Dealing with Copyedits: Just How Bad is the Past Perfect?
The final stages before book publication involve copyediting (and then proofreading). It's your last chance to make changes before your writing goes public. What can you do at this stage to assure your book stays true to your unique vision and style?
Every soon-to-be published writer is nervous and excited about copyedits. Will they require rewriting of beloved text? Will they obfuscate meaning or intention? Will they enhance the book--or detract from it? In my experience as a book coach, I rarely insist on anything (I see myself as more in service of what the author wants, than what I want), but I do flatly and emphatically recommend copyediting. Nothing is more distracting than finding errors in a finished book, and believe me, every writer no matter how meticulous makes errors. (BTW, here's a handy description of the difference between line editing and copy editing.)
Most copyedits are pretty straightforward--too many commas, errors in season/ age/ hair color, wrong date or place name etc. But what happens when authors receive copyedits that dramatically change the narrative in terms of style? Once you've signed a publishing contract and are no longer the sole "owner" of that work, how much say do you still have?
About six weeks after completing developmental and line edits for my novel, I received the copyedited manuscript in a handy, editable pdf format. Gone are the days when you scribble "stet" in the margins of a printed document, as I did for my first few books. With this novel, I was able to comment and make changes online, though I was not able to accept or reject the editor's changes (which made sense to me, but also let's me know who's really in charge).
Everything looked great--okay, I admit I use waaaaaay too many commas--until I realized that the editor had methodically combed the text and inserted the past perfect in every instance where the past perfect is technically correct. Simply put, past perfect is used when you're writing in the simple past tense (I went) and then go further back in time (I had gone).
Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately, what seems a minor grammatical issue turns out to be a huge problem, as in, I can't publish this book with these changes.
To give you some context: The Forgotten Hours is in large part a study of memory, playing with the idea of when we remember, what we remember, and why. As such, I do not want to create a rigid hierarchy of time (ie. this is happening now and this extended scene happened sometime earlier). Instead, I am purposefully playing with time and blurring boundaries... this book does not just have a handful of flashbacks, in some ways it is ALL ABOUT flashbacks. They happen in the present day chapters, in the chapters set in the past, and they layer over and over one another to create the messy mosaic that is our wholly specific and flawed notion of truth.
Therefore, I'd argue that use of tenses in this book is critically important not only to its flow but to its core themes. Not to mention that reading a lot of text written in the past perfect is totally, absolutely, mind-numblingly tedious.
I made a list of the problem areas and then wrote a note about why I want to keep the simple past tense. I edited my response to make it emphatic, to give a specific example, and to include reference to advice on how to handle the past perfect (ie. this from Writers Digest). Then I ran the email past my agent, asking: "Is there any reason not to be so firm in my response?" Moments later, I got the go-ahead to state my case.
After a few days, I got a note from my editor as well as the project manager: "We’ll make sure your preference regarding using simple past is followed moving forward. I love your explanation for this decision, using tense to mimic the flaws of memory. Brilliant."
Fight for what you believe in. Be respectful. Sit on your ideas for a day or two. Support your opinions with examples and facts. And always remember, it's YOUR book: ultimately you are entirely responsible for the words inside it.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann
Categories:Craft Advice The Writing Life
Topics:Editing Fiction Genre Fiction Grub Instructor GrubStreet Local Authors Memoir Memoir Incubator Nonfiction Novel Generator Novel Incubator Personal Essay Playwriting Poetry Politics Promotion & Publicity Publishing Screenwriting Short Story Incubator Teaching Teen The Novel