Trying to take my own advice

One supposes one’s clients are going to enjoy this.

The general public does not realize it, but I work on many uncredited projects. If you reviewed my credit list, you’d think I don’t work very often. While there are slow times, I’d guess there are as many items absent from the list as present. Most of the time it’s by my choice.

Wait, why wouldn’t I want credit? The most common reason is that the author rejected too much input or seemed likely to do so. It might amaze the world how many people will seek out competent guidance, then go right ahead and do it their (ill-advised) way.  It happens in other ways, such as the author asks me not to and doesn’t offer me a print credit. Or the book content queases me out, though not quite enough to refuse the project entirely.

In this case, a valued colleague got in contact with me. Her favorite uncle, a genial but near-deaf nonagenarian, had written a novel and wanted to see it in print while he was still with us. It was obvious to me that my colleague loved and appreciated this old gentleman and wanted to make him happy. Problem: The novel was not publishable in its then-current state. Another problem: Her bailiwick was exclusively non-fiction. She felt unqualified to handle the necessary rewriting.

Two other editors had provided evaluatory reads–finding all the same problems she had–but weren’t willing to undertake a rewrite. Would I be interested? Well, I said, I’d at least be willing to look it over and say either yes I could, or no I couldn’t.  The novel is set around 1970-73, and concerns gay cowboys in northern Wyoming.  For someone who is neither a cowboy nor gay, I was rather a good match for the project. I’ve at least been to northern Wyoming, lived rather near to it in that timeframe (northern Colorado), have an aunt and uncle who went to college at Laramie, and have ranching roots in the Kansas Flint Hills. I can’t rope a calf, and it’s been a very long time since I rode a horse. But I know the difference in meaning between cows and cattle, have bucked some hay, have felt a truck begin to slide on an icy road, and have been snowed on in Wyoming on the first of June.

Very few editors answer to anything like the above description. Perhaps most importantly, I understand why people live in places like Sheridan. I get the sort of amused pride they take in the hardships their state can inflict on daily life, and how they view the world around them. If I had to do any research, I wouldn’t quite come off as a dude (kids, this was once the term for an effete wannabe Westerner, and still is to a degree in some places). My aunt and uncle, now running the family ranch in Kansas, would have helpful knowledge on more than one level. There’s someone in a club I attend who is from Green River. I was at least alive and in a nearby region circa the book’s era. And if I had to start phoning people in Wyoming who didn’t know me, and try to obtain information from them, at least I’d be unlikely to alienate them.

My colleague was right. The ms was a mess. It happened in a world events vacuum; it head-hopped; there were time jumps of months at a time; those subjects the au did not understand (for example, the world of women beyond cooking), he skimmed; names were common to the point of character confusion. The au was present in the story (most amateur authors just have to insert themselves). The sex scenes were, well, not very sexy. Dialogue was not natural. Every voice was the same. The au had done most things wrong.

However. While I had not known this colleague for all that long, we had experienced immediate rapport based upon our revulsion for some of the more speech-policing aspects of editors’ forums. You might imagine that she was overjoyed at the possibility of getting a substantive editor/rewriter who had at least some idea of the story subject matter and region, and the resources to learn more. Did I know a brand inspector’s job? No, but I could see why they’d be necessary. Stuff like that. It also moved me that she cared enough about her uncle to want to do this for him.

Normally the minimal likelihood the book’s revenues would  recoup my fees (since the au would certainly not market it) would be an early discussion. This relates to the first question I ask most prospective clients, because I have an ethical duty not to take money based on mistaken premises. If an author doesn’t have a marketing plan, it’s a vanity project; while I’m glad to work on vanity projects, me being the experienced industry person the client has a right to expect the benefits of that experience. If one were a safari guide, and someone was about to leave their stuff in a situation where bonobos would surely swipe it, one would not be free to say to oneself “maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t” and blow it off. The experienced, hired professional is there to foresee what the client does not realize, and to offer proactive advice.

Here that was irrelevant. In the first place, the client had his own primary advisor, one at least as competent as me, and didn’t look to me for guidance of that sort. In fact, he and I would never have contact (his interest in online interaction being limited, and his hearing not conducive to the phone). In the second, the client was not stupid. He understood his own motives and they weren’t commercial; they were bucket-list related. He just wanted to see his book in print.

Well, I thought, if he wanted to spend this much money on a trip to Egypt to see the Pyramids while he could, no one would discourage that. If his dream is to see his name on a book, and he can afford to, why shouldn’t he?

My colleague had very reasonable expectations. We agreed that making the book a home run was not practical due to the storyline’s basic weakness, and wouldn’t make sense. We were going for “much improved” and I saw ways in which that would be possible. She was pleased that I signed onto the project, but there was one slight drawback. The client told her he would just put back anything taken out that he wanted back in, and that dropped my non-credit red flag. I don’t urgently need credits, but I do need credited outcomes to reflect competent editorial guidance. I have had situations in which I completed full rewrites, following which the author went back and (to be blunt) re-butchered some parts. It is always the client’s right, but that makes me look subpar, and in such cases I reserve the right not to be credited. This would be an Alan Smithee.

The only surprising aspect of the work is a luxury I haven’t had since my freelance writing days: my very own editor. In most professional situations, I do not have another editor to backstop me. While it’s true that this is substantive editing (a mode in which a proof-ready ms is the expected result and nothing’s off the table), it verges on rewriting. More than verges in many places.

So here I must practice everything I spend so much time preaching. What must I require of myself?

  • Don’t keep doubling back to fix things and self-edit. Just do the job, move forward, get the work done.
  • Feel relief that I’m not the only experienced set of eyes on this.
  • Place my faith in those other eyes, which have more experience than I do with copy editing (if not with fiction editing).
  • Realize that I will make major mistakes I’ll need to repair, and be at peace with imperfection. If I let perfect be the enemy of good, I will get neither.
  • Remember that if it’s not good enough, I have an editor to tell me.
  • Have the guts to send the ms to the editor rather than self-editing forever.
  • Be the kind of writer I would wish as a client.
  • Fricking learn something about how my clients feel, and take that knowledge with me.

We’re working on all that.

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