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November 2007What the Dead Know

Revising Myself and Others

I have just spent a week going over the copyeditor's version of Another Thing to Fall, reading the book aloud -- the better to spot unintentional echoes, overused words and even continuity errors -- then plunging in again from the beginning with pages marked up by a Trusted Reader.

Among the three of us, many catches have been made, from dropped words to overused words (via, quotidian, literally) to tricky proper names (Tempur-Pedic, Stay-Puft). Facts have been checked, even where not queried by the copyeditor or T.R.   Does Baby June disappear by the second act of Gypsy, as my novel asserts? (Yes.) Did William Goldman say of Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything"? Yes, but he might have borrowed the line from Garson Kanin, who attributed it to Samuel Goldwyn. Is Allegany the correct spelling of the residence hall at Washington College? Yes, but it's for upperclassmen only, according to the web, and my characters would have lived there as freshmen. What Procter & Gamble products are used as building names at Tide Point? Trickiest part of all, how do I resolve the fact that Nick Lowe's song, "Marie Provost," misspelled the name of the silent screen star who ended up, in his words, a doggie dinner? (She was actually Marie Prevost, and the reference comes up in a conversation between Tess and her old friend Whitney. Quirkily erudite as those two can be, it's awfully hard to shoehorn in -- "Did you know Nick Lowe spelled her name wrong?")

I'm not asking for sympathy, mind you, just the acknowledgment -- no "e" after the "g," a mistake I made several times in this book -- that I do endeavor, with a lot of help from others, to get things right. If a man, who is about the age and class of a man depicted in the book, insists that men say "ass" not "butt" in a certain situation, I'm going to take his word for it.

And still, I know the book won't be perfect. At least one writer -- I wish I could credit the source, but my memory fails me -- says this inevitable imperfection explains, in part, the compulsive nature of writing. We keep trying to produce perfect books, and we keep failing. Obviously, this sought-after perfection is about more than dropped words and typos and pesky facts, but right now, I would settle for that technical achievement. I've yet to hit it, I know that much for sure.

Meanwhile, as I've been copyediting, I've also been prepping a book of short stories for publication next fall. (I wanted to call it Two White Girls on a Diet (and other criminal types), but I'm pretty sure that's not happening.) All of the stories have been published before, but one is so relatively ancient (2000) that I don't have a computer copy of it; I think it was written on a very problematic laptop I once had, the only computer I didn't keep when it was decommissioned.

The story, Ropa Vieja, is a Tess story, about 5,400 words. That is, it's 5,400 words now. While typing it, I couldn't avoid making changes, primarily in the form of cuts. Seven years later, I've learned a little about what to leave out, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard. What interests me now is what I might learn in the next seven years. A lot, I suspect.

Meanwhile, I have to go back to fact-checking the names of South Baltimore sub shops. I mashed two together -- Mike's and Mustang's, and ended up with Mustang Mike's. Neither the copyeditor nor the T.R. caught it, but I know at least one reader would have. A pity, as Mustang Mike's would be a wonderful name for a sub shop.

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