I’ve been thinking about tangled webs this past weekend, because I had two on my hands. You might recall that I had found some wool at the thrift store for an excellent price a while back. This past week, I was working on the edits for Abyss and decided to dye some of that yarn, too. I like to switch back and forth between tasks when I’m doing edits and revisions, because I often need time to ponder the editor’s questions. This editor had excellent questions on this book manuscript, so I knew I needed major ponder time. Dying yarn was the perfect choice, because the yarn can be left to itself for long intervals.
I’ll show you the results of my various dye experiments on Friday—what’s important here is that the skein of lace weight wasn’t well tied. Worse, the tie that it did have came undone in the dye pot. I was very happy with the colour, but I had an tangle of 1400 m when it was done. Yikes, what a mess!
There is a group on Ravelry of people who love to disentangle yarn so much that they volunteer to do it for other frustrated knitters. (It’s called Knot a Problem, if you’re looking for it.) Mostly they advise patience in untangling, and sometimes talk about the meditative quality of untangling yarn. I’d never had a tangle like this one, but I was determined to sort it out.
I realized that the edits required exactly the same kind of patience and diligence. Maybe there’s a reason why we use yarn-y analogies to describe the creation of books – we have plot threads, for example, and stories to unravel. The fact is that edits have become much more of a knotty proposition in the move to digital editing. I really dislike that Track Changes in Word has become the industry standard for editing, but it has and I have to make my peace with it. It’s not so much the application as how it’s used. Let’s talk about that for a moment.
Once upon a time, book manuscripts were delivered by the author to the editor in hard copy. We actually sent printed out book manuscripts by courier to the publishing house. They fit nicely in a FedEx Medium box, btw, and were about the size of a package (a ream of 500 pages) of paper. I used to call them book bricks. The editor would then read the book several times. If she didn’t think the book was ready for publication, she’d call the author with suggestions and comments, and/or write a revision letter. The author would revise the book, print it out again and send it back. This process would be repeated until the editor decided the book was “clean”, then she’d get out her red pen and mark up the manuscript with small changes. (Usually continuity issues and small questions.) Then the book would go to the copy editor, who would mark up the physical manuscript in a different coloured pencil, making spelling and punctuation corrections, etc. The physical book manuscript would be reviewed by the editor, then be sent back to the author. The author would review the changes and answer the queries and send the book manuscript back again to the publisher. The editor would review what the author had done and put the physical manuscript with all its marks into Production. You can see that by this point in the editorial process, the editor would have read the book at least five or six times. Also, the process moves from larger issues to smaller ones: we didn’t worry about serial commas when we were still talking about the hero’s motivation.
The move to digital editing is supposed to be a cost savings. There are no more FedEx boxes of book bricks being couriered around, for one thing. But the big change is that using Track Changes in Word means that editors mark all levels of change simultaneously. Every single thing is marked up on that first edit, from structural questions to the use of semi-colons. Each page in the ms can have hundreds of comments and queries, all of which have to be addressed before the book is returned to the editor. Worse, I believe that some editors begin to edit on their first read of the book, in the interest of saving even more time. So, instead of reading the book repeatedly during the editorial process, the editor might read it once or twice. It’s also possible with Track Changes to just review the status of the changes, instead of reading the whole book through again. This might save time for editors, but I believe the move to digital editing is the reason why so many books have so many errors in them – our brains aren’t wired to manage every level of editing simultaneously. As an author, I find that edits take me much much longer to work through, because of the lack of organization.
Edits can leave me feeling like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott – except it’s my laptop with the book file that I’m tempted to chuck out the window!
- Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
- The Lady of Shalott.
So, an edited ms is another kind of a tangle. Order must be inflicted upon that ms, much as it must be inflicted upon a big knot of lace weight yarn. The first thing I do with this kind of revision is get rid of all the drivel because I find all the comment bubbles distracting. I go through the ms and accept or decline all the spelling and punctuation stuff, just to get rid of that part of the display. Then I start with the biggest revisions. Usually, I turn off Track Changes for that and hide the comments, so I can focus on the text itself. In this book, I had a sub-plot thread that needed to be restructured and fleshed out, including the addition of new scenes. After that was done, I tackled the worldbuilding questions (going through the whole ms once enabled me to make a list) and worked all of their implications and corrections through the text. Then I went through the book line by line, addressing any remaining questions and reading it through. Finally, I read it through one last time (for this phase) and restructured some of the chapters on the way. When I was done, all of the Track Changes comments had been addressed.
As you might imagine, this was a long and arduous process. I had to keep stepping away from the book to think – my editor had some good questions this time! – and when I did, I worked on the tangle. Similarly, the tangle of yarn had sections that weren’t so tangled – we can call them and the punctuation stuff “gimmes” – so I wound those sections first. The larger knots I took in stages, carefully isolating and teasing apart each chunk.
Following the thread of yarn helped me to follow the thread of the story, and invariably, after I’d been untangling for fifteen minutes or so, I’d know the answer to the current question about the book. I went back and forth, back and forth, for three days, until the book revision was done. The next day, I finished untangling the skein. I don’t plan to knot up another skein, even for the benefit of untangling it, but it was an interesting exercise.
Do you like untangling knots? What kind?