The Proof of the Pudding

In which The Author blurs the lines

As my regular readers will know, I recently completed my first big (and, more importantly, paid) job for a UK book publisher. Although I’ve been billing myself as a proofreader for a long time, I’ve always offered more than simply spotting typos and grammatical SNAFUs.
My experience of working with Geoff E. on his book The Men Who Marched Away, published exactly a year ago today (see ‘They Shall Not Grow Old‘), really blurred the notional lines between proofreading, copy-editing, and project management. Initially I offered to proofread it for him before it went to press. In the event I double-checked a lot of the facts, helped with the layout, suggested alterations to the running order, and pretty much typeset the whole book. Yesterday he emailed me a draft of an 8,000 word article he’s been working on. I can take my time over that, though, as there’s no deadline.
When Orion Books sent me the proof of Gavin G. Smith’s forthcoming book, about a month ago, I don’t mind telling you that it threw me into a tailspin. Six hundred pages of an incredibly dense and bizarre SF adventure – the third part of a trilogy, as it turned out – would have been daunting enough as a casual read. I had to make it as near perfect for publication as possible. If I fucked this one up, my freelance career would end as suddenly as it had begun.
I was only about two pages into the proof when I came across the first hiccup. One of the characters is the legendary Celtic/Irish figure Crom Dubh (see ‘The Coincidences are Stacking Up‘). In the proof, however, it was spelt Crom Dhubh. That dh didn’t look right to me, so I checked a couple of books on Celtic mythology out of the Cosmic Tigger Reference Library. Sure enough, the consensus was that I was right and the typesetter was wrong. I marked the page and carried on going.
A few pages further on I came across a character named Anharad. So what? I hear you ask. Well, I’m Welsh, so I know a few girls named Angharad. The root of the name is caru (= to love), and the ngh sound in the middle is a so-called nasal mutation. It’s one of a number of consonant changes which make the Welsh language such fun for learners of all ages. There were several other queries about Celtic elements which occurred to me as I was working, so I made a note of them on a separate sheet of paper.
Then I found myself in the post-apocalyptic scenario, and the fun started over again. One of the characters is named Alexia. However, her name appeared throughout the entire proof as Alexis, except on one occasion. (I hadn’t got my hands on the earlier books by this stage, so I was confused to say the least.) Again, I made a note on a separate sheet.
When I’d accumulated about half a dozen similar queries, I decided to bite the bullet and email my contact at Orion. He, in turn, forwarded them to the author. It didn’t take long before I got a reply. My observations on Crom Dhubh [sic] and Anharad [sic] were kindly noted, but as they’d already appeared in the earlier books, it was a bit late to do anything about them now.
The Alexis/Alexia situation had, however, slipped past everyone. It turns out that she should have been named Alexia throughout – and not Alexis. (In his email, Mr Smith described it as ‘a good catch!’) That meant that I had to change each and every occurrence of her name, bar one – and there are a few hundred of them. (On a word processor it’s easy. You just use Find and Replace and Robert is your father’s brother. On paper, it takes bloody ages!)
Then I had to double-check the spellings of various pieces of military hardware, as I told you a few weeks ago. It’s probably not a good idea to use public wifi in your local library to draw up a militia group’s Xmas wishlist, but what choice did I have? Is it Beretta or Berretta? (It turns out that the former is correct.) Do USAF planes have hyphens between the letter and the number. (Yes, they do.) Is it a Model O or a Model 0? So much weaponry, so little accuracy.
My list of queries kept growing. Is the home of bespoke London tailoring Saville Row or Savile Row? What does VA stand for in VA West Los Angeles Medical Center? Do we need to hyphenate dumb matter, when smart matter isn’t hyphenated? Is the impossibly unpronounceable (and possibly unbloggable) thing at the turning point of the story male, female, or an inanimate object? Would someone born in Germany really be called Jorge, when that’s the spelling usually used in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries?
The list went on and on. Eventually, I posted the marked-up proofs back, and at the same time emailed nearly eighty queries to my contact at Orion. Some were things which could be sorted out at the office; the rest would land back on Mr Smith’s desk for him to mull over.
That’s what I meant about blurring the lines between proofreading and copy-editing. I could have ignored all the inconsistencies, factual errors, slip-ups and general carelessness, and just concentrated on spelling and punctuation. That would have fulfilled my brief, to all intents and purposes.
But that wouldn’t have rung true with me.
The way I saw it, I was being paid to prepare a piece of text so that it was as error-free as humanly possible. Rowland and I had a couple of pints last week, and we were comparing notes on our experiences. He used to suffer from the printer’s devilry when he was editing our local paper. He feels exactly the way I feel when errors creep into printed material.
I couldn’t have left Saville Row in there and walked away. If I hadn’t spotted it, someone else would have – probably in the finished book. After all, it was only by pointing out a series of errors in Ben Aaronovitch’s Foxglove Summer that I’d been able to join Orion’s freelance pool in the first place. Surely it’s better for me to catch these things now, than for a punter (or, even worse, a reviewer) to spot them six months hence. As a wise man once said, ‘It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.’
It did make me wonder where their regular copy-editor’s head was at, to be honest. But it doesn’t matter.
I had an email from them yesterday, and all is right in the world.
The upshot of the story is this: Orion were so impressed with my feedback on Mr Smith’s book that they want me to move straight on to copy-editing. I should get my first piece of work in a couple of weeks’ time.
In my own mind, I’d been aiming at copy-editing as a long-term prospect. Maybe once I’d established myself as a decent proofreader, I could hope to branch out and get involved further back along the production cycle. Instead, I’ve landed myself right in at the deep end.
Once again, the book is the final instalment of a trilogy. This time though, they’re going to send me the earlier books in advance, so that I’m already au fait with the characters and the style before I get started.
And, naturally, it means more money. Quite a bit more, in fact. When I consider that I used to spend the best part of four hours every day just travelling to and from work, paying over £100 a month for the dubious pleasure of Arriva Trains Wales’ ‘service’, and earning not much more than minimum wage, I still can’t quite believe what a lucky break I’ve had.
My commuting time has been slashed to however long it takes me to walk from my bedroom to my middle room. My travelling expenses comprise the occasional bus ticket to or from Aberdare, and once in a while a train journey to Pontypridd. My working day starts when I feel like it, and can go on into the small hours of the morning.
Next year, once I’ve got a few completed assignments under my belt, I’m going to start approaching other publishers to see if I can get into their pools as well. In theory, as long as my eyes hold out, I can still hold a pen, and my mind remains reasonably sharp, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do this for at least another twenty years.
I think this is the only time I’ve actually kept a New Year’s resolution. Look back to the first post from this year, and see what I was talking about then. Well, more by chance than my design, I’ve really gone and done it!
Getting paid well for what you enjoy, and doing what you know you’re good at. Isn’t that everyone’s ambition, at the end of the day?