3.17.2011

$500 Editing Advice - Yours for Free. Seriously.

The San Francisco Writer's Conference was pricey, but there's such an emphasis on getting published that it seemed worth it. They arrange an hour for you to hit up a roomful of agents and pitch 'til you twitch. There are seminars and panels by successful writers, publishers, teachers and others, all focused on practical advice. The most useful part of the conference? The editor sign-ups. Ten minutes with an editor for free? Who doesn't need an editor? Ultimately, I signed up for three.

The first candidate was young, funny, and before I could say something stupid, he asked me, "Why are you writing?" and "Why this book specifically?" When he gave suggestions for what he could do for me, he focused on my answers. You can't solve a problem unless you define it first.

Being Asperger's, I was afraid I insulted him when I told him that everything regarding law enforcement on TV was fake. "That's why I'm writing this," I said. "Law enforcement is not 'As Seen On TV.'" Turns out he worked on Cops. Okay, not fake. But not real, either. No cop, even in a big city, gets to spend their whole shift chasing stupid criminals. Where's the report writing? The office politics? The admin bullshit?

I signed up for another editor, assuming he wouldn't want to contact me with his free estimate, especially when he said he was busy. That's what busy means, right?

I insulted editor #2, too. She was someone I'd heard of and respected, a wonder woman with five blogs, books published, columns in the Chron, and a remarkable poise that made me extra nervous.

I told her, to start, that I was a bit afraid of her. She was surprised. Why? Because you're intimidating, I said. She said nothing and in that silence, the danger zone I compulsively fill, I said, "You're so powerful. I thought you'd have fangs." As does most of what I blurt, it came out wrong. Writing will always be better than speaking, thanks to the delete button.

She said she wanted to work with me but fat chance, I thought. Poised people don't typically respond to blurters who insult.

At this point, I was mentally done but when I signed up for editor #2, I signed up for editor #3 immediately after. When #2 poised editor asked if I'd seen the most famous editor in the room, editor #3, I mentioned I wasn't going to keep that appointment. If she was intimidating enough for me to envision fangs, then what might he have? Horns and claws? I didn't want to go where my big mouth might take me.

Oddly, she told me I had to do it. Had to. Her words.

I met with the intimidating editor, I did. He smiled, read a page of my work and said he liked it. He would be delighted to work with me. He was the least intimidating so for ten whole minutes I remained blurt-free. He requested my complete manuscript so he could give me an approximate cost for a structural edit. One out of three is better than my usual odds when talking out loud. I had an editor.

He wrote me back and wanted to meet with me. For $500, he'd give me a specific plan for a revised draft. He advised me this early intervention was a normal step in the process of writing a successful book. It's what I was willing to pay for. He came up with the idea for "Shaft" after all, he mentioned. I don't know anything about "Shaft" - it's fiction - but I had heard the song and that alone seemed like a good reason to engage his services.

On Tuesday, I spent the morning getting lost in Berkeley, in the rain, trying to find his house. Once I did, I received not a "way of structuring and organizing these books so the first one is a hit" but - I kid you not - cliched ideas for a mystery. Agatha Christie was mentioned. Seriously.

His opening statement was, "Fiction! You'll write fiction." I've got Asperger's syndrome. I don't get fiction but, okay, I'll have an open mind. But why would I want to write something I don't read? The last mystery I read was Nancy Drew.

One question would have cleared this right up.

If he would have asked me why I'm writing, he would have known I'm trying to undo law enforcement cliches, not reinforce them. Do you have any idea how annoying it is to be around otherwise intelligent people who think that every cop drives around with a partner, that every cop would risk their career to lie on your speeding ticket, that every cop sits at a desk in a precinct, speaking perp-talk with a Brooklyn accent?

This "Shaft"-creating editor advised me to write something with a young cop protagonist to appeal to the kids, and an older, wiser "grace under fire" partner to show bravery and courage by protecting the young cop in some way. Nothing in my manuscript mentioned a partner because I've never met a cop who had a partner. That's in L.A. or some big city. Most agencies don't have money for that.

He told me to finish with the bad guy getting arrested. That's a great ending, he said. No it's not, and again, nothing based in my manuscript. The truth is cops see a revolving door of dirtbags: frequent flyers. That is if they even get a conviction. In the real world, defense lawyers pull tricks to get pedophiles off (heh, heh) and to get hung juries at murder trials. Criminals, even after successful arrests, don't always get what they deserve. Wouldn't you want to know that? It's real, so I would.

The cop husband laughed when I mentioned the editor's advice to have the main character meet a cop widow for a love interest. "That's a fantasy. It's something that cops laugh at when we see it on TV. That's somebody's romantic imaginings on the screen. Everybody makes fun of that kind of thing at briefing. And the last thing women who were married to cops and divorced, or cop widows, want to do is to get involved with another cop. There's your reality," he said. "Who wants to read about that?"

After that, the advice became ridiculous. "There has to be an attempt on the protagonist's life," the editor said. My cop husband burst out laughing at this. "In my experience of 24 years at different four agencies, I can tell you hands down, that has never happened," he said. "No cop ever interacts with a suspect in any situation where his or her life is in danger. The only interaction I've ever had is seeing someone I arrested in line at Starbucks. And, out of uniform, they don't recognize me."

The editor should have saved me the almost 1/3 of my husband's monthly cop retirement pension (he's not from Cali so it's about as low four figures as you can get without being three figures, another cop reality). He could have told me he wasn't able to give me a specific plan instead of gracing me with a general idea for a mystery cliche. He could have had something to do with "Shaft," too, but when I got home and googled, it turns out John Shaft was a Harlem born former foster child and street tough who kept an office in (then) seedy Times Square, a real person. And, according to google, a former New York Times reporter named Ernest R. Tidyman wrote seven "Shaft" novels and the original screenplay. The famous editor isn't mentioned.

I hope the next writer who wants his advice also wants a cliche murder mystery. Better yet: save your $500. You are welcome to use this one.

If not, here's his website. Who am I? I'll never be as famous. Give it a shot and let me know how it works for you.

For your info, the second editor, who surprisingly wrote to say she wants to work with me, is here. She's very professional and has normal, beautiful teeth.

If you want to know the first, funny guy editor's name, it's here. By the way, not only did he write me back but he gave me five pages of editing advice for free, just to show me what he could do. An excerpt is at the top of this post.