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.