The Long Goodbye

I’ve just finished the copy edits on my latest novel, The Ties That Bind, which will be published by Hodder next May. I feel that I ought to be ecstatic. I’ve worked on this book nearly every day for the best part of a year and I should be glad to see the back of it. But instead, I’m reluctant to let it go.  

For those who don’t know, the copy edit is the final, super-close, ultra-pernickety read-through of the manuscript before it is typeset and the last chance I have to make any real changes to the book. On the next round, everything will be beautifully laid out in Plantin Light font, and I’ll only be allowed to dot my i’s and cross my t’s. Or should it be dot my is and cross my ts? There you go: two paragraphs into this blog and there’s already a perfect illustration of why authors need copy editors.

I actually love copy edits. By this stage any major plot flaws or inconsistencies have already been ironed out by the book’s earliest readers; my friend and husband, my agent and her assistant, my editor and her assistant. No one is going to ask me to change the gender or age or nationality of my protagonist, or the identity of my murder victim, or swap around chapters, or rewrite the whole thing in the first person. It’s time to immerse myself in exquisitely pedantic arguments about minor points of grammar and whether there’s still an ‘h’ in the word ‘yoghurt.’ (I think there is. Discuss.) It’s my last chance to do what I love best: to tinker with sentence structure and get the music right. And they are always done the old-fashioned way, in longhand on paper, which is delicious after months staring at a screen.

It takes a certain type of person to read a manuscript with the kind of forensic eye for detail that will pick up on the tiny accidental inconsistencies that the Amazon and Good Reads reviewers take such glee in pointing out. Apart from acting as the Typo Police, their job also involves checking that the numbers stack up, and that dates are consistent throughout. My books are character-driven, meaning that I don’t plot too tightly before beginning as storylines are subject to huge changes between drafts. It’s an admitted weakness of mine that in trying to nail the interesting things like psychology and relationships, I sometimes overlook the boring-but-important stuff like ages and days of the week.

The copy editor who worked on The Burning Air has since retired – rumours that untangling my mess of dates and times led her to throw in the towel and move on to something less stressful like crocodile wrestling are unconfirmed – but the new one has done an equally brilliant job of going zero tolerance on my numerical incompetence. I knew at the time of writing that The Ties That Bind would be about an unsolved murder from the 1960s, but the actual year the murder occurred leapt (or leaped, as my copy ed would have it) about all over that decade, subject to external forces such as the legalisation of gambling and the year that the Kray twins were put on trial. As a result, my timeline was all over the place.

 Anyway, the edits are now done and dusted. Literally. My desk is covered in eraser dust, little rubber slivers that will turn up all over the house for weeks to come. The manuscript – all 357 one-sided, double-spaced, pencil-marked pages of it – is sealed in an envelope and ready to go. As is now traditional, I make my husband hand-deliver it to my publisher because a) the tube fare and my boundless trust in my beloved means it’s cheaper and more reliable than recorded delivery and b) if I take it to the post office myself, I’ll think of something I want to change on the walk and end up bringing it back home to rewrite it.

Even my courier boy system isn’t foolproof – last year, when it was time to let go of The Burning Air for the last time, I actually chased him down the road with my special lucky copy-editing propelling pencil (I know, I know) and we undid the Jiffy bag in the middle of the street while I added a semi-colon to a paragraph halfway through chapter 22.

Left to my own devices I would probably never stop editing. I’d still quite like to give The Poison Tree one last tweak, and it was published over four years ago. But you have to stop somewhere if you want to be read. (And to get paid.)

My eldest daughter started primary school last week. When I watched her disappear through the gate in her oversized gingham dress, I fought the urge to run after her, scoop her up and keep her at home with me forever. I recognised the wrench from sending my books off for the last time. It’s hard to let your children go it alone in the big wide world. But isn’t that the point of having them?

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4 Responses to The Long Goodbye

  1. Helena Halme says:

    I’m completely with you on not being able to let go of a manuscript, it’s an art form all of its own. I’m also glad to be able to point a recent dinner party guest, who asked me what editors do, to this post. When I tried to explain to him that as a writer you sometimes get details wrong, such as time-lines and characters’ ages, he was aghast. ‘Not to be rude,’ he said, (and I took a deep intake of breath), ‘surely you yourself should’ve noticed those kinds of mistakes.’ It took a great deal of self-control not to throw something like a bread roll at my guest, or ask him to leave. (He’s not coming back, though).

    Good luck with the new book, I can’t wait to get my copy from West End Lane Books

    • Your restraint is admirable. I had the same experience at a literary festival a couple of years ago with a reader who told me that when perhaps by the time I was PD James’ age I wouldn’t need editing any more. She honestly thought the editing process was something only rookie novelists needed to do and that established novelists need not bother.
      Perhaps we should get my reader and your guest together. And then lock them in a cupboard.

  2. Helena Halme says:

    Good idea! How did you contain yourself? Did you give her a murderous look at least?

  3. crimeworm says:

    Personally I’d rather read a book with great psychology and plot; that’s more important than the wee niggly things. I’ve just got The Ties That Bind (should I have used these caps, given they’re not on the cover? I think so!) I’m also halfway through The Sick Rose. I’m afraid I’m one of these irritating people who do notice wee errors, but I wouldn’t point them out on Amazon. I read quite slowly, always checking ridiculous stuff – “When did he stand up? Wasn’t he sitting on the couch?” – that sort of thing. I’d be a lot faster if I could let stuff like that go…if only I were as OCD with my housework (but it eats into reading time…!) You’re probably my favourite psychological novel writer at the mo; Belinda Bauer’s also excellent. She’s more police procedural, at the moment, but I do love Denise Mina, esp as her books are set in Glasgow, for the most part. If you haven’t read them, I’d also highly recommend Catriona McPherson (Dandy Gilver) who’s written 3 or 4 modern psychological dramas – quite wonderful. She’s great at working-class characters, as is Denise Mina, and the way average Scots – like me – talk…I’ll be reviewing your books on my blog (crimeworm.WordPress.com), so you’ll see me raving on about them on Twitter! All the best with The Ties… (and I hadn’t noticed, but yogurt/yoghurt does seem to change spelling – I’ll end up looking through the bin to solve this!) xx
    PS Just read and reviewed The Night Hunter – Caro Ramsay – loved it!

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