There are some things you only learn from experience. And there are some authors that can teach you more than their books ever could.
The year was 2009 and I was a naive 18-year-old.
The summer between my high school graduation and freshman year of college was one fraught with anxiety. I was headed to a college where I only knew one other soul, and I was worried about how I was going to fund this 4-year venture. Sure, I'd gotten a healthy amount of scholarship money, but private colleges don't come cheap.
I was applying for every outside scholarship I could find. The local Elks Lodge? Sure! The Rotary Club? Why not! Greenpeace? Naturally!
So when my grandmother called me to tell me of an ad in the town paper advertising a scholarship for a local college-bound teen with "writers preferred" in the description, I thought what wonderful serendipity had befallen me.
I called the number on the ad and learned that an elderly couple was offering the scholarship and that the husband wanted to give it to a writer because he was an author himself. Fabulous! They sounded like my kind of people. I was instructed to have coffee with them at the local McDonald's and bring a portfolio of my work.
I spend the next couple of days meticulously editing all my best short stories and compiling them into this nice, professional type folder. I wanted to be taken seriously.
On the day we were to meet for coffee, I could hardly contain my exuberance. I just knew that they would sense my deep-seeded book nerdiness and writing potential and know that I was the perfect person for the scholarship.
The couple seemed nice--they asked me a handful of short questions about myself, like which of the local high schools I'd gone to, what I intended to major in, what I hoped to do with my life after graduating college, and how many years I'd been writing. Easy enough.
The conversation then turned to the elderly man telling me about his life over the course of hour or so. I started to wonder if he was just lonely and if we'd ever get to talk of the scholarship.
At long last, he slides a copy of his book across the table. I notice immediately that the cover doesn't look like anything I've seen in a bookstore--it had a homemade quality that reeked of a poor Photoshop attempt--and the font appeared to be about ten years out of fashion. He then explained that this was the book he'd written and it was his autobiography. I was caught off guard at this explanation because, after an hour of listening to him talk about his life, I gathered that the only significant adventures he seemed to have took place in his army days. Well, as it happens, I like war literature so I held out hope that there would be some interesting war stories in there despite the book's outward appearance.
Then he said, "For the scholarship, I'd like you to edit my book and based on how well you edit, I'll give you what it's worth for a scholarship."
I thought it sounded odd--after all, what book that's already published needs to be edited? Vanity press was, at the time, something I didn't know existed much less used. Nonetheless, I thought, perhaps it was a test. He knew I was a reader and a writer, but the true mark of a good writer is knowing how to edit. I graciously accepted the task.
I got home that evening and started reading the book. I knew it was an autobiography, so I wasn't surprised that the first handful of pages detailed the author's life. What I was surprised at, though, were the number of grammatical errors in the text. I was marking between two and eight per page. At the time, being unfamiliar with vanity press as I was, I thought there was no way a publishing company of any kind would ever publish an unedited work because it would reflect badly on them. How wrong I was.
I edited the first 23 pages and it took me over two hours. By the end, I was drained. I felt like I'd cracked open my skull, removed my brain, covered it in paper cuts, poured lemon juice over it, then dropped it into the depths of Mordor. In other words, my brain was fried and I was mentally exhausted.
What was worse was that over those 23 pages, the story shifted from being about his life in the army to "hey look at this conspiracy theory I made up!" He would take minute details from his army stories and turn them into conspiracy theories that somehow involved Birmingham, AL as being the "cosmological center of the universe."
I couldn't make this shit up if I tried.
The guy truly believed that, mathematically, Birmingham, Alabama was the exact center of the universe (he found this to be such an obvious statement that there were no mathematical formulas included in the text) and that paranormal activity, which the government wanted to hide, frequently took place here.
In a mere 23 pages I came to learn that the guy--the "author" if he could even remotely be called such--was, in layman's terms, a raving lunatic. Most blatantly, the dude was fucking crazy.
We're not talking "The X Files" here--the dude actually believed all this stuff. He said it was his autobiography and after nearly every rabbit hole he threw himself down in this hair-brained story, he removed the fourth wall by letting the reader know, "Now, you might not believe this, but I'm telling you every word is true. I mean it! It is!" and so on.
I couldn't bare the thought of editing the remaining 200 or so pages. I had rather be eaten alive by rabid gerbils. I'd die a slow and painful death whichever I chose and the gerbils at least operated on some form of logic.
Feeling conflicted because I'd promised to edit the damn book, I called my grandmother for advice. After relaying my story, she said, "Honey, he's not looking to give a scholarship. He wants a cheap editor. There's a difference between a business transaction and giving a scholarship and this old coot can't tell the difference. If he wanted to give you a scholarship, he'd have had you write an essay or something, not edit his book." As usual, she was right.
I decided to never call the guy back. I mean, how do you tell a maniac he's a maniac? Crazy people don't know they're crazy. If they knew they were crazy, they probably wouldn't be crazy because they would, by default, be aware of reason.
For a while, he called me every day wanting updates on my editing progress. At length, growing weary with my lack of response, he attempted to entice me to continue on with the project. He'd say things like, "I'm willing to give you up to $500 for the scholarship," and my personal favorite: "If you keep reading you'll get to the part where I talk about who really assassinated JFK and the 50th anniversary is coming up in 2013 and if you'll just edit it to where it all looks good, I'll even take my name off the book and let you publish it under your name. You could be famous!"
First of all, "up to $500" could mean a handful of bills. Second, the idea of me being associated with this book in any way made me want to offer myself to a wolf pack as their next meal. After all, that's what I'd be doing to my reputation anyway if I kept up the project. And third, I felt that I could spend every waking moment for the rest of my life editing this book and it would never be even remotely close to publication quality. You can't turn a finger painting into a Van Gogh.
So I never called the guy back and he eventually stopped calling me. I didn't get my "scholarship," but I got to keep my dignity, and you can't put a price on that.