Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The End! Not quite...

Photo by Stephen Nakatani, via Flickr
I sent off my latest manuscript (Superfluous Women, the 22nd Daisy Dalrymple mystery) three weeks ago. It’s always a huge relief to reach The End—not that I write “The End,” but I can see it in glowing letters nonetheless.

And then comes the revision letter.

My mystery editor has rarely asked for more than minor changes, at most a scene spruced up. This time, the letter started well: “...which I enjoyed thoroughly...”

Next came the bad news about the poem I wanted to include at the beginning. The poet, Vera Brittain, didn’t die long enough ago. The poem is still copyright. Do I want it badly enough to pay permission costs? If so, Macmillan’s legal department will attempt to track down the copyright-holder...

Last time I went through this, I wanted to introduce S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance into The Case of the Murdered Muckraker, my only book set in the US. He would have been a superb foil for Daisy. Alas, one can’t use other people’s characters without permission, any more than their poems. Van Dine’s books had been reissued sometime in the 1980s. The publisher hadn’t sent out any royalty checks for many years and had no idea to whom they’d send them if there were any. The agent who’d handled the reissue had long ago gone out of business or died (or both). The legal department was sure of only one thing: If I used Philo Vance, one or more heirs would come crawling out of the woodwork. Sorry, bye-bye, Philo.

Luckily he had only made an appearance in a proposal, so I didn’t have to rework an entire book.

As for Vera Brittain’s Superfluous Women, I left the last three lines of the poem at the head of the manuscript. Maybe the legal department will let me use that much.

The revision letter ended with a couple of minor odds and ends, including my editor admitting he thought he’d caught me in an anachronism (cryptic crosswords). He did a spot of research and discovered that they did exist at the time.

The zinger came in the middle of the letter: Would I consider (he’s a very polite editor!) rewriting the last chapter on such and such lines? I originally wrote it in a rush (The End in sight) and on rereading could only agree with him. So, back to work. Luckily it was mostly a matter of changing the point of view of one scene, adding one scene, then padding and reworking another.

I sent it back on Saturday. On Sunday (editors never get a day off) came the email response: “...it’s perfect. I particularly like the closing note at the end.”

Even allowing for a bit of exaggeration on his part, I’m happy!

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.


  1. Respecting copyrighted material of others is both a boon (it protects characters and passages in our books from being used without permission) and a bane (sometimes another author's work fits so well into our project). It also keeps us from being sued. As for poetry, a couple writers whose works I've edited have written their own poems-- as have I. This works well if the writer is also a poet, and it can be tailored to say exactly what we need it to.

    1. In this case a poem written by me would not have the impact of Brittain's. She not only was writing at the time, she was addressing the theme of my book, and she was herself a "superfluous woman," though later she did marry.

  2. Those pesky copyright laws. I wanted to use the lyrics from a song in a story: no could do. The artists are very much alive and popular. While I could write and ask them - they might be tickled enough to agree - chances are their money man would not agree.

    1. I used Anthem for Doomed Youth to begin my Anthem for Doomed Youth--Wilfred Owen was one of the Doomed Youth. Killed in action a week before the Armistice.

  3. Unconscious infringement of copyright is an occupational hazard: when something pops into your head that seems JUST RIGHT, you don't always stop in the heat of the moment to wonder "Have I come across this before in somebody else's work?" Thanks goodness for editors dedicated enough to check these things on your behalf!

  4. There is such a thing as fair use where a small amount of a copyright work can be used without infringement , especially with attribution. It is odd that some publishers will publish a while plagiarized book but balk at including a few lines of verse .I can understand why authors would just skip the whole thing rather than risk being put to the time and expense of obtaining a verdict of fair use.
    Can't wait for the new book. I love Daisy.

    1. Nancy, I'm hoping the last 3 lines constitute fair use.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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