When a writer submits her pages to the Girl Group, the other members read them carefully and make notes in the margins; I read them and line-edit. That’s my job, as with any writer, in or out of the group.
Not long ago at a GG meeting, one of the writers said to me, “At first when I read your comments I thought, ‘She doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do here, she completely missed it, these comments are useless to me.'” And then she laughed. “The next day when I reread your comments I realized you’d gotten it completely and the comments were on the nose.”
That’s not a story about how good I am, but about how much the writer loved her text and needed twenty-four hours to get over it so she could take advantage of the editing. This particular writer is getting better and better, as a result of her openness to possible changes. That’s how the process should work.
If I’m tactful and kind and also incisive and smart, it’s how the process usually works. But it’s not how the process always works. For one thing, I’m human and I goof. Not that often, but yes, I goof. I make a dumb suggestion or I miss the point; I push too hard or I’m unclear; I urge one sort of direction when the writer wants to go in another direction, or the opposite happens—I’m too forgiving and don’t rein in a writer who’s going off on a useless tangent. It happens.
In a writers’ group, where you’re all face to face, this can be corrected quickly. Writer A just says to me, No, no, no, that’s not where I want to take this, and we discuss it and resolve it.
Problems are much more likely to arise when I’m working with a writer who’s in Chicago or wherever and our exchanges are by e-mail. Unless she picks up the phone and talks to me, there’s a chance that her unhappiness with my editing or my behavior can turn into acrimony. This hasn’t occurred very often, because I’m careful about how I edit, but the times it has occurred have been memorable—to me, anyway.
In one case, for instance, I referred to a tiny bit of awkward writing as a problem of the writer’s having English as a second language. She insisted that she’d grown up writing in English, all the way through her MFA, that she’d never written in any other language, and that I was condescending and she was shocked. Whew. Horrified that I’d made such an egregious error, I apologized for giving offense.
And then I carefully reread her argument: “I have never written anything in any other language (except of course when I was a child in school) and I’ve been a professional writer…for fifteen years.”
Whoops: English was in fact her second language, and any editor with a sharp ear (yes, ear) would have caught the same little awkwardness and known it came from that leftover early education in another language. Some writers could have laughed off the mistake and the crit; this writer flew into a rage. End of editing relationship.
And then there’s money. Money—payment—can turn the sweetest clients sour. I try to make it clear to the writers I work with that I do the work quickly and I expect to be paid quickly. I’m a freelancer: fast payment is part of the deal. I’m not a big company that can afford to wait around for remittance. But if a writer doesn’t like the critique I’ve given her, she can take out her anger by dawdling about payment. Hence this little exchange:
Dear X—Everyone pays her bills differently, but I haven’t yet received a second check from you. Perhaps it will show up in today’s mail, but if you haven’t sent it yet, I’d appreciate your getting it to me ASAP. I do the work promptly, so I’m accustomed to being paid promptly. Thanks for attending to this.
And this is what I got back:
I can’t believe you sent me this e-mail. I pay my bills at the end of the month. I’m insulted by your implication, especially since we only spoke two weeks ago.
I always honor my commitments, even when I’m not satisfied with the results. I won’t work with you again. I’m shocked you would treat a friend of Z’s this way.
End of editing relationship, but she did pay the bill—even though she wasn’t satisfied with the results.
My third-favorite mess was with a woman who was new to writing but hardly new to business. And hardly new to asking for perks she wasn’t precisely entitled to, like requesting I send her not just my critique of her work (as contracted) but also the many pages of manuscript on which I had scribbled the notes I used for writing the lengthy crit that she was entitled to. So okay, I hesitantly agreed to send her the annotated pages, explaining that they were rough and might seem tactless. No problem, she wrote back—she was sure they’d be helpful.
Then she wrote me yet another e-mail asking me to give her advice about the next book she was planning to write, and we had this exchange:
Dear Q—I don’t mean to be rude, but advice (usually called consultation) is what I do for a living, at $100+ per hour. I’ve already given you quite a lot of critique, advice, suggestions, and I’ve even mailed the marked-up pages to you the moment you asked for them. I believe I’ve fulfilled my commitment to you and earned my fee; I simply don’t have time to give you more. Nothing personal at all; just the exigencies of the freelance life. Good luck on the new book.
She wrote back:
Once again I am surprised and saddened by the lack of professionalism in the writing world. Unfortunately I was not aware of exactly what my money bought me and now question your advice. My e-mail could have been responded to with a ten word sentence, not much of your time. I apologize for not understanding the boundaries and promise not to make contact again.
The reason these three creepy incidents stand out is, of course, because they’re so rare. Most writers are wonderful to work with, understand what they need and how I can help them, and then get on with their work. I do not disclaim my own fumbles and stumbles, but it’s clients like these who make me ever more careful about whom I choose to work with.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Kramerbooks & afterwords, Washington, DC
Barbara’s Bookstore, Chicago, IL
Cannon Beach Book Company, Cannon Beach, OR