Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When the Copyedits Arrive

First, you get an email from your editor’s assistant that alarms you. She says: the copyedited manuscript is coming. You will get it tomorrow. You think: oh, no! If they are in such a hurry to get the blasted thing to me, they must want me to attend to it in short order! There will be legions of mistakes to fix, words to change, whole scenes to rewrite completely…

You think: what about my new work? Will I ever be able to return to the novel I’m working on now?

It arrives. It is covered in the copyeditor’s red pencil marks and the occasional question, scribbled in the margin in regular pencil, from your editor. Sometimes, she changes a word. Usually, when she does, she writes in the margin: OK?

But mostly, the thing is full of red. You realize: you’ve been over-using commas your entire life. And worse: you’re a teacher. You’ve pushed children into over-using commas, same as you. You thought you had some grasp of punctuation usage; clearly you were very, very wrong.

You should issue an apology to every one of your former students.

There’s a note from your editor. She reminds you of your “stet” option. Though she explains it in the note, you google stet: from the Latin “let it stand,” it indicates to the typesetter to disregard the edits or corrections made by the proofreader or editor.

She tells you, in the note, to use stet freely. You think, God bless my editor. Then: should I really use it? Freely?

But, you get started, and you do. Stet is neatly written at first, four timid letters. By around page 100, though, your stet is brazen. Thunderous, to borrow from Nabokov.

You hate your copyeditor. It seems only the most horrible, stupid creature could ever strike your beautiful word: bloated, on page 3. And then, several chapters later, she tears up a heartbreakingly brilliant paragraph you’ve written on how the coffee in the break room at the furniture factory in your novel tastes, and you have this fantasy that you will fly to NYC, march into her office, fling the manuscript down on her desk, and explain to her just why it is so flippin’ poignant. How the weak coffee is a metaphor for the fading factory town, how you spent a month laboring over that paragraph, how you hope weak coffee—or at least, your description of weak coffee—will haunt her for years to come.

Instead, you write “stet” in the margin. You move on.

You love your copyeditor. You want to weep with gratitude, the humiliating mistakes she’s fixed, your absurd syntaxes, your imbecilic misspellings. You’ve changed characters’ names without realizing it, you’ve omitted words, you’ve invented the names of Revolutionary War generals.

Your editor saves you, too: strikes the word folks. “Too folksy!” the margin scribble declares.

You remember the great black bag she was carrying the day you met her. It was shoved full of papers and you think about how she likely carried your manuscript about with her in the same way, in that same bag. You think what a trouble it must have been for her, lugging your book around. You are amazed: she chose this. She bought the book, chose to edit it. Your. Book.

You are unbelievably lucky.

You remember your first days in Goliath, the fictional town where your book is set. In those days, you dropped your daughter off at preschool and left your baby with your mother-in-law while you trudged up the stairs to the office you kept at your in-laws' house. You wrote the mornings away. You think first: my in-laws are wonderful. You think second: this is that same book. That same book wandered around NYC in that big black bag.

You realize: this is happening. Not only did your agent first, and then your editor choose to work with you on this book, and not only did a copyeditor you’ve never met go over every word—every comma—of the thing with painful exactitude, but there will be still more people working on it. Somewhere, there is an artist preparing the cover. There will be a typesetter, a publicist. Eventually the thing will materialize—a book!—and, with luck, an employee at a book store somewhere will someday put it on a shelf.

And, if you’re wildly, impossibly, wonderfully lucky: a reader will pick it up. Take it home. Open it.

Your words. What started out, years ago, before the upstairs office in your in-laws’ house, a daydream you coddled when you were eight months pregnant, watching your older child take her first swim lessons.

I’ve written stet everywhere. The thing is practically covered in my blue pencil, those four letters again and again. But, what I really want to write there, above every single word, every superfluous comma, every text break, every period, is thank you. Over and over again, just that. Thank you.


sherylmonks said...

What a wonderful reflection on this most wonderful moment in your most amazing career, Susan. Congratulations!! It's really happening :) GOLIATH lives and breathes, and one day soon I will have a copy resting on my coffee table with a bookmark in it, with all the beautiful lines you and your copyeditor and editor have pored over so carefully underlined in my own pencil and circled with WOWs and exclamation points and little smiley faces.

I can hardly wait.

Susan Woodring said...

You are so freakin' nice to me, Sheryl. Thank you. xoxo

Mary Akers said...

Brilliant. I love this. Your overflowing gratitude makes me feel grateful and want to find even more reasons to feel grateful. Thank you.

jessica handler said...

What a lovely, true, scary, revelatory, thrilling essay about that moment when the copyedits arrive, and you look your work - and yourself - squarely in the face.

Wonderful, and I can not wait for Goliath.

katrina said...

LOVE this post.

Jim said...

So so true, Susan!

bzobell said...

This is great, Susan. Loved the whole thing. You really captured the moment. xx

Suzanne said...

Love this! And I look forward to reading the book!

Susan Woodring said...

Thanks everyone! So thrilled this post has resonated with others!!

So, I sent the copyedits in on Wednesday, and on Thursday--yesterday--got a call from my editor saying she approved of my edits (phew!!!) and that the cover should be available for me to see...soon...!!!

Again, thank you for reading and commenting. I'm so thankful for the support and encouragement of other writers!!

Debbie Maxwell Allen said...

For some reason, your words hit me deep. Thank you, Susan, for such an honest portrayal of what we all hope to endure one day. I believe this post is worth a tweet!


sherylmonks said...

Oh my gosh, the cover! I cannot wait to see it. You have to blog about that experience as well. And of course, post the pic!! Congratulations on every exciting step :)

Susan Woodring said...

Debbie, thank you so much! So thrilled this post spoke to you.

And, thank you, Sheryl...yes, I am very, very, VERY excited about seeing the cover...