Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How to Advertise "Editability"

The lines between "mainstream" and "sensual" seem to be blurring these days, as more "mainstream" books include steamy scenes that just get racier as time passes. When I write, I have to decide how far to take the steamy scenes, if I don't just close the bedroom door. But I'm never averse to stepping up the heat level if a publisher wants, or adjusting it down or taking it out entirely. When trying to sign on with an agent, is there some way to say, "I'll be glad to tailor these scenes to suit the market" without sounding wishy-washy? And do you have to do that when you pitch the book?

Whether you’re writing steamy bedroom scenes, gory murder scenes, bloody battle scenes, or fantastical fantasy, I think you always need to do two things. The first is push your own limits and boundaries. Don’t get sucked in to what you think the market wants, editors will want, or agents want. One of the biggest mistakes I see authors make all the time is toning down their own writing because they think that’s what the market dictates. Take a look at some of the bestselling authors out there. One of the things they all have in common is that at the time their first work was published or they started to hit it big they were pushing the boundaries of what was seen as the norm for that time. To succeed you have to be different, and different means thinking outside of the box. Don’t be afraid to do that.

The second thing authors need to always consider is writing the book that works. If you feel a certain scene warrants hot sex or a really gruesome murder, then write it that way. If you feel that it is a tamer sex scene or the murder is off the page, go ahead and do that too. We can tell almost instantly when an author is no longer writing the book she feels should be written. It shows. If an agent really loves everything about your book, but feels the sex is too steamy or the fight too gory, she can easily ask you to tone that down. And trust me, we all assume that anyone submitting their work to us is open to revisions and changes. If not, it’s probably not going to be a good fit, so there’s no need to tell us you’re open to making changes. Write the book as you feel it should be and the rest should follow.



Kate Douglas said...

My first NY sale, which Jessica made for me, came after twenty years of submissions (by me, not Jessica) and it was with a story where I literally ignored boundaries. I had been STRONGLY advised to leave out a graphic rape scene between two men that I knew was pivotal to the story. I left it in and the book not only launched the new line of erotic romance at Kensington, but has since gone on to multiple printings. I did not write the book for New York--I wrote it for myself and it was originally published by a small ebook company called Changeling Press. Writing "for" New York is probably why I couldn't sell anything for the first twenty years, but it's never too late to learn. When agents and editors tell you to write your own book, I guess they mean it!

Lorra said...

Wow - great timing!

I'm in the process of a final edit of my biomedical novel and am torn about technical stuff.

On the one hand, Tess Gerritsen was kind enough to email me when I stated on her blog that I was planning to "dumb down" the genetic/medical info, telling me that readers enjoy that stuff even if they can't fully understand all of it.

On the other hand, a beta reader found himself skimming much of the genetics, feeling it impeded the flow of the story at times.

In earlier edits, I deleted tons - and I mean tons of technical info - getting it down to what I believed was the bare bones, leaving only info I felt was critical for authenticity. I have done an immense amount of research on the disease featured in the story, including meeting with the world's foremost experts on the subject. Yet, I find myself wondering if the technical stuff amounts to darlings that need to go the way of bad guys or if agents/editors are better equipped than I to decide what needs to go bye-bye.

I know there's not enough information in this comment for anyone who hasn't read the material to make a precise recommendation, but thoughts from others would be most appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I like technical information in stories like yours. First of all, I usually feel like I learned something if I believe that the information is accurate and credible. Secondly, I just find it interesting.

My only caution is to watch your pacing. Moments of high tension need to move at the right pace, and too much information can impede that.

Good luck with it!

Anonymous said...


This issue has come up in my critique group, regarding a novel that features the chemistry and science of making wine, plus related scientific topics.

If there were four of us critiquing, invariably two would say the detail took them out of the story -- and the other two would remark how much it added for them!

One key seems to be this: If the information is presented in such a way that we feel we are back in school being lectured to, it doesn't work. When the writer has deftly woven the details into the text (including words we can neither pronounce nor define!), it does.

Many readers love to learn all kinds of new things -- as long as they don't feel that someone is trying to teach them.

My guess is that asking people's opinions (no matter how educated and experienced they may be) is akin to flipping a coin...

My existential approach: Ask your book what it wants! (-:

Anonymous said...

I failed to chime in on yesterday's post about "bad books," and I just want to point out one inconsistency in the "sour grapes" argument. Plenty of people who are readers never plan or want to be writers, and they too feel there are some (not the majority, no; and a book you don't care for is not necessarily a bad book) BAD BOOKS out there. How can that be sour grapes?

There are bad movies, bad clothes, bad toys, bad food, bad ideas. Why are books somehow different? Are there more gatekeepers? No. Are agents and editors somehow infallible? No.

Bad books exist. Period. And some of them are published.

Lorra said...

Chessie and Rachel -

A huge thank you! Wish I were in both of your critique groups.

Chessie, your comment on pacing is critical - I believe that was part of the problem my beta reader had with the technical stuff and I will keep that in mind as I edit.

Rachel - your comment about being careful not to "lecture" is wonderful. I hadn't really thought of it that way, but since I have taught chemistry extensively, my little teacher's voice just might be rearing its pushy little head. I'll watch for that as well.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I write thrillers and the issue has dogged me on just how far I should go with gore and/or violenc-filled passages. Too often I've toned it down for fear of going 'over the top' and by so doing ruining any chance of representation by agents who are turned off. My sense has been to play it safe though I suspected agents have seen it all and would perhaps guide an author in that department once they 'love the book.' Your reasoning has emboldened me. And for that I am grateful.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that a person should "push their limits" simply in hopes of selling big anymore than you seem to support writers toning down their writing in hopes of selling to a certain market. I think a person should write what they're comfortable with or (and I agree with you here) what a scene demands in order for the story to work.

I've read countless fantasy books that have graphic (not to mention predictable/boring) sex scenes that are purely there to titillate, probably because the author felt she had to "push the boundaries" to met the perceived market. Just like with any other scene, I think if it doesn't serve the specific purpose of revealing new information and pushing the story forward, then gore, sex, highly technical information you learned while doing research, etc., shouldn't be put in the book. But if it's necessary for the book to work, then keep it even if it does push boundaries or limits or conventional writing advice.

Just my 2 cents.

Heidi Willis said...

lorra - I also am writing a biomedical novel, and I looked to some of the "experts" in writing to see how it is done. In legal books like John Grisham and Jodi Picoult, often the information is doled out in court scenes, where the information is technical, but easy to follow because it is meant for a jury to understand. Also, when it's done well it is broken up into small bites so that the reader isn't reading fifteen pages at a time of it.

In my book, a child is diagnosed with a disease and the doctor has to explain very technical information for the kid and her uneducated parents. I am sprinkling the medical information over the entire book, bringing up information as it becomes necessary for the characters to know it.

I use to love reading Tom Clancy, but I did skip paragraphs when it got too heavy and my brain started spinning. Still, it didn't stop me from buying the books because the story line was what hooked me.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm very willing to make revisions as needed when the time comes. However, the extent of my sex scene would consist of something like a woman running her tongue across her lover's wrist and up his palm and middle finger, then sucking the finger into her mouth. After that, the aftermath is sufficient for me.

There are people far better than I am at graphic sex and violence and I am not going to try and compete with them.

Hopefully, my story is interesting enough with it.

As far as mentioning I would make revisions as needed? No, it's assumed I will do all I can to make my story marketable. I don't think any agent or editor worth their salt would ask a writer to produce something alien to their style.

Gabrielle said...

Listen to your post-NaNoWriMo inner editor!

I think the whole really-sexual or really-graphic needs to work within each story. For example, Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series has no graphic sex to speak of, but she plays around with tension and chemistry so that you LOVE her books. It works! Jennifer Weiner goes a bit more graphic, but it works for her books' emphasis on real women, real situations.

Coming from the YA genre where language is sometimes a do-I-do-it, do-I-not, I think the same principle applies. You get Jeremy Iverson's "High School Confidential," with NC17 language but his portrayal of high school life is brilliant and gritty. Other YA authors don't use profanity at all, but their work still resonates.

As a reader, I'm not turned off (usually) by graphic fill-in-the-blank unless it just seems like the author likes graphic-ness. Then I get annoyed. :D

Anonymous said...

I think the question of how much technical detail is a point of view question. Would your PoV character be thinking about precisely how a bug attacks a particular part of the body and what the blood markers were? Yes, if she was trying to diagnose a patient. No, if she was running for her life from someone holding a syringe of the bug.

J Scott Savage said...

I agree completely. You have to come at things from a different angle. One of the two protagonists in my fantasy series is a 13 year-old boy in a wheelchair. It's not conventional, but it was what the story needed.

I don't write romance. But I believe in strongly pushing the fantasic in a fantasy novel. I honestly don't know if the magic--whatever that magic might be--can be too exciting, unusual, or powerful. Every time I think I've gone far enough, I find one more cool thing I can add.

I figure my editor can always tell me to back off, but so far that's never happened.