No published book is a solitary effort. In addition to the author’s content, what you’re reading usually also includes early input from the agent, edits from the acquiring editor, and if you’re lucky, the invisible fingerprints of a good copyeditor.
Recently, St. Martin’s sent me the copyedits for Dying Is My Business. I’ll admit I was nervous before I opened the package. My editor had very, very few edits for me after acquiring the novel. That made it a smooth, easy experience. Would this be more arduous, I wondered? It wasn’t that I’d never been copyedited before. I have been. Chasing the Dragon underwent some light copyediting, much of which, surprisingly, involved cleaning up an embarrassing amount of sentences that ended in prepositions. Hunt At World’s End was deeply and heavily edited by the Gabriel Hunt series editor Charles Ardai, not just copyedits but major changes for series cohesion, and even pacing. (For example, in my original manuscript the romance between Gabriel and Joyce takes longer to develop, which I thought made it more organic, but Charles sped it up. Also, one major character was edited out completely!) My story “The Sorcerer’s Apprenticebot” in Zombies vs. Robots: This Means War! got a thorough scrubbing from IDW editor Jeff Conner, whose notes included things like, “Wouldn’t the robot want to conserve bullets because it’s in a situation where it can’t reload?” (God, I love this genre!)
So yeah, I’ve been edited before, but this felt different. Bigger, somehow, because the edits came from a professional copy editor employed by a major publisher. What if the pages were just a sea of red pencil (never pen; copyedits are done in pencil) and everyone at St. Martin’s was now convinced they’d made a terrible mistake taking me on? What if I got one of those much-gossiped-about copy editors who try to rewrite everything to match how they would have written the book? What if there were notes in the margins like “What idiot wrote this?” or “God, this book blows!”?
Needless to say, my fears were unfounded, as they usually are. (Not that it ever stops this son of a Jewish mother from worrying!) The copy editor did a fantastic job. More than once, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief and muttering, “Oh, thank God you caught that!” Along with the marked-up manuscript, St. Martin’s sent the copy editor’s style sheet, which is basically a list of all the names, places, and special words or phrases that appear in the novel. It was kind of cool looking over the list and realizing this person, this complete stranger, had paid such close attention to the details of my novel. (Isn’t that what we all wish for as writers? To be so closely read and understood?) Included beside a character’s name on the list are any nicknames they may be called by other characters, whether it’s intended to be friendly or not. So you can imagine all my juvenile giggling when I saw “Trent; T-Bag”!
In case you didn’t already know, copy editors have a superhuman attention to detail. They have to. It’s integral to their job. And this attention to detail comes through strongest in the form of consistency. I, it turns out, am not the most grammatically consistent writer in the world. I’ve always prided myself on a strong attention to these kinds of details, and yet it was only with the help of St. Martin’s copy editor that I realized, for instance, that I’d written the time as “3:21 a.m.” in one chapter and “one thirty a.m.” in another. Shame on me! And good catch, copy editor!
They also have to be big-time sticklers to whatever dictionary and style manual is consistently used at their publishing house. (In this case, it was Webster’s Eleventh New Collegiate Dictionary and Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition.) And sometimes that’s at odds with how properly you thought you wrote your novel. For instance, did you know “air-conditioning” is hyphenated, not two separate words? I didn’t, but I do now! Changes like that to the manuscript don’t bother me one bit. Neither do the new-to-me hyphenating of “stained-glass” or the non-hyphenating of “semiautomatic.” I chalk it up to a learning experience.
However — and I cannot stress this enough — it will be a cold day in Hell before I spell “goodbye” as “good-bye!” Yes, I know it’s hyphenated in many dictionaries, if not all of them, but no. Just no. It doesn’t read right to me. It looks ridiculous. But it’s the copy editor’s job to propose the change regardless of my own pet peeves. Luckily, you get to refuse any copyedits you don’t agree with. When that happens, you write (also in pencil, but a different colored one from the copy editor’s) the word “STET” next to it. And so I stetted the shit out of every change of “goodbye” to “good-bye.” Sorry, Webster’s Eleventh New Collegiate Dictionary. And just to rub it in, I’m also keeping it as “website” instead of “Web site.” Chew on that!
Remember what I said about consistency? Man, you have no idea. Put a comma before one instance of the word “too” or “either,” and suddenly there has to be a comma before every instance of the word, whether it’s internal or terminal. I understand the instinct, believe me, but it doesn’t work for me any more than “good-bye” does. When it comes to commas before “too” or “either,” for me it’s all about how the sentence sounds. If a pause sounds natural in that spot, then sure. Otherwise, no. I’m sure that kind of inconsistency must drive copy editors crazy. Alas, all I can do is apologize on behalf of all of us artsy types who think the rules should only apply if they feel right in the moment.
In the end, reviewing the copyedits was a quick, painless experience, and even a little fun. But more than that, it left me with the confidence that the novel will be that much better for having caught the typos and cleaned up the spelling or grammatical inconsistencies that might have knocked a reader out of the story. Instead, it’ll be a smoother experience now. For that, and all the hard work they do to make authors look good, I tip my hat to the copy editors of the world.