And now, with the book safely on dead (hopefully gently euthanized) trees, I can tell the story of my small part in this important project by my friend and colleague, Richard N. Côté. In Search of Gentle Death is a history of the modern right-to-die movement as it has evolved in many nations. I served as the final proofreader in a whirlwind, crash process earlier this year that had me seeing strange things due to eyestrain–and it was worth every moment.
I’ll skip the synopsis here, since the link provides one, but my enthusiastic endorsement of the book probably won’t stun you. As a participant, I can’t ethically put up an Amazon review. I can tell you that Dick is a dedicated researcher and social historian, and he hasn’t failed us here. Not one bit. For some samples of his best previous work, I commend to you Strength & Honor: the Life of Dolley Madison, and City of Heroes: the Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886. If you are at all interested in the right-to-die movement, Dick talked to all the right people, which isn’t as easy as with, say, the quilting or racquetball communities. To a certain degree, the movement exists on the ‘down low.’ In many countries, helping a terminally ill person end life on his or her own terms can mean jail time. Even providing or publishing the information is illegal some places. Therefore, not everyone has these folks on speed dial, or can get them to speak frankly. Dick will tell you where the movement has been, is and is going.
For the project’s first five years, specifically until its final month, I wasn’t part of it except as a projected advance copy reviewer and general waver of pompoms. I’ve known Dick for some years, and he’s given me heaps of helpful guidance. Now and then we’ll have a fine chat on the phone, usually about our current projects and/or the current state of the literary markets. That’s how I knew about his progress with In Search of Gentle Death. So happened, at about the typesetting stage, Dick sent me an advance galley of the front material and first chapter of the book. After typesetting is supposed to come final proofreading. What Dick hadn’t known is that proofreading is my wheelhouse, one of the very few things in life I do well enough to have an unbearable ego about. I spotted a misspelled name and reported it to him. (Amusing side note: it was that of the infamous Tim LaHaye, author of some apocalyptic religious novels.) I offered to be the final proofreader, knowing that if I saw that one on a cursory read, there’d be more. After I reiterated the offer a couple more times, Dick advised me in his trademark jolly way that I’d made the mistake of offering too many times, and as my punishment, he was accepting my service.
It would be a fast-paced, demanding job, and I was looking forward to showing my stuff. Editor Diane Anderson and editor/typesetter Betty Burnett seemed to have fine chemistry with Dick from the outset, so I’d be coming onto a team that was all business and tightly focused, with some work to do in order to show that I belonged. I’d also be pointing out people’s errors, which demands a certain degree of tact. In this world, no one hates you for doing that, provided you do so with professionalism and good humor. A license to nitpick.
My pace was about a chapter a day, sometimes a little more. The only work I did on the computer was compiling and e-mailing the list of items needing editorial attention. The actual proofreading involved printing the chapter, taking it upstairs, reading it, redpenning it, and slapping post-its on the pages. Dick told me I didn’t have to look up all the names. I ignored him and did it anyway, and glad I did–found a fair number misspelled, but as a whole the book was not heavily littered with typos. After my initial pass on a chapter, I set it aside for about eight hours, then came back and proofread the whole thing a second time with tighter focus. This typically turned up about as many items again as my first pass. In a couple of cases, when I saw a suspiciously low typo count, I presumed I’d been phoning it in, snarled at myself for slipping, and read it all a third time.
It was a mentality not alien to a totalitarian regime’s interrogators: everyone is guilty and must confess. Thus, the typos were there to be found, in my mind, and by the gods I had better get every one. Ninety-nine out of a hundred was not satisfactory. If I needed additional motivation, I could always consider that Dick had been working on this for five years. Five years of a man’s life, great effort and expense invested. Yeah, I’d say that merits doing whatever it takes to do the job justice, even if not for the need on my part to justify a ginormous ego and some fairly loud boasting, to say nothing of simple professional pride. Yeah, I was going to bust ass on it.
I did this work for about three weeks until I caught up on the previously typeset material. About that time, I began seeing strange things in my lower right field of vision and went to my ophthalmologist, who told me my eyes were fine but sent me for a carotid ultrasound and (when that proved normal) a brain MRI. Of course, my friends all razzed me that they hoped the MRI found something. It did: that I did have a brain, it was functioning as designed (for good or ill), and that nothing was wrong. I put it all down to eyestrain and stopped worrying about it.
Dick was still writing the last two chapters as my proofing caught up to him. On those, when I got the galleys (literary-speak for edited but unpublished manuscript), I would be the bottleneck, the whole project waiting on what I might find. I think he was fully booked out by then, at utmost strain of effort to finish, though still keeping amazing good humor considering he probably wanted to just knock back a bottle of Chardonnay and sleep for three days. What I hadn’t told him at the outset was that in real crunch times, I have another gear. Can you imagine what kind of lunatic gets an adrenaline rush from proofreading under pressure? You’s lookin’ at him. I got both chapters turned around in about two hours each as they came to me. It felt like being the setup specialist in a baseball bullpen: come in, throw a double-play ball, fan the next batter on two sliders and a knuck, put out the rally and hand it off to ace closers, lefty and righty.
Most of my interaction was with Dick and Diane, only much later in the project with Betty (with whom I’d have liked to get better acquainted, but we were, well, busy as hell). I’ve worked with a couple dozen editors, and most ranged from good to superb. This crew can all take their places in the top tier of that listing. Our relationship was bantery when it could be and frank when it had to be, such as if I was marking up something the author/editors had already decided needed to stay as given. (Editese: ‘stet’ is the term for this, short for ‘let stand as set,’ meaning “don’t change it.”) Probably 1/4 of my catches ended up stetted, I’ll guess. That’s perfectly fine. My work wasn’t to change anything, simply to notice and pass everything on for the team to evaluate. It was a wild literary ride, but a happy rollicking one, livened by Dick and Diane’s cheerful wit and a sense of socially productive work.
Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Glad I didn’t shut up about it in the pre-beginning! Dick, Diane, Betty, thanks for having me. Truly an honor.
Buy the book from Amazon (when it gets into stock there)