Saturday, February 2, 2013

Don't engage the copy editor

by Sara J. Henry
Author of the Troy Chance suspense novels

Leave a comment this weekend and you'll be entered in a drawing for a copy of A COLD AND LONELY PLACE.

The best piece of advice I ever got – pretty much bar none – came from my writer friend Jamie Ford.

I’d just received the copy edits on my first novel, on a Saturday, and had to fly out on a busy trip that Wednesday. I’ve worked as a copy editor and when I was with Rodale Books I worked with them (and learned a lot from them), but this was something entirely different.

This person had made changes that seemed completely unnecessary (I know my way around the Chicago Manual of Style), questioned actions and motivations of the characters, and in places penciled in snide comments and erased them… but left them legible.

And this was all on paper, which to me seemed antediluvian – back when Windows were something you used Windex on, I’d been working with on-screen copy editing, using a word processing program called XyWrite where you had to type in codes to designate italics (little did I realize I was learning the basics of HTML).

I had no idea what to do. So I called Jamie, whose novel had come out the year before. Here's what he told me (besides just to write STET beside every change I didn't want):  “Don’t engage the copy editor.”

It was excellent advice. Not just for that manuscript – I found myself repeating it, over and over, as I went through it – but for many things in life. I say it often to myself: “Don’t engage the (fill in the blank).”

Someone sends an email suggesting he should get his money back because of a typo in your novel? Don’t engage the irate reader. A relative sends emails aimed at provoking you? Don’t engage the evil mother-in-law. You’re doing five miles over the speed limit in the fast lane, passing someone, and an idiot in a gas-guzzler looms up on your bumper, clearly not understanding the laws of physics and gravely overestimating the stopping power of his brakes? Don’t engage the Neanderthal driver.

No good can come of it – and you will have let the bad guys win, a little.

And in these days of Internet trolls, and places where anyone can trash you or your novel, it’s an unfortunate fact of publishing life that most of us cannot afford to piss anyone off. One author friend cheered on her fans to vote for her book in an online contest – and fans of the other, better-known, novelist attacked her with vicious comments. It was ugly.

At times I’ve engaged, gently. When someone gave Learning to Swim a half-hearted blog review and complained about the Canadian parts not being convincing, I posted a comment thanking her for reading my book and asking what parts she had trouble with (I’d lived in Ontario several years, and had that novel vetted by four Canadian readers, and was curious what we could have missed). It turned out that she lived in western Canada, where the RCMP is basically the only police force, and had assumed the same was true in the rest of Canada. Another time a German reader complained about something, and I responded on her blog – she was so pleased by my response that she ended up doing an engaging Q&A interview with me.

One of my first Amazon reviews complained at length about the main character’s name (and I can quote, because this was my first scathing review: “No one is named Troy Chance. No one. Not even porn stars. Not even gay porn stars.” (Note: my novel has no porn stars, gay or straight.)

A bookstore friend wrote me that he had done some research and that reader was right: There are no porn stars named Troy Chance! There are, however, people with that name.

So there, anonymous reviewer.

To round this out, here are the opening paragraphs of my newest novel, A Cold and Lonely Place:

We could feel the reverberation of the ice-cutting machine through the frozen lake beneath our feet. Matt Boudoin was telling me this would be the best ice palace ever, and I was nodding, because of course every year the palace seems better than the one the year before. At the same moment he stopped talking and I stopped nodding, because the machine had halted and the crew of men was staring down at the ice. Then, in unison, like marionettes with their strings being pulled, they turned their heads to look at Matt. Their faces were blank, but we knew something was wrong, very wrong.

We started moving forward. Because this is an Adirondack mountain town and Matt has an ingrained sense of chivalry, he held his arm out in that protective gesture you make toward a passenger in your car when you have to slam on the brakes. But it didn’t stop me.

Later, I would wish it had.


Leave a comment this weekend and you'll be entered in a drawing for a copy of A COLD AND LONELY PLACE.
Sara J. Henry’s Learning to Swim won the Anthony and Agatha awards for best first novel and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Its sequel, A Cold and Lonely Place, will be published February 5. Sara hails from Tennessee but has lived all over the U.S. (and in Canada) and now calls Vermont home. You can find her website at – not to be confused with the nutrition writer Sarah Henry, as they are indeed two different people.


Harvee@BookDilettante said...

Thanks for the giveaway chance and the interesting post.

Anonymous said...

I was mentally figuring how to express my total agreement with you - when I saw you hailed from Tennessee!!! Since I spent 10 wonderful years there in Sewanee as Headmistress of St. Mary's Prep School - that made me like you all the more!!! My maternal side of the family also hailed from Knoxville and Whittle Springs! I agree with your comments re Don't engage the... I don't like to argue with people - living in Manhattan this is hard to avoid - so your words are verrrry helpful! Thelma Straw

Anonymous said...

P.S. I'd love to read your book!! Thelma

Edith Maxwell said...

Can't wait to read the next book, Sara! I'll keep "Don't Engage The ..." in mind. I think it's a corollary to the "Just Say Thank You" guideline that I learned in grad school, facing my first conference paper. A colleague said, "If they ask you a question you can't answer, just smile, say Thank You, and move on."

Sheila Connolly said...

Loved Learning to Swim, have already pre-ordered the new one (any day now, right?).

So far all my copy-editors have been Anonymous (or CE on the electronic edits). I swear they change the rules about comma usage and capitalization from one book to the next. But you're right: it's not worth arguing about the picky little things, unless they change the meaning or make your protagonist look bad.

Anonymous said...

As a daughter, wife and mother of attorneys, I can only agree and add, don't engage the lawyers! Sue Frey

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

And as a therapist who's worked with alcoholics and their families for many years, I'll add, Don't engage the alcoholic. (The self-help version is "detach with love.") My parents the lawyers always said, "Never litigate," which is more or less the same thing. :)

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, Sara. Looking forward to the new book!

Tim D said...

Love that opening.

Beth Kanell said...

Thanks, Sara, for spinning out "Don't Engage ..." in ways both useful and intriguing. And wrapping up with the first couple of paragraphs of the book was awesome. I've got to read this, very soon!

Katreader said...

Good advice. There have been many times I wanted to open my mouth, or type a response...but decided to keep quiet. Sometimes it's just not worth it!

lil Gluckstern said...

I liked the post, and need to remember it for myself. Just deal with business. I loved your book, and I look forward to your next. I've spent a lot of time in the Adirondacks, and I already felt as I was there in your snippet.

Sara J. Henry said...

Thanks, everyone!

Yes, I'm from Oak Ridge, and got my undergraduate degree at UT-Knoxville.

Catherine said...

Hi Sara,
I loved Learning to Swim so I'm looking forward to reading A Cold and Lonely Place. Nice title, by the way.

Good luck with it.


Marni said...

Sara, this is such good advice, and I'll bear it in mind . . . I'm with Edith Maxwell: Just say Thank You and move on! The opener of your new book really drew me right in and will surely have readers turning the page! Congratulations~

Judy Dee said...

I haven't met a copy editor yet, so I'll take your advice for when I do. I'd love to win a copy of your book. Thanks.

Judy Hogan said...

Sara, I can't wait to read your new novel. It was such a privilege to sit beside you when you won the First Best Agatha. Judy Hogan

Barb Goffman said...

So looking forward to the next book, Sara. Hope I win! See you at Malice.

Liz said...

My comment, including a link to an article on prisoners building an ice palace for the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, seems to have gone missing. So leaving out link.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Sara, I had a similar experience with the copy editor of my first mystery. I had worked as a copy editor and had published two poetry books and a cookbook already. I always told students, "The editor, especially the copy editor, is your friend. He's there to keep you from looking like an idiot in public." But this CE tried to turn a first-person colloquial narration into formal academic prose. Plus, he added about 2,000 words, almost all passive voice, to the book. I stetted until my hand was almost worn out. Fortunately, my editor had my back all the way. Thankfully, the CE for my second mystery was much better.

I love the advice, don't engage the copy editor, and all the other ways you've found to use it.

Diane said...

"Don't engage the..." is so very true. There are many out there that are just plain rude, and their comments only have basis in vitriol. They're not worth it. And that editor sounds more like someone with acid in her veins than talent/ability in her brain. Eventually she will spill her venom on the wrong person. Do not engage her. BTW, I hope that means you don't allow the suggested changes.

Sara J. Henry said...

Edith - one also must learn a corollary to this at book events, in responding to bizarre or potentially offensive questions: "That's an interesting question ..."

Sheila - in theory each publisher has its own style guide, regarding serial commas and the like (OK vs okay, etc.) but in actual fact many copy editors follow their own predilection. I'm all for consistency, so I stick to the same style throughout a series.

Elizabeth, Tim, Anon - thanks much!

Sara J. Henry said...

Beth - I hope you love this one!

Katreader - I did in fact write in one or two responses (such as pointing out that Vermont only has ONE area code) but I honestly think that no one reads them - I think it goes straight into production and not back to the copy editor.

lil Gluckstern - So glad to hear it. I do love that area.

Catherine - I seriously went through about a dozen titles before finding this one, and it seemed to fit so perfectly I thought no further.

Sara J. Henry said...

Marni, yep, that's a good response!

Judy Dee, oh, we never meet them - we just deal with them via manuscripts. (There are some wonderful copy editors, but some truly awful ones as well - some think it is their job to rewrite the novel.)

Judy Hogan - Thanks! And you got to witness me dissolving afterward as well!

Barb - Yes, you guys hooked me on Malice forevermore! Can't wait!

Sara J. Henry said...

Liz - Yes, prisoners from the Ray Brook prison camp used to volunteer to work on the Ice Palace, but since most of the area prisons have closed, don't believe that happens now.

Linda - After my first encounter with an overzealous copy editor, I swore I would buy a STET stamp. I have heard horror stories - one copy editor decided to change where a book was set - and made hundreds of changes per page. A nightmare.

Diane - I am a stickler with my work, and would never accept a change that wasn't needed! That's the one thing a writer has complete control over. So I wrote STET many many times.

Liz said...

Sara, I knew about the prisoners from a 2/1/13 news article. (The missing link:

ladyvyvian said...

You should never say no one is named "whatever". I have worked with birth records and you would be astonished at what names people inflict on their poor, innocent children.