editing

multi-coloured plant leaves and shoots

Copy-editing 101 for Authors

Just realised I gave a lot of detail about the copy-editing process, but not much about the big picture. So…

Copy-editing means slightly different things to different people. However, as a rule, it includes both proof-reading (checking for grammar and punctuation errors, logical inconsistencies and awkward/ambiguous phrasing) and formatting using a house style (i.e. a document specifying how different things should be formatted and how ambiguous grammar issues should be dealt with) or an established style (e.g. Harvard referencing, AMA, etc.).

Most publishers have their own house style, which will be broadly in line with one of the major styles of formatting, especially as regards referencing (if this applies).

So, Faber prefers ‘Sonny Rawlins’s pen’ rather than ‘Sonny Rawlins’ pen.’ Also, Faber would prefer ‘it twitched and twisted as if she was trying to be funny’ rather than the traditional rendering of the conditional subjunctive ‘it twitched and twisted as if she were trying to be funny’ (I have a strong preference for the latter so we went with that in the end). Some of the hyphen issues I mentioned before may also be partly house style issues, though it looks to me that it’s a strict adherence to the Oxford English Dictionary rules (the industry standard) for the most part.

Basically, the copy-editor smoothes and tidies in terms of grammar, punctuation, formatting AND content. It’s a pretty tall order.

The tricky bit is how much a copy-editor should comment on content. While I do the odd little bit of copy-editing (if a client asks me to format a reference list or make sure an article is broadly inline with a journal’s house style), most of my work involves more in-depth editing… So it’s expected that I’ll delve into the content quite a bit. But, to be fair, I find it hard not to anyway.

My take on editing of any sort is that if you tell clients and students everything you think could change, then they can examine the possibilities… all the possibilities. All the ways things could be different. Of course, they’ll accept some changes and reject others, but they’ll have had the opportunity to double-check more of the decisions that went into the writing of their work. And I think that’s always a good thing. A comment challenges the way you’ve done something. It makes you think again about whether it is the best way. And why it’s the best way. And that may help you improve other elements of the book or article or whatever the document is.

One of the things that really impressed me about Eleanor was what a light touch she had with her copy-editing. She picked up a lot of little things… but she was very respectful of the book and seemed to have a strong sense of my aesthetic and when I’d make an unusual choice that was entirely intentional. Punctuation is a good thing to look at here because there are rules, but they’re not as rigid as people sometimes think, especially in fiction. For instance, in fiction, it’s fair enough to have sentence fragments.

Amy’s voice. Soft and warm, like the blankets, like the bed.

Amy, not Fiona.

A sigh. My own. The air is hot and sharp with the smell of chemicals.

This could be punctuated in various ways. There are things that can’t and won’t work – though students often think that in fiction you can break all the rules of punctuation, rather than just bending some of them – but there are also plenty of acceptable options.

Before the copy-editing process started, I was worried that my copy-editor would want to change some of these things to other, acceptable options… But Eleanor didn’t touch anything that fell into this category. And I really appreciated that.

Ideally, the copy-editing process should involve dialogue between the copy-editor and author, plenty of compromise and some negotiation. If there’s a rule about something, and there isn’t an acceptable alternative, then don’t fight a change to uphold the rule. If the copy-editor thinks you haven’t been clear, maybe you really haven’t. But just occasionally there will be something you don’t agree on that you think is important, and then you just have to say ‘Please can we keep it as is.’ If you’ve not been difficult, and if there isn’t a true error at stake, it shouldn’t be a problem.

On the whole, though, I’d assume that most comments merit a change, even if it’s not exactly what the copy-editor is suggesting. Maybe she has spotted an error, but the correction just doesn’t sound right to you. So correct the error in a different way. But do correct it.

And there you go. My take on ‘Copy-editing 101 for Authors’.

How about you? Have your experiences been similar or have you had the bad luck to have a heavy-handed copy-editor?

butterfly on lavender

Are we there yet?

Where were we? I’m having real trouble keeping track of when now is and when it should be. I seem to keep ending up somewhere in the middle. But I suppose that’s better than believing we’re in September (and late September at that), as everyone else seems to think (and I thought I was having bad when-am-I? issues).

Anyway, today is a day in July. Um… Early July. Say the 4th of July, because that’s meant to be a good day for Americans (and part Americans presumably get a pretty good day too). Anyway, it’s the 4th or the 5th or the early-something-th of July and I’ve got a lovely email waiting in my in-box…

Rebecca has reviewed the revised manuscript and… she likes it! She’s happy with the changes!

I scan frantically through her notes to see how much there is still to do…

Change a few words here and there, mainly where words are repeated within the same sentence or in neighbouring ones. I never have any trouble spotting these when I’m editing for other people, but I can NEVER see my own work clearly in this regard.

Hm… here’s a line of dialogue to change. Oh, and one other. This I can cope with! If only it’s just this level of stuff that’s left now…

What’s this? Something to clarify. This I can do! (In about 10 minutes, what’s more.)

Ooooops. Typo!

Ah… The answer to one of my questions… To footnote or not to footnote: that was, indeed, the question…. And now it is answered. (Not to footnote – use your Author’s Note at the end.)

A word that doesn’t work in this line of dialogue.  Another in that. Fair enough.

This new line in the revised manuscript needs some further work: not clear enough. Hm… How can I say it better?

Ah, a nice little slip of logic there: people are seeing things with their  eyes closed. Which would be fine if this were a fantasy novel, but not quite so great in a psychological thriller… Probably they need their eyes open for this.

Oh, and here is a nice little bit of unattributed dialogue. Now who does it belong to? Probably worth specifying since I hate it when other writers aren’t clear (one of my little quibbles with Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall – curious minds want to know, so authors should beware of withholding).

To italicise or not to italicise this one word? Who cares? Whatever way Rebecca likes it is fine with me: she’s the one who has enough distance from the book to see these little things clearly. It’s not like dropping the italics on this single word is going to make a blind bit of difference to anyone’s enjoyment of the book.

Excellent! My character has just skipped out in the middle of the school day for no apparent reason. Or at least that’s the unintended implication. Better make it clear that the chat with the headmistress happens right at the end of the day so she can poddle off afterwards without it being strange that no storm ensues.

Lands instead of alights? I really like alights. Please, please can I keep it?

The American in me is fighting to get out. Run for cover! Garbage invasion! Where’s some good British rubbish when you need it?

Look out! The Inner American is taking charge. Beware the frightful parking lot! Save our car parks!

Ah… This is interesting. A three word phrase that might just give the game away two pages too early. It gets so hard to tell after a while from the ‘inside’ of the book. This is exactly why brilliant editors are needed to tell you (as the writer) how to strike the right balance in terms of giving readers enough information… but not too much.

And there we have it… A few hours worth of work and the book will be done… I hope. Cross fingers!

(BTW, I know the photo has nothing to do with the post but I just really like it… It’s a happy post. It’s a happy sort of a photo. Will that do as a connection?)

So that was my experience of second-stage revisions with my publisher… Is it about par for the course, beyond Rebecca being especially lovely and brilliant? Any horror stories out there?

Peacock butterfly

A critical year: market factors and manuscripts

So, picking right up where I left off, the biggest change my publisher wanted to see in the manuscript concerned my protagonist’s age. The suggestion: to make Evie 14 instead of 13 pushing 14. My reaction: no problem.

Rebecca’s reasoning was that, given the themes of the book and the way it’s written, it’s most likely to appeal to the YA and adult markets. Making Evie 14 as opposed to 13 pushes the book more firmly into the YA market rather than the Children’s market – where it wouldn’t belong at all – as, at 14 going on 15, Evie herself falls broadly into the YA category. Rebecca felt that this little change – an age increase of somewhere between 6 and 12 months for my protagonist – would make a big impact on how easy to the book would be to market. I completely agree with her rationale.

But sometimes market factors push a book in a direction that the author doesn’t want to go. Deciding what to do then is a real conundrum. Thankfully, I didn’t have any such reservations about changing Evie’s age. For me, it was a purely technical issue and didn’t alter anything important about the story. My reasoning went like this…

At age 14, Evie is starting her two-year GCSE courses, but she isn’t facing any major life events like doing her GCSE exams or A-Levels… She is still well over a year away from 16, the age of sexual consent in the UK. She’s three years from 17, the age at which one can learn to drive. She’s four years away form 18, the age of majority: the age at which she will legally become an adult. It’s important to the story that Evie isn’t about to face any of these major changes. She’s still firmly a ‘child’ in the legal sense and she isn’t facing any of the usual big issues and decisions of the mid to late teenage years. All the decisions and problems Evie has to deal with are unique to her: none of her peers are coping with the same things.

In terms of Evie’s individual situation, she starts the book in hospital after thorasic surgery and so misses the start of the new school year. If this were her GCSE exam year, that would have major implications… but ones I’m not interested in dealing with in The Bone Dragon. So making her 15 would have put a stumbling block in her path that would have changed the plot and shifted the nature of the conflict in ways I didn’t want, so I would have been very leery of making her two years older. But missing a few weeks at the start of Year 10 doesn’t represent a major issue. While catching up is a bit of a challenge, it isn’t one that takes over the whole book. And that’s important because I want the challenges Evie deals with to fall outside the realm of any of the things her peers are facing.

The change of age did necessitate a few other changes, but they were ones I was perfectly comfortable with. As Rebecca quite rightly pointed out, 14 and 15 year olds are generally fairly interested in dating and kissing (at the very least): more so than the 13 year olds in the original manuscript. They are also more prone (at least according to stereotypes) to rebellion against authority figures and moodiness.

I’m actually a big fan of stereotypes and cliches. I think they’re very powerful things that writers are foolish not to use. The key here is to actively use them, not just to use them by accident – which amounts to being used by them.

Anyway, bringing in those ‘teenage years’ cliches actually opened up opportunities to develop Evie’s character and show how she is unusual, even when she is, for instance, having a fit of the sullens.

So, changes made, the manuscript went back to Faber and I crossed my fingers that they’d like it – not only because I wanted them to be happy with it (as I was, and so didn’t really want to make many further changes), but also because I wanted them to feel I was a good person to work with: someone who appreciated quality feedback and had the craft to know how to revise a manuscript effectively.

old terracotta curved tiles

Revisions, Revisions…

My wonderful publishing editor, Rebecca Lee, started working with me on revising the manuscript before we’d even signed the contract. This isn’t unusual in the publishing world, apparently: a deal is a deal, but contracts take a while to negotiate and no one wants to wait around dotting Ts on the legal stuff rather than the book itself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at this stage and awaited the return of my manuscript in terror of what The Red Pen of Doom might have in store for me…

Actually, as with Claire’s comments, I was delighted with my feedback. And, again, the key factor was that no one was trying to change the book, only to improve it: to help me achieve what I was driving towards anyway.

For instance, I already had a sneaking suspicion that one of the smaller elements wasn’t coming across clearly but I wasn’t entirely sure what readers might find most perplexing. Rebecca knew exactly what I needed to do: clarify the geography of Evie’s home. That wasn’t a problem – I haven’t drawn a floor-plan of the house, but I could if someone asked me to. So bringing that knowledge out – the odd phrase here and there – was a simple fix to a thorny problem.

Another key issue related to language… I come from a family that’s part British, part Italian and part American. Critically, for the book, although Evie is English some of the phrases she used in the draft manuscript turned out to be American. Who knew? Well, I didn’t, but Rebecca did… and I was very happy to be able to ditch my accidental Americanisms in favour of phrases that were in character for Evie.

I’d already done my best to avoid mentioning brands and also current ‘big hit’ movies etc. as these things can date a book very quickly, so Rebecca was pleased on that front.

A trickier issue was one of vocabulary. Given that the book is going to be marketed as YA/cross-over, Rebecca wanted me to consider whether some of the words I used (she picked out the key examples) were too complex. I considered very carefully in each case and spent time poring over my thesaurus to see if there were other words that worked as well in the relevant contexts. Sometimes there were, in which case I changed the original word: why use a long word when a short one will do just as well? Well, lots of academics (and some writers) spend their whole careers doing just that (and not an awful lot else), but I don’t see the point. Complexity should be saved for the things that really are complex, rather than wasted on those that can, in skilled hands, be simple.

However, in some cases I’d chosen a word because of its nuances and associations… When that was the case, I didn’t change the manuscript. I may not believe in making things complicated when they don’t have to be, but that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of ‘dumbing down’. If someone doesn’t know a word, they can look it up – and that’s no bad thing to be encouraging for YA readers or, indeed, adult readers who might like an opportunity to expand their vocabulary. I wrote The Bone Dragon for all people over a certain age – not specifically for the YA category – so I didn’t want to make changes to the book that I felt would render it less appealing to adult readers… or, indeed, YA readers looking for something a little more challenging.

As it turned out, there were about 10 words that Rebecca felt would be challenging for the YA market: that seemed to be a really good number of ‘difficult’ words to leave in. So I did.

… More on market factors and their influence on the manuscript in my next post.

If you’re reading and have experience of editors or agents giving you market advice about how to change your manuscript, I’d be really interested to hear about it. Did you feel the advice was helpful? Did you feel it conflicted with your creative aims?

Last orders?

So, the re-revised book went back to my wonderful agent on March 3rd… and I am waiting nervously for the thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s now March 5th, just in case you’re feeling a bit confused and suspect it might be July, and there is a new email from Claire in my inbox.

I scan it quickly. Few little changes. Then we can start submitting… Track Changes document attached…

The changes require me to replace one sentence I cut in the last edit, and to remove three ‘ands’ in the first scene. I blink at the computer screen and then rush off to fret over the ‘ands’.

It’s my opening page, I want to wail. I like my ‘ands’! I hear them when I read the manuscript…

But I completely see where Claire is coming from when she says that I may have worked on this page so much it’s not quite as natural as the rest and the ‘ands’ seem a bit contrived.

There’s one ‘and’ I really like… But I can keep that for my version. It’s an ‘and’ after all, and I’m too close to the manuscript – and especially that page – to put my stamp on those three tiny conjunctions being critical. Now is the time to trust my wonderful agent, who has given me so many brilliant, insightful comments – all of which are directed towards helping me get the book I want to write down on the page. This is exactly the time to sit back and say ‘Claire’s the expert. She’s proven she really gets my writing and my book. She can see far more clearly at this point than I can.’ If you can’t trust your agent with these things, then you’ve probably got the wrong agent.

So I put back the sentence, I cut the ‘ands’ and the book goes back to Claire on the afternoon of March 5th.

A few hours later, Claire emails me with the list of publishers it’s gone out to.

It’s a terrifying list. Wonderful, but terrifying. Claire seem confident, but I am a nervous wreck.

I do my best not to think about it and, instead, set to work on my next book.

Here we go again…

double spiral staircase

So, Claire liked the revised manuscript… but we weren’t quite there yet.

Most of the new comments were about specific, individual lines or bits of scenes… But she had one large outstanding comment about the pacing in the second quarter of the book. The difficulty was that she felt that some scenes were too long – but they were ones that we both agreed were really well written.

It’s very hard to cut material – or even cut it down – when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it line-to-line. But, even if everything in a scene is good, if it isn’t doing the book as a whole any favours it has to go… or, at very least, it has to get shorter. It’s a real wrench doing that sort of editing; it’s hard enough to cut words when you know they aren’t right, but cutting ones that, in themselves, are…

I have two little tricks for making it easier. First, I always save a new file every day so that the ‘old’ version of what I’ve written is never lost or deleted: the work, and all the effort behind it, is there should I ever decide it could be of use. Second, I keep a running file of ‘cuts’. Out come individual words, little phrases, clauses, entire sentences, paragraphs, scenes and even complete chapters… But they come out of the manuscript and find a new home in the cuts file, where I have them to use elsewhere should I ever need or want to. I rarely go back to these files, but that’s not the point. The point is to feel that I’m not ‘wasting good’: I’m not throwing away effort, let alone work that is worth something.

So, pinning Claire’s comments to my monitor, I set up a new cuts file and went back to the manuscript and was even more ruthless than before. ‘What does this word/phrase/sentence add?’ I asked myself. And, even more importantly, ‘Could someone else have written this line?’

I tried to cut the purely descriptive material in my ‘slow’ scenes down to 200 words or less. It wasn’t always possible, but it was a useful rule of thumb to work towards; 200 words is less than a page – hard for a reader to get bored in that time or feel that the pace really has dropped, but beyond that…

The other thing I did was look at my book outline (a screenplay-type scene-by-scene structure) and consider the order of my scenes. ‘Does this really have to come before that?’ I asked myself. ‘How many scenes from other subplots can I insert between the ones that are part of the ‘slower’ part of the story?’

Simply swapping a few scenes around made a huge difference. Changing the rhythm of the story, and widening the weave between the different story-threads, was enough to fix the pacing in a number of places… And with some strict but not too harsh cuts, it was enough…

Or at least I hoped it was: off went the book to the ever-patient Claire once again…

Before I get to what she thought, does anyone have any good tips to share about making difficult editing easier? How do you cope with cutting the bits you love when they don’t serve your book as a whole?

Revisions, revisions…

shadow of a tree

So, we’re back in March… and I’ve been signed by the lovely Claire Wilson at RCW… It’s now time for revisions.

One of the reasons that the decision to go with Claire and RCW was so easy was that she took the time and trouble to tell me all her key thoughts about the book and how I might edit it in preparation for submission to potential publishers. And ALL of her ideas were brilliant: sensitive and smart and with a real sense of who I am as a writer and what I am trying to do in The Bone Dragon. There wasn’t a single comment that I didn’t actively want to take.

I knew that I had been very, very lucky to find an agent so completely on the same page and so willing to support me in achieving what I wanted, rather than what might fit most neatly with the current ‘big thing’. Every one of Claire’s comments helped not just to make the book better but to make it an even better version of the book I wanted to write (not always the same thing).

So, what did the comments involve? Well, one was to ‘drop’ a character and give her actions to an existing character. Claire felt that the problem character, although interesting and well-written, was very much set apart from the other characters and the rest of the plot. Cutting the character would, she argued, make everything ‘tighter’ and more claustrophobic, heightening the intensity simply through making the world of the book was as small as possible. 

She was spot on about all of this. But…

I didn’t do exactly what she suggested to fix the problem. I knew that the other characters couldn’t fill the gap that the problem character filled: none of them could, even collectively, deliver the same functions – not only because of who they are but because of who my protagonist, Evie, is. Her character, and how it drives her to approach other people, means that she just wouldn’t interact with the other characters in the way she does with my problem character.

So what to do?

Well, I set about applying my usual rules of thumb about dealing with feedback… and those – and the results – are what I’ll post about next.

Signed, sealed and delivered…

signing contract

Apologies for the delay to the posts I announced a while back, including the follow-up post on CVs and cover letters. I will soon be back to updating at least bi-weekly. And when I do, I’ll have lots of new things to write about as the thing that’s been tying me up is…

… being signed to top literary agency Rogers, Coleridge & White with the wonderful Claire Wilson.

Technical Mastery: editing quality non-fiction

This and several new posts about writing and editing are now up on my author site. Upcoming topics include Awful Editing, an editor’s tips on re-writing fiction, writer’s block, the value of stereotypes, and between the lines: what do your CV and cover letter really say about you? Plus I’m always open to ideas and/or questions!

Upcoming posts here at The Bone Dragon will include fictional ethics: writing the world as it is or as it should be, starting from a rib in a pot, plus an extract or two from the novel.

 

Fleshing out the bone

dragon engraving

If it really is a good idea to be average, what do you do when your book is the wrong length?

From working as an editor as well as a writer, my impression is that most writers have problems with being too wordy rather than writing drafts that are too short. What’s your experience as a writer?

My books are never too short. I’ve got whole systems for reducing flabby, waffle-y first drafts to a reasonable size (I’ll be blogging about this on my general author site), but I’ve never needed to ponder the problem of a book that was too short… until The Bone Dragon.

It’s baffling. The idea is a great big enormous one: definitely an idea that deserves a full novel. And yet my first draft was a measly 50,000 words. In finished form, it’s still shy of 70K. Where did all the words go? Are they hiding behind each other? Bunched up in terror of my red pen? I keep hitting ‘word count’ and still the numbers remain the same. How can this be?

Editing my way through the first draft, I kept my eyes peeled for where I’d somehow missed out 50 pages’ worth of plot. But there weren’t any notes in place of whole scenes yet to be written: not a [[ ******** add scene about Jane and Uncle Ben here *********]] in sight. On the positive side, it was my best ever first draft. Everything in it needed to be there. The plot was tight, and I’d got just the right number of major and minor characters (a major plus since I have a tendency to over-populate my books with unnecessary characters).

One key thing stood out as I pondered my word count conundrum: people weren’t going be more inclined to enjoy the book if I set about shoe-horning in unneeded material simply to make it longer.  And yet agents and publishers would probably turn their noses up at a 50K novel.

After much tea and chocolate and squishing of my cat (is purring not the most wonderful invention ever?), I took a deep breath and sent the manuscript off to my handful of ‘first readers’: colleagues, fellow writers and literary-minded friends who are willing to be honest but kind about my work.

Worries over the length aside, I was anxious that I’d written a book that was ‘just for me’. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is important to know when you’ve got a book that you should keep to yourself to be enjoyed by the light of your bedside lamp alone. Some books really shouldn’t see the wider light of day. I try to be honest with myself about work that falls into this category, but I really didn’t know about The Bone Dragon, so I asked my first readers two key questions:

  1. Do you like it? Will other people like it?
  2. Do you feel anything is missing or not fully fleshed out?

I got my answers surprisingly quickly (I’m sure the length helped!). The answer to question 1 was a surprising ‘yes’ all round. I’d been sure at least one of my first readers would hate it and another just wouldn’t get it, but that wasn’t how it played out. So far so good.

Even better, rather than just saying nice, generic things (almost always a sign that people don’t actually like what you’ve shown them but don’t want to say so) my lovely first readers had very strong opinions about aspects of the book that weren’t clear and, best of all, things they wanted to hear more about! Oh frabjous day!

One of my first reader’s main pieces of feedback was that, as a woman, I occasionally missed the mark about the psychology of my male characters. The emotional landscape rang true, he said, but my male characters’ attitudes to problem-solving sometimes didn’t. “Men try to fix things. Often in practical ways. Even when they shouldn’t,” he told me. This led on to a whole series of new scenes in which one of the characters tries to fix things on a purely practical level; this, in turn, creates a series of conflicts with another character… and disrupts the plans of a third. So the comment helped with characterisation, building conflict, complicating the plot and with my word count!

Buoyed up by my first readers being in agreement that the book would appeal to readers, I put on my editor’s hat and started asking myself all the standard tough questions. The ones I kept coming back to were all about the links between plot and character. It all boils down to this question: does each character have an arc?

… though begs a further set of questions:

  1. Is each character defined and unique?
  2. Does each character have a goal?
  3. Do all the characters change over the course of the book?

Even though I didn’t have too many characters, two weren’t suitably defined. Simply put, it was easy to mix them up. Both had a similar role to play in the book. Both had similar attributes. Both had a similar relationship with the protagonist. Neither changed profoundly. Not good enough.

I knew either one character had to be scrapped or something needed to be done to ensure that each character added something different to the book. Critically, each character had to change and develop, whether internally or in terms of their relationships with other characters… and, if possible, this development needed to be triggered by some sort of conflict. Now, I don’t mean that I thought I had to create conflict between the characters necessarily, but I had to ensure that they were somehow conflicted.

So that’s what I did. My pitiful 50K draft expanded to a satisfactory 68K. I had hoped to push the word count over the magic 70K mark… but I just couldn’t find another 2000 words that needed to be in the novel.

I still can’t see where I’ve skimped. All the characters have their own arcs now – some bigger and some smaller – but all of them develop or change in some way. There’s conflict of sorts in all the relationships. There’s lots of drama. There are clues to the mysteries that the story revolves around, and red herrings and revelations too. There’s a climax and even a resolution.

But before I considered the book finished, I sent it back to my first readers… and the consensus was that the manuscript felt complete: “It seems like it’s now in final form,” said a friend who works in the publishing industry.

Working on The Bone Dragon has inverted a lot of what I know about writing books. Maybe being upside down for a while will do me some good. Perhaps, in the long run, having written a book that’s too short I’ll miraculously move forwards writing tight, waffle-less first drafts from now on.

Well, there’s always hope, right?