Marshall Payne (marshallpayne1) wrote,
Marshall Payne
marshallpayne1

That elusive pronoun: It!

When line-editing my latest novel, stillnotbored offered me a piece of advice she'd picked up from her agent, Tamar Rydzinski. Her recommendation was to watch out for the ambiguous use of the word "it." Jaime flagged several places in my manuscript where she thought I should be more specific. And while I used most of her suggestions, I was skeptical at first, finding many such uses of this pronoun in published writing and therefore not overly concerned. Until…

Last evening I began reading Naomi Novik's popular novel His Majesty's Dragon. Consider the use of the pronoun "it" in the first sentence of the first two paragraphs.

CHAPTER ONE

The deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea; a stroke might as easily bring down the man making it as the intended target. Laurence did not have time in the heat of battle to be surprised at the degree of resistance, but even through the numbing haze of battle-fever and the confusion of swords and pistol-smoke, he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain's face as the man shouted encouragement to his men.

It was still there shortly thereafter, when they met on the deck, and the man surrendered his sword, very reluctantly: as if he meant to draw it back. Laurence...


Frankly, the first sentence is just bad, and I'm surprised a copyeditor let it pass. It's the second half of the sentence after the semicolon that threw me at first: "a stroke might as easily bring down the man making it as the intended target." Here the problem is more with the word "stroke" since it's not until later in the paragraph that we learn that swordplay is involved. Still, I was unsure what the "it" was referring to, the deck of the ship, the choppy sea. An improvement might be:

The deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea. A stroke might as easily bring down the man wielding the sword as his intended target.


Now take the first "it" in the second paragraph. Because it's a new paragraph, the use of "it" referring to the antecedent "he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain's face" in the previous paragraph seems vague. I would rewrite the sentence as:

The Frenchman's scowl was still there shortly thereafter, when they met on the deck, and the man surrendered his sword, very reluctantly: as if he meant to draw it back.

These are delicate matters and each writer has to decide for himself what ultimately works, but anything that slows the reader down and makes them stumble and question the meaning of a sentence is not a good thing. Especially in the opening of the book. True, this is Novik's first novel, but I was a bit surprised that first sentence was left to stand.

Tags: copyediting hints and kinks, fiction writing
Subscribe

  • Fictional Snorts

    In fiction, characters laugh, giggle, chuckle, guffaw, cackle, snigger, chortle, and titter. They also snort. Snort? Yes, I know what a snort is.…

  • “Young writer…”

    On May 1st I put up a post riffing off Elizabeth Bear’s essay at Clarkeworld about how downbeat spec. fiction has become. In the comments,…

  • Writing progress

    Since January 1st I've written 31,968 words on the new UF with the working title of Dhoul. And better yet I finished three short stories and…

  • Post a new comment

    Error

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

  • 15 comments

  • Fictional Snorts

    In fiction, characters laugh, giggle, chuckle, guffaw, cackle, snigger, chortle, and titter. They also snort. Snort? Yes, I know what a snort is.…

  • “Young writer…”

    On May 1st I put up a post riffing off Elizabeth Bear’s essay at Clarkeworld about how downbeat spec. fiction has become. In the comments,…

  • Writing progress

    Since January 1st I've written 31,968 words on the new UF with the working title of Dhoul. And better yet I finished three short stories and…