The fifth time’s the charm. Maybe.

It’s down to me now. All the others are done with their work. It’s time for me to get it done and get it right. I’ll get it as right as can. I’ve invested too much to not give the final stretch my best shot.

The fifth proof copy of A Housefly in Autumn hit my mailbox yesterday. That’s right, the fifth proof. As I said, I’ve invested a lot.

The beginning of the end?

Will the fifth proof be the last? Cross your fingers.

This copy is mine and mine only. All the skilled people I’ve been fortunate to have help me have done what they could. It’s just me and my book.

There’s something liberating in this. I’m back in control of the pace of things. I don’t have to wait for anyone else. The people who’ve helped me have been more expeditious than I had any right to ask, but waiting any length of time is hard when you’re eager to get on.

There’s also something daunting in it. I’m the last line of defense against little errors hidden in the text. Whatever gets past me this time becomes dirty laundry hung out for the public to see.

Thus begins the first of the “pins and needles” readings. If I find no more errors, I am free to release the book for sale. That would be a happy accomplishment, marred only by nagging doubt about the one I missed. Or the two, depending upon how susceptible I feel to nagging from the back of my mind.

The even more intense pins and needles will happen the first time I look at the book after it has been published, when every page holds a potential embarrassment, despite all my efforts to eliminate them.

My goal as a self-publisher is to produce books that deserve a spot on the same shelf as those published by Random House or any of the other big names. I haven’t reached this goal yet, but with each book, I think I get a little closer. But I still make mistakes, and in self-publishing you don’t get to blame mistakes on your publisher; you can only blame yourself.

I do blame myself, but then I do my best to fix it, learn something, and move on. There’s another story to write. And if that story turns out to be worth publishing, there’s another book to produce.

This means more hard work writing, more tedious work editing, more finding the right people to help, more waiting while those people do what they do, more frustration at getting it all to fit together, and more pins and needles at the end when the skivvies are hung out to dry before the eyes of all who wish to look.

But all that is for tomorrow. For today I have a fifth proof to make as right as I possibly can, so I can inch a little closer to Random House and to saying I know what I’m doing as a writer and a publisher. Wish me luck.

Addition by subtraction: ditching the unhelpful words

I’m working my way through the third proof copy of A Housefly in Autumn and it’s making me remember why it took me four or five proof copies to get my other books ready.

I’m always searching for a tweak to make it a little better.

I haven’t noticed any embarrassing mistakes so far on this copy. I haven’t even come across anything that I feel is definitely an error. In spite of this, I have plenty of red pen marks on this third copy already, and I’m not half way through.

What am I marking up then?

Mostly, I’m striking words that seemed necessary at one time, but now just seem like extra words. They are not extra words of the James Fenimore Cooper magnitude. They don’t lead down dead end paths into inescapable thickets. At least in my opinion, they don’t. But they don’t add anything to the potential reader’s understanding of the story either.

An extra wordsmith

James Fenimore Cooper, a man of abundant imagination and even more abundant verbiage.

It’s amazing how many of these words pop up in a novel. And it’s amazing how many edits it takes to get most of them out.

I added a very short scene to beginning of the story prior to this proof. It didn’t change the themes of the tale, but it did slightly alter the tone in which it is narrated. This is the other major category of cross-outs this time around. There are some residual statements sprinkled throughout the book that reflect the previous tone too much. These need to be changed or removed. They are pretty easy to spot, but not always simple to fix.

At the end of this proof, I hope to have an efficient story with a smooth, consistent narrative tone from start to finish. Then I can move on to the really nit-picky stuff on proof number four. Maybe I’ll even have the luxury of revisiting issues I previously vacillated over before deciding. You have to flip a lot of coins in self-publishing. Sometimes you want to go back and flip them over again, not because that gives you a better decision, but it might make you feel like you put enough thought into it.

Meanwhile, I’m not giving up on finding errors. By now, I am the least qualified person to find any errors that remain. My jaded eyes have skipped them before, and they’ll skip them again. I’m counting on other pairs of eyes to bring me errors. I hope they do better than I could do right now, because the consequences of hard decisions I can live with; glaring mistakes are harder to stomach.

The saga goes on. It pains me that it takes so long. I’m disappointed to have missed a Christmas release. But if it makes the book a cleaner, better reading experience it will have been worth every dragged-out day of it.

There are only three parts of your story to worry about: the beginning, the middle, and the end

I’ve moved on to my second proof copy of A Housefly in Autumn. This incorporates all the changes I made to the first proof. I normally go through four or five proofs before I am satisfied that the book is ready to be presented to the public.

In the first proof copy I made numerous changes, none of them major. A few of them were actual errors, but most involved making sentences more efficient. It’s amazing, the little things you don’t see until the manuscript holds like a real book.

The first proof had me worried about typographical errors and other embarrassing occurrences. I feel better about that stuff now, but the second proof brings its own worries.

These are big picture worries, about the overall execution of the storytelling.

Beating up the proof copy

My wife’s proof copy is already taking a beating, and she’s only just begun.

If you break a story down into beginning, middle, and ending, that leaves only three parts to worry about. This reduces the number of worries and gives you more time to worry over each thing.

I most recently obsessed about the middle. Before the first proof, I rewrote much of the middle, trying to transform parts that retained too much “telling” into more “showing.” Since this novel has a large oral storytelling component, in which a character literally tells a story, there were some limits to how much of this I could do.

I’m not saying I won’t obsess about the middle again, but since I just finished doing that, the middle will have to go to the back of the line.

For now, I’m focused on worrying about the beginning. It is an axiom of modern fiction that you have to grab the reader by the throat at word one and not let him breathe until he is irretrievably engulfed in the story. This concept is so well revered that a fair percentage of books now begin with explosions or with characters burying (or digging up) dead bodies.

Those incidents aren’t appropriate for this book, so I’m toying with adding a flash forward to an action-packed scene at the beginning. I need to do this without it seeming too much like a cheap gimmick. It also needs to fit with the historical setting, when people began a story at the beginning, regardless of where the bridges were set to blow.

If I can’t figure out how to work in some page 1 fireworks, I guess I’ll have to hope that my beginning is interesting enough. Meanwhile, I’ll worry that it’s not.

I have not spent much time obsessing about the ending. I’m pretty comfortable with it, except for maybe the last couple of pages. I haven’t found time to worry about a mere page or two, but I will at some point.

Do the last lines bring home the points I worked hard to make throughout the book? Or are they relics of the book this used to be, before it matured and added meat to its bones? These are the questions that await my future obsession with the ending.

Maybe that will come with proof copy number three.

The proof is in the proofing

I got my first proof copy of A Housefly in Autumn.

It’s been a few years since I’ve experienced that moment of pulling the proof copy of a new book out of the box and holding it in my hands for the first time. That’s my book. That’s the thing I’ve been toiling over for years, trying to get right. This day has been a long time in coming.

I breathed a sigh of relief that the cover was not printed upside down and my name was spelled correctly. That’s two potential embarrassments I can check off the list. Then I just held it in my hands for moment, feeling the smooth, clean cut weight of it in my fingers.

I flipped through the pages one quick time, but I didn’t read anything. That would come soon enough. I just wanted to believe it was perfect for a little while.

Because everything in between the covers scares me.

Does a comma belong there?

It’s a struggle not to be overcome by the excitement of reading through the book for the 678th time.

It scares me because there’s a lot of work yet to be done in there. There’s some of the most painstaking reading I will ever do waiting in there. It gives me a little pain in the base of my neck just thinking about it.

It scares me because it’s my first look at a hard copy of the interior layout. Maybe the gutters are too small. Maybe the paragraph indentations are too big. Maybe those headers that confounded me for days reverted back to all the pages I thought I’d exempted from them.

It scares me because there are mistakes in there. The manuscript has been proofed and proofed and proofed, but there are still mistakes hiding in places no one has yet discovered. Now, there are even more places for errors to hide; there’s the front matter and the back cover. Those haven’t been proofed nearly as well as the actual manuscript.

I know I’ll find most of the errors, and maybe the few that get past me will be innocuous – the kinds of things that readers wouldn’t even notice. But what if there’s a big, embarrassing one, hiding right out in the open where I’ll never find it?

I don’t even have a big publishing corporation I can blame mistakes on. There will be no, “Oh, the idiots at Random House missed that.” No, it’s the idiot at my house who missed that.

All this fear is a good thing. It will force me to focus and be thorough. It will encourage me to seek help.

The night I received my first proof copy, I lay in bed and thought about how much people might like this book. Then the fear kicked in and I thought about how much they might hate it. Then I thought about how much they might be utterly indifferent to it, which was the worst thought of all because even hatred requires at least some level of emotion.

I know this fear. I met it in the first proof copies of my other books. I also know that it will abate with the second proof copy and the third, etc., until it is overcome by the sense of accomplishment in moving toward my goals.

It’s just another step along the way.