Saturday, 12 September 2015

Little niggles in manuscripts – Paeony Lewis

Sending out a new-born manuscript can be a bit scary. The person who reads the story will have his or her own likes and dislikes. These preferences might be major and there are even editors who don’t like animal characters in picture books or don’t like rhyme.

Perhaps very occasionally a dislike of
animals and rhyme could be justified?

There might be things a particular editor sees too much of, such as cute alliteration, stories about worms, or even stories that include the word ‘moon’ in the title (when I heard this complaint I gulped because I’ve written a story that contains the ‘m’ word!).

Then there are the smaller niggles. I cringe when I read the word ‘special’. A lovely editor once reprimanded me for having a mature character say ‘Oh dear’ – it was one of her niggles. She felt it was a stereotypical, ageist phrase that writers only use with older females. Yikes, I say ‘Oh dear’ in everyday life which is why my character said it. Well I suppose I’m an older female…

Finally we have little niggles and they tend to be grammar. I know I’m not perfect when it comes to grammar. Despite this, when I critique picture book manuscripts there are often little grammatical errors that bug me. I won’t discuss the use of apostrophes – those have been done to death. For me it’s muddled capitalisation that bounces around on the page. Why should this matter? Surely if your manuscript is accepted for publication an editor will tidy the grammar?

I spotted this opposite the University of Hull.
It made me smile, though if apostrophes was
one of my niggles then it might drive me nuts.

It’s all about appearing professional and ensuring an editor focuses on your story and not little niggles. Of course a wonderful story will be accepted for publication, even if it’s splattered with grammatical errors. However, if an editor is in a grumpy mood and wants to get through a pile of manuscripts, the wonderfulness of your story might be missed.

I hate to admit that nowadays the walls of primary schools include posters of grammatical terms that are alien to me. It’s embarrassing! My education is from the era when grammatical rules weren’t taught in primary or high school (we learnt by reading and knowing what ‘felt’ correct). Therefore, although I’ll try to explain how to fix my little grammar niggle, I won’t use grammatical terms and instead I’ll show you by example. So here’s my number one little niggle:

Yup, I’m pathetically petty.)
Capitalisation of ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ often catches people out when they first start writing for children. I solve this by telling myself that ‘Mum’, ‘Dad’, ‘Grandpa’, ‘Grandma’, etc., are capitalised when the word is being used as a 'name'. The examples below illustrate this (imagine if substituting a name would work grammatically):

He stared at what Dad had done to the dog.

He noticed his mum watching him.

“I wish my mum would stop watching me.”

“I wish Mum would stop nagging me to eat cauliflower.”

“Hurry up, Dad, it’s time to wash the dog,” said Holly.

“Will you remind your grandpa about the snail race?” asked Joe.

“Will you remind Grandpa about the snail race?” asked Sam.

Just occasionally this rule can make a sentence look a little peculiar, as can be seen in this excerpt from the glorious The Whales’ Song (an old favourite in our family):

“People used to eat them and boil them down for oil!” grumbled Lilly’s uncle Frederick.

If the Lilly was removed it would read …grumbled Uncle Frederick, though we wouldn’t know he was Lilly’s uncle.

So now you know how to avoid my pathetic little niggle. Though that’s not all. Here’s another little niggle…

ELLIPSES are often used in picture books and an ellipsis is only three dots. Not five dots..… Not seven dots……. It’s three dots…

I do have some other little niggles, but I think that’s enough or you’ll start to think I’m neurotic. So go on, tell us your writing niggles. We all have them and we hope we don’t accidentally include an editor's niggle in our manuscript. Perhaps one of your writing niggles is in this blog post? I know my grammar is far from perfect!

Of course, an incredible story is what matters most. 

Happy niggles, happy writing.

Paeony Lewis


Jon Burgess Design said...

Tricky stuff ;-) The street sign was merely informing passers by that scholars do indeed drive, I can't see a problem with that. . . . (4 dots, heh heh)
There was sign down my road that simply said 'Dog agility'. I felt like adding another one saying 'Bovine adaptability', 'Fish foresight', or some other meaningless animal related statement ;-)
My confusion when writing is whether to capitalise in and around speech. I can see the logic of each option so never know which to choose. I can look it up but then forget what was correct about five mins later. . .
"I wonder, (comma or full stop?) " Said Eric. (or is it 'said Eric' ?) "How should it be done?"

Paeony Lewis said...

I like the idea of 'fish foresight', Jonathan. I really like it!!
I think we all have things that confuse us, regardless of how many times we look them up (or is it just us two?!) Anyway, to put Eric out of his misery, it should be: "I'll stop worrying about dialogue," said Eric.

Jane Clarke said...

Ha ha, I confess to being punctuation and capitals challenged. I write the first draft of a story without worrying about them, then go back and check as carefully as I can. It's something I'm still learning- I was 50 years old before an editor pointed out to me that an ellipsis only has 3 dots. Until then I didn't even know it was an ellipsis :-)

Moira Butterfield said...

Oh dear (I think I am old enough to say this). I have to admit that seeing an apostrophe out of place makes me illogically angry and foam with inner angst. This, I believe, is what they call institutionalised behaviour...I was hit on the hand with a ruler as a young child at school if I made mistakes. But you're right, Paeony, it's the story that counts. (I was told never to put but at the beginning of a sentence, by the way, but I do, because I like to do it. Ha! Rebellion at last!).

Paeony Lewis said...

:-) And oh, there's loads of stuff I don't know, Jane. Thankfully I'm much better than I was when I first started high school and my English essay was returned and I was ordered to write in paragraphs. I asked the girl next to me to explain about paragraphs. I remained confused and therefore rewrote and made every individual sentence a new paragraph. Surprise surprise, I was shouted at - perhaps the teacher should have explained! He was bemused that I'd been able to pass the 11+ tests. ;-)

Paeony Lewis said...

Hit on the hand with a ruler, Moira? Good grief. I'm surprised you didn't want to give up on writing - your passion must have been strong. There was no physical punishment at any of my schools, even when I threw a stone that cracked a classroom window.
And I like beginning sentences with 'and' even more than 'but'!

Unknown said...

This was helpful, thank you. I need more information like this because I managed to sail through school without knowing the rules in a set way too like you. It's nice to confirm what you are doing is correct if or if you are blindly making errors.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Kate. I do worry that I don't even know I'm making mistakes and I'm always happy to have them pointed out to me as long as I'm not blinded with 'grammar speak'!

jamie said...

I was told by one editor a balloon would never go bang, it would go pop ( and the opposite by another editor). An ex agent ( ex for a reason ) told me children hated books about bugs ( ha ). Funnily most of my favourite songs have the word 'moon' in them ( I am with you on that one ), and an ex partner ALWAYS used FOUR dots, and I was forever telling them it was '...'