What Copy Editors Do and How They Save the World

Dickens and editorFor some time now, people have been asking me to write about what copy editors do and why they’re important. This is a companion piece to last year’s little trot through the origins and history of publishers’ editing: “What Editors Do”.

Why now? I have just actually been reviewing the copy editor’s changes on the text of my new book. So the mind is focused on what I did and what it felt like.

I should point out that, like my blog on editors, this is highly personal. Though I have also drawn on conversations with copy editors and a great talk, some years ago at an RNA Chapter, by jay Dixon, a trained copy editor.

Emotions Aroused by the Copy Editor

writer v. copy editorReading a copy editor’s comments can be quite an emotional experience for writers.

OK, most writers tear their hair out in the drama of deadlines versus  domesticity. Happens at least once a book to me.

But there are three reasons why copy editing can be particularly painful.

gin before copy editors1 Copy edits come at the end of everything. You’ve finished the first draft (AAARGH). You’ve done everything your editor wanted (hiss, spit, make tea, weep, re-write, polish; possibly several times). If you’re lucky you’ve had a word or two of praise. You’ve broken out the gin.

copy editors at work

 

 

2  And now you’re being marked like a (not very good) student in an exam. Corrections in red. Could do better.

3 You’ve come to the end of the line. Now you have to get out and walk. You’ve been motoring up to now. This is grindingly SLOW. copy editors work slowly

I’m not saying it’s fair, certainly not to the copy editor.

I’m not saying it’s rational.

It’s human. Feel it. Forget it.

Copy Editors Monitor language

Basically this means they keep you grammatical, properly spelled, well punctuated and consistent in the use of hyphens. For anyone like me who gets fogged up between English and American usage, this is invaluable.

copy editors love old booksThey correct the occasional Malapropism. (“The importance of bondage between a mother and a child” – thank you, Dan Quayle.)

Software word checking can’t do that. It’s aimed at spelling, not sense. But sometimes your synapses scramble the word before you can type it. Sometimes Autocorrect strikes.

They also consider style in the bigger picture – vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph length – in the context of a house style, if you are published by a third party or, perhaps, in the context of readers of similar books to your own, if you’re an independent.

Copy Editors Monitor Internal Consistency

When jay Dixon showed us her consistency list, I was astonished. She had a calendar of events. She also had page for each character on which she noted not only their appearance and back story, but every time they appeared, key things they said, any preferences they had. Emma Bovary’s eyes wouldn’t have changed colour on her watch!

copy editor rocksIn my own recent novel, the copy editor caught one of my minor characters drinking the wrong comfort beverage. “Too right,” I shouted and did a couple of cartwheels.

I’d also changed the names of two of my minor characters in a couple of places. Both were pure brain scramble. BUT I would never have caught them myself in a month of Sundays. I’d have seen what I expected to see.

Copy Editors Monitor External Consistency

The extent of this depends on what the publisher or the independent author asks them to do. copy editor accuracySometimes they just raise a query – SUBTEXT “Look it up, if you’re haven’t already. Looks a bit iffy to me.”

Sometimes, as with Regency novels, for example, the copy editor will have seen both the history and the common errors so frequently, she knows the answer.

Historical fact, geographic distances, forms of address, even prevailing fashion – I’ve seen copy editors asking for sources to check all of these, when something in the novel they’re working on just strikes a wrong note. Experience tells here.

Risks of No Copy Editing

copy editors rescue readersYou can seriously confuse your reader, so they simply lose track of the story.

You look a) careless or b) an idiot, so that the reader spends their time tutting, instead of engaging with your characters.

Too much of that and you have a bunch seriously pissed-off readers. They feel insulted. Or contemptuous.

It reminds me of once buying a (cheap) pair of trousers and discovering, when I got them home, that I had to turn up the hems myself. I did it, but I was mightily annoyed and hated the trousers for ever. Even though it was cheap, I never went back to the shop again.

How Copy Editors Save the World

copy editors shakespeare accused of poachingThe philosophers tell you that the English language is alive and living things change. When Shakespeare said, “Presently,” he meant in the present, now, at once. In the twentieth century it became the classic postponing word.

“Gay” once meant light-hearted, carefree, brightly coloured; beribboned, even. In living memory, too.

smirk copy editors please saveCopy editors keep the peoples of the world understanding each other by making sure that  authors use words in the same sense as the majority of English speaking users.

(Though “smirking” is now badly at risk, among certain sections of the romance community. Yet it has a wonderfully useful association of grubby complacence, point-scoring and all-round loathsomeness. Think Uriah Heap. And crocodiles. Heroes don’t smirk, people!)

Copy editors of novels keep quotations precise; historical detail accurate; and journeys from Land’s End to John O’Groats taking longer than a couple of hours. No matter what the flying fingers of the novelist heading for THE END may do in writer’s exaltation, copy editors keep us sane.

I salute them.

Lessons of a Serendipitous Editing Week

By pure serendipity, this last week has turned out to be all about editing.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. I had finished the substantial edits needed on my new book, The Prince’s Bride. I felt they made the story hugely better. The publisher’s editor accepted them. The book went up on Amazon for pre-order. It should all have been done and dusted.

But …

I needed to refresh my introduction page on this website. What’s more, the book I’ve been worrying at for far too long was calling to me for some editorial TLC. Loudly.

Julie Cohen TogetherAND

I went to a talk on pacing by the brilliant Julie Cohen at the Romantic Novelists’ Association on Thursday. Came home inspired.

And then I started reading the The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz, which is new and strange and full of clearly heartfelt asides on a writer’s craft, disciplines, habits and general weirdness. Including editing. At one point the writer-narrator actually starts editing a vicar’s funeral oration – too many “verys”, in case you’re interested.

Editing is Difficult but Necessary

Editing and flying into the mist

Now, I’ve always found editing my own books difficult. Indeed, when I first started writing stories for publication, I thought editing was almost cheating. I flew off into the mist, under the white-hot power of spontaneous invention. What came out at the other end was, of course, going to be Truth.

When it was clearly Untruth, and a slippery porridge of half digested ideas to boot, I would just put it to one side and take off again on a new flight.

Eventually I learned that flying into the mist is fine at the purely creative stage. But after that I needed to make sure that a) I and b) the readers know what’s going on. In other words, Edit the Damn Book.

Week’s Editing Lesson 1

Tell the reader the things they need to know in the right order. By that, I mean the order of importance to the reader, not to me.

When it came to my new Sophie Introduction page, that meant my new book has to be the first item. It’s news.

editing abandoned ms

But what of my much-loved and frequently abandoned Work In Progress? I had just finished a major editing exercise and I’d learned a lot from it. I could apply those lessons to the tattered pages, couldn’t I?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because I need to think about the reader’s needs, not mine.

editing hun and hunkess

No, because The Prince’s Bride is a romance, focused on one relationship. Work in Progress has romance, sure. But there are at least 2 non-romantic subplots and some major conflicts for characters where love, true love, is no answer at all, even with a serious hunk. Or hunkess.

The right order is not self evident. Confession: I have 39 drafts to prove it.

This is not a failure of story telling craft. It’s vacillating, pure and simple. My guru editor, Jacqui Bianchi, would have hit me over the head with my teddy bear until I stopped tiffling. Gulp.

Week’s Editing Lesson 2

Be brave!

Week’s Editing Lesson 3

Experiment with post it notes to plot characters’ every action. Thank you, Julie Cohen!

editing sequence actionsI’ve heard her say it before, mind you. Never thought I’d do it. But my besetting sin when editing is writing new stuff, instead of applying myself to what’s already there.

I may be able to work out what the reader needs to know next  by drawing up a detailed list of what actions are already there in Neglected Book.

Will probably colour code by character. Possibly star code to show significance and turning points. OTT? It’s going to be fun.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

editing in The Word is MurderWeek’s Editing Lesson 4

Don’t be scared by feeling out of control. Thank you Anthony Horowitz. (The Word is Murder really is a cracking book, in so many ways!)

Out of control is dynamic. It means the story lives.

A little bit out of control may just be essential to keep the freshness.

Remembering that might stop my pointless rewriting. Focused rewriting, however, remains a brilliant tool.

Week’s Editing Lesson 5

Editing is creative too. I enjoy it. I’m good at it and getting better. Thank you Joanna Maitland.

My esteemed critique partner reminded me of how I apply myself to editing. It’s always painful to begin with but, once started, I see the mist clearing and all sorts of ways to make my story sparkle.

The end product surprises me every time. In a good way.

I’ll still need Joanna to stop me tiffling, though.

And If You’d Like Some Editing Help …

Joanna and I are sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned to add that sparkle to a manuscript in a one day workshop in London next  month.

Saturday, 21st October 2017. Venue: RAF Club, 128 Piccadilly, London
For more information and how to book, see the London Flyer here

Forth Bridge #3 — the Queensferry Crossing

Forth bridge #3 the Queensferry Crossing

Forth Bridge #3 the Queensferry Crossing

A few days ago, on 4th September 2017 to be exact, the Queen opened the #3 crossing of the River Forth, at Queensferry. The date was chosen, I assume, because it was 53 years to the day since she had opened the #2 crossing, the original Forth Road Bridge, back in 1964 (shown below with the Queensferry Crossing beyond).

Forth Bridge #2 the Forth Road bridge

The Queen did not, of course, open the original Forth Bridge; that was done by her great-grandfather, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1890. Continue reading

Resolution for Writers?

resolution needed to endI don’t know if I’m a particularly picky reader, but I do like a novel to have some sort of resolution. It doesn’t have to be a traditional happy ending – though, as a writer, I always end up with my characters looking forward hopefully. But that’s my quirk.

I can take bereavement, despair or the end of the world in other people’s books. Even enjoy them in a Having a Good Cry sort of way.

What I can’t be doing with, is to turn the page and find that there’s no more book. And in the last few months I’ve found that happening more and more.

Is a Resolution purely a Matter of Taste?

Continue reading

Reeling, Precision, Storytelling

Reeling dancing aloneReeling is an odd concept. In one sense the word means staggering, lurching violently. Also, losing one’s balance, as when under the influence of illness, shock or alcohol.

In another it refers to the controlled performance of a dance. But not just any old dance, where you have one partner, or none, and do whatever takes your fancy. This has a pattern which conforms strictly to bars of music. Every performer co-ordinates with a number of other people in a variety of figures. It employs both travelling steps and dancing on the spot. The result is a shifting pattern, like a kaleidoscope, only you’re in the middle of it instead of watching from above.

Believe me, there’s no room for the first definition in the second activity. There would be blood on the floor. Reels are nothing if not precise. Continue reading

Diane Pearson, In Memoriam

 

So very sorry that wonderful Diane Pearson, seen here on the left, with the equally legendary Patricia Robins, has died.

Best Selling Novelist

Yes, she was a genuine, gold-plated, international best selling novelist. Her greatest work, Csardas, was called the European Gone With the Wind.

It was reprinted a couple of years ago. And, in spite of her increasingly debilitating illness, Diane saw no reason not to give one of her justly famous parties to celebrate.

It was a lovely summer evening, she was on gossipy top form and the new edition had a spectacularly beautiful cover. One of many delicious memories I have of Diane.

And Editor …

Continue reading

Sloppy Genre Novels, a Reader’s Perspective

sloppy genre novels NY Times Book reviewIn a recent piece in the New York Times Book Review a well known British novelist is scathing about what she calls “sloppy genre novels”.

I’m currently in Reader Mode. (I’m editing. That always sends me to reading for consolation.) Writerly reaction will have to wait.

But Facebook has shown me that several genre novelists have raised an eyebrow at this apparent attack.

The phrase is racy and moderately memorable. Memorable enough to make it into the puff paragraph, anyway. It is, alas, imprecise. Continue reading

Discoverability and Reviews, from the Reader’s POV

reviews reading with catReaders don’t talk much about discoverability or even reviews, I find. Writers, of course, worry about them all the time.

I’m both. But I read more books than I write.

Heck, I read more words than I write and I’ve been motoring at 3,000 words a day for a while now. That’s gross, you understand. In every sense of the word, probably, though I’d prefer you to interpret it as the opposite of net.

Reviews and Recommendations

As a reader, I like recommendations. Not reviews so much. Well not big ticket reviews in the Grown Up media, anyway. I slightly mistrust them. There’s always the feeling that the reviewer is writing with one eye on the book and the other on his own credibility with fellow critics. Continue reading

A Sideways Look at Regency Life — All At Sea!

figure contemplating slightly stormy sea

When we read fiction set in the Regency period, we often come across references to sea journeys but, usually, they’re over pretty quickly. On one page, we’re at Dover or Harwich or Falmouth. A paragraph or two later, we’ve arrived at our destination and the story continues. (Not in all fiction, of course. Who could forget Mary Challoner’s horrendous cross-Channel trip in Heyer’s Devil’s Cub? Still, at least Vidal proffered a basin at the vital moment.)

Nowadays, our ships have GPS and radar and even engines! 😉 So this modern figure, staring out over a slightly stormy sea, has little to fear from going on board. But what was it really like, making a sea voyage on one of the Regency’s relatively tiny and fragile sailing craft?

Let’s take an imaginary sea journey…

Continue reading

Rose and the Panther — a Cautionary Tale of Workshops

As some of our readers will know, Sophie and I gave an editing workshop — complete with black  panther — at the RNA Conference in mid-July 2017. (Fantastic conference, by the way.)
About 70 people attended. That’s a lot — we normally limit our workshop numbers to 12!

sparklers in the hands of a loving couple

Our topic was editing to add Sparkle to our writing in order to hook and hold readers. Since we only had an hour, rather than our normal 2 full days, it was more of a twinkle.
But it was fun. And we hope that those who attended found it useful.

We certainly did. It taught us some salutary lessons which I’ll share in a moment.
First, let me introduce you to Rose… Continue reading