I worked with a client not long ago whom I shall call Frederick. He came to me with a finished manuscript for a memoir and was seeking a final editorial polish before submitting to agents. He had taken a vast number of writing courses over the years from a wide range of sources – Media Bistro, Gotham Writers Workshop, some universities and had clearly invested a lot of time in his work. We set a deadline and he submitted his 350 pages. I read the first fifteen and had to stop. (If you read my post last week, you will see a theme here…) The writing was aimless, self indulgent, filled with clichés, and riddled with tense errors, illogical transitions and chronological inconsistencies. It was as if this writer has taken twenty years of journals written under the influence of some mind-altering substance, slapped them together and called it a book.
I quickly test-sampled some pages throughout the rest of the manuscript and confirmed that there was no improvement. Page 105 was just as poorly written as page 3. Page 266 and 329 were the same. I contacted the writer and, heart in my throat as it always is in these cases, told the truth: it was my opinion that this manuscript was nowhere near ready for submission to agents and, in fact, that I thought it was a waste of my time and his money for me to proceed. I thought the best thing was for him to sign up for a class in the personal essay and master getting everything right in ten pages before trying to tackle 350. I offered to send back his deposit and swallow the time I had already spent.
He declined. He wanted me to edit his work so he could feel good about submitting to agents. He had spent so much time on his book and he was ready to move forward.
I charge a fixed cost per page for manuscript edits, so I was looking at a monstrous job that was going to take a huge amount of time and energy, and that had very little potential upside. I was looking at a lose-lose situation all around. I should have said no. It is preposterous that I didn’t say no. The only reason I can give for not saying no is that I have spent the last 25 years working for myself, and that has put me in the habit of saying yes, even when saying yes is stupid, ill-advised and self defeating. And probably there was something strange going on with the alignment of the moon with Venus. I don’t know. I really don’t know.
I did as well as I could with the manuscript. I made somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 comments, many of them sweeping criticisms that allowed me NOT to have to say the same thing a thousand times — “You switch tense from present to past three time in this paragraph. This is very confusing for the reader. Note that you do this throughout the manuscript. Any edit will need to address this inconsistency;” “In dialogue, each person gets their own paragraph. Every time you switch speakers, even if it’s their thoughts without words, they get their own paragraph. No exceptions;” “We need to know why you made this decision – what the motivation was, what the consequences were. Without that layer of emotion, the reader has nothing to hold onto.” And on and on and on. I poured out everything I know about writing, about story, about memoir.
I also wrote a 5-page summary of my impressions. I suggested that if the writer were serious about pursuing the publication of his book, he should start from scratch — after reading a number of books on writing, studying the craft even more than he already had, and making some hard decisions about what he was trying to do with his story, and why, and how. So as to leave no room for misinterpretation, I literally said, “I would seriously consider starting with a blank page.”
He was gracious in receipt of my blindingly harsh criticism. He thanked me for my honesty.
And then, about 6 weeks after delivering that news, I received a note from him. He was so pleased to report that he had taken all my advice! He had completed a revision of his memoir! He was ready to submit to agents now! And could I help him?
6 weeks?? I have clients who take 8 months to do that kind of revision. I have clients who take years.
You will be pleased to say that I said no. And that I will never say anything other than no to something like this for as long as I am doing this work, no matter how the planets are aligned. It may have taken me awhile, but I have finally learned that lesson.
So what’s the point?
What I wanted to share was how I felt when I got that email: I wanted to cry. Not for myself. I’m a big girl, I can take care of myself, it took me about 2 seconds to get to no. I wanted to cry for that writer. Because he clearly had the passion and persistence that all great artists need. He was clearly incredibly committed to his work. But he would never come anywhere close to achieving what he hoped to achieve. Why? Was it because he lacked skill and talent? Maybe. But skill can be developed and talent is underrated. What he lacked was the humble sense of how hard this work is. It’s HARD. It’s really hard. I work with people every day who are doing that hard work, and bravely facing their weaknesses, and carefully trying to learn their craft and improve their writing and get their stories out into the world. I work with people who take this work so seriously and who are giving their heart and soul to the effort. And he wanted it to be as quick, easy and painless as making toast.
Something about that diminished the hard work all the rest of us are doing. Something about that made me so sad.
The takeaway? It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, anyone could do it. And if anyone could do it, then doing it wouldn’t feel quite so satisfying.
So if you're working on a book and it feels thankless and endless and soul-crushing and just plain hard, be kind to yourself. Know that you are feeling what legions of writers have felt before you. And be proud that you are not that guy.