Mechanics of Dialogue, Part 4: Some Finer Points

The first three posts in this series are from 2014, and it’s a delight to know that they’re still being visited and commented on six years later. Here’s the first one. But I didn’t cover everything. What if your dialogue doesn’t fit neatly into any of those examples? What if it’s different, but still interrupted? I have a few ideas on that.

If one person begins talking and stops, perhaps to think about what word they want to use next, I suggest this. Write the direct speech, and put an em dash after the last word before the closing quotation marks. There’s no need to tell readers “they paused” because the em dash does that for you. But what comes next?

Maybe there’s an actual beat, an action like “rubbed their forehead” or “fiddled with a teacup.” That’s fine; write it, and put a period at the end. Then begin the speech again, picking up where you left off, with an em dash after the opening quotation marks and a lower-case letter on the first word. The reasoning here is that the speech is continuing, probably in the middle of a sentence, so you don’t want to make it look like a brand-new statement. It’s a continuation. Like this:

“I really don’t want to get into any kind of—” Mags looked toward the door as if expecting someone and took a deep breath as she considered her next words. “—of argument over this.”

It’s not the same as a line of speech that flows as the character does something like pick up a pencil. There’s a break, an actual, audible (and visual) pause, while something happens. That something might merely be the character thinking. Then the speech continues with whatever the character says. The main thing to remember is not to tell readers “they paused.” Let the punctuation do that for you.

In the example above, I chose to have Mags repeat the last word she said. I know I do it often enough when I’m taking time to select the right words. And remember, there’s no reason for a capital letter on that “of.” She paused, and she picked up where she left off in the middle of her speech. Let the typography and punctuation do their jobs and show the reader what’s happening.

What if one character is talking, and another picks up the thread and continues? For that, I suggest an em at the end of the first speaker’s line, before the closing quotes. Then a line break, and begin the new speaker’s speech with opening quotes and a capital letter, without an em. Why? Because it’s the first person who was interrupted (hence the em dash), and the second is jumping in fresh (so you don’t need the em, but you do need the capital letter). It looks like this:

Roger shook his head. “That’s not how it happened. When Jasper took the bracelet—”

“Stole the bracelet, you mean,” snapped Celia.

Or this:

“When she stayed out after curfew—”

“Broke the law is what you mean. Say it.”

Or even this:

Magnus fretted with his watch chain. “I don’t know what to call this, this sense of—”

“Forboding? Doom? Or are those too dark for your liking?” Henrietta sneered and turned her back.

The trick is to think about what the em dashes belong to. Do they denote an actual break in the speech? Then they go inside the quotation marks. Do they set off an action happening as the character is speaking? Then they go with the intrusion and belong outside the quotation marks. In any case, there is no space before or after an em dash in Chicago (book) style.

Look for the helpers (verbs, that is)

I’ve seen this issue popping up in various places of late, so I decided to explain how to avoid it in your own work. When you want to combine tenses in a sentence to talk about something that’s been going on for a while and continues to do so, you have to be careful about the helping (auxiliary) verbs. Let me show you.

“They had and are still being treated that way today.”

What the hypothetical writer wanted to say was that a kind of treatment had occurred in the past, and is still happening now. But what they wrote is ungrammatical and unclear. They had what? What does that “had” connect to, syntactically? Is there an object missing (what did they have)? Is it supposed to connect to “treated” somehow? “They had treated” surely isn’t what the writer meant. Look at the correction that follows.

“They had been and are still being treated that way today.”

[Here is where I point out that I am creating sentences as examples of a particular grammatical problem. They aren’t great writing. I might suggest an edit if I encountered either of them in a project. However, they serve the purpose for which they were created.]

In this particular case, we need to say “been” to go with the “had” in the first part of the compound verb, and hold on to the “being” in the second part. “Had been” and “are being” both fit with the past participle “treated.” We can’t get away with just the “had” auxiliary (you recognize it, right? The past form of “have”?) when we want to also use “are being treated” in the same sentence.

Now, here’s something to consider. If you don’t use “had,” you can use the auxiliary “be” in the forms “were” and “are being” with the past participle “treated.”

“They were and are still being treated that way today.”

It’s all the same verb, “be.” It’s just in different forms: were, are being. Bigger trouble comes in when you want to use different auxiliaries with the same main verb, as with “had been” and “are being.” You’re using “have” and “be” with a conjunction, so you have to be cautious about their forms.

If you’re reading a news article or blog post and you stop after encountering such a construction because the meaning is unclear, examine it. Work out what should have been written instead. Chances are good there’s a verb form problem hidden in what is (or rather, what should be!) paired with the auxiliaries.

Now’s a good time to remind you of what those auxiliaries are. There are three main ones with conjugations, and nine modals. Here we go.

Be (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being)

Do (do, did, done)*

Have (have, has, had, having)

The modals are: can, could, may, might, ought to, shall, should, will, and would. These are not conjugated further. Can/could, may/might, shall/should, and will/would are already present/past forms. (And you wonder why we get so confused talking about when things happen, having to use a past form to discuss a future event . . .)

As always, if you have a question, please comment. I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Thanks for visiting.

*Hey, why isn’t “doing” in this list? Hmm . . . I wonder . . .

No first drafts, please.

I’ve written about this before, but perhaps not this baldly. (That’s “baldly.” Not “badly.”)

It’s right there in the author documents I ask every potential client to read, but, well . . . we all know how bad people are at following directions, don’t we. (No, that’s not a question. No question mark.) I tend to use that to weed out the folks I probably wouldn’t work well with; if they can’t follow simple instructions like “please click this link and read the documents,” I have a good sense that they won’t make good partners in the work of editing their writing.

I do not take first drafts. I will not work on them. I am not here to teach basic English writing, including grammar and mechanics (never mind style and usage).

The materials I make available to potential clients (they’re linked from my bio page at this blog, and I ask everyone to read them) state clearly that I expect files coming to me to be as clean as the writer can get them. Maybe that means eleventy-million drafts. Maybe it means a critique partner (CP) or three, or a bevy of beta readers. I don’t care, honestly; how it gets cleaned up isn’t my business.

Why do I insist on this?

Because, folks, when I get copy that’s as clean as the writer can make it, I can concentrate on the real editing. I can look at their style and see how best to make suggestions for clarifications or wording changes. If the sentences are below standard, I’m taking all my time making them grammatical and fixing mechanics, leaving nothing for the actual work: polishing prose until it glitters.

I’m not a language arts teacher. I’m a professional editor. In order to do my best work, I need to have yours.

There are editors, and then …

… there are editors.

My initial idea for this post was quite different from what it is actually about. You see, I was surfing the internet (what else is there to do when self-isolating, aside from bingeing* shows on Netflix or some other streaming platform?) when I saw an editor say something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I won’t quote it here; I not only do not have permission, but I would not ask for it. It’s not a very flattering reason to be quoted. It was a gaffe I almost immediately attributed to the difference between a copy editor and a developmental one. The copy editor needs a grounding in grammar. The developmental one does not. In fact, it can be a hindrance; it’s much easier to do the deep reading for developmental work without the distractions of misplaced modifiers and errant commas.

I had thought I’d write about the problem in the statement, which meant a lot of deep grammar stuff that even some long-time copy editors don’t necessarily know. It’s one thing to know that something is wrong; it’s another to know precisely why, and to be able to explain why in clear, concise, and above all correct terms.

This was … not correct.

And unless the writer knows grammar, they won’t know it’s not correct.

And for me, that’s a problem.

But backing up a step: The gist of the comment was right. The wrong thing was being emphasized. The details were wrong, though. And that bothered me. It still bothers me, hours later. But I realized, as I sat being bothered, that the bigger issue is that “editing” is a very large tent, encompassing several styles, and while there is often some overlap in skills, there isn’t necessarily any. It’s a happy coincidence when there is, in my experience.

And it’s far from my place to call someone out on having spoken erroneously when they’re essentially talking to a specific person, as it was in this case, rather than to a group at large. Not my business, honestly.

I know some of you must be wondering what the error was that got under my skin. Pretty basic stuff, really, about the grammatical subject of a sentence. Except there was a predicate complement involving a subordinating preposition followed by a rather intricate clause, and that got mixed up with the grammatical subject, and it was a right mess.

The developmental editor had a good point, but they made it with utterly incorrect information. That’s what bothered me. The sentence in question needed rewriting to tighten the focus, yes. But the prepositional object was not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Nope, sorry. (And it didn’t help that the prepositions were understood/implied rather than present, but if you diagrammed the sentence you’d know they were there. English grammar, man, it’ll get you in the ass every time.)

Can the recipient of the suggestion use the information they got and improve their writing? Probably. Especially if they go to the editor and ask for clarification. Even one who doesn’t know all the grammatical terms can still explain a problem like this one in ways that a writer can take to heart and use in a later draft. Know that I’m saying that as both a copy editor who knows her grammar and as a developmental editor who learned that DEs don’t need to focus on the technical issues, but rather on the Big Picture or “30,000 feet” problems. “Put the focus on [this word] instead of [that word].” That was the heart of the statement. And it was appropriate for the situation.

But the subject wasn’t the object of the preposition.

 

*”Bingeing” is the preferred spelling given by Merriam-Webster. The E differentiates it from “binging,” as in “The computer was binging for at least 15 minutes while her cousin tried to get her attention.”

Yep, it breaks the “rule” for dropping the terminal E when adding -ing to a verb. Too fucking bad.

A wall or the wall? Does it matter?

Does it matter whether you use an indefinite article or a definite article when specifying a thing in your writing?

It does.

The reasons are less easy to explain, but I’ll take a shot anyway. Keep in mind, I’m talking about writing, here. Not speech. Writing.

“The” indicates something (could be a person or an item) that’s already understood or has already been discussed or mentioned.

“A” and “an” indicate something that doesn’t fulfill those requirements. Something that we cannot readily understand or define, something that hasn’t been discussed previously. (Like “a person” and “an item” in the previous paragraph.)

Let’s say we’re walking through a house we’ve never seen before. Maybe we’re thinking of buying it. Before I go further, look at that first sentence. “Through a house we’ve never seen before.” Not “the house.” “A house.” We don’t know this house yet. However, it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying” (for the sake of argument); we’re only looking at one, and this is it, so it’s “the house we’re thinking of buying.” If we were looking at more than one, this would be “a house we’re thinking of buying.” (Or perhaps “one of the houses,” if  there’s a specific set of houses we’re visiting with an eye toward purchasing.)

We enter through the front door. There’s only the one, and we can see it and understand its purpose from experiences with doors, so “the front door.” Inside, we see a hallway leading to the back of the house, and another hallway crossing it in the middle. (Work with me here. I’m not an interior designer, and these constructions are purely to illustrate a point—not the layout.) Because we can’t say any more about these hallways yet—we don’t know where they lead, for example, other than the one going “to the back”—there’s a hallway and another hallway. Once we know more about them, perhaps one will become “the main hallway” and the other “the bedroom hallway” (if, let’s say, it leads to bedrooms on either side of the house).

In the big room at the front (there’s only one big room, from what we can see, so “the big room”) there’s a large window facing the street, a smaller window on the side wall facing the yard (if we said “a side wall,” folks will wonder how many other side walls there are here), and a doorway leading to what looks like a kitchen. We can’t know it’s “the” kitchen yet. And while we can see the windows, we haven’t seen them previously so we use “a” to indicate the unknown quality of them. Now that we’ve seen them, though, we can say “Jane walked over to the small window on the side wall.” If she did that immediately on entering the room, before any description has been given, we’d say “Jane walked to a small window on the side wall.” We didn’t know about that window before. Walls are more easily assumed.

“Hey, there’s a little door in the wall out here next to this cabinet.” (Hey, that room was a kitchen! Now it’s “the kitchen.” But it’s odd, seeing a little door in that position.)

“Aha! That’s for a dumbwaiter, I’ll bet.” (Whoever said this has an idea what that little door probably is, but can’t be sure until they investigate.)

If the person responding were the realtor showing the house, the answer would probably be “Yes, that’s for the dumbwaiter.” They know what it is, so they can use “the” to indicate it.

A couch sits in the middle of the big room. It’s covered in leather. The leather couch is black, but the layer of dust covering it makes it look gray. (It’s “a couch” when we first see it. Once it’s been mentioned, it becomes “the couch.” Someone probably dragged a finger over the surface and came away with dust, so “the layer of dust.”)

I could write more on this, but I suspect there’s enough here already to illustrate the point. Indefinite articles are for undefined, unknown, uncertain items/people (also for abstract nouns, like “an uncertainty” if it’s a vague feeling). The definite article is for defined (funny how that works), certain items/people (and also for specific abstract nouns, like “the uncertainty that comes with unemployment”).

Ask questions in the comments, if you like. This is a tricky subject, and if you need clarification, I’ll do my best to provide it. (“The comments,” because they’re a known item; blogs have comment sections. You may have “a comment,” so called because no one but you knows what it is until you write it.)

The editing letter: no longer a mystery

Some people refer to this as a query letter, because often it’s filled with questions for the writer from the editor.

More properly, though, it’s an editing letter. It’s still filled with questions, but it also contains plenty of praise for what was done right and well. (A query letter is what a writer sends to an agent.)

(I mentioned this in Part 2 of that three-part series on working with an editor, and then I didn’t include it in Part 3 as I had said I would. Not one of you called me out on it, either. I’m not sure what to make of that.)

(Maybe it just means no one really read it.)

As usual, I can’t speak for all editors, but I can tell you what my editing letter usually contains. As I said, questions and praise; but what kinds of questions? And what kind of praise?

I start with a general “what I liked most about this project.” It’s different every time, of course. Sometimes it’s the way the plot unfolded; sometimes, the characterization; other times, the dialogue. There is always something done well (even if I have to think about it for a bit). Then, I move on to the questions and comments that relate to the work as a whole. This isn’t “on page 72, you said John has brown eyes, but on page 104 they’re blue.” That’s in the file as a marginal comment. If that kind of inattention to detail occurs more than once or twice, it’s the kind of thing I’ll put in the letter. I’ll say it thoughtfully, of course: “I suggest looking at the comments with an eye toward noted inconsistencies. I can’t know which color you intended for someone’s eyes, or how tall someone is supposed to be, but there are times in the story where you’ve set up one expectation and delivered another. I don’t need to know which one you choose, but you need to choose one.”

If there are major problems with basic writing skills, I’ll note that as well, along with suggestions for how to address them. This happens rarely, but it happens. (Remember, I work with indies. Some folks have never written anything except their college term papers. Writing fiction ain’t like writing a research paper.)

There might be something like “I feel like I lost a couple of plot threads in the fourteenth chapter, but they came back quickly in Chapter 15.”

A valuable skill I picked up in a developmental editing class deals with tension in the plot. If I get the sense that the plotting is uneven, I sketch out the narrative spine. That means looking at the end of each chapter and marking on a sheet of paper whether it’s positive or negative for the characters. Are they standing at the edge of a cliff that’s crumbling? Negative. Are they curled up on a couch, eating popcorn while the rain patters against the windows? Probably positive. Did someone receive an upsetting text message? Negative. Then, look at the relative number of positive and negative endings, and how they’re grouped. Too many of either in a row means too little (positive) or too much (negative) tension in the story as a whole. Remember when I said that my style of editing combines developmental, line, and copy? This is part of that. Then I can make general suggestions, based on what I find. The client can take them or ignore them. I get paid, either way. (I’ve done this maybe twice in the last four years, since taking that class. The majority of my clients have enough experience at plotting to get the balance right.)

After I’ve briefly outlined the major things I want the client to look at, I close with one more positive thing. You know about “the sandwich,” right? Praise on the top and bottom, constructive criticism in the middle. Only once that I can recall did I have to work hard to come up with something good to say at the end.

Admittedly, for my long-time clients I tend to ignore the niceties and dash off a quick “Here’s the book. Great job, as usual. Watch out for the prepositional phrases. Can’t wait for the next one!”

We understand one another. And that’s part of what I love about this work.

Work with your editor, part 2: What can you do?

Let’s assume for purposes of this post that you and I have negotiated a project agreement. Maybe there’s a paper contract, maybe not. (For better or worse, I don’t do a lot of paper contracts. However, I keep every email chain from every client as proof of what was discussed and when. It’s still in writing, it’s just not in contract form. An electronic handshake, if you will.) So, what can you do on your end to ensure things go well, starting with the turnover?

I actually had someone ask me what I meant by turnover.

It’s not the pastry.

It’s the date on which you turn over the project to me so I can start work. You email me the file and anything else we’ve decided I need (maybe links to information on the internet, if there’s something specialized in your work). I shoot you an email confirming receipt. We’ve made the first turnover.

But what I want to talk about here is what steps you can take before that turnover.

I don’t expect clients to be experts in the GUMmy stuff, but I do expect them to do their level best. Those basic things you learned in high school or college composition class? That stuff? I expect you’re able to do that. Use paragraphs. Keep your verb tenses under control. (I won’t say “don’t change tense” because that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You try speaking without changing verb tense. You’ll sound like an alien.) By “under control” I mean decide what tense your main narrative is going to be, and stick with it unless there’s compelling reason to change it. One of my most recent projects was in past tense, but the writer used present tense for dreams and memories. It was amazing. The second the reader sees “X wakes from a sound sleep to the smell of smoke” they know it’s not the normal narrative.

If you’re writing a story with a lot of invented proper nouns, please please please give me a style sheet with them. Then I won’t have to guess which spelling you really want when there are some that don’t match. If I have to guess, I’ll look at how often each form appears, and I’ll go with the one you used most. If I’m lucky, that’s the one you intended to use. This goes for invented common nouns, too, of course, but in my experience the proper ones tend to be more problematic. (This will also show up in a query letter, but more on those in the next post.)

Use your spellchecker and grammar checker. No, you cannot depend on them to save you. However, they are safety nets that will catch the most egregious errors (homophones are not egregious) like repeated words. They won’t catch missing words; they can’t mark what isn’t there. They won’t catch errors like “her” for “here;” only a human can do that. The grammar checker may be annoying, but it will make you stop and look at your work and consider whether what you wrote is what you meant to write. (And nine times out of ten, it will misidentify the passive voice. Be alert.)

If you’re writing in an English other than American, tell me. That way I won’t waste precious time changing spellings or usages that aren’t American, when they’re not what you want in the first place. I have a client in Tasmania who, naturally, writes in Australian English. For the most part, it’s a lot like Canadian English, but some of the phrasings are utterly foreign to me. I’ve gotten good at picking out which are merely Aussie English and which are things I need to be querying. And honestly, even with the first set (the Aussie English), I query anyway: “Will most non-Australian readers understand this? I didn’t.” I try to put myself in the average reader seat.

If you are writing in something like Scrivener, from which you can export  your work into a Word file (I work in Word 365 these days), do us both a favor and make sure the export file is clean. I’ve had some that come to me with hard returns after every line, extra spaces at the beginning of lines, mysterious tabs in the middle of paragraphs, and so on. Fixing all of that takes time away from the focus of my work, which is the writing. I’m not a formatter. I don’t do design work. I’ll clean up a mess, but it would be better by far if the mess wasn’t there in the first place.

As I said in the previous post, I’m using myself as the example here because I won’t speak for others. However, I will suggest that the kinds of things I’m asking you do to up front here are things that any editor will appreciate.

Next time, I’ll talk about what happens during the editing process. How often will you hear from me? What should you do about it? (Hint: It’s not usually necessary to self-medicate. At least not on my account.)

Style Guides: A primer

I dare say everyone who writes at all regularly, even for casual purposes, knows that it’s vital to have access to a dictionary. And with so many of them now online for free, there’s really not much of an excuse not to use one.

But what about a style guide? Do you need to use one? And by “use,” I mean “have access to and perhaps own.” Isn’t that like a usage guide? No. A style guide is not a usage guide. Most of them contain some usage guidance, but that’s not the point of a style guide.

Continue reading “Style Guides: A primer”

PerfectIt 4: YES, you want it!

I’ve been going on and on about PerfectIt since I bought the previous version. It’s NOT a spelling or grammar checker. It’s a proofreading tool. You’re worried about inconsistency in hyphenation? PerfectIt has your back. Concerned about capitalization? No worries. What about acronyms being used without being defined? They’re covered.

(Full disclosure: I’m being compensated for this review. And no, it had nothing to do with that whisky bar in Providence. The agreement was made before that.)

(And another thing: This review is for the Windows version. If you’re on a Mac, you might like to know that this is catching us up with things you’ve already had!)

I’m not a power user. I wasn’t one before, either. My work is very simple compared to that of many of my colleagues. I don’t work with tables and figures. I don’t have to deal with footnotes or endnotes. No indexing. No tables of contents. No styles. (Sounds like I’m quite the slacker, doesn’t it.) However, I can still speak to how PerfectIt 4 helps with my work.

The most recent project, the one on which I was able to take this baby out for a test drive, had around 50,000 words. I opened the file, clicked “PerfectIt 4,” and unchecked the boxes of the tests I didn’t require (figures, tables, and so on). Then I clicked on “Launch.” (This is no different from the previous version. But …)

Within seconds (seconds! not minutes!), the program was ready for me to proceed. And this time, instead of my having to look at every instance of a change by clicking into the file location to see context, the context was right there in the box! That was magical for me. Instead of having to bounce back and forth to check each instance of “it’s,” for example, I could just click the radio button next to each one I wanted the program to fix.

One. Click. WOW.

The same was true of hyphenated compounds. I follow the guidance of “hyphenate before a noun, style open elsewhere” so again, it was a time-saver not to have to keep bouncing back and forth. One click per change I wanted to make. Boom. Done.

Sure, that doesn’t sound like much. Seconds? What’s the big deal? Multiply those seconds across all the projects you do in a year. It’s a cliché, sure, but: They add up. They save you time. (And annoyance, if you’re working in a 100,000-word file.)

I was using the beta version, because along with agreeing to provide a review I was asked to help beta test. (COOL!) Now, I’m married to a QA guru. But that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing when it comes to testing. I wasn’t being asked to sit there and try to break the program (which is a good thing, because that scares the hell out of me).

So, I wasn’t entirely surprised when at one point during the run, an error message popped up. But it wasn’t just “oops, something went wrong.” Oh, no. It was a BIG box that included a bunch of code, and the message (which I’ll paraphrase) “Please copy this and paste it into an email to address@restofaddress.”

Of course, I complied. I had no clue what the code meant or what hadn’t worked, but I did my part. And eventually, the devs and QA folks there figured out what had happened, fixed it, and thanked me (and the other five or six people to whom the same thing had happened). I’m reminded of that ad for Seven Seas salad dressing: “And I helped!”

And yes, there’s still that wonderful “final actions” list where you can choose, as I always do, “change multiple spaces to one.” (It used to say “two.” Now those weird places where there are perhaps three spaces will be magically closed up. No more having to do that one twice!)

If you used PerfectIt3, making the jump to this one is an utter no-brainer.

If you’ve been waffling, now’s the time. (Less time than it took before!)

“Stay on target … stay on target …”

Get a drink and maybe a snack and settle in. Today I’m talking about keeping yourself focused and targeted when writing complex sentences (both those defined that way grammatically and the ones that are just long).

I see the same thing happening time and again. A writer creates a sentence, probably a grammatically complex one with at least one dependent clause along with the independent clause, and somewhere, somehow, the focus of the sentence gets lost. By the time we’re at the terminal punctuation, the thrust has shifted from the grammatical subject to something else that’s related to it, grammatically speaking. Continue reading ““Stay on target … stay on target …””