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Apostrophes & Passive Errors

It’s not often that I would dare accuse Oxford Dictionaries of getting it wrong but I’m going to stick my neck out in a pedantic dispute over apostrophes.

The OED – and its online edition – is normally one of my Bibles. It’s where I go when in doubt about a spelling or the correct usage of a word.

But I think they’ve got it wrong this time.

I work part-time as a sub-editor for a newspaper and the other day – in a moment of boredom – I had a go at an ‘Apostrophe Challenge‘ on their website. Hoping, of course, to get 10 out of 10!

But I was flummoxed by one question where all of the possible answers included an apostrophe and, according to the answer given, we should refer to “a 1940s’ building”.

Huh?! If we were talking about a building belonging to the 1940s then I would follow the logic but surely in this sense we’re using 1940s as an adjective. Therefore, no apostrophe should be used.

If you wrote out the numbers would you use an apostrophe? E.g. “a nineteen forties’ building”. Or if talking about “sixties’ heartthrob Adam Faith”. I think not.

The logic of using an apostrophe also falls down if you think about other historical eras. If we were describing a building as “Victorian” or “colonial” we wouldn’t use an apostrophe. The words here would be adjectives so why take a different approach to the 1940s?

I’d be interested to know what others think. I asked around in my office and the unanimous reaction was there should be no apostrophe. My news editor said it’s the kind of mistake we’re always trying to get junior reporters to stop making in their copy!

I must hold my hand up to one of my own errors though. The first reviewer on Amazon.com for my new novel, Church of the White Rabbits told me off for the ‘affectation’ of using the passive form “is/was sat” when I should use the active “sits/is sitting”.

Guilty as charged! I’m not sure it’s an affectation, though, more of an unconscious error. I think I use this form quite often unintentionally. I don’t actually mean to infer that a third person has “sat” the person involved on a chair – which grammatically is what I’m implying, it’s just the way I speak/write.

I get thrown sometimes by American using the form “gotten”, which no longer exists in British English. Anyone else got any grammatical quirks to share?

 

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Does It Matter Whodunnit?

As a break from my latest novel, I’ve been doing a bit of a re-edit of my parallel lives thriller Thin Ice – with help from an online service called Pro Writing Aid.

As well as being free (always a bonus), it’s proving very useful and it’s certainly making me analyse my text in considerable detail.

But some questions it raises are about potential grammar issues I just wouldn’t have understood a few years ago. Like, passive sentences.

I’m one of those people who wasn’t taught grammar at school. I learnt most of my grammar by a process of absorption and while my English has always been pretty good I never used to have a clue how it really worked.

Once, if you’d asked me what a passive sentence was, I’d have looked at you blankly. So, for anyone else – like me – who never had any formal grammar training, I thought I’d try and offer a bit of help.

Practically every creative writing teacher or guide will tell you that ‘action’ is what moves a story along, whether that’s physical movement, thoughts or dialogue. For example:

Michael stepped over one of the corpses. He wondered how many more they would find. He turned to his partner: ‘Hey, Julie, do you think they were all werewolves?’

Sometimes, we can slip in a bit of observation – but preferably not to much – to describe the scene:

Fresh blood glistened in the morning light. Globs of it had splashed all over the room, decorating the floor and the walls. One spray of still-uncongealed arterial fluid had even spattered in a thick arc across the ceiling.

Now – technically – all of the sentences above are active. We have verbs describing actions by the agent – Michael in the first example and blood in the second. And with an active sentence we start the sentence with the agent and their action.

Sometimes, though, the agent (whether person or thing) is either less important or totally irrelevant. What matters in the end result:

Ernie the vampire was dead. He had been shot with a rocket propelled wooden stake, fired a police marksman .

In this case, we’ve turned things round. These are passive sentences. In the first example, the only thing that matters is Ernie’s death. (He was a mad lunatic who terrorised the town so getting rid of him is what counts.) In the second sentence, you get a bit more information. Again though, it’s the result that’s important, not who did it.

If we turned these sentences around we’d have to put the marksman first:

A police marksman killed Ernie the vampire by shooting him with a rocket propelled wooden stake.

That sentence is active – and a bit tighter – but who cares about the policeman. The important bit of information is that Ernie’s not going to be biting any more necks, which is why we put his death first and then how it was caused.

It’s like saying: Investigators from the justice department have today arrested the President. Who cares who did it! What’s important is the fact that the President’s been a bad boy.

There’s more to active vs passive but hopefully you get the drift. Obviously you wouldn’t want to cram too many passive sentences into a book but there are times when it’s the right thing to use. So if your editor – whether online or flesh – tells you off for using passive sentences, make sure you check the context before you despair.

Hope this helps!

No Dangling Or Squinting, Please

I used to think English was easy. I spoke it and I wrote in it. End of story.

Sure, there are some weird spellings but that’s because, as a language, it’s a bit of a mash-up. Some words come from Latin, some are Anglo Saxon, there’s a dash of French, a few words stolen from Gaelic, Hindi etc. But having this rich and varied vocabulary is what makes English such a pleasure to use.

It’s a language that can be extremely flexible and subtle. You can write one sentence in many different ways, with a wide choice of words and the end results may all say exactly the same thing – or all be slightly different. A lot of English words have many different nuances depending on how they’re used.

But that’s just vocabulary.

A few years ago, I retrained to teach English as a foreign language and realised I was only scratching the surface with my knowledge.

Apart from the difference between noun, verb and adjective, I wasn’t taught any grammar at school. At the age of 40-plus, I had never heard of past participles, let alone the workings of passive or perfect tenses, future conditionals or non-dependent relative clauses.

Now – having decided to teach this stuff for a living – I’ve got a much better grasp of the mechanics of English. However, the learning curve certainly isn’t over.

This week, I’ve been using a programme called Grammarly to analyse some of my writing – and have discovered even more esoteric terms to bandy around!

Grammarly flagged up a few of my sentences and questioned whether they contained ‘dangling’ or ‘squinting modifiers’. Huh?! I know what a modifier is but ‘dangling’ and ‘squinting’?

Anyway, I’m now a bit wiser so in case you want to know, here goes:

A ‘dangling modifier’ is one that isn’t obviously linked to the main clause in a sentence. For example:

Aged five, my parents bought a house.

Obviously, the parents weren’t five and this is a problem with context. The modifier ‘aged five’ relates to the person who is the main subject of the text as a whole, but isn’t mentioned in this particular sentence.

A ‘squinting modifier’ is one that could apply to either the part of a sentence immediately before it or the part that follows. For example:

‘Doing fifty press ups rapidly builds up your muscles.’

Does this mean you’re supposed to do the press ups fast, or are we talking about how quickly your muscles grow?

Whether a writer really needs to know and understand all these terms is a matter of debate. The good thing, though, is that setting Grammarly on my writing is making me look a lot more closely at my words. Am I saying what I want to say… and will others understand it how I mean them to understand it?

It’s an ongoing battle but one worth fighting. Even if you can afford to pay a professional editor, as a writer I’d say it’s still worth getting down to the nuts and bolts of the English language.  If I understand how my language works, that can only improve my ability to express myself and make me a better writer.

Time To Sit Back?

I’ve reached a bit of a hiatus with my current project – the first draft of my next novel is complete and I’ve sent copies out to my current team of beta readers.

So, now what do I do? Reaching the end of a novel should leave me with a great feeling of accomplishment but I also feel slightly empty.

I could get on with some editing work, using the Grammarly programme I wrote a post about recently. But I’m having trouble getting motivated. Besides, until I get some feedback from my betas, I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to be doing any extensive rewrites and it probably makes more sense to leave any editing until after that.

There’s only one thing for it. I’m going to have to get on with the job that I probably hate most – marketing my already published novels!

I’ve got plans – including a competition I’m going to launch properly next month. I’m also hoping to set up some author interviews and maybe some guest posts on other blogs, plus some price promotions. All necessary stuff – just need to get my finger out! On the other hand, it’s probably not worth rushing as so many people are still on holiday.

Anyway, in the meantime, here’s another picture of Mali – aka the Tasmanian Devil.mali snap

Timely Intervention

I’m about to test a new stage in my editing process – using a programme called Grammarly to check my ability to construct ‘proper’ sentences. 

It’s good timing. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a post by Australian author Belinda Williams about Grammarly – which I must admit I’d never heard of before.

Anyway, the post she’d written made it sound interesting – and included a giveaway for a three-month trial.

Seemed like good timing as I’d almost completed the first draft of my next novel, which means the next stage is some extensive editing, proofreading etc.

Grammarly – despite the pretty ugly name – claims to be “the world’s most accurate English grammar checker” so I’m going to let it lose on Church of the White Rabbits and see what it makes of my new book!

They also say:

“Grammarly improves communication among the world’s 2+ billion native and non-native English writers. Our flagship product, the Grammarly® Editor, corrects contextual spelling mistakes, checks for more than 250 common grammar errors, enhances vocabulary usage, and provides citation suggestions.”

The first hitch I’ve found is that I wanted to download the programme onto my laptop and integrate it with MS Word. However, I’m running an older version of Word and that’s no longer supported by Grammarly.

So, it’s the online version for me.

Initially, I tried uploading the whole novel (about 300 pages) but that seems to be asking a bit too much. Grammarly says it takes a maximum of 20 pages so I’m going to have to do it in bits. Seems a bit of a pain but it will be interesting to see what the programme flags up.

Oh well, the programme’s claims all sound great. I’ll report back on progress!

NB. I’m not sure if Belinda has given away all her copies of Grammarly, so if anyone else is interested, it might be worth checking out her post

Brutality Works

I was in the shrubbery today. Working with shears, secateurs and – for the really big bits – a pair of heavy-duty loppers that will cut through branches as thick as my wrist.

The first bush I tackled was a rhododendron. It looked quite good but hadn’t been cut back for years and was taking up too much space.

To begin, I was quite careful: just cutting away a few outer branches until I could see what was behind. Then I got progressively more brutal. There was lots of dead wood in the centre and not much life. Plus I realised the rhododendron was blocking out a hydrangea that was just coming into flower.

Half an hour later, the rhododendron was half its previous size. The thing is, though, it now looks better. The straggly, intertwined jungle is no more. Rhododendrons are tough. It still has plenty of strong growth at the base and will soon send out new shoots. In the meantime, the hydrangea can show off its blooms – and get a much bigger share of the light.

All of which is a good metaphor for how to edit a book.

Can't see the shrubbery for the rhododendron.

Can’t see the shrubbery for the rhododendron.

When I write, I concentrate on getting the story out. That’s the most important thing. I start at the beginning and work through to the end. (I have a rough plan, mostly in my head, but all sorts of things generally develop along the way).

But getting to the last page is only the end of the first step. Then it’s time to get the book ready for readers and less is nearly always more.

Stories take many forms. They grow from the seeds that are our ideas. Sometimes they grow fast and straight, sometimes they twist and turn into convoluted shapes.

But it’s essential we make sure they’re not full of deadwood, broken branches… or have simply grown too big. (I’ve just finished reading an historical epic by a well-known author; a great story in many ways but extremely over-blown and full of so many obscure words that sometimes the sense of the narrative was lost.)

So, when editing, it’s important not to be afraid to prune hard. All authors will have turns of phrase, bits of description, snatches of dialogue that we are loathe to throw away but it’s important to think about whether they really add to the story.

It can be a hard thing to do – and I probably should be more ruthless with my own work! – but sometimes being a bit brutal with our work can actually be the best thing for it.

Stop Spoiling Self-Publishing!

I almost started this post with an expletive but changed my mind because I want to keep my PG rating. However, I’m starting to get really fu.. annoyed.

Over the past few months I’ve found myself giving up on many novels downloaded onto my Kindle. And that’s not like me. In the past it was extremely rare that I didn’t get to the end of a book.

And it’s not just me. A friend got her first Kindle for Christmas and recently posted on Facebook asking where she can find good free books because ‘there’s a lot of dross out there’.

Sadly, the problem is getting worse. Too many wannabe indie authors are self-publishing without properly checking their books are fit for release – and the danger is that they’re driving potential indie readers back to the ‘safety’ of corporate publishing.

That’s not to say all mainstream novels are perfect. I recently read Ken Follett’s Winter Of The World and spotted a couple of bad edits.

However. There are limits and mine are being stretched to breaking point. As an indie author myself I want to support fellow writers and I regularly download books that are on promotion. But – although I have found a few gems – I seem to increasingly be rolling my eyes and pressing ‘delete’ before I’ve read more than a few chapters.

I don’t think books have to be error free. I can cope with a few tpyos or strange stylistic quirks. But when the typos are coming every page and are coupled with bad grammar and continuity errors I draw the line.

Last night I gave up on a crime novel when one of the main characters switched from third person to first person and back. (This was the straw that broke my patience not a lone mistake).

Sometime the errors are easy to understand. But sometimes they’re mistakes that a basic spellcheck would find. I recently waded through a thriller where the first third was well edited but it then progressively deteriorated. One sentence started with the word ‘ut’ instead of ‘But’!

I’m sorry but that’s unforgiveable. (I’m still toying with whether to ‘name and shame’.) It was almost as if the author started off with good intentions but got so excited about publishing that they gave up on the proofreading part way.

What I also find disturbing about this and other examples is that the books in question often have quite a few four and five star Amazon reviews. Maybe other people can ignore the mistakes but my fear is that friends are writing glowing reviews without having really read the book in question.

Which again, defeats the purpose of reviews, brings the honesty of the whole system into question and ultimately is only going to drive more readers away.

(I have the same problem with all these indie authors who ask each other to ‘like’ books on Amazon in return for a reciprocal ‘like’. If you haven’t actually read and ‘liked’ the book in question, how honest is this?)

So please, fellow authors, don’t rush to publish a book that’s not ready. Your audience isn’t going to vanish if you wait a few months. Take the time to proofread, edit and re-edit. You’ll probably get more readers – and money from real sales – if you do it properly.

NB. For anyone tempted to do a quality check on my work then my novel The Tale Of Findo Gask is free until (and including) Monday 25th February. Click on the links below:

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

Don’t Let Facts Stand In Your Way

There’s a saying in the newspaper industry: don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story. (I always thought it was ironic but maybe that explains why I never made it to the top of the profession.)

terminator-3-rise-machines-2003-movie-5

However, it’s not just newspapers that sometimes skimp on details like facts – film makers often do it too. Continuity errors are an obvious example. Go online and you can find hundreds of examples – such as the plane in Terminator 3 where the fuselage number changes between shots.

mustang-mach1-diamonds-are-forever-1971-16046There’s also the scene in Diamonds Are Forever where James Bond drives a car into an alley on two wheels. Moments later it emerges from the opposite end of the alley – but on the other two wheels!

Mistakes like this are common but sometimes the clangers aren’t just down to bad editing/directing but due to insufficient or careless research.

Anyone remember the last Indiana Jones film? (Not the most memorable movie ever made). It’s supposed to be set in the 1950s yet the motorbike being ridden by Indiana’s sidekick is a modern Harley complete with a hydraulic disc brake and the wrong kind of engine for the period.

indiana-jones_mistake

It’s easy to laugh at films that cock up basic details but some authors play fast and loose with the facts too. The Daily Telegraph ran a great article back in 2009 listing 50 factual errors in Dan Brown’s books. These range from his character Robert Langdon asserting that the Christian communion – eating the body of their god – is taken from the Aztecs to his ‘fact’ that Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, lies “precisely on the north-south meridian that runs through Glastonbury”.

Sadly, these and 48 other details are just plain wrong. The truth is Christians have celebrated communion since at least the 13th Century whereas European explorers didn’t encounter the Aztecs until the 15th Century. Rosslyn Chapel’s longitude is 3:07:13 west, while Glastonbury Tor is 2:42:05 west.

Obviously, petty little points like this haven’t stopped Dan Brown selling quite a lot of books. But it’s one of the reasons quite a lot of people don’t have that high a respect for his work.

And for literary small fry like me getting facts right is important – I can’t afford to have readers laughing at my research. Which is why I was very grateful to my editor Cathy’s eagle eyes while working on a revision of The Vault. She noticed that I’d referred to London Underground tickets as yellow slips of cardboard whereas they’re pink.

She also spotted that the back story of one of my characters referred to him having two fingers chopped off when he was nine but being given a piano for his tenth birthday… Well, hey, I just thought it would be character-building – help him get over his disability! (Okay. I forgot.)

I’ve spotted a few glaring mistakes by other indie writers in recent times. There was a young US author who had her characters use a boat to get from Dublin to Madrid. Well, I’d concede you could go part way but there’s certainly not a harbour in landlocked Madrid!

More recently I read a novel about a degenerate rock band on their first US tour. The drugged-up lead singer pours brandy over an MTV interviewer, threatens him with a lighter, and then douses the couch with more brandy and sets it on fire. Nice bit of drama, right?

Trouble is, anyone who’s ever tried lighting a brandy-soaked Christmas pudding will know it just wouldn’t work! Brandy is 40% alcohol and needs to be heated to almost boiling point before it will ignite. You can pour brandy over me, wave a lighter about and the only thing I’ll be upset about is the waste of brandy!

Facts – they’re troublesome little beasts but unless you’re either Dan Brown or don’t care what your readers think of you, you need to get ’em right if you want your book to be convincing!

Laziness = Lost Readers

A couple of days ago I failed to download a book due to laziness. Not mine but the laziness of the author who wanted me to read their book.

I’ll explain in a moment but first – what do you think makes readers buy/download a book: the scintillating prose, fascinating characters or the intricately-woven web of the story over which the author has spent months (sometimes years) sweating blood?

Sadly – unless it’s on the basis of a review or a recommendation – the answer is none of the above.

The story is what you as an author hope readers (buyers) will enjoy once they start on your book. First, though, you’ve got to get them to pick up the book or click on it via their browser.

And that involves several factors: your name (if you have a track record), the snappy title, the stylish and enticing cover… and maybe the price. Other factors like genre, tags and placement may also play a role.

Next comes the first moment when potential readers/buyers will actually begin reading your words. And the first thing most people will read? That’s right – the ‘blurb’.

Now, like many authors I hate writing blurbs. You have to sell your book in just a few paragraphs of sufficient wit/charm/intrigue that they then do the one thing that makes sense of all those months spent shut away working on your magnum opus – to read the damn book!

So it really, really annoys me when I see indie/self-published authors putting poorly-written, lazily-edited blurbs on their Amazon pages.

On Monday I was looking at some books on free promotion and thought the title and cover of one looked fairly interesting and professional so clicked through to the book’s page on Amazon. And my heart sank when I skimmed the blurb and read the following:

‘Tom Bracewell is an economist for an investment bank when he comes home one days to find his Estonian wife Tatyana has disappeared.

But where has she gone?

And why?

Sarah Turnbull is a currency analysts who has just been hired by The Leopard Fund, a vast hedge fund run by the ruthless French financier Jean-Pierre Telmont.’

These weren’t the first lines of the blurb but I hesitated on the first line here as there’s either something wrong with the grammar or something missing from the sentence. Then I spotted the two superfluous plurals and left the page.

Sadly there are two many poorly written, badly formatted and unedited self-published books out there – which is why people like Tahlia Newland are doing such a great job trying to encourage professional standards with the Awesome Indies site.

Which is also why, having been so irritated by the sloppy mistakes above, I thought that if an author can’t be bothered to get his blurb right then I’m not going to waste my time seeing if the book itself is any better.

Sorry if I’m pontificating again and I realise this has turned into a bit of a rant. But I do feel better for it!

There’s also a harsh but simple message for all indie authors. If your blurb doesn’t hook potential readers you might as well not bother publishing.

Some excellent advice here for any writers.

Breezy Books

Image

When in the midst of writing a book, I like to go back and read what I’ve already written. I usually do this at the beginning of each writing session. I read the previous chapter or two to set the stage again in my mind, and it allows me to do some early proofreading.

Here are my next steps:

1. Read the book on my computer from chapter one to the end. This is my first full pass, and I’ll usually catch typos and missing words/commas/quotation marks. Sentences are sometimes reworked. Details might be wrong from one part of the book to the next, and I try to fix all of this on the first pass.

2. Wait a day or two and read it again. I still read the book on my computer, but I read out loud this time. I read as if I’m reading for the audio…

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