Vicki Forman first caught my attention with her special needs parenting column at Literary Mama. (Her last column there must be read sitting down, and with a prepared heart.) Her work has also appeared in the Seneca Review, Santa Monica Review, and the anthologies, Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child With Special Needs, and This Day: Dairies From American Women. She lives outside Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
I asked Vicki for a glimpse into the wonderful, nerve-wracking and occasionally tedious pre-publication process she's currently involved in for her first book, a memoir, This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), due out in July. Her manuscript earned the 2008 Bakeless Literary Prize for creative nonfiction.
Please welcome Vicki Forman.
Great news: you’ve finished a book and even landed a contract. You’re in love with your agent, and even more in love with your editor. From here on out, it’s all fun and games, right?
Sort of. Writing a book is absolutely hard. But getting a book through production—from the friendly Word document you have come to know and love into a thing in print, between covers—is a different sort of hard. There are tricky steps to learn, and all the nomenclature that comes with them (blurbing, bound galleys, ARCs,) and then there is the simple psychological aspect of seeing your own words become more and more engraved in stone as the publishing wheels turn.
My own book is currently making its way through production and I recently had the first encounter with the fact of my words becoming real when I was asked to review copyedits. Most writers will confess to a love-hate relationship with copyeditors. We need them to point out errors in continuity; they remind us of the rules of grammar and punctuation (rules we may adhere to only in the most perfunctory way as we create). In other words, I fully expected the task of reviewing copyedits to be strenuous at best, tiresome at worst.
I didn’t expect to find myself faced with words, now reviewed and altered by someone else—and a stranger to me at that. I am thoroughly familiar, to the point of intimacy, with this book that landed on my desk. I’ve been writing it for four years. But to see words changed, suggestions made, grammar or style questioned? These marks on the page had the effect of severing me, in some elemental way, from those same words. They were not only mine now, they belonged to a reader. And a reader with a point of view.
Which is exactly the point. The difference between that same friendly Word document you’ve come to know and love as a writer, and a published book, is that it will have readers. As my favorite songwriter, Jeff Tweedy says in “What Light”:
"And if the whole world's singing your songs
And all your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone's from now on"
My first reaction in seeing the make up of my sentences questioned was to become defensive. But then I remembered Tweedy’s words and realized that I had a new job: not simply to protect those words, but to see how they were now being experienced by someone else. My job as a writer had evolved into that of shepherd.
And so shepherd I did. I looked at every suggested change and asked myself if it made the sentence better. I reread aloud each new sentence to evaluate rhythm and clarity. I made at least two passes through the book before sending it back to my publisher, and wrote a careful cover letter explaining (in general terms) the changes I chose to accept—and reject.
A good friend explained that while I was the performer, the publisher was in charge of the auditorium. If they moved the metaphorical lights or microphones of my words, I could certainly move them back if I chose. But I should also know that they knew what they were doing when they moved them. And that our goal, in the end, was the same: a solid piece of writing we could all stand behind.
What follows is an insider’s guide to surviving the copyediting process:
- Ask your editor or production manager about house style. The publisher may even have a writer’s guide to which you can refer. Make sure you know which style guides the copyeditor has used (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style) as well as which dictionaries.
- Clearly understand directions for accepting or rejecting changes. These instructions should come in a cover letter from the production manager.
- Respect the copyeditor for being better at his or her job than you. This person has been hired for a reason, and it’s not simply to make your life complicated.
- Enlist the help of a friend. In some cases, I was so close to certain sentences, I honestly couldn’t tell if a suggested change was better or not. I ran at least four or five such examples past another good friend who has also read my manuscript.
- Allow yourself enough time. You do not want to rush this process. It will take far longer than you expect, and you will have a hard time reading more than 40-50 pages at a time without losing perspective.
- Meet your deadline. I know many authors feel they can squeeze an extra day or two at each production deadline, but your book is just one of many in the pipeline. I have worked with production managers before and they value above all writers who help them stay on schedule.
- Find out about next steps, and prepare yourself for them. If you know you’re going to get bound galleys at a time when you have other deadlines, for example, try to clear some room in your schedule. Each part of the process takes longer than you think, and brings up unexpected psychological aspects in your personality. I had completely forgotten about my emotional “finishing” problem, for example, until I took so long reviewing the manuscript I was forced to send it back via Express Mail. An expensive quirk.
A few last words: as with any step in the writing process, it’s important to enjoy yourself along the way. I felt a great sense of relief and accomplishment when I put the manuscript into the envelope and sent it on its way. Always honor each moment—you never know when you’ll get to do this again.