Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Sunday, May 27, 2012

From All Sides of the Desk

by Jean Roberta

Like most free-lance writers, I hold down a day job that enables me to pay for food and lodging. Sometimes my multiple roles as an English instructor, a writer, a reviewer and a blogger make me feel insane, but at other times, I think they enable me to relate to students, other writers and editors with a certain perspective. If you are a writer who wonders whether editors eat nothing but raw meat, or you are an editor who wonders whether most writers avoided school while being raised by wolves, I recommend sitting on the other side of the desk.

In the 1980s, my Purgatorial Decade, I was struggling to survive as a divorced mother while endlessly revising a thesis for a Master’s degree in English from a Canadian university. The reason for the endless revising was that each chapter had to be approved first by my faculty advisor, then by other members of a committee whose job it was to give me additional advice. This usually involved telling me to add more footnotes to a book that eventually grew to 200 pages, with a 12-page bibliography.

To distract myself from the pain of this process, I sent a collection of lesbian stories (with no explicit sex in them) to a one-woman publisher who agreed to publish them as a book – but of course, she wanted me to make revisions first. At that time, I thought that too many people had too many opinions about how I should express myself on paper.

In the 1990s, I was hired to teach mandatory first-year English courses at my Alma Mater. In 1998, I joined the Erotic Readers Association, as it was called then, and began posting my stories in Storytime and critiquing the stories and poems of other members. Thanks to ERA, I got my first erotic stories published. Since then, approximately 90 (I haven’t counted lately) of my erotic stories have been published in print, and even more of my reviews have been published and posted in various places.

I’ve learned that every piece of writing could benefit from editorial advice. I’ve also learned that editors, like writers, have their quirks. A certain magazine editor who has a PhD in English seems to like contractions better than I do, and he often edits my reviews accordingly. (“The author has lived in New York, London and Timbuktu” becomes “The author’s lived in New York,” etc.) Several years ago, when Dr. Editor was editing my review of a book on representations of African-American history in film, he changed one of my sentences to read: “The Black Panthers entered the California state legislature with guns blazing.” I had to explain to him that in this famous example of real-life 1960s guerrilla theatre, the Black Panthers didn’t actually massacre the whole government of California. They simply entered the capital building as observers, dressed in black berets and leather jackets and carrying legally-registered, unconcealed weapons, all of which was legal behaviour under state and federal law.

In some cases, I have had to explain the difference between “lie” and “lay” (two different verbs) to the editors of erotic journals and anthologies. I have also learned that grammatical correctness is not the same thing as an effective writing style, and that editors can often spot a clunky or unclear sentence that I overlooked in one of my stories. Since most erotic story-writers are usually racing against deadlines, we don’t usually have time to let a finished story sit for awhile, then reread it with fresh eyes and revise it before sending it in.

As a Canadian writer, I have had to explain both to British and American editors that I can, in fact, change “color” to “colour” or vice versa, and that if a story of mine seems to have misspellings and “incorrect” punctuation, that’s usually because I originally wrote it to send to a U.S. market and forgot to change the style before sending it to a British editor. In one case, I was paid for an erotic story in a magazine by means of U.S. bills tucked between the pages of the magazine which was snail-mailed to me on the Canadian prairies from England. I never knew whether the editor believed that Canada uses the same currency as the U.S. (It doesn’t. Like British pounds, our paper money features a portrait of the Queen, but with distinctive Canadian images of Prime Ministers, maple leaves, beavers and canoes.)

As an English instructor as well as a reviewer, I have read many a sentence that is much more hilarious than the writer seems to have intended. Several years ago, I collected a page of these gems and circulated them among my colleagues in the English Department. Some examples: “The main character in this story holds a bottle of beer between his legs, where the symbolism is located.” “An allusion is something that is not real but seen to be very important.” “Passive writing is a bad idea because the past is gone.”

As a reviewer, I have read sentences in published erotica that have almost caused me to spew coffee over a keyboard. One of my pet peeves is the description of impossible activities: “Their eyes locked from across the room, their lips meeting in a passionate kiss as they tore each other’s clothes from their panting bodies.” In erotica, as in directing a play, blocking (arranging the positions of the actors in relation to each other and the audience) is crucial. If one character seems to have three arms, the reader will be unable to suspend his/her disbelief long enough to get into the scene. And while the Christian Inquisition believed that “witches” could have more than two teats, descriptions of such features should probably be reserved for speculative fiction.

This year, I was honoured to be invited to co-edit an anthology of more-or-less scholarly writing. This is the printed version of a lecture/performance series called the Queer Initiative which was started five years ago at the university where I teach. All the presentations on gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/non-heteronormative material have been given by faculty members or guest speakers from elsewhere; the presenters have usually read from notes. My job is to copyedit the written versions, which were all sent to me as attachments to emails.

Carefully reading this material with a virtual red pen in hand has reminded me that academics are thinkers but not necessarily writers. I commented to my co-editor, who teaches Theatre, that a certain colleague of ours in Visual Arts sees connections that most other people probably miss (motifs in the visual imagery in several recent Hollywood films), but his insights are expressed in monster sentences. Co-editor grinned from ear to ear and added that our colleague also tends to speak in monster sentences.

I’ve been somewhat surprised by: 1) how satisfying it is to edit the work of other writers to make it look better, and 2) how receptive my colleagues have been to my editorial advice. In several cases, they have expressed relief that I’ve treated their subject-matter with respect even when making numerous changes to individual words, sentence structure and punctuation. Several of the writers have even admitted that the rules (or guidelines) of grammar are generally a mystery to them, and they are glad I seem to have a handle on this stuff.

Such fruitful negotiations make me wonder if world peace might be possible after all.
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Jean Roberta is a long-time member of ERWA who once agreed to post something here every three months, beginning on February 26. At that time, unfortunately, she had just returned from a trip and was in the midst of chaotic home renovations, so this is Jean's first post on the ERWA blog. Her monthly opinions column, Sex Is All Metaphors, ran on the ERWA website in 2008-2010. These 25 essays are now an e-book with the same title from Coming Together (www.eroticanthology.com) Jean's reviews of erotic material appear monthly on "Erotica Revealed" (www.eroticarevealed.com), and she is also one of the six writers who blog on "Oh Get a Grip" (www.ohgetagrip.blogspot.com).

5 comments:

  1. What an excellent post. Most interesting.

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  2. Talking about spew - I laughed so hard at your examples from your composition class that my husband asked if I was okay.

    I too sit on all sides of the desk, and I think it definitely gives one a sense of perspective. One can be gentler with one's edits when one remembers how it feels to receive them.

    Excellent inaugural post here at the ERWA blog, Jean! I look forward to reading more.

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  3. It's funny about what bothers each of us as editors. The truth is, that's an editor's style - what they fixate on. I'm almost certain I can see the hand of Maxwell Perkins in almost everything he edited. The ghost who hovers above the page.

    I don't have your problem with body parts that do impossible things. Because I think those verbs are really acting as metaphors. Far less tolerable is that they usually appear as knackered bits of cliche.

    I'm not much of a proofreader, but I can spot an author trying to protect their own egos by wrapping their main characters in a fluffy shroud of flawlessness a mile off. I have an unaccountably bad reaction to this. I've devised a number of cruel and unusual writing exercises for overcoming it in my classes.

    The other thing I find very hard to overlook is clunky, unbelievable dialogue. And there's a lot of it. Everywhere. Which makes me suspect many writers don't shut up and listen as much as they should.

    You've got me thinking about the art of the edit, JR.

    Bad girl.

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  4. I think editing is a wonderful thing. I have noticed that I constantly have stupid little things with my writing, little bits that don't make it quite salable or even appropriate. Editing helps find those bugs (though I've found typos in things I've had professional edited... just a lot less).

    It is painful to get a hard edit, but I really like the brutal edit that comes with the "why" things were picked.

    Overall, it's a Good Thing(tm). :)

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