by Eric Olsen
I was recently reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and enjoying the heck out of it. It’s a terrific book, so good in fact that I didn’t mind very much that this nice new trade paperback I’d just paid full price for at my local indie was falling apart. Pages kept drifting out like leaves from the maple outside and I would gently tuck them back in and keep on reading, uncharacteristically refraining from making rude comments about the publisher, Vintage, an imprint of Random House, which is owned by Bertelsmann, the gigantic German media conglomerate. The book was so damned good, I didn’t want to break the spell.
Zeitoun is nonfiction, about a fellow named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, an immigrant from Syria who’d settled in New Orleans and started his own painting business with his wife, Kathy. Their hard work was undone by Hurricane Katrina, which some folks tell us was “an act of god,” but if it was, then it was an act of god compounded by acts of monumental stupidity and incompetence by the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers, and most of all by the administration of George W. Bush, which has added all sorts of interesting new twists and turns to the concepts of stupidity and incompetence. The book is about Zeitoun’s attempts to help his neighbors following the hurricane and flood, and how his good efforts were thwarted by armed and uniformed thugs brought in by the so-called “authorities,” supposedly to “maintain the public order” during the disaster.
I was enjoying the heck out of the book and not minding the fact it was falling apart, as I say, but then I got to page 80. The problem with page 80? No loose page this time. Page 80 remained firmly in place, but firmly in place with the following sentence: “When Ahmad and Abdulrahman emerged they would lay on a low stone wall….”
OK, I thought, one little typo. That should be “would lie,” and so on. Lay takes an object. Now I lay me down to sleep and all that, me as the object, right? How do I know? Patricia O’Conner says so on page 64 of her terrific book, Woe Is I, a copy of which I always keep close at hand.
Anyway, one little typo. No big deal. Like Rummy says, stuff happens. I read on. And then farther down the page, there it was again, the same error: “After swimming, they would lay on the stone wall….” OK, two little typos. Still no big deal…. I reminded myself of Rummy’s wisdom, and kept going.
And then on 93 I came across the same error again, and again, twice on the one page: “Laying on sweat-soaked sheets, he had a thought.” And then, one paragraph below: “Laying on the mattress, he listened for the movement of water.”
While I’ve been a professional writer and editor for thirty-plus years, this whole lie/lay thing has always given me fits; it gives a lot of folks fits, in fact, and maybe it gives Eggers fits, too, but I have a hard time buying that. Eggers is just too fine a writer to make a bone-headed error like laying when it should be lying; that’s the sort of bone-headed error I might make, which of course is why I always keep O’Connor’s book handy.
So how’d this happen? I blame the publisher. Big, bottom-line oriented, profit-über-alles outfits like Bertelsmann view books as commodities, no different from a bag of screws. You keep your labor and production costs down to maximize profits, and in the publishing space, that means paying your writers crap (except for the Big Names like Eggers, of course), cutting your production costs so pages fall out, and getting rid of your editorial staff and subbing out what few editorial functions you might maintain to underpaid, overworked, perhaps inexperienced freelancers, or even to some outfit in Bangalore where the staff may or may not be all that well-versed in the fundamentals of English grammar or the distinction, say, between lie and lay. If, that is, your publisher doesn’t simply dispense with any pretense at all of editing its books.
And if a Big Publisher like Vintage can do this to the work of a Big Seller like Dave Eggers, whose books make his publisher some Very Big Bucks, some of which you’d think the publisher might spend on competent editing, what about the rest of us?
The rest of us are screwed.
But having your book edited before it sees the light of day is essential, so your friends don’t call you up after your book’s out to ask, Hey, man, don’t you know the friggin’ difference between lay and lie? (Assuming your friends know….) But how do you find an editor who knows the difference? You might start with the Editorial Freelancer’s Association. This site provides a list of editorial rates, plus a database of freelancers.
Or you can do it yourself.
But is it possible for a writer to effectively make the switch from writing mode to editing mode? Susan Bell, author of The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself (W.W. Norton, 2007), thinks it is, and in her book she offers a number of how-tos, from the practical to the somewhat loopy.
The main problem trying to edit your own work is that you’re simply too close to it, and when you’re too close, it’s easy to miss little glitches, such as laying on sweat-soaked sheets when you mean lying on them. So the first step is to get some distance. When you’re done with the writing, set the work aside. Let some time pass—a few days, a few weeks if you can. Better yet, if you work on a computer, print it out, set it aside, and then when you come back to it, edit on the hard copy.
Bell also advocates reading your work aloud to yourself. This slows you down as a reader, and you may hear mistakes you wouldn’t otherwise notice reading silently to yourself. Better yet, read aloud to someone else, or several someones, maybe friends, one of whom might actually know the difference between lie and lay. Or try editing someplace other than where you normally write. Anything, in other words, to create some distance between yourself and your work, to change your point of view however slightly, so you’re looking at it with fresh eyes.
One of Bell’s odder suggestions is to print out your work and hang the pages on a clothesline or pin them to a wall to read them. Seeing the pages as a “whole,” she suggests may help you get a better feel for the pacing and structure, while the simple act of having to stand while you read, rather than sit, helps to change you perspective and, one hopes, helps you spot little glitches.
—Are you a proficient self-editor? Share your strategies and tips!