I’ve been struggling this past week about what it means to be a writer and how much time and treasure a person should sink into the process. Let me explain.
Several years ago, the company for which I freelanced forwarded a request to me from a person who was looking for editorial help on his fiction project. He’s a nice guy, my contact said, who has a story to tell.
The writer told me he’d written a draft, but it needed more work and he wasn’t sure how to go about it. It was 216 pages.
I asked him what he wanted me to do. A line or content edit? Write the transitions? Shape it?
Yes, he said. I gulped, but I accepted the offer. I wanted to help. People who have stories to tell should be encouraged to write them, right? And he knew the manuscript needed polishing, so that would work in my favor.
The manuscript was not a disaster. There were a lot of mechanical problems, but he understood the concept of a story arc. He had conflict and a three-act structure. His character had internal demons to overcome, which he did overcome believably.
I spent too much time on the project, and it still needed a lot of work from the author. When I turned it over to him, I explained what I thought it needed and I suggested some online and library resources to help him. I’d also retired in that time frame, so I told him I wouldn’t be available to take another pass at the work.
He called this week. It’s been almost two years since I’ve heard from him. He asked me to do another pass. And I felt bad for him and agreed to do it.
When I got the manuscript, it had grown to 370 pages, and it has not improved since the last time I saw it. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but so far, the only thing he did to it that I can see was make it longer.
Taking his money feels like theft. And the time I’ll need to put in on it feels like theft of my time.
That’s on me. But as I evaluate how much effort this project needs and decide what to charge him for it, I have to wonder: If he’s not sufficiently committed to improve the manuscript, what’s the point of my involvement? Or even of this undertaking? The book will never reach commercial viability. If by writing it he gains personal satisfaction, of course, that’s fine. But he doesn’t need me for that.
Indie publishing has made it possible for anyone to publish a book. But this week, I’ve been thinking about the industry that’s sprung up to enable it, and I’ve been wondering: If anyone can publish a book, does that mean anyone should? What do you think?
I’ve actually given this some thought because I’ve also worked with people to improve manuscripts that, when I exited the project, still were not ready for prime-time in my opinion.
It’s always a balancing act between being honest and being kind. I generally tell them what I think as kindly as I can and then step back. The fact is, I’m not going to live forever and I want to spend my time doing the things that fulfill my dreams.
The other thing to know, though, is that just because you or I don’t care for how a story is told doesn’t mean other people won’t. There are some books out there that that sold very well that strike me as semi-literate.
It can be hard to evaluate a manuscript written by a friend that you think is terrible, because among other things, quality, as you say, can be a judgment call. But doesn’t the author have a clue that something’s awful? And knowing that, what should they do?
Like you, I’ve read some books and unpublished manuscripts that are poor by any objective standard. There will always be a 50 Shades of Gray phenomenon that makes the rule a lie, but doesn’t an author ever look at something and say, this is crap? (I mean, I do it all the time, but I have a good sense of where the delete key is.)
I love the accessibility of indie publishing. If your writer friend chooses to take a commercial risk on his book, or even to publish and be damned believing he probably won’t find much of a readership, that’s his decision to make. If he chooses to invest in expert professional help despite knowing the above, that’s also his decision (and the expert’s).
The only time I’d have a problem is if some “expert” (thinking vanity press here, definitely not your good self) misleads him about the quality of his work or its commercial prospects in order to bilk him of large sums of money. Whatever you decide, the nice writer is lucky he ended up with you and not some charlatan.
Yes, of course, you’re right. I’m just feeling tired and abused, and I have no one but myself to blame. 🙂
I often think that everyone needs a hobby, and writing doesn’t cause a lot of harm, usually. If he can afford editing and wants it, then he should have it — although it doesn’t have to be you.
I think it’s important for editors to be honest and not encourage false hopes, and I think you did that (and he still came back for more!).
But on the other hand, nobody knows what is going to succeed. I just finished re-reading 1984 last weekend, and Orwell’s vision is astonishing, and the way he can pack so much into one little book is simply a sign of genius. On the other hand, he infodumped two chapters of “How We Make a Totalitarian Regime” into the last third of the book, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. It may have been the most efficient way to make his point. It wasn’t totally boring, given the current political climate.
That “magic spark” can be a lot more important than craft. Look at Twilight or The DaVinci Code.
But that said, editors are readers, and a lot of them know “magic spark” when they see it. They are pros, and they see so much that is lacking.
This month, I’ve read two books by indies. They were great stories, well-written and well-edited. The covers were fine to fabulous. I know for sure that one of the authors has been rejected by trad pubbing, so her books are getting seen, thanks to the indie support industry.
But then again, there’s vanity publishing, which has always been a thing — probably as long as there’s been printing presses. That’s not such a happy story. A guy who ran a shady poetry program back in the 80s told me that they are in the business of making people happy, and there’s no arguing with that. One could argue with how much profit is made out of the deal, but people do like having a leather-bound volume with their poem inside. (My poem, as I recall it, was “My Laundry Stands Alone” and was about four stanzas about the rankness of well-worn textiles. I declined the honor of purchasing a book.)
I am rambling. Sorry.
There absolutely is a lot of great indie writing out there, and there’s also some weak efforts from traditional publishing too. I read 1984 a long time ago, so long ago that I don’t remember the big infodump toward the end. That could put off a lot of readers, for sure! And yet, the book’s a classic, as will be some of the works by indie authors, as well.
Absolutely a classic. I often think it’s not so much the writing that makes a classic, but what lingers in your memory after a year or two. Some writers are lucky enough to combine both beautiful prose and “sticky” concepts.
That said, a classic also has to see at least X number of audience, and some of those readers have to be the kind of people who can write memorable reviews or debate the concepts well. Indie writing doesn’t always see a wide audience.