Friday, January 26, 2007

One More Time

The copyedited manuscript for WHY MERMAIDS SING landed on my doorstep yesterday. My first response, as always, was to groan. Here we go again…

I edit my books as I write them, reading them over and over, tweaking and smoothing and constantly reconsidering flow and pacing and story arc. What that means is that by the time I finish a book, I am heartily sick of it—especially the beginning.

I send it off to my editor, and she comes back with suggestions for places where situations need to be clarified or scenes expanded or added. That usually entails a fairly involved rewrite. Then I send it off once more, and in a few months it comes winging back to me AGAIN, this time with a copyeditor’s line edits. Technically I am only required to look at these changes. But this is the last time I can make changes to the manuscript, so I always take advantage of the several months’ distance I now have and do one final editing.

I will see this manuscript one last time, when I am sent the galleys or page proofs. At that point, I could recite the book in my sleep. No matter how hard I try or what tricks I use, I still see what I expect to see on the page, not what’s really there, with the result that I inevitably miss typos. Also, by this point the story feels tired, all its foibles and faults so glaringly obvious that I begin to fear it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written. My family and friends always tell me, “You say that with each book.” I always go, “I know, but with this book it’s true.” I said it about WHEN GODS DIE, and then took all kinds of grief when the book received its three starred reviews. But the fact remains that, somehow, a book never quite lives up to the vision I had of it when I embarked on its journey. I always feel that I failed to make it as good as I could have, as I should have. Someone—I think it was Chap—said the book he has just finished is always his favorite. That would be nice.


Steve said...

There's this old movie (I can't remember the title) where Alec Guinness plays this painter. One scene, he's painting a mural on the wall in the apartment. Hijinks ensue, and next thing you know a giant party rages while he paints on, totally oblivious.

The scene ends at dawn. The place is a shambles, people are passed out or sacked out all over the place, and a weary Alec sits in front of this enormous beautiful painting.

"That's not what I meant at all," he says.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Your working method -- editing as you go -- is much the same as my own. I think it's how most of the Plotters do their writing.

Fortunately, with my present publisher, I'm not put through the standard procedure of rewrites to accommodate the editor's and copyeditor's suggestions, though other writers for the same series tell me their MSS come back bloodied liberally with red ink!

When I submitted my second book many years ago, the publisher wrote it was "expertly written and splendidly prepared". He went on, "Because the novel is so well presented I believe copy-editing would be a formality so we will send the typescript straight to the setter." Today, it's my computer disk that goes to the setter. Since I'm based in New Zealand and the publisher is in London, this saves a lot of inconvenience and expense. But it also means that, by and large, I have only myself to blame when I don't entirely like what I see on the PDF proof pages 10 months to a year later and after writing several more books in the same genre.

And it's at this late stage that, like yourself, I get to telling myself I could and should have done this or that much better.

What you say about not seeing typos is also very true. Once, when a disk was mislaid, my book was set from a scan of the typescript. Full points became commas, "g" became "q", "l" became "i" -- and vice versa. "Job" became "lob" and "gasped" became "clasped". To my knowledge eight mistakes slipped through to appear in the printed book. I'm currently hoping they are going to be fixed for a forthcoming large-print edition from another publisher.

Charles Gramlich said...

I just commented yesterday on Steve's blog about how I tended to polish as I go, especially the beginning, and now you are talking about much the same thing. Interesting how certain themes crop up in several places within our personal blogosphere.

cs harris said...

Great image, Steve! Chap, you are fortunate indeed to be such a clean writer. I'm always very grateful to my editor and copyeditor, since they save me from much embarrassment. And I suspect you're right, as Charles also agrees, that plotters tend to edit as they go, I suppose because they're not in a rush to straighten out the story in the way pantsers are.