Of hacks and hopes. (On getting a professional edit.)

Is this “9.51 hours of work” worth $1426.50?

Being unpublished is tough. Writing involves just one person and one mind, and until the work is transcribed it exists only up there, completely unconveyable in anything but the most pitifully inadequate form. But, if you’ve never written a book and think that once all the words (so so many words!) are committed to paper the hard work is done, sorry. The bad news is: That’s when the real angst begins.

The work sits there, heavy in your hand like a sack of potatoes and equally as useless. It’s at once both complete and completely inadequate; nothing more than a poor pastiche of what it could be and what it still is in your head. “The first draft of everything is shit, is never more true than in the eyes of the author himself.

I grew up an isolated, solitary child – not by choice – and so my natural instinct was to tackle the task of ‘improving’ the first draft of Unpublished Novel #1 (i.e.: turning the rubbish I’d created into the masterpiece I knew it was capable of being) all on my own. While the first major edit to turn Draft 1 into Draft 2 – essentially a complete rewrite – was entirely worth it, as the five years progressed the edits became increasingly desperate and inconsequential until I finally realised the obvious: I was too close.

Unpublished Novel #1 was shelved soon after. It remains unfinished: ambitious to a fault, I need so much more experience before I can do it justice. But, I learned: as soon as I finished the first draft of Unpublished Novel #2 I googled, I read, I reread the bible (AKA “The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook”) with an explicit purpose: find a reputable editor.

My gut selected Hillel Black. Why? His decades of editing, his years in publishing, his self-proclaimed bestsellers and his Jewish roots (stupid – after all the aspiration is for Unpublished Novel #2 to transcend narrow ethnicities to the universal, but hey, I wanted to limit the chances of disappointment). A cordial if impersonal eMail exchange ensued and a deposit invoice was sent in one direction, and the manuscript was sent in the other.

The problems began almost immediately. Despite the promises of a quick turnaround, weeks turned into months and my eMails were shrugged off with the a flippant and disingenuous “I’ve been busy, I’m working on it and I’m enjoying it tremendously”. Finally another – larger – invoice arrived via Paypal together with a tracking number premised upon payment.

It arrived:

There were coffee-stains on the cover and the thick stack of papers seemed well-thumbed, but with every page the scribbled markings grew increasingly infrequent until, by chapter three, they disappeared entirely. While I had asked (and paid for) a thorough edit including a ‘book doctor’ appraisal of themes, tone, characters, pacing, writing style etc to the more pedestrian copy-editing of punctuation and spelling, what came back was… nothing. To add insult to injury, the attached double-spaced half-page of ‘comments’ (scanned above) referred to a book of two sections and two narrators (mine at that point had three of each), and included scant few specifics to signify that he had read the manuscript at all, let alone critically. Two stories? It’s one story told by three narrators! What exactly had Mr. Black been doing for those invoiced 9.51 hours?

Confused, I called his number. He answered the phone disoriented, didn’t remember who I was (though he claimed he did), didn’t remember my book (though he claimed he did) and then asked if I’d paid (unfortunately I had). Fuming at becoming the very definition of a freyer, I put the phone down and screamed and yelled and probably punched a wall.

It wasn’t just about the money – though nearly $1,500 is a huge amount of cash – it’s more about the inherent vulnerability of the unpublished author, a vulnerability that this vulture was preying on with full remorseless knowledge. Yes, he could be a drunk, he could be a fraud, he could be many things, but irrespective, he – a professional hired for an explicit purpose – had not deigned my work worthy of reading. No. Money has little ability to smart so sharply.

I took it badly. Thoughts of dead-end vacuous day-jobs in dimly-lit cubicles became alluring, even with their implicit promises of  gold watches, spiritual unfullfilment and a long, slow death. After all, why go through this isolated, isolating experience to be so painfully wounded before the slog towards publication has even begun? These are dangerous thoughts, and though I entertained them too long I picked myself up enough to return to my list and select the editors which seemed the farthest away from the wily Mr. Black – a collaborative association in the UK.

It is early days yet, but so far the Oxford Editors have thoroughly impressed. Though I was still wary and suspicious they talked me through the process, skimmed the manuscript and then selected an editor from their books who they felt was the best fit. Following a cursory read she and I spoke and she so eloquently and passionately critiqued the novel in overview (now in four parts) that I understood her to not only grasp its intent and aspirations, but also my ambitions for it.

As the name suggests, they are based in Oxford and the next time I am in England I will meet her to microscopically dissect the manuscript. I do not want to be too optimistic, but I am allowing a little crack of light to remain. Until then, here’s the first line of the book:

“She told me to get out, so what could I do? I got out.”

She said she thought it was the best she had read in a long time. What do you think?

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