No writer looks forward to opening a ten-page editorial letter the leaves you wondering what it was about the manuscript that led the editor to buy it in the first place. And nobody likes to get back an entire manuscript with comments and “suggestions” on every page that will eventually require some kind of action on your part. But you have to remember the mantra: we’re all in this endeavor together, and our job, as a team, is to make the best book possible. And add to that, two or three or more eyes on a piece of writing is better than one.
You make a mistake. You get something wrong, leave something out, say something twice, put in the wrong word, or words, or screw up the grammar, or fill a paragraph with cliches or have a whole scene that’s unnecessary and boring. You make a factual error that lots of readers (or at least some readers) will notice. Who’s gonna catch it? You? You’ve already gone through your manuscript dozens of times. You’ve mentally declared it perfect. As far as you know, the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor and Neil Armstrong was the second man on the moon but the first to get out of Apollo 11 after it splashed down in Lake Michigan.
So we’re thankful for editors, even if we don’t always react that way. They catch a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t want going out into the world if you knew about it. And most of the time, you do get to know about it (after it’s caught). I’ve personally had things captured and corrected pre-publication that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. I’ve also, during the editorial process, caught stuff on my own because I was doing careful reading in response to editorial comments. For instance, my editor and I were just about in the final edit of HAUNTING AT HOME PLATE when I realized I’d used the word “bow” for one of those big greenery-draped branches that sticks out from the trunk of a cedar tree. In the nick of time we changed it to bough. Another time, a small glitch (mine, of course) wasn’t caught. That’s why, in SOMEONE WAS WATCHING, a “door,” instead of a “drawer,” gets pulled out from a cash register. I didn’t catch it, the editor didn’t catch it, but a friend did.
Everyone is vulnerable, even some of the finest writers around. The finest writers around, even though we tend to think of them as whipping out a perfect book in no time the first time, are forever filling their acknowledgements with thanks to their second and third readers and spouses and significant objects of their affection and agents and most of all their editors for helping to make a book what it eventually became. But as I said, sometimes editors miss.
I’m reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY. I’d heard a lot about it since it was published, and I’ve not been disappointed. She’s a wonderful writer who has a talent for words and story and voice and connecting with kids, both imagined and real. I had the good fortune to serve on the committee of judges for the SCBWI’s Golden Kite award for fiction the year SPEAK was published, and that amazing book made the committee’s job much easier. But in MEMORY, one of those gremlins slipped through the editorial cracks and made it to the page and became a distraction, at least for me. Not a permanent distraction, but one that for a few pages threw me off track and took me out of that “suspension of disbelief” mode that writers (and readers) try to attain.
The gremlin? The main character (Hayley) grabs a creeper and joins her dad under his old pickup, where he’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with it and get it running again. And in her head she’s thinking about the “half ton of metal above us.” Not significant, to the plot or anything else. But it tripped me up, took me out of the story for a bit, made me wonder what else isn’t going to ring true. And that’s because a half-ton pickup doesn’t get that designation because of how much it weighs, but because of how much it can haul. If Hayley is worried, or reassured, by how much metal is above them, she should have been worried or reassured by having A WHOLE BUNCH MORE metal up there–two and a half tons, about (I looked it up–isn’t the Internet a nag?).
Should the author have known this? Probably not. You can’t know everything. You for sure can’t know that you don’t know something if you think you do know it. Or something. You just have to hope that sometime during the editorial process, someone–editor, line editor, whoever–will catch whatever you don’t.
The inconsistency in MEMORY isn’t a big deal. It probably wasn’t noticed by most readers. But I recall reading another book–WE WERE THE MULVANEYS–by another talented writer–Joyce Carol Oates–in which a prominent character gets date-raped in the back seat of a Corvette. It’s a pivotal occurrence affecting the characters and pretty much the direction of the whole story. It was brutal and disturbing. But a Corvette doesn’t have a back seat. All the models are two-seaters with very little room even in the front. So for the rest of the book that rape scene, as powerful and full of fallout as it was, stuck with me but it did so with extra baggage and without the verisimilitude it deserved to have.
Again, should the author have known? Maybe. The number of seats in a car is a little more obvious than the weight of a truck. But I’d put at least half the blame, if we’re looking for someone to blame, on the editorial staff. Like most monitoring-type activities in life, we don’t notice all the stuff that gets caught, we notice the one thing that doesn’t.
But imagine not having editors. They might slip up now and then, but nobody’s perfect, even when backed up by a team. And you gotta love ’em.