The Master File

In the storage area next to my work room there’s a set of shelves that nobody ever touches, principally because it’s tucked in a corner and laden with musty old piles of dust-shrouded paper, four or five inches thick, that no sane person would want to risk disturbing. Some of the piles are boxed, some are wrapped as parcels, and the rest are simply nondescript wads of old draft manuscript.  The boxed ones, though, are Master Files of a kind that no one ever uses any more, so they are, quite literally, pieces of history, albeit a tiny, arcane sliver of history recognizable only to writers and editors who can remember the days before computers revolutionized the publishing industry.

Sophisticated word-processing technology makes it possible today to prepare a new book for publication completely on-line, via email and without a single paper page being printed before the book is typeset. But that’s theory rather than practice, and it doesn’t work for me.

I’m not comfortable attempting any substantial on-screen editing in the early stages of writing a new book. I prefer to print off a hard copy of what I’ve written each day, double-spaced for convenience and legibility, and then edit it with a pencil in my hand, because I can see the changes I’ve made far more plainly and clearly that way than I ever could on a computer screen. I can make minor edits easily on-screen once the book is finished and I’m interacting with an editor, but up front in the early stages I’m happier editing with a pencil, on paper. And that’s what’s so interesting about these Master Files I have in storage.

When that File system was in use, as recently as the late 1990s, everything went by mail. It was the only truly reliable, inexpensive system we had for shipping large, bulky documents.

So I would write my book and print it—a paginated, double-spaced first draft manuscript anywhere from 800 to 1100 pages long that spooled off a hideously expensive laser printer at about eight pages per minute—in those days that was fast!—then ship it off to my editor in Toronto. And after about a month, the mailman would bring it back to me with a profusion of little yellow Post-It notes sticking out from the edges of the typescript pages.

Every one of those notes contained a suggestion, or a question or a comment dealing with some aspect of the novel, and every one of them had to be answered individually. There were no exceptions, because even if my response was a quibble or an outright rejection, it had to be registered on the original manuscript. At that earliest stage, most of the notes led to rewriting (sometimes rearranging) whole segments and sections, all of which had to be incorporated into the revised document by cutting and pasting, and so the manuscript grew inexorably thicker, and started to become ungainly. But I would deal with it, and eventually ship the package back for approval.

A month or so later it would come back again with all the yellow Stickies still in place, but now they were augmented with blue ones, and the entire process was repeated, and then repeated again as necessary until eventually the bulk of the manuscript had virtually doubled, thanks to all the cutting and pasting, with each edited draft denoted by differently coloured Notes: yellow, blue, pink, green and eventually white, which I remember as always being the final draft. By then the bundle was invariably unmanageable, unbalanced, and inconvenient to work with, since one had virtually no chance of separating the disparate pages into neat, manageable piles.

But then one day a different package would arrive, neat and startlingly uniform, containing galley proofs—a complete set of finished, typeset pages, with chapter headings, page headers and numbers, and all the welcome signs that this story was really going to become a bona fide Book. There were still changes to be made—typographical and proofing errors to be corrected, maps to be inserted, and dedications and acknowledgments to be added, but essentially the work—and the Master File—was complete.

When the published book appeared several months later, though, it always came as a delightful shock, because in the editing process, I had lost sight of the book as a whole, focusing on progressively smaller production details, and finicky, nit-picky quibbles brought up by one production person  or another.

Now, though, looking at one of those original Master Files, I shudder to think what would have happened had one gone astray in the mail, for each one was irreplaceable, intricately and painstakingly assembled by an entire team of people and containing years of man hours and effort. Each was unique, comprehensive and priceless, and there were no duplicates. And yet I’ve never heard of one being lost, which calls for a “Bravo” for Canada’s too-often maligned Postal Service.