Tuesday, February 22, 2005

“Your work is ingenious… there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

The Movie: Amadeus, 1984 (Peter Shaffer, screenwriter, from his play; Milos Forman, dir.)
Who says it: Jeffrey Jones as Emperor Joseph II of Austria
The context: The Emperor praises the work of his court composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce).
How to use it: When you’re criticizing something you know absolutely nothing about.

This line -- based on historical fact -- sums up the life of an editor. I often wonder whether I'm not just as big an ass as Emperor Joseph.

My clients fall into two broad categories. The first category are people who know what they want to say, but either don't know how to say it or don't have time to do it themselves. They hire me to perform a service, I do it, and emotions rarely come into the picture. I charge these clients my usual rates.

The second category are people who have poured their lifeblood into an artistic project, usually a novel or a screenplay, but suspect that this project is not yet ready to face the world. They come to me for help, but they also come to me for affirmation; they might say they want suggestions for changes, but their secret fantasy is that I'll say, "No, really. It's perfect just as it is. You're a genius."

This is where things get emotional. I can say, without reservation, that all of these clients are geniuses -- and this is not like all the children of Lake Wobegon being above average.

Someone defined genius as being able to do well something that ordinary people can't do at all... so maybe "hero," in this instance, is a better word than "genius." It takes passion, commitment, and courage to transfer a vision onto paper and actually finish something, especially if you suspect it's not as good as you want it to be. I myself am still wrestling with a novel I should have finished two years ago.

So what these clients are doing, when they hire me, is asking me to perform plastic surgery -- sometimes pretty radical plastic surgery -- on their babies. My role in this process is to be an advocate for the work, which is not always the same as being an advocate for the author. No matter how diplomatic I am, or how open-minded the author is, sometimes this process can't help becoming adversarial.

But it's also a privilege, which is why I usually wind up giving these clients pretty good discounts off my usual rates. And since this second category of client generally takes up a good bit more of my time and attention than the first category, the business model is totally unsustainable.

And that's one reason I live in central Maine instead of Los Angeles.


Aldo said...

From what I know or heard, you are a genius too. It is hard to find a person who has that special set of eyes and that critical gut instinct. But Maine? I only really like it in the summer.

AnswerGirl said...

As everyone here says, you gotta live through the winter to earn the summer...

Finish that novel, Aldo, and then hire me to clean it up. I'll cut ya a deal.

Anna said...

You know what else the locals also say... "There is no summer. It's eight months of winter and three months of really bad sledding."