Sunday, October 19, 2008

Frankenstein's Monster, by Igor

Dear Editorial Anonymous:

First off, thanks so much for doing this-- your site is a map for all the people out there picking through the children's publishing minefield-- a resource that is truly appreciated. Please know that I mean it and wasn't just buttering you up--- even though I do have a big, long juicy question for you:::

On the topic of Intellectual Property (which you seem to be addressing lately):

Two years ago I was on a remote beach in Mozambique, camping on the sand, when an idea hit me for an epic middle grade adventure story. I don't use "epic" as self-praise here, the story is big and sprawls across continents. Anyway, it hit like a bolt of lightning and I dropped everything (a novel based on a short story that I had recently won an award for) so that I could immerse myself in it.

As the idea crystallized I told it excitedly to my then girlfriend (we were into the second month of a thirteen month round-the-world trip together, sharing everything). She loved it, felt a deep connection point and became wildly passionate about the characters. Over the next ten months, crisscrossing the tropics in a spirit of joy and freedom, we kicked notes around about this story. It was an incredibly rich time creatively. Still, I always thought of the story as mine--- though I will readily admit that her viewpoints, ideas and characters enriched the story deeply. There is a possibility that at some point it was no longer mine but ours, I'm totally open to that. In fact, in Australia, after months of beautiful note taking we had a fight because I talked about the book as "mine," she told me that ever since that day in Mozambique she had considered it "ours." We settled it, I reassured her that I wouldn't try to take anything away from her contributions.

When we returned to America I began writing the first draft, getting down the bones. I did this alone, at the computer. However, we were living in the same house, when the writing of a particular scene brought tears to my eyes she was right there and I read it to her immediately. As I wrote she was working on other books, sometimes we would talk about the story, sometimes I would show her pages. When the first draft was written she started going through each chapter, one at a time. She would edit them heavily, sometimes as many as three pages of notes for a ten page chapter. She talked about characters, gave ideas, challenged me to not let myself off the hook. Basically the perfect notes to turn a first draft into a second draft. She kept me consistent and she challenged my research. I can say without doubt that her notes pushed me to write better, made the book stronger and brought about a more richly layered product.

Recently we have broken up, which surprisingly hasn't affected the working relationship too dramatically-- but after I published a piece in last month's SCBWI Bulletin and the by-line mentioned "his book" (SCBWI is very generous with by-lines, I didn't write it) she became worried about how our whole thing was defined. I respect that. She has worked hard and doesn't want to be left out in the cold should the book be fortunate enough to get published. At the same time, I have worked on this book endlessly, researched for thousands of hours and put the words on the page. I have a hard time giving up the title of "author." If I were to guess, I would say that in pure time the ratio for hours put in (mine to hers) is somewhere around twelve to one.

We have talked about crediting her as co-creator. We have talked about publishing (yes, I'm with you, should we be so lucky...) under a single pseudonym and explaining on the "about the author" blurb that the name represents both of us and outline our respective roles in that space.

I feel like I can handle both of those options.

So here are a my questions:

1. Is there already a name for the role she has?
Yes: Developmental Editor. She should not get authorial credit as she did none of the writing.

This is not to say that I don't appreciate the importance of her role. She contributed many ideas that you used and that you feel made the book better, and offered criticism that helped you make your book stronger and more fully realized.

This is the work that an editor does, though of course a publishing house's editor likely wouldn't have joined you at such an early stage in the book's development, or had that much time to give your project. (A publishing house's editor would be paid for her work, and expect no credit.)

Let's be clear: the idea for the story sounds like it was developed so communally between the two of you that the idea may indeed belong to both of you. And your ex deserves some credit for that role.

However, if you were the one who did the work of writing the book, then there's your answer. You are the author. Period.

She edited it--but she should not expect any more credit for that than another writer's critique group might get (which is, of course, often zero). I understand that she did that editing because she loves the story and (presumably) loves the body and heart and brains you've given it in written word form. She feels invested in the story, which is good in that it's allowed her to offer the story her creativity, too-- but possibly bad in that it's making her think her creativity in the making of the book is in some way equal to yours. Does she happen to think that it's easy to write a book once you have an idea for it? (It isn't.) Does she think she could have done the same work as well as you did? (It doesn't matter if she could have--she didn't. You. Wrote. The. Book.)
2. If we decide to credit her as co-creator as in: Created by "DICK and JANE" Written by DICK, should we send it out to agents and publishers that way or add that in once someone wants to buy or rep the story?
Truthfully (and my comments above notwithstanding), you can credit her however you like. The publisher probably won't care. And you can decide to share the royalties with her or not as you like.

I would say that the least you should do is to put it in the acknowledgments that her ideas and critique made a tremendous difference to the book-- which gives credit to both the degree and nature of her contribution.

But I would suggest that the fairest, kindest thing to do would be to say "by DICK (and in smaller type) co-creator JANE". Or maybe "by DICK with help from JANE". And perhaps offer her a 1-2% royalty.

But calling her an author (or implying it by putting her name on the cover without a modifier like "co-creator") is a lie.

There's a difference between someone who's chivalrous and someone who's a doormat. Offering her authorial credit and half the royalties is not laying your coat over a puddle for her. It's laying yourself down in the street for her to walk on. But I don't judge. That's the relationship some people want to be in.
3. What would your suggestion be if you were editing the book and I came to you with this little quandary but hadn't yet found any possibly suitable solutions? I realize that at some point I delved into Dear Abby territory, sorry about that. The truth is that I really want to honor her role, while at the same time respecting the fact that I have worked endlessly and put the actual words down on the page.
Writing a book is not like building a skyscraper. In architecture, the person who drew the blueprints gets the credit, not the construction company that put the building together. That's because outside of the blueprints, buildings are mostly built the same way. It's the architect's design that makes the building unique.

Stories are not like that. I'm sure we can all think of some Classics of English Literature that have very little in the way of overall design. We don't read them or laud them for their design--we read them and laud them for their writing.

So while design may be important to a story, it is nothing compared to the work of expressing the story. Stories are more like Frankenstein's monster. It doesn't matter who helped dig up the body parts. The author is the guy who breathed life into them.


Anonymous said...

I didn't ask this question but I love your response. The execution is everything in a book, it's what makes one book sell and another not. Ideas, even those given to you that you can latch onto and will solve a problem in the manuscript are not the same as writing the thing.

Otherwise every single book would have two authors. The writer and the writer's editor.

Kelly Polark said...

Interesting and enlightening post!

Mommy C said...

Does anyone know Mordecai Richler's wife's name? Not likely, even though she played the same role that this author's girlfriend did. You won't find her name on the cover, it's in the acknowledgements, though she worked as Richler's editor for every book written after they were together.

Ok, I guess if you're a "Jacob Two-Two" fan, you might know, because his wife is a character.

Miriam Forster said...

Ouch. Sounds like an ugly custody battle in the making.

Here's my question... What does "she doesn't want to be left out in the cold if it gets published" actually mean?

Does she just wants a byline, acknowledgment and gratitude? (Understandable)

Does she want to use the book as a credit when submitting her own writing? (Possibly do-able)

Does she want a say in submissions and marketing choices? (Could get sticky there)

Or is she hoping for a cut of the royalties when the middle grade novel starts raking in the cash? (As all middle grade novels do, of course)

If you know what the person ultimately wants, it's (usually) easier to find a good compromise.

Sara said...

It's like the paper I'm working on for English 310. If my tutor gives mes some ideas to help me get going, and does some editing for me, that's nice and all, and I certainly appreciate it. But what, does she expect a share of my A minus? Need I break her off 15 points and take credit for a C plus? I'm the one who wrote the paper. As long as I wrote the product, I don't see why I should compensate someone else extraordinarily for providing inspiration and/or editing help.

Chris Eldin said...

This post is riveting. And now we know you may be parading about town as an editor, but more likely you're a therapist.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Most books are not created in a vacuum.
The act of writing is a solitary affair, but at the same time most of us have critique partners or groups who helps us brainstorm ideas and edit, so that we can make the book the best it can be.
But I agree with you, EA, the writer is the one who has done the actual writing.

Lindsey said...

Thank you for your clear response. I've often wondered just where to draw the line when sharing ideas and editing with a partner. You couldn't have made it any simpler. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wow. This was really interesting. Thanks for posting it! It would never occur to me to include more than a thank you to my husband in my book, even though I've stolen all his good jokes, half his life, and run a zillion things past him, plus all the ideas he's added after reading ten drafts. But it would never occur to him either, so we're cool.

Nicola said...

(Dear Abby)

I know this situation very well, from the p.o.v. of the girlfriend/wife who offers ideas, reads and edits draft after draft of book after book, writes the back cover blurb (in-house editor came up with a dud), organizes the book launch (publisher was a tight-wad), etc ad nauseam. Done all that!

I got a nice thank you on all the credit pages, which was totally fine. Because did I write the books? Nope. Writing can be as painful as pulling your own teeth out, and my teeth remained agony-free* and intact.

Mind you, that was all within a shared-finances situation. Creating the best books possible was of benefit to us both. The questioner here no longer lives with his girlfriend; maybe that's part of her concern? She started off assuming she'd share any financial gain, because they lived together, but now things have changed.

(Note: one divorce later, I now live with an accountant. Life is so much simpler.)

* Unlike this post.

Sheila JG said...

Although I have no sympathy for this man due to my insane jealousy of anyone who can travel around the world for 13 months, I applaud his equanimity. It is very good of you to want to find a solution that keeps everyone happy.

I think you are extremely generous to want to allow her co-creator status when you put in twelve times the work. Is this what she is asking for?

I think EA nailed it - it's a lot easier to spout out ideas than it is to get them on paper.

And I loved the title to this post!

Anonymous said...

I like Miriam's advice about trying to discover what she has in mind. This is a very vivid account of one side of the story, but I would be curious to know what the process looks like to the other party. What kind of "writing" involvement was there (if any)? Not all writing takes place at the computer.

As a former composition instructor, I've spent lots of time working through essays with students, offering feedback and even ideas. But there was always a line I felt I couldn't cross in order to keep from inserting myself and my own writing into a students' essay. I would guess that perhaps editors have to struggle with that line as well? In this example the relationship is much different and unclear, so the expectations are as well. I sure would love to hear how the whole thing works itself out .

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