Wednesday, 9 January 2013

How (not) to write a novel

Sound advice from Andrew Lownie’s Twitter.

Copy-editing is serious business

Just in from The Onion: 4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence
NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.”
Read on

These style disputes can get pretty heated. Be careful out there.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Be your own editor?

Some writers take more care over their work than others. P. G. Wodehouse is said to have taken exceptional pains to get his prose just so. He would begin a new work by typing out a first draft of the complete story. Then he would take the sheets of typescript and pin them, in sequence, around the wall of his study at waist height. As inspiration took him, he would take down a sheet and revise the text therein, polishing a phrase here, perfecting the dialogue there, inserting a new or better joke. Emendations made, he would reattach the sheet to the wall – a little higher than it had been – and move on to another. Gradually, the sheets of paper would make their way up the wall as he polished and improved the prose again and again. Wodehouse would consider the story complete and ready for publication when every sheet of paper had reached the height of the picture rail.

I can’t guarantee the truth of that story. It sounds almost too delightful to be true, but I hope it is.

My experience with unpublished manuscripts suggests that very few would-be authors lavish anything like that amount of care on their work. A very large number, in fact, seem not to have even read their own material before submitting it for appraisal. Tangled syntax, obvious misspellings, holes in the narrative – all these faults and more are found in abundance in the manuscripts of aspiring writers.

Why is it that some writers don’t seem to care about the mechanics of their writing? Is it that they regard themselves as artists, and that dealing with the nuts and bolts and oily rags is beneath them? Perhaps they’re taking a cue from some of the many great writers who took such a view. John Steinbeck, for example, was lax about low-level technical matters, as one biographer observed:

‘He sent the handwritten book [Cup of Gold] to his college friend Kate Beswick, who typed it for him. Beswick corrected Steinbeck’s spelling and punctuation, and separated his sentences into paragraphs.
‘Many authors pay careful attention to the small technical details of their writing, such as the placement of commas and periods, but John Steinbeck would always leave those decisions to others. “Why should I bother?” he asked. “There are millions of people who are good stenographers, but there aren’t so many thousands who can make as nice sounds as I can.”’ 
Catherine Reef, John Steinbeck

But there are few would-be writers who can use that excuse. I’m not talking only about talent; I’m talking about making chances for yourself in a competitive world. Hog-tying the readability of your work is guaranteed to pull you a rejection slip from any publisher you send it to. They’ve got a thousand manuscripts to plough through: why would they struggle through your misplaced punctuation, their/there/they’re substitutions and tangled sentences, with the vanishingly slim chance that there may be a miracle of plotting and characterisation lurking within? Short answer: they won’t.

It’s not just about readability, though. There’s attitude involved. Many, many manuscripts look as if the author hasn’t even read back what they’ve written. Not even once. If you can’t be bothered to read it, who will?

So be your own editor. Read. Review. Polish. Revise. Adjust. Amend. Don’t consider a piece of writing complete until you’ve read it closely at least three or four times. If you can manage the leap of imagination, try to read it through the eyes of a stranger.

If this doesn’t work for you, or you don’t have enough confidence in your ability to spot and correct technical flaws, get someone to edit your manuscript for you. Don’t rely on the comments of a family member or friend; go to an experienced professional. It’ll cost you money (probably no more than a few hundred quid, although it depends on how much editing your work needs), but will help ensure that your creativity gets a fair viewing from prospective publishers and agents.

Isn’t that worth spending time (and possibly money) on?

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Quotation marks: single or double?

Continuing this little series on the finer points of quoting stuff in your writing, we turn to the simple but strangely tricky subject of quotation marks.

Quotation marks have several purposes, as you know. They’re used for quoting speech or third-party texts, or for highlighting particular words, denoting the titles of songs, and so on; a very common usage in polemical writing is scare quotes.

So, given all these purposes, when should you use single marks, when should you use double marks, and when and how should you mix them?

The First Rule: Which should you use, single or double?

The first rule of single vs double quotation marks is that there is no first rule. In other, words, it’s up to you which you choose to use. But there are common practices.

The modern convention in British English publishing is to use single quotation marks (‘ ’) because they are regarded as neater and less obtrusive, whereas in American English double quotation marks are preferred (“ ”). Which kind you use is really a matter of preference, but you must be consistent: choose the one you like, and stick with it. Think of this as Rule 1A: as with a lot of textual style issues, consistency is king.

The Second Rule: Mixing single and double quotation marks

There is a fairly widespread misconception that if you use single marks for quoted speech, you should use double marks for other purposes, such as highlighting (or vice versa; double for speech, single for other uses). This is not proper, orthodox usage. Whether you have settled on single or double quotation marks, you should use the same kind for all purposes, including speech, highlighting, titles, and all forms of quotation.1 For example:

‘Have you heard this?’ she asked, and played the introduction to ‘Blue Velvet’. It was the first ‘real’ song he’d heard all day.

The only situation in which single and double quotation marks should appear in the same text is when one instance is nested within another. For example:

‘Have you heard “Blue Velvet”?’ she asked.

I have a theory about the origin of the single/double speech/highlight misconception. I think it may come from a misunderstanding of the commonly heard terms ‘quotation marks’ and ‘inverted commas’. I suspect that this illusory distinction of terms may have misled some people into thinking that they are different things. They aren’t.

There is one arcane exception to the No Mixing rule, a situation in which it is correct to use double quotation marks for quotations and single marks for highlighting. It’s a rare one. In some specialised philosophy and theology texts, double marks are used for standard quotation purposes (as described above), while single marks are used to denote instances when a word is being given an unusual or special meaning.

So, there you have it. Using quotation marks is a lot simpler than you thought it was. Choose the one you like and stick with it!

[1] Disclaimer: I have come across some small publishers who use their own in-house rules, and do practise mixing of single/double marks in the proscribed manner. With in-house rules, all bets are off; each publisher can do as it likes.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

How to punctuate dialogue

For my first hopefully-helpful post, I’m going to tackle a common and (apparently) very tricky topic: the use of quotation marks, punctuation and capitalisation in dialogue. This is something that a huge number of novice fiction-writers have trouble getting to grips with. It’s common to see this kind of thing in fiction manuscripts:

‘How do you punctuate dialogue?’ Asked Sidney.
‘Why, it’s easy enough when you get the knack of it.’ Said Cassandra.

Because each of these portions of quoted speech is a full sentence, some novice writers believe that it should be terminated by the appropriate punctuation mark and the attribution should be a new sentence. Wrong, wrong, wrongety wrong. The speech and the attribution should flow together as one structure. Extended to the length of a full work of fiction, incorrectly rendered dialogue reduces the readability of your narrative significantly, making it feel halting and awkward.

The conventions for punctuating speech are fairly intricate, but the basics are as follows. There are three variants: 1) when the attribution (the ‘he said’ part) follows the quote; 2) when the attribution precedes the quote; and 3) where the attribution is inserted in a break in the quote. I’m sure you’ve seen them all in action. Here are the rules...

1. When the attribution follows the speech

If the attribution continues directly from the end of a bit of quoted speech, the speech should be punctuated with a comma (unless a question mark or exclamation mark is more appropriate) which should be inside the quotation marks. The first word of the narrative text should begin with a lowercase letter unless it’s a proper name. Some examples:

  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ she said.
  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ Cassandra said.
  • ‘Is this the way to do it?’ he asked.
  • ‘This is the way to do it!’ she exclaimed.

Note how the attribution still begins with a lowercase letter even when the speech ends with a terminal mark like a question mark.
When there is no direct attribution, the narrative text should resume as a new sentence:

  • ‘This is the way to do it.’ She gazed at him, hoping he understood.

2. When the attribution precedes the speech

When the attribution leads directly into a bit of quoted speech, there should be a comma. Where the lead-in is more indirect, a colon or semicolon might be used (there’s no strict rule about this). Where there is no direct link between the narrative text and the speech, a full-stop should be used. The quoted speech should always begin with a capital letter, except in cases where just a fragment of speech is being quoted (in that case, the punctuation should also be outside the quotation marks). Some examples:

  • She said, ‘This is the way to do it.’
  • She spoke harshly to him: ‘This is the way to do it.’
  • She gave him a harsh look. ‘This is the way to do it.’
  • She said that this was ‘the way to do it’.

3. When the attribution is interpolated

When the attribution is inserted between two bits of quoted speech, the way you handle it depends on whether there is direct continuity between the two bits of speech - i.e. whether they are parts of a broken-up sentence or not. For example:

  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ she said, ‘and no other way is correct.’
  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ she said. ‘No other way is correct.’

Alternatively, you might have something like this:

  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ she said; ‘no other way is correct.’

There is a rare and arcane variant connected with this rule. When the inserted narrative text breaks up the quoted speech in a place where there isn’t a natural pause (as is sometimes done for dramatic effect), some grammarians insist that the punctuation of the first bit should be placed outside the quotation marks, like so:

  • ‘This’, she said pedantically, ‘is the way to do it.’

However, it’s usually only very pedantic punctuators who do this. Generally it is perfectly acceptable to punctuate the speech in the same way as in the previous examples, like so:

  • ‘This,’ she said indulgently, ‘is the way to do it.’ 

So, that’s how to render speech in your fiction and make life easier for your readers. I hope you find this little guide helpful and not too dictatorial.

If you find that you need help with punctuation, spelling, grammar, you might want to look into getting a professional copy-editor to assist you.

Coming soon: Quotation marks: single or double? And when is it acceptable to mix them?

A writer writes…

This is a blog about writing. Yes, another one. A writer writes, as is a writer’s wont.
Actually, it’s more a blog about reading. Or editing. Or being a writer who edits. “Read that back without the silly voice” is the official blogging wing of “A Better Book”, the dynamic one-man copy-editing, proofreading and critique service. This is the place where I post tips, advice and such. At times it may turn out to be the place I stagger to after a hard day’s editing and scream wordlessly into the void.

Or something.

I’ll try to make it useful to aspiring writers.