The English language is a warzone, with all sorts of people fighting over what they think is right and wrong. But when it comes to spelling, like in so many other matters, there isn’t necessarily only one way of doing things.
Be Your Own Copy Editor #12
You might not have noticed, but there was a huge ripple in the editing universe a couple of months ago: The Chicago Manual of Style, the arbiter of style in US book circles, published a new edition – its seventeenth since its inception in 1906. Now, I work for US publishers a lot, so what Chicago has to say matters to me a great deal in my work, and my latest book projects have come with a document summarising the relevant changes in the new edition. And lo, the style bible said that ‘Internet’ was no longer good, but that ‘internet’ shall be written in its place, without an initial capital letter, and that ‘e-mail’ was no longer good either, and that henceforth it shall be written as ‘email’, without a hyphen. And lo, the people thought it was good! According to the online edition of the Washington Post, the de-hyphenated spelling ‘email’ got cheers at a copy editors’ convention. You can imagine the scene: high fives, fist pumps, shouts of ‘Woohoo! In your face, hyphen! Get back to the nineteenth century, where you belong!’ Yes, it was good.
Unless you disagree with the changes, of course, which, the English language basically being a battlefield, obviously people do. In that case it was bad. Really bad, according to one Bad Hambre, who left a comment at the foot of the Washington Post review of the new edition: ‘I will continue using the hyphen in the word “e-mail”. I guess it is a way of sticking my tongue out at the world of self-appointed grammar police.’ Similarly, Dogless Infidel commented that they wouldn’t be lower-casing ‘Internet’. ‘There is only one Internet,’ they wrote. ‘It’s a proper noun. So I’m going to continue capping it until it somehow becomes a generic term, or until I retire, whichever comes first.’ (Not sure that act of defiance makes sense, actually. Surely in the freedom and anarchy of retirement you can cap ‘Internet’ till your Shift key wears out, but whatever.)
Meanwhile, the online version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary still gives ‘Internet’ with an initial cap but notes that the all-lower-case spelling is gaining ground. ‘E-mail’ is the spelling of the term when a noun, but it can either be ‘e-mail’ or ‘email’ when it’s used as a verb, according to M-W.
So where does this leave the fiction writer writing in American English? Should you be writing ‘e-mail’ or ‘email’, ‘internet’ or ‘Internet’? The truth is, on this and many other subjects relating to written English, there is no single right way of doing things, even though a lot of people will tell you otherwise – something which I find incredibly tedious. Let’s embrace pluralism, people. If you want to write ‘email’, that’s fine, as is ‘e-mail’; if you want to write ‘Internet’, that’s fine too, as is ‘internet’. And none of those spellings suddenly became acceptable or unacceptable on publication of the newest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. Some words have more than one acceptable spelling, and as a fiction writer, you’re likely to be a highly sophisticated user of the English language who can make good choices on spelling and lots of other matters. The key is to choose one and use it consistently — unless you have a good reason to be inconsistent, which you conceivably might, in which case you should be consistent in your inconsistency.
When a copy editor copyedits a novel for a publisher, they are asked to follow the guidance of recognised authorities on style and spelling. For the US publishers I work for, those authorities are The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Publishers also have a house style guide, and that will list spellings favoured by the publishing house that are different from those given in their preferred style guide and dictionary. So the publisher stamps a little individuality on spelling choices, and that licence is also given to authors. Authors can choose to use variant spellings, as long as they are within the acceptable range, and their variant spelling choices are listed on the individual style sheet created for their novel – yes, every novel gets its own style sheet.
When you’re self-editing your novel, you should do the same. Choose a dictionary and style guide to follow – if you’re writing in British English, not American, then you could use either Collinsor Oxfordas your dictionary, and New Hart’s Rules as your style guide – but then create an individual style sheet, listing any spellings you want to use that are different from those favoured by the dictionary and style guide but are nevertheless regarded as acceptable.
The key, as I said, is consistency. It can be distracting for the reader to see you using a couple of different spellings of the same word, so avoid doing that.
Decide which dictionary and style guide you are going to follow (more or less).
If you have any flicker of a doubt about a spelling, look it up. Looking stuff up is so easy these days, since dictionaries have excellent online versions.
If you want to use a legitimate variant spelling, be confident in your choice. Make a note of the spelling, preferably in a style document that you’ve created for your novel, and make sure you use it consistently throughout your manuscript.
Have you decided whether to give the verb first or the name first in speech tags? And what about their position? Should they always go after a line of dialogue, or is there something to gain by placing them elsewhere? Here, I discuss these subjects, getting some input from thriller-writing royalty in the shape of the great Tess Gerritsen
Be Your Own Copy Editor #9
When you write speech tags in your novel, do you put a character’s name first, then give the verb, or do you give the verb first, then a name? Here’s an example of the name-first style to make it clear what I’m talking about:
‘What we’re gonna do is break into Paris Hilton’s mansion and kidnap Tinkerbell, her chihuahua,’ Jez said.
Here, the verb comes first:
‘No, man,’ said Reginald. ‘Bad plan. We should wait till the maid be walking that bling-encrusted rat out on the street, then go scoop it up.’
Maybe you haven’t actually considered the order in which you give the name and verb in your speech tags. I say that because a fair number of authors whose work I copy-edit haven’t thought the issue through and mix the two styles without realising they’re doing it. Sometimes they write ‘Character X said’, and sometimes ‘said Character X’. Yet the issue deserves attention, because each of the two approaches produces a different effect.
In their classic book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Renni Browne and Dave King describe the verb-first style as having ‘a slightly old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavour . . . After all, “said he” fell out of favour sometime during the Taft administration.’ They do have something of a point. (Note to fellow Brits: Taft was president of the United States from 1909 to 1913.) Writers of contemporary genre fiction usually opt to give the name first – ‘Jez said’ and so on – and advocates of this style include the late, great Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Lee Child. This way of ordering speech tags has a tougher edge to it than the verb-first option, and it’s particularly suited to streetwise crime fiction. I would say it’s pretty much the convention in genre fiction in general, in fact. However, Browne and King are stretching their point when they talk about ‘said he’ and President Taft, since no writer I’ve ever come across who puts the verb first when using a name also puts the verb first when using a pronoun. Instead, when a pronoun is used it always goes first, as in the following passage.
Jez looked out the window of the diner and scanned fifty yards of sidewalk Paris Hilton’s chihuahua passed along each day. ‘There’s one big problem with your plan,’ he said. ‘And that big problem weighs two hundred forty pounds and got a concealed-carry permit.’
Which brings me to another way of ordering speech tags – one I’m calling the Tess Gerritsen approach. What the thriller writer Tess Gerritsen does is mix the noun-first and verb-first styles in a consistent and logical way. If she’s using a character’s name, 99 per cent of the time she gives the verb first, but if she’s using a pronoun, she puts the pronoun first. Let’s look at that approach in action.
Reginald stopped eating his chicken burger for a moment and frowned. ‘The chihuahua got a bodyguard?’ he said.
‘A Muay Thai instructor they call Stone Foot,’ said Jez, nodding.
I don’t detect a first-grade-reader flavour there.
When I noticed Tess Gerritsen does something different from most authors with her speech tags, I sent her an email asking her about her approach. Now, Tess Gerritsen writes at more or less the pace of a novel a year, she has sold over 25 million books, and her crime-fiction series has been adapted into a highly popular TV series called Rizzoli & Isles, which is going to run for a fifth season in 2014. What I’m building up to saying here is that though I sent Tess Gerritsen an email, I didn’t expect her to actually reply. Yet she very kindly did, saying she wasn’t aware she has a system for speech tags. She also talked about her approach to them in general.
‘My general philosophy is to use as few of them as possible, only for clarity, and make the dialogue itself do most of the work,’ she said. ‘But sometimes you just need to identify who is talking, and my favourite word is, simply, said at the end of the sentence. It’s unobtrusive and gets the job done. However, that gets really repetitive after a while (“he said”, “she said”, “he said”, “she said”). So, just to inject a change in rhythm, I’ll sometimes move the tag to the beginning of the sentence.’
Avoiding repetition and getting the rhythm right are clearly important considerations for Tess Gerritsen (I’ll talk about how she therefore varies the position of the tag in a moment). Since she restricts herself to using said as her speech-tag verb most of the time, by placing said before characters’ names but after pronouns, she has found a way to avoid hitting the reader with said after names and pronouns again and again. Instead of, say, writing a sequence like ‘Jez said,’ ‘Reginald said,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, she would write ‘said Jez, ‘said Reginald,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.
If you’re a writer who hasn’t thought through how to order verbs and nouns in speech tags at all, it’s a good idea to give the subject some consideration when you self-edit your manuscript and adopt a well-thought-out and consistent approach that suits your style and the kind of novel you’re writing. You might want to check on what approach authors who influence you take, too. Whatever style you decide to use, remember to align your thought tags – the tags you use with inner monologue, if you use them – so they follow the same pattern as the speech-tag one. For example, if you opt to give the name or pronoun first in all cases, you should write thought tags like the one in the passage that follows:
Jez took out his smartphone and looked at photos of Tinkerbell’s crib on Paris Hilton’s Twitter feed. That mutt got a better home than I got, he thought.
Let’s now look at the topic of the positioning of speech tags, which Tess Gerritsen talks about, saying she sometimes likes to put the tag before a line of dialogue to change the rhythm. Here are the three options, starting with tag first:
Reginald said, ‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’
‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money,’ Reginald said, ‘we gonna mail her a paw?’
‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’ Reginald said.
An advantage of the first style is it tells the reader who’s speaking straightaway. A disadvantage is that, since the speech tag comes before the line of dialogue, the tag isn’t as discreet as it could be, and it takes some of the limelight away from what the character says. The second style is interesting in that the speech tag acts as a brief interruption, creating a beat and thereby spotlighting what comes after it. The line of dialogue I’ve used in my examples has a punchy second clause, and by positioning the speech tag just before that clause, creating a pause, it’s given just a little bit more of a kick than it would otherwise have.
The advantage of the third style is that the line of dialogue is given in a fluid flourish and takes centre stage. The disadvantage is that the speech tag is there to tell the reader who’s speaking, and placing the tag after the line of dialogue delays the delivery of that important information. On the other hand, the reader usually has a good idea who’s speaking, often because what’s being said and the way it’s being said make that obvious, or because characters are conversing in a clear pattern – for example, Jez says something, then Reginald says something, and then Jez speaks, and so on. But that’s not always the case, and sometimes, when using the third style, there’s a risk the reader won’t be absolutely sure who’s speaking till after he or she has read the actual dialogue, which is not good. Also, if you use a particular verb because you want to indicate how a line is said (shouted, whispered, etc.), the third style isn’t particularly satisfactory, because the reader will read the line and only afterwards discover that he or she was supposed to imagine it shouted or whispered or whatever.
By far the most common style, of course, is the third, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which either of the first two styles is used exclusively. Some writers opt to use the third style most of the time and mix in a few examples of either the first (Tess Gerritsen, for example) or the second, or both (Elmore Leonard liked to do this) to change the rhythm. If you’re a writer who always uses style number three, you might want to consider using the other two styles as well for the same reason.
Look through your manuscript to see if you’ve adopted a consistent and logical approach to the order in which you use verbs and nouns in speech tags and thought tags. If you find you haven’t, think the matter through and decide on a style. You might want to read novels by your favourite authors for inspiration. The usual style in genre fiction is to give the name or pronoun first in all cases. The Tess Gerritsen approach is well worth considering, too.
If you always place your speech tags after lines of dialogue, think about using the other two positions illustrated in the examples above to vary the rhythm.
So, this blog has been a long time coming – was my last one really six months ago? Oh dear. I promise to try to up my blog rate from a pitiful twice a year to once a month.
How much thought have you given to the verbs you’re using to carry dialogue in your novel? Elmore Leonard believes said is the only verb you should use, yet there are accomplished writers out there ignoring his recommendation. Who’s right?
Be Your Own Copy Editor #8
It’s impossible to talk about choosing verbs to use for speaker attributions in the context of writing genre fiction without taking into consideration what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject. You may have read Leonard’s highly influential essay ‘Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle’, first published in the New York Times in 2001 and later published as a book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. In case you haven’t, though, and you’re also unfamiliar with Elmore Leonard and his novels, let me explain that he’s about as ‘show, don’t tell’ as it’s possible for a writer to be without completely disappearing in a puff of smoke. It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if Leonard’s characters receive his book royalties, not Leonard. Anyway, in the New YorkTimes essay, Leonard talks about how he makes himself invisible in his work. One of his invisibility cloaks is rule three: ‘Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.’ He says, ‘The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.’
Most of the writers of the novels I edit more or less follow Leonard’s injunction. Said is definitely the verb du jour. Some writers who have a strong preference for said also use an occasional asked or replied, but that’s usually about it. However, there are authors out there doing good work with a bigger verb palette than Leonard recommends you use. Ian Rankin, whom I talked about two blogs ago, is one of them. A few percent of the way into Standing in Another Man’s Grave (I read the book on my Kindle), Rankin’s latest Rebus novel, we’ve racked up intoned, repeated, asked, replied and muttered, as well as said. Like Leonard, Rankin is both a great stylist and writes cracking dialogue. He’s also at the ‘show, don’t tell’ end of the storytelling spectrum, and no one’s going to get far accusing him of making schoolboy errors in terms of craft. So who’s right? Leonard or Rankin?
Of course, really there is no right or wrong. Leonard writes like Leonard, Rankin writes like Rankin, and their choice of language works for them and the type of characters and worlds they are trying to portray. Using said alone is entirely in keeping with the macho dynamics of Leonard’s novels, whose characters keep their cards close to their chests and are more likely to pull a gun than gasp or grumble. But if, say, you were writing a novel set in the world of haute couture and writing scenes in which make-up artists, fashion designers, hairstylists and models flap about and have hissy fits backstage during a runway show, you might not want to use said after said after said.
That’s not to say, however, there aren’t both good verb choices and choices of the not-so-great variety.
Let’s take a good look at Leonard’s position. He’s certainly right that said is the most transparent, most discreet verb available. It sits unobtrusively in a sentence containing direct speech, usually nestling after the most important bit, the dialogue itself. Part of the reason said has such a discreet presence in dialogue-giving sentences is it’s also the main verb we use in informal conversation when we report direct speech. When was the last time you had a coffee with someone and he or she relayed gossip by saying things like ‘Then I commented . . . Then she stated . . . Then he probed . . . Then I countered . . .’? Doesn’t happen, does it? Usually said is used. Said is so bedded in, in both fiction and speech, that it is hardly noticeable. It performs the function of linking speaker to spoken in as mechanical a way as is possible with a verb. So said is definitely a good choice if invisibility is what you’re after.
However, like people often do when they’re trying to make a point, Leonard skews the debate somewhat. He backs up his argument for only using said by rattling off a few highly undesirable verbs when he gives examples demonstrating the perils of veering from said, and he ignores verbs for which sounder arguments can be found.
First, let’s look at a couple of those bad verbs Leonard cites and pin down why they aren’t good. If you look up to gasp at Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), you will find it says it can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech – in other words, it’s acceptable in grammar terms to use to gasp to carry dialogue. Of course to gasp can also be used as an intransitive verb – one which doesn’t take an object – that means, quoting ODO, to ‘catch one’s breath with an open mouth’.
Before we continue, let me run through that grammar, since it underpins the discussion a little. When you write a line of dialogue and couple it with a speaker attribution, the dialogue is the grammatical object. Look at this:
‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever,’ Ian said.
In that sentence, Ian is the subject, said is the verb, and ‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever’ is the object. The verb to say is transitive; it needs an object. Someone has to say something. In this case, the something someone – Ian – says is the line bigging up Timothy Dalton. Now look at this:
‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous,’ Rita gasped.
That’s a perfectly acceptable sentence in terms of grammar, since, as ODO says, to gasp can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech. You can say someone gasps a line of dialogue, in other words. However, though it may be acceptable grammatically, try catching your breath with an open mouth and speaking at the same time and you quickly realise it’s not actually possible to do both those things at once. (Even if it were, you’d need to use to gasp in conjunction with a verb like to say to reflect two actions are being performed simultaneously.) In which case, when an author writes that a character gasped a line of dialogue, what does he or she mean to say happened?
I have no idea, and I suspect the writer of a line like that hasn’t thought through what he or she is saying either. A sentence like the one above has no connection with the real world. It exists in a category of artificiality marked ‘literature’; it doesn’t represent an attempt to accurately evoke the world out there on the page.
But in my imagination I can see and hear a character gasping in horror or astonishment, then saying something, a sequence of actions to gasp can help convey in its guise as a no-object verb.
Rita gasped. ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.’
Other verbs writers sometimes try to use in the same way as to gasp include to chuckle, to sigh and to laugh (I say ‘try to’, since we copy editors are likely to cull them). None of these three verbs bear the fig leaf of respectability conferred by a listing in ODO as an object-taking verb used in conjunction with direct speech. All three are no-object verbs, which means they don’t have the grammar credentials to carry dialogue, though I have to say it seems somewhat arbitrary to me that we green-light gasped in grammar terms but not chuckled and sighed. So, chuckled, sighed and laughed should be rejected as dialogue carriers before you’ve even thought about whether it’s possible to chuckle, sigh or laugh a sentence, which of course it’s not, and so should other verbs of their kind. On the other hand, if you do think someone can, say, both laugh and speak simultaneously – and I advise you to try whatever combination of action and speech you wish to portray – you might want to add a present participle after the dialogue-carrying verb, like this:
‘I can’t believe you think Timothy Dalton was a better Bond than Sean Connery,’ Rita said, laughing.
Now let’s take a look at lied, another verb Leonard cites in his essay as a bad choice. First, let’s imagine our Timothy Dalton fan, Ian, later has a conversation with a woman he fancies who’s got a crush on Daniel Craig. Our imaginary author writes this:
‘I think Timothy Dalton was a crap Bond,’ Ian lied. ‘Daniel Craig represents the very pinnacle of 007-ness.’
In this case, the lied is redundant; we know Ian is lying, because he told Rita earlier he thinks Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever. Here we have a bad case of show and tell. The dialogue shows the reader Ian is lying, then the verb reiterates he’s lying. The author is over-managing the story and not letting it unfold by itself, perhaps because he or she isn’t confident the reader is really following what’s going on. Lied could also be used to tell the reader for the first time a character is lying, in which case the author using it would be guilty of the lesser offence of telling alone.
A lot of the other verbs used by authors also tell the reader something the dialogue shows. Imagine Ian and two friends have just seen Skyfall, last year’s Bond film, and afterwards they’re sitting in a bar, discussing the movie.
‘That opening fight scene on the train was ridiculous,’ Ian said. ‘Totally unrealistic. Though I’m sure Tim Dalton could’ve pulled it off.’
‘It was a James Bond film, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary,’ Blake countered. ‘The whole point of Bond films is they’re not realistic.’
Sean shook his head slowly and stared into the distance. ‘I’m never going to pay to see a Bond film again,’ he avowed.
Both countered and avowed tell us things we already know from having read the dialogue. Let’s look at the sentence containing avowed. Since to avow means to declare frankly and openly, we get that Sean is declaring something openly and frankly because – yes – the opinion he’s giving can be characterised as both frank and the utterance of someone who’s being open. We’re back to show and tell.
But not all verbs other than said should necessarily be treated with suspicion. Here comes a line from Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Inspector Rebus is listening to music in the car and realises he’s misheard a song lyric. He’s on his own.
‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus muttered to himself.
By using the verb to mutter, Rankin tells the reader exactly how Rebus says the line – in a low voice with a note of irritation in it. I don’t know what a Leonard disciple would do here.
‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus said to himself.
Actually, in this case, a Leonard disciple might conclude the line of dialogue can be given without a speaker attribution, since Rebus is alone in the car and there can be no confusion over who’s speaking. But either way, the reader wouldn’t get that Rebus speaks in a low voice with a note of irritation in it – two qualities conveyed by the verb to mutter. In this case, said is too blunt an instrument; the author needs a more precise verb to tell readers how he or she wants them to imagine the line is spoken. Here are three more verbs that fall into the same category as muttered: whispered, shouted and intoned. These kinds of verbs give information about the volume at which a character says a line or the way he or she says it, or both.
Another verb you can make a good argument for using is asked. On the one hand, a question in direct speech is self-evidently a question – the question mark is one big giveaway – so adding an asked does come across as another case of show, then tell. On the other hand, I suspect some authors feel said isn’t appropriate for questions, because they think it only works with statements. I notice, for instance, that Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch detective novels, is a said purist in his novel The Drop until he has to attribute a question, in which case he rolls out an asked.
Asked is actually a fairly invisible verb. I suspect that if Leonard did go stir-crazy as a reaction to the claustrophobia of using said all the time and treated himself to a new verb, it would be asked. Again, asked is a verb that is bedded in because it’s used a lot in conversation as well as fiction. Also, asked doesn’t do anywhere near as much telling as verbs like avowed and countered, because it doesn’t give an interpretation or summary of what a character is asking. Similarly, replied, responded and answered also mechanically state the relationship between one unit of discourse and another, but no more. They don’t say anything about the content of the response they are tagged to. It’s more difficult to justify using these three verbs than it is to justify using asked, however, since they are only ever attached to statements, and said would work in their places.
Incidentally, said actually falls into the same category as verbs like asked and replied in that it, too, states the obvious. Just as the question mark at the end of a line of dialogue indicates someone’s asking a question, quotation marks enclosing dialogue tell the reader someone is saying something. So said, too, tells the reader something he or she is also being shown, but the verb is so bedded in that it’s almost transparent.
Another category of verbs authors sometimes use consists of ones that are more or less synonyms for said. I’m thinking here of verbs like commented and stated, and I say ‘more or less synonyms’ because when a writer uses commented, for example, I tend to hear the line of dialogue it’s attached to in a comment-giving type of way. But maybe that’s just me – I don’t know. We’re entering highly subjective territory here.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
So, I’ve established some categories we can use when classifying dialogue-carrying verbs and thinking about their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll summarise what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of the verbs or verb in each category, starting with what I consider the good and working my way towards the bad and the ugly.
1. The workhorse, said. The advantage of said is that it’s almost invisible. A disadvantage is it’s something of a blunt instrument. You may also feel said pulls against the question mark at the end of a direct question and wish to use asked instead.
2. Verbs such as muttered, whispered, intoned and shouted. These serve a legitimate function in that they fine-tune the reader’s understanding of how a character says a line. They are more precise than said, but not as discreet and invisible.
3. Asked. This verbis pretty invisible, though perhaps not quite as discreet as said. Some writers might feel the fact asked states the obvious – that a character asks a question, something indicated by the question mark – is outweighed by the drawback of using said in its place, which they may maintain only works with statements.
4. Replied, responded and answered. Again, these state the obvious – in this case, that a character is answering a question – but, like asked, they are not that noticeable (I would say replied and answered are the least visible of the three, and responded is both the most visible and most formal). But said can be used in the place of these verbs and is less visible.
5. Synonyms or near synonyms for said, such as stated and commented. These are not as discreet as said, but writers who aren’t said purists might use them for the sake of variety, and perhaps they provoke readers into hearing a character say a line in a slightly different way from how they would were said used. (You tell me.)
6. Verbs like avowed and countered that summarise and interpret a line of dialogue. It’s very hard to justify the use of these. They usually tell the reader something he or she has just been shown, and they are therefore redundant. They are also intrusive.
7. Verbs like gasped, chuckled and laughed. These may be sanctioned as verbs you can use to carry dialogue (gasped, for example), or may not (laughed), but whatever the case, they’re to be avoided, since they don’t convey how people in the real world speak.
QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT YOUR VERBS
1. Does a particular verb help deliver a line to the reader in a way that reflects how people actually speak?
2. Does the verb tell the reader something he or she is shown by the line of dialogue it’s attached to?
3. How discreet is the verb?
4. How precise is the verb?
5. Does the verb pass the grammar test of being an object-taking verb?
6. Are the verbs you’re using a good match for the fictional world you’re trying to portray?
My next blog will carry on from here. I’ll assume you’ve made your decisions about which verbs you’re going to use to carry dialogue and turn my attention to speaker attributions as a whole (‘Rita said’, ‘Ian asked’, etc.). As always, I’ll focus on issues I commonly see in manuscripts.
Incidentally, Leonard’s New York Times article was one of a series called ‘Writers on Writing’ that the paper ran. It included contributions by Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, and the pieces are a real gold mine. You can find the articles here. Also, inspired by Leonard’s ten rules, the Guardian asked a number of well-known authors, among them Neil Gaiman, PD James and Jonathan Franzen, to share their own ten rules for writers, and you can find those here.
If you are seriously considering hiring a copy editor to work on your novel and you’d like to try me out, ask me to copyedit some of your pages. I’ll copyedit them for free, without obligation. Send a Word document of between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages to mbtrower at yahoo dot co dot uk, and I’ll aim to get the material back to you within 48 hours.