Sunday, 24 August 2014

The fine detail

In the last couple of weeks I've been going over the copy edits of the second Carter Blake book. As those of you who looked at the picture above will probably have worked out, the current title is The Samaritan. It may or may not retain this title.

The copy edit is one of the later milestones in a book's journey toward publication. In earlier drafts, both the ones I do all by myself and the ones I work through with my editor, it's mostly about the big picture: getting the structure right, making sure the characters behave reasonably consistently, giving key scenes more punch, stuff like that.

The copy edit is the opposite of that. This is the stage where a very diligent and detail-oriented person (i.e. the polar opposite of me) goes through the book line by line making sure the fine detail is right.

That means spotting the typos and grammar mistakes that no one else has noticed or cared enough about to point out. It means picking up on continuity mistakes (how come this character is bald on page 54 and has dark hair on page 226?). It means finding gaps in the research (Ford stopped making that model in 2003, so it ought to have a higher mileage). It also means picking up on sentences that repeat the same word too many times. These things happen more often than I would like to admit, and it's a little humbling having it pointed out to you via the marvel of Word's track changes feature, even though you know this is an absolutely standard experience for all writers.

So you take a deep breath and open the document, praying there aren't too many red lines and comment boxes. It's a little like getting an assignment back from a strict teacher. It's an incredibly useful but occasionally dispiriting experience.

I went along with about 99% of the changes made or suggested by the copy editor, and added a fair amount of new changes myself. The only real point of difference was whether to use 'website' or 'Web site'.

The worst thing about reading through your copy edit is when sloppy writing or really obvious mistakes are pointed out to you, and you wondered why the hell you didn't notice them until now. It forces you to read every sentence carefully and ask yourself if this is really the best way it could be written. One (mercifully short) paragraph in this book had me banging my head against the desk wondering what the hell I was on about when I was writing it. Thankfully, I have the opportunity to fix it before it gets any further. That's why this stage in the process exists.

The best explanation I can come up with is, when you're writing a first draft - when it's going well at least - you're not stopping to think about the small stuff. You're writing in the knowledge that this is but the first of many passes, and anything that doesn't quite work can be fixed later. That's the way it's gotta be, at least for me. If I got hung up on making every line perfect, I'd never finish anything. The problem is that some of those glitches you decided to come back to later (or didn't notice in the first place) inevitably slip through the cracks and make it into later drafts.

Even when I read a book over again for a new draft, I tend not to analyse every sentence individually, unless they're unavoidably clunky. That's because I'm trying to read it as, well, a reader. The number of amendments and perceptive questions asked by a good copy editor really makes you appreciate what a unique skillset they have - to keep the big picture of the novel in their head while simultaneously zeroing in on tiny imperfections that creep into the paragraphs and sentences and words and punctuation.

I know I couldn't do their job. Not just because it's painstaking and detail-oriented and it's impossible to go on autopilot. The other reason is because I wouldn't be able to prevent myself from changing things about the style: to write it the way I would have written it. A good copy editor leaves the style alone and makes sure the writer doesn't embarrass himself. It's a tough job, and one I'm grateful for.

But I'm still going with 'website'.

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