Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, 1940

Two things came together over this past weekend, in a very strange way, and I can’t let it go without a blog post.

First, I DVRed (ugh, is that a word now? It is easier than “I set my DVR to record” . . .) the Errol Flynn classic The Sea Hawk on TCM. I had some errands to do so I ended up watching it in three sittings. There’s a key scene in the movie in which Flynn, playing a fictional English privateer loosely modeled after Sir Francis Drake, is captured by the evil Spanish captain and forced into slavery, rowing a Spanish galley.

A fate also shared by Charlton Heston in the even more classic Ben-Hur.

Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, 1959

Why were all these galley slaves shirtless, I wonder? Was that actually true, back when there used to be galley slaves? Someone should research that.

Anyway, then there was the second thing that happened this weekend:

My editor at Adams Media, Peter Archer, sent me the galley for The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, so I spent a good portion of the weekend reading through that, and still have two-thirds of it to finish on evenings this week, and next weekend.

I assume everybody knows what a galley is—a ship powered by oars, generally manned by shirtless slaves—but what am I talking about with this book galley?

Technically, I guess, what Peter sent me were page proofs, since it was actually my own original Word file including edits from him, and from one of Adams’s staff or freelance copy editors, whereas a galley, per se, is a copy of the typeset pages. Or do I have that the wrong way around? Twenty-four years in publishing isn’t too long to still be confused by that, especially since at TSR we had “laser galleys,” (the edited Word Perfect file printed on a “laser printer”), a “typeset galley,” (hardcopies of the typesetter’s Quark files to proof before they were sent to the printer), and “bluelines” (proofs from the print vendor that come printed in blue ink) as a final quality pass.

Now at Wizards of the Coast, I send Word files to a copy editor first then a proofreader and the author at the same time, proof the typeset galley myself, and someone from our quality assurance team checks the bluelines.

All these end up just being called “galleys” in our parlance.

The term “galley” in this context came from the little oblong box that old school typesetters used to set lines of lead type for moveable type presses. I ran across an interesting photo-essay on how moveable type presses work, thanks to University of Maryland professor Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, and borrowed one of his photos below:

The fact that books aren’t printed on this ancient device anymore doesn’t mean we still don’t use even more terms originally coined back in those days. The space between lines of text is still referred to as “leading,” for example, even though this is now adjusted digitally, rather than a typesetter physically placing a strip of lead of a certain width between lines of type. There is no box that looks like a little ship, with text all lined up like slaves at the oars, but the term “galley” has survived.

Typestting, Old School Stylee

Working through the galley of a book you’ve written can be a trying experience for even the most experienced authors. For newer authors maybe looking at one for the first time, or experienced authors who might have let their egos get the better of them, here are some words of caution.

It’s okay to trust your editor. This is not a competition. You shouldn’t feel as though you’re in some kind of struggle for dominance with your editor. If you sincerely disagree with an edit, say so, but in the same spirit of collaboration with which you’d like that editor to approach you.

Understand where you fit in. If you’ve written a work-for-hire book, like any of Wizards of the Coast’s tie-in novels, understand that some edits are going to be made in the interest of bigger brand continuity issues. I could find a more polite way to say it, but in the interest of time: “Get over it,” will have to do. You just have to trust that your editor knows the brand a little better than you do. If this is not a shared world book, chances are you have a clause in your contract that allows you final approval of the text. That means you have the right to compel the editor to do it your way, but refer back to the first point above and think carefully before you swing that stick.

Resist the temptation to rewrite. And by that I mean just don’t do it at all at this stage. By now, the page count has been set, press time booked, and if all of a sudden you really really need to have this new chapter added—take a deep breath, get a hold of yourself, and forget it. Your editor may be inclined to stop the presses for you, but the ripple effect will very rarely go your way. If the release of the book has to be delayed, and it falls out of the catalog, it could end up as a “drop in,” which means it’ll have to fight even harder for any share of the book store buyers’ already-spent budgets . . . that’s a whole other blog post, how easy it is for a great book to essentially end up still-born. Anyway, do not rewrite in the galley stage.

Lastly, don’t sweat the mistakes. You will find that the copyeditor corrected some spectacularly boneheaded error on your part that will make your skin crawl. How could I be so monumentally stupid, you may ask yourself, as to confuse there and their, forget a period at the end of that sentence, or say that an audience sat in “wrapped attention” (wink)? Easy. Anyone can be monumentally stupid if you adjust your expectations so that any of these very simple mistakes feel monumental. They aren’t monumental, they’re really small, and that’s why we hire copy editors and proofreaders. You should be cringing when someone points them out, via Facebook or whatnot, when the book is printed and in stores. Then that simple little mistake belongs to the ages, but if a proofreader spots in the galley, it’s just as though it never happened.

—Philip Athans

Where Story Meets World™

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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6 Responses to GALLEY SLAVE

  1. Gerald says:

    I have never in my life VCRed anything, so why should I DVR something. Sometimes the simplest is the best. I recorded something still works for me.

    Oh, and nice seque.

  2. Pingback: MY 100th POST | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  3. Pingback: MY BICENTENNIAL (AFTER A FASHION) | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  4. Wow, marvelous blog structure! How lengthy have you been blogging for? you made running a blog look easy. The full glance of your website is great, as smartly as the content material!

  5. Habibi says:

    Very interesting subject, thanks for posting.

  6. Pingback: TEN YEARS OF FANTASY AUTHOR’S HANDBOOK | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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