Monday, March 14, 2011

Rule #1

OK, I'm not going to tell you these stories about Bernie just because I hated his guts. He's gone off to either a just or merciful god at this point, I'm sure, and god can take care of Bernie. But I want you to understand rule #1 of writing and publishing: Editors are no smarter than you are. In fact, some of them are a lot dumber. So while it may be a good idea to consider what an editor says about your book, by no means should you take editorial comments as the word of God.
Back to Bernie. One day he called me into his office and said that we had to write a textbook for sex education. It was clear that Bernie would rather not do that. His generation learned about sex from the gutter, the natural place for sex ed. But since the New York City public school system had decided to teach sex ed in classrooms, and since Bernie had some higher-up in the system willing to put his or her name on the book as author, we had to produce a text. That was to be my job. I think it was because I was the youngest editor on the staff, and Bernie figured I was "with it," or "hip," or some other quality that would enable me to write such a book. But Bernie wanted me to keep one thing in mind. He said--I'll never forget it--that I had to tell them about sex without actually explaining "how to do it." If you want to know how I accomplished the feat, you'll have to dig up a copy of the 1970s-era New York public school sex ed text. Maybe on eBay.
But the really funniest story I recall about Bernie, who was not just an editor, remember, but the editor-in-chief of a real, functioning book company, came when we were turning out a science text. He decided to hire some free-lancers to write features and sidebars for the text. One of these features was on Father Gregor Mendel, the Catholic monk who discovered the principles of genetics by cross-fertilizing green and yellow peas. I was actually the person who chose the topic, and I found a free-lancer not too far away. She was in fact my girlfriend, soon to be my wife, but we didn't tell Bernie of our relationship because he would accuse me of favoritism. So the three of us were in Bernie's office, discussing some of the sidebars she had written. And we came to Gregor Mendel and the peas. (Bernie kept referring to the Catholic monk as "Mendel Gregor," thinking apparently that he was a famous Jewish monk.) Anyway, Bernie smiled at both my girlfriend and me and said he wanted to tell us something about writing for students. Naturally, she and I assumed that with his years of experience, he would tell us something very wise and valuable. (I'm using sarcasm here, but we paid attention as if we thought anything he said could be worthwhile. He was paying both of us, after all.) Bernie then told us, "Kids aren't turned on by peas." My girlfriend and I looked at each other, wondering which of us would explain that peas were the essential part of Mendel's (or Gregor's) experiment. But then Bernie said, "Why don't we say that Gregor experimented with something like collie dogs?" It was a sign of extreme self-control that my future wife and I didn't laugh in his face. We were, as I say, getting paid. Not much, not as much as the people whose names were on the books we wrote, but something.
Please remember Bernie, and Rule #1, when an editor suggests something equally idiotic about your book or manuscript. And one will, no doubt about it. Be prepared to defend your book.

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