Touchstone copyedit (4)
The copy edit process can be looked upon as an intensified writing course: all the things one does wrong, sliced up with two colors of pencil. Sins of commission, sins of omission, repeated again and again until the weary editor sighs in despair.
Iâ€™ve written nearly twenty books, a handful of short stories, and a bunch of other stuff over the past twenty years. Every long piece has been edited, by good, sharp-eyed, clear-thinking women. And you would think Iâ€™d learn.
I am pretty (oops) careful with my adverbs, those life-sucking distractions. I note all the â€“ly words and see if theyâ€™re really needed, and take about two-thirds of them out.
I donâ€™t use fancy-talk for â€œhe said/she saidâ€â€”people donâ€™t smirk or laugh their words, nor do they continually retort or exhort or declare. So much so, from time to time my editor will substitute one of those verbs for my plain-Jane â€œsaid.â€
My editor and I occasionally tussle over food. No, not in restaurants, she generally lets me order my own lunch and doesnâ€™t steal from it. But she complained that, reading O Jerusalem, she gained two pounds because Russell was forever eating, and she felt she had to join her. (Of course, she also says that she spent the last half of The Moor in a hot bath because Russell was so cold, but I guess I donâ€™t write about fog and quicksand as much in later books.) After O Jerusalem, she rarely permits me a full meal on the page.
But my chief sin? The thing that convinces me I will never be a decent writer until I have it beaten out of me? I over-choreograph. My characters fiddle with their pens, take out their cigarette cases, walk over to windows, clear their throats, blink, scratch their heads, sip tepid coffee, rap their fingers on the table. They look at each other, they pause, they gaze across rooms, they pause for thought, they put cars into gear, they stroke cats. Well, maybe not that last, I canâ€™t remember any cat-stroking, but when a cat wanders through the page, itâ€™s going to get stroked.
The final stages of the edit process are the time for ruthlessness. Pens and cigarettes are snatched out of the hands of fiddlers, heads remain unscratched, looks and gazes and pauses remain unexchanged, falling like dominos to the all-clearing editorial pencil SO THE BLOODY CHARACTERS CAN GET ON WITH IT, ALREADY!
And at the end of it, cleansed of sins, I walk to the window, sip my tepid coffee, and fiddle with my pen, swearing to myself that I wonâ€™t do any of that in the next book.