First of all, welcome back, all you patient people, and I’ve got a hopper full of book doctoring articles I hope to be popping out at you within the next couple months. So here’s what’s up: a more in-depth look at what I used to do, and a new idea I have for maybe making my book doctoring work economically viable again, since I used to find it very, very satisfying.
So to start with my life as a traditional book doctor:
Between 2003 and 2011, I did various kinds of book doctoring, freelance editing, and ghosting on 44 different books with 37 different authors, and also something ranging into the hundreds of paid first-reader reports for literary agencies. I am happy to say that no one ever asked for a refund (although a few did cancel later stages of a project as their interests and purposes changed), and even happier to say that no one ever stiffed me (although one client didn’t pay completely till almost three years late, but at least had the decency to sound convincingly like that was absolutely necessary).
32 of those projects were paid for by agencies, publishers, corporations sponsoring an in-house book project, or other third parties. This was a matter of my conscious policy; I thought of myself as, and worked mainly as, a book doctor, diagnosing a metaphorically sick or hurt book (literally a manuscript with a fundamentally sound concept that the author had been unable to execute at a professional level because of describable, specific, fixable problems) and treated it to save it (i.e. either taught the author to fix it up to professionally publishable standards, or fixed it myself).
I preferred third party clients to private ones because third parties:
a. paid promptly,
b. didn’t call me up in the middle of the night in tears demanding to know how I could say such terrible things (and although a couple times the authors did, they didn’t seem to feel entitled in the way that someone footing the bill does),
c. would pressure authors to quit dithering and either do the work I recommended or decide to do something else.
c. would pressure authors to quit dithering and either do the work I recommended or decide to do something else.
Now and again, I also took on projects for individual authors; these private clients were always more work, even when they were great, because they were a more complex negotiation. (The backing of dictatorial power is a great time saver; without it, no one would ever build a pyramid or cathedral or invade Russia). Toward the end of my book doctoring days, projects for individual authors became more common, and more of my authors chose to self-publish.
The world was changing.
By early summer of 2011 I was all out of projects, hadn’t had a new one since about Thanksgiving of the year before, hadn’t even bid on any since February, and thought I was probably out of business.
Publishing had tightened up a lot. My primary kind of project, badly executed fiction with fabulous concepts, didn’t come along so often, and didn’t pay so well when it did. There wasn’t much of any publisher or agent left who wanted to lay out $5,000 for the book doctor to rescue a $100,000 advance, because advances were dwindling and agents and publishers were getting much, much smarter about which writers would be able to deliver on proposals, and about not letting them have money to play around with till they were done. Taking more private clients would have meant many more hassles from clients less able to pay, so it seemed like time to finish up existing clients and do something else with the time.
About a year after I stopped actively trying to find new clients, I launched The Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag, which you are reading now, a blog about my old fiction-fixing tricks. I tried to list and explain my better tricks as I understood them, in a fashion not unlike what Hippocrates or Galen might have done, because I had liked doing this stuff, liked what I’d acquired from the experience, and preferred that what I had learned not be totally lost.
I had always figured that when The Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag had grown and morphed into a big enough collection of interrelated pieces, I’d bring it out as a self-pub book, metaphorically sew it together like Frankenstein’s monster, and send it out to terrorize the peasants.
Well, life intervened as it often does. I had a long hiatus in putting up new Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag pieces, and it’s only been in the last few weeks, as I’ve been looking over things I meant to do and get back to, that I looked seriously at what was already there and what was waiting in the chutes.
As I looked it all over, figuring out what ought to go next, I was a little surprised to realize just how much I really missed book doctoring. I guess if you do something you enjoy for eight or nine years, and then quit because of market conditions rather than being done, that feeling of having left the party too early is hard to shake.
After some contemplating, I realized three things:
- The old world of traditional third-party-financed book doctoring was still dead as a pickled mackerel.
- On the other hand, my five or so favorite book doctoring gigs had been for private clients.
- Unfortunately, so had my five or so least favorite.
Yes, if you’re doing the arithmetic, you’ll find that my private clients were either my best or my worst; there were no middle cases at all. One set of private clients were the best people I ever worked with, and the other set was the worst, and it was about a fifty-fifty split. Hypotheses about why might be amusing, but I don’t see a strong reason to launch into them.
Strangely, this had little to nothing to do with payment, and only a peripheral relation to literary quality. Some awful ones (not awful writers, not awful people -- just people for whom I found it awful to work) paid big fees promptly; some great ones paid very late on fees that were well below what I usually charged.
So I considered whether it might be possible to only work with people who resembled my favorites. This would mean both attracting them and scaring the others away, but there was good reason to scare the bad-fit clients: the wrong book doctor is to your book approximately what the wrong oncologist is to your tumor; things may grow and change and be modified, but not in good directions. Could I make decent money working only the best part of the market, the people that I would love working with and do the most good for?
Eventually, idle scribbling on note cards and sorting the cards (much of my thinking process resembles an alien Tarot spread or game of solitaire) led me to see that my favorite private clients had had a few things in common, some of which were more important than they seemed:
What John’s favorite book doctoring clients were like
- They didn’t want to write twenty books (unless it was going to be one vast work like The Life of Manuel); there was this one book, or perhaps a trilogy, that they really thought ought to exist, and they seemed to feel that if they could finish that one book to their satisfaction, they might even be done with writing forever. For them it wasn’t about being a writer, it was about producing this one vital book that they just felt in the pit of their souls ought to exist. My shorthand for this was the Dream Novel. Sometimes they had had the idea as teenagers, thought about it for twenty-five years, then taken ten years to write a rough draft, then shopped it through all the workshops, agents, editors, etc. for another ten, redrafting constantly, and now that they were retiring, they thought they really might have time to work on it. Sometimes the idea had obsessed them three years ago, now they were on draft seven, and it just wouldn’t do what they wanted it to. One way or another the Dream Novel had become very important to them and they couldn’t make it move any closer to what they wanted it to be.
- They had all gone as far as they could with the Dream Novel by their own efforts (and whatever help they’d found) and could feel that it wasn’t far enough, but they had at least one complete draft finished, and no idea what to do next.
- They were in their mid-thirties or older, usually considerably older, and had done some genuinely interesting things, or had some intrinsically interesting experiences. Those experiences were not necessarily adventures per se (though some were), but they had lived a busy life outside idle daydreams, commercial entertainment, and the like, doing things that commanded their full attention, whether it was climbing mountains, trading bonds, raising children, building geodesic domes, or amateur auto racing. Their happiest, or most important, or most memorable days were not spent in the basement looking at a screen, or on the couch with a paperback. They’d been someplace and done something, even though it might only be nebulously connected to the Dream Novel.
- They had read more in both volume and diversity of challenge after leaving school than while there. About half of that top group were linguists enough to read for pleasure in more than one language. All of them had some literary vice or other (hot romances, men’s action adventure, cozy mysteries, superhero comics) and all had been deeply touched by some major works in the canon and some major works outside of it and a couple of books that they seemed to be the only people who knew about. (But when I read them, I found that my favorites had been right—those books for which they appeared to be a one-person cult were unrecognized masterpieces).
- They were life-long consumers of more challenging art, just because they liked it, and readers of difficult non-fiction, just because they wanted to know (rather than professionally). They were the sort of people who keep writers like James Gleick and Douglas Hofstadter in business, and also the sort who rush to get tickets for a Mondrian retrospective and may have bought a life membership to a Mahler festival, with the kind of gleeful enthusiasm that you usually see in Red Sox fans.
In short, you might be my favorite kind of client if you have a Dream Novel, connected to ideas from more sources than you can easily name, but you’re frustrated because somehow when you finally did write, it wasn’t what you want it to be and you don’t know how to make it be that. You can’t even get your friends to talk about it anymore. You’ve spent years, perhaps, with it. You’ve tried workshops and classes and you’ve collected some rejection slips, but the great frustration is that you know in your heart something isn’t right here, that you weren’t finished, but no one seems to be able to tell you how to finish or how to make it the book you really wanted.
Now, on the other hand, when I thought about that “why didn’t I just apprentice to the upholster” kind of clients, the ones that made me vow I’d never go near a private client again, the ones where the experience of reading their best scenes made me go out and look for technical manuals to copy edit, the ones where I didn’t like to meet them over coffee because I had visions of throwing it into their faces, I noticed there were also some traits in common.
John’s Nightmare Client characteristics
- Young but prolific; lots of drafts of things they wrote very fast.
- Imitative: mostly wrote what they read.
- Easily satisfied and/or opposed to hard work in rewrites; they wanted the fastest and easiest way there, not the best way for the book.
- Commercially/financially ambitious or desperate or both. One way or another at heart this was about the money.
- Obsessed with either publishing-industry insider crap, or more often writer-wannabe crap; if I told them there was a problem with their protagonist they asked which agents I could get them in with, whether there should be two spaces after a period, and whether I thought the trend for Hero’s Journey plots had peaked yet.
- Saturated in pop culture but with immense holes in their general knowledge of broader culture or the wider world; had not heard of a lot of cool stuff that is widely alluded to, the sort of folks that think that the screenwriters inexplicably fill The Simpsons with random made-up names.
- The cookie mentality -- the kind of people who refer to plot cookies, character payoff cookies, porn cookies (by which they mean naughty bits), fan service cookies, etc. as if their book were a truckload of cookies and the reader was entitled to what was on the manifest, so they were checking off each box.
Basically, the good ones had a Dream Novel to present to the world, and were okay with the idea that they might put their whole heart, soul, and guts into it and the world might still say “Eahhh,” just as long as they’d said what they really wanted to say, and people had had a chance to find and read it.
The bad ones were trying to launch careers as professional writers, but if writing didn’t work out they might become computer consultants or pastry chefs or pop singers; anything where you could do some hard work, establish yourself in a niche, and exploit that niche.
Now, there’s nothing dishonorable or wrong about wanting to launch a career as a professional writer. If you can escape from the minimum security prison of the general capitalist market and stay home making a living in your jammies, and have the admiration of millions to boot, go for it, and I’d love to do that myself. The times when I’ve been able to make good money in self-employment have been pretty sweet, and the sweetness has not been diminished when I was writing about investment properties, statistical method, or shampoo.
But if that’s you, all past experience shows I either don’t have much to offer you or you’re not the person who’s going to get anything out of what I can offer, so off you go, and may you have more fun and discover more meaning than I think you will.
But those favorites, the Dream Novel people ... oh, I wish I had about one every six weeks to work with (that’s a pace that allows me to keep my own writing going comfortably and have a life as well).
So ... I’m trying out a new services mix, built around the tagline Dream to Pro. The Dream part is the dream novel; the Pro part is “a presentation as much like a fully professional writer’s as I can drive, drag, cajole, or thump you into.”
What I mean by professional presentation is not that spelling/punctuation/usage/grammar stuff known to English comp teachers as SPUG. And I certainly don’t mean manuscript mechanics. I mean things like how to focus attention on a major character’s entrance, or take a reader through an action scene, or decide how much should happen between an inciting incident and a first major complication, or give a character a consistent inner life, or start sexual tension building between two characters without mentioning sex. I mean all that craft that goes into fiction that explains why a publisher will sometimes take a lame idea from an established pro rather than a great one from someone whose writing sample screams “talented amateur” (especially if the amateur part is out-screaming the talented bit).
(Sometime soon in the Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag I’ll write more about presentation, professional and otherwise).
I love moving a certain kind of interesting, well-read and well-lived bright person’s Dream Novel into a fully professional presentation. So let’s see if there’s any such work out there at a rate I can afford.
You can find my new rate sheet at this link for free (it’s rtf so almost anyone’s software will read it).
For any publishers or agents who may be reading along: I wouldn’t turn down the old kind of book doctoring if anyone asked me to do it, but it’s kind of like being a blacksmith who could still mend a horse-drawn plowshare, I just don’t expect anyone to knock on my door asking me to do it. But I’m hanging out the shingle again, so, yes, the rate sheet does include traditional services, for which you’ll find my fees on the high side but not preposterous, I hope. Please feel free to toss a copy into your files and also to hand out copies.
If your dream is that readers you cherish and respect will someday tell you that you got it right, I’m possibly your book doctor. If your dream involves movie deals, a big paid-for house, and your name turning up in geeky trivia quizzes, well, best of luck, but in all fairness and sincerity I’m not your guy.
I have no idea how to teach anyone to rough draft, either, so I don’t think I’m the person to sit by you and hold your hand while you get started.
But ... if you have a Dream Novel that doesn’t seem fully professional or ready for the public, and it’s important enough for you to put some money into getting it to that level ... maybe you’ll want to talk to me. If three years of early mornings and late evenings went into your ghost-story based on a motif from Mozart, an idea from Nietzsche, and the idea of a monkey statue brought to life, and everyone at the workshop told you to drop all your characters and write about a cute vampire slayer because those always sell, and an editor said, “There is no market for this” and your heart cried out I don’t want a market, I want people to read this.... I might be your best bet.
I’m not cheap, but I’m good at what I do. Doing an all-out Dream to Pro with me will cost something in the range of a really good computer, or refurnishing a large room with good stuff, or a fairly nice used car, or a brand new all the trimmings bass boat. More than a year of ballroom dance lessons, less than a month-long tango clinic in Buenos Aires. More than adding a closet, less than adding a bathroom. In other words, Serious Hobby Money -- and after all, since the people I’m interested in are not necessarily writing for market purposes, what they’ve got is a serious hobby.
Are there any such people out there? Well, of those top five clients of all time, two self published fairly happily, one will self-publish this fall, one commercially published with a small press (and the book vanished in the market, I’m afraid), and one has gone on to be a perpetual reviser. They seemed to feel they got their money’s worth.
If all this is sounding good to you, or just interesting, or you would enjoy finding something to make fun of me for, pick up the new rate sheet.
For the rest of you: sorry to spend so long on this one subject. Next piece up will be on the power of mechanical methods in revising a book, and I think it’ll be along soon. There are still a lot of tools to check out in the little black bag, and you can still rummage around in it here for free.