Not so long ago I launched a scathing attack on reviewers who blame editors for bad books. Alright, not an attack, I just said I thought it was a bit weird, when you’ve no idea what the editor did or didn’t do. I made the point that, ultimately, an author has the right of refusal on changes and has to be responsible for the finished work. Poor proof-reading as a criticism I gave similarly short shrift. The author reads the proofs too, you know – they should be checking for errors, and again have the ultimate responsibility for the blah, blah, blah.
Then this lot arrived:
Not the tea, the page proofs. For those unfamiliar, when these turn up from the publisher it is the final chance to catch errors. The manuscript has been edited and desk-edited. Now the author, plus a paid proof-reader, sit down and examine the proofs which are, in theory, the final setting of the book, just on loose-leaf A4 rather than in a bound hardback, paperback, or whatever. There should hopefully be very few changes to make at this point. A spelling error or two. The odd double ‘the’, stuff like that. No re-writing of any significance, certainly. In fact, the author is supposed to pay for any changes made at this point (though my dark masters at Gollancz, being nice folks as dark masters go, have let me off so far).
It’s hugely exciting when you see page proofs of your work for the first time (at least for me, I don’t get out much). Even in this age of word-processors and desktop publishing, there’s still something about seeing a book properly typeset. It gives the work extra authority. It seems suddenly something more than that nonsense you dreamed up alone in a dark room.
Unfortunately, the novelty does somewhat wane with time. Especially when you see page proofs of a book for the second or third time – for a mass-market or a foreign edition, say. There’s also a strange effect that seems to happen after a book has been out for a while. All that stuff you thought you went over so carefully, that stuff you combed, and straightened, and flicked at until it was all perfect, suddenly some of it doesn’t seem quite right anymore. You start to see clumsy constructions, words repeated too close together, and above all, the dreaded things you’d do differently now.
You squint at the page thinking, “bloody hell, can this really be the same version I proof read last time? This can’t be right!” You drag an old edition down from the shelf (I do, as it happens, keep a shelf-full of my own books to hand, don’t hate me) and you leaf through til you find the spot and, “bloody hell it is the right version! How did I never notice how rubbish that is?” For some reason, sequences you always thought were great at the time are particularly prone to this – perhaps, having written them and thought they were good you mentally put them to one side, then pay less attention in the edit, while re-writing, polishing and improving the weaker parts to the point where they’re actually better.
Then, of course, there’s that strange feeling of shiftless panic you get when it’s actually time to hand the proofs back and let go of your work. Ever have it when you’re posting a letter? You raise it to the slot in the postbox then suddenly you think – hold on, this is the right letter, isn’t it? The envelope’s got something in it, right? I put a stamp on it, didn’t I? Then there’s this odd sensation of horror as you finally drop the thing in the box and can’t retrieve it any longer. The button is pushed. Multiply that by a thousand and that’s the feeling of finishing the proofs, for me at least. No big moment of wey-hey! Now I can have the one cigarette a year I allow myself only when I finish a book like James Caan in Misery! Just a long, slow moment of – Shit. What did I get wrong?
March is going to be a big month for me. And perhaps for you too, if you’re a reader of me, who knows? Before They are Hanged is coming out in the US, then in the UK in mass-market paperback, then Last Argument of Kings in the UK in hardcover and trade paperback. Great. The downside is that all three sets of proofs have turned up to read at once. Now the Last Argument of Kings I don’t mind so much. Firstly, it’s a brilliant, brilliant book (ha ha). Secondly, I haven’t yet been able to just sit down and read it right through in a set form. Thirdly, I’m sure I’ll find quite a few little corrections I want to make.
But I also have two very slightly different versions of Before They are Hanged to read. Better yet, I read it already a couple of months ago when I read the entire series back to back looking for howling plot-holes, and sudden changes of character hair-colour and the like. I read proofs of the UK trade editions before it was published last year. Furthermore, of course, I’ve read and re-read the entire thing while copy-editing and editing, I’ve read every chapter while writing, I’ve gone over and over, cutting down and refining, cutting down and refining, until I know it like God Save our Gracious Queen, just without the misty-eyed nostalgia.
I mean, Before They Are Hanged, it’s a brilliant, brilliant book (ha ha). Of course it is. But please, just for a year or two…
Can I not read it again?