A week or so ago, I had this to say about the Very Bad Punctuation in — among other things — the dialogue tags in a novel I just finished reading: I blame the publisher’s in-house copyeditor, who may deserve to have a chair thrown at them. (It would even be thematically appropriate, especially if the chair is burnt-orange in color.)
Look, I get it: Typos happen, and even the best copyeditors will sometimes miss a few little things. (There’s a reason why the industry standard is just to keep the error rate below five percent, about one per page in the printed book.) If an error shows up once or twice, it probably is just an overlooked typo, but if it happens over and over, it’s — dare I say it? — a pattern. A very bad habit (even worse than my habit of making bad puns based on obscure fiction references). A sign of either ignorance or apathy, neither of which is a trait you want in a copyeditor.
So today I have a collection of “glitches” all taken from the same source (a science-fantasy novel by Charles Stross, who is not to blame for the bad punctuation). This batch is also all about a specific error in dialogue tags. (Some identifying words — names, unusual verbs, etc. — have been changed from the originals, but the punctuation is entirely as seen in the novel.)
“Obviously the scope for mistakes is –” he shrugged.
“I mean, getting sick –” she paused.
“Punishment –” she stopped. “You weren’t kidding.”
“Well –” her eyes narrowed.
“I –” she stopped.
“You’d have much more, but your inheritance –” he essayed a shrug.
“I think –” he watched her.
“Is she at risk? Because if so –” she realized that her voice way rising.
“I don’t –” she took a deep breath.
“Yes, yes –” the inkeeper hurried out.
“‘Uncle’–” he shook his head.
“Although –” he kissed her.
“Too stupid to –” she noticed [POV character’s] empty glass.
“Oh my –” she stumbled.
“You’re –” he swallowed.
“And then –” she shrugged.
“He could have told –” for a moment [POV character] looked wistful.
“You must be –” his eyes widened.
In each of these, the mistake is the same, and each one has the same solution. The “dialogue tag” isn’t a valid tag, but it would be fine if punctuated as a separate sentence describing an associated action. (A mini-lesson on jargon: A dialogue tag is the she said part of a sentence. It can contain additional details, such as she said with a smile, but she smiled is NEVER correct by itself as a tag. Instead, She smiled is an associated action — what some people refer to as beats, borrowing from screenwriting jargon and playing fast and loose with definitions.) Look at these corrected versions:
“Obviously the scope for mistakes is –” He shrugged.
“I mean, getting sick –” She paused.
“Well –” Her eyes narrowed.
“You’d have much more, but your inheritance –” He essayed a shrug.
“I think –” He watched her.
“Is she at risk? Because if so –” She realized that her voice way rising.
“I don’t –” She took a deep breath.
See how simple that was? The only change I made was capitalizing the beginning of each “tag” to make it a separate sentence.
Unless you’re new here, you already know how I feel about tags claiming that characters shrug sentences. (Yes, you can shrug as if to say whatever you want, but that’s not the same thing. You know it’s not the same thing.) A character cannot widen his eyes a sentence; a character can stop speaking, yes, but stopping isn’t how she speaks.
The point of this post is not to embarrass or even complain (much) about the copyeditor responsible for all these mistakes. (It’s not as if Tor is going to listen to — or even know about — what I have to say about the apparent incompetence of one of their people anyway… But ohmigod, did they have some unpaid, gramatically clueless intern “correct” the punctuation and such in Mr. Stross’ manuscript?) The point of this post it to show examples found “in the wild” (in a published novel from a traditional publisher), and to explain both why they’re wrong and how to correct them, so future writers can avoid making similar mistakes in their own manuscripts (because obviously you can’t trust a publisher’s in-house copyeditor — assuming the publisher has one, which is unlikely these days — to catch and correctly fix any errors for you).
I’m sure you’re all just dying to know the source for this batch of “glitches.” It’s The Family Trade, the first book of The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. I have enjoyed the story and intend to read the rest of the series. I think I’d have liked it better if it hadn’t been deliberately and specifically compared to the series of novels that inspired it. Comparison tends to set up expectations in the reader, and… Well, there’s really not a strong resemblance — I was looking for one and still didn’t see it. *shrug* That’s the way to do it, though, right? Don’t make the similarities blatant… or even visible to the casual observer.