Made in the Image of the Goddess, by Chantelle Griffin (2:41)

IOD score cardToday we see that low-level grammar and punctuation errors can kick the reader out of a story before it even starts.

What I gleaned about the story: Our heroes are in trouble. Someone is in a hole. Someone knows magic, but that’s not much help at the moment.

Find this book on Amazon.

WTF #1: Punctuation MIA

Analysis: The opening paragraph ratchets up the stakes, letting us know just how bad it’ll get if Saranon doesn’t succeed. As she tries to dig her way out of the problem, we read: It was no use the ground was too soft, from the rain that had fallen during the day.

It should read: It was no use: the ground was too soft from the rain that had fallen during the day.

Missing punctuation can be particularly hard on readers, since it removes vital clues about how the words in a sentence relate to each other. By the time I’d read, “It was no use the ground,” I was already getting warning flags from my brain, saying I’d read it wrong and needed to go back for a closer inspection.

Authors don’t want their readers turning back. Forward, always forward!

WTF #2: Mispunctuated dialogue

Analysis: As Saranon’s (friend? ally? co-conspirator?) hurries over to help, we get our first bit of dialogue: ‘Get them out,’ Tasha’s voice was firm, ‘Now!’

Confession time: in my (American) mind, marking dialogue by using single quotes rather than double quotes is A Thing Not To Be Done And A Blight Upon The Natural Order. In reality, single quotes are common practice on the British side of the pond, so that inner voice is just my provincialism talking. It’s also one of those things most readers would stop noticing after a page or two. For me, it takes about five.

But the single quotes drew me in for a closer inspection of the sentence, revealing problems I might’ve otherwise glided past. The utterances “Get them out!” and “Now!” are two separate sentences of dialogue, but the dialogue tag is punctuated as though it’s being inserted into the middle of a single sentence. Further, I’d argue that the dialogue tag itself (Tasha’s voice was firm) is written as though it were a third, separate sentence.

More correct: “Get them out!” Tasha’s voice was firm. “Now!”

My instinct is to do a full “Punctuationing the Dialogues 101” writeup. But in keeping with Internet World best practices, I’ll instead pass the job off to someone who sounds more knowledgeable than me: [link].

WTF #3: Conspicuous splice job 

Analysis: In the second paragraph, we learn that Saranon could bring some magicky mojo to bear, but the consequences would be unacceptably high. This is a wise strategy: problems that your character can make disappear with a snap of their fingers don’t conjure up much tension. But once again, punctuation problems undermine the story: If she used her sorcery it would be detected in the camp and she would pay. Just as Galven and Jeremy had, for weeks they had been imprisoned in the sorcerer Keep.

The second sentence could be split with a period, a colon (my preference), or a semicolon. But using a comma created a “comma splice,” where a comma is used to join two independent clauses. The word ‘splice’ (literally, join or connect two rope ends by interweaving the strands) suggests that the joining is an awkward one, and the sentence does read awkwardly, like two sentences met at a speed-dating event and have just made plans to go out for coffee: they’re still trying to feel out whether they belong together.

Well, that’s the third flag dropped. Time to close the book. While I want to know how the characters are getting out of the hole the author dropped them into, I’m keenly aware that problems that manifest this quickly are bound to persist throughout the book.

Every reader comes to your book with their own threshold for these sorts of technical issues. Not everyone cares about wayward commas or spliced sentences, but a fair number do (and they’re not afraid to wreak havoc on your Amazon reviews). With all the other novels and capybara videos and Netflixes clamoring for readers’ attention, you cannot give them any excuse to put your book down. I mean, look at me! I just lost twenty minutes to capybara videos right after I wrote that sentence. That’s twenty minutes I spent not reading your novel, dear author!

I hate telling anyone to hire an editor. It sounds judgmental, and also dismissive of the real challenges of finding (and harder, paying for) a good editor.

Nonetheless, if you want people to read your novel instead of reveling in the sedate, chill-exuding majesty of the capybara, you need it to be polished to a fine sheen. Whether you choose to pay an editor or take the cheaper route by digging up some juicy blackmail material on him, editing must happen.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

Junk and Other Short Stories, by Duncan James (1:12)
She Dreams of Lonely Stars, by LW Patricks (1:37)