community. The public site included a community bulletin board where calls-for-submissions were posted. One of them asked for stories about lesbians and their sex toys.

This call amazed me. I was a veteran of the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s, in which women could be exiled to Siberia for suggesting that womyn-loving womyn could enjoy any device that resembled a penis. My story featured a custom-made wooden dildo, heavily shellacked and artfully designed not to look like anything known to man. My story was ironically titled “Something Natural.”

I mailed my story to California editor Alison Tyler, who reported in the ERA lists that original publisher Masquerade was unfortunately deceased, and the anthology might have to be cancelled. This proved it: I was a jinx.

To my surprise, at long last British publisher Diva Books offered to publish, and my story was accepted with almost no revisions. Alison Tyler was an angel of mercy! I was delighted when a paperback copy of Batteries Not Included was mailed to me. I was between the covers with famous sex-writers!

The photo on the front showed a babe with short dark hair, back to the viewer, sitting on her naked butt. A friend in my actual town asked half-jokingly if that was me.

I was now a published author of erotica, and I was eager to crack two great annual anthologies from Cleis Press: Best Women's and Best Lesbian Erotica.

2000 was a very good year. Editor Marcy Sheiner accepted "Cycles" (my story about a man and a woman, each with a past history of same-sex relationships, who meet in the laundry room of their apartment building) for Best Women's Erotica. When I first saw my paper manuscript marked up by her red pen, I couldn't breathe. Then I noticed that all the suggested changes eliminated unnecessary words or phrases without changing the plot, the dialogue or any description of the characters.

In the same year, series editor Tristan Taormino and consulting editor Pat Califia accepted "The Princess and the Outlaw" for Best Lesbian Erotica. Yes! The editing was gentle, although the editing process was nerve-wracking: the first acceptance letter told me that my story had survived the first round of rejections. I was asked to sign and return a contract, which would be void if my story didnt survive the next cut. It did, and eventually appeared in the book.

Other members of ERA told me how hard it was to break into either of those annual collections. I seemed to have beginner's luck.

This continued in 2001, when my first story about a Mary Sue academic Domme, Dr. Athena Chalkdust, was accepted for Best Lesbian Erotica 2001. (Later, it was accepted for Best of the Best Lesbian Erotica 2.) Eventually, I had a string of stories in BLE 2004, 05, 06, 07 and 09, but several of my annual submissions were cut from the short list.

My acceptance in England continued. Adrienne, webmistress of ERA, sent me a private email to say that editor Kerri Sharp of Black Lace Books had complained to her about the clich├ęs and sentimentality of the lesbian erotica in her slush pile. Apparently Ms. Sharp asked Adrienne to recommend a writer of hard-edged lesbian erotica like Pat Califia or Carol Queen. Adrienne recommended me!

Feeling like an imposter, I contacted Ms. Sharp, who offered to let me bend the rules by sending her my story submissions by email instead of mailing them to London from the middle of Canada. Eventually, she accepted four of my erotic stories: "Hades and Persephone" (a lesbian retelling of the ancient Greek myth), "Meeting the Bitch" (about an all-woman triangle), "Opening Ceremony" (about the opening of a dress shop and a woman with past experience in the sex trade, like me), and the already-published "Cycles" for two anthologies in the Wicked Words series (#3 and #8). To disguise her acceptance of two of my stories for each book, she asked me to make up a different pen name for each.

The disguise was a turn-on. In the best lesbian tradition, I felt as though I were slouching about the virtual streets of Sexville, naked under a raincoat, with a fedora pulled down over my eyes.

By then, I had enough confidence to continue writing even when an editor`s response disappointed me. Every year for several years, I pelted Marcy Sheiner with submissions for Best Women`s Erotica. She rejected most of them without telling me to stop sending her this crap.

In a few cases, I felt she completely misunderstood my intentions, possibly because I hadn`t made them clear enough. I sent her a story named "Taste," about a middle-aged librarian who has vivid memories of breast-feeding her daughter, now grown, and has a hallucinatory dream about sex with a gargoyle. Marcy told me the story needed to be revised to make it clearer that the narrator is a woman who needs to be needed. My viewpoint character was somewhat autobiographical, and I didn’t feel this was her raison d'etre. I explained this, and Marcy sensibly suggested that we probably couldn't come to an agreement about her. Years later, Cecilia Tan, founder of Circlet Press, accepted that story for an anthology of fantasy erotica.

Different strokes, as they say, for different folks. I learned that no one's taste is completely objective, and that I could survive a deal-breaking difference of opinion.

How far would I go to stay in an editor's good graces? Farther than some devoted submissives, I'm sure, especially when it seems harder than ever before to make money from published erotica. Yet there comes a time when a writer and an editor simply can't agree on a particular piece, and this is not a sign of incompetence on either side.

When to hang in there, retweaking and revisioning, and when to walk away? Now there is a topic for another post.


  1. Hello, Jean,

    Excellent point here. You can have a marvelous story, send it to a marvelous editor - and be misunderstood. Or just not fully appreciated. And you know, the more original your work is, the more likely this scenario is to occur.

    I had no idea you'd published shorts with Black Lace! Guess your pseudonym worked.

  2. Thanks, Lisabet.

    In WW #3 and WW #8, I have one story under the name "Jean Roberta" and one under "Ainsley Gray," two family names from English ancestors who probably turned in their graves. :-)

  3. What a great post, Jean. How cool that Adrienne recommended you to Kerri Sharp!

    I'm really enjoying this week's topic, reading about everyone's experience with first and other editors.

    Thanks for sharing, Jean!

  4. I've seen some of your stories in the BEst Lesbian series when thumbing through them in 2nd Charles a second hand bookstore in my little town. Its always a vicarious thrill when I see a name in a book I know.

    Was that the Ms. Sharp Lisabet started out with?


  5. Thanks for reading, Emerald!

    Oh yes, Garce. There was only one Kerri Sharp editing anthos for Black Lace Books, a division of the huge Virgin business empire run by British zillionaire Richard Branson.


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