by James R. Preston
Once you finish your story, the penultimate step, proofing the nasty thing one more time may feel a bit like a chore. You can practically recite all of your sparkling dialog and dazzling descriptions, so how can you read it again and this time look for comma splices?
First, stop a moment and pat yourself on the back.
You have finished a book! And you are willing to show it to someone! Let’s evaluate what you have accomplished.
Many years ago, I read an essay by James Michener in which he said “there are half a million people in the U. S. who say they want to write a novel.1 Most of them will never start, and most of that group will never finish the book. Out of the fraction who do, most of them will never show it to anyone.”
You are part of a select group.
Now comes the hard part -- Galleys. There’s so much time between completing a manuscript and publication that, if you are like me, you are on to other projects. Even though it’s not always fun, it’s time to go back over that novel. It has to be done, and you have to do it.
Below is a timeline of my last Galley Journey, so you can see an example.
I get galleys of my new Surf City Mystery from the publisher. I’m stoked, to put it mildly. I start proofing. But, but…something is nagging at me, a little voice saying, “Didn’t I change that?”
I keep going.
After five days of work, near the 80% mark, that little voice was now shouting. I couldn’t stand it, so I stopped work, got out my electronic copies and started comparing.
My galley was based on an out-of-date document.
I console myself. “Hey, it’s only five days of work. It could have been six.”
I talk to the publisher and we identify what happened.
I start over with the correct document. (I got it on September 15, but had to take a few days off.)
I finish the proofing and send it off. There’s time, barely, to get a few early copies for my book signing.
The paperbacks arrive. All is well.
The hardbacks arrive. I proof the dust jacket. The leading — the space between lines — is off. The dust jacket cannot be used.
The publisher creates new, corrected, dust jackets. Whew!
My publisher is now gun-shy and wants me to double-check to make sure all the corrections have been incorporated. Once more into the breach, dear friends.
Figure out how long proofing the galleys will take — then double that estimate. If you finish early, think how happy you’ll be!
Let’s break that question down. This is really two questions, requiring two estimates.
Let’s break down the timeline for a 300-page manuscript. At 10 pages/minute that’s 30 hours. If you work on it six hours per day, that’s 5 days. But can you do 6 hours a day, 5 days in a row? Should you?
I can’t answer the first question, but my thought on the second is no – don’t do the proofing in marathon sessions. This is intense, fussy work and you want to be at your best.
Decide whether to print the document or edit it electronically. I’ve done both. This time I printed a copy. That allowed me to compare pages side-by-side, and that was useful.
It’s easy to photocopy the pages with changes and send them to the publisher. Electronically you can send the changes off with one mouse click.
I recommend you start with an electronic document naming convention and stick with it. You have to keep track of all the iterations of your book and mistakes can be costly.
Make notes for yourself on what the labels mean. In this era of electronic documents and “Save As” you will probably have multiple versions and that’s okay, as long as you keep them straight. Do not think you’ll remember which is which!
For example, what if you label a document RTBS10.20.22Final.doc. Clear, right? Now you hand it off for the first edit. It comes back marked up so it’s no longer final. How do you distinguish between the two?
One solution is to use numbers along with the dates so that the new one might be RTBS10.20.2022Final2. That works, and I strongly recommend writing down that the one with “2” is the first edit.
Your note might look something like “RTBS10.20.2022Final2 is the edited copy returned on this date and the changes have not been incorporated.”
I know, it’s a pain in the, uh, writing hand, and you may never have any doubt about which document is which, but if you do need to go back and figure it out, you’ll really need clear naming.
Don’t just read it. Examine it. Focus your attention on each word, then sentence, then paragraph. Look for missing periods (you will find some), missing commas (you have established a convention about using commas with words in a series, right?), and spelling.
Even in this day of spell checkers, you can find “form” where you want “from.”
This is the flip side to number three. Remember that you are not polishing. You will see dialog that could be improved. Don’t do it!
Remember these are galleys, and that means paragraphs and pages count, and adding two words to a sentence can create a new line that moves the last line on that page to the next page — and so on. This way lies widows and orphans.
Why was I willing to devote an essay to this topic? Why do I think it’s so important?
I’ve just been through the process and I’ve learned some things that I believe are worth sharing. But also, errors are “bumps” for your readers. They distract, and pull your reader out of the story. And they are elusive, hard to catch.
True story: years ago, I was reading a hardback first edition of a new techno-thriller by a writer I followed. I’m reading about a guy named “Rand.” In the next chapter, there’s someone called “Rend.” I thought, “Wow have I not been paying attention?” In the next chapter he’s Rend again.
You want more? In the first paperback edition of Larry Niven’s brilliant science fiction novel, Ringworld, a character is extending his birthday by traveling around the world ahead of the date change. Only one problem: he’s going the wrong way! Niven describes this in an essay so I’m not ratting him out.
Only other writers like you will understand this, but it was my characters, the ones who spoke to me in the early days and told me their stories. I do this final journey through the galley process for them. They deserve to have a book that is as good as I can make it.
Now it’s your turn. Have you proofed galleys? What was your experience like? When I read the Michener essay there was no Writers in the Storm. I was on my own, trying to figure it all out. Those days are gone! Help us out with what you have learned.
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James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley.
Find out more about James at his website.
1Helen Hull, ed. The Writers Book. (1950, 1956) Barnes & Noble, 10th printing.
One of the best sources for advice I have ever found. I bought it when I was in college, and was struck by the Michener essay, “The Chances Against the Beginning Writer.” Since I was a kid and just starting out, I thought, “Well, that won’t be me. To this day it’s a great resource.
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