A woman sits across the coffee shop table, nervously fingering the manila folder she has brought to our meeting. She is attractive and well-dressed. We had to schedule meeting after her session with the Civic Garden Society. For the past half hour she has been describing a novel that took her four years to write. Although she has a degree in creative writing from a major university and has attended a dozen writers’ workshops, she wants me to look over her manuscript and tell her if it is ready to be submitted to a publisher.
“This 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.
After 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.
Because 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.
1. 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 it?
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
Once, 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 the night.
“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.”