The fallibility of success

calvin-hobbers bad writing

If anyone reading this is struggling to get ‘good’ work down on the page, take comfort. I am still a pretty inexperienced editor but I have now completed two commercial books and have done enough to draw certain conclusions

Here are my disillusionments:

  • Authors don’t understand commas. It’s possible that this is a US thing rather than an absolute error, but I find commas strewn around willy-nilly. Sub-clauses are only half indicated and dual-clauses (linked by ‘and’ or ‘but’, say) are broken unnecessarily. You can see some previous witterings on commas here
  • Professional, published authors sometimes stuff up point-of-view. I’ve just read a climax where the POV changed half a dozen times over the course of as many pages
  • Authors forget they have characters in scenes. They suggest actions that would leave them a smear between two docking spaceships. Their characters disappear and reappear at will
  • Characters can change remarkably between scenes
  • Authors do not understand that emotions flare instantly. Sometimes they’ll have paragraphs between a trigger and a response
  • Authors will have their characters abandon a loved-one in mid-mortal combat
  • Authors will not provide the reader with a solid, imaginable environment for their action, leaving their characters floating and the reader struggling to keep up with the writer’s ideas
  • Authors will set up Chekhov’s guns all over the place and then never go back to them. In one book I worked on the writer created a whole location, with mysterious characters and foreshadowing aplenty, and then never returned to it. It is the most boggling, unsatisfying thing (and there’s more on Chekhov’s guns here)
  • Authors will explain a stupidity too late and with a kind of off-the-cuff, ‘oh, that’s not important’-ness that simply doesn’t work
  • Authors will mess up cause and effect, like having a note written by a character who dies before they could get round to it
  • Authors will add really lame justifications to cover up the fact that they didn’t think of an issue until their beta-readers called them up on it
  • Authors will come up with limp plots and interminable pages of the protagonist agonising over what he’s going to do – and doing nothing. Yup, this one’s on me, folks

WritingHumour-Criticism

I write this not to damn the writers – really, this is the fault of a publishing system that demands writers produce work to order – but to reassure you. If you’re struggling with your writing, if you feel you’re not very good at some fundamental aspect of the craft, don’t worry. Even those who have ‘made it’ make the same mistakes.

board-928392_1920-300x211

That’s not to say that you’re allowed the same mistakes. Publishing is unfair; it’s fair harder on debut writers than it is on a proven commodity.

Whether a novel is published or not comes down to a simple cost/benefit analysis. How hard will the agent/editor have to work to get sales?

A submission by a debut author is like an audition piece. You need to demonstrate basic competency – the more errors, the more the editor/agent has to do to get it right: your writing can be crap if the potential rewards are worth the extra time it takes to get it up to scratch.

That’s why celebrities have a head start; the ‘guaranteed’ sales will justify any extra editing – or complete rewriting – that needs to be done.

It’s also why sequels are often less satisfying than the original. The market is there – and, indeed, a sequel will often boost sales of the first book. The cost/benefit scales have shifted. And the writer has, perhaps for the first time, a deadline to meet and all sorts of other pressures on their heads.

Dilbert

So yes, you need to get the basics right. But, after the first three chapters – and with the possible exception of literary fiction, upon which I am not qualified to comment – it’s story that will sell, not technical excellence.

Also, editors like me (and those far more experienced) are here to help. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled clauses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your steaming pen.

Get it down and move on.

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But, seriously

bad-comma

Woe unto the world. I have a new pet hate. A trend is arising within the bowels of the internet that I cannot abide. Every time I see it I want to spew my bile across the web, for there are some things up with which we will not put.

I’m speaking, of course, of inserting a comment after ‘But’ at the beginning of a sentence.

But, maybe any news is good news 

But apparently, it was more serious than we all thought even after Eifert had the surgery done

Yet, you don’t want a player who already has missed significant time to injury to blow his talent and opportunity

And a MegaDoom-article with multiple unforgivable errors:

So, the Bengals will probably see him start to slow down soon, though, he hasn’t shown that yet

But, he also used more baseball analogies to explain the Bengals’ need for more potency in the kick return game

But, he was the 13th ranked punt returner in the nation in 2015

Finally, here’s a Buzzfeed article with some slightly more amusing comma-fails

There are some of you out there who will be angry at the use of ‘but’ at the beginning of the sentence at all, but I’m sanguine about that. It’s the misuse of the comma that makes my blood boil. But (no comma) I’m coming across this error more and more as I trawl my way through blogs and news-sites. Maybe it’s an American thing – most of the culprits seem to be American, although that might just be where I’m looking – or maybe it’s simply a lack of editorial oversight. But (no comma) it must stop. Now.

I suppose I should admit to being a grammar pedant. Misused apostrophes irritate, sadden and amuse in almost equal measure. I just don’t understand the problem: the rules aren’t that hard to grasp, are they? But I’m used to them. Artistically speaking, miscomma-ing has far more impact and can jerk me out of a story in a heartbeat. Especially when a piece is supposed to have been professionally edited and a whole committee must have got together to make an incorrect decision.

Apostrophe

I ask you, Savers of Abingdon, what has this apostrophe ever done to you?

[Pedantry sidebar: it has never been ‘wrong’ to boldly split infinitives that no-one has split before. The ‘rule’ came from 19th century academics looking at Latin grammar and deciding that, since it was so superior to every other language, nothing that couldn’t be done in Latin could be done by anyone else ever.]

I try not to be too anal. I know that language changes and that usage evolves and develops. That’s part of the beauty of words. Similarly no-one came down and in a single act laid down punctuative laws; the system we use is a result of millennia of experimentation. If anyone’s interested I recommend Shady Characters by Keith Houston as an entertaining read.

And language and punctuation are still changing. Just a few decades ago no-one would have dared start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But.’ I use sentence fragments all the time. I am hardly a paragon of grammar knowledge, as can be judged from my score of 30% on a test aimed at 11-year-olds.

But (no comma) bad punctuation really grinds my gears. Punctuation, much more than words, is what writing is. Woebetide any novelist who dares approach me with a published work that doesn’t get this right.

And I’d literally erase literally unless we use literally literally.

The horror! The horror!

The more experienced I become the more annoyed I get by errors in published work. It doesn’t bother me as much with self-publishing, but maybe it should; we should look for the best in all fields, should we not?

This time it’s the overuse of exclamation marks that has got my proverbial Capra hircus. The excitement they create! The atmosphere of terror! Or guffaw of laughter! Yes, this one tiny mark can sum up all of these moods in one concise little package –

Except it can’t, can it? It doesn’t work like that. All it serves to do is tell us that the author couldn’t generate these reactions through context, through terse, tight little sentences to convey tension. They have to shout, to let us know exactly when to smile and when to gasp. It’s the punctuative equivalent of a man holding up a board so the audience of a sitcom knows when to laugh. It’s redundant and – worse – when you use too many too close together…

It’s a strange thing. I recently finished a book by a former best-novel winner of the British Science Fiction Awards and towards the end I ran into a barrage of exclamation marks. It was the final showdown, the central character in mortal peril, the very fate of the planet depending upon him, and… And I could barely focus on the words because I was so distracted by the punctuation.

I know what he was trying to do. To emphasise that he had to shout to be heard, to ramp up the peril and the sense of desperation. And it was in direct speech, which really is the only time when an exclamation mark is allowable.

But it didn’t work. And – just for him – here’s Rob’s guide to their use:

  1. They can only ever be used in direct speech, or when quoting a teenager’s diary. Or (just possibly) when we’re in first person narration.
  2. Never use more than one exclamation mark per scene
  3. If you can possibly avoid using one (without breaking another of the other rules, such as to never use an adverb to describe someone’s manner), do so. Even if that means recasting the sentence
  4. Don’t use exclamation marks

Simple!

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.

The third rule

The third rule:

Thou Shalt Join a Writing Group. And Thou Shalt Take Time to Find the Right Group for You. And Lo! Thine Words Shall Flow.

Ahem. Yes. The third rule is that you get feedback on your work before showing it to the people who matter.

It’s certainly possible to become a good – nay, great – writer on your own, in your room, beavering away in silence with only your MA in Creative Writing for company. The annals are littered with the names of the illustrious who’ve done such a thing – or many such things. And there’s no reason you can’t either. But take it from me, getting feedback on your work is a surefire way to get better quickly.

Writing groups seem, to my ignorant eyes, to be a fairly new phenomena, but the idea is as old as the hills. Wasn’t Frankenstein first performed in such a circle, sheltering huddled in an Alpine fastness? What was the Bloomsbury group but a way of exchanging ideas and feedback in a London ripe with zeitgeist? These examples – and I’m sure you can add more – can perhaps be seen as the prototypes from which a proliferation of groups have exploded in the last decade.

Seriously. Go on the internet. Type in ‘writing groups [name of town/region]’ and see what comes up. Even if you’re living in a cave in the Bora Bora mountains you’ll be able to find lots of groups that ‘meet’ online and all of whose interactions are carried out on the intraweb. You can barely escape the buggers. Don’t like the internet? Well, I’d be curious to know how you’re reading this, but anyway – just go into your nearest bookshop (indie for preference – they’re better about things like this) and ask. Simples.

When I first started writing seriously I joined a group based around people from my local Ottokar’s. That folded after a few months and I seriously considered joining a bigger one. But I didn’t. And that’s because I couldn’t really see what such a group could do for me. I bet that’s what you’re asking yourself now, isn’t it? Be honest. Why should I give my time to join a group when I already know how to write – when I’m at home with my craft?

It’s a fair question. And to some extent the answer depends on finding the right group for you. Because all these groups might be called something similar (the words ‘Writing Group’ is a clue), but the way they operate might be completely different. But here’s a quick outline of some of the things you can gain from joining:

Confidence

Technical advice

A reason for writing

Support

Contacts

Feedback on your work

Friends

A different perspective

A deeper understanding of ‘foreign’ genres

The Ottokar’s group I mentioned earlier mainly revolved around writing exercises – given out one meeting, reviewed the next. This was great fun, and in my memory I produced some really nice stuff – now sadly lost. But that’s not the best way to go about it, I think. A year and a half ago, when I moved to Abingdon, I joined the local group in part to give myself something to do in this curious little town. And in that year and a half my writing has improved greatly.

The format of the meetings is this: each fortnight we meet up in the proverbial church hall – pubs work well too – and any of us are free to bring an extract of our work; around 1,000 words. We then take it in turns to read this section, and then the rest of the group will provide feedback. And then we move to the next person.

The group is made up of eighteen people, and average attendance is somewhere from eight to twelve – the ideal number. Four or five people will read in a session. As with Fight Club, new members have to read .There are drawbacks, which I’ll get to later, but for now let me spell out the advantages.

First of all, feedback. Instant, unvarnished feedback on the section you’ve read. What works, what doesn’t. I still remember my first reading; I took the opening of Chivalry and saw it criticised for being too confusing, for not having a real sense of ‘here’. This can be painful. And the critics might, of course, be wrong. But it’s always a good idea to listen, to hear this, as they’re usually right.

Other readers are also excellent at picking out what you’re not good at, be it technical issues such as punctuation or formatting or aspects such as dialogue, It took me some time to realise that my dialogue was lacking, and since that was pointed out to me (twice) I knew I had to work harder on it. The result? Rapid (I hope) improvement.

It’s also incredibly good for you to give feedback to other people. This is a massively under-explored area, I feel. It’s really beneficial as a writer to look critically at the work of others, to see what’s working and what isn’t – and why that might be. It’s especially interesting to look at other genres or forms such as poetry and scriptwriting. I can’t overstress how helpful it is to push out of your comfort zone a little; even if you never write their yourself, to think about things in a whole different way can set you down roads you never knew existed.

I’m lucky to be in a group that’s good at balancing criticism with encouragement. It’s pointless to surround yourself with people who say everything is brilliant – that’s no help at all. Neither is it helpful to face a constant barrage of disparagement. Take your time, try out different groups, explore. You have to find a group that’s right for you, and that can take a little time. At this point I guess I’m supposed to say ‘if you don’t find one, set up your own’, but if you’re anything like me you won’t be bothered. So I won’t waste my breath.

The big disadvantage of the setup I’ve described? Well, if you’re a novel-writer you’re working with small extracts only. So, unless you read your whole work in bite-sized chunks, there’s no real feel for plot or character arcs. There’s no real answer for this – but there’re often people in the same position who’ll be willing to do novel-exchanges. And, if there are enough, you can form your own little spin-off ‘Fiction Action Group.’

And the Lord Spaketh: Go Forth and Multiply Thy Words. Take Communion With Thy Brethren in Letters, and All Shall Reap The Rewards.

Amen.

*          *          *

Just a quick reminded that next week I’ll be hosting the finale of Marissa De Luna’s ‘blog tour.’ Her novel The Bittersweet Vine is being launched on Monday (28/10/13) in London. The previous instalments of her tour can be found, as she describes…

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog.http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from Hockey player to author.

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on the 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog.http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

And finally… Stop 6 will feature the last part of the author interview on Robin Triggs blog, A writer’s Life on the 31st October.  Robin is another talented writer. I have read two of his manuscripts and can’t wait to read the third. The minute you read his blog – even if you don’t write – you will want to pick up a pen. Witty and insightful it’s a great read!

(Marissa’s words, not mine – thanks Marissa!)