December 27th, 2006

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Detail Patrol

January 15th, 2007

Bangkok – I’m currently working on the “copy edit” for A Nail Through the Heart, and it’s a humbling experience.

If you’ve never been through the publication process, it goes something like this:

1. You write a book. This makes you feel good because (a) you actually managed to finish it, and (b) a new book always seems to be the best thing you’ve ever done.

2. Your agent gets one or more publishers to offer money to print and distribute it. This makes you feel good because money is the sincerest form of flattery.

3. Your editor – the person who really takes care of you for your publisher and who was largely responsible for buying the book in the first place – tells you how much she likes it and sends you some ideas for improving it. This makes you feel good because, after slaving over it in solitude for what seems like years, you’re getting some validation.

And then . . .

And then the copy editor’s notes arrive, and you are immediately made aware that you’re either illiterate or, to put the best possible interpretation on it, post-literate. A copy editor has a very special talent. She can read a manuscript through a microscope, and she does. And when she finishes, she sends you a letter pointing out the 1,239 small details you got wrong in what you thought was a final draft.

Mistakes like not knowing that “Dumpster” is a brand name and needs that capital “D.” Like telling you that you’ve been spelling wrong the name of a watch you’ve owned for years, which means you’ve only looked at it 45,000 times. (In my case, it was a Vacheron-Constantin.) Like pointing out that you’ve accidentally moved your hero’s apartment from the eighth floor (in Chapter Three) to the seventh (in Chapter 34). Like telling you that you’ve used the word “gaze” seven times on a single page.

It always sobers me right up.

On the other hand, a good copy editor (and HarperCollins has given me a great one) can also save you from repeatedly shooting yourself in the foot. On this manuscript I referred to a minor character (who will be a major character in a later book) as suffering from the early stages of cerebral palsy. In this case, my copy editor checked no fewer than ten medical sources to learn that cerebral palsy almost always strikes in early childhood, while my character is well into her thirties. And she suggested, very nicely, that what I undoubtedly meant to type was “muscular dystrophy.” So that character now has muscular dystrophy and thank you very much.

And she made at least twenty other important saves. So at the end, I will have a better book.

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of the publishing process. Unfortunately, a writer becomes most keenly aware of them when one of them lets a mistake get by. In an earlier book I wrapped up a lot of the story with an automobile chase: three people, two cars, rain, and pretty much everything at stake. It wasn’t until I got several letters from very sharp-eyed readers that I realized I’d had them make the first possible right-hand turn several times in a row, which meant that they were chasing each other in a circle. Not quite the bang-up finish I’d envisioned.

But some copy editors go overboard. In yet another book, I had a scene where a bunch of people sat around eating lasagna. They ate a lot of lasagna. I described the lasagna. Characters talked about the lasagna. They said things like, “Boy, this is some good lasagna,” and “Please pass the lasagna.” I did everything except give a recipe for lasagna. (I was on a diet at the time, and lasagna sounded pretty much like paradise to me.)

When the copy editor’s notes came back, every single mention of lasagna, and there were thousands of them, had been changed to reflect the proper Italian spelling, lasagne. I declined to make the change, and the book came back once again, with all the lasagna changed back into Italian, so to speak. I finally wrote in the margin, “This is a lot of bologne.” After that, they left my lasagna alone.

By the way, these blogs are not copy-edited, so please bear with the mistakes.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 15th, 2007 at 7:09 pm and is filed under All Blogs, Being Published. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Detail Patrol”

  1. Stefan Hammond Says:
    February 26th, 2007 at 9:29 am

I sent this piece to the editor of my second book: a wonderful woman who I stay in touch with. Her skill-set is a rare combo of wordsmith, businesswoman and archivist. She quit the publishing house after they were swallowed by a bigger publisher, swapping endless worthless meetings for self-employment. I know she will appreciate it.

Copy editors are awe-inspiring. They’ve saved me from writing-tics, inappropriate vulgarity, incorrect attribution and who knows what else. They’ve queried me on things which seemed incorrect, but were correct (I double-checked my research and stood by what I’d written) and there were instances where i triple-checked and found that either I was wrong, or the sentence could be better written.

Your advice about saving text offsite and backing up obssessive/compulsive-style is well put, and absolutely correct. With a free Gmail account, you can save 3GB of files. That is a lot of words, and your files will be safely stored in an offsite server, password-protected and Net-accessible, at no cost. Remarkable.

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