After spending a year creating a story line and populating it with characters that I hope are interesting, it’s time to send my novel off to my editor, who will let me know, in blisteringly easy-to-interpret terms, where my efforts succeeded and where they fell short. I spend as much time as is necessary to repair, prop-up or redesign the story difficulties, at which time I send the manuscript back to the publisher. At that point, I will have fulfilled my D&A (delivery and acceptance) contract element, and, not insignificantly, will get paid.
Just when I think I am done with the story–about the time when I am moving on to the next one–I get the copy edits back. For the most part, copy editors are freelancers, and they may or may not have any familiarity with my work, or even with the genre in which I write. It seems to me (and I say this with a huge amount of respect) that their primary skills are an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the ability to process the tiniest of details. Combine those traits with a research instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the ideal copy editor is born.
And I need them. After 18 books, I’ve surrendered to the fact that I will never understand the true use of commas, that the proper use of the words “which” and “that” will be forever beyond my ken, and that I am unable to keep my characters from nodding or sighing too much. I am wont to have characters sit after they have never stood, and close doors that have never been opened. It is the largely un-celebrated copy editors of the world who keep the reading public from knowing how unqualified I am to do the work that I do.
But sometimes, copy editors change stuff that shouldn’t be changed, and for that reason, as the author, I must approve or disapprove every alteration they propose. At times, knowledge of grammar gets in the way. An example that comes to mind is from a few books ago when the copy editor changed “Jonathan looked at the door the kid had just come through” to “Jonathan looked at the door whence the kid had just come.” While grammatically correct, “whence” is a word that has no place in commercial thrillers. The same copy editor took it upon herself to replace Jonathan Grave’s beloved Colt 1911 .45 with a pistol her research had told her would be more appropriate to his purposes.
Okay, that was a one-off horrible copy editing experience (over 300 proposed changes of which I rejected over 200), and I have it on good authority that she and I will never cross paths again.
The whole agonizing process is made even more agonizing by technology. In the good old days, copy edits came back as a stack of papers with red marks on them. It was actually kind of fun to sit in the lounge chair with a lap desk and either “STET” or approve the changes with a different-color pencil. Now, the copy edits come back as a Word file with Track Changes turned on. I am not allowed merely to reject a change, because that would make my copy different than the publishing house’s copy, and that would screw up the system. Thus, if I want to reject a change or re-insert a deleted portion, I need to drop my cursor into the appropriate spot and retype. A simple STET is no longer allowed.
What used to take only a few days now takes a couple of weeks. It’s that long a slog.
So, to ease the process, I took a step several books ago to limit the misunderstandings that might develop between the copy editor and myself. I developed a Gilstrap Style Sheet, which I insert between the cover page and Chapter One of every manuscript I submit. I thought I’d share it with you. (I’ve inserted some explanation in italics where I think my reasoning might not be obvious.)
NOTE TO COPY EDITOR: Stylebook notwithstanding, please note the following:
The possessive form of Boxers is Boxers’ (not Boxers’s). This change does not affect any other names that end with S. (I’ve always believed that when people read silently, they’re really reading aloud without sound, and syntax counts.)
In every case, branches of the US armed services are always capitalized (e.g., Jonathan’s days in the Army; when Henry was in the Navy, etc.) (Frankly, I’m a little shocked that this is not the convention.)
Consider landmarks within Jonathan’s office to be proper nouns and capitalized as such (The Cave, the War Room, etc.)
Please consider all weapons nomenclature to be correct as written. (e.g., Jonathan carries a “Colt 1911 .45”, even though the official listing might show the pistol to be a Colt M1911A1, and even though there are newer versions of the platform available. These are very deliberate choices.)
When referencing calibers of weapons, all measurements are singular. (e.g., an HK 417 is chambered in nine millimeter, not nine millimeters.)
References to federal agencies need no definite article. (e.g., “He’s with DEA” is fine. He’s not with THE DEA.)
When Boxers or other team members refer to Jonathan as “Boss”, the word should be capitalized.
No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.
Northern Virginia and the Washington Metropolitan Area are both proper nouns and require capitalization.
Please assume all dialogue to be correct as written. Feel free to correct spelling and typos, but do not strive to make dialogue grammatically correct.
In dialogue, “Dammit” and “Goddammit” and “Goddamn” should be considered to be correct. (I’ve made an effort to reduce the profanity in my books, and to my eye, the one-word construction is less offensive. It could be that I’m just being strange.)
I intentionally avoid parentheses and single-quote marks in dialogue. Please do not insert them.
As a rule, I dislike exclamation points, and use them sparingly. Please avoid inserting them.
Any thoughts out there about the editing process in general, or copy editing in particular? Any items you think should be added to or removed from the personal style sheet?
Happy New Year, by the way! (Notice the exclamation point.)