What is…Narrative voice?

I thought I’d start a series of ‘What is…’ blogs to explain in layman’s terms (as best I can) what a professional editor looks for when preparing your work for publication, whether you are self-publishing or have been accepted by a mainstream publisher.

The interesting thing about the subject of these blogs (I think so anyway!) is that they will serve a dual purpose: not only will they explain a bit about editing techniques, but they will enable you to further understand the art of creative writing, which is always a bonus if you are writing for publication.

So, narrative voice. What is it? It is, simply, who is telling the story; and when, where, and how they are telling it, using a combination of voice and perspective. A story can be told from three different perspectives:

  • First person, narrated from one character’s viewpoint, using the pronoun ‘I’
  • Second person, narrated from one character’s viewpoint, using the pronoun ‘you’
  • Third person, narrated from the point of view of a third party: character(s) or narrator.

First and third person are the most popular. Writing in second person is limiting and rarely used.

Each character should have their own unique voice, based on their age, gender, personality, experience, and view of the world. Therefore the tone, style, and language that is applied by the writer to each character needs to be relevant and appropriate.

Below are some common errors that writers make with both perspective and voice:

  • In first person, the character reveals thoughts or actions about other characters. (Generally, they can’t do this unless they are witness to them, or they are told.)
  • In third person, a character narrator slips out of character, back into that of the author or another character.
  • The tone and the style of the character voice does not fit the character (most common: a child character narrated in an adult voice.)

In first person, a character’s view of their world will be limited, compared to third person, where the narrator can have an all-seeing viewpoint (or ‘omniscience’). Third person offers more narrative styles than first person, which makes it a more flexible method of writing. The most common are single third-person limited, multiple third-person limited, and third-person omniscient, but there are more.

There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to choosing the narrative perspective, but some stories will work better in one than the other. Reading novels in third person puts a distance between the reader and the characters, as if the reader is just watching the action, whereas first person is more immediate, making the reader feel that they are part of the action along with the character. Although not always an easy decision for the writer to make, it’s a good idea to try and get it right from the start; otherwise, a lot of work is involved! 🙂

Editing tip 3: Using Styles (Headings)

Publishing companies generally use a typographical specification. This document instructs a typesetter on such things as font style, font size, how to display extracts, paragraph indention, styles for headings and other design aspects of a book.

If you are self-publishing, and doing all the work yourself, then you have to become a typesetter, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of applying simple styles at the writing or editing stage. Not only will it save you time and give you a ‘typeset’ document, it will also be easier for you to navigate to different parts of the text whilst you are editing.

In this post, I am going to cover headings. I use Word 2010, but other versions, and compatible software, will show something similar. To begin with, you’ll need both your Navigation Pane and Styles pane displaying on the screen.

Generally, the Navigation Pane appears down the left-hand side. From the three tabs that display, select the first one: ‘Browse the headings in your document’. This pane will be empty when you have no styles applied.

»Find your first chapter heading. Select the first chapter heading, or click on it. From the Styles pane, choose the style named ‘Heading 1’. You’ll notice two things: one, your chapter heading now appears in the Navigation Pane; two, your chapter heading will have a style applied to it, but perhaps not in a way you would like.

»Format your chapter heading as you would like it to be displayed – for example, bold, centred, in a bigger font, increased line spacing – and then, right-click on the style named ‘Heading 1’ from the Styles pane. From the menu, click on ‘Update Heading 1 to Match Selection’. The style for Heading 1 will now reflect your chosen style.

»Find your next chapter heading. Select it, or click on it, and from the Styles pane, click ‘Heading 1’. Do this for the rest of your document, remembering to save as you go along.

This may seem like a laborious process, but you will benefit in the long run. Not only will all of your chapter headings display in a uniform style, they will also show in the Navigation Pane, which means you can move easily between chapters, just by clicking on the one you want.

If you’re not doing so, you may also like to start each chapter on a new page, as this is how a published book will display them.

CreateSpace & the ISBN conundrum

This week, I thought I would shed some light on the role of the ISBN, when self-publishing with CreateSpace.

What is an ISBN? ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. You’ll find one on the back cover of a published book.  It is a product identification number that enables a publisher to distribute the book to outlets such as major bookselling chains, internet booksellers, and libraries. As a self-publisher, you may wish to take advantage of this method of distribution.

There is no legal requirement in the UK for an ISBN, but when self-publishing with the US-based platform, CreateSpace, you have to provide one. They offer a choice of either using a CreateSpace-assigned ISBN or providing your own UK ISBN (initially obtained from the Nielsen UK ISBN Agency).

Which ISBN should I choose? This largely depends on how you wish your book to be distributed. If you are happy to sell your book via the range of Amazon websites and US outlets, then it’s probably best to choose the CreateSpace-assigned ISBN. If you wish to take advantage of UK distribution as mentioned in the opening paragraph, then you need to provide a UK ISBN. To further explain the differences between the two, I have, hopefully, offered some insight below. (CreateSpace currently provide four ISBN options, but two of these are not available for non-US members.)

CreateSpace-assigned ISBN. This option is free, but designates CreateSpace as the publisher and distributor of your work. As publisher, they use the imprint ‘CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform’, and this will appear on any bibliographical references. Although you always retain the copyright to your work, with this option you have little control over publishing and distribution rights. Your book will be sold on Amazon.com, Amazon Europe and eStore channels, but distribution is only available to CreateSpace Direct, bookstores, other online retailers, libraries, and academic institutions within the US – worth bearing in mind if you specifically want to distribute your book to these places in the UK. A CreateSpace-assigned ISBN can only be used with the CreateSpace platform.

Provide your own UK ISBN. There is no charge by CreateSpace for this, but you will have to pay a fee to whoever provides the UK ISBN. This could be direct to the Nielsen UK ISBN Agency, or to whoever self-publishes your book. (I currently charge £14.40 when using my own publishing imprint, Shadenet Publishing.) If you buy your UK ISBN direct, you choose your own publishing name. This makes it more personal, but more importantly, you hold all the publishing and distribution rights, and your imprint will appear on any bibliographical references. You can also choose your own distributor. Your book will still be available via all the Amazon outlets, but will not be eligible for distribution to libraries and academic institutions in the US. It will still be available to US bookstores and other online retailers, but your book’s ISBN must not have been submitted for distribution through another service, and you must use an industry-standard trim size for your book (5″ x 8″, 5.25″ x 8″, 5.5″ x 8.5″, or 6″ x 9″).

Any self-publisher can purchase an ISBN. Until recently, they were only available in blocks of 10, but the Nielsen UK ISBN Agency have realized that many self-publishers only want to publish one book, so they have started offering one ISBN, currently for £75. (Bear in mind, 10 can be bought for £149.00).

E-books do not necessarily require an ISBN number, but if you want to distribute e-books through channels other than Amazon, in the UK, then you will need to assign a different ISBN number.

I hope this goes some way to making the ISBN choice easier for UK self-publishers. I’d quite like to hear from anyone about their experiences of using a UK ISBN with CreateSpace, especially with regards to distribution.

The Importance of Being Edited

If you had asked me ten years ago (when I first took up creative writing) what an editor did, I probably would have said, ‘Someone who helps to publish books’. Such was my ignorance at the time.

If you had asked me three years ago whether my self-published book of short stories had been copy-edited, or not, I probably would have said, ‘No, why should it?’. Such was my ignorance and arrogance at the time.

If you were to ask me today, when I say that I am about to self-publish my first novel (actually, I’m not quite there yet), had it gone through a proper editing process, I would reply, ‘Of course! Why wouldn’t it?’.

So, what changed? Well, four years of studying, courses, experience, observations, research…an accumulation of knowledge; that’s what.

Before the days of self-publication, the editing process was generally something that only happened within the confines of a publishing house. We weren’t quite sure what it was, or how it happened, but within their hallowed halls the transformation of raw manuscript to printed book took place.

With the ability to self-publish, all kinds of new terminology has surfaced. Some are still not quite sure what it all means: proofreading, copyediting, lineediting, developmental editing, structural editing, typesetting, formatting…except that having it done might make their work more sellable, so it must be a good thing.

It seems that self-publishing is here to stay, and I’m all for it. Not least because the modus operandi of conventional publishers means that many promising manuscripts never see the light of day as a printed book. Self-publishing allows those slush-pile stories to break free, but the downside is that the independent author is simply not able to prepare their own work for publication in the same way that a dedicated (read as both ‘devoted’ and ‘exclusively allocated’) editor would be. Why?  Not editorially qualified, and too close to their own work, means it is impossible for a writer to self-edit properly. Sadly, this means that a large proportion of self-published books do not meet professional standards, and invariably fall by the wayside. What a waste! What a shame!

It makes no logical sense for a writer to invest time and energy into producing their novel, but not invest time and money in having it professionally edited. They are doing themselves, and independent publishing, a great disservice. After all, nobody has to read a novel. So, if yours isn’t enjoyable, page-turning, fit for purpose, then you may just get 5-star reviews from friends and family who feel obliged to say that it’s wonderful, and then, ultimately, no more sales. Why would you want that? You deserve more!

As a creative writer, I can relate to why self-publishers may not want to have their work professionally edited, but believe me, if you are serious about trying to make money out of your writing, and you want recognition for all your hard work, be prepared to put it through a professional editing process. It is important, and what you learn from the experience should help you (and any subsequent editor) enormously, when you come to work on your next novel.

Happy writing! 🙂

 

The Comma: a pause between parts

The other day, I was sent a screenshot from my son who was at college, carrying out an ‘Editing and proofreading’ exercise. It was a multiple-choice question, as follows:

Q. What should Melanie Richards do to ensure she buys the right food?

  • She should buy cream, cheese, rolls and fruit salad.
  • She should buy cream cheese, rolls, fruit and salad.
  • She should buy cream, cheese rolls, and fruit salad.
  • She should ask the secretary for advice and for more commas in future!

The reason my son sent this to me was because he was stumped…and so was his tutor!

Commas have four different uses: listing, joining, gapping, and bracketing. Below is an example of each:

The listing comma simply separates items in a list.

  • Melanie Richards bought cream, cheese, cream cheese, cream cheese rolls, fruit, fruit salad, and salad.

The joining comma joins two complete sentences into one, using a connecting word such as, and, or, but, while and yet.

  • Melanie Richards was confused about the shopping list, but she played it safe and bought every combination she could think of.

The gapping comma shows that one or more repeating words have been left out.

  • Some of Melanie’s friends thought that the green salad was the right choice; others, the fruit salad.

The bracketing comma can be used in the same way as parenthesis, to note an aside or to mark off a weaker aspect of the sentence. The trick with these is that the sentence still makes sense without the interruption.

  • Melanie Richards, realising that she didn’t know precisely what she should be buying, asked the secretary for advice.
  • Melanie Richards looked at the list and, as the secretary had gone home for the day, decided to leave the shopping until tomorrow.

This, essentially, is the nuts and bolts of the comma, but people can get very excited about using commas, and put them in all sorts of places, where they are not required. This has the effect, of slowing down the reading experience, and causing pauses, where pauses are not, perhaps, required. If you want to, deliberately, reduce the pace of your writing, then you can include more commas, if you wish.

On the other hand some people deliberately exclude commas because it speeds up the reading experience. As long as the text makes sense and no confusion is caused by the lack of commas then there is no reason why they should be included as the reader will take natural pauses as they read through the text.

In fiction writing, the rules do not always apply, but it is important that the text makes sense to the reader, and that no confusion is likely to be caused by the lack of, or too many, commas.

So, back to Melanie and her head-scratching list. What should she do? As standalone sentences, each one of the three lists is accurate. But, as an exercise in editing and proofreading, the information provided to Melanie is unclear. There are many combinations of the food required, and so for Melanie to be certain of what she should buy, she needs to ask her secretary for advice and for more commas.

However, I cannot end this entry without mentioning the serial – or Oxford – comma. This is the comma that is used after the last but one item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’. It has been the subject of much debate, and people either love it or they hate it, but it does play an important role. Consider the following:

  • Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector…

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence implies that, either Nelson Mandela is an 800-year-old demigod who collects sex aids, or there is an 800-year-old demigod who collects sex aids. I suspect, there were meant to be three separate encounters, but because the Oxford comma was omitted, the meaning is unclear (albeit amusing). By the way, this was reported as a real example from The Times of London newspaper. 🙂

Waxing Lyrical

Do I need permission to quote song lyrics in my novel?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer:  Yes.  Song lyrics are protected by copyright, and some music companies are notorious for charging large amounts for very short extracts.  (See link to article under Resources.) Song titles, generally, are not copyrighted, but if they are associated with a trademark or brand, then this would need further investigation.  There are no standard fees or procedures for obtaining permission, and each copyright owner will apply different charges.

You may be familiar with the term ‘fair dealing’.  Note that this only applies to non-commercial research and private study, criticism and review, and reporting current events.

If you are writing a book (fiction or non-fiction) that you intend to publish, so that it is available to the public, and where you intend to make money from it (it doesn’t matter how small the amount), then permission is required from the copyright owner to reproduce song lyrics, even if it is just a few words.  To publish them without permission is an infringement of copyright law, meaning that legal action could be taken against you.

There is a lot of incorrect information and advice about copyright, in general, on the Internet. The links below should help to steer you in the right direction for UK copyright law, at least.

Resources:

An article by Blake Morrison in The Guardian on 1 may 2010

Copyright Law – An Introduction (PRS for Music website)

Directory of MPA Members (Music Publishers Association)

Music Sales Group (A US site offering a searchable catalogue of the most prominent composers in the entertainment industry)

The UK Copyright Service

GOV.UK Copyright Information

Errors in Continuity

So, today is Back to the Future day, and what could be more apt than a series of films depicting time travel to prompt me to write about continuity errors. Surely, time travel is a continuity error in itself!

Eagle-eyed viewers noticed many errors with the three films, not just with the storyline, but also with the props. Objects – and people – changed from one state to another, or would appear and disappear unexpectedly; reflections of film equipment or the crew could be seen in anything shiny… and all this when there was no time travel actually taking place! Fortunately, these continuity errors may have been small enough not to distract the viewer from the story. In films, they seem par for the course, fun to spot, even, but had Marty’s hair colour kept changing from brown to blonde, or had the DeLorean time machine switched to a Mercedes-Benz gull-wing, then I guess the viewer would become somewhat irate.

Unfortunately, continuity errors in a fiction novel will stand out like a flying car, and not have the same wow factor.  In a story where events run in chronological order, in the same year, and no time travel is involved, it cannot be April in Chapter 10, if it was June in Chapter 5.  Likewise, if a character’s mother has sadly passed away in Chapter 3, she can’t then come to dinner in Chapter 10.

The reader wants to be transported to the world that the writer has created. Any obvious continuity errors will take them out of the flow of the story and spoil the experience.  Here are some tips for the writer on how to manage continuity:

  • Always be aware of the time frame that the story takes place in, whether it be the year, the month, the day, the hour, or the season. (Remember, you cannot pick blackberries in March – not in the UK, anyway!)
  • Maintain a list of proper names and references, such as those of the characters and places, so as to not get confused about the spelling or where an event takes place.  Decide if a character’s name is to be spelled Katherine, Catherine, Katharine, or Kathryn.
  • Keep a record of a person’s characteristics: hair colour, eye colour, important dates and events, their dress sense, their likes and dislikes, the car they drive – anything about them that is pertinent to the story.

When a writer is so involved in getting the story down, it is easy to make continuity errors, and whilst it may be argued that it is a copy-editor’s job to spot them, the more errors the writer makes, the longer it will take the editor to carry out the work, and therefore, the more expensive it will be.

In my experience of copy-editing, errors in continuity tend to come pretty high on the list after mistakes in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Whilst an editor will know how to spell a certain word (or at least be able to look it up), punctuate a sentence, or correct grammar autonomously, they will have to ask the writer for clarification, or at least pass comment, on continuity errors, unless it is blindingly obvious.