Copyediting a Novel Manuscript (notes from a field manual)

A better title for this post might be “Lessons in Humility.” I thought I was a fairly decent writer. I thought I had a rudimentary knowledge of sentence construction and grammar. I thought I at least knew how to spell and whether a word is a word.

That was when I still thought takeoff (as in that thing that happens when you’ve fastened your seatbelt) was two words. Same for armrest (one word, not two).

Buck’s a former journalist and has a thick skin when it comes to killing his darlings. Good thing, too, because I hated telling him that the scenes where his hero and heroine go shopping, eat ice cream, and wash dishes together were sweet, but more suited to Harlequin than a manly action thriller. Or that the five pages of what we came to refer to as “the begats,” where various loose ends of characters get neatly tied up stops the flow of the story like a hairy Scottish cow that won’t get out of the middle of the road, and had to go. He took it well, agreed, and assassinated more than 3,000 words. The resulting leaner script no long backs and fills: it sings.

We’ve been both bloodied and bandaged by the FIND function on Word. Two days ago, when we were “sure” the manuscript was now error free and darn near perfect, I said, “Oh, by the way, I forgot one last thing. We need to run our words and phrases list through FIND to see how often they show up. This was a list we scribbled on yellow sticky notes of various words and phrases that “struck our ear” as showing up perhaps a little too often. This project, which I thought might take ten or fifteen minutes, turned into a two-day marathon with exhausted runners.

We began with “grit” and “pluck.” They’re strong, but only showed up twice in 396 pages. Buck adores Kim’s (his female protagonist) “pouty” lips, but three mentions (two on one page) were overkill. FIND is awesome, because it not only tells you how many instances of a particular word or phrase are used, but presents them to you in a sidebar list so you can view each one on the page and decide whether to keep, change or get rid of it altogether.

We were cruising along on this process, feeling fine, until we got to “took a swallow” (22 instances), “nodded” (72), and “chuckled” (78). Buck saw the defeated look in my eye. “No time to weaken now,” he said, and we plunged into the fray and vanquished the buggers.

It’s easy to see why folks who write a book just give up. Completing the manuscript may feel like massive loss of blood, but the copyediting portion of the festivities is the true death of a thousand cuts.

Could Any Writer Refuse This Offer?

Note: This is fiction/fantasy based on a writer’s prompt. Mention of the 20 year old granddaughter (whom I love more than life) was not an actual incident that happened that fictional morning, but only a stream-of-conscious thought about how much I would miss loving “distractions” such as visits or text messages or calls from her if I were on an ivory tower retreat for a year to write . . .

The security alarm was still set when I got out of bed. I disarmed it when I went to make coffee before walking into my study. Clearly, no one had been in the house. It must be from Buck! Our 30th anniversary is coming in a few weeks. We’ve talked about planning a small trip somewhere. Maybe this was related.

I reached eagerly for the envelope. It was sealed with wax in such a deep red color it was almost black. That took me aback. I opened my desk drawer and slit the envelope carefully with an old pewter letter opener given to me by my first mother-in-law. As I slid the thick card out, my nose twitched. What is that smell? Not perfume, exactly. Incense? Sweet, with a base note of . . . something. Decay, like the basement in an old building? How weird.

I looked at the card. Here is what it said:

Your desire to complete your novel and write essays has come to the attention of a benefactor who wishes to sponsor you for one year dedicated to writing. You may write whatever you like during this time. The benefactor will not only provide financial support during this time, but also meal and laundry service, plus distraction management.

This is the opportunity of a lifetime for a writer, as you surely recognize. One year under these conditions virtually guarantees you will achieve your goals. Thus, the small caveat that by accepting this generous offer you agree at the end of the term of one year, to never, ever write a single word again in your entire lifetime no matter how long you may live should not trouble you. Please make sure to read the fine print from the benefactor’s legal department before you accept so you will have full understanding of the consequences should you breach the agreement.

Please R.S.V.P. soonest. This is a once in a lifetime invitation.

Sincerely yours,
The Benefactor’s Factotum

Damn. I mean day-umm. I put the card down and jogged to the kitchen for coffee. I stood for a few minutes to watch out the window as a doe and her spotted fawn grazed under the big live oak near a tall magnolia tree, grabbed up one of my notebooks and wrote a couple of sentences about the fawn’s ballerina elegance and the doe’s tenderness.

Stunned by the bizarre note, I almost didn’t hear my cell phone ring. It was my twenty-year-old step-granddaughter, calling to share a cartoon from the New Yorker with me before she went to class at our local university (it was the cartoon where the robots become self-aware and all they want to do is write novels). We had a good laugh, hung up, and I scribbled a paragraph about our conversation in my morning writing journal.

By this time, I’d had a chance to think about how the “life interruptus” problem I sometimes bitch about is what informs and enlivens my efforts to write. The meaning derived through daily interaction with my darling husband, nature, family, and even my old chocolate lab, Maggie (whose memory still takes up  a lot of space in my heart and head), is the soul-stuff that made me passionate to write in the first place.

My heart rate back to its usual medium-slow, steady beat, fresh cup of coffee in hand, I returned to my study to respond to the note. I wrote on the bottom.

“Please thank the benefactor for this invitation, but I must refuse. The price is too high.”

No sooner had I put down the card than it popped into a small flame, and in seconds nothing was left but a teaspoon of ashes.

I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera,  spiral notebook and pen, and headed out for a walk in the woods, content in the knowledge that I would be writing every day for the rest of my life.

I Tell Myself Stories

The online class I’m taking through Creative Nonfiction calls on participants to write a minimum 300 word piece each day (Monday – Friday) and a 1,000-word piece that can be separate and new or culled and compiled from the week’s work.  It’s a 10-week course: 2 down, 8 to go. Worth it, in case you’re interested.  Excellent instructor and the finest group of writer-classmates I’ve run into yet in an online course.  Lots of feedback and discussion. It’s called “Bootcamp for Writers.” Here’s a piece I submitted today. The prompt was: “Why I Write.”

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. ”

~ Joan Didion, The White Album

I know everything about my own narrative until I know nothing. I can answer all the questions anyone might ask until I can’t answer any of them.

Before seven this morning, I could tell you with certainty, verve and passion, why I write. By ten, I don’t have a clue.  By Noon, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.

It was the photographs that did it. And the old letters. The newspaper stories didn’t help, either. By one o’clock I was a teary mess, and it took two hours of walking alone in the woods with the sun on my back and a northeast wind in my face to regain some semblance of equilibrium and perspective.

I was mostly looking at pictures of dead people. Oh, they were alive and seemingly immortal when the camera caught the moment. The baby, James Clyde Pelfrey, wore a lacy white christening dress and shoes that looked like brown combat boots. He was born in 1908 and died in a house fire on Pensacola Beach in 1974. His wife, Anne, my husband’s aunt, survived. Their new candy apple red Cadillac melted in the garage. The only intact papers that weren’t burned up were a Western Union Telegram notifying Anne and Clyde of Buck’s birth on December 11, 1937 and a stunning love letter sent from Clyde to Anne while he was serving overseas during World War II.

The last photos of me with my mother, from 1989, catch me off-guard. I look like I am posing with my arm around a total stranger, smiling an insincere smile as though everything is fine and dandy. Mother, who hated to be touched even before Alzheimer’s, draws away, her pinched face showing she wants to get away from this pushy person.

Almost done. And almost undone. The last photo is an arty black and white of my three step-children when they were toddlers.  Two boys and a girl. I didn’t meet them until they were 18, 21 and 22, more than 32 years ago. The middle child’s white blond hair, bright eyes, and smile full of a little boy’s mischief, takes my breath. Who could ever have put a finger on this angel and said: Darryl will die of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 45 and his death will nearly kill his dad?

Some of the photos don’t cut me. They are several generations removed. My husband’s people. Ones I never met. I interleave their stiff dressed-up black and white photos with acid-free tissue paper, put the lid on the box and stagger down the stairs, feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck.

Maybe I write out of fear, out of a belief that a fit brain that can juggle, retrieve and play with words cannot succumb to a nightmare organic brain disease that destroys memory and personality. Maybe I write so I can go back to last week or last year or ten years ago and recognize the writer as myself — the same “me” I see in the mirror every day. Maybe I write to add my voice to the infinite line of pilgrims scrawling on the cave wall “We were here.”

Maybe I tell myself stories in order to live.

Too Much Dressing on the Word Salad (Less is More)

I think I finally  get  the “less is more” exhortation. “Show, don’t tell” is easy to understand, if hard to do.  “Less is more” sounds like an effort to be content with something other than what you really want. The phrase has a hipster hollowness. It’s become cliché code for down-sizing.

But when Buck wrote the very first draft of his novel and it was replete with, shall we say, exuberant, sex scenes, the meaning of “less is more” as applied to writing began to seep into my consciousness.

It’s like the shrimp salad I ate yesterday at our favorite bistro in Pensacola. Who in her right mind would say, “Please don’t put so many shrimp on my salad?” And yet. Take a look.

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Too many shrimp of dubious provenance. Too much Parmesan cheese. Too much salad dressing. Too much of everything except restraint. What I had in mind when I ordered a Caesar Salad with Shrimp was crisp romaine lettuce, several (maybe six) large Gulf shrimp artfully arranged on top, a few crunchy (not soggy) French bread croutons, and dressing with a gossamer touch.

Oh, and those sex scenes? They’ve been reduced by ninety percent and rewritten to produce perhaps a blush, a sigh, even a smile, but not a cringe. And readers will know the writer adores and respects women as full partners, not paper dolls.

Joss Stone’s thoughts on Less is More have a nice bite. Enjoy.

Palahniuk and Monday Catfish

1-IMG_8371My penchant for kosher salt is sprinkled all over the plate.  This is the essence of a plebeian Monday supper: farm-raised catfish (gasp) from our local Publix grocery store, a sliced tomato, and turnip greens dipped from the quart container we take out once a week from a phoned-in order to the local Cracker Barrel.  Hershey Bar with Almonds to follow to bed with a book.

I’m reading a raft of things, some of which have dribbles of toothpaste on them because I’m trying to eke out a few more paragraphs here, a few more paragraphs there.  Some wind drew me to Chuck Palahniuk’s book ,  Damned which is  one hundred percent out of character for what I might normally choose to read, and I’m loving it. Actually, Palahniuk only sprang onto my radar screen because I (somehow) wound up reading a writing lesson from Chuck wherein he forbade writers to use “thought” verbs for at least the next half-year. The big takeaway for me was his exhortation to not be lazy, and to “unpack” characters. Whoa. I see when I do that it works, when I don’t, the writing may as well be in hell, it’s so dead. So, thanks, Chuck.  I bought your book (one of many) and now I’m hooked.

Gotta run. I have a chocolate bar to eat and a good book to finish.

A Writing Space That Sings

REMEMBER A FEW DAYS AGO WHEN I POSTED A PICTURE OF AN OLD DEER BLIND that I declared I was going to turn into a tiny writer’s hut steeped in splendid isolation?

Buck did his part. He hacked a path to it with his antique 60 horsepower Case tractor. I took loppers and trimmed away undergrowth and overhanging branches. My romantic’s heart was going pity pat all the way. Then I removed the tiny lock and opened the door. Cockroaches leaped out. The smell coming from the old sculpted shag carpet that Harold and Buck had glued to the walls for warmth and soundproofing years ago was, um, how shall I put this? Disgusting. Yes. If I’m shooting for precision, that’s the word. Then there is that charming bright blue object that appears to be secured to a wall with string. Oh! It’s a homemade urinal. Wonderful. Aren’t boys delightful? I left the door open, took a step back on the landing and pondered. Nothing wrong with this a little elbow grease can’t fix! Hey, I’ll even bring over that pot of fragrant orange mint I have out in my herb garden.  If I put it right under my nose, this could work. Or, I could strip out all that yucky carpet and paint the walls and floor in Day-Glo colors. I walked back to the house wondering whether I could link a bunch of outdoor extension cords together so I could carry the shop vac out there and vacuum up all the bugs and spider webs.

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snake dream 2

snake dream 3

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Dreams are fantastic. I always pay attention to mine and enjoy them, even though I hardly ever have a clue what they might mean beyond that I ate too many cut red peppers on my veggie pizza or too much dark chocolate before going to sleep. But the Snake Dream I had that night was something special. Memorable. Have you ever been bitten by a snake in a dream? Wow. That will stick with you. It was a diagonal slash across my poor left index finger. Fortunately, it’s still numb on one side from my biscuit/knife encounter. The weird thing — well, the whole dream was weird — is that the wound produced a cut that bled chartreuse. Ha!

The next morning, Danny the air-conditioning guy, came to replace a no-longer-functioning thermostat. Buck was outside fiddling with his pick-up truck. I waited for Danny to come in the house. He didn’t. I kept on with whatever I was doing.  Then I looked out and saw that Buck’s truck was gone. Danny’s van was empty. They came back in about 15 minutes. Buck’s rifle was on his shoulder. Danny had seen a 5-6 foot rattle snake in the road near the stream bed where I walk every day. They didn’t find the snake. Buck likes snakes; understands generally how they behave, and is not quick to kill one. But a big rattler and my bare ankles traipsing up and down that path every day worried his mule. I thought of my dream the night before. I thought of the old deer blind. I thought of the brown and black widow spiders that I’ve photographed around here.

And then I had an epiphany. And I laughed.

Our house has a second floor with a guest room and covered deck, two unnamed storage rooms across a sort of bridge (I’ll post a picture sometime), and an open area at the top of the stairs that was originally planned for Buck’s work space. He even put an old desk he bought from the company he worked for and had the top refinished with smooth black laminate. So, in my mind, this has always been Buck’s space, and I essentially forgot about it. But you know what? He’s holed up in what we call the “Lodge.” It’s the original part of the house. It’s not exactly a “man cave,” but it’s a place where he can leave all his papers out and know no semi-OCD individual who hates dust will move his motes around. I come in and hang out with him there when we collaborate on editing decisions on his manuscript, or when we want to have lunch together and shoot the breeze. I keep my jogging shoes in there under his work table. Sometimes I entice him out for a walk (like today).

I asked him if he minded if I used that space. He said he’d be very pleased if I could get some use out of his old desk. I spent an hour cleaning and organizing (no snakes or spiders), and have been working up there every day for the last week. At night, I eat fig newtons and drink a glass of milk while I read, and listen to owls through the open window. No computer or phone allowed. It’s like being in a tree house. A big, beautiful, clean, good-smelling tree house with its own pool table. It sings.

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Hypocrites and Denial

I don’t have any problem with people who earnestly believe whatever they earnestly believe, whether it’s the end of the world is coming next Tuesday bunch or any of the religious folk. Well, except the go-to-hell boys who want to blow things and people up and take me and everybody else they disagree with along.

The ones that get me — and they’re usually politicians or preachers — are the ones who believe in one lifestyle for themselves and another for their sheep.

So: hypocrisy is one thing; denial is some else.

I grew up with denial, at least I feel like I did once Daddy died. I’m still confounded by my mother and frustrated by my own rose-colored lenses and gossamer wings that I wore as a young teenager. I didn’t know much. I didn’t ask questions. What was wrong with Mother? How did we survive? Now I’ll never know.

Denial is personal. I don’t blame anybody for creating whatever stage set they need to make it through the night. Besides, what is the dream behind the dream? If there is a conscious afterlife and I get there in a shape to ask questions, I’ll ask about the nature of reality and what does it all mean. I’m sure there’s a big Life 101 auditorium-style class on that every day in the afterlife. Oops. Maybe I slipped into denial again. Maybe there’s just dead.