Sep 132011
 
Today I have Paul Hardy, author of The Last Man on Earth Club, here to talk about polishing your story. He has a lot of tips and tricks to share, so his post will be split into multiple parts.

Let’s say you’re watching a film down at the googolplexatorium. You decided you were going to be good and avoid the latest Hollywood rubbish, so you dropped in on the cool little indie film about zombie relationships you heard might be good.

But once you’re settled in your seat and deep in your popcorn, you realise something’s wrong. The effects aren’t quite right. The actors mistime their lines. Shots go on too long. It looks dark and grainy, as though they couldn’t afford the right camera for the job. The music sounds like it was recorded with a laptop microphone. They didn’t even get the continuity right on the zombie makeup – one of them has a missing arm but half the time it’s the wrong one. It’s so distracting that you can’t pay attention to the story.

So you go home and vent your disgust on the interwebs, along with thousands of others. A few people try and talk about how good the script was, but even they have to admit that what they saw did no justice to it. Such a pity, they say. There’s a good film in there, somewhere…

That’s what it’s like when someone reads a novel that hasn’t been edited. The first thing anyone sees is the quality on the surface, and if the book’s full of typos, grammatical mistakes, continuity errors and heaven knows what else, then they’re not going to be able to see past that and find the story. All that effort you put in will go to waste, no matter how good the novel is without those tiny little errors. Sure, some people will see past it, some people might even champion your work – but when it comes to sales, a review that says you can’t even spell is an absolute killer.

So you have no choice. It has to be proofread. If you can afford to get someone to do it for you, then your problem is solved. They’ll probably do a great job, and there are many lists of good people out there. Hunt around in Kindleboards and you’ll likely find a few.

But if you can’t afford that, you’ve got a real job on your hands. It’s not easy, and it’s not going to be quick. Unlike a professional editor, you have an attachment to your work that doesn’t just border on the irrational, it sends in an army and annexes it. You know what you wanted to write, and when your brain sees text you made a mess of, it often substitutes the correct version without telling you. Your mistakes can literally be invisible to you. You’re going to have to work harder than a professional editor to get the same result.

But it can be done. It has to be done. And here’s how to go about it…

(Note: there are really two types of editing, only one of which we’re really looking at here. The first type is about the quality of the story, the dialogue, the characters – the important stuff. The second type is about surface qualities – spelling, grammar, continuity and so on. This second type is what we’re looking at here, though some editors will look at both issues for you)

THE MANY MISTAKES IN YOUR TEXT

Spelling
It doesn’t matter how good at spelling you are: sometimes your fingers slip and you don’t even notice. And then there are the words you habitually misspell even though you damn well know how they’re spelt. Not to mention the built in confusions of the English language that trip everyone up (is it i before e? Except
after c? Usually, but there are exceptions…)

Unfortunately, it’s not something you can get away with. Some people might not notice a typo, but to most it’ll stick out of the page like a thumb that’s gone sore because someone kept slamming it inside a book. It’ll distract from the story and you can’t let that happen.

There are, however, the odd instances where you deliberately want to misspell words. For example, you can get away with a lot in dialogue if you’re trying to indicate someone speaking in an unusual dialect. Someone from my birthplace might say

“He heard the hens harking at the herons.”

“E urd the ens arkin at the erons.”

This is difficult to make out and not recommended in large doses, but can still be done – the key is to make it consistent. If it follows the same pattern, the reader will sooner or later get the trick of it and be able to follow the story without too much trouble.

(Anyone who’s read Iain M. Banks’ Feersumm Endjinn and struggled through the passages written in Scots dialect has an idea of whether or not this works – some people find it easier to read than others)

And then there are the ‘mistakes’ caused merely by cultural differences. Specifically, the variations in spelling found in American English. People from other English-speaking nations have learnt to cope with these, but Americans sometimes don’t realise that British, Canadian or Australian spelling is perfectly valid and does not represent a failure of education. Some non-Americans shrug their shoulders and use American spelling, or even write two versions of the book – one in Americanese, and one in the original English. It’s a personal choice. For myself, I prefer British spelling, and I haven’t had any complaints yet.

Grammar
Yes, it has to be grammatically correct, though not necessarily to the standards of even the grammar checker in Word. You can get away with things like starting a word with ‘And’, especially if you’re writing dialogue, which is often exceedingly ungrammatical. Writing in the first person can get you a pass for a few things, too, since that could, in some cases, be someone’s spoken word.

There are way too many types of grammatical error to list here, but here’s a few of the really horrible ones:

Dangling Participles. An example:

‘Tortured in the fires of hell, the grinning fiend pushed the sinners further into horror…’

This sentence is trying to speak of tortured sinners, but the construction makes it sound like the grinning fiend is the one being tortured. This one’s easy to do when rushing through your first draft, and could be fixed thus:

‘Tortured in the fires of hell, the sinners were pushed further into horror by a grinning fiend…’

…or you might want to rewrite the sentence altogether. It’s up to you.

Run-on Sentences.
My main bugbear for grammar is the run-on sentence which really annoys me also known as the Place Where You Forgot to Put In Punctuation.

(In that last sentence, there should be a comma between the words ‘sentence’ and ‘which’, and a new sentence after ‘me’. As if you hadn’t noticed.)

If you must have a sentence with multiple clauses, just remember to put a comma in. Or a dash, if that works. Or even a full stop (American translation: period), and turn it into another sentence. Otherwise it sounds like you’re rushing on without the little pause you’d normally insert if you were speaking the words, and that can be jarring in its own way.

Affect & Effect. Hardly anyone seems to remember which one is correct, but here’s a way to get it right: Affect is a Verb, while Effect is a Noun. If you affect something, you cause an effect.

Except that in speech, people tend to use Effect as a verb too: ‘she effected a change within the organisation.’ This makes effect mean something like ‘to bring about’.

And then you’ve got the very different meaning of ‘Affected’, as in, ‘he had an affected laugh.’

And just to make it extra fun, ‘Affect’ is also a noun in psychiatry. It means ‘emotion’ or ‘desire’, and can make the brain of a grammatical pedant explode (as a result of a frustration affect).

Punctuation
And some common punctuation errors as well, though this is not an exhaustive list:

Its/It’s. “Its” is the possessive form – eg its massive claws. “It’s” is the contraction of “It is” – eg it’s coming. The confusion between these comes because an apostrophe is used in pretty much every other possessive form of a word, except this one. No one ever accused the English language of being consistent…

Apostrophes for the plural. Apostrophes are either for contractions or the possessive. “Mike’s five fingers” is correct, while “Mike’s five finger’s” is not. It’s mostly sign writers that make this mistake, but even so, please be careful.

Quotation marks. Some people use “” to enclose speech. Some use ‘’. Some even have speech denoted by a dash, as in:

–Is that right? asked Jane.

All of these are perfectly valid, but you have to be consistent throughout the text. Especially because you can also use quotation marks like this:

The manual claimed ‘perfection’.

…which can cause confusion. You’ll need to make a choice as to which types of quotation marks are used for which purpose, and stick to it throughout the text.

Punctuation around speech. Another easily made mistake…

“Hello”, said the parrot

…is wrong.

“Hello,” said the parrot

…is right. If there’s going to be punctuation like that comma, it belongs inside the inverted commas.

Also,

“Hello!” screamed the parrot

is right, while

“Hello!” Screamed the parrot

is wrong. Just because there’s a sentence-ending punctuation mark within the dialogue, it doesn’t mean you need to capitalise the next word if it’s something like ‘he said’ or ‘she said’.

Abbreviations, Acronyms & Initialisations. The main issue here is one of consistency, but first of all, here are some definitions:

An abbreviation is a shortening of a word. For example, eg.

An initialisation takes the first letter of each word in the original, but is unpronounceable by itself, forcing you to say it letter by letter. For example, FBI.

An acronym is similar to an initialisation, but can be pronounced as a word. For example, NATO.

In all of these, you have the option of adding the full stops that indicate missing letters – e.g., F.B.I., N.A.T.O. – or ignoring them, eg, FBI, NATO. It doesn’t matter which option you pick, but you must be consistent across the whole text and you’ll need to check for this.

For eg and ie, you must also remember that if they appear at the start of a sentence, they need to be capitalised. EG, IE. Acronyms can sometimes be written without full capitals if you choose that as a convention (eg Nato), but will nevertheless need to have the first letter capitalised because they’re still proper nouns.

Missing Full Stops (AKA Periods) Somewhere in your text is a sentence without a full stop. You know it. I know it. And if you don’t find it, you can bet a reviewer will mention it…

Continuity
In films, ‘Script Supervisors’ are in charge of continuity, and ensure that reality stays the same from one shot to another. This is particularly difficult when a scene can be cobbled together from bits and pieces shot many weeks apart, possibly on different continents.

Needless to say, novelists don’t have nearly this much difficulty in keeping basic details consistent. Any yet they still manage to get it wrong from time to time: minor characters changing names, relatives suddenly going from being aunts to elder cousins, people’s birthplaces moving to the other side of the country, someone’s car changing models for no reason – you might not notice these things, but your readers will.

Dealing with this can be difficult. You may have to resort to making notes on characters, locations, objects and the like as you go along, recording all the things you’ve said about them – unless you made notes on them before you started writing, in which case you can refer to those.

Consistency of style
You’ve also got to be careful to keep your own stylistic inventions consistent. Let’s say you’ve created a new dating system for your fantasy world, or have chapter headings showing location and time, or any one of a myriad of other things. It’s all too easy to let these slip, and the reader will be the first to notice. Whatever internal rules you’ve established, there’s only one person who can keep them straight – you.

Dashes
There are em dashes (—), en dashes (–), and then there are hyphens(-). Between them, they have three main uses: breaking up sentences, linking together words, or showing some kind of interruption.

If you’re linking up words, you always use a hyphen, eg extra-strong. No exceptions.

When it comes to breaking up sentences, you can use either em or en dashes. There are two main options for how to do this:

1. You can use an em-dash to separate bits of sentences—like this. This is thought of as a ‘British’ version, and has no spaces on either side of the em dash.

2. Or you could use an en-dash to separate bits of sentences – like this. This is thought of as an ‘American’ version, and has spaces on either side of the en dash.

When writing for an e-reader, it’s probably better to go for option 2, because otherwise you’ll end up with something the software will see as an extra-long word which it might not know how to break up if it crosses the end of a line.

And finally, you might want to have a paragraph or a line of dialogue that needs to look as though it’s been interrupted—

(what was that noise? Oh, never mind…)

—or even start again after an interruption. In this case, the em dash tends to work better, because it stands out more. But you can pick an en-dash if you like (just remember to be consistent). Whichever one you use, it should not have a space between it and the words/inverted commas next to it.

Generating these inside your word processor isn’t an entirely obvious process. Only the hyphen has its own key. However, Word is generally set up with a default Autocorrect setting that detects hyphens used in the middle of sentences, and changes them to en dashes once you press space after the next word. If you
want an em dash instead, you’ll need to modify that in the settings. And if you want to get an em or en dash just by itself, you’ll need to use Insert-Symbol from the menu, or check what the keyboard shortcuts are.

(One more thing: never, ever use a double hyphen (–) to express a longer dash. This is a hangover from typewriter days, and not appropriate when we have access to the correct symbols)

General Redundancy
Somewhere along the way, you’ll find you’ve written a paragraph that describes the same thing twice, but does so in different ways which duplicate the same point and repeat information in a way that says the same thing again.

Or perhaps there’s a conversation that somehow seems to repeat the same points without anyone noticing. You might even have done the opposite and forgotten to describe something important. Or you might have described a character on two separate occasions as though they were appearing for the first time – if you’ve had to do many, many drafts, it’s amazing how things can survive that should have been cut out long ago.

Duplicated Words
English is a language with multiple vocabularies from multiple sources. Because of this, we often have multiple words for the same thing, carrying multiple shades of meaning to add levels of meaning that some other languages can barely dream of.

And yet you’ll often find yourself repeating a word so close to the first instance that it seems like a horrible mistake. The previous paragraph is an extreme example of this – perfectly correct in grammar and spelling, but ugly to read. If you find this problem in your own work, you’ll need to have a thesaurus at the ready to pick out an alternative.

Pet hates
We all have our own personal dislikes, even about our own writing. This means that somewhere in your text lurks something you keep doing, even though you want to stab your hand every time you see it.

For me, it’s the overuse of the word ‘that’. Example: ‘everything that I see’. Which could be written as: ‘everything I see’. In some ways this is a stylistic choice, but all too often it just looks like redundancy. And the same thing goes for the word ‘just’. Example: ‘It just looks like redundancy’, instead of ‘it looks like
redundancy’.

If you have similar problems with certain issues, it’ll be up to you to fix them, along with everything else.

That is quite a bit of information about things to look for when proofreading. Part 2 will take us through Paul’s proofreading process. Lots of the info above applies to reviews and blogs, not just books. We always want to produce the best work possible. For my blog, you will notice I use Canadian (British) spelling, and try to find a review without the work definitely. It always seems to appear. I just can’t prevent it.

About Paul Hardy:
Paul R. Hardy started life as a filmmaker. He made eighteen short films, won a BBC Drama Award, co-wrote & co-produced an independent SF film called Triple Hit and also wrote Filming on a Microbudget, a guidebook for making short films. Having been introduced to the concept of spare time following a well-known global financial meltdown, he now writes science fiction novels as well. The Last Man on Earth Club was published in 2011, to be followed by All That I See or Seem in 2012.

Paul can usually be found in his native England (what with the cost of travel these days).

Connect online: Blog, Goodreads

Book Highlight:

The Last Man on Earth Club is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords

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