The Facts of Fiction: a Conversation Between Novelist Mesha Maren and Copy Editor Jude GrantBy Mesha Maren
February 09, 2022
Below is a conversation between novelist Mesha Maren and copy editor Jude Grant–the copy editor Maren worked with on her first novel, Sugar Run, and her new novel, Perpetual West. You can order a copy of Perpetual West right here.
Mesha Maren: Before working with you on my first novel, Sugar Run, I had no real sense of what copyediting a work of fiction entailed. I was surprised and very delighted to learn that you would point out more than just my horrific misuse of commas. In that novel, I remember specifically being pleased at how well you kept track of physical descriptions of my characters. At one point in the book I described a woman’s breasts as “full” and at another point “perky” and you asked me if I felt that these descriptions were compatible. I was delighted and shocked at that level of specificity and it made me wonder about how you go about keeping track of details about fictional characters that even the author has not been able to manage?
Jude Grant: Note-taking, note-taking, note-taking. One of my weaknesses as a reader, especially when reading for pleasure, is that a character’s physical attributes just aren’t that interesting to me. Black hair? Blond hair? Don’t really care. (If pressed, I’ll champion “perky” over “full” breasts, but that is strictly personal preference and is an opinion without literary merit.) So my style sheets tend to be detailed, especially when it comes to characters’ physical traits, not because I think the proofreader will necessarily benefit from having that information but because those are the kind of details that are less likely to stick in my head. What characters say (content and language used) and how they behave are a different matter—all that deeply resonates and imprints on me. If characters were nothing but talking heads, I’d be happy (there are reasons I’m not a writer).
Once, I accepted a novel that was part of a long series, which I had not previously worked on. This kind of project is particularly tricky because you have to rely on style sheets from previous copyeditors, and those style sheets tend not to be cumulative; that is, they’re book specific, not series specific. So I was quite surprised to get a cover memo noting in bold caps that the protagonist’s name was Diane, not Diana. This was a character who’d appeared in all books in the series, yet at some point both the author and the copyeditor got her name wrong, and in more than one book, and it was readers of the author’s blog who pointed out the error and were (rightfully) not happy.
MM: What are the bounds of a copyeditor’s job, especially in terms of fiction. In both of my novels you have helped me to solve discrepancies in everything from when a certain slot machine came into existence to the driving time between coastal Sinaloa and Chihuahua City. Are there areas of a fictional manuscript that you don’t have to worry about, where you can say “it’s fiction so it’s okay”?
JG: I try to be a stickler about that stuff. If an author wants to peg a fictional event to April 4, 1990—a Wednesday, according to the calendar—then when they write three pages later, “Four days after such-and-such event . . . ,” I’d like that fourth day to be a Sunday, not a Tuesday. But if an author feels strongly about attaching a wrong day to their date, I won’t press it as long as the overall timeline ultimately holds together. But I’m not going to allow anachronisms, such as a character viewing a 2002 movie in 1994, and it’s also unlikely an author would want to claim literary license there.
Google Maps is my go-to for your books, but it’s not foolproof. It will gauge distance and it will let me know if point A is east or west of point B, but I’m not looking closely at topography and road conditions. If I’m not certain about details like driving time, as with your book, I’ll bounce it back to you, the author and the expert (more on my mapping issues below).
MM: What is your overall process like with a fictional manuscript? Do you go through the pages marking everything from commas to place names to physical descriptions all at once or do you do a read through for grammar followed by a read through for facts, etc.?
JG: First comes the very dull formatting (for example, getting rid of double spaces between sentences, a particular source of irritation) and coding design elements. But doing this initial page-by-page scroll-through of the manuscript also lets me glimpse excerpts of the writing, which gives me a sense of an author’s style (like your “horrific” commas, which I was not going to bring up) and voice. When editing, I tend to go paragraph by paragraph, doing everything at once—grammar, style, place-names, character attributes, timeline, timeline, timeline. I’ll flag what I think are inconsistencies and review them later, after I’ve given the entire MS an initial copyedit—sometimes they’re intentional, sometimes not. Finally, because it’s easy to get distracted by the markups, I’ll read through the book one more time with the edits hidden so I can catch things I might have missed the first time and fix any errors I might have accidentally introduced (yeah, that sometimes happens—which is why I’m always grateful for a thorough author review).
MM: I’m assuming that you copyedit nonfiction as well as fiction. Can you talk about any differences there?
JG: I’m fortunate to work on a variety of texts—fiction, trade nonfiction, academic monographs, college textbooks, cookbooks. The process is essentially the same, though with less literary license allowed: April 4, 1990, will be a Wednesday, and there will be no horrific commas. Rather than maintaining a reasonable, consistent timeline, I’m looking for a reasonable, consistent argument, whether or not I agree with it, or, in the case of recipes, clear organization and instructions and no missing ingredients.
MM: Has fiction always been copyedited with an eye towards facts or has this changed over the years? I remember having a conversation with you about a series of names (counties, towns, roads) that I had made up and you flagged them because they either a) did not really exist or b) did exist but not in the state or region where I claimed them to be. You said she wanted to talk with me about it because readers might look them up and become confused. Has the internet and readers’ ability to look things up changed the copyediting of fiction?
JG: Hmm, not sure. As someone who’s been doing this “over the years,” I think I’ve always been mindful of the facts of fiction. Place-names are something I always look up because their spellings can be so arbitrary and I want to make sure we have them right. Made-up place-names are perfectly fine, but I want to guard against a made-up Boston, Massachusetts, being situated, say, in the Berkshires. Possibly I obsess about this stuff because when it comes to direction sense, my own brain is wired completely and humiliatingly wrong. I am simply not well grounded in space. Last spring I moved, and the side streets in my neighborhood are often abruptly cut off and divert cars to other side streets in an effort to control traffic and speed. So to get to my house from almost any direction, you kind of have to spiral your way in—intuitive for some people; easily learned for others. But a nightmare for me. I still GPS my way home from the grocery store. And adding insult to injury, my garage is in an alley that requires a different route for spiraling in. For months, I could access the garage only on foot because it has no address I can plug into a GPS. Mortifying. So yeah, I guess I’m hypervigilant about knowing where places are in someone’s manuscript because in my head they are rarely where I think they are.
MM: I’m also curious about how the omnipresence of the internet has affected copyediting. I imagine it has made your job easier in terms of looking up facts and maps and things like that, but maybe it has also affected your job in other ways?
JG: When I lived in rural Vermont, I had five university reference librarians on speed-dial. And when I say “speed-dial,” I mean I had them in my Rolodex. I’d compile a list of facts I needed checked, and then a couple of times a week I’d phone in my list. I rotated the librarians to keep their annoyance in check, but they were all really quite lovely and agreeable. And so much faster than my pokey dial-up modem. Still, I imagine they must be pretty happy to no longer hear from me. But high-speed internet? Having information available with a click is something I’ll never not marvel at, and also Google is pretty darn good at turning up plagiarism.
Jude Grant is a longtime copy editor of fact and fiction, and texts in between, who mixes words for work and pleasure. A New Englander by DNA, she has lived in West Michigan for more than a decade (she prefers the UP). If not found in Grand Rapids, she is probably in Lake Michigan or Superior. Or in Vermont. Or, more likely, lost somewhere along the way.
Leave a Reply