Over the past few years I’ve edited and revised my own fiction to what I considered a fair degree. But over the course of the last six months or so I have learnt a lot more. My new novel ‘Hunter No More’ has been through the hands of not one, but two separate editors, and of course the worst editor of all, me. Here are some of the things to look out for.
It’s or Its
One of the first things I learnt is that it’s can only be used as a conjunction of it is rather than the possessive, eg it’s stamp, the stamp belongs to it, is incorrect. You can say It’s mine but only because what you want to say is it is mine. The rule is if you can’t say it is then you can’t say it’s you have to say its. So Its stamp is correct. You have to think of it working in the same way as his or her. You would never say her’s jacket or his’s jacket so don’t say it’s jacket.
Was or Were
I’m thinking of this rule when dealing with an object, objects or a group of objects. You can say there was a book, but you can’t say there was books, instead you say there were books. But just to confuse things you can’t say there were a shelf of books. The correct phrasing is there was a shelf of books. In this instance was is used for the singular and the singular group while were is used for the plural and the plural group. For instance I can correctly say, there were many shelves of books, because I'm talking about more than one shelf, rather than more than one book.
Who and what are you referring to?
This is about something called lexical ambiguity. You start with one character and then another and then have an action that can be attributed to either character ambiguously. Here is an example from a recent episode of the blacklist. The prisoner was handcuffed to the guard and then he cut his hand off. In the episode the detective believed from this statement that the prisoner cut the guard’s hand off. That was not the case, what was actually being explained was the prisoner cutting his own hand off. Third and fourth options are the guard cutting his own hand off, or, the guard cutting the prisoner’s hand off. If a sentence can be read in more than one way then it needs to be changed. You don’t know how the reader will read it and it could very well cause confusion later on. A hard one for an author to catch, because we know what we mean and can’t see the ambiguity.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
You don’t even realise you’re doing it until long after the fact. It’s quite innocent really, you describe something as green and then a sentence later someone is green at their job. You say an object is over there, and then your character walks over there, and runs their fingers over the object. Another one might be, because I saw the figure in the mist I could figure out what to do next. You don’t even realise you’re doing it until the editing stage. Your mind gets stuck on one word and it repeats in all your sentences in a range of different contexts. Beware this horrible verbal tic.
Speech and Capitalisation
I looked across at Jim and asked, “How are you?”
Even though there is a comma after asked, the speech still starts with a capital letter even though this is not the start of a new sentence. Once you realise this you could be excused for thinking speech always starts with a capital letter. It doesn't.
“So my friend,” he said, “how are you?”
Confusing isn’t it? As long as all of the speech forms a sentence without, he said, the second part of the speech does not have to be capitalised.