Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Learning Curve

The percentage of your income from editing manuscripts ranges from notable to considerable.  Your fees range from exorbitant—in cases where you suspect the effect the immersion in the work will have on you will be painful—to reasonable for the work performed.

In recent months, you have turned away two commissions from writers of nonfiction projects, each of which the author was better able to discuss in conversation than in the actual text.  In both cases, the text betrayed the hovering presence of the Ph.D. as terminal degree.  Some Ph.D.’s are flat out eloquent in their ability to set events on paper in an invigorating fashion.  Two of your most productive and interesting nonfiction clients are in fact Ph.D. types.

Of possible relevance to the calculus you are building here, each has been granted this degree outside the United States.  The two commissions you did not accept had earned their Ph.D. degree from a respected American institution.  (You’ve alerted yourself to this set of circumstances to the point of being interested in arriving at some outcome.  But not at the moment.  The circumstances surrounding your experiences with American Ph.D. diplomates are not yet evidentiary, nor is the fact of your acquaintance with yet another Ph.D. granted by an American university, who as well as being brilliant in her chosen field, has produced two remarkable historical thrillers.)

In the same period, you returned the entire fee to an individual who was so sour, so narcissistic, so radiant of undeserved stature that you would not be surprised to discover this person had been awarded a Ph.D.  The individual surely has a M.A., writes and thinks like an academic, which is to say as laden with poetry and metaphor as a haggis is loaded with oatmeal, as sure to contain passive voice constructions as haggis is sure to be served with rutabaga and potato.

Still, this is not a screed or even a mild takedown of advanced degrees or academic writing.  Those deserve an essay of their own.

This is about the cumulative effect of all the reading you have done, as an impressionable and curious younger person, as an impressionable and curious if not remarkably good student, as a beginning writer with a burning appetite and curiosity, and as an editor in the making, this last fact being directly responsible for your becoming a teacher.

As you worked your way up the ladder in publishing, your job, among others, was to read everything that came in, write some kind of evaluation on the project, specifying its potential or lack thereof and the estimated number of hours necessary to put it through the production process.  You saw some remarkably poor submissions, submitted by individuals who thought them worthy of publication.  You also became acquainted with the necessities of estimating the cost of a particular project and the need to place a realistic price on it.  You came also to learn you were being judged in the final analysis for your ability to identify and recommend projects that had a reasonable chance of “earning out” or making enough profit to subsidize the more literary projects that came through.

At one point, in the employ of a massmarket publisher, after you’d estimated a potential for sales in the hundred thousand neighborhood, you were curtly reminded that you were not in Kansas anymore, Toto, massmarket meant millions, not a mere hundred thousand.

As time chugged along, you’d begun to feel that the overall skill of dramatic writing had improved; you were seeing better submissions and were reading more substantial works for your pleasure, which reminds you of another digressive essay relative to the fact that you read not for pleasure but for enjoyment, the difference between these two standards of excruciating nuance and importance.

It came as a shock when you realized the simple truth; your underlings were culling the dreadful material, a fact underscored by the realization that you were dealing with graduate-level students rather than undergraduates, thus even their dreadful ideas were more of consequence than undergraduate writing.

You believe there is a learning curve.  There surely was one for you, and there is surely more room in your own cranky psyche for patience with students than with many editorial projects you’ve seen at close hand.  With your own work, patience is not in the equation; you are not a patient person, but with your own work, you are stubborn, a quality that carries you through the rough spots.

The temptation to say no is growing greater when an editing project visits you with the persistence of a bill collector.  The fee you’d just returned represents losses in time, income, and your regard for your own instincts.  In the face of a troubled past with the writer, you took the person on because you thought it had a potential for making a lasting impression on a diverse audience, something and somewhere in the vicinity of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  There was, of course, some ego involved; you thought of directors who’d coaxed memorable performances from actors who’d already reached the top of their game.  You thought this would be a nice coup, helping this author bring off this project.  In your dreams.

If you are not patient, you are not cynical.  Somewhere at the core, the ruling energy comes from enthusiasm, and that is the thing you are at pains to preserve.

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