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Virgin In The Church
#8, February 2002: The Copy Edit

-By Scott Nicholson

(Intro: I sold my first novel "The Red Church" through the slush pile. It will be released as a mass market paperback by Pinnacle Books in June 2002. I'm sharing my experiences in hopes that other writers can learn from my triumphs and mistakes, and, of course, to generate interest in the book. Scott's rule number one: build your audience one reader at a time.)

I’ve received the copy-edited manuscript of "The Red Church" from my publisher, with a deadline of less than two weeks to go over all the little red marks indicating changes suggested by a literate stranger.

All I know about my copy-editor is her name and that she once had nose surgery (you’ll understand when you read the book). My editor phoned the day the suggestions were Fed Exed and said that there wouldn’t be many changes because he requested a "light" copy-edit because the "manuscript was very clean." Which means that all those hours of poring over the grammar and sentence structure were not totally wasted.

I was dreading the red ink I might find, as sometimes English graduates get a bit carried away at proving how adept they are. In compiling my story collection "Thank You For The Flowers," a college intern suggested 144 changes to one story of mine. This was after the story had already won a major award, been published in a mass market anthology, and been given the seal of approval by a veteran editor whose previous gig was editing fiction for "Playboy."

As of this writing, though, I have found myself agreeing with most of the suggested changes. Many are simply directions for the person who will convert the MS into galley pages, to typeset the way they will appear in book form. This includes things like noting underlined words (the proper way to emphasis in manuscript forms) should be changed to italics (the proper way they should be typeset and appear in the book). The good old double-dash to signify an interruption-- such as when you break into a sentence in the midst of making a point-- gets a cute little mark that tells the typesetter that a single, longer dash (called an "em") should be used.

I went through the corrections for the 400-plus pages in less than a day. The only real difference of opinion I have with the copy-editor is in the use of semi-colons. Sometimes I use a technique, particularly in a character’s thoughts, whereby I string fragments together with commas. This keeps the pace brisk, and reflects my idea of how people’s minds work rather than fitting the thought into traditional sentence structure. The copy-editor suggested semi-colons in four or five places. In those instances, I either erased the suggestion (which means my original version will remain) or I converted the semi-colon to a period and left a standing fragment.

Maybe that’s splitting hairs, but I don’t like semi-colons in fiction. Even though the big style books all say it’s appropriate when a conjunction isn’t used between linked ideas, I equate semi-colons with academic and non-fiction writing or other "proper" forms of written communication. Fiction shouldn’t be proper, especially mine.

On the whole, the copy-editor has been quite astute, listing out character names, place names, and even occasional descriptions such as hair or eye color to ensure that they remain consistent throughout. She did miss a few words; for example, she suggested "briars" be spelled "briers" in two places, but not in a third. I see "brier" as England English and "briar" as the way it would be spelled in the novel’s Appalachian setting.

I’ve learned a few other details about proper usage that I’ll remember for future novels. All possessives get the apostrophe-s, even if they end in "s," except, oddly enough, for the name Jesus. This is according to the Chicago Manual of Style. Yet I believe Strunk and White says that either way is acceptable for possessives ending in "s." I suppose it doesn’t matter as long as the manuscript is consistent.

The copy-editor also inserted yellow sticky notes at points where she had a question over fact or content. For example, a character who lost his glasses on page 32 has glasses again on page 127. Well, he found them again, when the storyline wasn’t watching. It’s not like I’m going to write at that point, "Tim’s glasses, which he had found shortly after losing them while fleeing the mysterious man in the cemetery the previous day, flashed in the sunlight." Still, it’s a good catch, and worth noting. I need a reason, even if the reason isn’t stated. After the fifth time she noticed that Tim was wearing his glasses again, I went back and put in a sentence establishing that, yes, Tim did indeed find his glasses, doing it in such a way that it even added a bit to the story.

One remarkable note read, "Littlefield is 40, and he was 17 when Samuel died- that would make Samuel's death in 1979, and he was 11, so his birth should be 1968." Wow. So we got the grave marker dates correct, thanks to her.

Many of her suggestions or questions are based on colloquialism and usage that are endemic to the southern Appalachian Mountains where the novel is based (and where I live). The copy-editor doesn’t know what a "Christmas tree worker" is, not surprising since North Carolina and Oregon are the nation’s huge Yuletide greenery producers. But if you live in the N.C. mountains, Christmas tree workers are more plentiful than New York’s assistant editors.

Interestingly enough, a grammatical mistake exists on the back of the book jacket, in the hype copy that’s supposed to make the casual browser buy the book. A fifteen-year-old aspiring writer from Canada emailed me after seeing the mistake on the book jacket I posted on my website. I patiently explained that Appalachian residents would say "hung" instead of the technically-correct "hanged." But I was referring to the "Hung Preacher" of the book. Then I checked to see what he was talking about. On the back copy, the "hung" is in a context of standard English usage, and therefore should be changed. But won’t be. Too late.

So maybe I will get a letter from an irate English teacher somewhere. That’s fine with me. I’m writing for English teachers as much as I’m writing for construction workers, advertising execs, trash collectors, and other writers. And I’m writing for people like you, and people like me. So my hat’s off to the copy-editor. She’s part of the team that’s making "The Red Church" as good as it can possibly be. And hopefully even better.

(This article is uncopyrighted and may be freely distributed and published, as long as Scott’s byline and web address are included.)

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