On copy-edits

Copyediting 2

I have survived. I live to tell the tale. And what a tale it is – a tale of high-jinx, of derring-do and of rescuing suspiciously busty maidens from suspiciously inconvenient places.

I am, of course, lying. It is a tale of sitting in front of the computer and using Twitter to distract myself from all the thinking.

Here are a few little reflections on the copy-editing process, but before we can dive straight in I should clarify: there were three people involved in the process. I was one, the editor was the second and the copyeditor the third.

The editor works for the publisher and is responsible for overseeing the word-side of my novel (and, I think, that of the rest of the imprint). The copyeditor is a freelancer who was sent my manuscript to seek out errors great and small. I never had any contact with the CE; it all went through the editor. And here is what I now know:

  • There are many types of error:
    • Typos
    • Grammatical errors or mistakes of clarity (who’s talking? Does this modifier refer to this or that or the other?)
    • Continuity errors
    • Errors of taste or discretion
    • Bad writing
  • Typos happne. They can be shrugged aside. So can grammatical errors (you were tired at the time; it was late and that thing you like was about to happen – you know, the one that leaves you all distracted). Continuity errors are worse as they actually have to go back through the MS to find the original reference and decide which to change. Occasionally you’ll have to think and no-one wants that
  • But these are nothing on matters of taste and discretion. See this soul-tearing post from a few weeks back as evidence. Actually, don’t. I’d rather forget the whole sorry saga, thank you. Why’d you have to bring it up anyway?
  • Bad writing is the worst, though. You’ve been through however many edits; you’ve got it past numerous gatekeepers and you did it with this piece of shit? Rereading your own work, especially in this forensic detail, often makes it impossible to see what’s actually good about your work
  • And this leads to more doom: do you try and improve your manuscript? Will you just be annoying your editor by making last-minute, unnecessary changes? If the copyeditor didn’t comment on a particular sentence, is it not just irritating to dismantle it and reinsert upside-down?
  • You need a copyeditor to assess your copyedits
stet

A Google image search failed to identify an artist for this, but you can get it on a mug here; the designer’s listed as Shonda Smith

  • Copyeditors are great: they spot things you’ve never even begun to think about considering. But they’re not perfect. They have their own oddities and prejudices. Mine (whose name I don’t know) seems to have a weird thing about commas. They’ll insert them where I’m damn sure they’re not necessary
  • My biggest fear is that I’ll disappoint my editor. This is stupid, but it bears saying. I am afraid to ask him questions; I don’t want to appear amateurish or needing constant hand-holding. Your editor is always on your side, though; they want your book to succeed as much as you do
  • This has been my first real experience of producing work to a deadline since university. It was a challenge, and in the end I missed it by a few days, despite working evenings. Fortunately my editor is on Twitter and saw some of my more desperate pleas for help and emailed me to see how I was going. This gave me the chance to explain that a) I was just being melodramatic for the purposes of comic effect and b) yes, the deadline was a challenge. Which leads me to the following conclusions:
    • Good communication really, really helps
    • Try and get as much info as possible at the beginning: what has the copyeditor been told? What edition are you editing? I started without knowing that I was specifically working on a US release, which caused me some confusion
    • Be careful what you put on Twitter
    • If you have a problem or an issue with the editor’s/copyeditor’s ideas you should flag it as soon as possible
  • US and British English really are two different languages. One of the hardest things for me was seeing all my usage of ‘whilst’ being changed to ‘while’, even when it was plainly wrong. Also ‘homely’ has different meanings depending on which side of the pond you are
  • All these people really want to make your book better

This has been uncharted territory for me. This may just be a brief lacuna before another wave of work washes me away, but for now I am mopping my brow, breathing a sigh of relief and lighting up the metaphorical cigarette of post-coitality.

The copy-edits are done. I am a step closer to being a published author.

The way it is

 

English in Asian Airports

Alfie lived at home with his mum, his dad, his sister … and a troop of monkeys. For some reason, no-one could see the monkeys except Alfie. That was just the way it was.

I shouldn’t let a children’s book make me angry. The intended audience don’t care about bad writing, or poor storytelling, though they might not find a book interesting for reasons we might describe as weak structure.

But I am not a child. And the above extract, the opening to No More Monkeys, by Joshua George and Barbara Bakos, makes my blood boil. It’s quite impressive, actually: the sheer badness contained within 33 words. And that they dared to put these words right at the beginning of the book. The publishers have some serious brass neck.

No more monkeys

Shall we start to unpick it? First off: we don’t need ‘at home’ in the first line. Of course he lives at home. He can’t live anywhere else, can he? I’d concede the words might be taken as shorthand for ‘in an ordinary house and not in an igloo or on the moon or in a moon-igloo’ if it wasn’t a picture book. But it is. The ordinariness of the residence is simple to establish.

But that’s not the problem. That is a forgivable error. I don’t demand perfection in children’s books (though maybe I should): I can write that off as part of the voice and the rhythm of the story.

What I can’t forgive are the three little words that open the second sentence.

For some reason.

Let me translate: ‘For some reason’ means ‘the author hasn’t bothered to think about this.’ ‘The author has no respect for his reader.’ ‘It’s too much effort to come up with a real explanation.’

For some reason. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself writing ‘for some reason’ in your work; or if you have things ‘just the way they’ve always been’, then you’re letting your readers down.

It’s a close cousin to that old beta-reader feedback: if a reader says ‘I didn’t understand this,’ it’s not not good enough to say ‘well that’s because of this complex set of subtleties, and therefore I dismiss your point.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve considered it if you’ve not explained it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go into every little thing that underpins your worldbuilding, or even that you have to consider every little variable of, say, the currency system in your world. But anything integral to the plot has to have an explanation. How you communicate that is a different issue.

I find this particular example really galling because it’s so unnecessary. The author could have put ‘The monkeys were invisible to everyone but Alfie’ – no reason is necessary. Or ‘The monkeys would only show themselves to Alfie and were really good at hiding when anyone else was around.’ That one’s nice because it conjures up a clear mental image that the writer and artist could play with. Bonus!

That’s just with two minutes’ thought. You can think of more alternatives yourself. Think of it as a little writing free exercise. You’re welcome.

Error number three: that final sentence. ‘That was just the way it was.’ My god this is horrible. You know what this means? This is the writer saying ‘I know the last sentence wasn’t good enough. Let me just reinforce my laziness by doubling down. No, you’re not allowed to be curious. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.’

It’s bad.

It’s the sort of thing you see in books all the time. One of my problems with The Time-Traveller’s Wife is the way the author casually dismisses all possibility of change. It’s been a while since I read it, but there is a point where the narrator says something like ‘it was predestined. There was no way to change the future.’ I nearly screamed. Why? Why is it predestined? Why can’t you change things? Wouldn’t you try? Wouldn’t you at least make the effort?

At the very least, if you don’t know why something happens, keep quiet about it. Shut your bloody trap and let us keep the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

Right. Rant over. I’m off to take my blood-pressure medication; hopefully I’ll have something more interesting to write about next week.

As you were.

The Road to Bedlam

the-village-of-bedlam

I’m currently enjoying a bad book. Needless words, repetition, lack of subtext: the writing is sometimes amateurish to the point of parody.

My sympathies go out to the author as I don’t feel it’s really his fault. But, as a writer, I can’t but laugh (or wince, or simply gape) when I come across professionally-produced writing that’s – well, that’s just bad.

A few examples:

“He offered his hand, and I shook it.”

Error one: it’s pointless. It adds nothing to the story. Error two: come on, now, we can all do better than this. “We shook hands” is better. “He offered his hand and, reluctantly, I shook” would give it context. But only if it mattered to the story – which, in this case, it doesn’t.

“No sinks on the walls, just pipes and screw-holes in the walls where mirrors had been mounted above them. There was a blank screen wall…”

I mean come on. We all know not to repeat word like this (and I could have expanded the section to find a lot more walls). This is so incredibly basic – and so terribly poor.

“…and then had to apologise to the young man who served me coffee while I paid for the drink and for a sandwich I’d picked up.”

Pointlessness again. We don’t need this detail. It’s also convoluted; at the very least the last three words can be cut without any loss of understanding.

“A breeze gusted.”

Breezes don’t gust. Breezes are breezes and gusts are gusts and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Such errors are scattered through the novel. But, as I said, I don’t blame the author. These are the mistakes that we all make as we do our thinking on the page. We experiment, we try out formations, and metaphors, and various shades of purple prose, whilst we hammer out the plot. But they should never reach print. No-one needs to see the author’s brain. And the author wants nobody to see it.

The work in question is The Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon. It’s the sequel to Sixty-One Nails and here, I think, we get to the root of the problem: it’s not his first work. The pressure to get a book to the publishers to schedule – with another on the horizon after that and a whole future to follow (the series stands at four) – means that pressures mount. Deadlines arrive.

Bedlam feels like a second draft. All the work has been put into plot and story. The actual words have been left for later.

So whose fault is it? Do we blame the publisher (the usually excellent Angry Robot)? Or the individual editor? Or the demands of an industry that requires work be squeezed out to schedule regardless of its quality? If anyone has an idea please do let me know.

The thing is: I opened this post by saying I was enjoying this book, and I am. There’s so much to recommend about it. The characters are good, the plotting promises a great final act and – poor writing notwithstanding – it’s carrying me with it. I will see this to the end. And if anything it’s all the goodness that shoves the poor writing into sharp relief. This isn’t some hack churning out amateurish self-pub level material*.

So how can a major publisher get away with releasing something that, in many ways, is so bad? And what can be done about it?

 


All quotes are from The Road to Bedlam, pub. Angry Robot 2012. I’ve been listening to the audio version, pub. 2014: as it’s audio I can’t give a page number, I’m afraid

*Not to imply that self-published works are inherently worse than trad-pubbed material. There’s a difference between ‘self-publishing’ and ‘amateurish self-publishing’

Good money after bad

I’ve finally realised: the reason I’m struggling with Australis is because it wasn’t written by me. It was written by the person I was three years ago.

It’s a revelation. It explains so much. I remember writing the first draft, thinking how much better it was than its back-to-back-written prequel. I was wrong, although I can see why I thought that. I pushed myself, trying something new, stretching beyond my comfort zone. It took the thread of the previous book and took it to its logical conclusion. I was proud of it.

Since then I’ve worked intensively on Night Shift, written the trilogy’s closer New Gods and – with a great sigh of relief – left Antarctica for the relative warmth of summertime London with Oneiromancer. Australis has lurked with only minor tinkering until a major overhaul around 18 months ago, the details of which I’d more or less forgotten. Now I find myself reading a stranger’s work; a grim, depressed stranger who clearly thought that endless blank corridors and anonymous offices made a good setting for a psychological thriller-cum-murder mystery-cum science fiction novel.

How did I come to write this? How could I have made so many misjudgements? What am I do with it now?

Also: who am I now? As a writer, what’s changed in my life to transform the author of a plodding police procedural into a writer of pacy adventures*?

The answer, of course, is that I wrote a plodding police procedural. I wrote something that, in retrospect, I’m not happy with, and I learned from the process. I took my feedback and, whilst there was nothing immediate, no fireworks in the brain, I got better. Gradually I realised how to avoid the sins I’d committed; a mirror was held to my own crapness and I did my best not to screw my eyes tight shut.

Fundamentally I’m still the same person. My errors are still legion and doubtless I’ll have committed many egregious sins in both Oneiromancer and New Gods. I will do my best to learn from these too. Indeed, early feedback is that O’s opening chapters are confused and congested. More work. Yay for work.

In the meantime I have to decide what to do with Australis. The obvious thing is to abandon it; simply to move on and write something better. But I’m not prepared to do that.

The bad reason for this is that it’s the central part of a trilogy, and to simply bin it is to lose my middle stump. It’s a bad reason because a bad book is a bad book, and no-one will ever want to move onto the finale if they’ve been bored to tears by the previous instalment. Plus I have a reputation to consider: I don’t want to be someone who churns out potboilers for the sake of a few pennies. I want to be good. I want to write well. My ego demands it.

Another bad reason is to persist because of the investment in time I’ve put into Australis. I’ve no idea how many hours I’ve spent on it already but to go ahead just because of that is the equivalent of throwing good money after bad.

But I’m not giving up. I’m going to keep working, going to spend more precious time on Australis, for two reasons. The first is that there is a good story hiding beneath the bull and I know I can draw it out. I’m a better writer now. I can do it.

The second reason is because I want to. I need nothing more than that. I like my characters. The world still interests me. There are still things I want to say. And now I know this trilogy will be self-published I have incentive and freedom to write it the way I want it written.

It will work. It will be good. It’ll just take a little more time, that’s all.

*No-one has ever said I write pacy adventures. The self-delusion is strong with this one.

Feeling the draft

Well, it’s been a rollercoaster. Hopes raised and dashed; nice words concealing harsh truths. And where has it left me? Exactly where I started.

But that’s life. That’s what people say. Riding high in September, shot down by slightly later in September. That’s how the song goes, right? So I’m back scouring the Writers’ and Artists’ for agents and publishers, and in the meantime trying to get on with some proper writing.

Except I’m kinda not, at the moment. I finished the first draft of New Gods last week and I’ve rewarded myself with a few days off. Not like me – I hate not writing. But it’s important to take a little time out, to taste something of the real world and remind yourself that there’s more to life. A couple of beer festivals and a first-aid course (not concurrent) have helped the time pass.

Shortly I’m going to fire up Australis and give it the going-over it badly needs, but in truth I’m putting it off a little. I’ve said before that the story’s not working; it’s hard to face up to one’s own failure and wrestle with demons of your own making. Much easier to push on with something new. And it was suggested that, as I’m not happy with Australis, it might be best to leave it on hiatus indefinitely. Unfortunately, New Gods is built on its back. Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, the second and third books are much closer linked than the first and second. To scrap Australis would be almost like scrapping New Gods, and that I ain’t gonna do.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Hopefully I’ll find Australis much more welcoming than I currently fear. It happens sometimes: the mind creates problems where there are none. And a little time will provide solutions to problems you never knew you had. It’s odd that authors can be the last people who know if what they’ve done is good or not, but it’s true.

In the meantime, I wondered if you, dear reader, might be interested to here a few reflections from the world of first-drafting. When I was coming up to the end of New Gods my partner asked if I was happy with what I’d done. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer; and that got me wondering…

A few points, in no particular order:

  • A bad opening is better than no opening. Getting started is perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel, and it’s much better to have something you can change than to sit wondering why everything you’re doing is crap
  • In fact, bad writing as a whole is better than no writing
  • Accept that you’re going to have to change things. Okay, you’re not human if you don’t re-read the occasional paragraph and decide the proverbial red pen is needed – but no-one (except possibly Mozart, and he’s in no position to give advice) plucks perfection from the air. Write words, move on, change later
  • Plots are difficult beasties. Make whatever notes you need to help you keep it all together. In terms of plot, New Gods is probably the most ambitious work I’ve attempted – I have about eight different threads to weave together. My technique? List the threads on a post-it note and wherever I get to a crux, glance down at it – remind myself what every character has been doing whilst I’ve been focusing on this one aspect.
  • That last point isn’t advice, by the way: find your own way of working. Make as many notes as you need. At this stage, no-one’s judging you except yourself
  • Balance isn’t going to come obviously and evenly. I‘m sure I’ve neglected Weng Fu, for example. I’m not sure if Lewinskiy has enough depth. All these characters need time to breath, but the first draft isn’t the time to worry about all this. Assure yourself that you know what you’re trying to do. When you’re done you can get feedback and revisit and rebalance
  • Ditto for pacing and rhythm
  • Words don’t matter at this stage (see previous blog entry the word myth)
  • I’m an embittered old fool who’s done this too many times to get overly excited about finishing a single stage in the process. You’re not. Finishing a draft, even if it needs massive work to make it readable, is a major achievement. Celebrate it. Tell people – go on Twitter and Facebook and indulge in a little boasting. Have a drink. But don’t show it to anyone. ‘Cause bucks to bullion it ain’t ready yet.
  • Characters grow and change over the course of writing a novel. You’ll have a much better idea of who you’re dealing with after you’ve finished than you did when you began. You’ll have inconsistencies, you’ll be able to sharpen the early depictions with your new knowledge and insight
  • Have fun. Be wild and ambitious. Be mad. Later drafts are serious hard work, but first drafts are your chance to go nuts, to put in wild sex parties and inappropriate off-colour humour. Fly kites, see where they drag you. Even if you have to excise wild digressions like tumours, the very process of writing helps sharpen your skills. Be free – you’ve nothing to lose save a little time

So am I happy with New Gods? Yes, yes I am. Not because I think it works as a story, but because the bones are there. I’ve got the elements pinned in place; and whilst a lot of surgery will be needed, whilst there’s a lot of writing which is simply bad, it’s there ready to be improved. Cuts will be made – whole sections might be scrapped as I send my wrecking-ball into the skyscraper of supposition. And all the ideas I didn’t consider will pop up in their place. It’s remarkable how easily a writer can overlook the obvious: ‘But why doesn’t Mr X just do this?’ ‘Erm…’

And that’s why getting feedback on your work is so important. But not after the first draft – please, not after the first draft. No point showing the world what a fool you are just yet.

Plenty of time for that later.