Author Archives: Lin White

Punctuating speech

There’s one speech error that I’m noticing crop up more and more.

“Hey!” He said.

“What?” She answered.

Sometimes it’s the fault of the software used, which will automatically capitalise the next letter following what’s normally terminal punctuation, in this case exclamation mark or question mark. If this is happening to you, investigate how to turn this off, as it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

The he said or she answered is the speech tag, to show who said the words. As such, it’s part of the original sentence, and shouldn’t be capitalised.

“Hello,” he said.

“It’s a lovely day,” she answered.

Just because the speech itself ends in terminal punctuation doesn’t mean it’s the end of the sentence.

And just as incorrect is:

“Hello.” He said.

“It’s a lovely day.” She answered.

Be careful when you add speech tags!

Of course, it’s also easy to go the other way:

“Hello,” he took a big sip of his coffee.

should be:

“Hello.” He took a big sip of his coffee.

Is the bit after the direct speech a complete sentence? Then start it with a capital letter, and make sure the speech ends in terminal punctuation – full stop, exclamation mark or question mark.

If it isn’t a complete sentence, then there’s no capital letter following, and the speech itself needs to end in a comma, exclamation mark or question mark.

What POV? What tense?

Two important decision you have to make early on about your novel are What POV are you using? and What tense are you writing in?

Let’s define our terms first.

POV, or point of view, means who is telling the story and in what way?

First person POV means the main protagonist is the one telling the story. The narrator speaks to us directly in some form, using the pronoun I and describing their actions, their emotions, their decisions. If you’re using first person POV, you can only describe events as the protagonist sees them – they can’t tell us about something they’re not there for, unless they learn about it later.

Second person POV means the narrator talks directly to the reader using the pronoun You. This is rarely used except in genres such as choose your own adventure: You are standing in front of a locked door. Do you rattle the doorhandle, look for a key or move on?

Third person POV means the narrator is telling us about the characters and what they are doing. The pronouns used are he, she, it, they.

To make things more complicated, there are different types of third person POV – there is close, meaning we are inside a person’s head and listening to their thoughts while watching others through their eyes, or omniscient, meaning we are watching from a distance, and see all characters equally. If we can see inside one character’s head, we can see inside the others’ heads as well. Alternatively, we’re simply describing their actions and guessing their thoughts.

Writing omniscient can be tricky as it’s easy for a beginner to head hop – to jump from one person’s thoughts to another. This prevents any kind of bonding with the characters as we don’t stay with them to learn what they feel, and can be distracting.

You can still tell the story from the POV of different characters in third person close, but the jump between characters is infrequent and marked by some sort of scene change. This way the tension can build more, as we don’t know what both sides of the conversation are thinking at the same time, for example.

Tense means when the story is set, relative to when it’s being told.

Present tense means it’s being told as things happen. I walk down the stairs. He throws the ball.

Past tense means it’s already happened and now you’re learning about it. I walked down the stairs. He threw the ball.

Future tense means it’s going to happen (or might happen). I’m going to go downtown and buy myself a car. He’s going to run for a bus. It’s not very often an entire book would be written in future tense!

Past perfect means it happened even further back than the past, before the normal timeline. I had caught a fish before, but nothing like the size of the one I caught today. He had missed his bus every day for a week, until today. Again, this is a tense for specific circumstances, not to write an entire novel in.

Combining Tense and POV

So there are multiple permutations to choose from. Which should you use?

There’s no definitive answer to this, but there are definitely some issues to consider.

First person present tense

This combination gives a sense of urgency. We’re experiencing events at the same time as the protagonist. We have no idea how things will work out. This is often used in thrillers. I stand staring at the barrel of the gun pointing steadily at my head, and swallow hard. How am I going to talk myself out of this one? In this style, the protagonist can’t know what’s coming, although they can know things they conceal from the reader.

First person past tense

This is a more relaxed style than present tense. We already know the person will survive, or they wouldn’t be telling the tale. I stood staring at the barrel of the gun. How was I going to talk myself out of this one?

There are two versions of the narrator – the one experiencing events and the one telling it later. The second version may be completely undetectable, or they may add their own opinion on proceedings. If I knew then what I knew later… Of course, that was the worse thing I could possibly do, but I didn’t understand at the time… Now, looking back, I understand why that happened, but…

On the other hand, it can be irritating if they tell the story in a way that conceals details by deliberately hiding them from the listener in order to create a desired tension.

So between the two options, consider whether your primary aim is to keep tension going – in which case use present tense – or to create a more reflective piece of writing – in which case use past tense.

Third person past tense

This is the invisible one, the classic one, the one that everyone is used to. Whether you decide to use third person close or third person omniscient, this one is a safe bet. He hid behind a car and peered out, trying to work out whether he had been spotted. They stood and argued for over an hour, until finally they both ran out of steam.

Third person present tense

This is the really tricky one. While it’s becoming more common, it’s also very unpopular in some circles, and is the most intrusive, noticeable combination of the four.

The big danger of using third person present is that it can be very superficial – I always liken it to audio description on a TV programme, coupled with the soundtrack, as it feels to me as though I’m listening to someone who’s describing the action they can see and I can’t. He’s hiding behind the car, looking to see whether he’s been spotted. Now he’s standing up, running over to the building.

This combination is very hard to use well, so be very sure it’s the one you want before committing too much time to it. If you are using it, try to dig deep into your character’s thoughts and opinions, to avoid that trap of simply narrating what you can see.

So in conclusion, which should you use?

That’s purely your decision, depending on the story you want to tell. But make sure you’re making an informed decision, considering the strengths and weaknesses of each style and which suits your story best.

Writing a non-fiction project – Headings

I often get non-fiction projects to typeset for print, and I’m noticing a few typical problems, especially when those projects are not copy-edited. So here’s some tips to help you.

Plan your hierarchy of headings

Decide on your hierarchy of headings and plan your content accordingly. It can be easy to get carried away when writing, slapping in headings as you think they’re needed and putting some sort of formatting on them. But if you plan your work out by using the headings as a skeleton, it will be clear what should be a top level heading, what’s the next stage, what are just emphasised lines etc.

All headings should be hierarchical – no heading 3 under a heading 1 without a heading 2 between. This is now essential for proper ebook formatting, but good advice for print books as well. There may be content under the heading, or it might go straight to the next heading – that’s up to you.

  • Heading 1
    • Heading 2
      • Heading 3
  • Heading 1
    • Heading 2
    • Heading 2
    • Heading 2
      • Heading 3
    • Heading 2

This will also lead to a clear structure of information in your book, which will help your reader to find the information they need.

Use styles for your headings

The Styles function in Word will show you the structure of your work in the Navigation Pane (View/Navigation Pane). This also helps with moving around the document.

Styles come in two parts: defining the style you want to use for your heading, and defining what that style looks like.

To apply a style to your heading, highlight the heading or put your cursor within the heading then select the heading level you want from the Style pane. Once you’ve done that throughout, then changing the settings for that style will apply the changes automatically to every heading that uses that style – much better than going through and changing all manually!

To change the appearance of a style, right-click on it in the Styles panel and choose Modify… Make whatever changes you want, and then confirm those changes.

Alternatively, format one heading to the appearance you want, then right-click on the style in the Styles panel and Update style to match selection. That will both apply the style and set the formatting as you want it.

Think about the look of the headings

When writing those headings, be careful that they’re consistent. It can be easy to switch between words – Three ways to make money – and numerals – The 5 best ways to travel, for example.

Consider cases – do you want ALL CAPITALS or Title Case or Sentence case for your headings? Remember that your typesetter can very easily force all headings into capitals if they’re typed in title or sentence case, but it’s more fiddly to change all capitals into a different case without finding and changing each occurrence. And fancier fonts are very hard to read in all capitals.

Copy editing 3: ensuring consistency of story

An editor will ensure your writing is grammatically correct, and that punctuation is used accurately, but what else will they do? In this series of posts I’ll be exploring other aspects of the copy editing stage.

The key to a copy editor’s job is ensuring consistency in the writing itself, in the characters and settings portrayed and in the story/piece of writing as a whole. Here I explore what’s meant by consistency of the story.

One important tool for that is the timeline. Laying out actions step by step gives an overall view of the story. This can pick up on problems like six consecutive days at school, an activity on the wrong day of the week, an unreasonable amount of time for an event, or a split timeline where one strand passes two days while the second has only passed one.

Is there a pregnancy that lasts an unexpected amount of time? Is it snowing in the middle of summer? Is there time to make that journey in that way?

As well as the timeline, the editor will be picturing the action and checking it all makes sense. Who is attending this meeting? Who has been sent out, and to where? Who knew that information?

Again, errors can occur even in trad-published books – I know one where a character is sent off on an important errand, only to be joining in the conversation with the main group a few minutes later! Your reader might not notice, but if they do it will jolt them out of the story, and if that happens too often you’ve lost them completely.

If your work has been through a developmental editor, issues like theme, action, tension, balance of showing and telling etc should all have been sorted out, but if anything is still outstanding the copy editor should pick up on it and bring it to your attention.

So at the end of this round, is your book ready for publication?

Well, no. You will need to go through the edited manuscript, check you’re happy with amendments made by the editor, deal with any queries raised or problems that need to be solved, and make any further adjustments that have come to light. So the story should then be complete, but a few errors almost certainly remain, whether because the editor had so much to do that they couldn’t spot every single problem, or because between you adjustments haven’t been made perfectly. Track Changes can leave a document in a mess, and it can be easy to leave problems like incorrect spacing, or have some of your changes create a knock-on effect elsewhere.

So then it’s time for the formatting/proofreading stage.

Copy editing 2: ensuring consistency of characters and setting

An editor will ensure your writing is grammatically correct, and that punctuation is used accurately, but what else will they do? In this series of posts I’ll be exploring other aspects of the copy editing stage.

The key to a copy editor’s job is ensuring consistency in the writing itself, in the characters and settings portrayed and in the story/piece of writing as a whole. Here I explore what’s meant by consistency of characters and setting.

As well as the language itself, your copy editor will be checking the characters. Didn’t that blue-eyed character have brown eyes in the last chapter? Why is that only child talking about her brother? Why is that man arriving on his motorbike then driving two people home?

Is your character Isaac or Issac? Sheila or Shiela? Did you change someone’s name partway through the writing, only to miss one or two occurrences? or even change a character from male to female throughout, but still have them chatting with their male friends in the gents’ toilets?

If his defining characteristic is cowardice, why is he suddenly risking his life to stand up something trivial? If he’s known for his generosity, why is he not being generous this time, when it could be expected? How can he know that character’s name when they haven’t been introduced yet?

If the setting is a bungalow, why is someone walking upstairs? If the bathroom is on the left, why are they now turning right for it? If their garden was described as a perfectly laid out, formal garden, why is someone creeping through the long grass?

Has your town changed names halfway through the story? Is it a town in one chapter and a village in another? Are they travelling on cobblestones in the first half of the book, to have the paths revert to muddy tracks in the second half? Has town C suddenly shifted to being on the road between A and B, rather than beyond B?

Again, the style sheet is a vital tool for checking descriptions and situations and keeping everything straight, and can be passed forward to subsequent projects.

Copy editing 1: ensuring consistency of language

An editor will ensure your writing is grammatically correct, and that punctuation is used accurately, but what else will they do? In this series of posts I’ll be exploring other aspects of the copy editing stage.

The key to a copy editor’s job is ensuring consistency in the writing itself, in the characters and settings portrayed and in the story/piece of writing as a whole. Here I explore what’s meant by consistency of language.

You might think that your writing is consistent, but have you really analysed it?

Some spellings and versions of a word are style issues rather than actual errors. Are you sticking to one version of halfway, half way, half-way, or mixing and matching? Do you use sir or Sir? Is it a rear view mirror, a rear-view mirror or a rearview mirror? Is it the US, the United States or America?

Are you using tenses consistently, or are you mixing up present and past? In writing we tend to use past tense when telling a story, while in spoken language we tend to use present tense: “so I tell him no, and he says…”, so it is easy to get carried away and slip into present tense when a story gets exciting.

Are you using your pronouns consistently? We might talk about “you” or “they” or “it” when discussing some things, so again it’s all too easy to mix them up, with one paragraph talking about what “it” does and the next discussing “them”.

This style sheet can be passed forward to other projects as well, to ensure consistency between as well as within. This helps to avoid mistakes like the shocking one I found in a trad published sci-fi series from a famous author, where in book 1 the author invented a new term that was essential to the plot, making the meaning clear through the story, while in book 2 the spelling had been altered to a familiar word that completely lost its meaning in the story!*

These are just some of the issues around language that your copy editor will look at, building and using a style sheet to monitor decisions made, and then checking that the decision has been applied consistently throughout the work.

*The series is set in a world where everyone lives in space, one family per ship. To avoid issues like inbreeding, it’s the custom to zog a bride from a different ship. In book 2, they were suddenly talking about snogging brides!

What is Vanity Publishing?

Trad Publishing

Once upon a time, the publishing business was straightforward. You wrote a book, and you tried to find a publisher who was interested in it, or maybe you’d look for an agent who would find a publisher for you. Either way, your main work is done – you can hand over the manuscript to the publisher, who would then invest in it by way of editing, typesetting, proofreading, marketing and printing.

If you couldn’t find a publisher you would keep trying, or write another book and try with that one. Or you would give up trying.

Vanity Publishing

One alternative, if you have enough money, is to pay a publisher to publish your book for you. This sounds good in principle – pay a fee, hand over the manuscript and they will edit, format, proofread, commission a cover and publish the book.

The trouble is, this method can prove very expensive. After all, the company is making the bulk of its money from the author, not from book sales. So there are many horror stories about huge costs for very little return.

If you’re publishing your memoirs for your family, and have the money to spare but not the time or inclination to pick your way through self publishing, then this might be a reasonable solution. Just be aware of the implications.

If you intend to write a series of books, or want to learn the publishing business for yourself, then steer well clear of vanity publishers – on top of paying over the odds for work done, when you reach the point when you want to take control for yourself you could find it difficult to claim rights back.

So what should you be aware of? How can you recognise a vanity publisher? One view is that anyone who asks for money to publish your book should be avoided, but if you’re indie publishing that becomes a grey area (see service providers below).

Try googling the company name with “reviews”. See what other authors have said about them. Did they offer value for money? Are authors pleased with their service? Or do they feel they’ve paid out a lot of money for very little?

Ask around. Can you find another author published by that company? Can you find their books in bookshops? What are the reviews like for books published by them?

Did you find the company or did they find you? Anyone contacting you and offering to publish your work before they’ve seen it should be treated with suspicion. Do they care about the quality of your writing, or do they just want to part you from your money?

Indie Publishing

There’s a third route – indie authors are publishing their own work, but treat writing as a serious business. They invest in editing, formatting, proofreading, cover design, marketing, and do all the things that a trad publisher would be expected to do, but as they’re publishing their own work they keep all the profit instead of having to split it.

It is important, however, to recognise that if you’re putting out material that you want people to buy, you need to ensure it’s as good a quality as possible – this does mean paying out for editors, and having your work thoroughly proofread. While it’s possible to skip these steps, and a few people might manage this successfully without paying for services, the majority risk end up putting out a piece of work that is of low quality, damaging their reputation as an author and lowering the public’s expectations of books from outside the big publishing houses.

Service Providers

Some companies offer a selection of services, such as editing, proofreading, formatting, cover design, to help you with your book. Like vanity publishers these make their money from the author, but unlike vanity publishers they don’t continue to make money through book sales, and don’t hold any rights over your material.

Here the main issue is of quality and value for money. What control do you have over the services? Are you handing your book over to an unknown editor, or are you in direct contact with whoever is working on your book? Editors can work very differently; while it can be reassuring to have a company overseeing a group of editors, you might feel detached from the work and prefer to find an editor you get on with, and can build up a working relationship with.

If you’re a member of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) then you have an excellent source of advice there, and can check for partner members, who have been vetted.

What’s a fronted adverbial?

With many people having to support their children’s learning through homeschooling, I’m seeing many cries of “what’s a fronted adverbial, anyway?” There seems to be an underlying feeling of “If I don’t know what it is, why are they expecting my child to know?”

The simple answer is that it’s far easier to learn about something if you can name it. Can you imagine the problems with learning about that type of question where you don’t expect an answer but you’re asking it for the sake of moving an argument on, if you can’t refer to it as a rhetorical question?

Whether you remember, years down the line, what it’s called, or whether they start calling it something different, doesn’t really matter. The point is whether at the time of learning you can understand what you’re being asked to do if you’re asked to make your sentences more interesting by using fronted adverbials.

We do the same in fiction writing generally. We talk about point of view, or POV. We talk about 1st person or 3rd person. We discuss omniscient versus limited. We throw around terms like protagonist, antagonist, adverbs, imagery.

And it will be the same in any other activity that you look into – each has its specific terms, and use of those terms is a big step towards understanding what they are and how to use them. Naming something gives you power over it. It grants the ability to discuss it and focus on it.

So that fronted adverbial? It just means that instead of starting a sentence with the subject (John kicked the ball), you start with a word or phrase that describes the action that follows.

So you might get:

Early in the morning, John kicked the ball.

Angrily, John kicked the ball.

Unaware that it was directly in front of a glass window, John kicked the ball.

In this way, you can vary sentence structure. You wouldn’t want every sentence to start that way, but it’s one of many techniques available, and the more a child has at their disposal, the more interesting they can make their writing. It’s far easier for a teacher to teach the children the name of the structure, and then encourage them to use it, than to try to refer to it without a name.

Work during lockdowns

How are you doing through this pandemic?

In some ways, it’s an ideal situation for writers – a once-in-a-lifetime experience, reduction in outside distractions, plenty of time to sit and ponder and to get those words down.

In other ways, it’s a nightmare – worry about the country, worry about friends and family, jobs, society… it can all crowd in, blocking out creativity.

I’m lucky. As I work from home, I’ve been able to continue working, and in between times I have my own writing to work on. My writing group has moved to Zoom meetings, and we even managed to finish publishing our third collection of short stories during the first lockdown, although we were unable to hold our usual launch party.

We have enough technology around us to make life easier during lockdown. We don’t have to travel to meetings when we can meet via a computer screen, and there are so many resources available to us if we want to learn something new.

But nothing can really replace the experience of meeting in person, chatting and sharing ideas, and just generally enjoying each other’s company.

Hopefully those days will soon return. In the meantime, stay safe – and if you want to write, then enjoy the opportunity, but if you’re finding it hard, just relax and accept that all things have their cycle and one day this will be nothing more than a story we tell to later generations.

Publishing news

I’m pleased to say that I’ve just helped my writing group publish their third collection of short stories, which is now available from Amazon or from local sellers. That’s three books so far, all featuring stories set locally. Beyond the Beach Huts and A Pinch of Salt all feature Whitstable heavily, while A Different Kind of Kent sets its sights a little wider, covering various corners of the county of Kent.

The stories cover a wide variety of genres, from historical fiction to fantasy, and showcase the talents of the writers, who meet every month to workshop pieces of writing.

Writers of Whitstable's 3 books - A pinch of Salt, A different Kind of Kent and Beyond the Beach Huts