A short one this week, and mainly to say that I'm not going to be able to post much in the way of blog content over the next couple of months. This is partly because it's now less than three months until Darkhaven's release (!) and so I'm busy with editing, writing guest posts, answering interview questions, etcetera. And also partly because if I have any wonderful ideas for new blog posts, I'm going to have to keep them for the blog tour or I'll run out of stuff to talk about. However, the upcoming weeks are full of people clamouring to be exiled to the Barren Islands – sometimes two a week – so it's not as if I'm turning the lights out or anything.
Sunday Showcase: September 2013
What with Baby Smith's cold and his corresponding rejection of anything sleep-related, I haven't got a great deal of writing done recently; but I have, at least, managed a little bit of editing.
Here's the scene from Dawn Rising where Oriana is about to be married to the man who killed her mother. My difficulty with Oriana is that I'm always afraid people will read her as weak or passive. She isn't: she's badly hurt, out of options and being controlled by someone with far more power and cruelty than she possesses. Sometimes, strength can be as simple as refusing to let our tears fall. (Sometimes it can be as simple as letting them fall, but that's another story.) Anyway, I'd welcome your comments and/or criticism.
Dear Author …
You're pretty amazing, aren't you? You've written a book. You've spent your valuable time on it, pushed other things aside for it, dedicated weeks or months or years of your life to the story in your head that wouldn't go away. You've made sacrifices, and you haven't given up, and somehow you've brought a whole world to life from nothing. Anyone who has the staying power to do that should be proud.
So now you're ready to send your precious book out into the world, and you've decided to self-publish. You love your story and your characters, and you can't wait to find other people who'll love them too. I understand that. I do. Writing is such a solitary pursuit that it's always wonderful to find an audience. To share what you've been doing all this time with people who get it. Without readers, after all, we writers are like chefs cooking endless banquets that no-one ever gets to eat.
But before you hit the button to submit your baby to CreateSpace or Lulu or Smashwords, I beg you, stop. Just for a moment.
And give yourself an honest answer to this question: are you absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure your book – this thing you've spent so much energy on already – is error-free? That you haven't mixed up rung and wrung or born and borne or bizarre and bazaar? That your sentences all make sense even after that last-minute edit you did in Chapter 12? That your apostrophes are in their proper places? Have you run it past at least two people who you know have a better grasp of grammar than you do?
If the answer to any of these questions is no then you really should reconsider. You owe it to those among the reading public who know the difference between its and it's, and who develop an uncontrollable twitch each time they encounter the wrong one. You owe it to those among the reading public who don't know the difference and will only start to learn it if they see things done properly in the books they enjoy. Most of all, you owe it to yourself: to make your magnum opus, your pride and your pain, the best it possibly can be. To earn a loyal following through professionalism and polish and knowing your craft. To never settle for second best.
Because the thing is, it's all on you. The buck stops here. It may feel like I'm picking on you right now, but that's because I am. I'm picking on you because there's no-one else. Of course self-published books aren't the only ones to suffer from these kinds of problems. Of course traditionally published books contain typos. But traditionally published books are subject to a whole host of different people making decisions on their behalf. The only person who's going to make decisions about your self-published book is you.
So, dear author, I implore you: employ an editor or a proofreader. Beg the services of a friend or several friends or a whole critique group. Better still, learn how to fix this stuff yourself. Of course you can't know everything – no-one can. Even the most experienced editor in the world lets the occasional error slip past her tired eyes. But if you are really serious about the rewarding, surprising, incredibly frustrating process that is writing, you can do yourself no greater favour than to keep learning. Because being an author is so, so much more than just getting the story down, patting yourself on the back and hitting Publish.
Words are your tools. Employ them as they were meant to be employed. Your book will thank you for it, and so will your readers.
On dialogue tags
You know all about dialogue tags, right? They're the words we use to indicate who said something and (sometimes) how they said it. And among writers, most of the controversy surrounding dialogue tags comes from the latter. In particular, there's a vehement school of thought that says if the dialogue itself is good enough, everything the reader needs to know about how it was said is automatically implied – in which case, 'said' is the only dialogue tag a writer should ever need. But is that true? This week I'm going to explore the question … with a little help from Frank Loesser.
If you've been keeping up with the blog over the past few weeks then you may have noticed that I'm trying to give the ol' place a bit more structure (read: be more organised with my topics so I have at least some chance of posting regularly). The first Sunday of the month is when I reflect on personal matters; the second is for book recommendations; the third is for showcasing some of my own work; and the fourth – which is where we are now – is for musings on the art of writing. And not only that, but the related art of editing.
Those of you who are somewhat acquainted with me will know that when I'm not battling with Baby Smith or attempting to blog on a regular basis, I work full time as an editor. I haven't discussed this a great deal previously, but it strikes me that although I work in non-fiction, some of my experience might be of use to authors of all kinds. Which is why I'm now going to talk to you about proofreading – and more specifically, why today's writer needs it more than ever.
A proofreader is paid less than a copyeditor, and this is due to the level of artistic skill required. A good copyeditor should be thoroughly involved with the text. She should be able to suggest improvements to infelicitous sentences, eliminate word echoes, and highlight points at which the narrative fails to flow smoothly. She should notice when character X has brown eyes on one page and blue on another. While wider structural edits – plot, pace, character development – don't fall within her remit, she is very much in charge of the details. Consistency is the copyeditor's superpower.
A proofreader's job, on the other hand, is far more technical. The proofreader doesn't care about style (though proofreaders are often also copyeditors and, if you're lucky, may point out an awkward sentence or two the copyeditor missed). Instead, a good proofreader will flag up any misspellings, missing apostrophes and other punctuation/grammar issues; in short, anything that's an error rather than a stylistic choice. He will also – and this is the key point I'm getting to here – mark up problems with the layout and presentation of the text.
The role of the proofreader harks back to the days of typesetting, when the physical process of laying out the text for printing could introduce all kinds of errors, even after the book's content was signed off and completed. Nowadays, of course, everything is done on computer and (depending on the layout package being used) what you see is pretty much what you get. If your proofreader spots a mistake in your final laid-out-for-print manuscript, chances are it was there all along … except when it comes to ebooks.
In some ways, ebooks have taken us back to the error-prone days of manual print layout. Some ebooks have been scanned from printed texts, which is by no means a foolproof process and can result in a range of nonsensical word substitutions. Others contain characters that aren't recognised by one conversion program or another (ever seen a bunch of digits where there should be a dash or an accented character?). Even ebooks of new titles – which presumably haven't had to go through the trauma of being converted from an older format – often fall down when it comes to anything unusual, whether in content or in layout.
So here, finally, is my point. The proofreader's job is to view your text as your readers are going to view it – and with the rise of digital books, that means quite a few different ways. There's no point proofreading your print copy and leaving your ebooks to fend for themselves, because errors could have been introduced in the conversion process. Certainly the layout will be different in each format and needs checking. Yet despite the self-evidence of this statement, I can't count the number of ebooks I've read – produced by large, well-known publishers – in which the layout has been poor. Spacing and indentation of paragraphs, breaks before chapters, presentation of lists or columns: all these things can go wrong. You can't assume that anything other than simple block text (and sometimes not even that) can be poured into a new format without the need for tweaking.
So, indie authors, I beg you: proofread your ebooks. Get someone to read them in each of the final formats you want to make available. That way, you'll impress all of your audience, not just the part of it that likes print. Not only that, but you'll be ahead of many of your fellow authors – and quite a few established publishers as well.
The importance of being pedantic
As some of you know, I'm an editor as well as a writer. Getting the right words in the right order is how I make my living. Which is why I get the tiniest bit annoyed when I hear aspiring authors say things like this: "I'm not too bothered about my spelling/punctuation/grammar [delete as applicable]. I know it's not very good, but a proofreader can sort it out."
Great. I'm glad you want to give a fellow professional some work. But at the same time, speaking as a writer … really? You're happy to let someone else decide what your words mean?
Spelling, punctuation and grammar are like the stage directions in a play. Without them, the actors all face forward and speak their lines without any shade of inflection or meaning. If you want to convey exactly what you had in mind when you wrote your words, you have to get these basic things right. It isn't a matter of being pedantic for the sake of it. It's a matter of being pedantic in order to make sure your meaning is understood.
In a similar vein, I've noticed a tendency for people to dismiss errors in their work as 'typos'. Fine, if they genuinely have made one or two spelling errors here and there. Even if you get five different people to read through your work, there's bound to be at least one mistake you and they all overlook. But consistent misspellings or misuse of apostrophes? They're not typos. They're tools being wielded incorrectly. If you met a carpenter who referred to his constant failure to craft a tight-fitting joint as a 'slip', or a plumber who described her recurring inability to fix a leak as a 'minor error', you'd assume they were incompetent. So why is it OK for a writer not to possess the full set of basic skills they need for their own particular trade?
I'm not saying that people shouldn't make mistakes, nor that they should be born knowing everything. Both are impossible. But what I do object to is an attitude that says I don't need to learn any of this stuff, because it's not important. Some people seem to think that an ability to write well is a natural talent and, as such, they don't have to work for it. Yet in taking that approach, they're confusing aptitude and technique. A professional in any craft needs both. You can be born with an amazing ear for music, but unless you learn how to play the piano you'll never be a concert pianist. You can have the potential to be the world's greatest athlete, but that won't get you anywhere without training. And you can have an innate ability to tell a story, but unless you learn how to tell it no-one will ever take you seriously.
I'm aware we're not aided by the world around us. The modern user relies on a spellchecker to point out mistakes and assumes that the computer rather than the human brain knows best. I've complained before about how the auto-correct feature on the iPod (among others) constantly changes its to it's, whether or not it's appropriate – a perfect way to teach an entire generation of people how to use an apostrophe incorrectly. And I'm often amazed by the basic grammatical errors appearing in promotional literature from the biggest and most respected of companies. But we are writers. We, of all people, should be standing up in defence of the conventions that allow us to convey our meaning clearly and accurately.
Yes, we need creativity. Yes, we need brilliant characterisation and a gripping plot and sparkling dialogue. Yet for our own sake, we also need to know how to spell properly and how to punctuate a sentence. If we let these things go then the subtle differences that it's possible to convey by using, say, a semicolon instead of a colon will also be lost. And as George Orwell knew very well, if a language loses its capacity to express particular nuances and shades of meaning then it won't be long before our ability even to think them begins to deteriorate as well.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Since I've got my editor's hat on this week, this is a tip about editing.
As we all know, writing the words is only half the battle. Editing them is just as important and can often take far longer. In the past I've tended to write a book, then spend the next period of time concentrating solely on editing it. But in fact that's probably a bad idea, for two reasons.
First, focusing on editing means you're no longer maintaining the creative flow that sustained you while you were writing. I'm not saying editing isn't a creative task – because it is – but it's a different kind of creativity. If you spend months editing a book, and nothing else, then when it comes to writing the next one you'll have a hard job getting going again.
Second, you learn things while you're editing. You learn what works and what doesn't, how to phrase things in a tighter way, which words you overuse. If you start writing your next book while you're still editing the last one, those lessons will be fresh in your mind and you can apply them – which means the next time you reach the editing stage, your task will be shorter.
So, in short, I'd suggest that even when you're ready to edit a project, you don't stop trying to write every day. Instead, maintain momentum by writing short fiction or experimental scenes or another book at the same time. Both your writing and your editing will benefit from it.