Here’s how the copy editing process works. Your editor emails you a copy of your manuscript in Word format, conveniently marked with proposed changes and pithy comments using the handy Track Changes feature, along with the request that you read it through, accepting or rejecting his suggestions as you see fit, and return it for final typesetting. What could be simpler?
The truth is, lots of things are simpler. Trekking across Middle Earth to drop a gold ring into a volcano is one. Rocket science is another. The bottom line is this: copy editing will melt your soul.
Why is it so hard? Because this is it. Your last chance to get it right. There on your laptop screen is the novel you wrote a year ago – and which you haven’t looked at since. The passage of time permits you to read it with new-found objectivity, so at last you can see it for what it really is. The good parts still look good. But the bad parts … oh boy, do they stink. If you can endure the experience without wanting to tear the whole thing apart and start again, you’re a better man than me.
On another level, copy editing is fun. Like most writers, I love words, so I’m more than ready to devote a whole ten minutes to a decision about whether a neolithic hunter might chase after ‘game’ or ‘prey’. I can argue for hours about the relative merits of a full stop or a semi-colon. Then there are questions of style. In the case of my neolithic mystery Talus and the Frozen King – the manuscript I’ve just finished copy editing – my editor David Moore has challenged my use of short sentences. It’s a habit I’ve developed in recent years, a backlash against my earlier tendency to paint my prose purple with sentences that went on … and on. I’ve agreed with maybe two-thirds of David’s deft edits designed to cure me of this compulsion, grudgingly admitting that they improve the flow of the prose. The remaining third I’ve proudly rejected. I am the author, after all.
The word-wrangling, then, is all rather jolly. As for the continuity corrections, they fall into the category: ‘Thank God someone spotted that!’ David knows his history too, so he’s grilled me on a few factual issues; some of these have given me pause for thought, while others have prompted me to decide, ‘It may not be quite right, but I have my reasons for doing it this way.’
The difficulties come with the realisation that, for all you might be the author, you’re no longer best-placed to decide whether the thing you’ve authored is any good. That objectivity I mentioned earlier? It’s just an illusion. The best you can hope for when copy editing a novel is to take the machine you’ve built and make sure all the moving parts are properly lubricated. As to whether the machine will actually perform a useful job of work … I’m sorry, but you’re no longer qualified to judge.
And so I set my oil can down, sure in the knowledge that Talus and the Frozen King is as good I can make it, and unsure about pretty much everything else. The next time I see it, the book will be in the form of galley proofs. Even at that stage, I can still make changes, although publishers will generally ask for a small fee in blood if you dare to muck about with their carefully-typeset pages.
Tempted though I am to show you the whole novel (just to get a second opinion, you understand) I should probably restrain myself. It’s only three months until publication date. Best I wait. Still, the first 150 words or so can’t hurt …
SCREAMS RANG THROUGH the freezing night air.
Bran leaped up from where he’d been dozing by the fire. His worn moccasins scattered snow into the low flames, which hissed and spat in fury. He felt just as exhausted as when he’d settled down to sleep. He hadn’t slept well for days; bad dreams about a wild ocean storm, and a sky full of fire, and a pale face framed with red hair.
Dreams about Keyli.
With his good hand, Bran grabbed the flint axe from his belt, then hurried to where Talus was standing on the cliff edge. Away from the fire, the air was bitter. Bran pulled his bearskin tight around him. His breath clouded briefly before freezing on to his beard. The screams came again, stronger now. His heart pounded against his ribs.
‘What is it?’ he said.
‘Trouble,’ Talus replied.
Talus and the Frozen King will be published by Solaris Books on 26th March 2014