A Life Of Fiction CXII

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work before purchasing it on the Kindle store; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

 

Dickens had the right idea: Recently I was asked by a friend if I would like to do some line editing of his work. I did not refuse him. But I was not that keen, for several reasons.

One is that I am slightly uncomfortable with the idea of working for my friends. I am scared that I will screw up and let them down.

The second is that I have not done any work like that before, apart from correcting the punctuation and grammar of my own works. Reflexive pronoun, there, which is to be avoided. But it sounds right (more on that a little later).

I suppose that I am scared of failure, and of discovering that I cannot actually edit work. I edit by the knowledge of books which I have read (and I have read a lot of books, over the decades). The more that you read, the more that you should pick up.

I also do not have much time. I find that, now, doing my three thousand words a day takes up more and the more of the day. Few are the days when I can whiz through and do all of my writing in the morning. As I write this sentence I have only done thirteen hundred words so far, today, and it is already a quarter past three in the afternoon. At this rate I will be writing into the middle of the evening. Oh well.

 

Anyway, on to the title for this particular post: Dickens had the right idea. I learned, recently, that Dickens did his punctuation by ear. If having a full stop sounded right then he would put a full stop down in the text.

As a writer I think that is one way to go, and not necessarily a bad one. Yes, I have English Language and Literature qualifications, and sometimes I will write a sentence which I know, in terms of punctuation, is technically incorrect. But I say all my sentences in my head – sometimes out loud – and if it sounds right then I will usually stick with it, unless I can think of a more elegant way of arranging the words.

Things should sound correct to the ear. Hm, even that sentence does not sound quite right. Things should sound right to the ear. Better. It was closer to the way that people speak. We say right, not as a direction, but meaning correct.

I am one of those people who think that the English language, and its ‘rules’, should follow the way that people actually speak (so I’m not bothered by the fact that I have just split the infinitive). The English language will not sit still. It continues to evolve.

Some people will complain about any changes to the language, as though they expect the English language to be set in stone, perhaps like some graven tombstone; or perhaps they think that they have the right to dictate to everybody else just how the language should be. There have been people like that – self-appointed protectors of English – for hundreds of years. Even at the time of Caxton there were people who complained about perceived misuse of the tongue.

I have also been reading The Stories of English, by the wonderful David Crystal (from which that little factoid comes). I recently read the section on punctuation. Punctuation was something which was originally a lot more fluid than it is today. More marks were introduced than we usually use; and some of those marks were used in different ways, depending on doing the writing, until a consensus on things like semi-colons was finally reached. People used the virgule (/) in the way that we would now use a comma (I must admit that, before reading the Crystal book, I did not know that it was called a virgule. I called it a slash, not knowing that it had a proper name.). The paragraph mark (¶) was also used as a form of stop, in punctuation.

You can’t do that now, though. If I was to write a sentence:

The wizard / his spell-book in his hand / began summoning the demon.

The above simply does not look correct. It has to be:

The wizard, his spell-book in his hand, began summoning the demon.

That is the correct punctuation, at least in the way in which we punctuate the language at the moment. Perhaps, in a few hundred years time, the language will have changed again, and it will be thought to be incorrect. But I doubt that. I think that the comma is here to stay.

 

Like Dickens I tend to punctuate by ear. In terms of English my qualifications are English and English Literature O Levels, and an English Literature A Level. But all of those exams are pretty much ancient history by now (another one of my A Levels). I consider my real education in English language and punctuation to be the hundreds of novels which I have read over the years.

You read, and you take stock of the way that punctuation is done in professionally edited works. You see that the beginning of a new section is not indented, for example, and that indenting usually only begins with the second paragraph of any section. You notice that, in most books, at the beginning of new paragraphs the first word is indented three letters (although that does vary from publisher to publisher). You get to know when to use a colon or a semi-colon – and when to separate words by a dash instead.

But sometimes the best way is to read something which you have written out loud (or inside your head) and see if the way you have used your punctuation sounds correct.

I crawled, out of the burning car.

No. If you read it out loud you realise that there should be no pause after crawled. The comma is not needed.

I crawled out of the burning car.

That’s better.

One final bit of advice before I sign off from this post; be careful how you use and. yes, I’m sure that all of you out there realise that you are not supposed to start a sentence with and (and certainly not a paragraph). But I have seen some unpublished authors use and as a linking word, to join together what should be two separate sentences.

The monster leapt out from under the bed and it growled ferociously and it grabbed Timmy by the ankle.

No. That is inelegant. Count up the number of verbs in such a sentence. If you have more than one verb, then it probably should be more than one sentence. Lose the and and use a full stop instead.

The monster leapt out from under the bed. It growled ferociously. It grabbed Timmy by the ankle.

That’s better. But it can still be improved, I think, by using as to link the last two sentences, rather than and.

The monster leapt out from under the bed. It growled ferociously as it grabbed Timmy by the ankle.

That, I think, is what I might put, if I was writing about such things as monsters under the bed, threatening a little boy called Timmy.

Enough on punctuation for one post. I have bored you all enough.

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