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Posts Tagged copy editing
Scratch that; they weren’t just tricky. They were a forensic slog.
I’d already checked everything that affected the central plot events – journey times, important dates and so on. But that was months before. Not only that, there were countless niggles I hadn’t realised would alert an editor’s eye. It was amazing what I didn’t know about my own book. How many hours had passed since the hostages were taken? On what day did the characters meet the mysterious man? She questioned every plot beat, flashback and nightfall.
Sitting down to answer that exhaustive list, I felt like Arthur Dent when he lamented that he couldn’t get the hang of Thursdays.
Thankfully my timelines held, give or take a minor snag, but I learned my lesson. Ever since, I’ve been fastidious about them.
Timelines are mainly invisible
Unless you’re writing a time travel story or a novel with condensed action, timelines are mainly invisible to readers. Like plot and character arcs, they’re the unseen looms of the storyteller’s art. And this means writers often don’t realise they need to take control of them. Until they face an editor’s interrogation.
You’ll be astonished what editors – and readers – will call you on. Is it possible for Joe to have recovered from his broken leg enough to climb a ladder? Are those characters in two places at once? How can that scene be back story if the event hasn’t happened yet?
If you take control of your timeline, you’ll find it much easier to know if your plot is plausible, and to sort out the hiccups.
Here are my tips.
If the timeline drives the story, you might want to design it before you start writing, or sketch out the main markers – historical events, calendar landmarks. Some writers use year planners, but a sheet of A4 is just as good.
You might also want to verify possibilities that require precision – such as travel. (And if you’re writing time travel you need to be very precise.)
Otherwise, be casual. You can decide these details in revision. If you stop and fret every time you need to write ‘last night’ or ‘next June’ you’ll probably get paralysed by indecision. Write something magnificently vague such as ‘the other day’ or ‘soon’, and sail on.
Before you revise
Now get serious about time. Before I revise a manuscript I analyse the first draft with an exercise I call a beat sheet. Essentially it’s an at-a-glance summary of every scene. You can make it on paper or a spreadsheet, and one of your columns is reserved to record when the scene happens.
As you summarise each scene for the beat sheet, notice if you’ve made a point about the date, time or event, and record it in the timeline column. If you haven’t, leave it blank.
Also write in if a deadline has appeared – for instance, 20 minutes before the bomb detonates. If your plot includes a race against the clock, the timing often needs to be worked out to the minute. With the beat sheet it’s simplicity itself to write the timings against plot events and check they work.
Then fill the blanks, deciding what will be plausible for those sections of the story. Perhaps the precise date isn’t important and you can bracket them together as ‘summer’, to ensure your weather descriptions are consistent. Or you might decide you can enhance the action by setting it at Christmas or even a time that corresponds with a newsworthy world event – whatever suits you.
But when those editors and beta readers quiz you on your story’s plausibility, you’ll have the answers ready. Painlessly.
The beat sheet is my go-to method for revising my novels’ structure, plot and character arcs. It’s explained fully in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Do you have problems keeping track of time in your novels? Have you found a solution? Share in the comments
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There will be changes
Always. Even if you’ve had beta readers. Even if you’re a seasoned pro. Of the 14 or 15 full manuscripts I’ve submitted, there was only one where the editors didn’t want to change anything, beyond tiny niggles. Only one.
There are two kinds of feedback. In traditional publishing, agents – and editors in the initial stages – will tend to give brief, sweeping notes about character arcs, pacing, credibility and relatability. Even though these won’t be as detailed as the work an editor will do, they might keep you busy for a couple of months.
Moreover, an editor who does a detailed critique may have a different vision from those who have looked at it before. (Should you edit to fit another person’s tastes? A million-dollar question, which I’ll come back to.)
Anyway, most of us swallow hard when the detailed report arrives. This is what I do.
Critique report survival tips
Expect a large document that tackles your book in close detail. Sometimes very large – I’ve written 50 pages for a novice author (but there I’m also taking a tutoring role, so my commentary includes discussion of craft).
1 – Read the report without doing anything. Satisfy your curiosity. Don’t make to-do lists or open the manuscript. Just read.
2 – Set it aside. Yell, scream etc. Wait as long as your deadlines allow. This also lets you digest. When you’re even-tempered about it, start work.
3 – Some suggestions will be easy to fix. Some will be harder. Some will be praise and encouragement, though you might not have recognised them. Read through and mark the easy stuff – either highlight on a printout, or colour in the Word document. Tackle these immediately if it makes sense, and feel satisfied that you’re getting this under control.
4 – Now you’re limbered up – and are familiar with your manuscript again – you’re ready for the trickier suggestions. Separate out the ones you don’t agree with.
Often editors make suggestions that skew the book in a way you don’t want. But they may have identified a significant problem. Disregard their solution and delve deeper for the source.
For instance, an editor who saw an early draft of Life Form Three told me it needed another viewpoint character and that one of my story devices was confusing. I didn’t want another viewpoint character, so I made the original one more relatable. The confusing story device was also important to me, so I reworked it. Result? He was happy because the problems were fixed.
Of course, if you have a traditional publisher, an editor might ask for changes to fit their list and readership. Use your judgement, but remember this: if you are named as the author (ie it’s not work for hire) a publisher can’t change anything without your agreement. Dig your heels in if there is something you really disagree with. In a worst-case scenario they might decline to publish, but this rarely happens. (They also can’t make you agree to a cover or title you don’t like, BTW.)
If you’re indie, you of course have complete freedom to decide what to change. But consider whether an unsuitable suggestion is pointing to a problem you should tackle in a different way.
What, another stage of feedback? I’m afraid so. Copy edits are done after main developmental feedback. But they can still throw up enough problems to make you gnaw the desk.
Copy editors notice the tiny details that slipped by when everyone had bigger problems in mind. They also catch the errors that crept in as you went over the manuscript again and again. The murder victim’s hair might have changed colour. The timeline is impossible.
It’s better to be pre-emptive about this. Keep tight control of these details as you edit – especially the timeline. Although you can probably correct physical details such as characters’ ages and hair colour with a few inventive text searches, you can’t fix the timeline so easily and the whole plot might unravel if it’s wrong. (I map out the timeline when I make my beat sheet.)
The beat sheet is one of the tools described in my book Nail Your Novel … more about it here
Thanks for the pic Brainedge
Do you have any tips for tackling critique reports? Did you ever disagree with an editor’s suggestions and what was the outcome? Let’s share in the comments!
agents, authors, beginners, beta readers, blogging, copy editing, critique reports, critiques, deepen your story, developmental edit, developmental editing, editorial feedback, editors, entertainment, feedback, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, hiring an editor, how to write a book, how to write a novel, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, publishers, publishing, Rewriting, Roz Morris, self-publishing, traditional publishing, using an editor, working with an editor, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
I had an email the other day from a writer who wanted to hire me to critique his novel, and said he’d already had it proof-read and copy edited at considerable expense. He wasn’t pleased when I pointed out that his money had probably been wasted.
Most professional critiques will raise enough points for a major rewrite, so you need to be prepared for that. Paying to get your manuscript copy-edited and proofed before this is not terribly sensible.
But if you’ve never been through the publishing process before, how do you know when to hire what help?
Here’s a critical path.
1. Write, revise etc. Send to beta-readers. Do you need to have the manuscript proof-read for them? No. Just try to make it as clear of errors as you can. There may be a lot of changes to come. When they give you feedback, revise as necessary.
2. When the book is the best you can make it, hire a professional editor.
3. When you get the report back, allow plenty of time for an in-depth rewrite. You may not need this, of course, but too many first-time writers tell me they’ve allowed just two weeks to whack through points raised in my notes. But what if I said a couple of characters needed to be spliced together, a sub-plot needed to be strengthened, your novel’s middle had a sludgy bit where nothing happened, the relationship between a pair of characters needed more complexity, your dialogue needed more spice? Any one of those points would probably take you more than a few weeks to sort but these are typical problem areas. Even seasoned novelists might find a critique throws up a fundamental problem – and so they know to allow plenty of time for this phase.
Why couldn’t these problems be spotted by beta readers? Obviously it depends who your beta readers are, but they tend not to have the book doctor’s eye. They’ll react like laypeople and fans of the genre. They’re extremely good for highlighting places they’re confused, losing interest, don’t believe what’s happening and characters they like and don’t like. But not for the real diagnosis and surgery.
4 Once you’ve rewritten – and preferably run the new version past some more readers, you’re ready for copy-editing.
What’s copy-editing? It’s checking the niggly details. Does Fenella always have blue eyes? Have you got a consistent style for spellings and hyphenation? Are the facts straight, as far as facts are relevant? Does the timeline work? Do any characters accidentally disappear? Are passages repeated from the inevitable cutting and pasting that went on in all the editing phases? As you can see, there will be a lot more changes from this stage. So sort all these questions out and only then…
5 …. proof-read or hire someone to do this. Proof-reading is for the final text, when you are ready to publish.
Another big mistake authors make is to get their cover designed too early. Yes, it’s so exciting to have a cover; believe me, I know. It means you’re Really Going To Publish It. But your cover must reflect the emotional promise of the book.
With some genres that will be easy because the story elements won’t change, but if your thematic emphasis might, you might not be fit to discuss covers until you’ve done your post-critique rewrite.
Don’t get your cover designed until you’ve made a final decision about the title. The title is part of the visual design, and a designer will position pictures, textures and so on so that they fit with the shape and size of the words. The images might have been chosen to go with the words too. If you change the title, chaos beckons (and probably more expense).
Once you’ve made the decision to self-publish and do it properly, it’s easy to panic about things being rough. But don’t rush to complete too quickly. Use my schedule to make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse.
Do you have any advice to add? What mistakes do you see writers making when they hire professional help? Have you had to learn the hard way yourself?
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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Last week I posted on Terri Giuliano Long’s site The Art and Craft of Writing Creatively and in the comments got into discussions about where indie publishing is heading. One of the commenters was Daniel Marvello, who afterwards sent me this email …
You said, ‘2012 will be the year we organise ourselves with quality control’. I love that! And I’d love to know what was in the back of your mind when you wrote it. What do you see changing in 2012?
(As you see from Daniel’s picture, he’s fond of the crystal ball.)
What was in the back of my mind? No big plan, unfortunately. I can see this is what we need, but I haven’t a grand solution. But there’s no better place to talk about it than on my blog with you guys.
For those of you who’ve sat down late, 2011 was the year when many high-profile fiction writers with respected followings went indie, and gave good reasons for doing so. Before then, if you self-published fiction you risked nuking your credibility. But it’s also led to a rash of people uploading to Kindle or CreateSpace or Smashwords but not taking care about quality. Result? It’s raining slush and nonsense. Readers who’ve bought unreadable books are muttering ‘vanity press’ all over again.
Where does quality control come from in traditional publishing? From skilled professionals. Authors don’t do it on their own. Here’s Daniel again:
Most authors ignore advice to get an editor now. What might change that? What will prompt authors to let another set of eyes look at their manuscripts before they click “save and publish”? Can something be done to make such resources more appealing or easy to acquire and use?
The way I see it, there are two issues to address with quality control:
- production – putting out a book with no grammar howlers, formatting glitches, funny typesetting or misprunts
- whether the content is good enough.
One problem is very much easier to solve than the other, but let’s eat this elephant one bite at a time.
Why do indie books fall down on production quality? Several reasons.
1 – Indie authors may not know what’s done to a book in traditional publishing. They might have heard about the artistic side of editing – the developmental work to strengthen the story and literary quality. But they frequently don’t know about all the other trades who wade in once the words are right – copy editing, proof reading, text design, cover design, ebook formatting. Take any debut author who blogs and at some stage they’ll pen a gobsmacked post about how much checking and polishing goes on.
What might change this? We tell people, as often as possible, how much work goes into a published book. You don’t always need separate experts, but these jobs all need to be done. They’re not an optional extra.
2 These services cost money. Personally if I was new to publishing and someone told me I needed to pay for all that my reaction would be ‘pull the other one’ – especially as publishing on Kindle and Smashwords is free. But even when you do decide you’re going to invest, how do you find a reputable pro? Authors have always been easy targets for scammers. Not only that, there are hordes of people setting themselves up as editors when they haven’t the experience.
What might change this? Writers need to find out where the professionals go. A good start might be author groups – for instance, at Authors Electric we’re setting up a list of people we’ve used and would happily use again.
3 Some people simply refuse to be told. If I go into the reasons we’ll be here all day, but there are a lot of those. (You, my friends, are not, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)
What might change this? Confiscating their laptops, probably
Now that last remark may seem facetious and unnecessary, but it underlines a point. As indie authors we have to do everything we can to rise above the trigger-happy Kindlers, because they make it hard for the rest of us to be taken seriously.
Not just presentation
So we can lick production quality. That, as I said above, is the easy part. What about the content, the artistic merit? In traditional publishing, the lame books are rejected and the good ones go through a developmental stage. (Yes terrific books are rejected too, but the author is usually made well aware that they were good.) This brings me to another interesting question that Daniel raised.
If people won’t use editors, can we realistically replace them with critique groups and beta readers?
ie, is it possible to get all this input free?
Sorry, guys, I don’t think it is. In the real world that doesn’t come free. Agents and publishers do it as part of their job. Critical feedback of that type takes experience and judgement.
Critique groups and beta readers will give very valuable input, and should definitely be used as well. But they aren’t a substitute for professional critical help – they cannot give your book close, considered attention. I’m not advertising myself here, but when I critique a manuscript the work takes two concentrated weeks at least, with plenty of time taken to consider what the writer wants to do and how I’ll teach them what they need. (In fact, if you imagine your normal rate of pay for two weeks’ work, an editor’s fees start to look cheap. And it’s also why you can’t expect anyone to do it ‘on the side’.)
And another thing
There’s another issue we need to address with quality control. It’s letting good work rise on merit.
If you can have buyers’ markets and sellers’ markets, indie publishing is a marketers’ market. If you’re good at marketing, your book rises higher. But a lot of cool, exciting and original books aren’t getting the exposure they deserve.
Indies are starting to tackle this in author collectives – groups to curate the good authors. And proper, critical review sites where indie books are expected to be as good as anything traditionally published. Authors are already taking this into their own hands – Tahlia Newland with Awesome Indies, Authors Electric with Indie ebook Review, Multi-Story, Underground Book Reviews, The Kindle Book Review.
But each group or review site is only as good as its critical scruples.
Does this look familiar? It’s a system of gatekeepers. But hopefully, ones motivated by editorial integrity.
Here’s what we really need to do. Ultimately we need to reach readers way beyond our own little blogosphere of indie publishing. We need to win the respect of the major book reviewers, because right now we’re preaching to the choir, and this is not sustainable.
It seems a natural moment to mention that my novel is up for the Summer Reads awards at Underground Book Reviews. The winner is decided on a vote, so if you’d like to tip the balance in my direction I’d be very grateful.
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Here are some terms we must stop using. ‘Grammar Nazi.’ ‘Punctuation police.’ ‘Spelling snob.’
When did we start forgiving sloppiness and sneering at correctness? If you have a genuine love of the writing craft, isn’t it a point of pride to get these things right?
We are writers. Our prose is our instrument. These are not stuffy, irrelevant rules. They are essential technical skills for communication.
When we get them wrong, we trip up the reader. Or we mislead, or undermine ourselves (and here let me metaphorically wave a copy of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves).
Yes, the reader might be able to guess what we really mean, or mentally correct it for themselves. But we shouldn’t do that to them. And for every reader who shrugs off a wrong apostrophe, there’s another who sees it as slovenly ignorance. (That’s me, by the way. Unnecessary apostrophes make me apoplectic.)
But good grammar, spelling and punctuation go unnoticed. They aid invisibly and discreetly, like an exquisitely trained butler. They let your content speak and breathe for itself. They give your writing poise and control. Doesn’t every writer want that?
I appreciate that if you don’t know about it, it’s daunting. But make it part of your job to find out. If schoolish tomes put you off, there are plenty of more palatable books. If you really struggle, find a beta reader who can salvage your language for you.
To turn to publishing, let’s look at what happens when we don’t take enough care. You may already have seen this post by British writer Anthony Horowitz in the books blog of the Guardian newspaper. Look at the comments. Look at the bile heaped on books with bad grammar, spelling and punctuation (and particularly how the commenters feel this defines self-published books). If you needed proof that writers are judged on these things, look no further.
So please – no more of the N word, the P word or the S word.
Its and it’s are confused
Its means ‘belonging to it’.
It’s is short for ‘it is’.
If you’re still confused, ask yourself if you mean ‘it is’. If you don’t, it’s probably the other one. See how easy it’s?
There and their
If what you mean is ‘where’, the word you want is ‘there’. You may also use it without any meaning of its own in a sentence such as ‘if I see this mistake again there will be blood’.
If you mean ‘belonging to them’, you need ‘their’.
Reigns and reins
A horse has reins.
A monarch reigns.
You can have a reign of terror, but on a daily basis I see: ‘so-and-so took over the reigns of power’. This is wrong. They are speaking figuratively of leather straps that steer – and so the correct word is ‘reins’.
I also see ‘we had to reign in our spending’. That refers to an act of braking – which is done with a rein.
Nay, nay, nay.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Memory lightning’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nick Cook September 17, 2014
- Self-publishing answers: from writing to finding your readers – podcast with Nick Thacker September 14, 2014
- How to publish ebooks – the beginner’s ultimate guide September 11, 2014
- ‘Hacking to music’ – the Undercover Soundtrack, Ian Sutherland September 10, 2014
- Kill me now – what do I do about a negative review? September 7, 2014
- ‘Music is a ritual of invocation’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Alice Degan September 3, 2014
- Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire August 31, 2014
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