Maureen and Me

March 4th, 2009

For years, my least favorite part of the publishing process was the copy edit. Let me position the copy edit by going through the usual steps of pre-publication as I experience them:

First, I write a book. However hard it’s been to get the story on the page, I usually finish it full of confidence and certain that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Then I put it away for a month or so, and when I expose it to the light of day again, I’m invariably horrified by how inept it is: it seems clumsy, over-plotted, and underwritten. Whatever spark set the entire thing into motion, whatever insight into human behavior I wanted to express, it’s not there.

So I rewrite. This draft is shared by my wife, whose questions and challenges improve it, and my agent, a remarkably acute editor, who improves it further.

Then it goes to my editor at William Morrow, Peggy Hageman. Peggy reads the manuscript many, many times and gets back to me with a long letter full of suggestions – ideas for tightening the action, questions about character and motivation, suggestions for emphasizing the book’s strengths. I don’t have to accept all of Peggy’s thoughts, but I take them all seriously. Working through a good editor’s reaction is always a bracing experience. It shows you the story through a new pair of eyes, and it invariably makes it stronger.

Once I’ve finished the adventure of responding to Peggy’s ideas, the book goes to a copy editor. Copy editors are, among other things, grammatical savants who can spot a misplaced modifier at forty paces. They scan the manuscript for copyright names and tell you that you need to capitalize Baggie and Dumpster. They can also drive you completely out of your mind with minutiae, as did the woman who insisted, in an earlier book, on changing “lasagna” to lasagne twenty or thirty times. (There was a lot of lasagna in the book.) I changed it back, and she changed it again. I finally wrote, “This is a lot of bologne” in the margin, and only then did I get my way.

I’ve had many copy editors, but only one Maureen Sugden. Maureen Sugden is to the usual copy editor as crème brulee is to Twinkies. (Note the cap “t,” Maureen.) She has copy-edited all the Poke books, and I hope she’ll copy-edit me for the rest of my life.

Here’s the kind of thing one doesn’t expect from a copy editor, or any mere mortal, for that matter. In THE FOURTH WATCHER, I had Poke give Rose an engagement ring on her birthday. I needed to think of something (anything!) to make the ring distinctive, so I put their birthstones in it, with the stones for Rose and Poke on either side of the stone for Miaow. “The family in a ring,” as Rose says, and I patted myself on the back and moved on. Except . . .

Except that the book has a monsoon in it. And the birthstone Poke gave Rose, a ruby, is for July, and there are absolutely no monsoons within months of July. And Maureen spotted this, and the stone became (I think) a sapphire.

In the new one, BREATHING WATER, Maureen became concerned (obsessed would be another way to put it) with the ages of Miaow and, um, another character who shall remain unnamed. How old was Miaow in the first book? she wanted to know. How much time between the first and second books? How much time between the second and third books? Was it just her, or were these children aging at different rates of speed?

I spent hours explaining the apparent discrepancy, filling margins with highly creative bushwa about how many months it had been between books, which months the kids were born in, their own uncertainty about how old they were – all in the service of denying that, in fact, one of the kids had aged more rapidly than the other. She was right. I was wrong. And I’m still wrong in the book as it will be published, but it’s been taken care of so skilfully that no one will ever notice. Except Maureen.

Okay, one more, and this one is touchy because it requires me to share the mystery of my creative process in all its threadbare ordinariness. In BREATHING WATER, Poke – for reasons you will never understand unless you purchase and read the book (and you can’t buy it used, because the scene will disappear from used copies of the book) – anyway, in this scene Poke has his hand x-rayed by his dentist, which means lots of small pieces of x-ray film and many small x-rays, all taped together to create an overview of the damage to the hand.

The dentist is a woman. Here’s me, writing the scene: Ought to have some kind of description, but let’s not slow it down. Her hair? Who cares about her hair? Face? Faces are hard. What’s Poke looking at? Oh, yeah, she’s lining up all these little pieces of film, so he’s seeing her hand, maybe her fingers. What’s interesting about fingers? Her nails, they’re elaborately painted with, with, with, what the hell are they painted with? The Mona Lisa? Too European. Betty Boop? Too fey. Ooh, ooh, the wave, that wave from Japanese woodcut prints, that great wave painting by Hiroshige. There. Done. Not great, but okay And I wrote “Hiroshige” and moved on and never thought about it again.

Until the copy edit. Over in one margin, I read Maureen’s note: The really famous Japanese woodcut of a wave is Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanazawa, which you can view here (URL of some obscure museum). Hiroshige painted some waves (it is impossible to convey the disdain for Hiroshige’s pathetic attempts at rendering waves that seemed to animate this phrase) so you can stick with Hiroshige if you like, but the really splendid wave is Hokusai’s.

Well, I knew that. Sort of. Okay, not at all.

But I do now. And thanks to Maureen Sugden, I have the right damn Japanese wave in my book, and people will think I’m smart.

But you know better.

13 Responses to “Maureen and Me”

  1. Thomas Says:


    Any chance you can talk Maureen into offering her own piece on the topic of creativity, from a copy editor’s point of view? I am curious how someone, so in command of language, views the act of creative writing. For example, would she (herself) tolerate writing something that is not grammatically correct? Is a linguistic and analytical mind an asset or a hindrance in creative thought? does this Sentence, give mauren a heady ache!

    Things like that…


  2. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    THIS is it. This is why I read your blog. Thank you. And Maureen, too. I wish every writer had a Maureen!

  3. Mitch Says:

    I love reading about behind-the-scenes stuff! It’s fascinating how much work goes into the book after you’ve slaved over it for months and months – a completely separate, extremely thorough “shaping-up”.

    I have so many rules and details in my supernatural YA that I’m finishing up…makes me nervous thinking about what a copy editor would do with it!

  4. Jen Forbus Says:

    So glad that there is this awesome writing team in existance! The literary world wouldn’t be near as fun without it! And by the way, I’m buying a new book AND a used book to experience this awesome phenomenon you’ve managed to mastermind!

  5. Maureen Says:

    Boy, do I sound smart!

    Not at all like the sort of person who’d spill half a cup of coffee in the keyboard of her laptop and spend the rest of the day dealing with the aftermath. I’d love to meet this smart woman you’ve written about, Tim. Think you can arrange it?

    I’m blushing and embarrassed and secretly thrilled at your kindness, but not surprised. One thing that your readers should know about you, Tim, even though I’m sure most already do, is how genuinely generous and gracious you are toward everyone behind the scenes.

    For anyone who hasn’t undergone it, it’s hard to imagine how intimate and difficult and demoralizing the copyediting process can be. I often think of it as like having a total stranger march into your bedroom and start going through your underwear drawer and holding up the worst, most embarrassing pieces in there and pointing to every rip and tear and bit of saggy elastic and stain of unknown origin and getting right up in your face and saying, “Well, THIS certainly isn’t acceptable!” Over and over and over, till you want to kill that person. What amazes me is that there aren’t author-on-copyeditor murders reported in the papers every single day. Any jury on earth would consider them justifiable homicides. But Tim hasn’t even so much as threatened my life once. Yet.

    He does like to exaggerate, though. His manuscripts are a copyeditor’s dream. It’s a testament to how hard he works and how much he polishes before I ever see them. I wasn’t the least bit disdainful in suggesting the Hokusai wave over Hiroshige’s. (And that wasn’t the real text of my note. Tim makes things up. Fortunately.) I was just pretty sure I knew which one he meant to mention. (When I read that part of the post to my husband, he said that people passing me in the street were going to start doing the Wave in my honor. I’d love that!) Besides, what a wonderful detail it is no matter which wave you go with–she’s a dentist with a Japanese masterpiece reproduced in miniature on her manicure! She sticks her hands in people’s mouths all day, and ten tiny works of classical Asian art go in with them! That’s all Tim–I get no credit for his amazing talent. He hits the home run, then I bend down and dust off the plate after he’s crossed it, nothing more. Not to mix my metaphors or anything.

    To answer Thomas’s question (well, one of them anyway), I’m not in the least bit obsessed with grammatical correctness. In fiction especially, the language has to serve the story, not the other way around. I think all good copyeditors let the book tell them what it needs, rather than impose arbitrary “rules” on the writing, whether they work in that context or not. It’s at least as important to know what NOT to mess with as to know when to step in and make minor changes. Luckily, there aren’t a whole lot of “lasagne” ladies out there.

    I was a little nervous when I saw the title of this blog entry. For a minute I thought I was going to be likened to a lovable but naughty Labrador retriever pup who eats holes in the drywall and pees on the carpet and has to be euthanized in the final act. Imagine my relief. Thanks, Tim. You made my day.

  6. suzanna Says:

    Maureen, I am sending you a mental WAVE of appreciation for your delightful sense of humor and for helping out my dear friend Tim. Your reply on this blog is extremely funny and made my day!

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Everybody —

    See? Just in case you thought I made Maureen up (it’ll be another couple of books before I’m good enough to do that), here she is in all her slightly skewed glory.

    In my original piece, I left out how funny she is, but she’s the ONLY copy editor (I’m writing it as two words, nyaaa nyaaa nyaaa) who’s ever made me laugh out loud. She also has the tact and sensitivity (not to mention the finely tuned discrimination) to appreciate some of the jokes in my books.

    In BREATHING WATER, for example, one character tells Poke that he intends to cure his richly deserved hangover with a complicated regimen that includes an intimate interlude with triplets from Laos, and Poke says, “Triplets?” and the other character says, “I really only like one of them, but I’m never sure which one it is.”

    I cracked up when I wrote the line, and Maureen gave it its own little box in the margin just to let me know she’d laughed, too. And that makes a difference, because all those jokes are WORK, even if I do cut a third of them at my agent’s insistence before anyone else sees the book. It’s good to know that Maureen enjoys them, since she’s not exactly the world’s least discerning reader.

    And her underwear metaphor is not only hilarious, it’s exactly right. The only difference is that in the real world you’d know how many pairs of seriously embarrassing underpants were in your dresser, while in a manuscript it’s a perpetual surprise. It’s a little like that boring magic trick where the guy keeps pulling scarves out of his hat, except that the scarves are the kind of underwear you always hope you won’t be wearing if you’re ever toted into an emergency room. And they just . . . keep . . . coming.

    I’m glad you all enjoyed this. Just two more things: I don’t need to make any effort to be gracious to the people who shepherd these books into being because they’re all so good at their jobs. Maureen, Peggy, the design group at Morrow, the publicity people — they all do me the honor of taking my books seriously enough to try to improve and sell them, and at the end of the day, there it is: an actual object, nice-looking inside and beautifully wrapped, cool to the touch and just the right weight, and it contains a year’s worth of daydreaming. It’s sort of a miracle, and all who contribute to it deserve all the appreciation I can muster.

    Second, there was TOO a certain amount of disdain for Hiroshige’s pathetic little waves. I can’t quote the lines because I had to send the copy edited manuscript to Peggy Hageman so everything can be integrated into the typescript. but I know what I read.

    Or maybe I was feeling defensive.

    Anyway, thanks again, Maureen.

  8. usman Says:

    What a great post. Equals so many of the creative posts, because it sheds light on what goes on behind the scenes.
    btw, on reading the title of the post, I too thought of a Labrador. Something to do with Marly and Me.

    Fun Post.

  9. Sylvia Says:

    Oh what a wonderful exchange. I loved the initial post – I’ve only worked with a copy editor once (luckily she wasn’t a lasagne lady! I think that term needs to come into common speech) but I could recognise all the good bits in your description. Then Maureen’s comment (and I’m sorry, Maureen, but you have only underscored Tim’s flattering description with your response) and Tim’s follow-up including the wonderful imagery of a woman pulling underwear out of a hat, endlessly. I laughed aloud.

    Great, great stuff.

  10. Larissa Says:

    So Maureen, how do I get to become a copy editor? I know..I know…I’m supposed to be attempting to write a book but what I’m good at…what makes all the people around me crazy is doing what sounds like is your job. Incredulously enough. That’s awesome. Not that I”m anywhere near as funny or as cool as you sound but yeah…I’m reading this post going wait a minute, you can get paid to do all of that? Awesome. I make my boss crazy because oh, I dunno, I demand that he use proper grammar, complete sentences and have some personality to his “copy” that he writes for me to spew into our newsletter. Ahem. I’ll put away the soapbox. But seriously, some people shouldn’t be allowed to use punctuation.

    Which gives me an excuse to mention this: Tim-when you look at the browser web page heading thing (the blue bar at the top of the website) and it’s supposed to say “Timothy Hallinan – The Blog Cabin – Mozilla Firefox” or’s only says “Timoth Hallinan…” instead of Timothy.

    It’s been bugging me for weeks and then I’d forget about it.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Larissa —

    First, I have no idea how one becomes a copy editor, but I’ve e-mailed Maureen and she might come back online and give us all some info.

    Second, I have no idea in the world how to fix that thing in the browser identifier window. I’ve several times raised the question with the guy who actually makes this site work, but he’s never responded, so maybe he doesn’t know, either.

    The easiest way to deal with it would probably be for me to change my name to Timoth.

  12. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    But then you’d have to change the title bar on your main web site to Timoth. On my browser, the main page says “Timothy”, but the blog page says “Timoth”.

  13. Bernice Nadler Says:

    How wonderful to read this exchange about Maureen, and now I feel even MORE honored that she is a dear friend of mine, even if it means she is often unavailable due to editing deadlines! Regardless of her self-deprecating humor, she is every bit as smart and funny as you have observed. She never fails to liven up a dinner party with her fine wit and impeccable timing. And despite her eye for detail, she graciously does not offer corrections in personal e-mails. Also, how fitting that you liken her to creme brulee. She is a master baker and creator of fine desserts, and creme brulee is her specialty!

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