Every writer has been there. You write something–whether it’s a scene, a short story, or a whole frickin novel–then pass it off to a first reader/critique group/editor, and they come back to you and say, “But this doesn’t make sense!” And you fight the urge (sometimes quite unsuccessfully) to scowl and point to the page and respond with, “What are you talking about? It’s right there! See?” At which time they will sometimes give you a withering look and reply, “Um, no, it’s not. You merely think it’s there because the story is in your head and it makes perfect sense to you. Now stop whining and fix it!”
And, likewise, every reader has been there. You’re merrily reading along, caught up wonderfully in a delightful story when suddenly you read something that doesn’t work, or is just plain wrong, and you’re completely and utterly yanked out of the story. You stop and frown and say, “What the [expletive]? Why the [expletive] would the character need to call a locksmith to get out of handcuffs? Doesn’t the author know that handcuff keys are universal? Why wouldn’t the character own a handcuff key if she owns handcuffs?” (Okay, you might say something else, but the aforementioned handcuff key issue is the reason why I stopped reading a certain popular series. I couldn’t get past this very basic research error.) Or perhaps it’s an issue where you’re not quite sure how something happened, and you find yourself flipping back through pages to see if you missed a crucial detail. Either way, you’re not in the story anymore.
Writing sometimes becomes an optical illusion. The writer knows that something is supposed to work or make sense, and so our little writer brain magically fills in what’s missing, or glosses over parts that don’t work, or ignores the fact that we’ve used the same word seventy-jillion times. I’ll say it now: Thank all the powers that be for editors and copyeditors!
I remember going through revisions with my editor on Mark of the Demon, and reaching one particular scene where we kept going back and forth over the continuity of one character sitting down and standing up. Seems like a silly trivial thing, but if a character is sitting on the floor, and then picks a book up off a table, it’s one of those little details that could jar a reader out of the book. There was also an issue with whether a demon could travel a certain distance, which turned out to be more of a clarity issue than one of continuity. I ended up adding several lines and adjusting some timing so that it was clearer that the characters were talking about two different demons.
Timing has been a big pain in the ass factor as well. Since the phase of the moon is very important to my main character’s ability to summon demons, I had to create moon calendars and pace out the action very carefully–sometimes running several days off to get to the moon phase that I needed. My copyeditor was fantastic here, and I can only imagine what sort of charts she had to make out to keep track of it all. And, despite the fact that I kept meticulous track (or so I thought), she still caught a couple of timing issues where I was off by a day or two.
And then there are timing issues that have nothing to do with the phase of the moon. In Blood of the Demon, my editor pointed out that I had a victim’s funeral set for a day and a half after he was found dead. This seemed a bit speedy to her, unless the victim was Jewish and had to have a timely funeral? (I ended up adding a couple of days into the timeline instead of making the victim Jewish.)
And speaking of things Jewish, also in Blood of the Demon I had a character making a blithe comment about being Jewish, which was why she hadn’t been to Sunday School. My editor jumped on that one and said, “She’s Jewish, with a last name like [very non-Jewish name]?” (And here is where I must confess to heaping quantities of ignorance of Jewish tradition! Shame on me!) Since the character was a single female, my editor wanted me to either explain why she would have such a non-Jewish last name, or change it so that it wasn’t so jarring to people who Had A Clue. This seemed like a very minor thing at first and I was all set to take out the whole reference to being Jewish, but then I had a little thought about the character being previously married…a very short and tragic marriage… which suddenly gave me all sorts of seriously nifty backstory to the character, all from a line that I thought was a brief little funny.
There have also been a few issues that slipped by everyone until we reached the page proof stage. A blouse in one scene turned into a scarf in another. Within the span of a dozen chapters, a manual garage door somehow became an automatic garage door that required a remote. (Scribble scribble scratch… change “he pulled the garage door up” to “he hit the button on the remote.”) One error that made me laugh out loud (and I still can’t believe none of us caught it before page proofs!) was a scene where the overhead sun cast patterns through the leaves… and then two whole paragraphs later a character makes a comment about the rising sun. *facepalm*
And then there are the issues that seem at first be matters of continuity, but are instead matters of clarity. During copyedits, my copyeditor pointed out a place where a character got into her car and drove away. “How could she get into her car? Didn’t [other character] drive her over there?” Ah, yes, I thought, but she’d left her car there earlier. Don’t you remember? But, I went ahead and inserted a couple of words on the order of “he parked next to her car” and figured that would be sufficient to remind the reader that she’d left her car there earlier.
But apparently not, because after I returned the page proofs I received an email from my editor’s assistant, telling me that Production was concerned because I had a scene where the character gets into her car and drives off, and how could that happen if she’d been riding around with [other character.]
Grr. Snarl. Stomp. Why couldn’t the readers frickin’ remember this? But, I forced myself to admit that even though it was blindingly obvious to me, this was obviously NOT CLEAR at all if it was being pointed out by more than one person. So, I went back and added another line on the order of: They went to do crime-scene stuff, but left her car at the house since it was such a piece of crap. (And if that doesn’t work, I’ll make an FAQ that explains exactly how she could get in her car and drive off, ‘kay?)
Needless to say, good editors and copyeditors are worth their weight in gold. A good editor (and I’ve been gifted with a fabulous one!) takes your book and helps you make it better. (I’m going to save What An Editor Does for another post, because that’s going to be a long post. 🙂 ) A copyeditor takes that revised and edited book and (aside from fixing grammar/spelling punctuation errors) makes sure that all of the details fit together, makes sure that what you’re trying to say is what has actually been said, makes sure that what you’re trying to say actually makes sense and is feasible, makes sure that you don’t actually use the same word seventeen times in the same page… (Actually, my most-overused word is “just.” It’s a bit horrifying just how often I use that word!) Also, a good copyeditor makes sure that you don’t make stupid research-related mistakes. (In the first book my CE caught an error regarding the make and model of a gun.I was horrified that I’d screwed that up, and deeply grateful that she’d saved me from looking like a bonehead.)
As you might imagine, I was thrilled to pieces when I managed to score the same CE for both books. Even though a new CE would have been given the previous CE’s stylesheet, my CE caught a continuity error between the two books that I doubt would have been referenced on a style sheet. (And I’m keeping fingers crossed that I’ll be able to keep her for subsequent books as well!)
Finally, for a terrific insight into what a copyeditor does, you absolutely need to read Deanna Hoak’s blog, especially this entry here.