Many of our online friends know that my sister, Harriet Vachss Harris, passed away in late March. Along with being a great sister and friend, she was also my editor. In the months before her brief illness, Harriet’s last project was editing the book I recently published, The Victory That Wasn’t.
Harriet helped me in ways that no other editor could have. Most editors simply make changes to MS Word pages, with deletions and added words identified in red, so that the originating author can accept or reject changes. Harriet didn’t work that way.
She never changed my writing. Instead, she sent me long lists of comments. Most of her comments identified a page number and a few introductory words. For example she might say “Page 206-‘In the program’s second month’–that doesn’t agree with the previous paragraph.”
Writing notes like that is much more laborious than simply changing the text. But Harriet always insisted that I make every change myself. She didn’t believe that editors should push their writing style into an author’s own wording. With that principle in mind, she ensured that every word would be my own. “I’m not the starting shortstop,” she would say, using a baseball metaphor. “I’m your first base coach.”
Harriet and I worked in different time zones, and were three hours apart. I often worked in the evening in California, while the East Coast was sleeping. That turned out to be a perfect arrangement for us. I emailed chapters late at night, and by the time I started work the next day, I would have Harriet’s exhaustive list of comments.
Many of her comments were about the nuts and bolts of punctuation, syntax, or usage. But many other comments referenced parts of the book that are based things I personally experienced in my Army years. While I was away on Army assignment, my sister and I exchanged letters regularly, keeping each other current on what we were doing.
Harriet’s incredible memory therefore held many recollections of things that I had experienced, but forgotten. From time to time her comments would prompt me with these forgotten episodes, and I would use some of them to refine the narrative of my story. She also offered clear memories of news stories for the time period covered in the book. These often suggested ways I could make my “alternate history” mesh with real world events.
I’ll soon begin another book…I already have a mental outline of it. And I’ll find another editor. Nevertheless I know that I’ll never find another Harriet.