The Long Goodbye
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
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?