The Code Cracked (The Sub-editor’s sub-text)

It had been an entertaining session at the Sydney Writer’s Festival.  Tom Mayer, editor at  W.W. Norton & Co. and Bill Scott-Kerr,  the only editor to acquire all of Dan Brown’s books and now publisher at Transworld Publishing, talked editing. No salacious gossip about difficult writers, unfortunately, but I did learn a thing or two.

I learnt that John Le Carre is very sensitive to any suggestions of change, but Len Deighton will happily oblige. So, if his editor points out that a character who was killed off on page 37, attends a party on page 118, Deighton recognises this as a problem and will make the necessary changes. The character is now ‘almost’ killed off on page 37. Apparently, when the line ‘this book needed a good editor’ appears in a review, that actually means it had a good editor, but the author wasn’t listening.

When reading a not so good manuscript, foreboding sets in at page 10, despair by page 100, imminent disaster by page 200 and fatalism by page 300. Also, using ‘suddenly’ 159 times in the one novel is perhaps showing an excessive attachment to the word ‘suddenly’. And Bill Scott-Kerr really dislikes the word ‘chuckles.’

Best not send a manuscript where anybody ‘suddenly chuckles’. And probably best not to ask Bill Scott-Kerr why such a badly written book as the Da Vinci Code was ever published. Although, one brave woman did. It went something like this.

‘I’m an ex sub-editor, now writer,’ she began, setting herself up very nicely. ‘When The Da Vinci Code was published in Australia there were several reports on Australian Television about the poor sentence construction and sentences that were just incorrect.’ Note the way she tried to deflect attention away from herself – it’s not me, blame it on TV. ‘And I’m just wondering how a book so badly written was ever published? Not that I’m trying to be critical.’

‘Yeah, not much,’ responded Scott-Kerr, shuffling forward in his chair.

I could see the woman’s profile clearly. She didn’t seem to notice that the people on either side of her had leant as far away as possible, or that the pin-dropping silence was not one of admiration, more ‘Holy Crap, did she just say that?’

’85 million copies,’ Scott- Kerr continued.

The woman started to twitch, I think she was just realising that the answer to  what had seemed like an insightful, intelligent question, was not going to pan out quite the way she thought.

‘Dan Brown works closely with his American editor and we used the American settings,’ Bill Scott-Kerr explained, in what was a polite, but that’s-all-you’re-going-to-get-from-me-on-the-subject, manner.

The ex sub-editor and writer looked confused, a little deflated. I could  see her thinking, ‘But everyone knows it badly written.’ Yes, but if you ask a guest for dinner and they bring dessert, you don’t go on about how horrible it tasted. And she could’ve asked the same question in a more constructive way. Maybe, ‘what was it about The Da Vinci Code that set it apart from all the other manuscripts ?’

Because isn’t that what you want to know as a writer? How do you get the agent/editor to notice your manuscript?  Well, they answered that too. It’s the combination of story and writing.

And the potential to sell 85 million copies.