Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Other Stuff II

As I was writing the first part of this post, I was struggling a bit to remember what it was that I'd done last week, hence the urge to write it all down in an effort to understand where the time went. There was probably an element of compulsion about writing it too: it's funny, but there will sometimes come a point in the writing of a book where you've disciplined yourself so much to keep writing, and to produce a certain amount every day, that you want to keep on writing. Eventually, you simply can't do any more work on the book in hand, if only because you have to give that particular reservoir time to fill up again, but that doesn't mean you can't draw water from someplace else. So you write a column, or you fiddle with press notes for the new book, or you answer emails at greater length than usual.
But as I tried to remember what it was that most impacted upon writing time last week, I realized that I'd forgotten about doing the US page proofs. Perhaps I'd driven it from my mind as I want all work on The Whisperers to be done and dusted by this point. The whole process of publication was extraordinarily compressed for this book: I delivered it just before Christmas, but due to courier problems my editors didn't get to read it until after Christmas, and now Hodder will publish the British edition next week. In the world of publishing, that's a very fast turnaround: from first read to finished copies in less than four months, and that included a bit of back-and-forth about the nature of the book, and the scrapping of the original cover design in favor of the moon emblem that now adorns the cover.
The difficulty for me, as the writer, was that the process of examining the copy edits, and the proofs, was similarly compressed, and that's not ideal. Those stages permit the author to look at the book in a new way: once (or, in my case, twice, as the British and Americans each create their own versions of the book) when the copy edits arrive, with various queries and markings from the copy editor, and again when the proofs arrive. Despite the copy editors efforts, it's actually easier to spot errors in the proofs than in the copy edit, if only because the manuscript has been typeset, and thus looks like a book, which in turn forces the writer to adjust his perceptions of the work. Unfortunately, when, as in this case, the British copy edit follows closely on the author's own final revisions, and that British copy edit is then followed, seemingly within a week or so, by the British proofs, which are finished on the same day that the American copy edit arrives, then it becomes harder and harder to step back from the work and give it the time and concentration that is required to spot word repetitions, and inconsistencies, and the various manifestations of imperfection that will, inevitably, find their way into the finished book. The writer's best hope is that he can catch most of them before the book finally goes to print, and then correct the rest for the paperback.
To be fair, most readers will never even spot them, and those that do, mindful of their own flawed nature as human beings, will probably let them slide. Still, it's irritating for the reader, and the writer, and the editors, who really do make an effort to catch all of these things. The writer in particular will be hit by a sense of powerlessness, as so often the error is only revealed when the finished book is rolling off the presses, or in his hands. It's dispiriting, because when that inevitable error is revealed it makes it harder to look upon the book with pride. Instead, it becomes a physical manifestation of your flaws.
I read a review of a book written by a friend of mine this week, in which the reviewer was generous in his praise of the book (and rightly so) but then pointed out two small errors that had crept into the final book. And while I could understand why the reviewer might have found them distracting, even though they were very minor indeed, I couldn't help but feel that raising the issue in the course of the review as part of a larger point about lax editing standards was a little unfair on the book in hand. Then again, it may simply have been my own sense of "There but by the grace of God go I", or, more correctly, "There, despite the grace of God, go I."
Anyway, four days this week were spent dealing with the US proofs. I would write in the morning and early afternoon, reach my quota for the day, and then turn to the proofs. And because a little time had gone by since I'd finished with the British proofs, I was able to go through the US version with a fresh eye. I wasn't as tired of reading the same lines over and over, and I'd had a little time to forget what I had written. As a result, the book seemed better to me, but I also managed to pin down a few more little niggles, and pass the corrections on to the UK. They may not make the first printing, but they'll be there for reprints, which is something.
But the US proofs also threw up one of those typesetting difficulties that occasionally beset writers. A long section had accidentally been split into two parts, giving the impression that they were separate chapters. But just running the second part back into the first wouldn't work, as it would either a) leave a blank page; or b) require that the subsequent 80 pages all be reset. According to my publishers (and they may just be trying to frighten me in order to prevent me from making too many changes) it costs about a dollar a line to alter a manuscript once the pages have been typeset, so let's say $300 a page, give or take. To reset 80 pages, therefore, would cost in the region of $24,000. Even if my publishers are trying to frighten me, and the actual cost is only a quarter of that, it's still $6000 to correct a single error.
I couldn't figure out what to do, and I sent off the proofs with a note pointing out the error, and suggesting that we might have to live with a blank page. Then it struck me last night that I could simply write some extra paragraphs for that section, which would beef it up sufficiently to extend the section into what would otherwise have been a blank page, and all would be well. So that's what I did, and it turned out that the extra paragraphs actually made the section work better.
I wonder now if I was alert to that possibility because of the way that I've been writing this week: I've been regimented about it, but also enthusiastic. I'm enjoying what I'm writing, but that's a product of forcing myself to sit at my desk over the last three weeks and produce a consistent, and large, body of writing. On those occasions when I talk about writing to those who want to write, or are trying to write, it's something that I emphasize over and over: you have to write consistently, and preferably at the same time every day, or nearly every day. You have to set targets, and deadlines, and you have to stick to them. If you do, then writing becomes easier. It's in the nature of the beast, and it's the craft aspect of the work. So beware of authors who create a hierarchy of art over craft: the former comes out of the latter. The two, in the end, are inseparable.

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Fiona said...

Today's blog is fascinating. I always thought the US versions were merely checked for spelling differences and have never realised that they could have a degree of different content. I'm obviously going to have to get my paws on some of the US editions.

Thanks for sharing, John. Could you perhaps tell us a little more about how the UK & US versions differ, and the rationale behind the differences?

TomH said...

Art and craft... much like living; the choice is often in balancing or in being miserable.

Here's as appropriate an oxymoronic phrase as you'll find:

'flawed nature as human beings...'

It always has to be spelled out... lest we forget.