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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Noel Froese

Real Questions From a Real Client: Patrick Canning

It’s hard to know what kinds of questions to ask after getting your edited manuscript back from an editor. You might worry that your questions are too simple, or that you should already know the answers, or that your editor will think you’re challenging their expertise. But having questions, even small ones is part of growing as a writer. Your questions might even help your editor gain clarity on why they made certain edits. I know that has been the case in my experience. Every question my clients ask me helps me become more thoughtful, which gives me more depth as an editor. Some questions are easy. Some force me to revisit the manuscript. Sometimes I even change my mind.

Author Patrick Canning is especially good at asking questions. I’ve worked with him on four books over the last three years and his questions let me know that he’s thinking about his writing at a very detailed level. Every word matters. For the most part, he gets why I make the changes I make. But when he’s not sure, he asks—even if it’s something he could google—and I think his questions elicit some pretty good responses.

Sometimes it helps to know what other authors are asking their editors, so I’m sharing the questions and answers from our correspondence here. Hopefully, this will help you gain courage and confidence in your own process.

As you read the questions and answers, you might notice that some are more subjective than others. That’s because they came from different kinds of edits. The more technical questions and answers come from copyedits, whereas the answers that are more subjective and contextual came from a line edit. To read more about the difference between these kinds of edits, check out my blog post Types of Editing and How to Figure Out Which One You Need.

And be sure to visit Patrick’s website and check out his books.

*Questions and answers may be edited for clarity and length.

* Any reference to “Chicago” is a reference to The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard for works of fiction in the United States.

Questions and Answers with Patrick Canning

PC: On a word like aficionado/afficionado, I had found both spellings online and essentially based the decision on Google suggesting the former. Is there a master dictionary you reference from (and that I should refer to as well)? I believe it is the same situation with practiced/practised.

Also, I have a few instances of using 'surely' to begin a sentence and failing to use a comma afterwards. I don't know if this is more of an artistic decision than grammatical, but if something flows better without the comma, in dialogue for instance, is it considered permissible to let that fly sometimes? Or is it better to maintain consistency within the work?

TNF: The difference between aficionado and afficionado or practiced and practised is of the American/British variety with the latter in each case being British. I used to check these as it is a British dictionary that differentiates between American and British spellings. For American spelling and usage, I use

As for your question about "surely". My answer, unfortunately, is something of a non-answer as Chicago does not directly address this and an online search will take you into a rabbit warren of dead ends. There is some consensus that when an adverb is modifying an entire sentence, a comma should be used, but a comma should not be used when the adverb is only modifying the verb in the clause. Sometimes, trying to get clarity on this can turn your head inside out.

When I asked my editors group about it, I got a mixed response. Some say to use the comma; others say they wouldn't. I went back and reviewed my edits in your manuscript for this question and to be quite honest, I would now change a few. So, I guess it is an artistic decision, but one that should be made with grammatical awareness. Though that holds true for all artistic decisions when it comes to writing.

So, if you don't like the commas and feel like they interrupt the flow, reject those changes; and if you get a letter from a raging pedant someday, you can be assured that you've sought professional advice and that your professional has sought professional advice. Also, authors break the rules all the time. It's just important that they are broken with purpose and not merely with a wanton disregard for standards.

PC: I have only two questions. While a teacher's explanation is preferred over a textbook's, I'm sure I can find both of these answers on my own, so feel free to tell me to take a hike. I know these changes are correct, I'm just asking for my own edification.

1) With regard to the use of commas between multiple adjectives preceding a noun. Ex: The pair found themselves in a classic, Cryptofauna predicament. …a warm, summer night… …a shivering, green flag… Are we removing these commas because in these cases the first adjective is essentially modifying the second? 2) With regard to a slang-apostrophe’d word at the end of a sentence (ex: showin'), we've placed its apostrophe outside the period. I thought all manner of quotations were kept outside the punctuation. I’m guessing the obvious answer is that in this case the apostrophe is a part of the word, and not a quotation issue.

TNF: Yes, in those cases, you have what are called compound adjectives. They essentially build on one another and there is a correct order to them. I don't know it off the top of my head (I always have to look it up), but as a native English speaker, I know when they've been put together incorrectly. The type of adjective that takes a comma is called a coordinate adjective and the easy way to know whether you're dealing with coordinate adjectives or compound adjectives is to put an "and" between them. If the sentence still makes sense with the "and" then you need a comma. (Maybe it helps to remember that "and" is a coordinating conjunction, meaning it needs a comma before it when it joins clauses, and so, when it joins two adjectives, it can be replaced by a comma.) Sometimes a pair of adjectives sounds kinda of okay with an "and" but still not quite right, that's when I look up adjective order and see how the adjectives being used fit into the order.

"A warm summer night" is a good example of this. It almost sounds right to say a "warm and summer night." But not quite. "Summer" is an essential qualifier to "night" because it tells us the time of year, and warm is a quality or opinion. If you look up the adjective list, you'll see that quality or opinion adjectives, come before purpose or qualifier adjectives, so this is a compound adjective phrase.

And with the apostrophed words, you also figured it out. In those instances, the mark is not a single quotation mark, it is an apostrophe, so it is not subject to the rules of quotation marks. It is actually a stand-in for the missing letter(s) in the word and, therefore, part of the word, so it needs to go inside the punctuation.

It's great you're picking up on these things. Some writers don't care, but I happen to think that understanding this stuff is essential to being able to express ideas.

PC: Is there a reason for favoring the 'almost' over 'nearly'? Similarly, is replacing 'and so on' with 'etc.' done from an economy of words perspective? I don't disagree with either, just curious about the underlying reasoning.

TNF: Well, they do have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably. And they are used almost equally. "almost" 28 times, "nearly" 26 times. My preference I think has to do with the sounds they make. "Almost" is a more open sound and uses more breath, whereas "nearly" is more closed and nasally. As a result, I think that "nearly" has the feel of someone trying to be more precise, and "almost" is a bit more casual. So I think I was making adjustments according to that logic. But the truth is that they both mean 90-95% of whatever action they are modifying. So, you can use whichever you like better.

PC: I don't know if this is a question you can answer, but do you think I can retain certain stylistic choices that may not be 100% correctly worded? I'm thinking of sentences starting with the word probably (Probably he doesn’t…) or using 'too' instead of 'also' (and too, he…). This is probably just a judgment call that needs to be made on my end, but I guess I'm curious if these are suggestions with an aim of technical correctness, or if you think these less common phrasings bump us out of the narrative flow.

TNF: Great question! So, there is a program I use called (that you can use, too, btw) that analyses manuscripts and one of the things it singles out is the frequency of the use of -ly adverbs. Now, I would never just get rid of the adverbs because a program said they were used a lot, but it helps me find them and then I use my own judgment on whether or not the sentence needs it, or if a stronger verb can be used instead. The site is currently down for maintenance so I can't access the report for your manuscript right now to tell you exactly how many times "probably" was used, but I can tell you one of the rules I went by for this specific word. So, in conversation, we use "probably" a lot, as we do a lot of other adverbs which is why prose that uses them sounds conversational. But really, your narrator should be telling your reader what to think about the situation. This is actually a gift to the reader. They don't have to work super hard to figure out the meaning. Sentences that started out with "probably" left room for the reader to question what they were being told. Well, does he or doesn't he...? So, when "probably" appeared in dialogue, I tended to leave it since characters, aka people, don't always have all the answers and are often speculating about what is real in a situation (and we're lazy speakers). Whereas when "probably" appeared in the narrative, I tended to take it out in order to clarify a character's motivation, action, etc. (and because prose may be abundant, but it shouldn't be lazy). Does that make sense?

This may be an instance of your "Reading Buddy Narrator" coming through as well. Ultimately, like other suggestions, you can nix this one too, but hopefully, my answer gives you a perspective you might not have thought about, and it either changes your perspective or helps you clarify your own reasons for writing it the way you did.

As for "too" and "also", these are interchangeable as well. However, "too" often requires more punctuation -- a comma on each side if used in the middle of a sentence and a comma before if used at the end of a sentence. "Also" can often be worked in without any commas.

Your style is marked by long and complex sentences with a lot of momentum. And while I wouldn't want to change that because it makes your stories fun and easy to read, I do think it's okay to introduce some simplicity here and there and build some rests in, like there are in music. Both of the issues discussed here are small ways of doing that. I think it also helps you as the writer slow down a bit and see where maybe you haven't addressed something important story-wise because you're riding the momentum of the sentences, if that makes sense

A Final Note

You may have noticed many instances where I tell Patrick that at the end of the day, even though we are following a specific style guide or set of rules, he can make a decision contrary to those rules as long as it is made with intention (I might also add consistency). There are many publishers who have their own house style that doesn't conform exactly to a specific guide like Chicago or AP. Also, while it's advisable for authors to follow the rules of grammar, fiction authors have some leeway because, in addition to using language to convey information, they are using it to create a feeling or mood. That's why sentence fragments are so common in fiction. Just remember if you're going to break a rule, have a good reason for it that serves your overall story. And if you're unsure, ask your editor.

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