Last week I had an attack of nostalgia. It happens. This week I’m back in the real world, midway through one of the least demanding editing jobs I’ve ever done.
And it’s making me look just a little way back, just a couple of weeks, no more nostalgia, I promise, to a post which threatened to go off on a riff about books which should have been edited, if not better, then at least more. And I’m now wondering why this is. Is it that the person who did the editing didn’t know that there were errors? Or could it be (as has happened to me on a couple of memorable occasions, of which more in a para or two) that the editor was conscious that s/he was only a backroom person, and hesitated before interfering with the work of a Big Name with a Big Reputation?
I do have a certain sympathy with that less than confident editor who can’t bring him/herself to dispute with a well-known author. I edited short stories by some pretty famous names when I published a collection in support of a breast cancer charity a few years ago. One contribution (I’m certainly not going to specify which) was a brilliant story, but littered with typos. I corrected them and kept quiet, telling myself that the author probably relied on an editor to take care of such trivia. The other was an equally great story, but occasionally the voice of the narrating character slipped; a few changes to the choice of words was all it took to get it back on track, but I sat there for hours staring at the screen, asking myself who the hell I thought I was to criticize the work of Author X. I gritted my teeth and did the deed, and in the event, X agreed with me and made the changes. But my poor old teeth have never been the same.
But from here on I’m talking about books I’ve only read: books I’ve had no editorial connection with at all. Two stand out, possibly because they were both set against the same background, though they were quite different in every other way. It’s a background with which I have a certain familiarity, and which I would have expected at least one of the two authors to know even more intimately. Unfortunately, his/her knowledge was about twenty years out of date; things have moved on – and an essential plotline depended on the very aspect which has moved on most.
That time I chickened out, kept my own counsel, whatever you want to call it. The book was generally regarded as not that author’s finest hour, so with a little luck it will be overshadowed by other titles set on much more solid ground and the author’s enviable reputation won’t suffer.
The second time the book was the first in a series, and the background was just background, not integral to the plot, so I took a deep breath and jumped in, contacted the author and diffidently (I hope) presented my case. The reply was a brief but perfectly civil thank-you. So I offered to run through future titles in the series with a view to straightening out any remaining glitches. The reply to that was distinctly cool, so I didn’t pursue it. In fact it left me thinking I’d probably done the right thing first time around.
Both times when I finished the book I thought, I wish I’d edited that. Whether I’d have had the courage to move the authors towards solving the problems is, of course, another matter.
There have been other books I wished I’d got my hands on before they went to print: sharp characters and great plots, but punctuation and sentence structure which affected the pace and done the storyline no favours at all. And I still ache when I recall a short story of my own, published years ago in an anthology; the editor had littered it with unnecessary commas, which slowed it to snail’s speed. I took them out when I proofread it, but they were back with interest in the printed copy.
I just hope all those things happened because the editor was inexperienced.
So, having stirred these less than comfortable memories, when I’ve posted this, um, post, I’ll be glad, and not a little relieved, to get back to editing a manuscript which so far has offered up a small handful of typos, about half a dozen very minor queries about continuity and absolutely nothing which could cause dissent between editor and author.