An editor looks for… Timing Problems

Here’s a tip for writers who wish to publish: KEEP TRACK OF YOUR TIMELINE!

Each novel I have edited has had some kind of problem associated with the order of events. It’s one of the most common mistakes that writers make.  Seasons, months of the year, days of the week, times of the day are either out of sequence or missing altogether; characters who seemingly travel from one place to another in record time; daffodils in the autumn, fallen leaves in the spring… these are a few of my favourite things!

Whether you are writing a complex time-hopping tome or a straightforward linear narrative, keep a note of the sequence of events, when they occur, and to whom.

Sorting out timelines are a headache for the editor; that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it, but it don’t half take a long time! By far the best person to keep track of a novel’s timeline is the author.

Why is the timeline so problematic? Well, many writers prefer to create events as they go along rather than plan out the whole story. Planning can take the fun out of the writing process; the writer wants to be as surprised as the reader as the plot unfolds. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily make for commercial success. It can cause a good idea to present itself as a rambling mess.

Apart from keeping tabs on the basic sequence of events, below are some examples of timeline inconsistencies that you may wish to bear in mind for general fiction:

  • The order in which the seasons, months, days of the week, and times of the day follow each other. Pay particular attention to sunrise and sunset times, and whether its BST or GMT; which plant life appears at which time of year; and the differences between the southern and northern hemisphere.
  • The feasibility of the time it takes to travel long distances. This applies equally to riding by horseback in historic times as to driving a car in the current day (Google Maps ‘Directions’ is useful for checking the latter).
  • The mention of a song, film, or TV programme that hasn’t been released at the time of your story; technological advances which have yet to happen; language usage relevant for its time…and other anachronisms.
  • Physical characteristics that change over time: if your male character is being held prisoner for six months, and has no access to shaving equipment, ensure that he has grown a beard.  If your female character becomes pregnant, ensure her term is no greater than nine months…

There are several commercial software applications that help to keep track of a novel’s timeline and even calculate the age of characters. For example: Timeline Maker, Storybook , and StoryMill. For fantasy and sci-fi authors, Aeon Timeline is popular as it has a ‘fantasy calendar’ for the creation of ‘off-world’ timescales. Some writers simply create their own timeline check using an Excel spreadsheet.

It is part of an editor’s job to determine the timeline, but the job would be much simpler, and quicker, if an author could include a sequence of events with their manuscript.

Happy planning! 🙂

Editing tip 4: Unnecessary Words

Every word counts when writing a novel. Your prose ought to be concise and not contain unnecessary words and clichéd or overused phrases, particularly in the narration. In dialogue, you can get away with it, but not if it is repetitive. For instance, people do say, “At the end of the day” and “When all is said and done”. Having a character say it once will be excused by the reader, but several times? It will become irritating and is likely to be interpreted as a sign of lazy writing. As you self-edit your work, keep an eye out for this kind of thing. Read the sentence without the unnecessary words or phrase and, if it makes sense without, delete it, or replace it with something more meaningful.

Below is a list of common overused words and phrases, with given alternatives.

As to whether: whether is sufficient.

At this moment in time: simply use now.

At the end of the day: replace with the adverb finally or ultimately.

For the foreseeable future: unspecific. Tell the reader how much the foreseeable future is.

For/to all intents and purposes: replace with the adverb effectively or virtually.

In any way, shape or form: this phrase can be dropped without changing the meaning of the preceding text, but if it must be included, simply edit to in any way.

In spite of the fact that: simply use though or although.

In this day and age: simply use today.

One of the most: just use the most.

Par for the course: my favourite. People often mispronounce it as ‘path for the course’. It’s a golfing term that actually means normal or as expected.

The reason why is that: simply use because.

There is no doubt that: replace with no doubt or doubtless.

The truth is/the fact is: simply state the truth, or the fact.

The words who is and which was are often overused and can be removed:

Her son, who is currently living in Rome becomes Her son, currently living in Rome

Wales, which was the last place he lived becomes Wales, the last place he lived

This is just a small selection, but some Internet research or the purchase of a book of clichés will provide many more.

When editing for unnecessary words and phrases, first ask yourself what  meaning you are trying to convey; then decide if you need the phrase at all; then delete the text or rewrite it. 🙂





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.

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. 🙂

Double vision – making the best of both worlds

This morning, I printed the first chapter of a novel and sat down to copy-edit it – despite the fact I had already copy-edited up to Chapter 23 on screen!

I’ve always maintained that working from hard copy is more beneficial, although, lately, I’ve been trying to save time and money, so rather than printing numerous pages of text, and using my blue marker pens until the ink dries up, I have been copy-editing on-screen, using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes to aid me. The problem is, as I have now discovered, errors can be missed.

I’d only just reached the end of page two, when the doorbell rang. “Here we go,” I thought. “Time for the distractions.” Making my way to the front door, I could see through the obscured glass that it was the post lady. However, as I was about to reach for the handle, she pushed a magazine through the letter box and walked away. I’m not sure how much quicker I could have got there! I opened the front door and called out ‘Hello’, to her back. She turned round and said, ‘Oh, I’ll go and get your parcel. It wasn’t worth me carrying it from the trolley if you weren’t in…’

A few minutes later, she struggled back, carrying three parcels in her arms. ‘It’s heavy,’ she stated. I thought a better idea would have been to wheel the trolley up the driveway to the front door, but I expect there are rules about that.

Generally, I’m not one of those who will hide behind their front door when someone calls, but today was different. Behind me, scattered over the hallway carpet, lay several squares of kitchen towel, where, earlier, my beloved cat had been retching. I hadn’t yet had a chance to inspect the damage, and being the house-proud person that I am (or perhaps guilt-ridden!), I didn’t want to give the post lady cause to gossip with her colleagues back at the sorting office. So, I signed for the three parcels, and quickly wished postie a good day. Two were for me. I was itching to open them (I knew what one was, but couldn’t remember what the other, heavy, one was), but had to return to my copy-editing, so I left them in the kitchen.

Seven sheets later, and no distractions, there were blue squiggles and comments on every page of Chapter 1. How had I managed to miss so much when editing on-screen? I had picked up punctuation errors, superfluous wording, raised four queries, and reordered some text. Interestingly, there were no spelling mistakes (perhaps, the one thing that Word does efficiently?).

The other forgotten advantage of editing from paper is a noticeable difference in eye strain. Although I now have to wear glasses for close-up reading (but not for looking at the computer screen), my eyes do not feel as if they have been pulled from their sockets and swapped over before being put back in (sorry, if that produced too graphic an image), and they do not feel quite so dry. There is something about working on-screen that result in my eyes feeling as if I have taken a long walk through a windy desert. Thanks goodness for Optrex!

When weighing up the pros and cons of on-screen editing versus hard-copy editing, there are as many advantages as disadvantages, but I do believe that cost-cutting aside, editing from a printed sheet is more productive. For a start, the amount of text visible on the page hints (maybe subconsciously) at what will come next, and of course, computers have yet to master grammatical differences between words that sound the same, but are spelt differently. However, on-screen editing is better suited for global checking. In particular, using search and replace. It’s ideal for correcting words that are consistently spelt incorrectly, or where you simply want to swap one word for another, or where you want to check that dialogue has all its beginning and end speech quotes.

For example, did you know that typing ^$ and then either or in the search box (depending on whether you use double or single speech quotes) will find dialogue not ending with punctuation. Try it. This is a really useful aid to proofreading, as it can be easy to miss this kind of error when checking many pages of dialogue.

However, with all of the advances in, and advantages of, on-screen editing, working from hard copy gets my vote. In future, I shall ensure that I print out every chapter for copy-editing. But, I shall first run it through Word’s proofing options, correcting any immediate spelling errors, and investigating any highlighted grammar issues (although, most of those seem to operate on warped logic). After editing on paper, I shall return to the electronic copy, update it using Track Changes, finally running it through some integrated editing software that I have bought. After all this, it may not be perfect, but using the tools that the computer offers will certainly provide the means for my human editing to be as faultless as possible.

As for the heavy parcel: sadly, it wasn’t the six-volume set of Joseph Wright’s, The English Dialect Dictionary, but a box of twelve wardrobe dehumidifiers (don’t ask!). Oh, and the cat hadn’t been as sick as I had first thought. 🙂

Editing tip 2: The Ellipsis (or ‘dot-dot-dot’ as it’s known)

The ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is a series of three full stops, used to show an omission in the text. In fiction writing, an ellipsis is often used to denote a pause (not an interruption – that’s something different), an unfinished thought, a trailing off, or to create a dramatic or ironic effect:

“I’m not sure if … what I meant to say was …”

The door closed slowly behind her …

“You are joking … aren’t you?”

Sentences that end in a question mark, or an exclamation mark, can be written with the ellipsis before or after:

“How did you … ?” or “How did you? …”

Technically speaking, there should be one full space before and after the three full stops, but when formatting a document from left-justified to fully justified, the characters are often padded out, leaving something like this:

Before: “Hello … how are you?”       After: “Hello . . . how are you?

The latter can be distracting to the eye as it takes up a more space, and in my opinion, does not give a professional look, either on an e-reader or in printed form.

Fortunately, most word-processing programs recognise three full stops together as an ellipsis and can autocorrect them to signify one character. There may be an ellipsis already built in to the character set: in Microsoft Word, the ellipsis is obtained by pressing the keys: ctrl-alt-full stop. It inserts half a space before and after, and does not pad out when changing the justification of the text. Worth remembering.

One other thing: there are only ever three full stops in an ellipsis – in English, anyway – not four, five, or six, as I have seen! 🙂

Editing tip 1: Simple Formatting for Kindle Publishing

Pick up any fiction novel, and take a look at the first paragraph of each chapter.  Most likely, the first line of the first paragraph will be aligned at the left edge of the text area, or to put it another way: blocked at the left margin. The first paragraph is also blocked after a section break, a quoted passage, an illustration, and after anything that is an interruption to the continuous flow of text.

Subsequent paragraphs, you will notice, are indented. The space that they are indented by can vary, but generally, the text starts at about 3–4 characters in.

You will also notice that there are no blank lines between paragraphs, but there may be a gap of white space, a decorative device (known as a fleuron), or simply a number of asterisks, to denote a section break.

This style of formatting is uniform across the majority of printed fiction novels and is the style I have adopted when formatting a document for electronic self-publishing, in particular, for the Kindle devices.

(Before I continue, I should point out that I currently use Word 2010 for document formatting, and all instruction is based on that.)

Rather than choosing ‘none’ as the indent setting for the first line of the first paragraph, which would be the logical action, I always indent it by 0.01 cm. Why? Well, the older Kindle e-readers, in particular, will set a tab as a paragraph indent in the absence of a given measurement: a rather wide tab, at that. I am not sure whether this is to do with Word or the way the Kindle compiles the document. However, specifying an indent at the formatting stage will override the e-reader’s desire to use a tab, and the measurement of 0.01 cm is enough to be recognized by the e-reader as an indent, but not enough to be recognized by the human eye.

Setting the indent for subsequent paragraphs is less complicated, and I simply indent the first line of these paragraphs by 0.5 cm.

The other basic formatting features to take into account are justification, line spacing, and font size.

Justification: simply justify the text so that it lines up at both the left- and right-hand margins. Additional spaces will automatically be added between words to fill out the lines. Again, you will notice that most printed novels display the text in this way.

Line spacing: it is possible that with single line-spacing, the text can appear denser, making it harder to read on an e-reader screen, whereas double line-spacing creates too big a space between the lines. I always set line spacing as ‘multiple’, at ‘1.15’ (with no spacing before and after), which makes the text less crowded.

Font size: generally, in the modern printed novel, there seems to be a uniform font size of between 10–12 pt. (I use 11.5!) It would seem that classic serif fonts are the preferred choice: Times New Roman, Palatino Linotype, Garamond, Baskerville, for example, as serif fonts are slower to read, apparently.

It is worth experimenting with different fonts and font sizes, saving the file and then running it through the Kindle Previewer to get an idea of how the finished product will look. This can only be an idea, mind, as there does seem to be differences between the way the previewer shows how pages will appear, compared with how they actually appear on the relevant device.

(Note that when saving the Word document for Kindle use, it should be saved as Web Page, filtered (*.htm;*.html).)

Following these simple tips should create a Kindle-ready document that embodies the traditional publishing standard for printed novels, offering a consistent layout that people are used to.  You never know: it may generate more sales!

To see a PDF version of this article, using the mentioned formatting, please click here.