by | May 21, 2014 | General | 13 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

A word to readers: this blog post has nothing to do with BDSM. However, it does feature some pain.

A few months ago, inspired by one of my blog posts here, Donna George Storey challenged ERWA followers to take the NWWTHYW challenge. “NWWTHYW” stands for “National Write Whatever The Hell You Want”. We declared March to be NWWTHYW month at ERWA and even established a special blog page for people to share their experiences.

I was pretty quiet during that month. I felt like a hypocrite. Because even as my fellow authors were crowing about setting their muses free and flying high on the currents of their personal visions, I was laboriously twisting and reshaping my most recent novel, trying to fit it into the pigeon hole established by my publisher. While other blog commenters basked in the glow of their creative fervor, I was agonizing about just how much I’d have to cut and rewrite in order to satisfy the submissions editor.

A bit of history is required to understand the situation. Late in 2013 I responded to a call for short erotic romance works (15-20K) on a particular theme. This theme was supposed to provide the foundation for a new imprint with this (highly successful) publisher. They planned to put lots of energy into marketing the series, as it was part of a major rebranding effort.

The publisher was quite specific about what type of story was required: light, humorous, romantic, with a bit of a chick lit flavor. BDSM and ménage were okay as long as things didn’t get too intense. The first few ideas I had didn’t get the editor’s approval, but then I hit on a winning concept and went on to write Her Secret Ingredient. This is a slightly silly story about an ambitious female chef who tries to seduce the devastatingly handsome but authoritarian Frenchman running the cooking network where she’s been hired as a special guest. Instead she snags the rumpled but attractive producer, who turns out to be a closet Dom.

After this book came out, in late 2013, the publisher asked if I would be interested in writing a novel-length sequel. After a bit of wavering, I decided to give it a try. I wrote a blurb and sent it to the editor. She loved it. So I plunged in, making steady progress. I submitted the book on Valentine’s Day, and waited for a response. I thought the book was pretty good. I’d managed to broaden and deepen the characterization, focusing on a BDSM triangle in which my heroine dominates the French chef but submits to the producer. The plot premise of a series of on-location cooking shows in France gave me lots of opportunities for local color. (Since I took a three week vacation to France in 2013, I had plenty of material!)

This publisher usually turns submissions from their established authors around in a few days to a week. In this case, though, several weeks went by without my hearing anything. Finally I inquired about the status of the book.

Well (the editor said), The Ingredients of Bliss was well-written (a sop to my pride?) but the dark, raw tone didn’t fit well with the imprint. And wasn’t the plot a bit too elaborate for a romance? (In a case of mistaken identity, the heroes are kidnapped by a Hong Kong drug cartel and the heroine must figure out how to save them.) Meanwhile, could I make this be a true ménage, with Emily be equally in love with both of the men (producer Harry and chef Etienne), rather than having her feelings portrayed as ambiguous? Or else could I tone down her relationship with Etienne and focus more strongly on the fact that she and Harry are in love? Readers won’t like her if they think she’s fickle. And while we’re talking about fickle, the fact that she’s attracted to and considering having sex with the villain (who happens to be a dead-ringer for Etienne) is just not acceptable. Oh, and the little hints about F/F attraction to the police officer who’s helping her? Our readers don’t really like F/F interactions in a heterosexual book.

Dark, raw tone? She should read some of my other stuff! Bangkok Noir, or Exposure, for instance. Okay, the book includes a bloody gun battle and an attempted rape (by the villain) with some strong language, as well as a gory but erotic nightmare, but none of this is gratuitous. It all advances the plot and helps develop the heroine’s character.

As for Emily’s “fickleness”, her uncertainty about her true feelings, I see this as the core emotional conflict in the story. While she fights for her lovers’ lives, she’s also trying to come to terms with her dual attraction and to decide which, if either, of the men she Loves. (I deliberately capitalize the word, since I mean “love” in the romance sense of soul-mate/long-term commitment.)

Sure, she’s not in love with the gangster Jean Le Requin, but the plot requires her to seduce him in order to achieve her goals. Given that he looks and even smells like one of her lovers, wouldn’t she react to him physically, even if her emotions weren’t involved?

Meanwhile, what’s with the “too much plot” issue? This is, after all, a novel. Sixty five thousand words. I can’t just fill that up with one love scene after another, no matter how creative the BDSM! I’d get bored, even if my readers wouldn’t.

My first reaction was to pull the book and submit it elsewhere. “This is National Write Whatever The Hell You Want Month”, I told myself. “Why should I compromise my artistic vision to fit the expectations of somebody else?”

I soon realized, though, that the novel would lose a lot if it were not associated with the original short story. So I bit the bullet and did a revision, trying to address at least some of the editor’s concerns. This was pretty tough. My work has a lot of inertia. I revise continually while I am working, but once I write “The End”, the book starts to fossilize. I don’t have trouble modifying a few sentences or paragraphs, but for better or worse, my stories tend resist major structural changes.

In this first round of edits, I removed the part where the villain fingers Emily to orgasm at the Grand Prix races, destroying her fancy lingerie in the process (though I was really fond of that scene). I took out a passage where she’s guiltily contemplating the pleasures of screwing him. I added more declarations of love between Emily and Harry. I streamlined the plot a bit and tried to make the details more coherent.

The modifications were not substantial enough to satisfy the editor.

I tried again, completely removing any hint of attraction between Emily and Jean. I softened the attempted rape scene quite a lot, removing both the most extreme epithets and much of the physical violence. Without being asked, I excised the terrifying erotic dream, which had an extremely dark tone.

Better. Can you try one more time, please? And while you’re at it, could you edit the blurb? It’s a bit long and elaborate and gives the plot away. Can you take out some of the details, to help build suspense? Oh, and it would be good to focus more on Harry and less on Etienne. Don’t want to give potential readers false impressions.

I sent in a third revision. As far as the blurb was concerned, I made some minor changes, but I told the editor that I disagreed with many of her comments. The suspense in this book (I wrote) does not revolve around the kidnap plot but rather around Emily’s ambivalence regarding her two lovers and the roles of dominant and submissive.

Finally, the book was accepted. I suspect that the editor may have been tired of all the negotiation. Or who knows, maybe they really do like it.

Other authors I’ve talked to have told me this is a normal process that they’ve been through many times. However, being asked to do multiple rounds of substantive edits like this was a new experience for me, an experience that I found quite unpleasant. At several points I was tempted to throw down my toys and walk away in a huff.

I kept at it for several reasons. First, this publisher has always treated me very well (and I don’t want to imply that they were anything less than professional and courteous during this process, either). Part of me (the part that always tried to get straight A’s) felt guilty and embarrassed that I hadn’t met their expectations. Second, I knew it would be hard to sell this book elsewhere. I could find a publisher – that wouldn’t be a problem – but despite my relative lack of success, I had targeted this specific imprint and the book would be something of an orphan otherwise.

Still, I feel a bit sheepish after championing NWWTHYW and blogging about “writing commando”. After all is said and done, I guess I’m just another pussy-whipped author, meekly adapting my work to fit the market. (Okay, maybe not “meekly”!) Was this a matter of principle? Should I have stood my ground? Did I betray my Art?

When I get to this point, I have to laugh at myself. I don’t view my words as sacred. I write to entertain myself and my readers, and to explore certain ideas and scenarios I find intriguing. And of course, to make a bit of money, if I can. Yes, these edits skewed the book away from my original vision, but so what? The revised book probably will be more popular than the original would have been. I don’t doubt that it’s closer to what this publisher’s readers want.

After all, this is just one book. I can always go dark, deep and raw in the next.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Remittance Girl

    "Did I betray my Art?" When I get to this point, I have to laugh at myself.

    I admire you, Lisabet. I don't understand you as a writer at all, but I admire you.

    But I'd like to ask a question: if our words aren't sacred, what is?

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, RG,

      I think perhaps *your* words might be sacred… ;^)

      And Words with a capital 'W' are sacred indeed, full of power and potential.

      As for me, though – I know my stories don't carry any eternal truths. And I know that if I spent another week, or another month, polishing them, they'd no doubt benefit, at least from a literary perspective. But honestly – I don't have time.

      As noted in the post, I write mostly for my own entertainment – not for posterity. I like to challenge myself to try new genres, new premises,new approaches, not because of a devotion to art but because I find the process stimulating.

      I'm a hack. A dilettante. Albeit a moderately skilled one. I have no illusions.

  2. Bob Buckley

    Don't feel too bad, Lisabet. My scant experience with editors tells me this isn't unusual, but it's also why I don't submit much. Makes me wonder why, if they liked the story I submitted, they want to rework it into an entirely different story. My experience has also taught me that a really good editor is worth her weight in platinum.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I agree, Bob. It's unusual to find an editor who can fix technical and structural issues without suppressing your voice.

  3. Donna

    Thank you so much for writing this, Lisabet. It is very courageous and immensely helpful to other writers. We all read the usual schtick in the acknowledgements–"Thank you to my wonderful agent and my miracle-working editor, who helped make this book so much better with her brilliant suggestions!" Yep, maybe it does happen that way sometimes. And maybe people get picked from the slush pile to be in The New Yorker. Actually they never do, but we can keep hoping.

    I've also experienced the "your work is too dark and complicated" criticism from a mainstream publisher. That was for "Amorous Woman" btw. I wonder if these pressures come from genuine market research or if the editors are just making assumptions?

    I was reading a biography of James Joyce and realizing how his image of exiled genius informs our ideal of the artist/writer. He had lots of trouble getting published, too, for various reasons, but my point is that we have this vision of a writer as someone unbound by audience concerns, but the vast majority of us have to compromise. The legendary authors are those who give the audience what they want with style–Shakespeare, Dickens, Margaret Mitchell. And the publishers, most of them anyway, don't care about our complex world views and subtle imagery. They want sales. We can try to aim for both. We can try to aim for one at times and the other for the next project.

    Last but not least, NWWTHYW month (or lifetime) is more of an inspirational goal and does not involve measuring up. My main "accomplishment" that month was realizing that what I want to write at this point is not market-worthy as much as I wish it were!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks, Donna!

      I do have one accomplishment for NWWTHYW. I wrote a brand new F/F story, one that I'd been thinking about for a long time. And I let my vision and emotion carry it, bucking what I thought editors might want.

  4. Annabeth Leong

    Thanks for writing this, Lisabet.

    I've been thinking about how I can't resist interrogating/toying with/subverting romance tropes in my writing. I had the rather obvious realization recently that what I'm doing, from the perspective of the apparently large population of readers who are genuinely into those tropes, is screwing with their fantasies. It helps explain why I've had many reviews where people wished the subplot was the main plot or said they just didn't get my hero or what have you (because I like to write about the younger brother not the elder, or the guy who's scraping by at poverty level not the billionaire, etc).

    I'm sorry about the twisted path this book wound up on. While I do care about art, I can also get into a mode where I'm pragmatic and cynical. I worked as a journalist for enough years, struggling to satisfy a myriad of editors, that I've many times had the experience of losing all connection with whatever my vision might have been in a desperate effort to placate a superior who just won't let me go home until I do. That's to say that I don't know the answer to the question you pose.

    I recognize that I don't seem to have mainstream tastes, but what puzzles me is that I've met so many passionate readers who don't. I keep thinking there has to be a reasonable quantity of people out there who want to see that darker, weirder stuff. Or just stuff outside this narrow formula. I for one am always thrilled to see f/f interaction in a book, for example. Maybe that's not the "erotic romance" audience, but it's someone.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Annabeth,

      In this case, I wasn't even trying to subvert the romance tropes. I just can't keep my heroines from lusting after every hunk and hunk-ess they meet!

      Ultimately, it's clear that I'm an erotica author, even though I do have a strong romantic streak.

    • Annabeth Leong

      Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about the erotica/erotic romance thing. I like engaging with romance, but I am also happiest when I get to write erotica (and I go over better with erotica readers than romance readers, as far as I can tell). The stuff you're describing (like exploring attraction to the villain) does seem more in the erotica territory. But I think the key romance trope you're flouting is that the heroine doesn't fuck unless she loves (or could/will love). That's a big one. And, weirdly, I've seen a lot of signaling in erotic romance that the heroine isn't actually a "slut," she just loves the hero so much/is crazy attracted to him in a way that leads to love. Your heroines sound like they're having too much fun and they're far too comfortable exploring their own sexuality. Fine in erotica, but I might argue that in erotic romance, you're being subversive whether you intend it or not. (And to be clear, I find some ugliness to the need to slut-proof the heroine—I'm too much of a slut in real life to be comfortable with that. That trope really turns me off and I love when people thumb their noses at it).

    • Lisabet Sarai

      The thing is, in my sex goddess days (a distant memory at this point), I fucked a lot of guys. And I felt a kind of love for almost every one.

      I'm made for polyamory I guess. My DH and I were never able to make it happen, though. (I've learned you can't force it.)

    • Annabeth Leong

      Oh, good point, and I agree (and it matches my own experience). Now I'm up against the various meanings of the word "love." In my comment, I intended the "love as impetus toward lasting committed relationship" meaning, which is very much not the only possible one.

  5. Jean Roberta

    Ha! Lisabet, I suspected that your original calling as an erotica writer might have been at the heart of the difference between your vision and the editor's. The differences between erotica and erotic romance have been rehashed numerous times here in ERWA, so I won't try to reopen that can of worms. However, the suggestions of your editor point to a central difference, as I see it: erotica is often raw, dark and unsettling, about real desires and disturbing dreams, and romance (traditionally, at least) was what one critic called "an obstacle course on the way to the altar." You have our sympathy and admiration for your willingness to do massive rewrites to get your book into print.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      "An obstacle course on the way to the altar"! Fabulous!

      I've actually written some very romancey romance without compromising my visions. However, I'm not (I don't think anyone is) in total control of my imagination.Sometimes it leads me astray (at least from the editor's perspective)

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