Friday, October 24, 2014

Editing: What do authors' miss?

Today we welcome jay Dixon to the blog. jay is well known to us all as Honorary Secretary of the RNA. Today she writes about editing.

As an editor with some 40 years’ experience I am still surprised by what writers miss in their manuscripts. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. It is notoriously difficult to edit your own work. But there are some tricks which can make it easier to spot errors. For instance, to avoid having two characters with the same name, which I have often found, all you need to do is list in alphabetical order all the characters’ names, with a short note about them – e.g. brown hair, chemist assistant – and then check the list for any duplications.

Something many authors find difficult to keep track of is the timeline – I once edited a ms where the heroine was pregnant for over a year! Problems with timelines are easily seen if, at the editing stage, you write down on a separate sheet of paper the chapter number and note the day (either with the actual day or just as day/week/month 1, 2 etc.) beside it and then under it you write a very short description of what happens in that chapter – just the action (e.g. villain kills dog) as an aide memoire and underline or put in bold any foreshadowing (e.g. will go to hairdressers on Saturday). Then when Saturday arrives, you know that character should be at the hairdresser’s, and not gallivanting round the countryside.

Noting down the action also helps with inconsistencies in plot. You know what you want to convey, but you may not have put it down on the page. Watch that event B arises out of event A, and that there is no disparity in the event being described. For instance, if the heroine has told the hero she loves him on p.100, make sure she does not then think to herself, ‘I love him’, as if it is a revelation she has only just realised, on p. 150.

Note descriptions – the aide memoire of hair and eye colour I mentioned above keeps characters’ characteristics straight, but I have edited mss where e.g. the hero’s flat was described in two very different ways a few chapters apart.

Check your facts. It is all very well getting carried away with a story, but could your character have done that journey in that way in that time? There was a historical novel I edited where the main secondary character was a real person – a quick wiki search yielded information about him that indicated he was of a very different character than the villain depicted by the author. OK, a dead person can’t sue, but readers need to be respected and as much as possible descriptions of character as well as place etc. should be right.
And don’t forget tension. Have you put in enough questions to keep the reader reading? By this I don’t mean actual questions necessarily, but ones that arise in the reader’s mind, e.g. will the heroine reach the hero in time? This can take a few chapters to answer. Or a more minor one, answered more or less immediately, e.g. will she buy the handbag she yearns after? And then the overarching one, answered at the end, e.g. will true love conquer all?

Then do the rewrites.

And finally do the copyediting. Yes, spell check is helpful, but be aware it does not pick up e.g. that for than. In order to see errors more easily, print the ms out and go through it with a ruler or sheet of paper under the line, reading for the sense and rhythm of the sentence, and for errors of spelling and grammar.
Once the ms is the best you can make it – and don’t overthink this, you have to let it go sometime! – send it off and wait for the inevitable rewrites your editor will request!

jay Dixon is a freelance  editor specialising in women’s and historical fiction.

Thank you, jay for your most useful post.

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Moya Goatley said...

Thank you for most useful advice. I drew up a time-scale for the characters in my book; ages, careers, life events, the full background. Though continuing to 'write' in my head the book lapsed until sheer embarrassment (did you ever finish that book you were writing?)forced me to pick up my pen again. That was when I learned about miss-timing and I had to age my main protagonist by about 10 years and change all her family's details I'd laid down at the beginning. Thank you Jay for the thoughtful article.

Marilyn Rodwell said...

Thank you for those tips. Very useful. Recently I found I had two characters with the same name - Meena! How could I have done that? But I did.