Responding to my cold reader

At this (quite advanced) stage in the book-publishing process, there is suddenly a lot to do, always urgently and usually without prior notice.

For instance, another dead-tree copy of the manuscript just landed on my desk, marked up in old-fashioned ink. Apparently, the cold reader had had his go.

The cold reader? Who knew? I normally prefer my readers warm.

It appears that Riverhead has sent the manuscript to someone who is anonymous to me (“cold”, I suppose) for perusal. His or her comments were not “large” (about the sweep of the story, or the logic of an argument, say), but very detailed queries about language.

All regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know me as a pedant (or word-lover, to be generous). I am rarely caught out in word matters. But it does happen, and I find that fun.

So here are a few things the cold reader pointed out, and then a few instances in which I overruled him/her.

  1. If something “ascends up to,” it actually simply “ascends to”.
  2. “Aquiline faces” are actually faces with “aquiline noses.”
  3. A “crevice” is not a “crevasse”, and Hannibal in the Alps better have passed the latter, or we would be mighty bored.
  4. “Projecting a perception of invincibility” is simply “projecting invincibility”. (Can’t believe that one happened to me!)
  5. A line of soldiers marching “only a couple of men deep” is actually marching “a couple of men wide.” Duh.
  6. Scipio could not have stood there, “his posture erect and lithe.” No, he stood there, “his posture erect, his body lithe.”
  7. If Scipio and Cato (or whoever) “mixed like oil and water”, then they did not mix, like oil and water.
  8. Being “suspicious” is not the same as being “suspect”. (Duh. Must have been late at night.)
  9. Do I really need to spend hours going through my books to find out whether Lucius was Scipio’s only brother? Oh yes, because, that determines whether it is “his brother Lucius” or “his brother, Lucius”.

Here are a few of the comments I overruled (getting a little frisson out of the STET every time):

  1. No, Meriwether Lewis’s father was not fighting “Native American” tribes. He was fighting “Indian” tribes. It’s about context.
  2. Hannibal might have contemplated a “bold evacuation of Italy.” But he could not have contemplated a “bold evacuation of his troops from Italy.” Why would he want to rip out the innards of his own soldiers?


The smiley face in the margin

To my delight, after another long radio silence since Riverhead officially accepted my manuscript as finished, I just heard from my copy editor. I don’t yet know who that is, although I intend to find out.

I now have a fancy new Word file that contains the entire manuscript, with all the proper formatting. Our only remaining job now is to tidy up typos and such. We’re approaching the very end, in other words.

So it is wonderful, thrilling, relieving to find that this copy editor, whoever he or she is, is a language lover as I am.

Have a look at the little screen shot above.

Did you catch it?

Three friends (Paul Cezanne, Emile Zola and Baptistin Baille) were reading poetry and the classics

to each other.

Well, no, they couldn’t have been doing that. Since there were three of them, they were reading poetry and the classics

to one another.

That’s what I want in a copy editor. Whoever you are, you get that smiley face from me (“Author”) in the margin above. And once I find you, I’ll say Thank You properly.

Done but still untitled

By the way, it turns out that the fourth draft of my manuscript, which I sent off to my editor at Riverhead in May, was indeed the last and final draft.

In other words, the manuscript (ie, book) is officially finished. It is written. Done.

I chatted with my editor the other day, and he loved it. Thinks it’s a winner. All that.

In particular, you may recall that the only major and noteworthy change in the final draft was a new final chapter. A chapter of “lessons”. My editor likes that chapter exactly as is, without any iteration.

So we now have an interesting timeline:

  • I got my book deal with Riverhead in December 2007, a bit over 2½ years ago.
  • About one year later, I delivered the first draft. So that was 1½ years ago.
  • Just over 2 years after the deal, I sent my final draft.

So I guess it took two years to write the book. But for much of the time between drafts, I was really just waiting for my editor to get back to me. So it actually only took about 1½ years of work. And always part time, (after the kids went to bed, on weekends etc.). No big deal. Consider that, if you’re thinking about writing a book.

That said…

The surprise, therefore, is not how long it took me (not long) or how hard it was (not hard) but how incredibly, mind-numbingly slow the publishing industry is.

The next step, I have been told, is now for the publishers of Riverhead (ie, the boss) to set a publication date. You might think, as I once thought, that they simply start printing and there we are. Oh no. Various mysterious processes now begin, and they take half a year or so.

Furthermore, the scheduling of a book release is apparently both science and art, so tactics come into it. You may not want to release in the fall, when celebrity authors come out; you may want to release just after Christmas when reviewers and connoisseurs apparently look for new talent; and so forth.

So now I am, as I have been, waiting. Just waiting.

Oh, and we haven’t chosen a title yet. They think it’s incredibly important, but are in no hurry. You’ll be the first to know.

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Draft IV of the manuscript is off…

I seem, magically, to be keeping the same exact rhythm, turning over each new draft of my manuscript in one month.

My publisher, Riverhead, sent me the last round of comments one month ago, and I just now emailed the new draft.

The actual re-write this time took me only a few days.

And the main objective was accomplished, I think: To come up, in the last chapter, with “lessons” from the lives in the book that are catchy, not at all corny and actually meaningful.

We’ll see what my editor says.

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Ready for Round IV of the manuscript

Arriving back home from a reporting trip, I was delighted to find a FedEx package from Riverhead with my manuscript in it.

To extrapolate from the previous three drafts: I seem to turn around a new draft in one month, then to wait for three months to receive it back from my editor with comments.

This time, both processes might go faster: There are far fewer comments in the margins than in previous rounds.

But there will be one change:

I will finally bow to the pressure of the market (letting no side, neither the artistic nor the commercial, “win”, as Ed Catmull might say). I will drop my resistance and add a concluding chapter with …. lessons.

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Manuscript, Round Three, with “lessons”

And it’s off. Last night I sent the third draft of my book manuscript to my editor at Riverhead.

I’m pleased.

In this draft, I addressed the two issues that my editor raised a month ago:

  1. I made the tone consistent throughout the whole book. Neither too formal nor too informal; sophisticated but simple; myth-like in the appropriate places, accessibly modern in the other parts; personal but intellectual.
  2. I clarified “lessons” without falling off the cliff of cliché.

Since my editor “bought” my book idea two years ago, we have been playing a little game.

He has been pushing me to be more explicit about the lessons about success and failure that arise from the biographical stories I tell.

I have been coy, feeling that “lessons” are always corny and banal, and that what I’m really doing is inviting readers to “meditate” along with me on timeless stories in which they recognize themselves.

Well, I think I have succeeded at merging those two instincts. Can’t wait to hear if my editor agrees. 😉

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The manuscript: Round III

And the manuscript is back again. Five months after I received his comments on my first draft, and three months after I sent him my second draft, my editor at Riverhead has now sent me his comments for the third (and perhaps final?) draft.

They’re very good comments, once again. We’re now trying to figure out two things:

  1. How to make the tone consistent throughout the entire 100,000-word story. Right now, as my editor puts it, the book reads “overly serious in some passages, too informal in others.”
  2. How explicit to make the “moral” of each chapter. Not enough, and you sacrifice oomph and clarity. Too much, and you dumb down the story or make it corny and banal.

Both are points that all writers struggle with, I stipulate.

Number 1, in particular, is interesting: In my day job at The Economist, I write short articles in a single day at a time, and always in the same tone and voice. But my book was written over many, many days, and I felt different on each one (and was using my personal voice). Some days, I had my tongue in my cheek; others, I was doing deep thinking.

You see that on this blog, of course. Its tone has changed a lot over the 17 months or so that I’ve been writing it, and each post has its own mood. On a blog, that’s allowed, and even fun.

My book, however, should not be like that. It should have variety, but one steady and reassuring voice. As it turns out, that’s surprisingly hard to achieve.

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Off to Riverhead: The second draft

Second Draft Sent

Seven months after sending off the first draft of my book and two months after receiving it back with the comments of my editor at Riverhead, after letting the ideas ripen and mature and then doing violence to my own text, even crucifying many of my darlings in the first draft, I am ready again.

I just pushed send.

I’m happy with it. But of course I am again on tenterhooks, and feeling quite vulnerable, as I await the reactions of my editor.

The improvement was dramatic. I am reminded again of what Khaled Hosseini, also a Riverhead author, said about writing and rewriting: the first draft is purely a frame. The book happens in the subsequent drafts.

Still, I can’t help but wonder also about the law of diminishing returns: Would I be able to make such a dramatic improvement again in a third draft? Or is this where the book wants to be? Am I perhaps … done?

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And the manuscript is… off!


The bits are zipping through the internet to Riverhead, my publisher, as I write this. That feels good.

I can’t wait to get my editor’s reactions.

So it took me one year (of writing part-time, since I never took a book leave) from the proposal to the first draft, and another four months to finish this second draft. I went about it rather as Khaled Hosseini does: one run through to have a working blueprint, then another to add the beauty.

Allow me to indulge for one moment in a short meditation on success. The book is about success and failure and how each constantly wants to turn into the other, so this is appropriate.

When I started writing, I defined for myself two layers of success: In the first layer, I would simply write exactly the book that had conceived in my head, a book that I would be proud of. I’m really happy to say that this is how it turned out. So I’ve succeeded.

The second layer is conventional success–ie, good reviews and sales. That, obviously, is something over which I have absolutely no control once I bid my manuscript adieu. So I have decided, for the time being, not to worry about it.

Zen Anecdote

Which reminds me of a story that a professor of Japanese history once told me in college, long ago. He was visiting a Japanese artist and walking around the artist’s house, admiring the paintings. The professor stopped before one and said ‘Why, this one is just stunning!’

The Japanese artist said ‘Thank You’, then took the painting off the wall and tore it to shreds.

Had this guy gone nuts? the professor asked rhetorically years later when he told me about this. No! For this artist, Zen-inspired, painting was something that he did for its own sake. He was not being rude or weird by ripping it up. He was simply showing, or reminding himself, that the praise of others was not necessary, that the painting had already brought him all the joy it could, and that he was now detached from it.

Don’t get ideas. Nobody gets to rip up my manuscript. But I like the story.

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