I fell in love with writing in fourth grade when a writing instructor visiting my class read my letter to King George aloud. I’d used to phrase “have you no scruples,” borrowing a word from the title of a novel my mother was reading, and my new vocabulary word went over big. It was the first thing I felt I was good at, and that carried me through college where I realized I chose English courses for every elective outside of my international studies major, and wound up getting and English degree. Which is what led me, for a while, to an absolute hatred and disgust for language.
There weren’t a whole lot of choices for an English major in Buffalo when I graduated in 1996. So I was thrilled to find a job editing books for a “book doctoring” firm right away. I would be editing books! Granted, it was for minimum wage, 600 pages a week plus a critique, sitting at a card table in a faux-wood-paneled office next to one of the runways at the Buffalo airport. But I always thought I’d write a book one day, and I was using my degree. At least I thought I would be.
It turns out what I’d really be doing was editing and critiquing the work of hopeful authors with money to burn, a word processor, and delusions of mediocrity. I soon found I was spending seven and a half hours a day, five days a week editing the work of people who believed the old adage that everyone has a book in them. Everyone also has an appendix in them, but most people are kind enough not to remove it and scare others by dangling it in front of them.
If you are an aspiring novelist who sent something to Buffalo in the mid-90s to be edited, please stop reading. This may drive the last atom of hope from your heart. Twenty years later, the wounds are still fresh for me.
The vast majority of the books were laughable. The job was a test of whether laughter could preserve my sanity or whether it would just drive me further into madness. Some were merely mediocre and uninteresting, like the romance novels. You hoped for those. The romance writers were likely avid romance readers, and they knew the formulas. For the most part, those books were easy to edit and critique.
There were books that were bad in an almost entertaining way, like a seventy-five page story about the first years of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that suddenly turned into a murder mystery in the last five pages, or the sci-fi novel about the Canadian space program that helped repopulate the Earth after an environmental crisis. The Earth was in such bad shape that they had to build a ship in space, one that would take them to Alpha Centauri and back. All that and romance too! Someone had to be on the ship when it came back hundreds of years later. Which meant the lone lesbian on the journey had to “take one for the team.” After which she gushed that it had actually been pretty fun. Read enough of that and your brain starts to feel like it has actually taken physical blows by the end of the day.
But there was also soul-sucking trash, things that made you feel like language was a weapon that need to be banned lest it all into the wrong hands and be used to murder intelligence altogether. Words as a conveyance of such toxicity it made you wonder, how badly do we honestly need to communicate with each other?
The worst was a novel about four gynecologists on a private company cruise (one of them drove the yacht). Gynecologist Ralph forces himself sexually on his co-workers, two men and a woman, who don’t fight back because they are mesmerized by, and this is a direct quote burned into my memory, “Ralph’s tremendous penis.” (I swore if I had time to get a band together, I would name it “Ralph’s Tremendous Penis”). Eight hundred pages of that, then a couple of hundred pages of revenge involving local anesthetic and a surgical procedure that would have provided a wonderful transplant for some lucky recipient, had the results not been tossed down a storm drain.
Ralph’s Tremendous Penis took a week and a half from my life. Just about anything else I could have done with that time would have been more worthwhile. I could have helped built a house for the needy, or gone on a drinking binge, or just screamed into my hands in the corner of a basement in an abandoned house somewhere.
Every day, someone in the office bore witness to genuine, breathtaking stupidity and bad taste. Often they would stand up from a manuscript, their eyes wide, shaking like they had just been given terrible, secret news and start laughing madly. One editor walked out muttering the misspelling “Carnage Hall! Carnage Hall!” and didn’t come back for an hour. The writer had in his manuscript had meant to write “Carnegie Hall.” That was enough to set off my editor friend.
The worst thing about the job was writing the critique. After shredding the work of a clueless author, sometimes reading the most offensive passages aloud to our co-workers, to peals of laughter, we then had to sit down and tell them how to make the work better. “Burn it” was a popular thought. Or “Please get laid soon” or “perhaps medication would help.” I often wanted to write, “Try reading other books and comparing them to yours.”
To be fair, I’m sure I steered my share of aspiring authors in the wrong direction with my editing and critiques. It was like the literary “Wonder Years” – I was fumbling through right and wrong in my first job out of college, critiquing the life’s work of a probable shut-in after one day on the job. I’d like to think I got it right at least sometimes, but I’ll never know. My work was mailed back to the writers, and I never got to see any of it again.
The book doctoring service was more like a literary fantasy camp for people who wrote one draft and thought they were already writers. But I have to at least respect the effort. They didn’t just dream, they sat down and turned their dreams into honest-to-goodness nightmares. And that’s more than I’ve done with my efforts to write books so far. If persistence counts for anything, they deserve their due.
I edited a hundred books or so in my time at that job. I’ve moved on. I learned to like writing again, and more slowly, got over the trauma of reading. I wonder sometimes what happened with all of those manuscripts; if somewhere in their past, these would-be authors sat in their fourth grade class and saw their classmates react when their stuff was read aloud, and dedicated themselves to writing for a living, whatever it took. And if perchance I ever see a novel on the shelves about Canadians in space or Ralph’s tremendous penis, I can smile and think proudly, maybe I had something to do with that.