So there I was back this summer (y’know — when I was hiding from the Internet and not blogging or anything), reading a science fiction novel that I’d been eagerly awaiting for months… and growing more and more angry as I read it. I know it’s an irrational reaction to reading something that was not properly edited, but I can’t help it. When I spend money or even just time on a book, I want it to be well-written. I want it to be free of recurring grammatical errors, wonky punctuation, and glaringly bad science. That’s just the kind of weirdo I am.
The real problem, however, is that whenever this sort of thing happens, I start doubting myself. I start thinking, If this is how fiction writing is done now, I have no right to expect it to be otherwise. If commas in compound sentences are no longer required or even preferred, I should stop telling authors to use them. If there is no perceived difference between “Let’s go, mate” and “Let’s go mate,” why am I still tirading about punctuation and grammar and all that stuff the Trendy Kids say just gets in the way of Writing All Teh Feelz?
And then I stop blogging for three weeks, delete from my online presence everything that in any way suggests I’m an editor, and seriously consider finding a new line of work, one that’s actually useful… such as asking strangers if they want fries with that. (That’s mostly a sharp-edged joke, friends. I couldn’t get a job in fast food if I wanted to, because fast food restaurants don’t hire physically disabled, middle-aged weirdos who can’t make eye contact with humans. On the other hand, burger-flippers are not hated as much as freelance fiction editors, so maybe I should give it a try. Cheeseburgers are more important to modern American society than clear and comprehensible writing anyway.)
There was a problem with this plan, though: I’d promised to beta read for someone. And you kids know I cannot beta read without also line editing. (Well, okay, I did once, but that is only because the author is a former English teacher and had given his betas a VERY clean manuscript. Trust me, this is a rare occurrence.) I did give this author the option of not getting the line editing (that I’d do anyway) along with the beta-reader comments…
That’s how I found myself editing a 160K-word fantasy novel after I’d mostly decided I wasn’t ever going to do it again.
It doesn’t help that the author seems to have found my feedback helpful. As long as writers like that one encourage or even just allow me to give feedback on their stories, I’m going to keep doing it, the same as anyone with a bad habit will keep doing it until forced to stop… and I don’t even know how to make myself truly want to stop. I should, though. Who am I to suggest to a for-real author of at least two books that a semicolon ought not be used in place of a colon — something that seems to be all the rage these days? The popular opinion (not expressed by this particular author, but maybe he’s just too nice to say it to my face) seems to be that people who know the mechanics of writing are all a bunch of haters who want to sabotage creators of fiction out of jealousy or maybe simply because we have some strange phobia of imaginative things. I don’t think I hate imaginative things, and I don’t think I hate people who write fiction (I was a fiction writer myself long before I took up the Red Pen of Doom to do for fellow authors what many of them cannot do for themselves — I’ve even had stories published… like, in print and paid money for ’em and everything), but how the hell do I know what I feel about anything? I’m not even supposed to have feelings, after all, so maybe I secretly envy creative people and don’t realize it.
It’s stupid to think that a work of fiction would be improved by the use of commas in all compound sentences. I get that. And yet even when in the middle of reading a novel that almost (almost, I said — there was another person in the room, so I kept my emotions in check) brought me to tears because a passage reminded me of another story… I noticed the lack of grammatical errors. I noticed that I wasn’t being thrown out of the narrative every couple of sentences because of missing commas or incorrect usage of homophones. There I was, remembering that I had once been in love with numbers and physics and the motions of stars (shut up — of course that’s viewpoint slippage, but all the best stories cause that in readers), and yet another part of my brain was earthbound in the base mechanics of writing. (Is this an appropriate place to say something about that single misplaced hyphen? No? Okay…) It’s what I do. It’s what I will always do, because it is what I have always done. I didn’t set out to become a line editor; I didn’t plan it as a career back when I was ready to attend university and prepare for the real world.
(Notice I said real world, not Real World. Sometimes capitalization makes a big difference in the meaning of a word/phrase, or do you not see the difference between catholic and Catholic, to use a more prosaic example?)
What’s the point, though, of having specialized skills if I can’t use them? I have a knack for words the way my clone has a knack for mechanical and electronic things. (If the mad scientists in whose lab we were created did that on purpose, I’d loved to know how they managed to make us so different.) I don’t know how to un-know things; I don’t know how to make myself not understand how words work together with those “extra” squiggly marks on the page. I can set aside the Red Pen of Doom (and be miserable), but I cannot turn off my brain.
Editing is a very bad habit, but one I find impossible to break.
There I was, reading something else and again remembering that I had once been in love with numbers and physics and the motions of stars, when suddenly my thoughts were brought up short by completely (and ironically, perhaps) by a disruptive reference to another author’s story. (Also, it’s spelled Ivan, with an a.) And… Normally this would have delighted me. Someone refers to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels in a story that reminds me a lot of Emma Bull’s novel Falcon…? Yeah, under other circumstances, I’d have been laughing out loud and making a mental note to send email to the author and ask him if he’s ever read that novel, too, because if the answer was yes, we could have long fannish conversations about Arde Mayhew and Nicholai Vorsoisson, plus Terrence Cee (and Taura — always remember Taura). But no. Probably not.