Five laws of the novelist

July 20th, 2009 by admin

By Stephen Bergman  |  July 20, 2009

LIKE THE arcane process of film developing in a darkroom tray, several Laws of the Novelist have appeared, and are offered as a guide to those so inclined.

Law Number One: Don’t Believe Teachers. The son of a dentist, I always wanted to be a writer. At college I worked like hell on the first essay of the freshman writing course, and got it back with one comment, in red letters: “See me.’’ Her feedback: “This is too terrible to mark, it’s below F.’’ Devastated, I tried again, and again, and always: “See me. Still below F.’’ Later that year, I was on the golf team with a blond Adonis named Ray. He said he was getting a straight A. Ray was a great golfer, but could barely talk, much less write. “What, you an A?’’ “Yeah. I’ve been sleeping with her all year.’’

Could this be the meaning of “See me’’?

I didn’t believe her, and kept on.

Law Two: Editors Are Ephemeral and Don’t Edit. The editor of my first novel moved to another publishing house for my second. In the middle of my third, at another publishing house, she was fired, and my new editor, after sending me terrific edits, was fired the next day. The editor on my fourth novel, at still another publishing house, said, “I love this novel. I won’t change a word.’’ But when I got the manuscript back she had marked it up with so much red pencil that each page was pink. We struggled. I took few of her suggestions. In our final conversation she said, “You’ve ruined this book. It will get bad reviews,’’ and then she was fired.

As one editor told me: “We no longer edit, we acquire and market.’’

Law Three: Publishers Don’t Publish. When my first novel was about to come out, I asked my publisher if it would sell. “No, your novel won’t sell.’’ This startled me. “It’s about medicine, and that’s good, and it’s funny and sexy, and that’s good.’’ Why won’t it sell? “Because it’s a good book. Good books don’t sell.’’ Bookstores can return any book for a full refund, a business model that spells doom for publishing. Only about 5 percent of books pay back their advance. Those hardcover remainders piled up in stores mean that the publishers overpaid, overprinted, and undersold.

Law Four: There Is No Humiliation Beneath Which a Writer Cannot Go. My second novel had come out in paperback, and my wife and I were on a hiking trip in New Hampshire. We stopped in a mom-and-pop store for lunch. There, in a spindle bookrack, were two copies of my novel. I immediately suspected my wife had placed them there, to make me feel good. Nope. I took both books off the rack and went up to the little old lady at the counter, and announced, “I wrote this book.’’

“Oh, you wrote that book?’’ she asked.

I averred yes. I asked if she would like me to sign the copies.

“Oh no, our folks would never buy a book that was writ in.’’

Another standard humiliation: At an author-signing in a bookstore, sitting at a desk near the window, facing a wall of Grishams, watching people hurrying past as if you are a child molester. Not fun, especially if your publisher has overlooked advertising the event.

Law Five: There Is Only One Reason To Write. During a post-second-novel depression, I spent six months, more or less, in the bathtub, trying to give up being a writer. Finally I realized that while I disliked publishing, I still loved writing. But if you want to respect what you write (rather than write for cash), you need a day job. Luckily, decades previously I faced a choice: between Vietnam or Harvard Med. I became a psychiatrist because I might learn about character and story, and could leave mornings free to write. Not as good a day job as my first, working the graveyard shift as a toll collector on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge – you can learn pretty much everything from what goes on at night in cars – but still.

Only write if you can’t not.

Correction: In last week’s column, in reference to the Clark Rockefeller trial, I erroneously reversed the words “prosecution’’ and “defense.’’ The prosecution psychiatrist concluded that the accused was not insane; the defense psychiatrist and psychologist concluded that he was insane.

Stephen Bergman, MD, is a guest columnist. Under the pen name Samuel Shem, he is the author of “The House of God’’ and “The Spirit of the Place.’’

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