is really my eighth novel,” she says, casting her eyes around
the room to avoid meeting mine; then her stare settles on my face
with deadly earnest. “I’ve rewritten it eleven times,
and I think this time I’ve got it right. I know it’s
good. I just know it is. But I need sonic help with it.”
I light a smoke, sigh, and try to find a tactful way out of this.
As a published novelist and professor at the local university,
I have been in this situation too many times before. Hardly a
week goes by without someone calling me and inviting me to read
a manuscript. “It’s a classic,” they say. “It’s
definitely publishable. I just need someone to look it over.”
I can usually put them off with a variety of excuses, but this
woman has been particularly persistent.
She shows an envelope full of rejection letters from more than
twenty New York publishers and an equal number of refusals from
New York agents. Each reads about the same: “Your work is
interesting and I found the writing to be very strong. The plot,
however, is problematic, and I had major difficulties with several
characters. It’s just not right for us it this time.”
The woman is intelligent, well read, and well-educated in business;
somehow, though, she has failed to learn to read between the lines.
“I wouldn’t rewrite anything eleven times,”
I begin with a smile, but I can see disappointment building in
her eves. “At least. I wouldn’t unless I had a contract.
a check in the bank.” I go on to explain that I really can’t
help her. I’m not an editor, an agent, a publisher. I’m
a writer with his own problems with editors, agents, and publishers.
If I knew the secret of making them do something they didn’t
want to do, I would be spending this hot July afternoon in the
South of France or on the cool rocky shores of Ireland, not in
steamy North Texas; I would be dressed as well as she is, and
I wouldn’t be wondering who was going to pick tip the check
for this coffee shop meeting.
“I really can’ t do anything but correct your spelling,
punctuation, syntax. Even if I rewrote the whole thing for you,
turned it into an entirely different book, you still wouldn’t
be any closer to publication than you are right now. I can’t
publish your novel for you.”
She nods and hands the manuscript over, anyway. She says she wants
me to “work through” it and tell her what it needs.
I realize my words have had no effect. She didn’t hear a
word I said. When she looks at me, she sees nothing other than
a published writer. My insecurities and failures in my own work
are meaningless. The years I’ve spent sweating over a manuscript,
reworking it, worrying about details, characters, plot lines don’t
show. I’m in print, in New York. That’s all that matters
to her. It’s time for the heavy artillery to drive off this
attack on my time and energy.
“All right,” I say, agreeing. “But you understand,
I can’t do it for free.” She nods quickly, embarrassed
not to have considered this possibility. I name my price for editorial
work, and I see her eyes widen. It’s a considerable sum,
though not out of line. Still, I could take a pretty nice vacation
on the proceeds—not France or Ireland, perhaps, but a weekend
on the Gulf Coast wouldn’t be out of range. If she goes
for what I think of as my “premium package,” I could
make a sizable down dent in my VISA card balance. But she’s
in shock. She shakes her head. Her husband, a dermatologist (who
charges $75 for a ten-minute office visit), would never endorse
such a ridiculous figure, she confesses. She, an interior decorator
who will make nearly ten grand later that afternoon by advising
some socially minded matron of the correct colors for new carpets
and drapes, thinks that my price is a “touch high.”
I now know that our interview is coming to an end.
I hand her a list of agents and editors in New York copied from
Writer’s Market; I also recommend that catalogue of publishing
opportunities and a couple of trade magazines for writers. I’m
not surprised to find that she’s never heard of it; I suggest
she join some national or regional writers’ organizations
and leagues, but she’s never heard of them, either. I then
tell her to quit rewriting and start regular submission to both
agents and editors. I warn her against subsidy and vanity presses,
name several writers’ support groups in the area she might
wish to join, and finally, I recommend that she start a new novel,
something totally different.
She does pick up the check, so I am obliged, at least, to look
at the manuscript. I count five major grammatical errors, two
misspellings, four clichés, and a number of confused sentences
on the first page. The story is set in the city where we presently
sit, and the main character has a name neither I nor anyone else
could pronounce. I flip through and see misused semi-colons, capitalization,
and quotation marks. I suggest she enroll in a basic-composition
course at the university.
“I have a degree in creative writing,” she
snaps. “I’ve worked as a journalist and in advertising.
I run my own consulting firm. I edit the country club’s
newsletter, and no one has noticed anything wrong with my grammar
before.” I make a mental note that in the course of our
brief conversation, she has said, “center around,”
“continue on,” and “different than” more
than once. She also has trouble with pronoun agreement. But I
know it wouldn’t do to point this out.
Her anger gives me a chance to excuse myself, but as I walk away,
I can’t help but feel sorry for her, sympathize with her
frustration; but I know if she had paid my price, I would have
felt worse for myself. She didn’t want help for success
in writing. She wanted a life preserver for her sinking hopes,
and from her point of view, I threw her a brick. I felt lousy
about that, but at least I was honest with her. That’s about
all I could be. The kind of help she needs, she would have to
find for herself.
meetings like this one, I spend a lot of time cursing the agents
and editors who don’t have the courage to suggest that writers
such as this woman give it all up and concentrate on her bridge
club or golf game; but then, I know they won’t be put off
by such crude candor, even from New York. In a week’s time,
they will locate another published writer to approach with her
manila folder; someone else’s afternoon will be ruined;
and, if the writer in question is serious and honest, they will
suffer more frustration.
If situations like this were unique, they would be unremarkable,
but they happen every day. Writers I know from coast to coast
face them. They get that tightening of the colon when they pick
up the phone or open a letter and hear or read the question: “Would
you be willing to look over my work?” Many published writers
have unlisted phone numbers to shield themselves from the incessant
inquiries that flood them when their books are reviewed in local
or national publications. The situation is worse for published
poets, who sometimes receive unwelcome shears of doggerel in their
mailboxes with heartfelt pleas for help. Perhaps the authors of
such verse and stories have shown their work to close friends,
family members, or maybe they’ve read it to their dogs,
but now they want an opinion by someone who is “absolutely
objective” and who will be “brutally honest.”
Sometimes they also want it corrected, even edited. Sometimes
they want it totally rewritten or even entirely composed from
rough notes and an outline.
What they really want, though is a shortcut to publication, and
they hope that the writer-consultant will put it in the mail to
an editor or publisher with a sincere endorsement. Stories of
John Kennedy Toole’s mother bugging Walker Percy to the
point where he felt he could only rid himself of the woman's nagging
by reading A Confederacy of Dunces or of William Kennedy’s
road to publication with Ironweed abound in writers’
magazines and are embellished in their retelling. But such techniques
seldom work. In the four years since I’ve been a published
novelist, I’ve offered the names of my agent and editor
to maybe a dozen people whose work I read (always out of friendship
and never for money); but to date, none have found publication.
But as I sat on the dais of a writing group’s conference
last year and heard an editor blithely suggest to a crowd of several
hundred that they “seek advice and help” from a “local
established writer” before submitting their work, I blanched.
I was the only “established writer” in the room who
lived in that city. I was figuring the cost of changing my phone
number even before I was assaulted at the reception afterwards
by no fewer than twenty would-be writers who were offering to
allow me to read their romances, westerns, mysteries, children’s
books, and epic family sagas. Some even had their manuscripts
with then and were fishing them out of briefcases and thrusting
them’ to my arms with rapid-fire accounts of what their
mothers, sons, daughters, and next-door neighbors said was “wrong”
or “right” with them.
of that experience, and because of experiences such as the one
I had with the woman in the coffee shop, I decided to make up
a list of rules for writers who want serious consultation and
advice from established writers. In a way, the list is offered
here in self-defense and in the hope, of reaching some writers
before they pick up the phone or mail their manuscripts to a published
author and ask for help. What is suggested here is that writing
is a business; and as the list indicates, that more businesslike
the practice and expectations, the more satisfying and productive
the results. If both the writer and the consultant observe these
six points, then I honestly believe that both will be happier
and better off for the experience.
Be prepared to pay for the service. Nothing is more embarrassing
than having to tell people that professional consultation costs
money and that it’s expensive. People who would never think
of asking a lawyer, doctor, or appliance repairman for free advice
and estimates are often shocked when professional writers want fees
to work over or even merely to read their manuscripts. Writers have
their own writing to worry about, their own work to occupy their
time. If they teach for a living as well, they have their own tuition-paying
students’ writing to read and evaluate. Even if they agree
to take on the chore for free, the quality of their job, the thoroughness
of their opinions will be compromised by the fact that they are
“working you into their schedule,” and they likely will
hold it against you and your manuscript. Don’t be shocked
or angry if a consultant wants to charge more than you think the
work is worth. In the first place, you are buying this individual’s
time, the most valuable commodity a writer has. In the second place,
it’s your creative endeavor: if you don’t think it’s
worth paying for, what makes you think someone will want to publish
Establish the fee right away. Nothing is more awkward than
to try to bring an already difficult conversation around to money.
There is no set or standard rate, and charges will vary from one
individual to another, from one type of manuscript to another. In
some cases, a fee may depend on whether the writer has the time
and needs the money. Professionals charge more than graduate students,
doting uncles, or your babysitter; but you get what you pay for.
If all you want is a reading and an opinion, the charge will be
less than if you want a full edit, a critique, a partial or entire
rewrite. It’s best to pay at least half the agreed-upon fee
up front; and make sure a delivery date is established. A simple
letter of contract is always a good idea.
Know the rules of language. Nothing is more frustrating
than trying to read something that is badly written. Manuscripts
submitted for consideration don’t have to be perfect, but
they should be neat and correct. If you seek help, be sure it’s
because you really want the manuscript edited and critiqued, not
because you’re too lazy or inept to use a dictionary and grammar
handbook. It may be that a refresher course in composition is in
order, particularly if you’ve been away from school for several
years. Your friends, family, are not arbiters of usage and style.
A consultant is a consultant, not a ghostwriter. Nothing
is harder for most writers than trying to compose or even to rewrite
someone else’s creative work. If you think you’ve done
the bulk of the labor by simply outlining a good story and that
your consultant can shape things up,” just “get it on
the page,” you’re kidding yourself. You’re the
author of the piece; your story. All a writer-consultant can be
is an adviser, perhaps a line editor. Ghostwriting is something
entirely different, and it costs considerably more than editorial
work, often tens of thousands of dollars. Your writer-consultant
may suggest changes, additions, deletions, alterations of all sorts;
but the original writing task yours alone and should be completed
before the manuscript goes to your consultant.
If you don’t want the opinion, don’t ask for it.
Nothing is worse than reading and editing a manuscript, only to
have the novice become furious over suggested corrections or changes,
and it’s never pleasant to try to collect a fee from someone
whose ego has been severely wounded and must now pay for the privilege.
If all you want is flattery, read to your cat. You are paying for
an opinion, but it’s only one opinion. It may be correct;
it may be way off the mark. In terms of the fate of the manuscript,
it not likely to make much difference one way or another. The opinion
of a second consultant or even a third might support or contradict
the first. None is final. Don’t expect that an endorsement,
even by a well-known writer, is going to sell the book to any editor.
And by no means should you refuse to pay. Even though you asked
for the opinion and were charged for it, you still don’t have
to take it.
Don’t expect your writer-consultant to submit your work
for you. Nothing is more difficult to fend than this request.
Publishing is a competitive business. Few authors, however well
established they may be, are secure enough to introduce competition
to their own agents or publishers. This doesn’t mean, of course,
that a caring writer-consultant won’t help you submit your
work, particularly if he/she thinks it’s good. It’s
only to say that the suggestion to do so should come from the consultant,
not you; and you shouldn’t be disappointed if doesn’t
come at all.
The point, of course, is that seeking a writer-consultant can’t
hurt, but it won’t necessarily help, either. Only you can
be the judge of what your manuscript needs in the way of final preparation,
and ultimately it’s your book, your work.
If it’s been rejected with or without comment, that is a better
indication of its worth than anything anyone else can say. But rejection
by one or even a dozen houses doesn’t mean the book is worthless,
not even if there’s a consensus about problems in the manuscript.
If you want to be a writer, you must stand on your own merits, be
confident of your own abilities, and ride your own book to success.
A professional writer is not an editor, publisher, or agent. The
best advice is to rely on your own instincts and be diligent, persistent,
and well informed about the elements of your genre and form. If
you can’t take rejection and accept the blame for your failures,
then perhaps you shouldn’t be writing in the first place.
many years ago, my parents and I were traveling cross-country when
our car suddenly began to cough and jerk and finally quit entirely.
My father and two passing motorists fussed and fumed under the hood
for a while, but they couldn’t identify any obvious problem:
the car just wouldn’t start. It was a Sunday, but we finally
located a mechanic at his house, and he drove out, looked under
the hood, and then borrowed a twenty-dollar bill from my father’s
diminishing cash supply and an emery board from my mother. He used
the paper file to clean the connections and the bill to “gap
the points,’ then told my father to “turn ‘er
over.” He did so, and the engine fired up and hummed smoothly.
The mechanic returned the emery board, but pocketed the twenty with
a wink. As we resumed our journey, my mother was furious and complained
to my father about the “highway robbery” that had just
taken place. “He didn’t work on it for more than five
minutes, “ she pouted. “Twenty dollars for five minutes’
work.” She knew that was our “motel money” for
“I didn’t pay him for what he did, “
my father said as he settled in for the now-loner trip home that
night. “I paid him for what he knew.”