Monday 13 October 2008

The Copy-Edited Manuscript

After two weeks of severe eye strain, I have finished work on my copy-edited manuscript and fedexed it back across the ocean to my publisher. Big relief.

A book passes through many hands as it makes the journey from messy manuscript to polished volume. Of all the people who will end up working on my story, the copy editor is the most meticulous. This person, who is always nameless, and who I never get to meet or speak to, checks every comma and hyphen, ensures my use of "which" and "that" is correct, checks my spelling, weeds out typos and massages my grammar. Whereas my editor gets to make the grand, operatic gestures, the copy editor's work is more discreet. My editor may decide to kill off a character, my copy editor may decide to kill off a comma. Not that this does not sometimes have profound ramifications:

My wife Jill. In heaven is she, not in hell -- I know that well.
My wife Jill. In heaven is she not, in hell -- I know that well.

The first time I received a copy-edited manuscript, I was surprised to find that the copy editor uses a green – not a red pencil. She also sometimes pastes yellow stickies onto the pages that flutter from the manuscript almost festively, but which always make my heart sink. These flags usually point to woozy sentences and poorly articulated ideas. Most copy editors are fanatical Strunk and White followers. This means they frown on my fondness to use nouns as verbs – an activity branded "suspect" by the great style fathers – and don't like it when I write in the acknowledgment page of my book that "I am so blessed to have him (my husband) in my life." (So used as an intensifier is strictly verboten by Messrs. Strunk and White but I tend to think there's a time and place for everything – even overkill.) Sentence fragments are not always enthusiastically received either and over the years this has led to some serious arm-wrestling between me and my copy editors. It is true that nothing is more irritating than this kind of thing:

Their eyes met. A languid gaze. The soft questioning of minds melding. Fugitive thoughts, passionate desires...

However, when I write action scenes, I often indulge in frags as I try to create a kind of 'choppy' urgency to the scene. And if you go back to the first paragraph of this blog entry, you'll notice that I decline to "heave" sighs of relief.

When the copy-edited manuscript arrives at my door I also know that this will be my last chance to make any additional changes. Some authors are so panicked by the idea that they will never again have the opportunity to tweak their story that they rewrite chapter after chapter, manically introducing new characters and plotlines along the way. This makes your publisher very, very unhappy. In my case, the knowledge that when the manuscript leaves my desk this time around it will be forever, concentrates my mind wonderfully. I know it is my last chance to wrestle with those awkward paragraphs and clunky transitions, which no matter how many times I've chiselled away at them, still don't feel right. I know this is my last chance to rid my hero of irritating mannerisms and I know I'd better make sure I have my facts and figures straight. I therefore revisit every book, every photocopy and every internet article I referenced over the last eighteen months, and I recheck all the facts that ended up in my story. As my books are research intensive, this is an immensely time-consuming exercise and massively boring. But I have to do it otherwise some sharp-eyed reader, or worse – reviewer – will take great pleasure in pointing out that Mount Kilimanjaro is in fact not 5,859 metres high but 5,895 metres.

How meticulous does one have to be? Well, I am not as obsessive as Umberto Eco, who even personally counts the number of steps between landmarks mentioned in his books but I try to be as rigorous as I possibly can. My characters are larger than life and get to do some interesting things. Walking through memory palaces, dreaming lucidly (in tandem with other dreamers), discovering the key to the building blocks of the universe and so forth are all in a day's work for them. This requires my readers to be generous and sign up to the contract that was memorably articulated in 1817 by Samuel Coleridge: in exchange for the promise of entertainment, the reader agrees to "a willing suspension of disbelief" when he turns the first page. This is a great contract and like all writers I rely on the goodwill of my readers to park their scepticism at the door when they enter the world I've created. However, I know full well that I have to make the transition as seamless as possible and that it is my duty to reduce the "huh?" moments to a minimum. The best way to do this is to hide the magic in the shadow of the mundane. If this means obsessively checking facts about mountain ranges, then I am willing to do so.

Not all my research is text driven, of course, and in a future blog entry I will tell you how I've been hanging out in tattoo parlours (the heroine in my new book is a body artist.) It has been freaking out my husband big-time as he keeps expecting me to turn up with a massive coiled python on my spine. I think he knows that if I do decide to take the plunge, I won't go for the butterflies or the cute hearts.

I still don't have a book jacket to show you guys! I'm getting pretty desperate to have a look myself. I saw the first effort many months ago but by this time the cover image may have changed completely. Here's hoping I will have something to share with you soon.

Right -- now that the manuscript is out of my life, it is time to get my anarchic house into some kind of shape. Over the last two weeks I've done only what was absolutely necessary and I now have to catch up on bills, many, many emails, laundry, shopping – my husband has been eating omelettes for fourteen days – water my plants and catch my breath...

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