It’s a brilliant story, but…

Have you ever been offered money to write someone else’s book? I have. Indeed, I imagine it’s fairly common. Usually, the offerer has a novel that needs a bit of EPR (editing/polishing/redrafting), but, having busy, complicated lives, they don’t have the time to do it… so would I be interested in doing it – for, say, £500 (okay, £1000)? I mean, yeah… because it’s just about a bit of time.

These askers are wannabe authors who don’t think a little thing like not being able to write should hold them back. What they know – or think they know – is that you can write. I mean, shit, you have a blog and you know how to punctuate; and didn’t you say you’d written a novel? I’m sure I heard you say something like that while I was mentioning how busy and complicated my life was – what with the divorce and kids and all.

Should you ever find yourself the askee in this situation, say no… but temporize. Say you’ll look at the manuscript without committing. The look will be instructive.

You’ll be briefly impressed. The first page will be near-perfect, though there might be a clunky sentence lurking in there that alerts the discerning to the car-crash to come. By page two, the standard will have slipped slightly, and by page three the deterioration will be marked, noticeable to anyone literate. The standard of page one will never be recovered.

This type of author will often have read writer self-help books on How to Write a Killer First ParagraphPageChapter… (you get the picture), but their efforts will generally never extend much beyond the Killer First Page, which will probably have been polished to death with the odd smear still in evidence.

Errors will be basic and inconsistent: “Okay”, she said. Or: “Okay” she said. Tenses will be mixed inappropriately as the effort to write becomes exhausting and tiresome – and isn’t it about the story, anyway? Shit, you can hire someone to sort out the clerical stuff. Except that the errors aren’t just clerical. The novel doesn’t just require the addition of appropriate punctuation; it requires rewriting. Sentences at first, then paragraphs, then pages, and then – disastrously – you’ll find yourself drowning in the realisation that their writing has entirely fallen apart. Indeed, that that Killer First Page cost them an enormous amount of time and effort. You will also know that £500 or £1000 isn’t going to cut it in terms of compensation for the work involved in effecting the necessary repairs. Notice I’ve said nothing about the story here, which (in this role) is none of my business.

Would I do it, then, for £10,000? Essentially, you’re being asked to take a scrappy manuscript and make it immaculate in terms of the writing. I can do that – and for £10,000 it would be worth the effort. The problem is the human considerations. Taking an old person’s life savings to edit, polish, and redraft the novel about their father’s experiences in WWII would not feel cool. I’d be less uncomfortable taking the money from a millionaire who wanted the treatment for his post-Cold War thriller because my only concern would be to  deliver an excellent EPR (do a good job, in other words). Whether or not the millionaire later recouped the outlay in the market-place wouldn’t be a concern. At least, he’d have something literary to sell online and show off to his friends.

This is an issue, though – the temptation to blame your editor for the the subsequent lack of success of your novel (since only they will have benefited from it in financial terms). Clearly, there are bad editors out there, or people advertising these services, who can’t do the job: novel doctors and get-your-novel-into-shape merchants willing to offer various levels of feedback and editorial input based entirely on how much you’re willing to fork out. Essentially, we’re moving into the shady world of literary bottom-feeders here – parasitical scamsters willing to exploit your dreams and take your money. Of course, there are also perfectly genuine people offering these services, who simply aren’t very good at what they do. Be careful if you don’t know the people you’re dealing with. You’re likely to come away disappointed – indeed, it’s probably safer to assume you’re being scammed.

As for me – well, I’ve had a few it’s-a-brilliant-story-but novels pass across my virtual desktop (historical romps, fictionalized rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, James Patterson type thrillers) and have offered some free editing (as I said, it’s instructive), enough to assess what a huge task it would be to treat the whole novel. Really, as you plough ever more deeply into their deteriorating writing, you’ll be glad you didn’t take the money and can return their novel telling them you don’t have the time to do it justice (because it’s such a mess), but you might want to keep the bit in parenthesis to yourself.

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