It’s a little-recognised facet of being a novelist, and one that most of us dread: copy editing.
Fortunately, publishers employ independent copy editors whose task it is to go through your deathlesss prose with a fine tooth-comb (word-comb?) as a mother might search for nits, looking for inconsistencies and typographical errors. They have to be real details people, exceptional with grammar, making sure, for example, that capital letters, hyphens and indents are in the right places, (eg Liberty prints, mini-skirt and hair-do) as well as the dreaded apostrophies (eg lover’s knot, hairdresser’s).
They are also the masters (mistresses?) of consistency: making sure you always refer to a character in the same right way (eg Miss Garthwaite / Miss G); whether you have marked the passage of time correctly (eg ‘Should this be fourteen years perhaps?’) and whether your characters’ physical characteristics are the same each time (eg ‘He had blue eyes in the first chapter.’) They’ll also question any dodgy historical references you might have overlooked (eg ‘When did Boots start developing film?’).
So far, so wonderful. But the author’s task is then to do their own fine tooth-comb job. This entails reading, and not in the way we normally read, skimming sentences for meaning, but literally reading every word, every speech mark and apostrophe, all over again, to make sure you agree with the suggestions the copy editor has made, and responding to their questions regarding consistency, time passing, historical references etc. It’s a laborious job and not one that some of us are well-suited to! If you are anything like me, you also have to resist the temptation to do a complete re-write of certain passages which, in the cold light of paper proof, and quite a few weeks after you submitted your final draft, don’t work as well as you would like.
Next stage: the proof copy – another very careful reading required, because this really is your last opportunity for making sure that it’s right!
(The Forgotten Seamstress will be published in February 2014).