The Agony of Proofs

The Agony of the Proofs

The technology has changed, but the vocabulary is still hanging around. “Proofreading” – that’s the word from the days of paper when, before the publication of a book, the author would get an enormous and dignified looking bundle of paper that constituted his or her last chance to look at the work before the errors contained therein would be immortal. Now, it’s all done on a computer screen, with Pdfs and the like. But the emotional process remains: a combination of agony and pride.

Becoming a writer involves dreaming up all sorts of scenarios, and I had a few too. For example: I wanted to sit in a café in the south of France, underneath the plane trees, and leisurely read the proofs of my first novel. The glass of wine that accompanied that scene was probably not the best idea, since proofreading is a meticulous process demanding great attention to deal. That scenario includes a large element of vanity as, no doubt, various café patrons would look on, curious, and the waiter would offer a drink on the house to celebrate the moment.

Don’t laugh – these fantasies keep us going during the many lean years.

But the truth of proofing involves less fantasy. It really is that stark moment when, for the writer, all the uncertainties and inconsistencies become – or should become – apparent. In my upcoming novel, the cover of which you can see here, there are two teenage girls, best friends. One wants to become a Spanish teacher. The other is the class dunce at her school, and is aiming to be a secretary, at best. (The fact that she has earned the status of class dunce has nothing to do with her intelligence, but her home life.)

As I read through the proofs I noticed, with dismay, that Bluma, the “dunce” character, sometimes knows, and sometimes doesn’t know, that her best friend Bella actually succeeded in reaching her desire, which was quite the accomplishment for a girl in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Then there’s the added complication of Bluma having a forgetful nature, though she is no doubt selective in her forgetting.

When you’re at the editing stage, you are still moving pieces around. You have mobility. You can make changes – enormous changes at the last minute, as in the Grace Paley title. So it’s natural that there are a few loose ends from all those variations. But at the proof stage, those loose ends have to be logically tied up, because the next step is the printing press. And your mistakes become immortal.

That’s the agony part. It is accompanied in equal parts by pride. There, here it is, the novel finished at last, years of work in my hand (actually, on the screen – boring!). And not bad, really, not bad at all. Now if only we could get the “a” at the end of one line to combine with the “nd” on the next line to successfully form the word “and.” And what about The Joy of Sex? Shouldn’t it be in italics since it’s a book title? (If you want to know what The Joy of Sex is doing in a novel about two girls growing into women together in the 1930s, you’ll have to read it…)

I wish everyone who wants it the same mixture of pride and agony.


5 thoughts on “The Agony of Proofs

  1. We had a little techno-problem with the image, that kept falling off the screen. We’re working on it, and have high hopes for tomorrow. Stay tuned!

  2. Hoards of tourists, hordes of tourists … the agony of clicking on ‘send’ just as the homonym pops into your head. Beware of the limitations of spellchecking technology! Coming back to a story after a few weeks for another look seems to be a wise strategy for both the fluidity of editing and the precision of proofreading.

  3. Ms Zey: I heard of a computer program that specifically looks for homonyms: roll and role, for example. My publisher must not have it, as the phrase “the souls of their boots” appears in “Midway.” I guess they were soulful boots…

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