Saturday, May 28, 2011

On final editing

You should order a proof copy, a printed book to read through before publishing your book. I always do that and see it as a necessity, really, whether you’re self-publishing or doing it through an established publisher.

I have gained a lot of experience, also on this and will claim that I know all the tricks in and outside the book when it comes to catching the last few errors and doing much needed last-minute corrections. Before sending the text-file off to the printer I print out the story on A4 sheets, I change font size, read everything out loud and a dozen other methods, but I still find lots of necessary corrections when I start on the proof copy. Finding the last few errors is, as stated only half of it and hardly even that. Much more important is spotting wrong phrasing, words used wrong, wrong names and just about every fucking mistake in (and outside) the book.

This has once again been aptly demonstrated during my final reading of my upcoming release Dreams Belong to the Night. The last two weeks I’ve banged my head at the wall countless times and cried out in frustration:

HOW COULD I DO THAT???
HOW COULD I DO THAT???
HOW COULD I DO THAT???
HOW COULD I DO THAT???
HOW COULD I DO THAT???

I told myself I would take my time with this, no matter how long it would take, and I’m glad I did and do.

I sit there with the book, making notes on paper, mostly with my computer turned off. The first time I did that and learned its vast advantages was during a sixteen-hour cross-Atlantic flight to Las Vegas nine years ago. I was stunned to find 240 bigger and smaller «faults» in a 400-page book. Now, I know better.

Five others, btw read through that book several times, helping me catch wrongdoings. I lost count of how many times I read it. In my opinion and experience you can do a read-through a thousand times and still be found wanting.

I and I believe all writers tend to see the book, fiction or non-fiction as done, as ready for publication before receiving that much mentioned Proof Copy, but that just isn’t so. I will probably have nightmares for weeks about what would have happened if I hadn’t had that proof copy to read through. Doing it is an ordeal, really, since you are confronted with what seems like massive amounts of sloppy work, but the base necessity to end all necessities remains…

This is btw yet another reason why you shouldn’t use editors and proof-readers. Only you and you alone can know what feels right, what is right for your story. I have some good experience with using skilled honest friends that know me and my motivations and are somewhat familiar with my work as early proof readers, but that is as far as I go.

If you only publish ebooks you will miss out on the crucial final attempt at getting it right and that is certainly one reason why ebooks in general contain more errors than printed books. A printed book is quite simply the single superior tool for catching everything wrong (or not quite right) with your text. Computer screens and even printing it on A4 sheets and all the other available and necessary steps are just that, steps on your path to «near perfection» (there is no perfection).

It is hard looking through your work, your beloved baby scanning with an eagle eye for what shouldn’t be there, and for what isn’t there and should be there. If you scan for such beasts you will find them. It is a dirty job, but someone (and that someone is you) must do it.

Let me stress that most last-minute changes aren’t grammar mistakes (even though you will always find the most frustrating, idiotic blunders), but rather a given writer’s final touch on the story. No major changes are made. You learn yet again that reality is in the details.

Most readers could probably read the proof copy and not spot much, or not care. He or she isn’t the obsessive perfectionist. You are.

A final word of comfort (or not): You will never catch everything. No one will, ever. When Neil Gaiman says that there will always be work left undone in a given book, I agree completely with him. It doesn’t matter whether or not you do everything yourself or you’re outsourcing some of it or most of it to a guy being paid a million bucks for reading through your masterpiece. No one, absolutely no one will catch it all.

And it isn’t a tragedy either. Polishing too much is as bad as doing it too little. We humans, happily enough are creatures of imperfection.

That somewhat comforting thought won’t stop the upcoming nightmares or current blazing neurosis, though…


PS: I just had to return from the forest and write this down while it was still fresh in my head. I am very pleased with how it turned out. It’s funny and deadly serious and crazy and everything between and also well composed. The end result feels even better than I envisioned it, there in the dark and inspiring forest. It’s longer, more detailed and more concerns and angles are included. Once I started rolling most of it came to me without hassle or the need for (much) pondering. Amazing! I was clearly on a roll.

You have just read one result, one side-effect of weeks of meticulous, self-imposed doubt.

For some reason it reminds me of the story in issues #334 to #336 of the comic book Fantastic Four. If you have read it and it is somewhat fresh in your mind you will probably know what I mean, at least if you have a sense of gallows humor, my humor of choice.

Proof Copy = a gathering of pages and cover exactly like the published book, deprived of the final, nightmarish process of correction. :)

That’s it (I think). Constructive comments on this will be very welcome.

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