What memorable experiences have you had with copy editors?
Kate Flora: Most of my stories tend to be cranky ones–like the copy editor who suddenly started “correcting” a character’s name halfway through the manuscript, and I had to come along behind her, make sure I caught all of her erroneous corrections, and write STET all over the margins. Or the copy editor who made corrections, and then saved both my version and hers, resulting in some totally weird and redundant sentences. I did once have one who got very into the spirit of a character who liked to quote Shakespeare, and suggested some other great lines I didn’t know for the character to use. I’ve been saved from having everyone in the story eating too much steak, and rescued from an excess of redheads.
They absolutely do seem bent on fixing the grammar of ungrammatical characters, though, which sometimes makes me wonder how much attention they’re paying. (Though I must add that when I was teaching legal writing and research to law students, I had a highly educated student who wrote “could of.”) And I’ve had at least one who must have been firmly bound in New York City and without reference books, because she put a bunch of characteristic Maine names on the unknown word list. And Kaitlyn, I wish I’d had the editor who spotted the penguins instead of pelicans, because once, writing the book in the spring but setting it in the fall, I had a garden full of blooming rhododendrons, which my copy editor didn’t catch. Luckily, I decided to make one last pass through the book, and found my mistake, one that would have been mortifying for a garden writer’s daughter.
In an upcoming novel, I got very useful comments about having inadvertently changed a character’s name halfway through.
Lea Wait: I think the most embarrassing error I was saved from was having a murdered character somehow reappear 100 pages later and join a conversation …. thank goodness the copy editor caught that one! More frustrating have been comments on historical novels like, “this character is always wearing a blue dress. change.” (I wrote back – “she’s poor. she only HAS one dress.”) Or “If you need an island, why not find a real one? Monhegan is a strange name anyway. Monhegans lived in New York.” (I referred her to an atlas, and bit my tongue about Mohegans.) One of my favorites was a comment on my book Finest Kind, where a crucial scene is set in a blizzard in December of 1838. I wrote of the drifts being so high after the storm that the younger students going to school were hidden. My (it seemed almost as young) editor wrote in the margin, “snow doesn’t get this high.” I told that to children at a school in Aroostook County once, when the school was surrounded by 96 inches of snow (without measuring the drifts). I brought down the house. My solution? I wrote carefully and politically, “In Maine in 1838 snow did get this deep.” And, of course, it still does, in many places, in many years. But arguing with an editor isn’t a great idea – and that wasn’t important to the manuscript!
Barb Ross: One of my hobby horses is the dumbing down of language and the loss of words and expressions. I hate the idea of taking a word out of a manuscript just because it may be unfamiliar to some people. I get that a word that’s too fussy or writerly or inappropriate to the character can pull you right out of the story. But just the right word used in context shouldn’t cause a blip. A few years ago in the manuscript for Judy Green’s Edgar-nominated short story “A Good, Safe Place” Judy’s elderly main character referred to “a dight of milk.” My co-editor Kat Fast, who does all our production work and thus has a very busy summer, went a little nuts trying to find the word “dight” in any dictionary. There is a verb which means something else, but no noun. She and Judy were going back and forth and finally Kat suggested changing the word. I loved the word and was determined to save it. After Googling everything I could think of, I finally found “dite” a British expression meaning “a bit.” (Which was just the right definition in context.) Judy said that was probably it. Dite was a word she’d heard her great-grandmother speak regularly, but that Judy had never seen in writing. Thus, archaic expression saved to be printed a least one more time in 2011.
Kate: An important point, Barb. My grandmother used lots of words and expressions that most people aren’t familiar with today, and yet it’s being attuned to those particularities that gives our characters their voice.
And on the subject of “politely disagreeing” with editors, in my stand-alone suspense, Steal Away, written as Katharine Clark, I had a baby that was dying of a genetic disease, and I had written that the baby wasn’t sick, but it was dying. And my editor found that unbelievable. I actually had to go back to my genetics experts and ask them the question, and then send some scholarly stuff, before she would agree that I could leave it my way. But those dialogues have certainly been helpful. In that same book, the marvelous Leona Nevler made me work very hard on making a male character I didn’t like more fully dimensioned, so that even if the reader didn’t like him, either, they would at least understand his motivations. It was a very important lesson in being careful not to write cartoons or cardboard, but credible. (no doubt a good editor would ask me whether I intended alliteration here.)