Does Your Book Need a Grandma?

Today I spent about an hour talking with an author client about her manuscript and answering some questions she had about the formatting. If you’ve never used the Styles feature in Microsoft Word before, well…let’s just say it can open up a whole new world. Or a whole can of worms, depending on your perspective.

Mostly I stayed quiet and just let her talk about the project. It’s the institutional history of a private school in the Washington, DC area (I’ll provide more details when it is released).

The author told me how she was given a key to the school archives and was pretty much left to sort through them herself. Writing the book as a single author—essentially, walking around in its world with no one to share the joys and challenges of the journey—was tough, she confessed.

Googling various alumni “just to find out what happened to them,” she’d stumbled across some marvelous stories. For example, one alumnus was instrumental in starting the Navy SEALS. She called him for an interview, and after regaling her for hours this ninety-something-year-old concluded by saying, “I guess I am pretty proud of myself after all.”

“What a character!,” I exclaimed. “I know, right?,” she replied, chuckling. “No one here at school wants to listen to me prattle on about all the people I interviewed. I mean, everyone’s excited about the book coming out but they don’t really want to know ALL the back story about what I went through to write it.”

No one wants to know how the sausage is made.

When the author took a pause I chimed in to affirm the great writing choices she’d made, and what stood out most to me in the manuscript. I noted that within each decade-based chapter, she’d done a great job addressing similar themes in a cyclical way without making them sound repetitive.

She also used catchy subheads throughout, to pique interest and to give readers just enough of an idea about where the story was going.

“Thank you so much for noticing that,” she said. “It’s a technique I picked up from my fiction-writing experience. I didn’t know whether it would really work for this book. It’s been so strange working in a vacuum.”

“This book is my baby,” she concluded, “but it was time for an outsider’s perspective on it.”

And it occurred to me in that moment: so many authors say “this book is my baby.”

If you’re writing a book right now, do you sometimes imagine you’re gestating it—maybe getting cramps and sore feet from time to time?

sleeping infant

photo by Andres Nieto Porras on Flikr

Authors talk of “birthing” their books, of introducing them to the world. Authors are the mommies and daddies to their precious, vulnerable, sometimes-needy works of art.

But who gets to be the grandma? You know, the one who gives unsolicited advice about how you should care for and raise your baby. The one you roll your eyes at when she says you’ve picked the wrong baby carrier, the wrong colors, the wrong formula.

Answer: I do. As an editor, I am your book’s grandma. I’m opinionated, I’m experienced. You’ve asked for my advice.

I’ll suggest a different idea, a different direction. I will be honest, but I’ll also respect boundaries. You call the shots for your baby.

We’ll talk about what you’re doing right. I will look for opportunities to pat you on the back, if that is what you need.

I might see themes, connections, gaps, patterns, that you’ve been too close to see yourself. I will get to know your manuscript inside and out. I will probably know it better than any other reader. I won’t know the story of how it came to be unless you tell me. I won’t know what could have gone in it but didn’t, the parts of it that might eventually become your original baby’s sibling…


And now that I’ve stretched the baby metaphor WAY too far, I’d like to know: are you ready to entrust your baby (manuscript) to a grandparent (editor) for a few weeks? Do you promise to stop worrying, take yourself to the spa, and spend some time with friends while your manuscript is away? I promise I will take good care of it (him, her)!

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