Hypergraphia is a condition that causes people to transcribe their thoughts uncontrollably. I don't suffer from it in the clinical sense, but I may be borderline. My blog is the cyber-wall where I spray paint my thoughts for all to see. By the way, if you came here directly through blogger --if your page has no yellow frames and no pretty pic of me in the top left corner -- you may want to visit my main site at www.hypergraffiti.com, where you can read this blog and much much more.


I'm Trudy Morgan-Cole, a writer from St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. My books include "The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson," "Esther: A Story of Courage," and "Deborah and Barak." I'm also a married mom of two, a teacher in an adult-ed program, and a Christian of the Seventh-day Adventist kind. I blog about writing, reading, parenting, teaching, spirituality, and shiny things that catch my eye.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Same Great Harem, 30% Less Desire

Today is one of those rare days when Hypergraffiti gets to actually earn its spurs as a "writer's blog," because I'm going to talk a bit about writing. I'm going to talk, in fact, about how much you should be willing to revise your writing (a.k.a. "sacrifice your creative vision"), not for the sake of making a better book necessarily, but to fit the demands of a particular market in which you want to publish.

First, though, some happy happy joy joy news. My Biblical fiction novel Esther, published in 2003, has sold out its initial print run of 7500 and is going to be reprinted. This doesn't usually happen to my books and so I'm elated. I'm even more elated that my publisher, Review and Herald, is making an effort to market their line of Biblical novels to a wider variety of Christian publishers, so Esther may find herself with a few more readers.

But here's where the revising part comes in. My editor, who I like to call Amazing and Wonderful Jeannette, asked if I had any changes I wanted to make before the book went to press for its second edition. I had one that had been bugging me for years (I killed off the same very minor character twice, and that's just not right) but after I fixed that I started thinking about further changes. I thought about making the book a little less ... ahem ... how to say it? ... a little less sexy.

To explain: Esther is published by an inspirational Christian press and is thus aimed at a certain market. Most readers in that market like and expect their books to be free of explicit sexual content, so those are the set guidelines for inspirational publishing. The problem with the Biblical story of Queen Esther is that it takes place in a harem. Esther gets to be queen because her one-night stand with the King impresses him more than any of the other harem gals. So it's hard to write about this story without, you know, mentioning the bedroom. (For an example of a Christian book about Queen Esther that does this sidestep rather well, try Tommy Tenney's Hadassah: One Night with the King. For an example of a book about Queen Esther that I haven't read but that allegedly goes quite a long ways in the opposite direction, try Rebecca Kohn's The Gilded Chamber. But neither of those was the book I wanted to write).

I will always be incredibly grateful to Review and Herald and to my other editor there, who I like to call Fabulous and Terrific Penny, for wielding the red pencil with a light hand and allowing me to keep at least some of the allusions to bedroom matters in the novel. Penny did tone some of my scenes down a little, but you could still get the gist of it: sexual intercourse was being had by people.

I hasten to add that these were already very tame and non-explicit sex scenes. After the editing process, they were even tamer and less explicit. But even then, the book got some complaints from people who didn't want their inspirational fiction to contain even a hint of carnality. (Along with lots and lots of positive comments, too). So when the opportunity to revise came around I wondered: was it worth making a few changes to make the bedroom scenes even tamer, if it would win the book a few more readers?

This was especially relevant with the idea of marketing it to more Christian bookstores, because these folks have fairly stringent guidelines for what you can and can't say. Witness, for example, the following paragraph from the writers' guidelines for Harlequin's Steeple Hill line of inspirational romances:

Each story should have an emotional, satisfying and mature romance; however, the characters should not make love unless they are married. These are "sweet" romances. Any physical interactions (i.e., kissing, hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality. There should not be an excessive reliance on kissing scenes or use of words such as "desire," "need," etc. Please use euphemisms for the more intimate body parts. Please avoid any mention of nudity.

My favourite bit here is the injunction not to use the words "desire" or "need." I could spin off into a whole diatribe about that, exploring the interesting idea that perhaps Christian women shouldn't be encouraged to admit that they "desire" or "need" intimacy. But that would be a tangent. I do recognize that certain readers have certain expectations of books that come with an "inspirational" imprint on them, and I don't want to quarrel with that. I'm trying to focus on an issue here: I had in fact used the d-word and possibly the n-word in my novel. Was I willing to make minor changes, to turn down the heat a little, in hopes that the book would reach a wider audience?

My fellow Newfoundland novelist Tina Chaulk did an excellent blog awhile ago about outside censorship and the artist's perennial problem of writing things that offend people. I'm sure most writers have had to face this dilemma in one form or another: tell the story the way I think it should be told, or tone it down to avoid offending people? There are a lot of issues here and artistic integrity is certainly a big one. I wasn't prepared to write a version of the Esther story that ignored the fact that sex is smack-dab in the centre of this book of the Bible: Esther used the one weapon that was available to women at the time, and used it to save the Jewish people. If I can't at least allude to the weapon she used, it's not much of a story.

But another concern is respecting your market. Particularly if you're writing genre fiction, you do have to be sensitive to the conventions of that genre. Indeed, if you don't, you probably won't get published. I didn't want to see a situation where R&H, tolerant of my eccentricities as a writer, left all the "steamy" scenes in, then went to peddle the Biblical novels to Christian bookstores and got told, "We'll take all of them except that Esther book, cause that's just too hot to handle."

So I wrote Amazing and Wonderful Jeannette and told her to hang on for a few more revisions. Here's a sample of what I've done so you can see what I'm talking about here. Here's a description of Esther and King Xerxes, after they're married, in the afterglow of connubial bliss. First, I'll show you what I originally wrote:

Version 1 (a teeny bit racy): They were sitting together in a tiny interior garden tucked between the King’s bedchamber and his retiring room, dressed in as few clothes as possible because of the heat of the spring night and their own recent passion. Esther sat in the cradle of her husband’s arms and legs, leaning against his well-muscled chest, both their bodies filmed lightly with perspiration.

See that? The lack of clothes, the reference to "recent passion," Esther cradled between her husband's legs, and all that perspiration? It's pretty clear what they've been up to, even if I avoided describing the scene itself and skipped straight to the afterglow. So, that was a little too suggestive for this type of book. After editing, here's the version that eventually appeared in the published book:

Version 2 (quite a lot less racy): They were sitting together in a tiny interior garden tucked between the king's bedchamber and his retiring room, wearing as light and scanty clothing as decent because of the heat of the spring night. Esther sat in the cradle of her husband's arms and legs, leaning against his well-muscled chest, both their bodies filmed lightly with perspiration.

In the editing process, the reference to their recent passion was excised, and they are wearing as "light and scanty clothing as decent," because decency is still a concern here. Everything else stays -- the King's legs, his chest, even the perspiration (I realized too late that "filmed lightly with perspiration" sounds kinda like someone's making a movie about their sweat, but anyway).

This was one of the passages I chose to re-work today, trying to make it even more innocuous, while still suggesting a bit of "sweet" romance:

Version 3 (really not racy at all): They were sitting together in a tiny interior garden tucked between the king’s bedchamber and his retiring room. The warm air of the spring night was filled with the scent of the flowers growing all around them. Esther reclined in her husband’s arms, leaning against his well-muscled chest.

Oh, how things have changed. No more recent passion, no more scanty clothing -- I've had flowers brought in to distract you instead. Esther's leaning back just in her husband's arms -- no naughty legs -- and there is no sweat, filmed or otherwise. I did keep his muscular chest in, though.

So, I don't know. Sensitive to the demands of my audience, or complete sell-out? To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure which version I like best, though I think I still prefer my original. I guess every writer has to make those decisions him/herself, and today I've been making some. I'm excited and happy the book is being reprinted, thrilled about the support I've gotten from R&H, and trying to walk that fine line between making the book as accessible as possible, while staying true to the story I wanted to tell. Those of you who have a copy of the original print run of Esther can put a red sticker on the cover to mark it out as being the "ever so slightly racier version"!!


Anonymous katrina stonoff said...

Killed the same person off twice? ROFL! I live in fear of a mistake like that going into press (something I'm absolutely certain will happen, probably at least once per book).

As far as the revisions? Version One. I vote version one, hands down. But then, as you know, I'm not exactly Steeple Hill material.

But isn't Love Inspired a Steeple Hill imprint? Brenda Coulter's (http://brendacoulter.com) new book, A Family Forever is Love Inspired, about a girl pregnant by her late boyfriend. Granted, it isn't the male lead in the book who got her pregnant, and the sex doesn't appear on camera, but still. It's definitely an allusion to premarital sex.

I'm delighted they are reprinting Esther btw. That's my favorite of the bible stories. I wanted to be just like Esther (I mean strong, courageous and clever, of course, not gorgeous and hot in bed...or rather...ahem...let's just pretend I didn't start this).

But do tell them to stop shipping it wrapped in plastic. I've owned a red-sticker-worthy copy of Esther for probably a year now. It holds a place of honor on my To Be Read shelf, and every time I'm choosing my next three books to read, I consider it. But somehow that plastic wrap works like a chastity belt, and the book remains a virgin.

It's not that I don't want to read it--I DO! But when I have to choose between pristine, perfect Esther or some trashy wannabe who’s more approachable, so far I've taken the loose and easy girl every time.

Double Sigh. Somebody go tell my Mars to violate that woman already!

8:01 PM  
Blogger TrudyJ said...

Katrina, I reposted your comment without the link. If Blogger allows you to put links in comments, I don't know how to do it (and clearly, after a second try with the same thing happening again, you're still learning too!) I don't think the subsequent posting probs were your fault though...Blogger was down for awhile today.

Thanks for your thoughts ... yeah I do think I like #1 the best, except for the verb "filmed." As for violating your virgin copy of Esther ... go ahead. Xerxes got there before you, anyway!

8:03 PM  
Blogger Chris (mombie) said...

I don't think it is a bad thing to edit for some audiences, better that they get some of your message than none at all. Remaining true to your original vision is important, of course, but the more people who read your writing, the better. As long as your main points aren't lost in editing.

I think your third version is indicative of the, ahem, romance, without being explicit, so the point, ahem, is still there.

1:33 AM  
Blogger Chris (mombie) said...

PS = Congrats on the reprint! How exciting!

1:35 AM  
Anonymous Sherry said...

CONGRATS on the reprint!! Let's go out and celebrate!...

I understand the need to tone it down, but I've got to say, version one brought the story more to life for me. Made me connect more to the characters...to understand...to feel their emotions. Version one brought Esther to life, as a living, breathing,human woman...someone who was sharing her innermost thoughts. You brought me into her world.

The third version trapped her back inside an old dusty story. It pains me you have to hide her back behind the veil.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Tina Chaulk said...

First of all, congratulations on the reprint! That is wonderful news.

I guess it depends. Version three seems great if you just want to show a loving moment of a couple. It's the reclining in her husband's arms that shows me that. If it is important that the reader know they had sex, then version three doesn't really do that.

As for editing to your audience. That is totally up to the writer. You have to do what you want: enough to stay true to your vision but also keep your audience happy. I think specific types of fiction require editing to audience, in a way. I mean you wouldn't really want a murder mystery where the killer gets off or a romance where the love of her life gets away. So too, I imagine biblical fiction entails certain demands from the audience, such as "decency". It is great you get a chance to change things the way you would like. Congrats again.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

I think censorship is an act of power. If I am hearing you, you are making changes out of respect of your readership. That is thoughful and considerate. And if you were insistant making reference to the "after-glow", then why would you be publishing with a Christian publisher? I think the changes are fine. After all, we ALL have our own imaginations!

7:08 PM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Being as clueless as I am, I'd miss the sex altogether in version 3. That said, I don't think there is anything wrong with it written that way.

I wonder how much the writers of the actual bible considered censorship. Too bad we can't have that conversation with the authors!

12:45 AM  

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