Years ago, someone told me that the hardest thing an author ever has to do is change his or her mind. As I embarked on writing Overkill, the next Ali Reynolds books from Simon and Schuster, I was pretty sure who the bad guy was and what was going to happen.
Before the holidays, I was rocking and rolling along, but then the story stalled out and hasn’t moved for longer than I liked. The day before yesterday, I realized what had to change, and I climbed out of bed in the morning raring and ready to go. But then I opened my email, and there was a message from my Harper Collins editor with an attachment of Den of Iniquity, the next Beau book, asking for a third reading of the first pass.
If you’re curious about copyeditors, just think about your scariest ever English teacher. Rather than being armed with red pencils, these professionals come equipped with computerized yellow markers and little message balloons full of teeny-tiny print that is virtually impossible to read.
When people ask my opinion of self-publishing, I tell them it’s like having five or six full-time DIY jobs—writing, editing, marketing, publicizing, and promoting. I only have to do numbers one and two. Self-published writers have to do it all, and the editing process is a multi-layered affair—the lead editor, the copy editor, the production editors with the author doing a final check each time. The last one happens after the book has been typeset and is in galley form. Usually, I only do one pass on those, but sometimes there’s also a second and third.
By the time the third pass came around, I was pretty tired of story, but I rolled up my sleeves and went to work, and I’m glad I did. The latest copyeditor had discovered lots of echoes. Those occur when a writer uses the same word or series of words in close proximity. I’m really bad about echoes. After all, if something sounds good the first time, why not use it again? She also found a place where I had made a geographical error, by calling Mount Olivet Cemetery in Renton St. Olivet Cemetery. I’m really glad she caught that one, because if she hadn’t, my readers certainly would have. She also found some errors in ages of various characters as well as variations in numbers—136 in one place and 138 in another. Good on all those. Unfortunately, there’s another side when it comes to copyeditors.
My worst ever experience was on Man Overboard—an Ali Reynolds book with action taking place in several locations—Arizona, California, and the UK. The book was set at a time when Daylight Savings Time was still in effect. Arizona doesn’t do Daylight Savings Time. That means during the spring and summer, Arizona operates on Pacific. All through the book, I struggled to make sure the time differences were accurate. When the manuscript came back, the copyeditor had gone through it, changing the time stamps willy nilly. Then, at some point in the book, one character explained to another that at that point in the story Arizona and California were in the same time zone. His note in the bubble said, “Oh, I didn’t know that. You’ll have to go back and change it.” At that point, you’d better believe the air around here was turning blue with lots of ungrandmotherly words!
Early on in one of the Beaumonts, he visited a bar where they were playing country/western music. Whichever copyeditor was on the job at the time, went through the manuscript and changed country/western to country and western wherever those words appeared. I changed them back, leaving the following message in my applicable comment bubble. “No, it is shit kicking, country/western music.” Decades later while working on the editing of another book in another series, I revisited the country/western music issue the same result from yet another copyeditor. I responded by using the same words in my comment balloon. (I’m not repeating them here because that would be an echo!)
Copyeditors often balk at regional expressions based on their own experiences or places of origin. They sometimes balk at my linguistic peculiarities as well. When I receive an email with five or more people in the cc line, I call that a group-grope email. Copyeditors definitely don’t like that one. Today’s copy-editing issue has nothing at all to do with geography and everything to do with the generation gap, but first a small digression.
Readers of my books and blog have probably figured out by now that many of my fictional characters have some basis in fact. When I need someone to walk across my fictional stage, I often go shopping through my memory banks to see who turns up. In this case what surfaced was Miss Woundy, the school counselor at Bisbee High School when I was in attendance there from 1958 to 1962.
Miss Woundy was a short, wide-load of a lady, who was hard as nails and who could strike terror into the hearts of even the toughest varsity football player. She’s also the one who told me as a high school junior that I ‘wasn’t college material.” Those kinds of comments are the ones that stick with you, or at least they do with me.
So in writing Den of Iniquity, when I needed a one-time-only walk-on character, Miss Woundy came to mind. I named my fictional character Miss O’Connor and cast her as a high school counselor at Beau’s Ballard High. In her one and only scene, she grabs a varsity football player by the back of the neck and strong-arms him out of the classroom even though she has to stand on her tip toes to do it.
Enter the copyeditor, one that’s most likely several decades younger than I am. She dutifully changed Miss O’Connor to Ms. O’Connor every single time. Nope, a hundred times nope!
In order to keep track of how old my characters are, I sometimes resort to trickery. With Beau, I gave him my birthday. That means he was attending Ballard High School at the same time I was attending Bisbee High. Believe me, female teachers back in those days were either Miss or Mrs., no exceptions, and that’s the opinion I expressed in my teeny-tiny comments in the copyeditor’s balloons.
You can bet that when DOI hits the book shelves this fall, Miss O’Connor will still be Miss.
And now it’s time to get back to my interrupted melody, Overkill to see if my recent change of mind will work. If not, I may have to change it again.