Monday, January 15, 2018

Battles with Editors - #Editing #AmWriting #TrustYourself


Editors red pen

By Lisabet Sarai

I’ve been publishing erotic fiction for nineteen years now. During that time, I’ve learned two important, somewhat contradictory lessons:

1. My words are not sacred.
2. Editors can be wrong.

When I first began publishing, I tended to think of my stories as artistic creations which would lose their integrity if they were altered. This attitude probably carried over from my poetry. I’d always viewed poems as snapshots of experience and perception. All my poems were written in a single sitting, often in less than an hour, to capture some sudden insight or intense emotion. I never revised them. Editing them afterward would distort the truth they embodied, the essence of the moment in which they were created. Or so I believed.

Hence I resisted my early editors, who wanted to change various aspects of my work. Only grudgingly did I remove the golden shower from the first, Black Lace edition of Raw Silk. I felt that the scene exemplified the D/s dynamic between Kate and Gregory. (It also pushed my personal buttons.) My editor replied, not unreasonably, that a man with an erection could not have managed this. Out it went (though the editor did allow the characters to fantasize about such activities in the indefinite future).

When my pure romance publisher got hold of Raw Silk, even the fantasy reference had to go. Indeed, as an author of erotica I had a lot of difficulty adjusting to the rules of erotic romance, at least as promulgated by this publisher. In their defense, they subjected everything they published to multiple rounds of editing, for both content and format. The overall results were definitely improved over my original manuscripts. Over the years that I worked with them, I received some excellent advice from some of my editors. Others, though, I fought with tooth and nail.

I’ve come to realize that authors need to balance their personal visions of their work with the informed suggestions (or dictates) of their editors. Editors often can see structural and language issues in a story to which the writer is blind. Editors also may have a clearer picture of the target market, so features in a story that conflict with the expectations of that market are more obvious to them than to the author.

That being said, I bristled when my editor insisted I replace my (many) semi-colons with em dashes. It took me a while to understand that this was a question of fashion, not correctness. Then there was the editor who wanted to strike every use of “that” to introduce a dependent clause. Every single one. Okay, I was willing to admit I might have overused the construction, but sometimes the rhythm of a sentence required that extra beat. I was selective in my obedience to her dictates.

The editor who believed that any verb phrase that included a form of “to be” was passive, however, I simply ignored. I also rejected changes that put entire paragraphs of flashbacks into the past perfect tense, even though strictly speaking that would be “correct”. Instead, I’d change the first few verbs, then revert to simple past. Otherwise, the text sounded stilted and awkward.

Content-related edits are tougher. Recently I had a story accepted to an anthology of fetish erotica. My tale, in a flashback, shows the birth of the protagonist’s fetish, when he was in high school. The scene includes arousal and masturbation, but no intercourse. The anthology editor insisted that we had to take out any suggestion of underage sex, even solo sex.

I fumed. Finally I gave in, deciding it didn’t make much difference in the story.

Probably the most difficult editing experience I’ve had was my erotic romance The Ingredients of Bliss. My initial manuscripts are normally pretty clean. Rarely did I need more than one round of content edits. In this case, we did four. My editor forced – well, strongly urged – me to excise or rewrite entire scenes.

One problem was that I’d let my imagination take over, and written a novel that was more erotica than erotic romance. My heroine Emily already had romantic attachments to two men, but I found her lusting after the tough female police detective Toni and even the sexy but dangerous villain – a French gangster named Jean the Shark.

The plot required her to seduce the Shark in order to find the drugs he’d stolen from the mob who’d kidnapped her lovers. In my early drafts, Emily enjoyed that process far too much to please my editor! I had to sit on my instincts, suppress my fantasies, and make Emily repelled by him, rather than attracted. I found that tough to do.

The seduction ends in an attempted rape, as the sedative Emily has slipped in Jean’s food to neutralize him fails to take effect. The editor really took a red pen to that scene! Okay, I’ll admit it was pretty raw and violent initially. The toned-down version still gets the idea across. And yes, as effective as the original scene was (in my personal opinion), maybe it didn’t belong in a book billed as erotic romance. Still, it hurt to cut those paragraphs, because I’d felt them so intensely in writing them.

I did draw the line, though, at sanitizing the language. Jean uses some strong epithets when he discovers Emily’s double-dealing, including some racial slurs. I refused to remove these terms. I viewed them as essential details helping to define Jean’s character.

The editing process for this novel was exhausting and demoralizing. I actually considered pulling the submission and publishing it elsewhere. Unfortunately, the book was designed for a particular series of this publisher. Plus it was a sequel to a novella written in the same series, so I would have had to figure out how to reclaim the rights to that book as well.

Did I choose my battles wisely, fighting about the important issues, surrendering gracefully in areas where the changes seemed less damaging? I’ll never know. I’m fairly happy with the way the book turned out (though I still fantasize about an affair between Emily and Antoinette), but it has never sold well. Sometimes I wonder whether readers can sense the tension that went into its production. Can they see the blood staining the pages where my editor and I fought?

Still, my publisher got the last word (though only on their site, not on Amazon).

Reader Advisory: This book contains female dominance and submission, anal sex, public sex, ethnic slurs, threats of violence and a scene of attempted rape.

Sigh.

These days, I’ve switched almost entirely to self-publishing. Guess I’m avoiding the battles, rather than choosing them, but it’s a lot less stressful.

18 comments:

  1. Re. editors and their stylistic edits: I may have said this before here, but one of the reasons I quit was I was just so sick of chasing after short-story editors to let me look at all the changes they were making to my work, so I could see all the places where they'd (a) introduced bad grammar under the mistaken impression that they were "fixing" my grammar; (b) taken the liberty of rewriting things in such a fashion that it altered my intended meaning and/or used language that was inconsistent with my voice; (c) changed a word to a different word that I had already used in the previous or subsequent sentence or paragraph and thus had deliberately avoided repeating; or (d) changed or removed something that then left a subsequent reference to the same thing "orphaned." I was sick of being treated as a pest or a "precious" writer just because I wanted to discuss and negotiate these things rather than having them thrust on me unawares. (I was always happy to rewrite a sentence until the editor was satisfied with it, but I wanted to be the one to do it.) By the end, when I'd learned that almost all editors did these things (or, if they didn't, their publishers did after the manuscripts were passed along) and it was, increasingly, in service of some e-anthology or other that hardly anyone would read anyway (and for which my pay would be negligible), I came to feel that it just wasn't worth the ongoing and cumulative stress, humiliation, and aggravation anymore.

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    1. I think this is more of a problem with short story collections than with a longer work. At least with novels, you have to approve the changes. Or as they called it when I was just getting started, "the galleys"!

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    2. Yes. With a novel (my first one, that is), the equivalent of all this was seeing the e-book go live with all the italics formatting absent.

      But short stories really mattered to me. They were my main thing, the thing I would have been most likely to keep doing if the circumstances had been different.

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    3. Anthologies are an endangered species, probably too far gone to survive much longer. Short stories, however, are apparently doing fine as stand-alones self-published on Amazon. I've been told that writers can make more on a short story on Amazon than I can pay them for a story in an anthology. How any short story can get attention among the thousands online is beyond me, and how they can be profitable with the cost of a cover image boggles my mind, but there it is. I too am a dinosaur.

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    4. Yeah, like all those other "solutions" that get touted among writers, I'm sure that one works only for a minority of writers under very particular circumstances.

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  2. On the "choosing one's battles" theme: One of the editors at one of my favorite places to publish short stories, back in the day, was highly qualified but had a tendency to overedit so as to bring the writer's voice more in line with his (the editor's) own voice. (And I don't think I was the only author who felt that way.) To his credit, he always sent edits to the writer for review, and he was always willing to revert things that the writer wasn't happy with. Nonetheless, it took the writer a lot of time and effort to identify, consider, and protest about a lot of highly involved editor revisions that largely seemed gratuitous in the first place (though, to be fair, there were a small minority that I welcomed as actual improvements). So, just to be able to write a slightly shorter e-mail and to show a spirit of cooperation, I took a "choosing my battles" approach and only protested about the changes that I was definitely unhappy with. The ones that were like "I prefer my version, but I can live with his version" or "this really seems like a totally unwarranted change just for the sake of making a change, but anyway it's six of one, half dozen of the other as far as I'm concerned," I just accepted.

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    1. This is definitely a problem (editors imposing too much of their own style). Putting on my editor's hat, I'll admit that I'm sometimes guilty of this. My style is really quite different from Daddy's for instance. Fortunately he had the gumption to object when I moved things too far away from his original voice.

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  3. I've never been confident that my way was best. Considering my high school education, I will usually defer to the editor who I know has a better handle on craft than I. After all, I was blessed with terrific luck to have you, Lisabet, as my editor.

    That being said, I don't know what I would have done if you wanted to cut certain scenes from some of my more transgressive work (such as in A Woman in My Position) that almost wrote themselves in a flurry of personal emotion. As you mention, some scenes are very close to our true selves.

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    1. Yeah, you really told me where to get off when I tried to get rid of the grammar errors in "Dear Special K"!

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  4. I had one editor who wanted to have a tough, Roma biker, refer to the ear of a woman he wanted as a "pink, pearl-shaped flower." Um...no? She's the one who insisted to me that "real bikers" like her and her husband never refer to Harleys as "hogs." Um, again, have known quite a few bikers in my day, and yes, they did.

    Another one insisted that all uses of the perfect/participle tense be removed, because they made the writing sound "passive." Since I tutor kids in grammar, I've made up ways for them to remember how and when to use perfect/participle, and when to use progressive; also ways to know when to use the active versus the passive voice, and what constitutes both. So...um...nope. But I had to defer to that one, since she owned the company!

    Good on you, Lizbeth, that you usually stand your ground. It's hard for writers. I, also, used to think of every word I wrote as gilt-edged and perfect. But like children, they can always be improved upon. That's also what I teach my kiddies: that no piece of writing is ever "done." It can always be made better. But sometimes, there's just no need to keep at it. Especially when there are other stories clamoring to be written.

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    1. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: There are some self-styled editors and publishers out there who really aren't qualified for the job.

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    2. Hi Fiona!

      Yes, that's another thing I've learned. There's always another story. So if an editor has really mauled one of mine, I try to let it go. (That's true of awful covers, too.)

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  5. For whatever sins I've committed as an editor, I'm now being exponentially punished in my attempt to write a novel. Probably good for me in the long run, if indeed I have a long run.

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    1. Hi, Sacchi. I was actually thinking about you and your novel when I wrote this, because I know you and your editor have been doing a lot of back and forth tussling. It can be truly painful. I'm still really looking forward to the result, though.

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  6. I like the way you present this with such balance, Lisabet! It's a tricky balance to strike, to believe in oneself the right amount while also learning from what editors have to offer. Like most of these balances, it's hard to know when we have it exactly right. That said, I have sent some pretty serious smackdowns over the years to editors trying to mess up my grammar! I'm a relatively nonconfrontational person, but that gets me going like almost nothing else!

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    1. What is it about grammar that gets us so hot under the collar? ;^)

      Welcome back, Annabeth!

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    2. What is it about grammar that gets us so hot under the collar?

      Well, speaking for myself (and at the risk of answering a rhetorical question!), what specifically gets my goat is the scenario of someone in a decision-making position changing my good grammar to bad grammar (which will then appear under my by-line), in the belief that they're "correcting" my "mistakes" (and with such misplaced self-assurance that they think they don't even need to discuss it with me). So it's not grammar, per se, that's the issue for me; when I encounter faulty grammar in the wild in other contexts, my collar remains cool (and I only feel impelled to correct it when that's my job).

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    3. Though I admit that there is also a certain type of grammar mistake that I find irksome in a more impersonal way: mistakes that seem to be the result of someone who is generally well qualified learning a bogus "rule." (A signature example is the incorrect appositive comma, e.g., "Author, Jeremy Edwards wishes you hadn't put that comma there.") When people make comma mistakes just because they're confused and floundering, I think, "Well, you need an editor," but I don't get annoyed. But when they make the sort of mistake that says, "I know exactly what I'm doing, and my teacher taught me to always put a comma before the name of an author or book or film," something inside me shouts, "NOOOOOOO! WILL YOU JUST STOP THAT ALREADY?? WHO KEEPS TEACHING PEOPLE THAT??" (:v>

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