Wednesday, February 08, 2006

By Way of Introduction

Under “Trade Paperbacks: Literary Criticism & Essays” in the January 23, 2006 issue of Publishers Weekly sits this listing:
THE DOG WALKED DOWN THE STREET (May, $13.95) by Sal Glynn is advice about honing writing skills from a so-called “book midwife.”

Though glad to be in the PW pages, I found the “so-called” and the quotes framing “book midwife” to be disconcerting. This is a legitimate publishing term, not a scam, hustle, or euphemism for the chronically unemployed. Page through Google under “book midwife” and you will find Mindy Gibbins-Klein’s polished Web site, Kathleen Barnes, former HarperCollins senior editor Caroline Pincus, Margot Silk Forrest, and Lisa Alpine. Their clients have gone on to sign with agents and publishers.

Book midwives come from published writers, teachers, and the publishing profession. When they give advice, they know what they are talking about. Each read A. Scott Berg’s MAX PERKINS: EDITOR OF GENIUS (NY: Dutton, 1978) at an impressionable age and have taken on the career of midwife as a holy cause. Midwives have a passion for books rivaled only by bibliophiles with private incomes. The midwife provides support and encouragement to people who want to write, along with critiques and advice. There are also services like proposal writing, research, editing, or in cases of dire need, ghostwriting. The book remains the writer’s accomplishment.

Publishing companies want manuscripts they can send immediately to production on account of the editors are overworked and forced to spend time fretting over profit and loss statements instead of making books. Sure, publishing is a business, but the business side is concerned with increasing profit margins and not the correct use of a subordinate clause. The number of editorial staff has been cut to bare essentials and the job of developing new writers has gone to agents. These shortcomings have made many publishing professionals flee from the frustration of being in-house to the open air of freelancing. During a performance review, a former employer told me, “You’re spending too much time with the writers. Shape up or we’ll find someone else.” I packed my desk and wrote the want ad for a new editor, an MBA who could read without their lips moving. The applicants were few.

First-time and even veteran writers need an editor. A freelance editor will edit hard or soft depending on the needs of the manuscript; the manuscript goes to them and is sent back heavy with Post-It notes and a letter detailing problem areas. A copyeditor makes sure grammar is correct; the manuscript goes to them and is sent back with heavily marked pages. A proofreader looks at spelling; the manuscript goes to them and is sent back with lightly marked pages. None provide the extra attention and teaching some writers need to realize a finished, publishable manuscript.

You are walking down the street, the cell phone charging at home, and not a thought in your head except left, right, left, right, to keep your feet moving. A bronze Acura pulls up to the corner where you are waiting for the stoplight to change color. In the front seat of the car is an older Asian couple, stoic and looking ahead instead of at each other. Sitting in the back seat is a young woman weeping. “Why?” tumbles along your synapses. Who are these people, where have they come from, and what is the woman crying about? A story starts to form in your imagination with scenes, characters, and action. You have begun to write. When you finish the first draft and read enough on writing for complete confusion, the questions nag at you about what to do next. Is this any good or does it suck? What is publishing like? Where can I find a honest agent? Now is the time to call the book midwife, and pick one who specializes in your field. They will be your champion, tell you when you are right and wrong, and help you write your best.


Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

i found one! i found one! a book midwife, i mean!

10:15 AM  

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