Here’s a tip for any aspiring writer: get yourself a bloody good copy editor.
Earlier this year my publisher put me in touch with a chap called Marcus Trower. His job was – and is – to go through my unedited manuscripts with a fine-tooth comb (a nit comb would be more accurate) and highlight all the grammatical howlers, strangled sub-clauses and half-baked sentences lurking there.
Marcus is very good at grammar. For many years, since I bagged an A grade in English at A-level, I have laboured under the misapprehension that I was, too. I now know that, in fact I know nothing. I am the literary equivalent of a man who drives a car for a living without knowing how to change the spark plugs, or indeed what the spark plugs are.
Here’s an example of what I mean. In the original draft of The Bug House I wrote the following sentence:
Vos abandons his car outside the village hall and walks towards the flashing lights, ducking under the flapping tape and picking his way through the uniforms and white-suited Crime Scene Investigators to the gates of Enrico Cabaljo’s house.’
According to Marcus, however:
When you use participial phrases containing present participles – in this case, the participial phrase is ‘ducking under the flapping tape and picking his way through the uniforms and white-suited Crime Scene Investigators to the gates of Enrico Cabaljo’s house’, where the present participles are ‘ducking’ and ‘picking’ – it is understood that the action is taking place at the same time as the action in the main clause, which in this instance is ‘Vos abandons his car outside the village hall and walks towards the flashing lights’.
However, Vos can’t be parking, walking towards the flashing lights, ducking under the tape and picking his way all at the same time, so the sentence structure needs to be changed to show a series of actions occurs.
See what I mean? Until I read that I had no idea that such a thing as a ‘participial phrase’ existed, let alone that I had used one containing present participle – and wrongly, to boot.
But the genius of Marcus is that he not only sees the fault, he knows how to correct it. Thus, at his suggestion, the mangled original sentence was transformed into this sleek, grammatically-correct and vastly improved version:
Vos abandons his car outside the village hall, walks towards the flashing lights, ducks under the flapping tape and picks his way through the…
To extend the car analogy further, a good copy editor is like a good mechanic – and I would urge any writer with an unpublished manuscript to invest a few quid in getting it fine-tuned by an expert.