Once, afraid to press Send on a completed manuscript, I turned on Codes to show all the hidden formatting symbols in my 120,000 word document – spaces, paragraphs etc – and spent a happy, reassuring few hours just checking that I hadn’t typed two spaces between words instead of the usual one, or put a space between a speech mark and a capital letter. I even found a few! That is the soul of a nitpicker. I confess. But it put off the scary moment of sending my ms. off into the wide blue yonder and out of my hands. Is that a familiar feeling?
I’ve recently been doing the page proofs for my second children’s book. I know authors who don’t pay too much attention to this stage – it’s almost done with, after all, isn’t it? – but I can’t take that attitude. Not only do I have the sort of brain that generally spots typos in my own and other people’s work (yes, Sunday Times Bestseller List fiction, that all too often means you!) but it’s my last chance to right the niggly wrongs before my baby goes off to become a Real Book.
For those not familiar with the process, page proofs are exactly what your book pages will look like, fonts, page numbers, title page, credits and all, with marks to show the dimensions of the actual page. But they are still printed out on a stack of A4 sheets so in a way are not so different – yet very, gratifyingly, different – from the ms. you printed out yourself to re-read and edit earlier in the process. If you did that, which you should, of course, maybe more than once. (There’s a good blogpost about that here.) No book is ever going to be perfect, especially to its author (be very wary if you think yours is!) but it should be as damned near perfect as you can get it at every stage. Otherwise, what is the point?
Already, the manuscript has been copy-edited by some clever person with an even nitpickier brain than mine and an eagle eye for factual errors, logical errors, typos, grammar, punctuation, and, yes, whether I’ve used the word ‘squeeze’ three times in two pages. Doesn’t mean I can’t use ‘squeeze’ that often, I just have to be aware of it, that it’s through deliberate choice, not sloppiness, or ignorance of an alternative. I love copy editors who pick up on that level of detail. Long may they be employed by good publishers! I’ve just been reading some early Agatha Christie and she’ll use the same adjective or verb three times in a couple of lines, when there are other perfectly good choices around. It makes the writing drab – sorry, Christie fans.
But somehow even after copy-editing a few things that feel awkward to me do slip through and page proofs are my chance to change them, and pick up on tiny errors. My space-checking facility flips on. At every stage of editing I find it easier to do what I think of as ‘the housekeeping’ first – the routine, easy stuff, not the challenging imaginative decisions – and this is housekeeping. With a little bit of drama thrown in – last chance, last chance!
But reading a stack of A4 sheets is not the same as turning the pages of an uncorrected proof copy: this is the same version, but bound into a book-sized copy without the final cover artwork. The feel and rhythm of reading from page to facing page, then turning over, is very different; of seeing where a paragraph or chapter stops, whether a clue you’ve planted has space to really register, or a cliff-hanger just slips over the next page and ends on two short lines – will it work?
I’ve said goodbye to the page proofs now and posted them off before Christmas. I’ve got the bound uncorrected proof, so I can read it as a book. I can’t tot up how many times I’ll read a book between its first draft and its final appearance, but you have to be fond of your characters to spend that much time with them.
(Of course, I just had to turn on Codes to check for extra spaces in this piece – and I found one – and deleted it. Happy now.)