Preserving the Author’s Voice

by | March 21, 2015 | General | 13 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

In addition to writing erotica and erotic romance, I’m also an editor. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve edited three multi-author anthologies, two commercial (Sacred Exchange and Cream) and one for charity (Coming Together: In Vein). As editor of the Coming Together Presents series, I’ve also been responsible for shepherding six collections of short stories by single authors into publication. Right now I’m working with Daddy X (whom many of you will know from ERWA Storytime and Writers) to help him put together his full-length volume The Gonzo Collection, to be released by Excessica in April.

Writing and publishing is hard work. From researching obscure details to wrestling the recalcitrant muse, endless self-promoting to surviving snarky reviews, being an author is not for sissies. You need the energy of teenager, the thick skin of a water buffalo and the self-discipline of a saint.

Sometimes, though, I think that the editor role is even more difficult. If a book you write sucks, that reflects on you alone. When you’re the editor, on the other hand, you hold the fate of others in your hands. It’s not just your own reputation that’s on the line. Your colleagues depend on you to polish their work and make it shine. If the book crashes and burns—gets horrible reviews, or turns out to be full of errors—you take the authors down with you. That’s a heavy responsibility to bear.

Hence I have to be far more careful editing others’ work than self-editing my own. After all, I can rely on my editor to catch those typos or repeated words or slips in logic that I don’t see no matter how many times I review my manuscript. When I’m the editor, there’s no backup. If I miss some mistake, nobody else is going to find it—except, of course, critical readers.

The trickiest part of editing is keeping a light touch. The utmost delicacy is required. Sometimes I want to suggest significant revisions, to improve clarity or flow, to tighten a description or enliven some dialogue. I have to hold myself in check, recognizing that every author tells a story differently. There’s a very real danger in editing—especially when the editor is also an writer—that revisions will dilute the author’s distinctive voice. Some changes I could recommend might improve the work from a technical perspective but do violence to the author’s characteristic style. There’s a constant temptation to impose my own vision on the manuscript, especially when the author’s approach to structure, language and punctuation differ from my own.

I hope Daddy X won’t mind me using his work as an example. I love the boundless sexual enthusiasm in his stories, the wacky scenarios, his over-the-top descriptions and his sly humor. At the same time, his prose tends to have less continuity than mine. Where I’d put in a scene break or an explicit bridging paragraph, he’ll jump from one outrageous set of events to another without batting an eyelash. He also tends to make far heavier use of dialect than I’d feel comfortable with. And he seems to adore ellipsis and interrupted speech. It’s rare for his characters to get out a full sentence that doesn’t include an em dash or two.

If this were my book, I’d strip out eighty percent of the ellipses. I’d avoid using “ain’t”. I’d add transitional paragraphs to clarify the shifts in point of view, and I’d never have a character emit vocalizations like “Anh” or “Ooooowee!” or “Ogeg.”

But it’s not my book. It’s Daddy’s book, Daddy’s stories. If I were to set my red pen loose the way I would on a student term paper, that might stop being true. The resulting book would be more correct, grammatically. It might be easier to read. It would certainly be more conventional. My heavy-handed editing process, though, might well extinguish the spark that makes Daddy X’s work special.

I’m picking on the current book because it’s fresh in my mind, but I’ve felt the same tension in all my professional editing work. I have to constantly remind myself that there’s no one “right” way to write. My job as editor is to refine the raw material of the author’s initial draft without reshaping it too much. Preserving the author’s distinctive voice is as important as fixing his or her grammar.

I know from working with some of my own editors how hard they sometimes push for changes that I think are wrong. The authors with whom I work know they can always push back—that almost every change I make should be viewed as suggested rather than absolutely required. I hope they feel free to debate those suggestions, or simply reject them, if they think those revisions weaken the story they’re trying to tell.

In the end, my name will be on the final result, but I don’t want anyone to pick up the book and think “Gee, this sounds a lot like Lisabet’s prose.” That would indicate a utter and complete failure.

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. Amanda Earl

    you were a fabulous editor for my Coming Together collection, Lisabet. you showed great sensitivity on matters of style, while at the same time helping to ensure readability. some of your insights here show why that is the case. thanks for all you do.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks so much, Amanda.

      Working with other authors also has the effect of making me more aware of my own stylistic choices, and how they differ from others'.

  2. Sam Kruit

    As a fellow editor, I know how hard it is to strike that balance. You need to respect someone's style while working out the places where they need to try something different.

    spunds like you have grateful clients, so you're clearly doing an excellent job!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Sam,

      Being an editor definitely requires a sort of "suspension of ego". Furthermore, the final choice always needs to belong to the author. After all, that's the name that's going to be on the cover.

  3. Sam Kruit

    Gah, "sounds like", not spunds like. Flaming autocorrect… Making me incorrect…

  4. Donna

    The more I learn about every stage of the publishing process, the more I appreciate the skill and insight necessary to do it well. I've certainly found it to be the case is writing/critiquing groups that some people are able to respect the author's voice and give suggestions to improve a story on its own terms, while others seem to think rewriting it as they would have done is the best course. It's so much harder to do the former, but that is the true editorial craft. Authors are always very thankful for editors who support them the way you are doing!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks, Donna!

      In some ways, the fact that I'm also an author is helpful. I can temporarily take off my editor hat and put on my author hat, to consider how I would feel if an editor wanted me to do something that felt wrong.

  5. Daddy X

    This keeps striking my comment. Lisabet's been great to work with. She also did a great job on Amanda's Coming Together Collection. We could all take lessons from her

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hah! Thanks, Daddy.

      Actually, I should mention that I've only edited books by authors whose writing I admire… It would be far more difficult to edit poorly written work.

  6. Remittance Girl

    Lisabet, you are a marvelous editor, and I have a wonderful anthology to testify to the fact.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Well, I started with the best of raw material…!

  7. Lisabet Sarai

    By the way, I honestly did not post this looking for testimonials. ;^)

    My goal was to show blog readers the world from the editor's side of the fence, the sort of challenges we face.

  8. Fiona McGier

    How exciting that Daddy X will soon have a book out! I've been judiciously buying books by other authors I've come to know, and that really adds to my enjoyment, when I "know" the author. I'll be looking for future announcements.

    And I do think you did a good job of detailing how hard it is to edit, yet not correct–to change grammatically, but not obscure the author's voice. It's a fine line and one that I admire in good editors.

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