Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Humbling Copy Edit

James O. Born

I’ve had fun as we talked about writing a novel and all the crazy shit that goes along with it. Sometimes when writing these articles, I lose focus on why I started and what I was trying to accomplish. I wanted to have a simple, casual conversation about what it takes to write a novel. Not filled with the academic inertia of the historical basis for novels, which invariably includes a discussion about Beowulf, the story many considered to be the first written in a variant of the English language. That's not to say that classes and books on the subject are not useful. They absolutely are. I read a number of books about the art and history of writing. But when you get down to it, how much of that information is useful in a novel about zombies attacking Omaha or a detective working a homicide in Detroit?

Today I'm going to talk about one of the most humbling experiences a professional writer can have. The first time it happens, the shock can be so severe it causes paralysis and nausea. I am, of course, talking about reviewing the copy edited version of your lovingly created novel. No matter your level of education, your degree of dedication and revising your novel sixteen times, you are going to make mistakes. I'm not just talking about typographical errors, but errors in the way the timeline flows or some fact you thought you had right. Maybe I'm overstating it, but when you find a copy editor whose work you appreciate, they are more valuable than the gold at the end of the rainbow or the Angels on the head of the pin.

In my first published novel, Walking Money, I had written and rewritten it at least eight times. I had years to perfect it, and frankly, I doubted it would ever get published. Then, as I slowly started to submit it to agents, I would go through the manuscript again and again, each time finding errors I had somehow missed on one of the many earlier reviews. Still I was ignorant of the publishing process and how a fresh set of eyes could pick up things I missed over and over again. Then the excitement of making the sale glossed over any concerns I had. The suggestions from my editor, Neil Nyren, were reasonable and certainly not excessive. I was starting to feel confident that I had not wasted all those years of learning how to write and then executing it correctly with this novel. That all ended when the copy edited version arrived at my door. In those days, you received a hard copy of the manuscript with questions written directly on the page. All the queries had to be answered, but more devastating were the corrections that needed no reply. How could I have made so many mistakes? The simple answer is, I'm a dumbass. The actual answer is, it happens to everyone.

Much more recently, as in two weeks ago, I finished the review of my next novel, Scent of Murder, which will be released by Forge in April. I had to do a great deal of research about police service dogs and I'll use that excuse as to why I missed approximately 32,000 other mistakes. Luckily, I have a phenomenal copy editor for all of my books with Forge. She destroyed it. And rebuilt it. And in the process, once again saved my ass.

But you don't need to worry about everyone else, you're the one who just got kicked in the gut. Maybe not literally, but if you said literally kicked in the gut, the copy editor would. This is one of those rare situations where you need to embrace the pain. You absolutely cannot recoil at what appears to be criticism when, in fact, all the copy editor is doing is correcting mistakes that you have made. Unless you're the Pope, you can admit to mistakes. It's hard to come to terms with but you will be a better person after you do it.

Now the question is what to do if you are not with a publisher and wish to have your manuscript professionally edited? The quick, simple and cheapest route would be to ask a close friend or family member who has obtained an education past the eighth grade, does not watch reality TV every night, and generally is a voracious reader. It's important to explain that you want them to look at it closely and feel free to markup the manuscript. They must be free from rebuke if you disagree with some of the corrections they make. It is a torturous and dangerous relationship that could affect all aspects of your life.

That is why I would recommend the second alternative which is to hire a private, professional editor. This person should be recommended by someone you know or be known on the Internet as a reliable and respected editor. There are plenty out there, especially with the cutbacks at the major publishers. The cost can vary widely. I don't want to even quote a figure. But for a cheapskate like me it would hurt. But it's nothing compared to the pain of readers finding mistakes in your manuscript. Whether it is in an e-book or slipped through the process of a major publisher, these mistakes haunt a good writer.

Find a good proofreader and hang onto them like they were your soulmate. Because soulmates usually aren't good editors.

Our quotes for today:

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” 
 Stephen King

"I do not like to write — I like to have written." ~ Gloria Steinem

“There are two types of people in this world: those who can edit, and those who can't.” 
 Jarod Kintz

“Authors who moan with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome.” 
 Christopher Hitchens


  1. I have a burning desire to correct your punctuation.

  2. James O. Born9/19/2014 2:03 PM

    I readily admit that proofreading is not my strength.