Pronoun Trouble


(image from the classic Warner Bros. cartoon “Rabbit Seasoning”)

In the process of reviewing my first book and looking for issues, I noticed something that I could then not unsee: I underuse personal pronouns. What do I mean by this? I mean that I tend to repeat character names when I could just as well have used “he” or “she” or “they”, as examples. Fixing this issue is taking considerable time, and is complicated (as I will describe below). When I am finally finished, I will upload a revised version of the book and ask Amazon to push out the changes to anyone who has automatic updates turned on.

My primary concern is that I will go too far and end up erring in the other direction. If the reader can’t figure out who is speaking, or who is being referred to, then they’re probably not going to keep reading. A sentence like “She told her that she wasn’t interested.” can be a nightmare. Each of the three personal pronouns could potentially refer to a different person, e.g. “She told Jane that Sally wasn’t interested.” But even that version requires that the reader understand who “She” refers to.

The use of personal pronouns depends on both the number of characters involved and their genders. If there is only one male, then “he” and “his” are clear. Two of the same gender makes it much more difficult to use personal pronouns. Three or more speakers in a single conversation almost always requires the repeated use of the actual names.

This issue is something that I am still struggling with, and it’s probably only a matter of time before I discover yet another of my bad writing habits.


The Editing Never Stops

I am currently making another pass through my book, Audrey of Farmerton, preparatory to offering a paperback version. Despite the best efforts of both myself and my beta readers, I am still finding typos and minor mistakes. It appears that no amount of copyediting will ever find all of the mistakes. The good news is that when I am done, I can update the ebook version, and the new version will be automatically pushed out. You can’t do that with printed books.

It is my contention that there simply aren’t that many decent editors left out there. These days, even books by popular authors are published with obvious typos and grammar errors. Last year, I read a science fiction novel that had won major awards despite having significant plot holes and the author not really understanding how to use commas. The editor was either incompetent, or was too rushed to do a good job.

The advent of easy self-publishing is probably to blame for the current situation. The publishing industry in general has dealt poorly with  emerging technologies. That has led to cutbacks, including editorial staff. And when cutting staff, it is invariably the most experienced (and best paid) people that are let go.

What makes a good editor? They obviously need to have a good knowledge of the English language (or whatever language they are editing). This includes both spelling and grammar. But they also need to understand composition. They need to be able to judge if sentences are properly grouped into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, and scenes into chapters. They also need to understand what they are reading, otherwise they will be unable to spot larger issues such as plotting and pacing. To be perfectly honest, a good editor first needs to be a good writer. But a good writer isn’t likely to be interested in editing the works of someone else unless they’re a close friend or relative. A good writer would rather be writing.

I can’t offer any magical solution. For now, I’ll just rely on my own editing skills, resigned to the fact that the things I write will never be perfect.

Dialog and Dialect

People from different backgrounds, or different places, speak in different manners. This can take the form of a different accent, altered vocabulary, or variation in how a sentence is constructed. Accents are difficult to convey in writing, and when attempted are often annoying to the reader. For example, I have relatives that pronounce the word chair with two syllables (chay-are). I know of no way to put that in writing that isn’t both awkward and confusing. So it’s best to focus on the other two methods and simply mention when someone has an accent.

Consider the following sentences:

  1. Dontcha worry, Audrey.
  2. Don’t you worry, Audrey.
  3. Don’t worry, Audrey.
  4. Do not worry, Audrey.
  5. Be not concerned, Mistress Audrey.

The first example uses English slang, which is a way to make someone sound informal (and less educated). The second example sounds more folksy than the third because of the added (and unnecessary) you. The fourth differs from the third simply by dropping the contraction, and it is a simple way to make a character sound more formal. The final example is designed to sound extremely formal, pretentious even.

Simple word choice can help to differentiate characters. Where one person might say “okay”, another might say “all right”. Something might happen “a lot”, “often”, or “frequently”, depending on who is speaking about it.

Deciding on just how a character should speak is a challenge, and the way they speak might change over time or even depending on who they are speaking with. (Think about how most adults simplify their language when talking to small children.) But it is definitely something that a writer needs to keep in mind.