Artie Bennett: Copyediting Christopher

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When I first heard from Michelle Frey, Christopher’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf, that she had an epic fantasy in the works, begun by a fifteen-year-old wunderkind in Montana, the first of a proposed trilogy that featured a multiplicity of languages, I remember thinking: “Hmm. This could be interesting.” Nearly ten years later, as I was putting my finishing touches on the first pass of Inheritance, the fourth book in the proposed trilogy that was now a quartet, with tears streaming down my cheeks, my vision was suddenly clouded, a grave occupational hazard in my line of work. After four masterworks—and an omnibus edition, limited, deluxe, and collector’s editions, an almanac, a movie tie-in edition, and a gorgeous guide to Alagaësia—the series had reached its completion as Eragon and his dragon companion, Saphira, sailed serenely off the page and into their next adventure. Wiping my eyes, I read and reread the final paragraphs—over and over again, and then once more—before finally signing off, so reluctant was I to let go. Boy, was it ever interesting!

I am Christopher’s copy editor, and I’ve been at Random House, parent company of Alfred A. Knopf, nearly as many years as Christopher has been on the planet. As a copy editor, I do my darnedest to perfect the projects before me, emancipating them from errors of every stripe while staying true to the author’s voice. It can be challenging work, but it has its rewards. And sometimes, a Christopher Paolini comes along.

Word lover (and collector!) that I am, I appreciated Christopher’s prodigious vocabulary as well as his storytelling gifts. I admired the way he seamlessly alternated passages of exquisite tenderness with those of high drama. But most of all, I marveled at his conjuring a world of such stunning complexity, with its Shades and werecats and Menoa trees and much, much more.

While at work on Inheritance, whose looming deadline compelled Christopher to visit New York City, we had several impromptu brainstorming sessions, often occasioned by the nuances of a word’s meaning. I called these get-togethers “powwow-linis” and I relished them. I can recall when one suggestion of mine found great favor. There was a reference in a battle scene to holding back “the mass of combatants,” but the word “mass” was flirting with overuse. We needed a substitution. I suggested the evocative “scrum,” and Christopher heartily approved.

And because of that looming deadline and the book’s monumental size, we were forced to divide Inheritance into three sections—and work on them simultaneously. This posed unique continuity concerns, as I would find myself attending to a later chunk while an earlier chunk awaited, but it added to the manic merriment of the undertaking.

Christopher and me

Christopher and me

Perhaps our very first powwow-lini dealt with the umlaut in the toponym “Alagaësia.” Placement of the umlaut (it’s technically a dieresis here because it has a neighboring vowel) over the “e,” I argued, would render the “a” and the “e” distinct sounds, as in the word “naïve.” It would then be pronounced al-uh-gah-EE-zee-uh, not al-uh-GAY-zee-uh. But Christopher deftly parried my position by pointing out that I was citing earthbound rules, which needn’t apply in Alagaësia.

The end section of a book is referred to in publishing circles as the back matter. In the Inheritance Cycle, the back matter for each of the books contained a pronunciation guide and glossary, and it would traffic separately from the rest of the book. I have to say that I loved working on these sections almost as much as on the story itself. It was a pleasurable flight of fancy to create a pronunciation key for the people, places, and things that existed only in Christopher’s remarkably fertile imagination. The glossary was, in effect, both a dictionary and phrase book, whose contents were drawn from invented languages, each having its own specific grammatical rules. It was extremely rare to catch Christopher in an inconsistency, so well constructed was this fantasy world, but it wasn’t impossible. I can recall his once inadvertently using a Dwarvish plural for an ancient language term, or vice versa, and the feeling of triumph I experienced when pointing it out. Keeping track of the ancient language’s acute accents and umlauts, and the profusion of Dwarvish circumflexes, certainly kept me on my toes. I was delighted to see a fourth language, the nomad language (the Urgal language, was, of course, the third), added to Brisingr’s glossary, though, sadly, its only entry was an honorific suffix. (By the way, I was glad that we never referred to the ancient language as Elvish, which always struck me as the reply to “Who was the king of rock and roll?” . . . after one has had a little too much eggnog.)

Early on, I became as much of a fan of the series as any of Christopher’s legions of enthusiasts. I had to constantly fight the impulse to skip ahead just a little bit to see how a cliffhanging sequence turns out. And I chronically constrained myself to read s-l-o-w-l-y, syllable by syllable, so that I wouldn’t overlook, say, the omission of a tiny word. It’s funny how one’s brain will generally supply a missing word (and the smaller the missing word, the more readily it’s furnished) unless one is reading with great deliberation, no easy feat when you’re swept along by the narrative tide. The death of Oromis and Glaedr, the battle of wits and wills with the enemy magicians, the heart-stopping scenes with the Ra’zac—all require the discipline of a samurai to read with restraint.

The notion that copyediting is an often thankless task was belied—or better, blown out of the water—by Christopher’s boundless generosity. When he graciously acknowledged me in Eragon as “the only man alive who understood the difference between ‘to scry it’ and ‘to scry on it,’ I had to quickly learn the difference. Equally gracious acknowledgments followed, the topper appearing in Inheritance, where I was cited for my “expertise in punctuation and words small, hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian, abstruse, and coined.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

Then there was the book signing at Barnes and Noble in Union Square, New York City, when Christopher addressed thousands of fervent fans. Before inscribing the scads of gobbled-up books, he called some of us onstage to express his gratitude. And his aficionados cheered us lustily, too.

And speaking of boundless generosity, an utterly unprecedented event took place one evening. Christopher and his family, after the completion of the Inheritance Cycle, invited everyone who had worked in any capacity on the series to an upscale Italian restaurant in the East Village for a private party. In addition to a scrumptious full-course meal, Christopher lavished personalized gifts on all the attendees. It was a night to remember, and to bask in its memory.

One of the bounteous bonuses of my handiwork was getting to meet Christopher and his family. A highlight was a Thai lunch together, along with his bewitching sister, Angela, inspiration for the tale’s herbalist. I witnessed firsthand Christopher’s fabled Kull-like appetite. He ordered two entrees to start and then greedily eyed mine and Angela’s. A trencherman after my own heart! It took me back to my post-college days when I worked on a Galileean kibbutz in Israel. There, I was dubbed Shnay Tsalachot—“Two Plates” in Hebrew—for plying the self-service dining room with a plate in each hand, which seemed at the time far more sensible than returning for seconds.

In the shank of this magnificent series, I too became an author. My first “mature” work, a picture book called The Butt Book, came out in January 2010. I then answered the call of doody with my “number two” picture book, Poopendous! The Inside Scoop on Every Type and Use of Poop. This was followed by Peter Panda Melts Down! and the uproarious Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!, both of which published in 2014.

When Poopendous! discharged in 2012, Christopher kindly sent me a celebratory package of real Montana moose poop. It was good to the last drop!

Montana Moose Poop
Being an author myself gave me a keener understanding of Christopher’s experience, though I’m still waiting for The Butt Book to be published in forty different languages—and the movie tie-in. The fact that I was something of a prodigy, too (I began to create crossword puzzles at a tender age and sold my first one to the New York Times when I was only thirteen), enabled an instant identification with Christopher. (See my “Claim to Fame” on my website, www.artiebennett.com, to read all about my checkered past.)

I’ve heard that Christopher is once again hunkering down, hard at work on his next project, and I’ve begun to sharpen my pencils. So whether it’s an ambitious multi-volume fantasy series or a wordless picture book, I’ll be delighted as a dragon to work on a brand-new Paolini!

*Editor’s note: Explore our gallery of interior pages from Artie’s books below.


 
* Want more inspiration? Check out our collection of guest articles and interviews here!

Artie Bennett

About Artie Bennett

Artie, executive copy editor extraordinaire, is also the author of several humorous children’s books, such as Poopendous! and Peter Panda Melts Down!. Check out his website here.