Paying for It: Story I

For “book doctor” services, I mean.

I apologize for this long post. This story turned out to take a long time to tell. I apologize as well for what may be my most carping posts, as I have disastrous encounters to report. So you may want to wait for a sunnier discussion. On the other hand, yet again, you may find my mistakes instructive—even though they do tend to fall into the category of “what was she thinking?” if I do say so myself.

At least in each case I wasn’t out more money than I could afford at the time. And I did go into each with the attitude that the money was all I really had to lose.

The first episode occurred when King of the Roses was in its pre-agent, pre-St. Martin’s state: stacks of boxes of typed-upon sheets, not quite as imposing as the purported five feet of manuscript that constituted the original draft of Gone with the Wind, but nothing you could tote in a shopping bag, either. I was very young (excuse).

I met this man at the conference my local university regularly hosted (now defunct, sadly—it was a wonderful conference). I don’t recall exactly how we made contact; I must have approached him after his session. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid, but it would have been less than $500. Of him, I can say this: he was conscientious. He did what he said he’d do, in a timely manner. He read the whole book and regularly sent me sections festooned with comments. Recently, in the process of dumping piles upon piles of old rough drafts, I came across the pages he had edited. I set them in the “save even though you know better” stack, to look back at one day. Did anything he told me help me? Possibly. Good advice, in whatever form, is worth reviewing. It’s so hard to come by.

The bait was his assurance that, once we had chiseled the book into shape, he would put me in touch with the New York editors with whom he had professional relationships. Who wouldn’t spend $500 on that?

What rises to the top, probably flushed out by the memories of what finally happened, are not deep, global insights that would eventually make that book publishable; no, they were idiosyncrasies that left me about where I’d started, still wondering whether my ambitious plot (yeah, they’re all ambitious, more’s the pity) was working and what to do if it wasn’t.

He liked precise language. Well, I do, too. But his comments dealt with what a member of a later writing group called “trivialities”: the kinds of remarks you can get for free from innumerable group members, albeit sometimes less informed. Not at all the kind of issue that would determine whether a book would sell or not. The one I specifically remember: he told me that I must never use “over” unless I meant “physically on top of.” “I lived there for over a year” may be less euphonious than “I lived there more than a year,” but if the book’s working, the editor who takes it on will let you know if she cares about that. (This kind of judgment, I found, editors and copy editors are very good at.)

My ambivalence about this kind of advice doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. And it doesn’t mean I use “enormity” to mean “great big thing” or “awesome” to mean I like your shoes. And I have a tough time sometimes holding back with student writing, in which the thesaurus is all too available when one is willing to settle for the not-quite-right-word (see Twain, Mark, “the difference between lightning and the lightning bug”). And my St. Martin’s editor did descend to the diction level—he once made me discard the word “babble” (it didn’t refer to a brook). So perhaps I really am carping when I complain that using “over” where I should have used “more than” would not help sell the book.

This person had a decided resistance to metaphor. He objected to the sentence, “The duck shivered his wings.” Birds, he told me, can’t shiver. They lack the biomechanism. Well, humpf. Can’t you see the quick, fizzy tremble of a bird’s wings as it shakes off water? I could. That sentence disappeared in the eventual editing, most likely victim to the need to make the book move at twice the speed of light.

But the corker was his remonstrance that great writers did not have to resort to coarse language to make their dialogue come alive.

Well, true.

But I was writing about the racetrack. About jockeys. In the 1980s. Well after Richard Pryor and George Carlin. When books full of a whole lot worse than a few–well, you know the words–were presented to me as models for how to make a million bucks.

My book doctor told me that it would be much more appropriate if my jockeys, in a moment of pique, said “Egad.”

I kid you not.

Since this was a dictum I could not obey, it would perhaps have spelled my doom when this person approached those New York editors he knew so well. In the end, the issue was moot. He suggested that I come to his hotel room for the final edit. There, as you may well have already intuited, he did two things. He told me that, after all, he had no contacts with New York editors. And he inquired if I wouldn’t like to stay the night.

I saw the second move coming. Not the first. I really thought he could get me a read in New York. Would I have stayed the night if he hadn’t confessed? You know, I haven’t really done much soul-searching about that in the years since. Makes a nice little plot point in somebody’s book.

This man was a highly successful freelance writer. He made a living off travel articles, features, profiles—and the conference circuit, where I continued to see his name for years. No doubt he helped many people to further (which must never be used in place of “farther”) their careers. He had credentials. But I had something else: a fever to get my book read. And—as it happened—only the money to lose.

Next: Paying for It: Story II

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Filed under Learning to write, looking for editors, Money!, Myths and Truths, Teaching writing, Writers' conferences, Writers' groups, Writing and teaching writing

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