Writing crime or historical fiction: the experience of having your novel copy-edited

I’m going through the copy-edits of Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders (the fourth Arrowood book, set in London in 1896), and thought some readers/writers might be interested in the type of issues the copy-editor comes back with. The issues here are particularly relevant for crime and historical fiction novels, but many apply to all types of fiction. In traditional publishing, your editor will provide you with a wide range of comments, from structural and character issues to fine details of grammar and tone. You may go through a series of edits based on those, and, once that’s done, the book goes to a copy-editor. This is the stage before the book gets set up in its final page version (the ‘page proofs’).

The copy-editor will provide instructions to the printers about headings and font changes, but will also check the manuscript for spelling, grammar, repetition, continuity and factual issues. I’ll describe in this article some of the issues that the copy-editor for the Arrowood books (the excellent Jon Appleton of @appletonsbooks) brought up for my fourth book. First, there are typos (missing full stops, apostrophes, words etc) and spelling mistakes. For example, I often incorrectly include or omit hyphens (e.g., ‘fifteen year-old boy’ when it should be ‘fifteen-year-old boy’, ‘half closed’ when it should be ‘half-closed’), get spaces wrong (e.g. ‘Good night’ instead of ‘Goodnight’; ‘any more’ instead of ‘anymore’), and choose the wrong word when it’s a homonym (e.g. draft/draught; curb/kerb). The other thing that I often get wrong is the correct layout for different types of text (e.g., handwritten notes, telegrams, song lyrics, song names, pub names and so on). This might involve indenting, italics, and/or inverted commas. There is a standard way for some of these, and, if there isn’t, then you need to be consistent.

Next there are the dates and days. In a crime novel, we’re often referring back to something that happened before an incident (e.g. a suspect being seen doing something fishy), or setting up tension when something is going to happen in the future (e.g. a suspect leaving the country). Reminders of when exactly things happen is really important in helping the reader (and writer) keep track of how many days there are before some crucial event, and what events happened before/after other events (very important when piecing together evidence). This is actually more difficult than it seems, and I keep an excel spreadsheet with the dates, days of the week, and even the times that things happen and information is revealed. When you start revising your book, you often move scenes or clues, which can then throw out all the other dates. A good copy-editor will spot when there are mistakes in the dates or days of the week and correct them. You can also easily forget to change incidental details when you move scenes from one day to another. For example, if you move a vital scene from a Sunday to a Tuesday, you might forget that you’ve included descriptions of a church emptying out as an incidental detail about the setting.

There are usually things that the copy-editor suggests changing that you reject. This is normal, because a good copy-editor will pick up everything that looks suspect to them, whether they’re sure about them or not. Better to point out issues which you don’t want to change than fail to point out issues which you would have liked to change if you’d been alerted. For example, my narrator is from a working-class background, and he doesn’t always use ‘correct’ middle-class grammar. For example, he often omits ‘of’ when saying ‘out’ (e.g. I went out the house). My copy-editor sometimes tries to make it more correct by adding the ‘of’, and I duly reject the change. I’m lucky in that I’ve had the same copy editor for all four Arrowood books, so he knows a lot of my narrator’s colloquialisms and doesn’t try to change them.

Continuity is also an issue. This refers to when you have mistakenly changed details of a scene, character or storyline. For example, one of my characters picked up a pipe from its original location when it had actually been moved to a different place in an earlier scene. In another place, I’d changed the name of a steamship company accidentally. In historical novels, accuracy is another thing a copy-editor will pick up on if they have good attention to detail. I keep forgetting that ‘ok’ wasn’t used in the 1890s, but my copy-editor always substitutes it for ‘all right’ when I do. A good copy-editor will also check historical details they’re unsure about. For example, the first moving picture shows appeared in London in 1896. In my current book, my detective, Arrowood, talks about a Lumiere theatre in Leicester Square in that year. The copy-editor checked this and it turned out there was no Lumiere showing films in Leicester Square that year. However, he gave me a couple of alternative locations that I could use instead.

Those are just some examples of what happens when your book is copy-edited. So far, every time I’ve been through the process I’ve learned something new. For this book, I’ve learnt when to use ‘any more’ vs ‘anymore’, the use of commas between co-ordinate adjectives, and what to do when you have inverted commas inside inverted commas. And yes, I did find this interesting.

I hope you have also found this short article interesting. A good copy editor can be incredibly useful in giving the reader a smoother journey through your book. When you find one, treasure them!


Many thanks to the Arrowood copy-editor, Jon Appleton of @appletonsbooks

Published by

Mick Finlay

Author of Arrowood, a crime novel set in Victorian London.

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