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Copy edits

Don't mind me, I'm just minding a hot scanner — 263 pages scanned, 272 to go — and woolgathering. You're probably reading this because you're hoping for something profound and insightful; a discussion of the likely consequences of the 2.5% cut in the headline rate of VAT lately announced by the chancellor, perhaps, or prognostication about the heat death of the universe. Sorry, my brain's not up to that sort of thing right now. I've just ploughed through the copy edits to my next book from Ace and Orbit, "Wireless" (due out next July/August), and I'm feeling a little bit fried.

See, when you finish writing a book and send it to your editor, that's not the end of the matter. Even if your editor says "that's great!" it's not the end of the affair — because the next step is that they send it to a copy editor. A copy editor is a pedant with a red pencil. It's their job to spot all your grammatical and spelling mistakes, and to bring you up on consistency issues too (if they spot any). It's a lot like being back in high school, reading your teacher's notes on a particularly long English essay — if your teacher typed fifty-page single-spaced memoranda, and spent a whole week focussing on you, you, and nobody but you.

They also scribble all over the manuscript in red pencil, using a curious notation evolved over the centuries to tell typesetters precisely how to take your typescript and lay it out as a book. (There are, of course, different dialects of typesetter's marks on both sides of the Atlantic.) Luckily for me, my British publisher is happy to leave the heavy lifting to my American publisher, so I only have to do this once — but it's my job to go over the copy editor's work, answer any queries they leave for me, approve or cancel any changes they make to the text (they're allowed to rewrite it if necessary), and double-check that there's nothing else to fix.

"Wireless" isn't a novel, it's a short story collection, consisting almost entirely of stories and novellas that I've published since 2003. (For reason of pure nostalgia I found space for "A Colder War", from 1998, but that's by far the oldest story in it.) The reason my next annual SF novel is a collection? I can just about write two short (by modern standards) novels in a year. For a few years now I've been writing one Merchant Princes novel for Tor, and one SF novel for Ace. But the exigencies of scheduling are such that I really needed to write two Merchant Princes novels this year, and I simply didn't think I had the energy to write three novels in twelve months — not ones worth reading, anyway. So I went cap in hand to my editors at Ace and Orbit and they graciously agreed that yes, a short story collection might work as a stand-in. In order that "Wireless" would have just a little extra zing to it, I wrote an original novella for it: a short story so long it's trying to fill a novel's boots. And what do you know? "Palimpsest" (the novella) really wants to grow up to be a novel one of these days. Then things got really weird. In September/October I accidentally farted out another novel in a mad fit of enthusiasm, this one utterly out of schedule — this is really embarrassing to admit to: professionals just don't do stuff like that: it's not due on an editor's desk until 2010 — and I'm now running a month late, working on what turns out to be my third novel of the year (plus a novella).

Which is by way of explaining why I haven't been updating my blog often enough, and why I don't have enough spare brain cells to be witty and erudite right now.


41 Comments

1:

I'd say you could have some of mine but I've been busily banging out a short story and I really don't think you need any of my characters.

2:

I have spare brain cells, but they're dead.

3:

Speaking of copy edits, I got the new American paperback of "Merchants' War" and there's a few errors and mistakes. The most obvious, and most pernicious appears to be your (or someone's) tendency to misspell FISA as FEMA. Otherwise, I'm enjoying, as per usual.

4:

Charlie, you're excused. Wireless sounds great, it'll keep this reader happy next year. I'm sorry, I know how writers hate it when readers say this about old work, but gee I'm glad you got "A Colder War" into Wireless, it's one of the best things you've ever done...

Maybe I'll finally get the chance to start the Merchant Princes saga next year too, I figure when Nobel prize-winners praise books they're probably worth reading!

5:

As much as I enjoy reading your blog, I pant and slobber for your novels. So if blog constipation is what it takes for you to fart out an extra novel, let me buy you a figurative bunch of bananas.

6:

What's that about Nobel prize winners?

8:

You know Charlie, I feel for you and all, but "I accidentally wrote an extra novel" is a problem a lot of people wouldn't mind having :)

9:

They should computerize the editing process, so you don't have scan a bunch of paper with red marks all over them.

10:

Bluemoon @9: that would work for me, but some writers still work with quill pens. Others still work with typewriters. One or two do everything in that copy of XyWrite or Protext that they've been using since 1986 (google on those word processors). Writers tend to be crabby and eccentric and do not take kindly to having their creativity disrupted; try to ram a document workflow process down their throat and some of them will rebel.

Publishers aren't stupid: the red-marks-on-paper model works for all writers, not just the ones who are crazy enough to drop a couple of grand on machinery that helps distract them from the creative process of making black-marks-on-paper.

11:

First time posting here, I just wanted to second the plaudits for "Colder War". That is really what started me off on reading your books.

12:

Charlie @ 10: Speak for yourself, mate. My copy editor at Gollancz sends me a Word-compatible file that has her changes and comments embedded within the revised text. The first actual pieces of paper I see (including the MS) are the page proofs.

13:

10 I understand it would not work for all, I am an older doctor and many of my contemporaries will fight the paperless medical record with their last breath. But progress moves on and now the state of Massachusetts is mandating it for doctors. I think the efficiency experts at publishing houses will probably start exerting pressure on authors too.

14:

Charlie, I'm sure that we're pleased to take you slack-jawed and knuckle-dragging, or even bleary-eyed and hung over, so don't worry on our account.

How's that for sycophantic gushing? Sufficiently obsequious?

regards,

Robert A. Ogden II

15:

I used to defend "Beyond This Horizon" but I tried to reread it a couple-three years ago and found it unreadable. The novel that I remember as a teen-ager is much better than the reality. I still think there's a great novel in there somewhere, but it's obscured by all the suck.

XyWrite was fantastic.

Charlie, it's a rare science-fiction story that manages to anticipate the news, and "A Colder War" was one of those. In e-mail, I mentioned the Merchant Families series, which seems to loosely follow the arc of 21st Century American foreign policy: The heroine goes into an underdeveloped foreign country, ruled by an oppressive regime, with the intent of using her mad skillz to inject Western values into the culture and topple the regime. She imagines this will be fast and easy. (You can imagine her saying that they'll welcome her as a liberator and shower her path with flowers.) Instead, everything goes to shit and much bloodshed ensues.

Similarly: When I rad "A Colder War" in the late 90s, I liked it, but I thought it was an odd choice for alternate history. I mean, an alternate history set in the 80s? How completely irrelevant. "Rumsfeld," "Cheney," who were these guys? We certainly would never hear of them again, I thought.

16:

How much of wireless is toast?

17:

I remember writing some projects back in the 80ies using Wordstar... always something like 600 pages with tables and spaces for figures (yes, we had to glue the images and also some tables...). Then someone did more or less the stuff you describe and I went in a mad routine of fixing everything... Let's not forget we are talking about impact printers...

Just a complaint. So far, the best book cover you got was for Halting State. Why are most of your book covers so cheesy???

18:

Till @16: just "A Colder War". Nothing else in "Wireless" was previously published in "Toast". (And "Wireless" is the only place you'll see "Palimpsest", unless/until I get around to turning it into a full-sized novel.)

CdAB @17: I refer you to this blog entry which discusses that topic in detail.

Apropos @9 and @12: I just got email from my editor at Ace saying that they're moving to all-electronic workflow next year, meaning the business about mailing huge chunks of dead tree back and forth is going away. Hopefully by my next book, anyway.

19:

Oy; agreeing with funkula @8, I should have your troubles. Been working on one story for two years +/-, no real idea where it's headed. But then, I'm not getting paid for it. (With another on longterm hiatus, 'cause it needed more research than I could do at the time.)

Going back a couple of entries; my question isn't where the ideas come from, but how do you get them out of the wetware? And once they're out, going about getting them to print.

Meanwhile, am in the middle of "Halting State" and enjoying it very much.

20:

bluemoon @13, I was going to say that when doctors go to electronic records, the patients don't have to change, while when publishers go to electronic workflow, the authors do have to change. And then I read Charlie's 18. (I have Kaiser's Medicare HMO and I strongly prefer electronic records, although they only went back and put five years in. If we need any of my earlier records, they come from a storage facility. Kaiser's records are set up so I can do a lot of things online, including seeing my test results and putting in med refills. I wish I could make the graphs from tests that the doctors can do on their side, though.)

21:

Marilee, this may be one of the few good things about a medical care system designed to benefir insurance company stockholders.

Over here, the Doctors seem to scared of letting patients see that sort of info. My experience may not be typical nuy our GP here seems to prefer mushroom farming methods.

Asl, medical records in the UK seem to be one of the bigger IT project failures.

22:

21 in the US the systems are all designed by "Bean Counter" with lots of radio buttons and pick lists so they can calculate a level of complexity for the visit 1-5. The doctors reimbursement and efficiency rating is based on his average score per hour. This leads to all kinds of games (unnecessary tests and prescriptions) to increase your score and detracts from concentrating on the patient's problem. After reading Atrocity Archives, I'm sure Charlie understands this concept.

23:

Charlie, somehow you have the ability to entertain people when you mention the publishing business. Maybe you should write an SF pastiche novel based on Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler."

24:

You only write two novels a year? Just two!?

Honestly, seriously, you need to get your shit together. I write between six and twenty-nine novels per year, and all of them are bestsellers. But, hey, don't despair - you'll do better in the future; I have faith in you!

25:

David: yes, I write two a year, but they're short ones. I reckon I probably peak at 250 milli-Turtledoves in a normal year.

For a prolific author benchmark, you need to look to Charles Hamilton, who published an estimated 72 million words over his career.

26:

hi charlie, your books are amazing i cant put them down, currently reading halting state and then saturns children
waiting on the next episode of the merchant princes

i think you may find this interesting

http://rigint.blogspot.com/

and this

http://www.rigorousintuition.ca/board/

27:

Interesting regarding Hamilton's astounding output. FWIW, the classical composer Georg Philipp Telemann is regarded as the most prolific composer in the classical tradition. Apparently, he could compose as fast as he could write. Sounds like Hamilton was much the same regarding boys' fiction.

28:

@21 Dave Bell electronic medical records in England are actually a success story, as long as you stick to general practice ones. THis may not last, as the NHS has now seized them in order to do better and cost you less, while deriving more use and value from your notes - giving them to researchers, managers, police etc.

But the GP stuff written by or for GPs is reasonably mature and works moderately well.

A problem with something like that is that it tends to freeze early on, as people who will work for 30 years with it really don't want to learn a new system or major changes (cf the difference between MS Office 4 and 2007 or whatever the current horror is) every time a consulting firm wants a new contract.

Open Source is the answer, of course, but the wrong questions are still being asked. It may be one of the things improved by the recession.

29:

Hope you haver have to deal with a hospital. In the last three years, I've known information go missing at least twice, between hospital and GP.

I can get more reliable delivery with carrier pigeons (RFC1149, of course).

30:

bluemoon @22, not with Kaiser. They get paid a salary, so there's no reason to game the system. A lot of the material I can do is from MyChart, Inc., though.

Adrian @27, we have HIPAA in the US and info about patients can't be given to researchers, managers, police, etc., without the patients' permission. The software I have trouble with is the lab software -- they change it often enough that I have to keep emailing the doctors and asking them to put the standing orders back in. You'd think there was something to pass those over.

31:

My editor can't stand red ink. It's so... I dunno, derisive. She uses blue. I find it easier to read as well.

32:

Adrian @27. The UK electronic records system is great - so long as you don't ever move far enough to have to switch GP. The only way to transfer records between practices is to ... print them out and post them. So if your new GP ever needs to refer back to something your old GP wrote, they have to get at the paper file.

Alex @30. Blue is traditional for copy-editing. (Specifically, the tradition is that blue is for changes that relate to the publisher, and red is for corrections to typesetter errors, so only turns up at the proofreading stage. I believe green used to be used as well, but that was before my time!)

33:

Do you get husky voiced, tight skirted editrixes in the publishing business who mark your copy in red and then give you a good spanking? I may have to become an author!

Those comments about red ink reminded me of 'Secretary' - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0274812/

34:

I don't know, I still have some old paperbacks from the seventies that barely make it past 100 pages — those are short books. Your Merchant Princes books look like the slimmer end of your extruded author product at around 300 pages each (the two I've got, anyway), comparable to the first O'Brian, Macdonald Fraser and Murakami books that came to my hand. Your other books are more like 400 pages, roughly the same length as a Banks Culture novel; and he only publishes one a year, the piker.

If you try to compare yourself to, say, Stephenson's huge doorstops, or Banks' latest, then yeah, your books average shorter, but that doesn't mean your books are short. Size isn't everything, or even desirable.

35:

Robin @32: Perhaps you will meet a woman named Ludmilla in a local bookstore. Happy turkey day!

36:

You know what they say -

It isn't the size of the book, it's the number of copies it sells in Waterstones :P

That was going to be a penis joke which somehow fell flat on its face in the telling. Mercy me.

37:

@28 Open Source would be nice but unfortunately the NHS is massively intertwined with MS and there's not much hope of picking that relationship apart in a hurry. If anything, the two are becoming more entangled, with the advent of the Common User Interface, etc.

38:

Good writers don't publish more often than about every 2 1/2 or 3 years.
But I'm sure you know that. Do you think there's a reason? Maybe they're
just lazy.

39:

Glenn: so you're telling me I'm not a good writer ...?

A 30-36 month publishing tempo is great if you're a tenure-track Creative Writing professor, but here in the real world of commercial publishing you're roadkill if you can't produce a new novel before your previous one falls off the discount shelves, which in practice means one book per 12 months. To build sales -- which is what you live or die by, if you don't have an academic job to pay the bills -- you have to keep your shelf presence visible. Hence the somewhat snobbish received wisdom that "good" writers publish infrequently: the "good" writers aren't the ones who're writing to earn a living. (Like, say, Charles Dickens or George Orwell ...)

40:

You are a good writer.
But you don't write one book every 12 months, more like every 6.
So how does your argument apply?
And most "good" writers don't teach they just get by.
Maybe just getting by isn't enough.

41:

You are a good writer.
But you don't write one book every 12 months, more like every 6.
So how does your argument apply?
And most "good" writers don't teach they just get by.
Maybe just getting by isn't enough.

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