Truth and beauty

Life in novels isn’t like it is in the real world. No matter how closely you follow a character – even if you occupy her head – she’ll not tell you everything. You don’t hear when she’s hungry or if she needs the toilet – not unless it’s important to the plot or the character. You’re not aware of every emotion, every thought. Similarly, writers don’t tell you of every movement a character makes, even if you’re watching them closely. You assume their chest is rising and falling as they breathe. You don’t need to be told unless there’s something significant therein.

Readers know this. It’s an unwritten, undiscussed contract. Writers don’t give you a full story, only the edited highlights. We – writers and readers both – choose beauty over truth.

A few years ago I heard tell of a writer of graphic novels. Highly thought of at the time (I forget his name and what he was working on, but it’s not important), it was the way he handled dialogue that caught the attention. He’d get a cast, sit them round and made them read their lines. Sometimes they’d improvise them. The point is that the writer replicated these lines as they were delivered. Every hesitation, cough, stumble, was recreated on the page.

Dialogue is the most obvious area where we look for beauty over truth. Think about it. When we’re talking we omit words all the time, or repeat pointless information adding nothing. We don’t punctuate, just ramble on with infinite sub-clauses. To follow something like that on the page would be almost impossible. We’d lose interest, become frustrated – reading should be a pleasure not a chore. So writers edit it down for us. Leave us with just a little taste so we can add the detail, subconsciously, in our minds.

People in books also use real names more than they do down the pub. When writing it’s really handy to let the audience know who’s being talked to/is talking without labouring the point. Hence… “What do you think, Jessica? Will it work?” That immediately tells is a) someone is talking to Jessica, and b) it’s not Jessica talking. Do we do this in real life? Nah. Not often. In large groups, maybe, but most of the time it’s obvious who we’re talking to from the way we’re facing or the tone of voice and volume we’re using.

Names are another area of lieage. We all know more than one person with the same name, right? I know several Sally’s and a few Dave’s. Not allowed in fiction, not unless that’s the point of the novel. Everyone must have their own unique moniker. More than that, we can’t have even similar names: Jessica and Jennifer, for example, would be right out. We’ve also got to be careful of names that suggest ethnicity or class. In the real world we might actually know an heiress called Tracy or a Turk called Terry but it strikes the reader as so strange that they expect it to be explained. You don’t want to read (or write) an irrelevant back-story.

So there you go. Writers lie. They lie to us all the time. Because beauty, in this context, is a hell of a lot more important than truth. We don’t care how many times our protagonist goes to the toilet. Our antagonist is rarely bothered by the financial consequences of buying a deserted volcano and housing his support staff. Books lie. And they’re all the better for it.

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Comma chameleon

“I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.”

Flaubert

 It always astounds me when writers say they’re no good at punctuation. I’ve heard it – well, not exactly a lot, but enough for it to strike me. I mean, I’m no grammarian; I’m barely conscious of dangling modifiers and wouldn’t recognise a past-participle if it slapped me in the face. But punctuation? Surely that’s what writing’s all about.

There are a few things here. First there’s the basic rules. What a comma, what a colon, what an exclamation mark actually does. I’m not concerned with that – everyone who calls themselves a writer knows these things. If not, a good proof-reader, paid for or donating time, can sort you out – and this is precisely what people must do if they’re not confident. Nothing makes you seem more of an amateur than by misusing a comma.

Commas are, by the way, the most delicate, beautiful and abused of all punctuation marks. Semi-colons are more robust; they can take it, the little sluts.

But the heart of writing is in punctuation. Punctuation creates a writer’s style. Punctuation is the art. Words? Pah! Words are mere fripperies, mere ornamentation. Punctuation’s the invisible, the unnoticed; it’s the bits that only draw attention to themselves if misused. These little, almost ethereal, blobs of ink give a writer their voice. They control pace, feel, atmosphere; tell you when to breath and when to hurtle onwards, when to whisper, when to shout. What are there, eight basic punctuation marks? Add in paragraph breaks – another key weapon in the writer’s arsenal – and you have the masters of the writing world.

You’re waiting for examples, aren’t you? Damn. I knew it’d come to this. Do you know how hard it is to come up with a good example at short notice? Well, here’s a paragraph from Night Shift, rewritten and replacing all the different punctuations with full stops. I think you’ll agree its pretty bad.

I tried to keep my companions in view. My eyes were watering badly. It was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements in my peripheral vision. I prayed it was them. The last thing I wanted was to be alone right now. I felt a sharp pain over my left eye. A piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask. I brushed it aside. I screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

But using short snappy sentences has its place in writing. It can create tension. It leaves blunt information. Has a sort of deadening effect. Can be very useful if you want to create that feeling. Often used in pure action setups.

I tried to keep my companions in view, but my eyes were watering badly and it was hard enough to stay on course; I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision, and I prayed it was them: the last thing I wanted was to be alone right now – and then I felt a sharp pain over my left eye, a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask: I brushed it aside, then screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

Doesn’t work with commas all the way through. I tried it and it’s just too poor to bother showing. The version above barely scrapes it; this too is pretty bad. A mix of commas, dashes, colons and semi-colons just about keep it going, even though it’s something of a stretch. Why would you want to do this? Well, long, flowing sentences are suited for dream-like sections, where purple-prose can flow and twist and draw out poetic beauty the likes of which I am singularly failing to demonstrate.

The version I went with, by the way, goes like this…

I tried to keep my companions in view but my eyes were watering badly and it was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision, and I prayed it was them; the last thing I wanted was to be alone right now. I felt a sharp pain over my left eye; a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask. I brushed it aside, then screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

In almost all cases a middle-line is called for. And varying the style is something you’ll do instinctively as you write, as you feel the ebb and flow and the pace of the scene you’re working on. Just – just believe me, punctuation matters. Use it to indicate hesitation, awkward silences, breathlessness, eager enthusiasm, naivety. Panic! Patience.

Here’s another version that’d probably work:

I tried to keep my companions in view but my eyes were watering badly. It was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision; I prayed it was them. The last thing I wanted was to be alone right now.

    A sharp pain over my left eye – a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask.

    I brushed it aside: screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

Write Chandler-like action scenes with your short staccato-ness. Write prose like Pratchett with clauses and sub-clauses and a rolling flow. Grammar is intrinsically linked, of course, but don’t forget – please don’t forget – the role of those humble spots of ink that make or break your work.

Wanna be a writer? Learn the art of punctuation.

Oh, and exclamation marks should only ever be used in conversation, and even then only one per chapter, max. Thank you. No need to shout, we’re right here.

Issues of editing

Feeling frazzled. This week’s blog may be a bit disorganised, directionless. That’s because it’s crunch time. No more messing about. The votes are in, the deadline upon me and I’ve a better idea than ever about what works and what doesn’t about Night Shift. I mean, nine drafts – by this point you think I’d know it all, right?

Nah.

But I do have a better idea of what questions to ask.

Over the years I’ve built up a small but perfectly formed group of friends and writers who I can call upon for help and advice. The payoff is, of course, being willing to do the same for them. This time I’ve been particularly mean: due to my inability to set realistic deadlines I’ve begged for one last read-through to hopefully catch all the typos, inconsistencies and miscellaneous errors that have escaped the net so far.

Because the last rewrite was a big one. This was the one requested by the agent. For her I hacked up certain sections and recast the sequence: emptied some scenes, created new ones and, basically, did a lot of fresh, virgin writing. I did this over the course of around a month and a half; and, if you’ve ever met a writer, you’ll know that this creates a whole lot of agonising. Is what I’ve done any good? Does it disrupt the flow, mangle the pace, hurt the brain? Do I use too many rhetorical questions?

And of course I didn’t give myself anything like long enough to read through my work objectively and answer these questions myself.

So I’ve turned to my friends and colleagues, promising vague promises of wine and nibbles and eternal gratitude. I turned to my parents. I asked my fiancée. I was tempted to send out a blanket request for readers on Twitter, but I’m too paranoid for that.

Friends. Great, aren’t they?

And so this is the week that the responses come a-tricklin’ in. Trying to get a consensus, I am, on what works and what doesn’t.

One thing I’ve learnt (too late) over the many years I’ve been writing is that lack of direct criticism doesn’t actually mean a section is any good. I’ve had a tendency to use placeholders in my work, like dipping a toe to test the water. I’ve been assuming that if something doesn’t work then someone will comment on it. Nope. Ain’t the case. I can see that now. If it doesn’t feel right to you then it isn’t right full-stop.

And in this particular run-through – with a definite, tangible end to it – I decided to ask specific questions of my readers. These were only to be read upon completion of the novel (‘upon completion of the novel’ – how pretentious am I?) because I wanted to tap the readers’ emotional centres and not their logic-brains. These were mostly referring to the new sections and altered parts because they’re the bits I’m less able to assess: and, whilst much of the novel has evolved over a year and a half, these sections are essentially first draft.

It occurs to me that some of you might be interested in these questions. Some are specific to Night Shift; others are more general. And, in my eternal arrogance, I wonder if it might help any of you writers out there to reproduce them here…

General points:

  • The ending: does it work? Is it properly foreshadowed and not too obvious?
  • Foreshadowing: are there too many mentions of a particular item? Not enough?
  • Are there too many rhetorical questions? [Yes, I really did ask this: I wasn’t just joking earlier]
  • Are there any internal contradictions?
  • Are the characterisations consistent?
  • Is there anywhere I’m egregiously ‘showing not telling’?
  • Are there any sections that drag?
  • Do I over-describe characters?
  • Are there any sections you find repetitive?
  • Is there anything ‘missing’? Any sections/ideas hinted at but not explored that you think should be?
  • Did you know what was going on at all times?
  • Any ‘Chekov’s gun’s in there at all?

 And more specific questions:

  • Are the chapters of a consistent length?
  • Is the main character’s past laid on too heavily? Too much? Or not enough?
  • Should I condense the conversations between [pages] into a single section?
  • Are [character’s] injuries too severe for survival?
  • [Character] uses people’s surnames. Is it clear to whom she’s referring? Should this be changed, this trait abandoned?
  • Masks: do the references to masks work? Is there a theme here, a thread? Does it work, or is it just confusing? [this is a fairly specific reference; I don’t just have an obsession with face-coverings]

Is anyone actually interested in this? Or am I merely appeasing my own vanity this week? As I said, I’m a bit frazzled at the moment – all my chickens coming home to mix their metaphors and stir their pots.

Does anyone else have any questions they ask themselves when editing a project? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Revisiting the classics

My Mum, when I was younger, used to read me the books of Ellis Peters. I loved them. In my innocence and naivety I never realised that they are, in fact, pretty poor. The crime-solving (and let’s not forget that the Ellis Peters award is still given to the best historical crime novel every year) is weak; the romances that always went hand-in-hand aren’t even worthy of Mills and Boon. But they’re loved and still a most pleasant way of passing an evening.

Same goes for Agatha Christie. Hugely important, the first name of the Golden Age of crime-writing – but are her novels actually that good? Not really. You couldn’t expect them to get published today.

See, I have a theory that books – like popular music, in fact – are much better now than they ever were in the past. There’s been a massive improvement throughout literature and now classics are held as such more for what they did at the time than for their actual literary merit.

Take James Joyce’s Ulysses. By all accounts that’s a fearsomely difficult read. Can you really hold that out as genius when most people can’t get past the first few chapters? Take Philip K. Dick. Now PKD’s been a huge influence on me. He was, is, and will be the first person you turn to if you want ideas. Just look at the influence he’s had on movies, all the novels he’s had adapted. But he too was, by modern standards, a pretty poor writer. He jumps from mind to mind so you often don’t know whose thoughts you’re sharing. His prose is unnecessarily complicated. You often have to re-read his paragraphs three times to get what he means.

(Same goes for William Gibson’s Neuromancer, by the way. Another genre-progenitor that’s fearsomely difficult to read. Asimov’s not great either.)

This is not a criticism of these particular authors, by the way. I admire them all hugely and it’s never possible to divorce a writer from the times and circumstances they wrote in. Without them we’d never have their successors – like me. If I can write it’s because I was raised on Peters and Christie, Tolkien and Dick. They taught me a huge amount about literature and stories and craft.                                                                                

But do they stand up as good novels by modern standards? I say no. I say they’d never be published today.

I’ve never read any of Dan Brown’s stuff; seems to me there’re a lot better things to choose in a big old literary market. But everyone who enjoys his books says that they’re incredibly easy to read. Isn’t that, first and last, what we need from a novel? Something that sucks you in, drags you along, and turns you out as a slightly different person at the end? In terms of craft I think you could make a pretty decent argument that he’s a better writer than all the aforementioned.

And what of Tolkien? Lord of the Rings – most popular novel in the UK, a creation that’s influenced every fantasy (and historical) novel ever since. Single-handedly this work created the epic fantasy genre.

But there are faults. Some, the songs and poems, I don’t actually mind so much. But the characters are all drawn so shallowly. Only Sean Bean shows any real character development. The plot holes are legendary. It’s my assertion that this book never would have been published in today’s market – certainly without a hell of a lot of editing. Ditto Kerouac’s On the Road. Not sure about Catcher in the Rye. I reckon Catch-22 might have scraped into print, although the non-linear structure might frighten more than a few agents.

For all the talk of a decline in literacy in the Western world, the standard required to be published has improved enormously. More than that, the number of good quality books that are being rejected for publication is incredible. Is this a sign of the democratisation of reading? That it’s not just a hobby for the ‘intellectual’, the ‘elite’; reading is now for everyone and the hoi polloi require books that are easy to read – even if they lack the depth and psychological truths of a Virginia Woolf?

Maybe that’s a bit cynical. Maybe it’s that we expect more these days. We expect reading to be a pleasure, not a duty. We expect books to be properly constructed, the laws of point-of-view to be obeyed strictly. We demand an absence of errors. And whilst a good story can still blind us to obvious plot-holes, we’re looking for these things more and more. We’re less forgiving, perhaps.

It’d be fascinating to know what the luminaries make of our modern tastes. Would Tolkien enjoy Terry Pratchett? Would PKD be a fan of Ann Leckie? Dostoyevsky – would he like Akunin?

In a hundred years time which of today’s books will be classics? And will they be the ones that are most read?