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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Don't Fear the Blue Pencil

   My friend Susan asked me months ago whether I would like to read the manuscript of a novel written by a college friend who wanted reactions and comments. It was an action/adventure/mystery story set in Florida, and it came in a box. There's something old-fashioned and rather romantic about a four-inch stack of typing paper covered with double-spaced writing. Okay, it was printer paper, but it made me think of the clacking of an old Remington typewriter, over which the writer smokes and sweats. A few penciled notes showed where he had had a better idea after the however-many rewrites it had taken to make the story presentable.  A couple of other readers had been there before me and written a note or two.
     I sharpened my pencil, stretched my arms like Art Carney on The Honeymooners, and dug in. I usually warn people when they ask me to look at a piece of writing that I will be picky and strict. That’s the way I was taught in journalism school by the last of the crusty old newspapermen, who expected us to know exactly where the commas go and how to match a subject and verb. Scarcely a paper got past them without a flock of marks. When I did the copy-editing for a church newsletter, one writer would tell me “Here, work your magic.” She liked seeing her work improved, and she saw that the changes made it better. Others, though, were offended when I changed jargon to plain English or cut out the rows of exclamation points. It’s hard to be edited; it’s like surgery. But when the editor knows what he’s doing, the writing gets better.
     In Ken Pelham’s Brigands Key (That’s the book. Go read it. After you finish reading this, of course.) I found some ways to make the writing more effective. I found a plot element that needed fixing—a character dropped a significant little item, but a bit later somehow had it on her. Another character described the city of Osnabruck, Germany, as lying close to the French border. I double-checked it on a map, but I knew that Osnabruck was in northern Germany, far from France. In an exhibition of God’s sense of humor, He had placed Ken’s manuscript in the hands of someone—me—who had a great-grandfather who came from… Osnabruck. I’ve been there and met my cousins, descendants of the brother who stayed behind to run Hehmann’s Gasthaus while my great-grandfather sailed to a new life in New York.
     Anyway, Ken was smart and professional and made the changes. Then the book was published. He had a book-signing at the downtown Orlando library, and, afterward, Susan had a party for him. There I got to see my name in his acknowledgments, and he signed a book for me. I looked so happy, my friend Christine took phone photos. It was almost as thrilling as having a book published myself.


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