“I have performed the necessary butchery. Here is the bleeding corpse.”
–Henry James, to his editor, after being asked to cut a few lines from a five-thousand-word article for the Times Literary Supplement
For years on my syllabi for fiction workshops I’ve been including boilerplate about how rare a treat it is to be around wise critics willing to spend time on your work. “Enjoy it while you can,” I’ve repeated, as if issuing an ominous threat, maybe because I was envious of people who got to enroll in fiction workshops. Now that I’m working with my editor at Sarabande Books on the manuscript of my new story collection that’s coming out in October, I see that that envy of mine was justified. The process has been fantastic—his queries are apt, his edits astute. To have so dedicated a reader feels like a great privilege. But this month we’ve come to the copy editing stage.
As someone who struggles not to draw proofreading symbols in the margins of everything from newspapers to the SkyMall catalog, I haven’t taken well to being copy edited. This isn’t to say I’m without fault. Apparently all my life I’ve been spelling worshiping the British way, failing to separate pine cone out as a compound word, and committing a sin by letting Word squeeze my ellipsis points together like this…instead of spacing them out like this. . . . I’m glad someone caught those mistakes, which I’d never have caught myself because I didn’t know they were wrong. However, I haven’t consistently been so sanguine.
In a story about a twelve-year-old genetic clone of Thomas Jefferson, I make use of a phone number, (703) 921-2258. The copy editor’s note in the margin—a note to my editor rather than to me—reads, “This is a real number in Manassas, VA. OK to use? I wouldn’t.” So when I read that earlier today, I practically started hyperventilating.
Ten years ago, back in 2005, my novel Bitter Milk included a phone number, 984-6110, that the copy editor tried to change to 555-6110 in order to obey a longstanding American convention regarding fictional telephone numbers. I didn’t approve that change. “STET,” I wrote in enormous letters in both margins, making absolutely sure my editor understood my intention. Not until the novel came out in print did I learn he’d changed the prefix to 555 anyway.
A decade later I can still break out in a cold sweat to imagine readers encountering that number. The perspiration comes not because I’m a pedant (maybe I am, but that’s tangential to the point) but because few things can shove me out of the fictional dream as quickly as a 555 telephone prefix. It’s like a loud clarion call announcing that the world is fake. It functions like any other verisimilitude problem. For that matter, misspellings and wrong usages and comma splices all boil down to verisimilitude problems. I can be enjoying a story just fine until the moment when I realize the author thinks free rein is spelled free reign, or antivenin is antivenom, or home in is hone in. That’s the moment when the all-important illusion of authorial authority evanesces like fog.
Earlier, after I’d calmed down from hyperventilating, I went into my query response document and began maniacally justifying my “STET.” I explained that the number in question belongs to a debt collection agency and that no one there will complain. I offered to purchase a Skype or Google Voice number with a 703 area code and maintain it for as long as the Sarabande edition of the book remains in print. Before long, I realized I’d written more than five hundred words on the matter. I think I made a decent case for myself. Still, I doubt that I’ll relax until the book—intact, realistic phone number and all—is in my hands.