What Is a Copy Editor?

Any book that is published goes through a series of production stages, and one is the copy edit. Often a writer is confused by the position of copy editor. After all, their editor has already had a crack, isn’t that enough already? I’m afraid not. The copy editor comes in after that stage, and their job is to correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Often they will suggest minor textual changes as well, such as advocating parallel sentence construction, clarifying word usage, etc. Their work is vital to the process, because no reader enjoys a book that is filled with errors.

Part of a copy editor’s job is making sure grammar rules are followed consistently. If you have a full sentence after a colon, for instance, is the first word capitalized or not? Does it matter if that sentence is a question? Copy editors apply the rules, usually according in the Chicago Manual of Style, and also following a style sheet provided to them by the publishing house. That’s because almost all copy editing these days is done by freelancers.

Having been both an in-house copy editor and a freelance copy editor, I know most of the nuances of the trade. Above all, I know that copy editors can be rigid. In the desire of make usage consistent, they can go to absurd lengths. For example, some copy editors think that hyphens should not be used with common prefixes such as pre- and post-. So they become part of a word that does not normally have them, such as prelaunch and postlaunch. When this rule is applied inflexibly, words can become unwieldy, such as preconstruction. The reader has to stop to read the word again, because the assemblage is so odd.

Luckily for authors, the Chicago Manual of Style says that many grammar questions fall in a gray area. There is no absolute rule for, for instance, spelling out numbers after 10. In fiction you are supposed to spell them out to 100, but in nonfiction you often don’t. Chicago gives a general piece of advice for these questions: whatever style the author uses, follow that. So if you write a nonfiction book and are consistent about using numbers after 10, you should be indignant if the copy editor spells them all out.

You have the right to request that copyediting changes be reversed to what you originally wrote. Yet you should be aware, if you don’t have a firm grasp on grammar rules, that in most instances a copy editor is following someone’s rules. If you don’t know enough to protect your own reputation from ill word usage, you can be assured that publishing houses will protect theirs.

“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”
—T. S. Eliot

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Negative Vibe

One reason for writing a memoir is sounding off about a subject that has offended the author. While journalistic skills may come into play, this sort of book tends to be deeply personal. In inexperienced hands, that may mean too much passion stains the storytelling.

The attitude of the author can torpedo the entire enterprise. If she is railing against the police for its failure to enforce gun-control laws, for instance, care needs to be taken in balancing points of view. No matter how well intentioned—the author may want to save other children from gun violence—a constant barrage of negative opinions can have an effect quite different from what was meant. One possible outcome is that the reader starts to dislike the author for complaining so much.

Journalists follow a rule that applies in this case. They try to get opinions from both sides of an issue, no matter how obvious the injustice involved. A memoir cannot employ the same even-handedness, but it can achieve balance in other fashions. Rather than quoting from researched sources, the writer can employ personal correspondence that expresses the opinions of friends and family members. The chances that all of the author’s siblings feel the same way on all issues are quite unlikely, and allowing a contrary opinion can temper the narrative.

Another useful technique is inserting more details. Often what is dragging down a manuscript is the author’s tight control of the narrative. He ventures his opinion of an incident without diving deeply enough into what happened for the reader to experience it for herself. If you take the time to think of details that fill a scene, you can let the details express your opinion without commentary. For instance, a dingy, banged-up hallway in a hospital ward can express the author’s dismay at a relative’s medical treatment all by itself.

Dialogue is another useful tool. Following the same lines as details, the addition of what people said at the time pulls the story free of the author’s grasp. Such conversations permit the expression of other opinions. Moreover, a confrontation let out in the open can make an author’s case just by what is said—no opinions needed.

The progression from outrage stewing in the mind to outrage expressed through skillfully told situations is a variant of a novelist’s dictum to show, don’t tell. You let the reader convince himself that the issue needs correction. That's how you really change people's minds.

Exercise: In order to fully place a reader in a given scene, don’t work from what you’ve written already about it. Lean back in your chair and close your eyes. Imagine the scene and then try to identify a detail that jumped out at you at the time. Write that down. Keep leaning back and closing your eyes, allowing yourself to dwell in that place until you have compiled a list of details.

“The smaller the mind the greater the conceit.”

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Notes: The Next Best Thing

Some days you sit down to write, and instead of feeling a flow of clever words leaping from the wellspring within, you experience the sensation of deepest sludge. You fight it. You get out a sentence, maybe two, yet you remain trapped in the mire. You’re going nowhere and you know it. You just can’t break through today.

Luckily, writing also consists of notes you need to take to help shape a character or to advance a plot line. Writing notes is far easier than writing prose. The notes will never been seen by anyone but you, so they can be jotted down as they come to mind. You can write about what you intend to accomplish. Or, you can sit back and dream up descriptions for different characters. You remember a spiky look on a website and decide, “That’s the look I want for my supporting character.”

As an editor, I feel that authors who don’t write notes about what they want to do end up wasting a lot of time. They go off on listless forays that they end up throwing out, sometimes the very next day. If you like, notes are flags in a field; just because you know you’re going in that direction doesn’t limit you from pursuing butterflies along the way.

Best of all, by writing notes, you are staying in contact with your novel. Sure, the notes aren’t the final text, but you would edit and rewrite your prose anyway. What you’re really doing is giving yourself permission to live inside your book even though you’re not in top form.

This point is particularly important for authors who don’t have time to write every day. If you’ve gone a week or two without writing, writing notes can be a way of checking in with your story. You’re making a commitment to sit down, and the boost you receive may pave the way for a terrific writing session. Because creativity is so unpredictable, you may find that note taking is the spur that gets you writing, for real. Even if that doesn’t happen, I’ve often found that a note I write becomes an actual sentence in the novel. It comes out right, even if it was supposed to be merely a note. You’ve made an advance even on a day you wish you could hurl your computer out the window.

Exercise: You can also employ this technique for specific scenes. Rather than trying to write for your present scene, write out a half page or so of basic points you want to cover in that scene. If any one of them strikes you as something you’d like to add to, keep writing a few more sentences. Once you’ve finished a paragraph, see if you’d like to convert it into actual text for the scene.

“The ideal view for daily writing, hour for hour, is the blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse. Failing this, a stretch of sky will do, cloudless if possible.”
—Edna Ferber

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Rejecting Recaps

The mystery genre is filled with literary devices, and one of the more common is the recapitulation scene, in which the protagonist and often a sidekick add up the clues they have at the present time. When used the right way, such a scene can provide a new insight to the reader. The thinking goes: because we know those factors, we can deduce this result.

In my editing practice, I often suggest that such scenes be cut from the manuscript. Why is that? The answer turns on another component of mysteries: each scene should contain an element that moves the plot forward. Writers make a mistake when they think that talking about what happened represents a new plot turn. That’s not true. Usually the reader experienced the past plot action when it happened. So there’s no point in talking about an event we already know.

This mistake can be compounded when other characters who didn’t know about the plot event are told about it. The protagonist can tell A, B, and C about the same thing, with the only difference being how the new character reacts. In the meantime, the reader grows more and more sick of the plot spinning its wheels.

In a number of cases, I will propose that the conversation result in a new finding. If it is learned that the watchman was missing not only on that Tuesday night, but every Tuesday night of the past month, that represents a plot advance. Now the reader has to learn why that pattern was set up and, more to the point, with whom on the outside? I would turn the page to learn the answer to that. But I’m not as motivated if Jennie responds, “It seems suspicious that the watchman was missing Tuesday night.” I may like Jennie a ton as a person, but she is not producing anything new by saying stuff like that.

The charisma of the characters is a mitigating factor. In many talk-filled mysteries, such as those by Janet Evanovich, the reader is having such a good time that plot advances become less important. We just want to find out more about the crazy mixed-up family. But in that case, I would advise cutting recap scenes just so we can focus on the funny conversations.

You need new tricks up your sleeve. Inventing new steps in a mystery isn’t hard. But you can’t rely on characters to do a plot job for you. You need further bread crumbs in your scheme.

Exercise: The main reason for excessive recap scenes is the lack of good suspects. You should try to have three in play at any given time. That allows you the scope to plot out three intersecting lines. Each of the suspects has different steps in his trajectory, and when you mix and match them, you’ll have plenty of plot advances.

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
—Arthur Conan Doyle

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


How Much Is Enough?

The world of nonfiction books is filled with good intentions. An author has a desire to impart knowledge, and once the process gets under way, it takes on a life of its own. You start to realize that each topic you are covering has complexities that need to be covered. Pretty soon what started as a gleam in your eye has expanded into a manuscript that is hundreds of pages long. You’ve written so much, you don’t remember what you were writing when you started off.

At a certain point you need to stop and look around you. More exactly, you need to go to a bookstore or library and check the other books in your field. If you are writing about the evolution of barns, for instance, you should seek out all those books. You’ll find an array of approaches. Some books consist only of text: they’re pure histories. Others, particularly regional and how-to books, may mix text and drawings. A coffee table book is oversized, filled with stunning color photos and not much text. Who needs text for a Vermont barn at the height of autumn?

Beyond type, you need to examine the average length of the book. If you are writing a book on how to stop a baby from crying at night, you don’t want to write a 400-page tome. Think of the poor, suffering parents that are your main audience. Do they want to spend all that time reading through every possible permutation, from common colic to weird disorders suffered by only one in a million babies? If most of the books on that shelf are 200 pages long, you have to be smart. Write a 200-page book. If they see your big, fat monster, they are likely to think: I don’t have time to read all that.

The same consideration works on the converse side. If you have written only 100 pages, you need to consider adding either more text or more pictures. Yes, in this day of electronic books (think: Kindle Short), you don’t have to worry that your printed book will look like a pamphlet. Yet you do need to think of your reader’s consideration of value. A book is like any other piece of merchandise. If other books are offering 200 pages, the reader may feel that reading 100 pages is taking the cheap route. If you are or you know a wonderful illustrator (not your sister, please), you might commission her to create 20 drawings related to, say, babies and parents.

“A great man is always willing to be little.”  
―Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Ideas from Your Notebook

If you can’t get started during a writing session, you might turn to a source of inspiration that can take you in unexpected directions. I’m assuming that you keep a pocket notebook, or the electronic equivalent, around you at all times. Writing is the art of observation, to a very large extent. William Burroughs once wrote: “Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it.”

As the day passes, listen to what your office mates are saying. Listen to the oddball everyday stories or incidents that someone inevitably comes up with. Go out at lunchtime and observe how the light strikes a building’s window or how the flounce of a hem reveals a bony knee. I have an old notebook filled with pages of observations of the Boston Common at different times of the year. The material that can fill your novel is all around you, at all times; you just have to pay attention.

Most important, keep a notebook on your night table. You are probably already aware that some of your most powerful thoughts come to you at the twilight margins of either waking or falling asleep. If your story is revolving in your head, never far from the front of your mind, you will find that these are crucial moments in which some of the best sentences in your novel come to you.

Because these notes are so random, they most likely do not pertain to the passage you want to write in today’s session. Yet if you’re really stuck, trying to write in sequence may be beyond your powers anyway. Go grab a notebook that you know has several pages of observations. Read through them and see if any would fit in any part of your novel. If one or more does, go to the place in the manuscript and see if you can insert it. You’ll find, if your writing is tight enough, that you have to rework the material around the insertion. You may have to fashion an entire descriptive paragraph to include it.

You can see what I’m driving at. That jotted-down note is firing up your creativity. You’re devising solutions, just as you do all the time as you write. Granted, the material isn’t making your novel move forward. But when you’re done with the draft, you’re still going to have that terrific sentence or paragraph in it. You may well decide that your writing session was worth the pain just because that one piece is so compelling.

Exercise: If none of the above options work, you should turn to your diary for inspiration. Reading through it can be a slog—did I really need to revisit that conversation I’ve had a thousand times with my mother?—but you may well find material that would work well in the novel. In other words, it is a slower means of finding applicable details.

“Words are often seen hunting for an idea, but ideas are never seen hunting for words.”
—Josh Billings

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Contrasting Contexts

Story tension bubbles from circumstances placed before the reader. No matter how local, such as a kitchen table drama, or wide-ranging, like an international thriller, you can keep a reader in your thrall once you set out the main stake and then create obstacles barring your characters from reaching it. Set in the right context, subtle changes can seem monumental.

What does not work as well is pitting a domestic plot line against an exotic one. While you may intend that each operates under its own imperatives, that is not how a reader views them. If the reader is flipping from one to the next, the context expands to the size of the largest plot line. You may achieve contrast, but not of a sort that is favorable to your purposes.

For a domestic drama, let’s choose cyber bullying as an example. Plenty of opportunities there for creating suspense—nasty teenagers, hand-wringing parents, the ultimate threat of suicide. Depending on how deep the characterizations run, and how many twists the bullying takes, I could become immersed in a story like that.

What happens, however, when a thriller plot is overlaid on top of it? One of the parents might be an FBI agent, and she is involved in a harrowing case involving a serial murderer who would in fact love to murder the FBI agent for nipping so closely at his heels. Now the mean things that the kids write on social media are placed in contrast to a trail of murder victims. You’ve created a sticks and stones dilemma: how much do words hurt? 

The reader experiences evil as different levels of catharsis. You can run up the scale of criminal activities, from shoplifting all the way to premeditated murder. What you can’t do is pretend that a lesser crime will impact the reader the same way as a greater one. If you expect me to wait the whole book for Erica to commit suicide while Evil Gent out there is slaying victims left and right, you’re living in a fool’s paradise. Commission outranks anticipation, period. 

The domestic material can serve as preliminary material, helping to set up a drama. But if you’ve created two worlds, you need to find ways to bridge them. A novel is a construction of stages that are progressively more cathartic, and a plot operating at a lower level may cause the reader eventually to yawn.

Exercise: If you wish to keep both plot lines, map out when one starts outstripping the other. You might want to cut down and/or consolidate the later domestic material so that it appears earlier in the book. Then ask yourself if you could use a major character to create a 30-50 page bridge subplot in the more dynamic one. 

“One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” 
—A. A. Milne

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


In the Eye of the Beholder

Among the tricks to get inside the mind of your main character are those that focus on ordinary life. You can use a character’s feeling about a daily matter to draw the reader into your fictional world. That’s because, no matter how wide-ranging the story, you still want to mine thoughts that we all share. Here is one you can easily pick up, once you train yourself to think about it.

Try to focus on a particular object that holds a memory for you. A fancy shirt, for instance, might bring to mind a memorable night out when you wore that shirt. A cracked desk might recall the dumbbell day you let a door you were re-hinging fall on it. One good target is using objects to remember when a person praised you. Here is a personal example that sticks out in my mind for obvious reasons, as you’ll see. A friend of my daughter’s came over during the holiday season, and when I found them in the library, she exclaimed: “Mr. Paine, you have an incredible fiction collection.” No matter what basis of knowledge she had to make that claim, it often rings in my mind when I look toward the bookcase where she was standing.

You can apply this idea to your novel. As you go through your day, random statements, many from years ago, pop up as you see different objects around your house or neighborhood. Stop and write them down. If you are thinking of your story, you may realize right away where that idea could be applied. Or, you can alter it to suit the character, but you’ll still be raising the sort of thought that readers will recognize instantly.

The memory becomes even more useful when you expand on it. If you are using the night out with the shirt, you might remember an anecdote that happened to a friend in a bar. You can write a capsule story about how embarrassed you were that he was making such a fool out of himself, even though he didn’t mind one bit. The one memory, in other words, becomes a key that unlocks the door to an entire room of related recollections.

Exercise: Stop writing. Let your mind wander as you roam around your house or apartment. This sort of memory can’t be forced. You have to let it come to you, as A. A. Milne would say. Yet once you form an association, the blazing sentence will stick out in your mind. Then see how you can fit it into your story.

“Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.”
—Tennessee Williams

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.