Touchstone copyedit (4)

The copy edit process can be looked upon as an intensified writing course: all the things one does wrong, sliced up with two colors of pencil. Sins of commission, sins of omission, repeated again and again until the weary editor sighs in despair.

I’ve written nearly twenty books, a handful of short stories, and a bunch of other stuff over the past twenty years. Every long piece has been edited, by good, sharp-eyed, clear-thinking women. And you would think I’d learn.

I am pretty (oops) careful with my adverbs, those life-sucking distractions. I note all the –ly words and see if they’re really needed, and take about two-thirds of them out.

I don’t use fancy-talk for “he said/she said”—people don’t smirk or laugh their words, nor do they continually retort or exhort or declare. So much so, from time to time my editor will substitute one of those verbs for my plain-Jane “said.”

My editor and I occasionally tussle over food. No, not in restaurants, she generally lets me order my own lunch and doesn’t steal from it. But she complained that, reading O Jerusalem, she gained two pounds because Russell was forever eating, and she felt she had to join her. (Of course, she also says that she spent the last half of The Moor in a hot bath because Russell was so cold, but I guess I don’t write about fog and quicksand as much in later books.) After O Jerusalem, she rarely permits me a full meal on the page.

But my chief sin? The thing that convinces me I will never be a decent writer until I have it beaten out of me? I over-choreograph. My characters fiddle with their pens, take out their cigarette cases, walk over to windows, clear their throats, blink, scratch their heads, sip tepid coffee, rap their fingers on the table. They look at each other, they pause, they gaze across rooms, they pause for thought, they put cars into gear, they stroke cats. Well, maybe not that last, I can’t remember any cat-stroking, but when a cat wanders through the page, it’s going to get stroked.

The final stages of the edit process are the time for ruthlessness. Pens and cigarettes are snatched out of the hands of fiddlers, heads remain unscratched, looks and gazes and pauses remain unexchanged, falling like dominos to the all-clearing editorial pencil SO THE BLOODY CHARACTERS CAN GET ON WITH IT, ALREADY!

And at the end of it, cleansed of sins, I walk to the window, sip my tepid coffee, and fiddle with my pen, swearing to myself that I won’t do any of that in the next book.

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  1. Ris on August 26, 2007 at 10:37 am

    I just had to tell you that I drink more tea when I read one of your books. It’s become a ritual of sorts. Oh look, a new LRK book. Must put the tea on!

    I’m truly looking forward to Touchstone. Have my tea all ready for it.


  2. nkk1969 on August 26, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    What you call over-choreographing, others call underpainting and struggle with putting it _in_ the story. You can’t take out too many of those sorts of visual tags or you’re left with only dry dialogue. Also, if you don’t use those clues to your character’s moods, you end up having to “tell” everything. Then we start having show v. tell issues.

    Nikki, who has show v. tell issues and can’t win for losing

  3. Strawberry Curls on August 26, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    I agree with Nikki, I love the way your characters come alive with their eyebrow arches, their shifts of eyes and such. It is that richness, those nuances of personality that make them so real.

    I would much rather decern the mood by these cues than be told. IMHO.

  4. Kerry on August 26, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    My $0.02 is that between you and your editor, you nail it every time.

  5. RJ_Anderson on August 26, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    But I adore choreography. Not just writing it, I adore reading it. I want to know what people are doing as they talk, how they look, all those subtle physical cues that can influence or even change the meaning of what their mouths are saying…

    I am going to find my first journey through the Valley of Copyediting very traumatic, I fear.

  6. adyktd2thewrttnwrd on August 27, 2007 at 6:39 am

    I happen to like most of your “over-choreographing.” It makes the characters seem more real. Like, in one of your Russell books (I think, *think* it was number three … have to go check when this is done) Russell states that in Watson’s writings you don’t get the whole sense where Holmes is following leads that go nowhere and the hours spent puzzling over clues, because Watson is brought in at the last minute of the case.

    I like the fact that you said that. I also happen to enjoy the parts where Russell is writing and Holmes is fiddling with his violin or pen … or a chinese puzzle ball. :]

  7. Bronwyn on August 27, 2007 at 7:43 am

    I love the arching eyebrows as well. And while I enoy seeing the sorts of mundane things that characters get up to, I can see how a LOT of it can get tiresome to read. (Me personally, I pull [out] my eyebrows when under duress. I don’t think that would work well in a story, though!)

  8. admin on August 27, 2007 at 8:42 am

    Now, there’s a tic I don’t think I’ve seen on the written page. Yet…

    (And Rebecca? Don’t worry, they’ll be gentle with you, I’m sure.)


  9. dot on August 27, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    Here’s one your editor missed (I’m sure this has been pointed out to you a million .. ok, a hundred.. times!) In chapter 11 of To play the Fool, Beatrice takes “another thoughful bite” of something she was not actually served until several paragraphs later.

    Personally, I prefer some over-choreographing (not in excess, you understand). I re-read your books looking for the words you use that strike me with such power, and I find (to my surprise) that the powerful words are often the little, seemingly insignificant ones that describe fiddling fingers and arching eyebrows (and thoughtful bites, even when the only things at the table to bite are sketch pads, pencils — or, possibly, Kate Martinelli).

  10. riobonito on August 27, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    All your fiddly words are what makes your books so brilliant. You set a scene so well, that when Russell gets to take a bath, after being dirty or cold, you feel personally refreshed. You crave a cup of tea or coffee…feel guilty because you can’t walk a few miles, without a second thought…my husband says the first chapter of Beekeepers is the best first chapter of any book he has read. That is a high compliment from him. Now if I could have a cool glass of honey wine and ease my bones, maybe sleep would come easier tonight. Thanks Laurie

  11. vicki on August 27, 2007 at 11:38 pm

    Some of us want more choreography and stage-direction, others of us want less. I’m reminded of Ramona Quimby, who wanted to know just when it was that Mike Mulligan found time to use the bathroom during his long day on the steam shovel. Whether you’re writing for literature professors or preschoolers, you just can’t please everyone.

    FWIW, I like enough choreography and detail to at least get a sense of a character’s body-language and facial expressions. Those can often be more revealing than the spoken word.

  12. Roxanne on August 28, 2007 at 1:22 pm


    I thoroughly agree with your husband: the first chapter of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is the best first chapter of any book I have read. The first sentence –“I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him”–never fails to send chills through me. Sometimes I pick the book up just to read and savor that first chapter all over again, to gasp when Russell states that she could easily have made a brusque and purposeful exit, her life then having been a very different thing, to giggle at the cows running off snorting as Holmes gesticulates wildly to punctuate his words. In short, I, too, love the “arching eyebrows,” etc.

  13. Carlina on August 31, 2007 at 9:37 am

    I don’t think you over choreograph. Goodness! All the things your subjects do in your novels are crucial to their characterisation, IMHO. You convey things about your characters when you do this, which I think is brilliant. You have given them certain quirks in their actions which if one is not reading carefully, they could miss. For example, you like to make Holmes fiddle with his pipe as he is trying to say something important. He will stop and get his pipe lit….you describe…his steadiness…slowness, etc. This is very Holmes in regard to his flare for the dramatic and I love it. Russell’s baths should be relished since she rarely gets a chance to have a decent one on a case. We should be able to enjoy it with her!

    I think your choreography is what makes your work great. You convey with actions and when you are dealing with folks like Holmes and Russell, who do not display their emotions or reveal them at times, the more choreography the better. Please don’t stop. It’s what makes you a darn good writer. If your work is affecting your editor this way then you have done your job…to transport the reader to another place…another dimension and be there with the characters, experiencing what they are experiencing, and doing what they are doing.

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