On being edited

As I discovered when I went pro, handing in a completed book is just the start; as well as the background activities you’ll never see except by their results (marketing, cover design, typesetting etc), there are three main tasks that require further author input.

The first is the structural edit. This is where the editor requests rewrites from the author such as adding foreshadowing or expanding on a sub-plot or making sure character traits are consistent. This process is not dissimilar to rewriting a story after it’s been critiqued, with one important distinction: critiquers are your peers (and often friends) whilst your editor is, technically, your employer. When I got my first major rewrite request I was concerned about disagreeing with any of the suggestions, but a good editor (and mine is) won’t force you to make a change – she (most editors are female) only asks that you consider it fully. I soon realised that if I could justify why I wasn’t going to do something she had brought up, then I could leave it as it was. As often as not I thought I could, before realising she’d been right all along.

The second is the copy-edit, of which more below.

The final stage is proofreading, when the author gets to see the page proofs, unbound but looking exactly as they will in the final book – for me this was the point at which my first novel became a real book. This is the last chance to catch small mistakes everyone else has missed, and making major changes at this stage won’t make you popular.

I’m currently looking over the copy-edits for Guardians of Paradise. I say ‘looking over’ because the copy-edit is carried out by the editor, who goes through line-by-line checking grammar and spelling, suggesting alternative wordings and noting possible inconsistencies. Her changes are then checked by the author, who is free to undo the editor’s changes, or make further ones.

Technology is a great help here: I work on an electronic version of the edited manuscript with the changes hidden, but I also have my editor’s version of the ms open in another window, with her changes showing. This is a lot easier than scribbling on a sheet of paper that someone else has already scribbled on, though I do sometimes get distracted when I come across a phrase and wonder if it’s mine or hers, and have to stop and check her marked-up copy to satisfy my curiosity.

I’m lucky in that my editor actually does edit; these days many editors are too busy to go into this level of detail and use third-party professional copy-editors.  As a result she knows what I’m trying to achieve, and doesn’t pick me up on things that someone who didn’t have that depth of knowledge might query, even with the help of a style sheet. (The style sheet lists idiosyncratic spellings and made up words and terms – I suspect SF authors have the longest style sheets of any genre). The downside of this is that even at the copy-edit stage she may ask for further structural changes, usually as a result of the changes I’ve already made for her; fortunately they don’t tend to be major.

Being a weirdo who enjoys rewriting, I’m at my happiest when I’m tweaking something that is more or less what I want it to be. As a result I find copy-edit checking quite comforting. Of course, the first time I did it there was a certain cognitive dissonance, seeing those words of mine that I’d slaved over for years (because Principles of Angels took years to write) changed by someone else – usually for the better. But Guardians is my third book, and my editor and I are, I think, getting quite comfortable with each other. 

Having said that I’m also aware that there could be stuff in the book that we’ve both missed so far, and that this is almost my last chance to catch errors that could detract from the final result (see above re: not making big changes to page proofs). Earlier this week I had to add in a reference to a sock (yes, a sock – people still wear them in the future y’know) as I had inadvertently broken the law postulated by (I think) Chekov about consistency and foreshadowing (although he used the example of loaded guns, rather than discarded underwear). It wasn’t big or sexy or at all SFnal, but I’m still glad I caught the little sucker.

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