On Writing and Books
“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured on purpose to a life beyond life.” (John Milton)
“The only sound reason for writing a book is for the book’s sake, and a book, like a man, is an end in itself, not a means toward an end. A good book contains the essence of a man’s mind and heart.” (Edward Wagenknecht, Boston University)
“No wonder that Alexander carried The Iliad in a precious casket with him on his expeditions. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips–not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. ” (Henry Thoreau)
Lessons from a Polar Explorer
A venture into the unknown can often end in failure. Many of the polar explorers encountered unforeseen perils that lay waiting for them in hostile unchartered territory. In 1914, British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s polar expedition faced disaster when his supply ship, the Endurance, became icebound in the Antarctic ice—only 100 miles from the South Pole. Shackleton and his men were marooned and in peril of losing their lives if they didn’t find help fast.
In one of the most daring and gruelling journeys in maritime history, Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance, helped navigate Shackleton and a handful of men in the James Caird, a small lifeboat, through 800 miles of chilling and treacherous seas to safety in a whaling station in the South Georgia Islands. From there a relief ship returned with Shackleton to save the rest of his camp still stranded in the Antarctic ice. Shackleton learned some hard lessons of survival: don’t underestimate the unforeseen and don’t try to go it alone. Shackleton used the resources around him to get the help he needed to survive. In his case, he sought the help of his ship’s captain, Frank Worsely, whose navigational skills enabled Shackleton and his crew to sail safely through the most dangerous waters on the planet. Shackleton had not foreseen the perils of pack ice that marooned his expedition, but he did eventually seek vital resources that were available to him. Shackleton’s experience “told you that there are always going to be obstacles in the way. You have to keep your faith, keep believing…keep working together, even if you think you’re never going to make it.” (Quarterback Tom Brady, New England Patriots)
The author’s quest for publication is, in some respects, like that of the polar explorer–an expedition into unknown and perilous territory. It’s not uncommon for a writer to venture out alone on the quest, unprepared and unaware of the labyrinth that lies in waiting. It’s a journey through unforeseen hazards filled with daunting tasks: 1) finding a reliable and affordable literary agent; 2) learning to write effective queries and book proposals; 3) sorting out the pros and cons of self-publishing; 4) deciphering proper manuscript format; and 5) assessing legal and money matters, including book marketing and royalties. Other concerns, though not as serious as the tasks enumerated above, including protecting intellectual property, securing permission to reprint, properly citing sources, and checking facts, for example, can consume the author’s mind, taking away energy best spent in crafting the book. In what seems a futile endeavor to get published, the author invariably reaches a point of disillusionment and resignation. After months or even years spent writing the “masterpiece,” and hours and hours in an admirable effort to find an interested publisher, the author is left with a work unapproved for publication. Rejection follows rejection. It is not to say the piece is unworthy of publication. However, the manuscript becomes “icebound”—marooned in the ‘My Bestseller’ folder on the hard drive of the computer.
So, what went wrong? In all probability, the author has not taken the trouble to put the manuscript in a finished and presentable state that will pass muster. No wonder a literary agent couldn’t be found who would endorse the piece. Chances are that the manuscript and query presented to the agent–or acquisitions editor at a publishing house–were not edited by a professional editor. Self-edited works and queries frequently contain an unacceptable number of errors in grammar and syntax–enough “inky embarrassments,” as Bill Bryson calls them, to cause a frown of disapproval on the brow of a literary agent or publisher. Despite the best of intentions, the author becomes blind to the need for help.
Overwhelmed and discouraged, the author spends most of his time trying to figure out which path is the right path in the quest for a viable and interested publisher. It’s easy to get off the right path. It’s easy to get lost.
Partner with a Copyeditor
Test your grammar and punctuation skills with the following grammatical traps and snares:
“I went to see the film War Horse with my friend, Steve.”
“I went to see War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, with my best friend Steve.”
“They rent it to whomever needs it.”
“This is a sequel to Jeremy Paul’s and Alan Gibson’s play.”
If you are unsure about the correct answers to the above sentences, then let an editor help you. Such matters are not where you (the writer) should be placing your creative energy.
The copyeditor can help the author to produce a finished and presentable manuscript. Once the editing has been completed, the copyeditor can guide the author to the right path to take in the search for a publisher. The author is able to utilize the resources, knowledge, and understanding required to move the manuscript across the finish line.
On an Even Keel
“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than in the one where they sprang up.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
The author and the editor need to work together to create a shared vision for the book. This means that at the outset they exchange meaningful discussions as how best to approach a viable publisher. What is the best way to “sell” the book and its concept? The editor can help the author to write a “powerful pitch”–a convincing case for publication. Having proceeded in an even keeled partnership, the author and editor discover a strategy for success. Now, armed with a finished and polished manuscript in one hand and a sound action plan to sell the book in the other, the author stands an even chance at getting published.
No qualified editor would promise a writer that editing their prized manuscript guarantees publication by a viable publisher. In reality, an editor offers neither a quick fix nor a rescue operation. What the editor can offer is to be a good listener and ask questions which encourage the writer to understand ideas that have yet to be imagined. An editor can offer the necessary knowledge and guidance to facilitate a vision not yet considered. Collaboration is power.
Partner with an editor to enhance your chances at getting published.