Taking care of the laundry

[November 2012] For the past week or so, I’ve been working with the copy-edited manuscript of my forth­­­coming book, The Dark Tower Companion (NAL, April 2013). I’ve often said that turning in a manuscript to your publisher is like sending your kid off to college. It will be back, usually bearing dirty laundry.

The copy-editor’s report is usually the second trip home. In most cases, the writer first has to deal with the acquisition editor’s report, wherein he or she asks for structural changes to the book. I had a fair amount to do on that front with my first book, The Road to the Dark Tower. Less with The Stephen King Illustrated Companion. Much to my surprise, my editor requested no changes with this new book, so I must be learning.

It’s been over more than six months since I last looked at the manuscript, so I was able to review the copyedits with a fresh mind. The process has changed substantially in the eight years since The Road to the Dark Tower. Back in 2003, after revising the text based on the acquisition editor’s requests, a hardcopy version of the manuscript was generated and from that point forward everything was done on those pages. It came back from the copy-editor accompanied by a style sheet listing the overall decisions that had been made concerning italicization, punctuation (whether or not the serial comma would be used, for example), and all the non-standard words that needed review for consistency. The printed MS had insertions, deletions and comments scrawled in the margins. My job, then, was to accept all those changes with which I was in agreement. To use “stet” and “dele,” words that usually only show up in crossword puzzles. To over-ride some changes and explain why, using a different colored ink. Ultimately the proofreader would have her crack at it, adding another hue to the rainbow. Down the road, some brave soul would have to sort through this bowl of fruit loops and come up with a near-final copy of the text.

This time, I received the manuscript and style sheet by e-mail and the whole process was accomplished using Word’s “track changes” feature. Certain kinds of changes were locked out. I couldn’t simply undo a copy-editor’s insertion, for example. I had to delete the insertion, which left a history of the change and counter-change.

The style sheet ran to nearly a dozen pages, mostly because the book features a lot of strange names and words. House style included always using ‘s for possessives (even for names ending in “s”), no serial comma, no hyphen for “-like” words of fewer than three syllables unless attached to a proper noun (dragonlike but Mississippi-like). Numbers less than one hundred were to be spelled out, as well as large round numbers.

One of the global changes caused me to question my knowledge of grammar. Every time I wrote “over” (as in “it had been over six years since…”), it was replaced with “more than” (see example above). Apparently this is a stylistic quirk rather than a grammatical rule. There’s nothing wrong with using “over” (though William Safire held a strong opinion on the matter). It’s simply that newspapers decided “more than” was preferred.

I favor the Oxford (or serial) comma, so there were a lot of deletions in the manuscript. I was hard pressed to find a single page (out of the 680 total pages) that didn’t have one of those vertical red lines in the margin that indicated a change in the text. Some of the copy-editor’s changes were for formatting. Italics, paragraph styles, heading alignments, etc. The manu­script more closely resembled the final product than was possible when working from a printed MS.

There were over 500 comments in the margins. Many of them simply said “ok?” connected to a change. For most of those, I responded with a simple ?. Others pointed out differences in the way certain words were typed. Should it be “Speaking Ring,” “speaking ring,” or “speaking-ring,” for example. Sometimes words from the original text in King’s novels were used differently from book to book (“Oracle” in The Gunslinger but “oracle” later in the series, for example). I had to come up with my own set of house style rules to address inconsistencies like that and respond to the copy-editor’s queries.

I have the utmost respect for copy-editors. Their attention to detail is awe inspiring. Imagine having to go through a 180,000 word manuscript and making sure that “Denby’s Discount Drugs” is used throughout (instead of “Denby’s Discount Drugstore” or “Denby’s Pharmacy”). Word’s search function is helpful, but if you want to make sure every occurrence of a word is spelled the same, search won’t help you find misspellings. It’s a daunting job, and requires attention to detail that borders on obsessive. The copy-editors I’ve worked with (including this one) are so good at their jobs that I feel a sense of triumph when, upon reviewing the MS, I find something that they missed.

By the time I was done, the manuscript was littered with the copy-editor’s red marks, my blue insertions and deletions, the copy-editor’s purple comment bubbles in the margins (to which I often added my responses) and my blue comment bubbles in cases where I over-rode certain general changes. It still looks a fright, but I know that with the click of a button it can all be sorted out. I’m not sure if the proofreader will do an “accept all changes” before beginning his or her work. I probably would; otherwise, it’s hard to pick up on accidentally deleted spaces between words, for example. All I know is that, before very long, the manuscript will be back in my inbox and it’ll be time to dig out the laundry detergent again.

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