In Which We Discuss How Much I Love Being Told I Don't Know How to Use a Comma
So remember how in elementary school, or like, anytime you type into Word, and your teacher or angry grammar totalitarian code underlines in red how you didn’t need to put a comma there, or you misused a semicolon, or that specific punctuation shouldn’t have gone inside the quotation marks, and oh, by the way, you’re a complete idiot (*Side note: every comma in that sentence is now giving me anxiety that it’s inappropriate and I should not be writing this post to begin with)? Well the past month has taught me how to get over those fears by bringing into my life the most heavenly beings on Earth…
I’d had one quick interaction with copy editors before, back when WHOBERT was being published, but it was so fast and quick in a 330-word manuscript that I wasn’t able to truly appreciate how copy editors are a thing of beauty. Cut to last month when I was sent a copy edited version of JAY’S GAY AGENDA and the first MERMICORN ISLAND book in the same week. I thought I’d give a little detail about what copy edits look like for people who are curious, or for authors who are about to go into the process for the first time and aren’t exactly sure what to expect.
At first, it’s a slap in the face.
You open up the Word doc and it has Track Changes on and there have been approximately 834 changes made to every single page. I’ve switched up my edit color on Track Changes from red to pink so it’s a much more enjoyable sight to see edits, but still…that’s a lot of pink.
But then as you look further, about 833.5 of those changes are the copy editor just simply correcting your mistakes for you. That incorrect comma? Gone. Semicolon? Poof. Have there been seventeen instances of ellipses in the first chapter alone? Sure have, but with your trusty copy editor by your side, that’s down to two and they are perfectly placed. Remember all those times when your paper got marked down a grade because there were too many grammatical mistakes (was this only me?) and you were like, “I just wish someone could fix these mistakes for me?” Well, your wish has been granted, baby! Copy editors just switch up those mistakes, and presto change-o, your grammar is golden.
Outside of being ethereal grammar deities, copy editors will also jot down every detail of the worlds you create into one nifty guide/Bible. It is SO MUCH WORK to put this all together, and I actually teared up a little that someone took the time to keep track of a make-believe story from my head in such detail. For JAY, the guide has every single character ever mentioned, no matter how brief, including descriptors of what they look like and what their relationship is to Jay and his journey. It has all the settings, from small rooms to made-up businesses to entire cities. It even has a dictionary of words and phrases used regularly, whether they’re actual words or new ones you created. My little Jay dictionary includes terminology such as “dance-ocracy”, “Indominus rex”, and “dicknotized”. Also big thank you to my copy editor for letting me know which *ahem* intimate positions should be hyphenated and which should not. Rounding out the Bible is a chronology of when every scene in the story happens so that I don’t accidentally pull some Back to the Future moment and Jay is inadvertently traveling back in time only to ruin all the other chapters with a wonky calendar misstep.
The guide for MERMICORN ISLAND (and I’m assuming most fantasy or sci-fi projects) has an extra layer of fun, because the copy editors keep track of the details and rules of the magic involved so that the series stays consistent from start to finish. We need to know which magical shells have which powers, what they look like, and when Lucky and his pals use them. We’ve also got to keep track of things like fin color, mer-mazing mermicorn sayings, and all the different types of magical creatures that live underwater in our fantasy town. The MI copy editor’s notes alone are like their own little whimsical story. They’re so much fun to read that I’m now refreshing my email regularly to see when I’ll get to go into copy edits for MI2 (I’m robsessed with the fact that MERMICORN ISLAND and Mission Impossible have the same initials. I smell a mash-up!).
Of course, there are also times when changes are suggested. Like, maybe your wording doesn’t make sense, or the way a character speaks doesn’t line up with formal English, or you’ve used so many synonyms for the same word in one sentence it’s like, “Just pick one and let’s move on.” But here’s the kicker: you don’t have to change a thing. You just use the magic word, “stet”, and everything you’ve put in there can just stay as is. For me, the vast majority of the changes suggested were due to me mixing up details of people, places and things. Noun mishaps, I guess. So the changes were quickly made. But a couple times things were a Jay-ism, and when I said “stet”, everyone was cool with it. It felt like cheating, almost. Like what if you could just hand back your graded-down paper and be like, “No, that mistake was totally intentional so you should just change that score, thanks.” (I’m thinking specifically of an American Politics paper I wrote freshman year of college when in multiple instances I wrote the word “feral” instead of “federal”… Although sometimes politics seems pretty wild, amiright?…Dad jokes) (PS - There’s an instance of too many ellipses)
Anywho, all this is to say, when you get to the copy editing stage of your first book, don’t be scared! You’ve got a spiritual sentence shepherd on your side, doing so much of the heavy lifting for you. Yay!
PPS - The amount of times I wrote “coma” instead of “comma” 🤦♀️ Please know that if I missed correcting any of those slip-ups, I am in no way implying that copy edits will put you in a coma.