The Black Cat monthly round-up: March 2021

The March round-up comes to you a bit later than usual as I worked part-time hours for the last week of the month (but somehow I still managed to be surprisingly productive) and I took the long Easter weekend off. I’m including it as part of my efforts not to overwork myself as I did for a significant chunk of 2020. They seem to be working so far. I think it is necessary to have some time off to refresh and recharge. Having said that, I’m not very good at building up my enthusiasm for working again after a few days of TV and chocolate.

What I’ve been working on

I finished the copy-edits of the biography and the epic fantasy that I started in February, and I moved on to some contemporary fiction, one novel for a publisher and one for an indie author. I critiqued a previous version of the indie novel a couple of years ago and it was really satisfying to see how much it had changed and evolved. It is a much stronger story now and I’m really glad I was able to support the author in achieving that. Working with returning clients was a theme for March – I also had the pleasure of proofreading a short story for one of my long-standing indie clients. Towards the end of the month, I went back to the world of fantasy fiction for two projects. I have completed the copy-edit (of a magical, if dark, children’s adventure), but the proofread is very long and will take me into April. I’ll be working on that alongside the critique of a psychological thriller for another returning client.

What I read for fun

I have one read for March: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. Becky Chambers has concluded her Wayfarers series with another brilliant novel. It is, in my opinion, space opera at its very best. I’m upset that it has to end, but I am grateful for the quiet, profound, and beautiful stories that we have been given. I’m looking forward to reading what comes next.

The Black Cat monthly round-up: February 2021

I looked back on my February 2020 blog post before I started to write this. It was about a year ago that the COVID situation really started to escalate in the UK – I had decided not to go to the London Book Fair, but the local group celebration of the CIEP being granted chartered status still seemed possible. It feels like a million years ago. February 2021 saw me visiting a COVID testing site in Newbury. I had a temperature and was feeling unwell, so I went to get tested. It’s a strange experience, and it was almost impossible not to sneeze when I was doing the nose swab. I had to let one of my clients know I may have difficulty sending back the hard-copy proofread they had planned to send me, but they kindly asked me to take on an on-screen copy-edit for them instead. Fortunately, my test came back negative and I felt mostly back to normal after a few days of rest.

What I’ve been working on

I managed my workload this month despite not feeling well for a while. I did have to put some of my tutoring work on the back burner for a while, but I am catching up with the backlog and my students have been very understanding.
I started February with the proofread of a thriller with a large cast and a storyline that spanned multiple decades. I moved on to the copy-edit of a biography of an early gay rights activist. It isn’t something I would usually take on (I rarely copy-edit non-fiction) but the subject matter is compelling. I also have on my desk the copy-edit of the third instalment of an epic fantasy fiction series. These are both long projects and will take me into March. However, I did finish off the critique I started in January.

Looking ahead

We are nearly at the end of the financial year, and that means I need to think about the continuing professional development I would like to do in the next financial year. The West Surrey and North Hampshire CIEP local group is due a meet-up in March, and I have hope that at some point this year we may be able to have an in-person meeting – even if it still isn’t our much-delayed chartership celebration.

The Black Cat monthly round-up: January 2021

January is over already. Despite the continuing UK lockdown, time seems to be flying. I returned to work after a lovely, relaxed break for Christmas and New Year’s, and I have been fortunate to have a full work schedule. The West Surrey and North Hampshire CIEP local group had a catch-up towards the end of the month; we talked about our goals for this year – as hard as it may be to think of them in the precarious situation we all find ourselves in at the moment – and I’ll return to mine later in this post.

What I’ve been working on

My first project of the new year was the proofread of some American contemporary fiction. I work on a lot of contemporary British fiction, so it was interesting to work on a novel based in the US and by a US author. I moved on to the copy-edit of a novel by an author I have had the pleasure of working with before – the novel was an atmospheric Gothic horror reminiscent of the work of Laura Purcell. January ended with the proofread of a fantasy novel about angels and demons, and I am still working on a critique of the beginning of a fantasy fiction novel. I usually critique full manuscripts, so this will be another new and interesting experience.

What I read for fun

I’ve got one completed read to report and two partial reads. The completed read is Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes – I wasn’t going to miss out on psychic cats in space. It took me a while to fully engage with it but it is funny and fast-paced, and has a cast of likeable characters. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) is a very, very long novel, and that is my excuse for not having got anywhere near finishing it yet. It is, though, reminding me why I loved the BBC adaptation so much. My other not-yet-completed read is Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. I am aware I have probably approached the Grishaverse in the wrong order (I started with Six of Crows) but the upcoming Netflix adaptation has encouraged me to fill in some of the blanks.

Looking ahead

As I mentioned above, we talked about our goals for this year at the West Surrey and North Hampshire local group Zoom meeting. (I hope that in-person meetings can resume before the end of 2021.) I have two aims for 2021. One is a thing I do every year – complete one formal training course as part of my continuing professional development. The other is to make sure that I balance work with time off – I worked a lot of Saturdays and Sundays last year, and I am going to try to minimise that this year. It’s time to reclaim my weekends.

The Black Cat monthly round-up: December 2020

This is the third December for Black Cat Editorial Services and the business continues to grow. That feels like a huge achievement given the horrible year we have all had, plus the bonus terribles that were allotted to me and my family: my mum was diagnosed with cancer, my sister had to cope with and recover from COVID-19 alone, and my dog died. As far as I am concerned, most of 2020 can get in the bin.

It’s not all bad, though. I checked my project-tracking spreadsheet, as is now traditional for these end-of-year blog posts, and it tells me that my 2020 projects have a combined word count of 3,355,011 – about 300,000 more than 2019, despite the COVID-related work slump mid-year. It was a real relief to see my publisher work return, and I am very grateful to my wonderful indie clients who kept me busy during the dark times.

Despite the circumstances, I still managed to get some good things out of this year. I wrote two book reviews for the CIEP (on Dennis Baron’s What’s Your Pronoun and Jacqueline D. Lipton’s Law and Authors: A legal handbook for writers); attended the CIEP’s online conference; completed two courses (Copyright for Editorial Professionals and How to Write the Perfect Editorial Report); and became a tutor for the CIEP’s Proofreading Headway and Progress courses.

I started working as a tutor in August and it has been a steep learning curve – I’m very grateful to have had the brilliant Annie Jackson to hold my hand through it. I can’t tell you how strange it feels to have my name in the CIEP’s tutor list alongside some of the people I have looked up to since I began my training and some of the people who tutored me. I can only hope that my students will get as much from my help and advice as I did from my tutors and my mentor, the wonderful Margaret Aherne.

What I’ve been working on

I scheduled in a Christmas break this year – I needed some downtime – but I still managed to complete three more projects before calling it for the year. I started December with the proofread of a dark and fantastical short-story collection and then moved on to the copy-edit of the second instalment of an epic fantasy series (I worked on the first instalment and I’m getting a bit attached to the characters already). My last project of the year was the copy-edit of a fantasy/horror novel with a unique premise and intriguing conclusion.

What I read for fun

I couldn’t stop myself – I had to read the rest of the available Murderbot books. I read the novella, Exit Strategy, and the full-length novel, Network Effect, in two sittings – and now I must wait until April for the next instalment. Having run out of Murderbot material, I turned to Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw. Like the first book, Strange Practice, it is an enjoyable and monster-filled novel. I wrapped up the month with Genevieve Cogman’s The Masked City, another enjoyable adventure with familiar characters.

Looking ahead

I will be returning to work next week, so I will make the most of the next few days of doing very little. Usually I say something like ‘Here’s to a happy and successful new year for us all’ at this point – it feels like a lot to wish for, but I do hope it comes true.

The Black Cat monthly round-up: November 2020

November saw England back in lockdown. Fortunately, this time, it hasn’t had any effect on my schedule or workload. When this lockdown ends, my local area will be subject to tier 2 restrictions (‘high alert’). I don’t expect this to make much difference to me – I can’t remember the last time I left the house to do something other than walk the dog that wasn’t food shopping or an essential appointment.

What I’ve been working on

Being trapped in the house seems to have been good for my productivity level. I had a couple of non-fiction proofreads this month – one a thoughtful exploration of how the Church of England can overcome its current divisions, and one an engaging account of a charity walk around the British coast. I enjoy walking (probably a necessity when one has a springer spaniel) but I don’t think I could do it for days on end, let alone months. My fiction work has been equally as diverse. I finished off the copy-edit of the novel I found difficult to place in a particular genre (I still can’t). Then I moved on to the proofread of a science-fiction novel – I worked on the first book in the series last year, so it was interesting to see how the story has progressed. The second half of November saw me immersed in a fantasy fiction copy-edit for one of my publisher clients, and I have started the copy-edit of another fantasy fiction epic from a returning indie client.

What I read for fun

Surprisingly, I did manage to get in a couple of for-fun reads in November. I usually try to fit in a ‘spooky’ read around Halloween. I was a couple of days late starting it, but this year I went for The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox. One of my indie clients mentioned Hester Fox’s work as a comparison for what he is trying to achieve in his next novel, and so I thought it would be worth having a look. It’s not a particularly scary book, but it is atmospheric, romantic, and heartbreakingly sad. There’s a lot of heartbreakingly sad going about, and my next read wasn’t an exception. I returned to Martha Wells’ Murderbot for another adventure, this time in Rogue Protocol. As usual, Murderbot is a joy, but there’s an emotional gut-punch at the end of this instalment.

The CIEP conference 2020

The in-person CIEP conference was, of course, cancelled this year. But that didn’t stop the institute from coming together to put on a virtual conference instead. I attended all of the sessions on the first day. The highlight of those was Sarah Grey’s session on inclusive language. I was at Sarah’s 2018 conference session, so I knew it would be good, and I was not disappointed. I also have to say that Hugh Jackson, the CIEP’s chair, did a wonderful job during his welcome speech. Unfortunately, I had to get back to work on days two and three, so I am planning to watch the recordings of those sessions during my Christmas break.

Looking ahead

My local group would usually have a Christmas social in early December. This year we will be having our meeting via Zoom – I hope to see plenty of mince pies being scoffed.

The Black Cat monthly round-up: October 2020

As I write this, England is coming to terms with the idea of another lockdown – this one due to begin on Thursday 5 November. I am yet to hear if this will affect my schedule for the rest of the year, but I am hopeful that it won’t.

What I’ve been working on

October was packed with work. My first paper proofread for many months was a memoir, and I moved on to the proofread of a business book aimed at women leaders. This was followed by the proofread of the final instalment of a thriller series that has been on and off my desk over the best part of a year. I’ve also had the critique of a science-fiction/fantasy novel to occupy my time. I’m in the middle, roughly, of a copy-edit of a novel I would find hard to place in one particular genre, but it’s a tour de force in how to manage distinctive points of view and break the fourth wall.

On the blog

I published the latest blog post in my ‘Fiction essentials’ series. This one deals with the use of dialogue tags. I can also report that the CIEP has published my review of Jacqueline D. Lipton’s book Law and Authors: A legal handbook for writers.

What I’ve been reading

The Devil and the Dark Water is Stuart Turton’s second novel. It’s an enjoyable read – I got through it in a few days, and it is a chunk of a book – but while the ending makes sense, it feels hollow and unsatisfactory. In a bit of a departure from my usual genres, my next read was The Secret Political Adviser. It delves deeper into the mythology behind Michael Spicer’s ‘The Room Next Door’ skits (if you haven’t seen them, it’s worth looking them up on YouTube). It is an amusing, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, journey through some of the significant political events of the last four years.

Looking ahead

The CIEP’s online conference runs from Monday 2 November to Wednesday 4 November 2020 and I am looking forward to taking part. The West Surrey and North Hampshire local group is due a Zoom meet-up, so I will be aiming to organise that for the latter part of November.

Fiction essentials: how to use dialogue tags

Dialogue tags can cause headaches for many authors, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Dialogue tags are (usually) essential when writing fiction, and good use can really elevate the prose. Perhaps the most important thing to consider here is that the core function of a dialogue tag is to indicate which character is speaking. It will be helpful to keep this in mind as we explore my advice on how to use dialogue tags – and how to use them effectively.


Placement

Dialogue tags can be used before, after, or in the middle of direct speech. Here’s an example of each style:

  • Melissa said, ‘That’s my chocolate cake.’
  • ‘That’s my chocolate cake,’ said Melissa.
  • ‘That,’ Melissa said, ‘is my chocolate cake.’

Note the placement of the commas and full stops in relation to the quote marks. I’m sure you will also have detected the pacing change brought about by the third example (helped along by the removal of the contraction) – this is a good tool to have in your pocket, especially when you want to create emphasis.


Embrace ‘said’

I know there is writing advice out there that will tell you to avoid ‘said’. I think that’s a mistake. ‘Said’ is so common, so conventional, that it is almost invisible to most readers. That’s what you want – most of the time. We don’t want the reader to be thinking about the dialogue tags – we want them to be thinking about the content of the dialogue and what it means for the story and the characters.

[…] too many variants on ‘said’ can become noticeable; the reader ends up focusing on the author’s language, rather than on what’s being said. ‘Said’, on the other hand, is so commonly used in both speech and writing that it’s virtually invisible.
On Editing: How to edit your novel the professional way (2018), Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price, p. 125


Avoid overuse

‘Said’ might be essentially invisible when used sparingly but that doesn’t mean that it should be attached to every single bit of speech. Take this as an example:

‘I’ve put the pie in the oven,’ he said.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘I think the blueberries will be nice,’ he said.
‘Yes. I’ll make some custard to go with it,’ she said.

I know that’s not the most riveting dialogue, but it gives you an idea of how dreary and frustrating that sort of use can be. It wouldn’t be much better if we used a variety of tags. In fact, it might be worse. Imagine:

‘I’ve put the pie in the oven,’ he stated.
‘Thank you,’ she responded.
‘I think the blueberries will be nice,’ he declared.
‘Yes. I’ll make some custard to go with it,’ she trilled.

A good way to spot if your use of dialogue tags has become distracting is to read the text aloud or use a text-to-speech program (the latest version of Word has one built in – it’s called Read Aloud and you can find it on the Review tab).

As I said earlier, the core function of a dialogue tag is to indicate which character is speaking. If there are no more than two characters in the scene, you can usually trust the reader to keep track of who is saying what, with only the occasional tag or action beat to act as a reminder. Limit your use of tags to where they are actually needed.


Beware of double-tell

If the dialogue tag is repeating what the reader already knows, that is double-tell. You can get away with this, usually, with ‘asked’ and ‘replied’ – like ‘said’, they are so common that they are generally invisible.

‘What an incredible sight!’ Joey exclaimed.

‘I will make sure that we find the culprit. You have my word,’ Emma promised.

In both of these examples, the dialogue has done the work already and the tag is redundant. Trust in the dialogue you have constructed and reduce the signposting for the reader – it will make for a much more immersive experience.


Avoid tags that steal focus

Many double-tell tags also fall into this category: dialogue tags that are obtrusive and overwhelm the dialogue they are supposed to be supporting.

‘You see! I told you he was a villain!’ Gregory trumpeted.

‘I am extremely displeased! Who do you think you are? I will have your job, Perkins,’ he vociferated.

The reader is now thinking about ‘vociferated’ and not about how poor old Perkins is going to get out of the pickle he finds himself in.

You don’t have to – and shouldn’t – always stick with the reliably unobtrusive ‘said’, but I would recommend thinking very carefully about whether you need to use those more ostentatious tags. Why use ‘vociferated’ when ‘shouted’ will do?


Make sure they are about speaking

Dialogue tags should be about the mechanics of speaking – they should reflect something about the speech, not what the speaker’s body is doing.

‘I absolutely love it,’ she smiled.

‘I see what you mean,’ Gareth nodded.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t convey this sort of thing around the dialogue – in fact, you definitely should. It will help ground the dialogue and bring life to your characters.

‘I absolutely love it.’ She smiled.

‘I see what you mean,’ Gareth replied, nodding.

Here are some other words it’s best to avoid using as dialogue tags: laughed, snorted, sneered, giggled, frowned, grinned, gesticulated, wept, glowered, smirked, gulped, shrugged, swaggered.

There are some that I consider occasionally acceptable in very limited circumstances (although other editors would disagree), such as laugh and sigh. You certainly can’t laugh or sigh a whole sentence, but you might be able to do it for a single word.

‘Yes,’ Penelope sighed. ‘We got the news.’


Why does it matter?

Dialogue tags are mechanical – they exist to serve the story by indicating who is speaking. They are essential for good writing, but if they overwhelm or distract from the dialogue, they can damage the storytelling. The aim to keep in mind is that the dialogue tags should support the dialogue and allow the reader to remain immersed in the experience you have created for them.

Hannah McCall is a line-editor, copy-editor and proofreader who specialises in working with independent authors and publishers of commercial fiction, particularly speculative fiction. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

The Black Cat monthly round-up: September 2020

Big news for September: paper proofreads are back. It will be lovely to be take a break from working on-screen, and it will be good to get back to the simplicity of BSI marks. Now I just need to find a local post office that has reliable opening hours and fairly short queues…

What I’ve been working on

I had two projects to finish off from August: the copy-edit of the YA fantasy epic and the critique report for the historical fiction. My next project was the copy-edit of a memoir (I seem to be in the middle of a run of these from a publisher client). Then I moved on to the copy-edit of a novel that is the sequel to a book I worked on earlier in the year. It’s always a pleasure to work with returning clients, and to see how their stories are developing. September concluded with the copy-edit of the latest instalment in a sprawling historical saga.

Goodbye to academic editing

I haven’t taken on academic work in some time. I have been focusing my business on fiction editing, and that move seems to be paying off. I am – at the time of writing – booked up until January 2021. In light of that, I decided it was time to give up my approved proofreader status with Royal Holloway, University of London. It wasn’t fair to the students for me to keep my name on the list when I am highly unlikely to be available at short notice – and when, to be honest, I don’t particularly enjoy that sort of work. I will continue to take on memoirs and other ‘light’ non-fiction books from my publisher clients, but otherwise I will exclusively work on fiction.

What I’ve been reading

The Thursday Murder Club was one of the big releases in September, and I loved it. I read the whole thing in two days. I lent my copy to my mum, and she read the whole thing in two days. That’s a big compliment – she’s had my copy of The Adventures of Maud West for about six months now. Richard Osman has written a witty and engaging murder mystery, with some stand-out characters and moments of great pathos. I’ve started reading Antonia Hodgson’s The Silver Collar, and I am enjoying being back in Thomas Hawkins’ world. Hodgson is already delivering a powerhouse example of absorbing first-person narrative style.

The Black Cat monthly round-up: August 2020

I took a week or so off in August, and it was nice to have a break – I needed a few days to relax. I had my friend’s dog, Mini, for a while, and she went on some adventures with Ella, my spaniel. Ella seemed pleased to have a friend to hang out with, but the house is now back to being very quiet. In other news, I had to invest in an air conditioning unit to get me through the latest heatwave. I find it impossible to concentrate in the intense heat. Now I have to find storage space for it until I need it again next year…

What I’ve been working on

August saw the return of some of my regular publishing work, but not paper proofreads. I miss them, actually. Working on a screen all day is hard on the eyes, and I like the simplicity of BSI marks. But things change. My break means that I had only one competed project this month: the copy-edit of a memoir. I’m still working on the copy-edit of a YA fantasy epic that I had previously critiqued – it is really rewarding to see my advice turned into so much improvement. I’m also working on a critique of a novel set in Europe during the 11th century.

Professional development

I do a formal training course every year as part of my continuing professional development. I find myself picking up more and more potential copyright issues lately, and I thought it would be useful to take the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading’s course Copyright for Editorial Professionals. I don’t plan on clearing permissions myself, but it is good to have some knowledge of how to assess and deal with copyright issues.

What I’ve been reading

I finished Queenie and The Black Hawks, both of which I’d started reading in July. They are very, very different novels, but both worth reading. I pre-ordered Matt Haig’s latest novel, The Midnight Library, and I’m very glad I did. I loved it. It’s a beautiful book and a beacon of hope in the quite often dark period we find ourselves living through.

Looking ahead

I hope to organise a Zoom meeting for my CIEP local group; we are due a catch-up. And I’ll be taking a few more days off – my birthday approaches and I’ll have cake to eat.

The Black Cat monthly round-up: July 2020

Sally gangThis year has delivered another blow. It had been clear for a while that Sally was feeling her age – and the combined effects of multiple health issues. She was no longer enjoying life, and with kidney failure on the horizon, we had to say goodbye. She was seventeen years old (at least – she was a rescue and she was no younger than three when we adopted her). Here she is (the collie cross on the left) with the rest of my silly gang. The house is so quiet without her and her happy tip-taps.

What I’ve been working on

July was a busy month for work. I finished my copy-edit of an adult post-apocalyptic epic and the proofread of a young adult fantasy romance. The proofread was for a publishing client, and I was touched that the author took the time to request they send me her thanks for my work.

I moved on to the copy-edit of a beautiful collection of short stories. Speculative fiction is my favourite genre when I read for fun, and these stories were excellently constructed and told. I was lucky to follow that work with the copy-edit of a fantasy novel that had some of the best point-of-view work I have read from an indie author. I wrapped up the month with the complicated proofread of a semi-autobiographical novel set predominantly in Wales.

The monthly round-up_ JulyOn the blog

I published a long article on how to punctuate dialogue in fiction. The idea behind this post is to support my editorial reports (and it will probably help my critiques, too). It is an easily accessible resource for my clients to consult, and it goes into much more detail than I would be able to provide in each report I write. I find that the punctuation in and around dialogue is one of the things I regularly have to address when I copy-edit, and proofread; hopefully the article will be of help to writers who find punctuating speech difficult or a bit confusing. My aim is to produce a series of ‘fiction essentials’ posts.

What I’ve been reading

I wanted to spend some time hanging out with Martha Wells’ Murderbot, so I read Artificial Condition and thoroughly enjoyed it. I especially appreciated the introduction of ART – it takes great skill to construct a compelling character who happens to be a transport ship.

I’m in the middle (roughly) of reading Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. It’s a complex novel – in turns funny and heartbreaking, and at times frustrating. On a technical level, though, I love how the author has integrated social media into the storytelling. It works brilliantly. I’m also reading The Black Hawks by David Wragg. I nearly didn’t get past the first few pages – in which the main character poddles about with a hangover and has breakfast – but I’m glad I did. It has an interesting ensemble cast, a likeable central character, and plenty of action.

Looking ahead

I am expecting August to be a fairly quiet month. I have a book to review for the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, and I am looking forward to taking some time off.