Little red marks, thousands of them

Published on: 12 Ebrill 2009 Author: Patrick Ness

Patrick NessIt's the literary equivalent of trimming your nose-hairs before a dinner party. Actually, not quite true, it's more the literary equivalent of your mother asking if you've trimmed your nose-hairs.

I'm talking, of course, about the copy-edit, where your book gets its final, final – and we do mean final – polish before walking out the door into the world. It's your last chance to make sure you don't have loo roll dragging from your shoe.

Now, I'm still in the midst of a second draft, as well as the tapering days of marathon training, so the arrival of a copy-edit in the Saturday post (between Good Friday and Easter, no less) was a bit of a surprise. Not because someone made a mistake, but because I'd completely forgotten that Candlewick, my American publishers, need to have my approval for their version of The Ask and the Answer.

Authors differ on this, but I don't actually mind the copy-edit at all. All the hard work is done, all the big tough editing decisions discussed and put away, and instead, someone is telling you in extensive red pencil that you've lost track of your dependent clauses here or left out a clarifying 'that' there and is spelling 'bellowing' b-e-l-l-e-r-i-n-g a mistake or an artistic choice? You're just really picking the lint off your lapels so you look a million quid.

But what's interesting in the US copy-edit is the subtle ways the book changes in translation from UK English to US English. I'm an American who's lived in England for nearly ten years, so my own phrasing and word choice can be both an erudite combination of vernaculars and a hopeless mishmash bordering on the incoherent. My UK publishers pick up when I'm sounding too American, and my American publishers pick up when I'm sounding too English. Sometimes I fully intend these incongruences and use them for effect. And sometimes I'm completely clueless until they're pointed out and quickly changed.

The result of this – and this is something that no one ever talks about – is that US versions and UK versions are often, ever so slightly, different books. In the UK version of one of my books, for example, a character says a particular plan 'worked a treat'. In the American version, he says 'worked like a charm.'

Does this matter? This character was neither English nor American, so I okayed the change. I do tend to favour keeping the words as nearly exact as possible, but a jarring, unfamiliar phrase can pull a reader of a book just like a jarring cameo can pull a viewer out of a movie ('Hey, look, everyone! It's Elizabeth Taylor!'). And sometimes that jarring is a cultural thing. Which is the exact reason why, particularly in a novel for young adults, all my UK distances are metric and all my US distances imperial.

I can hear the jokes coming already, many of them using that annoyingly smug quote about 'two nations divided by a common language', usually used to assert UK English superiority. Which would be fine if there wasn't, say, Philip Roth or Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo or the late David Foster Wallace, American writers who wield the language rather well, thank you very much.

UK English and US English are merely slightly different, neither better nor worse than the other, and certainly not a divide wider than that between different regions of England, without even mentioning the (wonderful, rich) differences in Scottish English or Irish English. This is why it's such a great language for writers: it'll eat anything and accommodate any voice.

A case in point: In The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd frequently uses the very mild oath 'ruddy'. My US publishers had a legitimate query about it being a very English word and would I consider something different for the ears of a younger American reader.

I responded that yes, it was very English, but very old-fashioned English and that English teenagers wouldn't use it either. But that was why I chose it, taking a slightly familiar word, putting it in a new context (in this instance, on a whole new world) and giving it a fresh feeling. My US publishers understood completely, and Todd ruddied away for the whole novel.

And now, wouldn't it be great if American teenagers embraced 'ruddy'? If something that quaint and loveable was reborn as new slang? All because of a copy-editing discussion. Ruddy brilliant.

Looking forward, a new page of tips will be coming soon, this time about avoiding despair. Try to hold out 'til then. Happy writing.

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The Ask and the Answer

Patrick Ness

Themes of dictatorship, terrorism and privacy reign in Ness’s darker science fiction sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go.

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