Originally posted June 6, 2009
I recently received the copyedited manuscript of my second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. A manuscript wearily proceeds to the copyeditor only after it has valiantly survived numerous rounds of edits and revisions at the hands of the editor; the editor and writer strike this metaphor, eliminate that repeated verb, compress this chapter or that paragraph, remove this unnecessary character, clarify that plot point, etc. By the time the writer has finished an umpteenth draft and the editor signs off on the manuscript, the writer is convinced the book is as perfect as it can be, that nothing more can possibly be done. But no. Then the even-yet-more-anal copyeditors come in, questioning every comma, every dash, every split infinitive or somewhat unusual verb construction or nonstandard usage of the English language. The author has a few options here -- he can accept the copyeditor's edits, figuring that this person is probably so well steeped in grammatical rules that she must be right; he can override all her edits, taking out his frustration at all those middle school English teachers he didn't like, insisting that he is the artist here, thank you very much, and that if he wants to bend some grammatical rules, then that's well within his rights; or he can obsess about each and every edit, questioning why he originally wrote it that way and wondering if it really is in fact better, or if that tiny violation is in fact ruining the book, and he should change it again.
Which brings me to my son, who turns three this summer. He is deeply, deeply into the Why? phase. He questions everything -- why this, why that. I had never imagined it possible to question so many things. Why is this truck blue? Why is this wheel round? Why this truck has four wheels and this truck has six wheels? Why this excavator has tracks and no wheels? Why this front-end loader has wheels and no tracks? I'm an intellectually curious person, but a toddler blows an artist away when it comes to an almost metaphysical sense of curiosity.
"Why this water cold?"
"Well, buddy, it's really hot out, so people like to drink cold water when it's hot out."
"Why people like cold water when it's hot out?"
"Because it cools them off."
"Why it cools them off?"
At which point, you can begin a complicated discussion of physics and biology, or you can make up a goofy answer, or you can try to distract him with an entirely new line of thought, such as, "Hey, buddy, wasn't that fire truck neat?" But this runs the risk of being countered with, "Why that fire truck neat?" Or why was it red, or why did have a light, or why did it go Wee-a-wee-a-wee-a instead of woo-woo-woo, etc.
Interestingly, this curiosity is directed not only at the outside world but also -- like any navel-gazing novelist -- at himself as well. Such as:
"Daddy, I just drew on the wall. Why I draw on the wall?"
"Um, I don't know, buddy. Why did you draw on the wall?"
"Daddy, why I like trucks?"
"Because trucks are awesome."
"Why I like fire trucks and excavators more than telephone line repair trucks?"
"I don't know, why do you like fire trucks and excavators more than telephone line repair trucks?"
"Because I'm a silly goose."
As I spent a week or so staring at and debating the various marks on my copyedited manuscript, I questioned the logic (or lack thereof) behind every literary decision I had made in the roughly two years of writing and revising the darn thing. Okay, the copyeditor wants me to insert a comma into this sentence, and this one, and this one. I guess I didn't like commas that much while writing this book. Why? Should I allow her to insert the commas? Or was I right to leave them out -- did their absence, despite going contrary to accepted grammatical etiquette, add something indefinable to the sentence, and therefore the book itself, or was it just a weird mannerism of mine that I should cut? Why did I do that? Was I subconsciously mimicking some other writer? In which case, is that bad? Or do I simply want a new, freer world unencumbered by so many commas? But will that bother readers? Why?
I could hear my son's high-pitched, ridiculously cute, Platonically inquisitive voice in my head: Why Daddy use a dash here instead of a semicolon? Why Daddy not use comma in this sentence? Didn't Daddy use semicolon in similarly constructed sentence on page 137? Daddy wants to be consistent here, doesn't he?
Which led to even more agonizing conversations:
"Why Daddy not use a comma in this sentence?"
"Well, I thought the sentence would kind of move better, would flow with the action or the revelation of the scene a bit more naturally without the comma in the middle there."
"Why Daddy not think action flows as well with commas?"
"Well, that's a good question actually. Huh. Why don't I?"
"Because Daddy's a silly goose."
"Why Daddy insist on keeping that long phrase in the middle of sentence here?"
"Well, I understand why the copyeditor wanted me to strike it, but see -- it's in the middle of a paragraph, and all the other sentences are these short, declarative sentences. If I strike that phrase, then I'll have a paragraph consisting of too many consecutive declarative sentences."
"Why Daddy not like too many consecutive declarative sentences?"
"Well, son, have I ever told you about a man named Raymond Carver?"
Etc, etc, for roughly 400 pages. Well, I did indeed complete my round of the copyedits, and I sent the manuscript back to my publisher, and the book even has a release date now (mark your calendars! January 26). I will of course continue to question myself when I read the galleys in a few weeks or months, and the advance copies after that. My son, by then age three, will no doubt still be questioning everything as well, and I'll continue making up answers and hoping they're right, or close enough.