Monday, March 8, 2010

Picky Picky

A couple of days ago I finished writing the “Acknowledgements” page for my next novel, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best. As I did with my first book, I used this space to thank a woman I’ve never seen or spoken with: the copyeditor.

Until I rode the long conveyor belt known as Bringing a Book to Publication, I had no clue what role a copyeditor played in the process. I might have guessed this was some entry-level editorial assistant who had to pay his or her dues by checking manuscripts for typos. In the hierarchy of the publishing world, I would have assumed a copyeditor was an unnoticed, unloved, underpaid serf, performing his or her sad task in a cubicle behind the Xerox machine.

I have since learned that copyeditors are the unsung heroes of the publishing world, saving hapless writers like me from embarrassment on a global scale.

I mean, there you are, with the 250 page manuscript you’ve labored over for years, revised multiple times, spell-checked, run by your agent, and sold to your editor. It’s perfect, right? Or at the very least, fairly okay. Then, they give it to some mysterious person they call The Copyeditor, who spends a few days with it and manages to find, on virtually every page, typos, misspellings and punctuation errors.

Not only that: she finds massive inconsistencies. Gross mistakes that will reveal to anyone who buys your book that you don’t know what you’re doing. She finds that in Chapter Three your main character’s mother is called Marilyn, but in Chapter Fourteen she’s called Marian. A protagonist will walk into a room wearing a blue sweater, but when he walks out the sweater is described as red. People will drive from Point A to Point B over a span of 10 hours, but after consulting with an atlas your copyeditor notes that they’d have to motor along at 120 miles per hour to cover that distance in that time.

In my novel Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, my characters fire potato bazookas. When the copyedits for that manuscript came back, the editor had noted that in the first bazooka shooting scene the kids had loaded the potato first, then added propellant, while in the second scene they switched that order. I remember feeling exasperated over such picky attention to detail … until I called a friend who regularly constructs and shoots potato bazookas.

“That’s a really important sequence,” he told me. “Anyone who has ever fired a potato bazooka knows you load the potato first.”

Ah. “Anyone who has ever fired a potato bazooka.” In other words: not me. I am a mere observer of potato bazooka blasting, and have never owned and operated one myself. If not for my astute copyeditor, my lack of bazooka expertise would have been broadcast to the world, and the authenticity of the book severely eroded. I can imagine bazooka blasting teens tossing the novel aside in disgust, pronouncing it lame, a hoax.

Okay, I’m laying it on a bit thick here … but seriously, it would have been a problem. You don’t want your reader to come to a halt mid-sentence and question the basic facts. Otherwise the whole illusion you’ve worked so hard to create comes crashing down; game over.

So … thank you, Dear Copyeditors, for your obsessive compulsive attention to picky picky details. You’ve saved me from making mistakes which might have derailed years of hard work, and helped me maintain the illusion that I actually know what I’m writing about.

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