Wednesday, July 26, 2017

jay Dixon: Write the best novel you can!

We welcome jay Dixon to the RNA blog today. jay is one of those wonderful people who help authors make their novels shine.

I love my job – most days. To help an author write the best book possible is a privilege – though sometimes I have to admit it is rather exasperating! What is plain to me – for instance, if a character is being addressed, there is always a comma before their name/title, e.g. ‘I love you, Mother’ ­– is obviously not to many authors! And it is so tedious, keep having to insert commas!

Even if you know nothing about editing rules, there is still a lot you can do to make an editor’s job easier. The first rule is ‘be consistent’. For instance, if you start with using single quote marks, keep to single, except when quoting something within the single quotes, when you use double (and vice versa) – e.g.:

‘It’s as Dorothy L. Sayers said, “I love you – I am at rest with you – I have come home.” That’s how I have felt since you came into my life.’

These days you don’t have two spaces after a full stop (or question mark or exclamation mark). Oh, yes, and if a character asks a question, please use a question mark!

Some writers have a problem with timelines. Personally, I’ve never understood this, but all authors I’ve spoken to assure me it is difficult. I once edited a book where the heroine had an 11-month pregnancy! And the reason I knew this was because I had written down in each set of chapter notes how many days/weeks/months had passed since the events in the previous chapter. So my timelines look something like this:

Chapter 1
Eve and Adam in garden

p.10 Ch 2 + 2 days
Eve meets Kaa

p.20 Ch 3 + 1 week
Eve has garden party (with apples!)

p.30 + 1 day
Leave garden – after 10 days [ms has 2 weeks]

Of course, if you are using flashbacks, or a story with multiple viewpoints, or set in multiple periods, it is not quite that simple, and you may need another timeline for each POV/period. But the principle remains the same.

And please ensure that characters keep the same name! One M&B I read had the heroine’s name in the title – unfortunately the then editor hadn’t spotted that her name changed halfway through! And don’t duplicate names. Indeed, if it can be avoided (which is not always possible, especially in historical fiction) don’t use names beginning with the same letter for major characters – readers will get them muddled up.

Make sure you follow through on things – if you mention that something is going to happen, even if the character only thinks it, ensure that it does, or give a reason why it doesn’t. This can also be noted on the timeline by writing a number in red by a future event and the time when it is going to take place, and then the same number in blue when it happens – this way you can immediately see if you have missed anything out in the writing.

I am not suggesting that you keep stopping when you are in full flow to check the presentation is correct. But when you go through the ms once you have finished it, do bear the editing rules in mind.

These are examples of what has to be done. There are other things an editor does which are only suggestions. To my mind no editor should rewrite the author’s prose – unless it is grammatically incorrect. Make a suggestion and the reason for the change – clarity, for instance – yes, but not rewrite. And any rewriting should be done using track changes so the author can see what has been done.

I have said I love my job, and I do, but some mss make my heart sink. There have been mss which have been so boring I could only manage to concentrate on them for an hour at a time – and the particular ms I am thinking of was not written by an RNA member, so don’t think it was by you! I find RNA members generally have a good idea of how to structure an ms, to give it tension, and write believable characters. This one didn’t. The author had told me that it didn’t need a line edit because all the research had been done. The author was wrong. If you possibly can pay for both a line edit and a copy edit do so – friends may have read it, even other authors, but an editor is reading with a different cap on, and it is amazing what she will discover no one else has picked up. Oh, and a hard and fast rule is that you can’t edit your own work. You know what you have written and that is what you see on the page. When I was working for a legal firm, I once asked a solicitor what he had written, because it didn’t make sense. He read out to me what he had intended to write!

There are lots of other editing rules but, in the end, it is the editor who has to know them, not the author. Just write the best novel you can, and let the editor worry about the rest!


I have been an editor for 40 years. I started in academic publishing, moved to general and eventually become head of editorial at Mills & Boon. Since leaving M&B to write a feminist analysis of M&B romances, which was published in 1999, I have freelanced for private clients and publishers, most recently, M&B, Choc Lit and Accent Press.

I'd love to talk to you about your manuscript and any problems you may have, so do come and say hello!
Contact me at:

“Thorough, excellent, in tune with her clients needs, jay is a highly recommended and experienced editor.”
Carol McGrath, bestselling author of The Handfasted Wife

‘I feel very fortunate that I discovered jay, who has edited several of my manuscripts. The fact that I returned to jay on more than one occasion testifies to her perceptiveness and to the thoroughness of her editing, both substantive and copy-editing, and I’m very grateful to her for helping my novels along the road to publication.”
Liz Harris, bestselling author of The Road Back 

Thank you for your interesting words, jay. 

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Chris Stovell said...

A very useful reminder of why a good editor is your best friend! I'm hugely grateful to jay who got me through my difficult second novel and made it a much better book.

Elaine Everest said...

Thank you for a most interesting piece, jay.

Liz Harris said...

A very interesting article, jay and Elaine. A writer can never be reminded of these points often enough in my opinion.

Jane Lovering said...

Interesting (and timely) reminder of some things to watch out for!

I will forever be grateful to jay for editing Please Don't Stop the Music - where timelines were a huge problem for me...

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