1. Page 2: Hey, this book isn’t so bad.
2. Page 81: That’s the fourth misspelled word . . . and those are just the ones I caught. Wait, how many am I missing?!
3. Start over.
4. Send panicked email to writing buddy begging for one more reread of that problematic eighth chapter.
5. This book is terrible.
6. Realize you said the Roman eagle standard was silver, when Imperial-era eagles were gold. Make change, exhale, then grow cold. That was just the historical error you caught. HOW MANY AM I MISSING?!
7. Incorporate Chapter 8 changes from writing buddy, who read your pages at 11:30 at night on what was supposed to be a dinner break in the middle of their own deadline crisis. Hit the Vatican website and start petition to have writing buddy canonized.
8. Spend four hours untangling the timeline inconsistencies pointed out by your copyeditor, then realize it’s all because you miscalculated your hero’s age, i.e. you can’t count.
9. Get the shivers when your primary source says the Chapter 19 lightning strike happened fifteen years earlier than you placed it in your story. Ransack research materials wildly looking for that vindicating second source, which is missing. Finally found under sleeping, resentful dog who has not been walked in days.
10. Compose email offering your editor your first born child and a kidney if you can have another week to finish this. Delete email, go back to work.
11. Deadline Day. Writing buddy comes to your house, handcuffs you to the sink, and presses Send for you.
12. Thank writing buddy. Set a date next week to do the same for her when she needs to press Send.
13. Start drinking.
So I have been up to my neck, these past two weeks, in reviewing the copy-edits for Daughters of Rome. Copy-editing belongs somewhere around the fourth level of hell: not as bad as doing a headstand in a Portapotty, worse than having thumb-tacks pressed under your fingernails. It takes OCD to a whole new level: a good copy-editor (and mine is superb) is essentially a paid nit-picker. All those times during the writing process when I thought to myself, “Oh, don’t bother changing that tiny detail, no one will notice if it’s wrong.” Well, the copy-editor always notices.
Daughters of Rome is the second book I’ve put through copy-editing, so at least I know the drill by now. I know that 214 comment bubbles is par for the course, not an indication of my book’s deep innate lousiness. I have more or less mastered the Track Changes program on Microsoft Word. I didn’t have to call my editor cross-country to ask what a penciled STET in the margin meant (a Latin term for “let it stand,” or put less politely, “no, damn it, don’t change that sentence, I wrote it that way for a reason!”) And I know that the tendency to come flying out of a sound sleep with a shriek of “Was velvet invented in ancient Rome?!” will wear off in about a week. (And no, it wasn’t.)
Writers, I have to say, are not much fun to be around during copy-editing. They will spend more time fact-checking on Wikipedia than talking to their long-suffering spouses. They will answer questions of “How are you?” with “Do you think anyone will notice if I move the Battle of Actium up a year?” They will slam their foreheads into tables, moaning, “How did I not realize that the Baths of Diocletian weren’t built for another 150 years?” Writers are not even terribly visible during the copy-editing process: the most you will see for a few weeks is the top of a head peeking over “Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire: A to Z,” which has been thumbed so thoroughly that the spine is now broken and the library is dunning for payment.
Another inescapable part of copy-editing is the notes. Writers are prone to these anyway–my husband is forever taking Post-Its off the fridge with such reminders as Research trident wounds or Google headless Romans York. But the notes I take during copy-editing reach a truly memorable level of lunacy thanks to a method of short-hand nobody but me can understand. Here are a few examples, verbatim, from Daughters of Rome.
Chapter 13: L’s wedding to FV; grade-B orgy. C goes to races; Reds lose; D adopted as Vit’s pet. C learns of DD’s disgrace.
Chapter 19: C and DD to Tarracina; idyll. M blue-balls Dom; meets D. L @ AP’s
house; finds out Thrax poisoned FV.
Chapter 22: M brings news of army; C is busted for fling. L helps AP move
out. D meets LL after watching Vit abdicate.
Chapter 24: Rome invaded.
So what did you do today? I invaded Rome.
Fortunately, copyediting is like childbirth: it may be painful, but it has to end sooner or later. Daughters of Rome has been poked, prodded, and patched, and is off to my editor. I have returned Tacitus: The Histories and 69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors to the library, along with a large check to cover my late fees. The last Post-It note (Review routine torture scenes) has been retrieved from the refrigerator door. My husband’s favorite brand of ale is waiting for him with a card: Thanks for researching for me whether the Romans had platinum or mirrors. (No, and yes.) My work is done, and now comes my favorite part of the copy-editing process.
The bottle of champagne when it’s all over.
My second novel: copy-edited within an inch of its life.
*I adapted the title for this post from Florence King’s collection of essays: “STET, Damn It!” She had one of the better quotes on copy-editors, going something like this: “A good copy-editor is a pearl beyond price, but I got stuck with a web-footed brachycephalic cretin who should have been confined to an institution to make brooms.” Copy-editing makes us all testy.