Thursday, July 23, 2015

Know How . . . and Who and What

As an aspiring author you’ve probably been doing your homework – studying your favorite writers, reading up on how to publish and market your book, looking for cover designs. You might also be checking out grammar tips; you don’t want to be the person who writes, “You don’t want to be the person that…” Yes, an editor will fix those things, but it’s good practice to know the tools of your craft.

And as well as knowing your craft, you need to know your audience.

With a global marketplace and different versions of English spoken in various parts of the world, you need to think about who you want to buy your book. If you’re writing the great American novel, you’re probably okay using standard American English because everyone’s heard it on Mad Men and Friends. But maybe you’d like to create a British version of your book, or you have a British character and you want to make sure he sounds authentic. Is Nigel Lemming-Smyth more likely to say, “I haven’t gotten around to it” or “I’ve not got ‘round to it”? You know you need to change the spelling of words like “honour” and “centre,” but will you remember to catch words like “programme,” “jewellery,” and “furore”?

Watch those quotes and commas, too, because Britain and America have different rules about punctuation.

Similarly, if you’re self-publishing in England and you want to reach as wide an audience as possible, you probably want to appeal to the US market. So it might be a good idea to limit your idiomatic expressions, words or phrases that aren’t used in other countries. Words like “moggy” and “gee-gees” make sense to you, but Tammy in Miami may put your book down because she has no idea what you’re talking about!

A writer of children’s books needs to know what age group she’s aiming for, and write for that reading level. A story for a five-year-old can have a similar plot to a book for a nine-year-old: a child feels sad because he thinks no one remembered his birthday, but then his friends do something really special for him. Some things, like ice cream and cake, are ageless. But will a younger child understand the word “generosity”? And will a nine-year-old want to continue reading a book mostly made up of three-letter words?

Again, you’ll want to consider where you plan to publish because school curriculum and cultural attitudes may affect reading comprehension of the children you hope will read your book.

You not only need to figure out who you’re writing for, you need to know what the current trends are in that market. Know your competition. Read books that are popular with your target audience and figure out why they’re popular. What do you like about those books, how do they engage the reader? Don’t copy, but see what commonalities there are in that genre and think about how you can apply them to your writing.

Now, when you’ve done your writing, and you’ve re-read your manuscript, and fiddled and scribbled and made a few changes and read it again, get an editor. But remember, know your editor.

If you’re stretching yourself by trying something a little beyond your knowledge base – and there’s nothing wrong with that – you need to do your research, and you definitely need an editor who will notice inconsistencies and anomalies, the things that don’t ring true. An editor will go through your manuscript looking for those kinds of things specifically, and will point them out to you. For instance, I recently read through a book excerpt by a writer in Nigeria. There was no problem with the author’s command of English, but there were occurrences of both US and British usage. Given Nigeria’s colonial past and international influences today, Nigerians probably use a mixture of Englishes and may not be aware that some phrases are idiomatic to one country or another. I suggested to the author that he should stick to either British or American English to be sure his writing is clear to his intended audience. As an editor who has worked in both the United States and Great Britain, I look for those discrepancies and fix them as needed.

You may be a teacher of literature, and you’ve got a great story about the Bloomsbury writers. You know your subject and you know the language – you’re an expert, right? I still suggest you hire a copy editor, and maybe one who has some knowledge of twentieth-century English literature. You need an objective and knowledgeable reader to catch irregularities and make sure your work is as good as it can be. You wouldn’t want to sabotage your impressive author’s bio because you inadvertently spelled Desmond MacCarthy’s name wrong.

The editing process really isn’t as painful as you might think. Sure, you’re going to be a bit mortified or indignant when you see the changes your editor makes to your manuscript. Did she really need to remove that comma there and put one in over here? Maybe not – commas are pretty subjective. But your editor has probably read quite a few books and blogs that discuss serial commas and en dashes and parallel construction and misplaced modifiers. Books that tell you when to capitalize a two-letter word in a title (almost never). Blogs that you might consider quite boring. This is the kind of thing editors read for fun, so they usually know what they’re doing when they add or remove punctuation, or rearrange sentences or delete adverbs.

Besides catching obvious typos and mistakes, editors will look for consistency in your writing, like if you write “e-mail” in one place and “email” in another. They’ll notice if Louise’s sister’s name changes from Brianna to Brittany. They’ll tell you if you’ve used the word “tellingly” way too often. But an editor who has a particular background or specialty can be even more helpful when you’re writing for a certain, targeted audience. This is true if you’re writing in any specialized subject, from physics to architecture to horse-riding; you want an editor who knows his quarks, quoins or quirts.

You’ve done your homework and your research; you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your writing. You know your craft and you know your audience. If you find an editor who has done the same, your manuscript will be in safe hands.

Valerie Spanswick is a freelance copy/line editor, proofreader and occasional writer who edits both fiction and non-fiction. She has lived, worked and studied in the US and the UK, and is currently based in Eugene, Oregon. Her background includes art and architectural history and aesthetics, and work in publishing, technical editing and video production. She’s online at

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Maintaining the proper point of view

Aside from grammatical errors, the most common sin I find in the work of rookie novelists is "head-hopping"—that is, giving the viewpoint, or point of view (POV), to more than one character in a scene. This is a big no-no.

Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. Writers have three basic choices: the first person singular (“I”), the second person (“you”), and the third person (“he”/”she”). In the first-person point of view, the story is told by an “I” who is a character in the story—often the lead character, but not always. In third-person the author has two narrative perspectives to choose from—the third-person pure omniscient point of view, which is told by an “outside” voice that has access to any character’s actions and thoughts, and the third-person limited omniscient point of view, which is similar but is limited to the thoughts and perspective of a single character per scene.

First-person novels are popular, but second-person narratives are useless to new writers because they’re mostly considered to be experimental works and are nearly impossible to get published. Most fiction houses today are happiest with the third-person format, believing it to be the most commercial approach. We may also note that many novels on the best-seller lists are written this way, perhaps because stories of action/adventure and thrillers lend themselves so well to the less constricting third-person viewpoint.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid using the first person. Many first-person novels are published. Despite the limitations of the first-person POV, I like them, mainly because they are a refreshing change from all the third-person novels out there and because I can get to know the protagonist better and identify with that person.

Long gone is the popularity of the verbose, pure omniscient third-person narrator. Many nineteenth-century novelists used and abused this narrative style, pushing the envelope to include a great deal of narrative by an unseen, godlike intelligence who knows all the details of the past, who can see the future, and who loves to comment on the action and the story people with a variety of asides, lectures, and sermons like an Olympian sportscaster. Such writers would frequently insert copy something like this:

The coach departed in a clatter of hooves and a great swirl of fog, leaving MacGregor standing alone in the dark, gazing apprehensively up the long curve of road leading to the dim mansion, cloistered in oaks, at the top of the hill. It would be a difficult climb, burdened as he was with two heavy portmanteaus, but he was determined to make it. O foolish man! You suspect nothing, anticipate only joy. But ahead, for you, lies more evil than you ever expect to encounter. Pity him, gentle reader, for the unutterable horrors he must soon face, and pray that his moral fiber and his long-held convictions will see him through these tribulations.

I wrote this all by myself. Pretty impressive, eh?

Would you enjoy reading a novel filled with dreck like this? Neither would anyone else. That’s why ninety-nine percent of nineteenth-century novels and their authors have slipped into obscurity—and why today’s novelists should make every effort to avoid such a bloated omniscient prose style.

These days the third-person limited omniscient narrator is much more palatable. In this viewpoint the story is told only in the third person, but it is limited to the perspective of a single character in each scene. That’s the most rigorous view of this form of narration, anyway, and the safest one for new writers. In this POV little or nothing appears in the scene that the viewpoint character doesn’t experience directly, and anything that character didn’t experience is still related from his or her perspective, with the explicit or implicit understanding that this information was related to that character by someone else. If your POV character faints, the scene ends. If your POV character walks out of the room, the reader goes out the door, too, and never stays behind with the characters who do not have the point of view. Most important, you should never allow your POV person to be shoved aside by some divine stage manager who comments on the story and its players.

When writers of fiction lose their grip, narratively speaking, on this limited form of viewpoint, then they slip into the realm of the unrestricted omniscient narrator. Considered in the strictest sense, all background information, character sketches, history lessons, travelogues, and such occupy the province of the all-seeing, all-knowing pure omniscient narrator. The only way to avoid that is to couch such material cleverly, offering it to the reader via the intelligence of the POV character.

If you’re limited to the viewpoint of only one person in each scene, how then can you convey the thoughts of a character who is not given the POV for that scene? Here are a few tips:

Put that character’s thoughts in dialogue.
Put that character’s emotions on his/her face and have the POV character correctly interpret those feelings after looking at him/her.
Wait until that character is given a point of view, then have him/her reflect on the previous scene and relate his/her thoughts.

Please, please, friends, no more head-hopping!

Paul Thayer is a freelance book editor specializing in line editing and
critiques of fiction and nonfiction books. He lives in Florida with his two
cats, Mojo and Fiona.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Monday, July 13, 2015

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers...

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. – Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker was an American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist, best known for her wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th-century urban foibles.