What a Copy-Editor is looking at:
Characterisation is key. Yes, I have said that once or twice already. Just reminding you.
Large issues with characterisation should have been picked up at developmental level, which means that the copy-edit stage can now concentrate on a much closer scrutiny of those people inhabiting your narrative.
Character action refers to the way in which each character would be expected to behave. So, having created this person, is she acting and reacting in a way that fits with her lifestyle, her upbringing, personality traits and moral views?
Characters can change, of course they can, and this is even encouraged; the protagonist, especially, is expected to have become somehow different to how he was at the start: something will have happened to change him or the course of his life. But at the same time how a character grows, develops, changes, needs to be realistic and is often a gradual transition.
If John has had a lifelong fear of drowning, he’s not simply going to get over it by jumping into the ocean headlong without a second thought. Something will need to be the catalyst for his change, for confronting his fears.
Consistency of character is vitally important; if your reader has a ‘well, that would never happen’ moment, you’ve already lost them.
If your characters are unruly, you could try keeping a ‘character file’ for each one of them, even the very minor ones. In this file, amongst other things, you can jot down that character’s progression – roughly what happens to them in each scene and whether their actions and reactions fit with the persona you have created for them.
Or, at the very least, know your main characters well enough to be certain how they might react in any given situation.
So, those ‘amongst other things’ I mentioned you might want to add to your character files refer to this.
In your character file, you could be noting details about how each character looks, dresses, carries herself, speaks, stutters over certain words in certain situations, has a scar below her right earlobe (and what it’s from), colour of eyes, shade of hair, favourite top… blah, blah, blah. I could go on but you get the picture.
It sounds like a lot of work, but this is what a copy-editor would be compiling about each of your characters as they work through your manuscript. They don’t know your characters as well as you do, so they’re building a picture from the bottom up and making sure it’s consistent.
This is when you’ll get the emails saying, ‘Bob has green eyes flecked with brown on page 12, but brown flecked with green on page 320: which do you prefer?’; ‘Why is it Katherine for the first 60 pages and Catherine for the rest?’.
It sounds simple, right? If Sam has a sore right foot, then why is he limping with the left? But when you’re working on your book, trying to get the scenes right, trying to get your characters in the right space and time for the next chapter, it’s so easy to make these errors.
And while this may seem like nit-picking in the scheme of things, the reader has eyes like a hawk. Remember, they’re building a vision in their minds based on your descriptions alone; the minute they spy an inconsistency in description, this vision is shattered. Once or twice you may get away with, but more than this and your reader will switch off.
The good news is that by using character lists, these mistakes can be quickly captured. For the record, a copy-editor will produce a style sheet of your manuscript if you don’t already have one: this style sheet may include details of characters’ physical and physiological descriptions.
Setting & Timeline
As with characterisation, any large issues regarding the setting and/or the timeline of your book will have been addressed at developmental level. However, a copy-editor will still be on the lookout for any areas of confusion or inconsistency.
We often hear the phrase world-building used to describe settings in fantasy and science fiction novels, or any novel where the world is different to the one we know. But really it applies to any narrative.
All books need to have a believable world as their basis, even if it’s based on the one we live in. Now I know I’ve made it clear about the importance of characterisation, but that doesn’t mean all else should be spared. Setting is a goldmine area of the narrative that authors can easily fail to take advantage of.
It doesn’t simply mean ‘the place where the action takes place because it has to take place somewhere’. I like to think of setting as being layered: the room or spot the action is taking place in; the surrounding area; and the larger world the characters belong to.
As my blog post The Five Senses of Setting explains, setting is not just what the place or room looks like, but also what it smells, sounds, tastes and feels like.
Meanwhile at the opposite end of the scale, too much scene-setting can stifle the actual story.
Whilst the reader needs to feel your characters’ lives are built on a steady foundation, this doesn’t mean you have to write reams of beautiful flowery description to get the point across (unless that’s your style, of course).
Sometimes there’s nothing else for it but to lay it out there as it is: William has just bought a two-bedroomed house in Norwich with a beautiful garden but no garage, which means weekends will be glorious but getting to work less so.
But often, revealing setting is most effective when the reader doesn’t realise you’re even doing it: when with just a few perfectly chosen words, your virtual environment reveals itself with perfect clarity.
Here’s an example from the incredibly atmospheric The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón:
‘At last my father stopped in front of a large door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity. Before us loomed what to my eyes seemed the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows.’ (2004)
I could have picked hundreds of examples from this book but this is the first I laid eyes on. Here the narrator is describing his younger self’s first impression of the ancient and secret library, The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
The only actual description of setting we have here is that there is a ‘large door of carved wood, blackened’, everything else is descriptive of the atmosphere. The narrator cannot know for sure that the door has been blackened by ‘time and humidity’ but his older self has made an assumption based on this childhood memory. The looming ‘carcass of a palace’ doesn’t give any detail about the building itself, but still manages to conjure an image of something large, ornate but decaying. The ‘echoes and shadows’, just as ‘time and humidity’, are carefully chosen words that – without the reader realising it – bring the ethereal elements of this scene to life in our minds, just as the narrator recalls it being eerie to his young eyes.
So, far from being a tagged-on part of the story, your setting can act as the lifeblood of your narrative, weaving through and around character and plot to enthralling effect.
A copy-edit makes sure that any timeline issues bypassed at developmental stage now get picked up. It should track scene by scene what occurs and when, and also pay attention to the feasibility of timings in your story.
For example, if Jason celebrated his fourteenth birthday three weeks ago, he wouldn’t be going to see ‘An American Werewolf in London’ with his friends... unless the point is to show him getting into an 18-rated film illegally.
Likewise, if Molly catches a lunchtime flight from London Gatwick to Barbados, she’s not going to arrive in time for Rum Punch at sunset.
Can Sasha really drive from Oxford to Edinburgh in two hours?
(This is when you’ll get the ‘I’d love to know what car she’s driving’ queries from your editor.)
You can bet there will be a beady-eyed reader out there (apart from your editor) who will relish picking up on such logistical errors. And don’t even go there with historical fiction - your neck will be well and truly on the block if you get your history facts wrong; history fans just love catching you out on those!
But don’t worry, these days there’s an answer for everything… Yes, you know the search engine I mean. Just be sure to clear your browsing history afterwards – writers search for the strangest things!
Part 7 of the blog series will discuss issues of sentence structure and stylistic choices, both important aspects of the copy-editing stage.
When all rewrites have been completed and you are happy with the structure and story content of your book, you'll be ready to move on to the copy-editing stage.
Many authors think that after the intensive examination at developmental level, all they really need now is a proofread and they’re ready to go. But I can’t emphasise enough what a difference the copy-editing stage can make to the quality and readability of your manuscript.
A developmental editor will not have paid too much attention to the sorts of issues a copy-editor will look for, nor will a proofreader be able to make changes outside their remit even if they do spot copy-editing errors. In fact, skipping the copy-editing stage causes all sorts of problems for a proofreader who would prefer a fully edited version to work on, and some proofreaders may even decline to work on your manuscript if they feel it’s unethical to do so at this stage.
So why is it so important? Well, during the copy-edit the focus moves away from big issues of plot and structure towards a sentence-level examination. This is where the 3 C’s come in and it's these that will make your novel stand apart from the ones that have skipped this crucial stage.
The 3 C’s will make your narrative: Clear, Concise and Consistent, and its priority is to help you tell your story in the most effective way possible so the reader doesn’t even realise they’re reading.
What a Copy-Editor is looking at:
Before we get to Point of View, I just want to quickly reiterate here that narrative voice doesn’t simply mean what point of view you choose to write in. Your narrative voice will reflect the tone of the whole book, so a copy-editor would be checking to make sure it ‘fits’ well with your story and that it’s consistent throughout.
If, for example, you are writing in first-person POV, this narrative voice will belong to one character and one alone. While this sounds straightforward, this voice will need to fit its character as well as deliver your story in the most effective way according to your intentions.
If you are working with third-person omniscient POV, you will need to decide how much of a role your omniscient narrator is going to play in the novel – from entirely neutral to an extra 'character' who influences the reader’s perception of events unfolding.
Point of View (POV)
Many authors underestimate how tricky point of view can be. Even the editor must pay close attention to ensure the POV established at the beginning of the novel is the same one maintained unwaveringly throughout.
It’s always a good idea to take time before you begin writing your novel to run through a range of POV possibilities, perhaps even testing a few sentences in each voice to see which feels ‘right’ for the telling of your story.
The ‘right’ point of view is not simply the one you prefer to work in, but the one that tells your story in the best possible way (i.e. from the most effective perspective).
My blog, Points of View: A Short Guide, has some guidance on the different types of POV to help clear up any confusion you may have in this area.
To avoid the pitfalls of inconsistent point of view, make sure you have a clear understanding of what your chosen POV does and doesn't allow you to do. Bear these boundaries in mind as you work through the novel on your copy-edit.
For example, your third-person limited POV character will not know what someone else is thinking unless he is told or he is guessing.
Carl had just about had enough of all this background chatter. He slammed his glass down on the bar. The barman let him get away with it this time; he’d been watching Carl for the past hour and knew when a guy was down on his luck.
This sentence potentially reads fine if the POV is third-person multiple but in a third-person limited to Carl POV, it’s an impossibility. Instead it would be better as:
Carl had just about had enough of all this background chatter. He slammed his glass down on the bar. The barman looked as if he were about to say something, but for whatever reason chose not to.
This sounds and feels much better. The barman remains an external character viewed from Carl’s perspective. Carl gauges the barman’s intentions from his demeanour as opposed to knowing what he is actually thinking.
Another common issue related to this is a character knowing something they weren’t witness to. In the example below you will clearly be able to see what I mean:
I close the door of the restaurant behind me, glad to be away from there. But as I do, I fail to see the look on his face, the one that says, ‘Don’t go.’
So, when you’re paying attention to the POV (as we are here), the problem is clear, right? How can this character possibly know she has failed to see the look on his face and what that look implies? She’s already gone! She would have to either see it for herself or be told about it:
But as I do I catch the look on his face…
“You should have seen his face after you left,” Becky said the following morning.
Head-hopping is another common issue, one which is guaranteed to confuse your reader and turn reading your book into more of a chore than the seamless, pleasurable experience it should be.
If your narrative has multiple character POVs, make sure you make it clear to the reader when you are switching and who you are switching to. Vivid and varied characters will make it easier for the reader to separate one personality from another, as will devices like dialect, mannerisms, or even alternating chapters for alternating points of view.
Point of view is not always as clear-cut as it first seems, and it’s very easy to miss things, especially when you’re close to the story. A good break before you begin copy-editing, or a fresh pair of eyes altogether, will help weed out any inconsistencies in this regard.
In Part 6 of the series we’ll take a look at characterisation, setting and timeline during the copy-editing stage.
What a developmental editor is looking at:
I say this a lot because it’s absolutely true: characters are the key to the success or failure of your novel. Readers will forgive you some things (maybe) but they absolutely will not forgive a character who doesn’t materialise enough for them or fails to deliver.
If there’s one thing to focus your efforts on learning, developing and getting right first, it’s how to create believable characters. It doesn’t matter if they are loved or hated by your readers, they just need to be real.
Remember, your readers are starting with nothing: they don’t see what you see yet. So the issue is how to make these characters as real to your reader as they are to you.
Some of this will be description, and I assume the appearance of your characters is amongst the first things that come to your mind about them, so this you can pass on relatively easily.
But more importantly you will want your characters to reveal themselves by their actions.
And because of this, you are going to need to be pretty sure you know your characters inside and out. When you do, you’ll know exactly why Meg would say such a thing as that, and precisely why Alex flew into a rage, or why Annabel reacted to his rage that way… You won’t even have to think about this too much because your characters will just react.
And when you know them this well, the readers will pick up on this assurance too.
(Then there’s the ones who refuse to do what you want them to do, right? That’s when you know you’ve got a strong, clear character.)
Problems arise when you get stuck on the question ‘What would Sally do here?’. It’s not an unsolvable problem and you don’t have to rewrite Sally all over again; it just might mean you need to spend a little more time ‘getting to know’ her so that the answer becomes clear.
The second thing here is character development and is, of course, most relevant to the main characters – the protagonist/antagonist. The notion is that Bob will start the book as one person but by the end he has changed in some way. He’s grown up/learned to laugh again/resolved some deep-rooted issues/changed career/been on a spiritual journey – anything really so long as the events in the book have made an impact on who he is.
The role of characters in a narrative is twofold:
Firstly they are represented as individuals – internal and external beings with all the expected range of physical traits and personality quirks;
Secondly, they are representative of the narrative and plot, i.e. they fulfil a purpose.
The first we dealt with above, but the second is just as important to consider.
Each character in your narrative needs to be there for a reason. This is pretty clear for the main characters, but what about the extras? They may be just a crowd bystander in the mall or a waitress at a dinner party, but they are still positioned to move the story on in one way or another.
For example, it’s not necessary for us to know that the waitress in the antagonist's dinner party scene drives her father’s Ford Focus at weekends, has a Taiwanese boyfriend and a hamster called Keith; it's only necessary for us to know she's wearing a skimpy French-maid outfit that she keeps adjusting when she thinks no one is looking and black heels that she can barely walk on – discomforts which may tell us she’s working for the antagonist because she has to rather than chooses to.
So remember, too, that your readers don’t need access to all those character notes you have splayed across your desk. Keep it simple but effective with a few key points:
Ellen’s first boyfriend, Jesse, was a dreamer with a big mind but a little wallet; she didn’t make that same mistake with Carl.
This tells us all we need to know about Jesse, and a lot about Ellen too: it tells us that Ellen favours money over thought (creativity/passion/dreams).
Keep a look out also for seemingly important characters that might show up in a scene or two and then suddenly disappear without explanation.
For example, Samantha’s brother turns up at her door in Chapter 12; he’s stoned again and she’s got too much going on right now to deal with his unresolved daddy issues. He begs her to let him stay and as always she gives in: he can have the sofa but only for a week.
And then... we never hear anything more about him; he doesn’t appear in any more scenes and Samantha doesn’t mention him anywhere throughout the next ten chapters to the end of the book… not once.
So what was his purpose? Why does he seem important in Chapter 12 but thereafter it’s like he didn’t exist? Did he leave eventually? Did he give Samantha grief? Did he add to her worries for the rest of the book, making her confront her own issues? What?
If he serves no purpose (other than to add a bit of filler to your book), then that whole scene needs to be cut: it’s purposeless.
Now, I’m not saying life is best when someone is upset and it causes a bit of a furore or some tension at the very least. But books are!
You can’t have a book without conflict and this is often in the form of character conflict. And not just the main characters.
An entire book about the divorce of Karen and Steve will not only be about Karen and Steve’s problems: other characters won’t get along either. Perhaps Karen’s father never approved of Steve anyway (this causes tension between Karen and her father, and Steve and her father, as well as Karen and Steve themselves).
Conflict runs throughout all relationships in one form or another, from outright screaming matches or physical aggression to muttered expletives, gossiping or underlying tensions.
People never get along 100% of the time, and these tensions are either expressed or suppressed. It makes reality very hard for us all, but it makes storytelling wonderful.
Readers may crave a happy ending, but they want a bit of a tussle first. Light the fuse and watch them go...
Setting & Timeline
Setting and timeline encompass the world you are going to be dropping your characters into. I’ve classed them in the same category here because the two cross over when it comes to the time period of your novel.
Naturally a novel set in eighteenth-century Paris will have a different backdrop to that of twenty-first-century New York.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this aspect of your narrative will be the easiest.
Dependent on the time and place of your narrative, you will need to be paying close attention to: culture, dialect, slang, social, political and economic relevance – all the things that make up our own world.
It doesn’t matter what time period or planet you set your narrative in, you will need to create a realistic world for your characters to inhabit. This isn’t necessarily realistic in terms of the way we live or have lived in the past; it simply means your novel’s backdrop needs to be believable and consistent.
Naturally, in a historic novel you would expect the author to do extensive research to make sure the time they are writing about is relevant. But the same is true for modern or recent past narratives:
What was in the news? What was relevant to society? What slang was being used and what wasn’t? What were people doing with their time?
Not all of this will be needed in your book, of course, but it means that the backdrop you create in your narrative is recognisable, relevant to the time and believable.
Many readers won’t notice if you slip up… but a surprising amount will.
Research and know your setting and time period well!
And it’s no different if your setting is Planet Chabernook in a time beyond time. Okay, so research is out of the question probably. But you need to feel confident this planet has its own encyclopaedia, atlas and history books, even if their contents don’t make it into the story.
Readers can sniff out an unprepared, unstable setting from several bookshops away. There’s not always time for this fact checking during your first drafts, so if you haven’t done so at early stages, take the time during your edits to develop your narrative so it matches its time period and timezone.
Is your narrative clear about what time period your narrative is taking place over? Perhaps your entire book is based around the events of one day (Mrs Dalloway, Ulysses, A Christmas Carol), or over a lifetime (David Copperfield, The World According to Garp).
Books with a very long timeline may date their chapters to clarify leaps in time or to relay the importance of specific dates in the future or in history. In most cases, however, the passing of time will need to be integrated into the narrative itself.
Almost a week passed before she was well enough to leave the house.
Later that evening, Tim made his decision.
The next morning...
Alice didn’t see him again for another two weeks.
When you know your story very well, it can be easy to forget to indicate when things are taking place. And whilst your reader will not need to know what happens to your protagonist every waking hour of every day, they will need to feel there is a sense of time passing and just how much time that is.
If your narrative is non-linear in its timeline (e.g. incorporating flashbacks), it will be even more important to clarify what point in the timeline you are on.
Confusing or unclear leaps in timeline will be picked up by a developmental editor, but the passage of time will also be scrutinised more carefully at the copy-edit stage.
And this leads us into Part 5 of the Self-Editing blog series which will introduce you to the Sculpt stage of copy-editing, where we’ll begin by addressing issues with point of view.
What a developmental editor is looking at:
If you can describe what happens in your story in just one sentence then it has a plot. Hopefully there will be more to your story than just this one line – that’s where all the subplots come in – but there should at least be this one overriding plot event. It doesn’t necessarily need to be explosive, but it does need to be there.
Losing the plot is one of a writer’s biggest issues. It can have you tearing your hair out, convinced you’ve written rubbish and wanting to throw an early Bonfire Night. But often these issues can be fixed, just as long as you know what they are.
One of the reasons authors may veer off-topic is because they haven’t planned their narrative in depth and are writing on a hunch. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you not to do this: many writers prefer to write this way. But it can mean that occasionally you write yourself into a box, up against a brick wall or even into a holy quagmire of a mess.
In other words, you’ll be making more work for yourself come editing time. That’s fine if you’re happy with that – sometimes the best stuff comes when we free write - but to avoid total chaos, you might want to think about having some sort of loose plan as to what’s going to happen in your book and when, so that you’ll be able to at least stay on track a little. Consider having a few landmark points along the way you need to head towards.
Another cause of wayward plots is when a writer feels they need to ‘pad out’ their story. But there’s absolutely no point whatsoever in describing the entire contents of John’s refrigerator just to pass some time or show your readers how inventive your descriptive writing is. If it adds something to your story or tells us something about John we need to know, then fine. Otherwise ask yourself ‘is this really relevant or am I just filling space?’.
Your reader won’t thank you for these extra anecdotes and ramblings, they’ll just be left bewildered as to their relevance.
I’m not suggesting every point you make must move the plot along, but it must at least have a bearing on it no matter how slim. For example, if one night Tom decides to tell Becky about a film he saw when he was twelve that has haunted him ever since, and proceeds to describe it in great detail from beginning to end, then we might assume this tells us something about Tom that we need to know (e.g. what his fears are, what sort of emotional attachments he builds).
Editors often talk about a tight plot and this is what you’re aiming for. It means everything that happens in your book happens for a reason and helps to drive your characters and story forward to the conclusion. If your narrative doesn’t reach novel-length expectations without some extra padding, then presumably your plot or subplots need reassessing.
So you’ve heard the term dramatic arc before and I’m sure you know it relates to the rise and fall of events within your story’s plot. Depending on your genre, the drama in your plot will rise, peak and fall at generally recognised points.
For a romance, the drama is likely to start low-key, rising steadily throughout (as a relationship develops, for example), perhaps with one or two peaks and troughs along the way (it’s not all smiles in the garden of love), followed by the highest dramatic peak towards the end (will they, won’t they?), just before a fall again towards a low-key satisfied ending (happily ever... etc, etc).
A thriller, on the other hand, may begin at a peak (with a murder, for example), before rising and lowering periodically (finding new clues; theories scuppered), until the final conclusion (you’re nicked, son!). Generally speaking, most books will conclude with the bottom end of the arc to avoid leaving the reader high and dry, so to speak.
Dramatic arc can flounder in two ways:
The key here is to use your genre as your guide. Again, you might decide to flout genre rules at some point, but not until you’re absolutely certain you know the risk is worth it and will pay off.
If you’re not sure about how to use dramatic arc or pace in your own genre, then read other books in the same genre and take cues from those: this is the quickest way to learn, and you can compare their arcs to yours.
And this is why I’d suggest learning the rules before you flout them. If you lead your readers up the garden path, they won’t thank you for it. For example, if you’ve written a mystery, your reader will expect to be drip-fed clues that are not too easy to solve but also which avoid a ridiculous and impossible conclusion.
Twists they’ll love, get-out clauses they’ll detest. So no ending with ‘it was all a dream’ or ‘and then he woke from his coma to find it hadn’t happened’ or ‘they kissed and made up because it wasn’t worth arguing any more’. Keep it real. Even if it’s an alien planet, keep it real.
In part 4 of the series, we’ll turn our attention to issues of character, setting and timeline during the developmental edit.
So this first stage of the editing process is the big one, and it will need some time to get right. It’s not concerned with your spelling, grammar and punctuation right now; it’s more worried about whether your narrative can hold water from page one to the very end.
Editing at this stage is all about ensuring you have a story that stands upon a sturdy structure, one that will carry your readers through a series of believable events before ultimately leading them to a satisfying ending. Of course, there’s no pleasing everyone, but broadly speaking your experienced reading audience will have some expectations about your book when they buy it, so it’s their judgement you'll be keeping in mind when editing your book at this level.
It’s important to remember too that not all edits will be the same. The genre, style and target audience you have chosen for your book will dictate how the developmental edit will proceed.
If you hire an editor, this is also the stage at which you are probably going to get hit with some pretty hefty feedback; don’t be repelled by this – this is exactly what you want because it’s what your book needs to whip it into shape.
So, welcome feedback: it will help you to develop as a writer, more than you might realise at present.
What a Developmental Editor is looking at:
The structure of your book is its backbone, and it doesn’t just relate to the plot (which I’ll address in the next blog post), but stems from the decisions you make about how your story is going to be told and who by. There are more variations of structure than you can probably think of, but the one you choose will determine the style of your novel and define its unique identity. Let’s take a look at some potential concerns with structure:
Another way to think of story structure is to consider its shape.
Does your story start at point A, rise steadily in pace and action to point P where it all kicks off and everything seems doomed, then falls gently to point Z where everyone goes home happy (or not happy)?
Or, do you have a retelling of events that have already concluded and follow a non-linear timeline, jumping back and forth?
Might you have decided to have several different stories running at once, which may or may not intersect at some point?
How about you started your narrative in the midst of the action (effectively halfway through) and then used flashbacks to inform your readers about the first half they missed?
From just these four options, you get the idea of how many shapes a book’s structure can possibly take. What an editor would be looking for is whether the particular shape you have chosen is appropriate to your genre and more importantly whether it’s consistent from beginning to end.
For example, if your story continually moves forward in time for the first three-quarters but in the final quarter it jumps to something that happened in the past, this could come as something of a surprise to the reader.
If you’ve been relating events from the perspective of two main characters (perhaps using each chapter to alternate POV), the reader’s focus will be jarred by the sudden appearance in the last but one chapter of a third character perspective.
Now, I’m loathe to say ‘never do this, never do that’ because there is always a writer somewhere who has broken ‘the rules’ to spectacularly wonderful effect (I genuinely love those writers!).
But what I will say is: if you’re going to change the shape of your story midpoint, have a really good reason for doing so, one that benefits and reflects the narrative and one that does not throw the reader out of the story in the process.
You could examine the structure of your novel by trying to write it out in a sentence as per the examples I gave above.
So when I say voice here I’m talking specifically about your narrator, who may or may not be a character in the book. Your narrator does more than just tell the story, they are setting the tone for your entire book, which is why I’m relating it here to structure.
If your book is a fairy tale about a poor, wretched girl who uses her intellect to defeat a wicked witch, the chances are the narrator will be on the girl’s side, or it will be the girl herself.
If your story is a harrowing account of how a medical error leads a psychotic patient to murder a family in their beds, your voice might be an objective narrator (allowing the reader to decide who is at fault), or the psychotic character, or family members of the victims, or both.
And should you choose to have multiple narrative voices, will they tell their stories simultaneously or chronologically?
The developmental editor will be examining this narrative voice to ensure it works well within your genre and that it stays the same throughout, because a common error for new authors is to jump between narrative voices.
For example, a narrator who has been silent throughout – relaying events from an objective (invisible) perspective – suddenly ‘reveals’ himself during a later chapter by throwing in an opinion or trying to guide the reader’s response.
In an ideal world, you would have a clear idea of who your narrator is and what she is or isn’t capable of before you begin work. But if you find you haven’t really paid that much attention to the narrator as you’ve written, then you’ll want to pin them down by the end of the book.
You could try clarifying this for yourself by writing a paragraph about your chosen narrative perspective and why it works for your story. Then as you redraft pay close attention to whether your narrator has stuck within their parameters throughout.
In Part 3 of the series we’ll look at what sort of issues a developmental editor may be concerned about when examining your novel’s plot.
It’s more than likely you have drawn up a timetable for the writing of your book, and perhaps you have in mind a publication date. But how well have you scheduled the bit that comes in-between?
Many new authors tend to underestimate the time needed to pass thoroughly through all the editing stages. In their eagerness to get the book ‘out there’, they might either skip a stage entirely, or give it just a cursory glance at best.
But if you bear in mind that a traditional publisher can take anywhere up to two years to release an author’s book, you begin to get a feel for the amount of time and work needed to make the book fit for purpose in the marketplace.
A publisher wouldn’t release a novel that had not passed through all the editing stages; to do so would be putting the reputation of both their business and the author at risk.
Why then would a self-publishing author release an incomplete novel?
We live in a thoroughly exciting and fast-moving age in terms of book publishing. The industry is changing rapidly and, where once publishers were the gatekeepers in control of who and what was published, authors are now bypassing these once-insurmountable barriers and taking charge of their own work and writing careers by publishing themselves.
This is a seismic shift that is awash with opportunity for the newly coined ‘independent author’, but only if they are prepared to fully comprehend what the process and business of publishing involves.
Are you still with me? Great. Let’s get to grips with this editing lark then...
If you can get into the mindset that your book won’t just start and finish with the writing of it, that there’s a whole process of rewriting and checking and tweaking, then you will be in less of a hurry to skip these crucial stages and a lot further forward in understanding the business of book production.
Having said that, I know how complex, confusing and disconcerting the process can be. And so in the weeks to come I’ll be posting a series of blogs that will talk you through each editing stage, what editing professionals look for and how you can take on some of these tasks yourself.
A greater awareness of what editing involves can help you to become a better writer, as well as save you time and money when you hire a professional.
You are hiring a professional, right?
For many indie authors, the idea of hiring professional editorial help is a contentious one, and I understand why. Aside from the expense, editing itself seems nothing short of a quagmire, with lots of confusing terminology and conflicting advice.
For a start, how do you even know whether you need an editor or a proofreader? Can you get away with just hiring one of them rather than both?
Well, in truth, it’s not as confusing as it seems. So let's begin by getting to the nitty gritty.
No matter what Editor A calls it compared to Editor B, and no matter what Editor C says about Editor A’s working methods, all you need to know is that there are only three main stages to the editorial process of writing and publishing. Traditional publishers have been following this three-step method for quite some time, and now it’s your turn to make sense of it too, so that you can get the right help at the right time for the right thing.
So here are those three stages in their purest form:
Aside from the varying terminology, the reason for the confusion can derive from the fact that manuscripts will often need more than one pass (one edit) at each stage. Likewise, some of these three editorial stages occasionally cross over.
For example, a developmental editor looking at the big issues of your narrative may point out glaring inconsistencies such as spelling irregularities or different names used (this is what a copy-editor would look for). Or, a copy-editor may correct typos or punctuation errors as they work line by line (the proofreader’s job).
But regardless of whether you hire a professional at every or any stage, it remains vital that the editing and proofreading of your book follows this particular order: Stage 1 (Build), Stage 2 (Sculpt), Stage 3 (Polish). Without this structure, you risk getting forever lost in an endless editing and proofreading loop, potentially spending much more time and money than necessary.
By knowing the clear and logical order for editing your book, not only will you save yourself time and money, but you will also be able to break down what is a large part of publishing into manageable steps, resulting in a more structured and smoother process both for you and those you hire to help you.
In Part 2 of the series, I’ll be helping to demystify the Build stage of the editing process – the developmental edit. I’ll begin by discussing what it involves and consider some issues to look out for in relation to the structure of your novel.
Part 2: Developmental Edit (Structure)
Part 3: Developmental Edit (Plot)
Part 4: Developmental Edit (Characters, Setting, Timeline)
Part 5: Copy-Edit (Narrative Voice, Point of View)
Part 6: Copy-Edit (Characters, Setting, Timeline)
I’ve got a bone to pick with self-publishing authors.
No, not all of you. You over there, you’re fine. And you in the corner, you’re okay, as too are you lot at the back. In fact, most of you are downright bloody amazing: you know what it takes to be successfully self-published and you learn everything you can about how to go about it. You absorb knowledge like a sponge and then you go out and apply it again and again, because you know one day the hard work will pay off, both in plaudits and in earnings.
But every now and then a little voice pops up with a slightly different view, and – to be frank (even though it’s not the weekend yet) – it winds me up a real treat.
To make it clear what I’m wittering on about, here are a few comments I came across recently on a well-known, feathered social media site:
1. ‘Most people will never give my writing a chance because I’m self-published.’
2. ‘I’m not a marketer.’
3. ‘Why should I try again if my first attempt doesn’t succeed?’
And here is my calm and constructive response (which was not my initial one):
All of these comments are negative. They suggest writers who are defeated before they have barely begun. All perfectly legit opinions of course, but ones that deflate and drastically diminish their owners' writing goals and opportunities in this still-developing market.
Since the Amazon Kindle launched in the US in 2007, it has paved the way for writers to finally take control of bringing their own work to market, and as such the number of published authors has risen exponentially. But having said that, the industry is still in its relatively early years. Ten years is nothing compared to the six hundred that have passed since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, thereafter revolutionising mass production of printed materials. So you could say with all confidence that the self-publishing industry is still very much in its infancy.
Would you suppose then that this young industry owes writers something more than it already delivers? If so... why does it?
Isn’t it up to self-publishing authors themselves to take advantage of this golden opportunity, to prove the worth of their material and to influence perceptions of their newly adopted industry too?
Naturally, when the ease with which writers could publish online and earn money initially caught on, writers of all genres and abilities jumped on the bandwagon, knocking out books at a rate of knots, and often to hell with paying anyone to dress it up nice for the reader first. Result: a plethora of bad books and an unworthy reputation for this wonderful new venture just trying to find its sea legs. Before it had been given a chance, self-publishing was already being frowned upon.
But then some resilient people decided they wouldn’t give up on this chance they’d been given: they would instead work harder to change that blotch on their industry and find a way to make it work. These resilient saviours were – and still are – the successful self-published authors (my definition of ‘successful’ being those who earn enough from their self-published work to earn a living (sometimes more)). They are not a mirage or a marketing tactic, they are real, ordinary, everyday, hardworking people: see, for instance, Joanna Penn. And where there are large groups of skilled people, there are organisations to support them: see, for instance, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).
What has made these authors successful and the organisations necessary is a complete and utter understanding of – and respect for – the publishing industry, including the opportunities self-publishing presents and where it is likely to go from here on its ever-evolving journey.
These authors know too that a successful career is built on a positive mindset, not a defeatist one. Success won’t happen overnight, they realise. It probably won’t come on the first book even. Maybe not on the second or third either. But perhaps by the fourth, fifth or sixth, when they have a slowly growing tribe of fans, a backlist to cross-promote, good reviews and increasing sales, their hard work will finally lead to the plaudits and earnings they then rightly deserve.
If writers want readers to pay for their self-published material, then they have to become business owners and either take on or outsource all the tasks needed to bring their books to a professional, publishable standard. There is simply no other way around this unless they hire someone else to run the business for them. But for authors who have grappled with contracts, agents and publishers for years, the beauty of self-publishing is that it lets them take control. They know by now what needs doing, they know the process of publishing a book inside and out - they just put themselves at the helm instead of the middle man.
For those authors new to the industry, they need to learn these publishing stages for themselves, and there’s plenty of free advice on the internet so self-educating is not the issue here. It will be hard work, bloody hard work, and that’s why self-publishing is a wonderful option but certainly not an easy one. If self-published writers want their book to be given a chance, they need to make it look as good as a traditionally published one; more specifically, they need to be prepared to pass it through the seven stages of publishing: editorial, design, production, distribution, marketing, promotion, licensing rights.
So I’ll say again, it’s up to self-publishing authors themselves to earn the reputation they crave.
To work in publishing – traditional or self-publishing – requires a certain type of person: one who is passionate enough about what they do, who perseveres, commits and dedicates themselves to words and books even when the outcome is uncertain or the odds against them. Small independent publishers in particular will take on a book based only on the premise that they ‘believe’ in the story and the author. And when the writing is done, the self-publisher must also believe in their own story enough to want to complete the task: to spend the time - and yes, unavoidably, the money - to make their book worthy of their readers’ time and good reviews. There is no easy route and many writers may balk at the idea of taking this on; that’s fine, for those writers traditional publishing still exists and likely will do for quite some time to come.
But for the ones who want to learn and who want to take control of their writing and publishing lives, self-publishing is a life-changing opportunity to attain new skills, meet new people in new communities, build a business, and pursue a career. It just takes a bit of elbow grease and a lot of determination.
So let's be clear: self-publishing doesn’t owe writers anything; it already gives more than enough. But writers owe themselves and their work the chance to try and do it right.
Why it's okay to leave home without your notebook
Writers are a funny bunch. We can usually be found bemoaning the difficulties bestowed upon us by this vocation we are compelled to honour; difficulties such as the cost of coffee, the long hours without daylight, and the pressure to produce something worthy of those long hours which can't ever be lived again. We are quick to verify the divide that exists between non-writers (those not driven to put thoughts into words on paper) and the rest of us (who are), and we do so with an air of having experienced something the former never will – thankfully for them.
Yet for all this moaning – sorry, bemoaning – we never think about leaving our desk behind and just quitting writing for a while. And that’s because writers have heard the horror stories. We know that not writing will either destroy our career or bring out the Edward Hyde in us, and the only way to steer clear of this is to write or think about writing almost every waking hour of every day (and some non-waking ones too). But could we be missing a trick?
Having just returned from a one-week road trip around the lochs, glens and coast of Scotland, the North Coast 500 route, in an old, slow (but thankfully reliable) camper van, I’ve discovered something very useful. Whilst it had been my intention to consciously be alert to anything that would spark my creativity (settings, characters, themes, plots), so lost was I in the moment of the trip, all thoughts of writing and editing left me easily and completely.
Back at my desk on Monday morning, I felt well rested... and, yes okay, a little brain-fogged. But I was also slightly disappointed I perhaps hadn’t made the most of the opportunity I’d been given. Many successful writers extol the virtues of travel, of leaving the desk behind and wandering to pastures new in order to garner new experiences and knowledge with which to enrich their writing. Had I been having such a great time that I had dismissed my responsibilities like an unwelcome guest?
Well, as it turns out, no. As I reflected on the road trip, I realised I had absorbed more data for the writing banks than I had been aware of. I may not have scribbled copious notes in my bumper notebook (wishful thinking!), and I may have been so busy mesmerised by the blue/green hue of the sea along the Highland coast that I failed to spot the significance of the historic building of interest inland, but I did return with a clear head (a slate as blank as my notebook) and a shedload of experiences... oh, and photos too.
In fact, some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve returned with are not what I would have expected at all. For instance, I can now better imagine what it feels like to not know where you might be sleeping from one night to the next; I also know the bizarre and unsettling sensation of half-waking in the night with no idea where you are or where you are supposed to be (home? bedroom? camper van? lakeside? mountains?); I know what it’s like to live only for the present day – to ensure you and your family have all the basics covered (food, water, toilet), to only think about your journey for that day (not what you’re doing next week or next month) and how strangely refreshing and exhilarating that ‘simple’ day-to-day living is.
Perhaps less unexpected, I now know there are areas in Scotland that bring to mind Canada, Alaska, and – yes – Route 66: images imprinted in my mind which would no doubt serve either a Scottish or North American setting for a novel very well. I know how the clarity of the water gives it its beautiful shades, how the sunset can give a warm red glow to the side of an otherwise grey and ominous-looking mountain, and how close to nature you feel when you are separated from it only by pieces of thin metal and glass.
Most of all, I know that we writers don’t have to record everything we see: we don’t even have to constantly be looking. If something catches our imagination and sparks ideas, then fine, but otherwise it is life’s experiences themselves – those that enter the memory banks rather than the notebooks – that will some day emerge in our writing. And probably when we least expect it.
Non-writers may be forgiven for thinking that to sit at one’s desk in one’s pyjamas tapping out novels for a living sounds like a breeze. Of course, they know full well there’s more to the writer’s life than that; good range of vocabulary for a start, a bottomless imagination, and an enjoyment or at least tolerance of solitude and coffee. Writers themselves may recognise some or all of these factors and reflect, yes indeed, it is a dream job because of these things and more, much more. But surprisingly, little is mentioned amongst writers of their vocation’s considerable emotional expenditure.
A construction worker may return home after a twelve-hour shift, only to nod off the moment his head hits the sofa or dinner plate – physically and mentally exhausted from the strains of the day. Likewise, the writer also arrives home – okay, emerges from the writing cave – with the same dishevelled look and mashed-up brain, and this sometimes after only a fraction of the construction worker’s shift. Though the writer holds scant argument in the physicality stakes (apart from bleary eyes, numb buttocks and a crick in the back), their potential for mental fatigue is, at the very least, on a par with those with more ‘normal’ full-time careers.
Writing fiction has always put me in mind of acting. These two professions share an extraordinarily similar purpose in that they both require the individual to mentally become someone else, and – done well – this can be emotionally draining. Add to this the fact that the writer must become not just one but several characters all at the same time, and you begin to get a sense of how all-consuming writing can be (aside from the finding-the-right-words-and-putting-them-in-the-right-order thing).
Watching me write (type) is not a pretty sight. To assist visualisation, I will often ‘act out’ the emotions, mannerisms or gestures my characters are portraying. This could be something as simple as the motion involved in peering through a hole in a fence, or stroking the mouth in a nervous gesture. Physically performing these elements helps me to be accurate about what my character feels and what I need to convey to the reader. Other times, I may sit immobile, gazing redundantly out the window for indefinite periods, while in my head... well, anything could be happening. Either way, the objective is to immerse myself entirely in the world I’m creating.
Part of writing fiction is organising and presenting the events, settings and characters in a way that’s ‘real’ enough to hold the reader within that world until they finish the story. During construction of this other world, the writer runs the gamut of emotions of every character in every situation – feeling them keenly if they are to be passed on to the reader (‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’ Robert Frost). Such a feat takes a tremendous amount of time, patience, research, skill and, above all, thought. It takes bursts of wild creativity and periods of controlled problem-solving. It takes persistence and it takes passion. And it’s mentally exhausting…
...But fun! Because a writer writes for the same reason a reader reads – to escape their own world for a while and explore another’s; to experience life in all its forms (good and bad) and learn of its potential. Hence, the occupational hazard of the mental wringer is perhaps little alluded to simply because it is far outweighed by the emotional rewards – the ‘experiences’, knowledge, understanding and, subsequently, job satisfaction – that this simple and tortuous profession provides.