A New Chapter: Editing a Book

I took a deep breath and clicked the Mac’s trackpad to ‘send’. With an audible whoosh, the email and its attached file disappeared into the airwaves. In a few seconds, the final edit of The Bones and Breath would be delivered to my publisher and a long journey would effectively come to a close. (Or so I thought.)

Two weeks earlier, while still in the south of France, I had received the copyedited version of my manuscript from White Cloud Press via email. When it arrived in my Inbox, as I sat in our rented apartment in Cannes, I felt hesitant to open it. This was my first edited manuscript and having heard horror stories about editing and editors from other writers and authors—their work entirely gutted and rewritten—I didn’t know what to expect. The editor had had my work for six weeks. What did it now look like?

I had edited the work several times myself (I’ve thankfully lost track of how many). Still, proofreading your own work is extremely difficult; the eye sees what it expects to see, often missing mistakes, and a spell check is only moderately useful. It requires a tremendous amount of effort to go through each sentence, repeatedly, with the keen sight of a hawk and asking with an outsider’s perspective, is this absolutely clear? Is there a better way to say it? A more closely suited word? Does it flow? Have I used this sentence structure too many times? When read, how does this sentence feel…?

For writers, being edited is simply part of the game (at least for those who are traditionally printed). At the outset of the publishing process, I asked of Steve Scholl, my publisher, that Bones go to someone other than simply a grammar fascist, and he assured me that it would be delivered to “a good soul.” Yet I held no clear idea what that meant exactly. I hoped that he or she would have the skill to lift the book to a better level of grammatical accuracy but wield a relatively light hand in rewriting—which honestly had less to do with my own ego than it did with dearly wishing the book to retain a mildly lyrical, somewhat poetic style that I hoped would evoke feeling and touch the soul. I truly wanted the general flow and feel of the book to remain intact (it is largely a book about feeling, after all).

On the technical side of things, I’m probably just an average writer, at best. I’ve not had a writing class since high school (and I recall being less than interested in what was being taught, even then). I’ve always written by feel rather than the rules. (You could observe that this choice applies to my life, in general.) And—help!—I will openly admit to being addicted to superfluous punctuation… I swear, those ellipses simply appear from nowhere! So I was genuinely hoping that my unknown editor would nicely tidy up any less than professional details but not feel the need to largely rewrite the book in their own style, as many editors and publishers do.

Seated in front of my Macbook, when I finally took a deep breath and opened the Word file, as I began reading through Martha’s edits and comments, I felt my entire body relax. The work was intact. She clearly did not like many of the Brit-isms dotted throughout the manuscript—such as whilst, one, and upon, which the English use differently than we do—but what can I say? The book was written while living in England and the Queen’s English has certainly influenced my style, both written and spoken. And though I have no interest in penning a book geared solely for American tastes, which are often decidedly not my own—it’s a big world out there—I decided not to quibble with her choices as dictated by the gospel of The Chicago Manual of Style.

American versus British preferences aside, the editing was everything that I could hope for: skill in fixing my sometimes questionable punctuation and grammar, an observant editing of words used too frequently, further weeding out passive voice, all while leaving the actual writing as it stood. In a (very) few cases, she made suggestions for deleting a sentence or paragraph that she felt was repetitive or already had been clearly expressed. Honestly, I was elated with her work.

In his own reading of the manuscript before choosing an editor, Steve had suggested one major change to the final chapter and a minor revision to the conclusion. He also challenged me on a couple of points in various chapters, inviting me to take a stronger stance, better support my position, remove any hesitancy, and more clearly explain my view. His insights were astute and addressing them would certainly improve the final read (he’s been publishing books for twenty years, and clearly knows his business). So be it.

Now back at home in Hawaii after my string of recent travels, I have spent the last week quietly sitting at my desk, the windows open to the humid summer air and the noisy commotions of mynah birds in the trees, going over the edited manuscript and making my final changes. In the age of electronic documents, this is mostly a case of scrolling down on the screen and reading the comments or changes noted in the margin, and then clicking to accept or reject them.

With the final edits made and the new material added, I took a deep breath and sent it off to White Cloud Press with the stroke of a key. How simple… and yet how extraordinarily odd. A journey that began five years ago finally nears its completion. All that remains is the actual book layout and designing the cover—a process that I have little involvement with—and then printing some advance copies for review by select individuals and journals.

Yet what lands in readers’ hands this autumn is really quite old for me, and Eros has long since led me onward. I recently wrote to a new friend whom I met at the Redwood Men’s Conference:

Birthing this book has been such a long process. The actual writing of it began in 2009 and continued through 2011, followed by a year or so of edits (and relocating back to the strange world of America), and then nearly a year of trying to break into the publishing world by drafting query letters and a proposal for the already written book. On the advice of a New York literary agent and a “get published” coach, I split the original manuscript in half; and thanks to a bit of guidance from a senior editor at a publishing house who read some sample chapters, I completely reedited the new slimmed down version with three key questions in mind. The revised work demanded an entirely new final chapter and conclusion, and I finally entered the publishing process with White Cloud Press last November. Things move slowly in the book making world. 

In all this, my own journey has moved on like a river (no pun intended), and I am now well past what I have written in BONES… yet still working to bring it into the world. It’s almost like living in two different time periods or places (curiously mirroring my life at the moment, living in Hawaii but a toehold, a pied à terre, in California). Honestly, I should be used to walking in two worlds by now. As an edge walker and threshold dweller, it’s how I’ve lived most of my life—a foot in each realm, somehow able to navigate both, but also feeling split down the middle and belonging fully to neither.

I do look forward to the book finding its wings and flying on to its place(s) in the world, so that I can turn my attention to the remainder of the original work and craft it as the follow-up—which will be its own long process, I fully understand—and then finally moving on to something new, following Eros once more. But in the meantime, I can only endeavor to live in the moment, to own back my projections, feed the soul, appreciate the journey, and offer something of beauty and value to the world. What else is there, really?” 

Practice kindness, I should have added to that brief list. And dwell in possibility.

After the file zoomed off into the ether, I stood up and walked outdoors to stand barefoot in the grass, listening to the wind speaking softly in the swaying palm trees and rustling bamboo. Opening my senses wide to the lushly green, tropical world that enfolds me here, I surveyed my own inner landscape and emotional weather. The final edit gone, I had now turned the page and moved on to a new chapter. (A new book, rather.) Rooting my feet down into the ticklish grass with a prayer of gratitude for uncountable blessings, I felt a sense of once again moving forward on the journey—which has often been oddly juxtaposed with birthing a book from a previous stretch of the path now well behind me.

Soul Artists understand that they must follow Eros and their allurement, for it leads them to their unique gift to the world—whether that is ‘art’ in a traditional sense, developing a ‘green’ business, organic farming, writing a doctoral thesis, volunteering for an organization, raising creative and well-adjusted children, working for social justice, or anything that brings expansion to the soul. It may require that we climb a mountain, either a physical or metaphorical one, and certainly Eros will lead us not only into our Shadow but to the very extent of what we think is possible and what we can do. Yet Soul Artists also know that only by reaching our limits do we exceed them, and thus discover a version of ourselves larger than what we previously held was possible.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that on your own journey you have discovered something about which you are passionate about on a deep, soul level; something that you are willing to pursue through all sorts of changing weather and landscapes because, despite the difficulty, you know that it brings you to a more authentic expression of your being.

As the American poet Mary Oliver eloquently demands in her poem “The Summer Day,” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

To which I add, What will you bring to the ‘more-than-human’ world?

Whatever it is, I celebrate you for bringing it forward and seeing it through to the end, wherever it leads.