A writer whose name escapes me (Rita Mae Brown? Virginia Woolf?) once said, “You only know the book I wrote. You’ll never know the book I meant to write.” That pretty much describes to a T how I’m feeling, having just spent the weekend reading the second set of page proofs of my new book, Heartbreak Town (due out June 26), before FedExing them back to my editor in New York this morning.
For the record, I hate reading page proofs. In fact, it makes me downright frantic. Last chance!, a little voice on my shoulder screams in my ear. Last chance to get it right! Meanwhile, all I can see are the goofs—the places I used the word “just” three times in one paragraph, the chapter in which I unwittingly gave a secondary character a name similar to that of a minor but infamous celebrity.
For the uninitiated, page proofs are what happens to a manuscript after it’s typeset, Xeroxed, and mailed back to the author for perusal. It’s allegedly your last chance to correct really egregious errors, and it comes with a stern warning from a nameless personage at the publishing house that to make extensive changes is at the very least frowned upon and at most, could cost you money. (I’ve never had the latter happen, at least not yet, knock wood.)
The first set of proofs nearly always contains a fairly substantial number of mistakes, mainly typos or places where the publisher’s proofreader changed things that you’d really prefer he or she hadn’t. As a Texan, I’ve spent a lot of time explaining our particular dialect to bewildered New Yorkers unfamiliar with terms like “rent house” or “dually.” (That’s a truck with two sets of rear wheels, FYI, in case you don’t happen to live in a place where every other vehicle is a pickup.)
But with the second set of proofs, it’s fine-tooth-comb time. You’ve got to read meticulously, looking for misplaced commas, transposed words, mistakes in tense. This is the way the pages will look when they’re between covers, and it really is your final chance to shape the book into what you want it to be.
After three books I’ve come to realize that, as the person at the beginning of this piece said, that book doesn’t exist, except in the writer’s imagination. While I may be content with or even occasionally halfway pleased with the finished product, I’m never 100% satisfied. What happened, I find myself wondering, to that clever little subplot I originally introduced in chapter five? Oh, right—it got edited out when the manuscript became too unwieldy. Didn’t I use that exact description of the taste of coffee in one of my earlier books? Too late now to go back and check.
Most of all, I wonder if I’ve managed to convey the overall tone and theme I meant to convey, whether I’ve accomplished the goal I had in mind when I first typed “Chapter One” onto a blank computer screen, or if, by some miracle, the book has actually morphed into something even more complex and interesting along the way.
I don’t think a writer can make that judgment on her own. You’re lucky, I’ve discovered, if a phrase or even, now and then, a whole scene pops out at you, shining like a diamond, a little better than you remembered or expected it to be. You have to cross your fingers and pray that the sum of your book’s many parts will add up to something you can, if not exactly drool over in ecstasy, then at least accept as the best of what you had, at the time you wrote it, to offer; that, while it may not be the book of your dreams, it just might be good enough. And you can only hope your readers will agree.