Archive for category Literature

Parenthetically speaking.

Consider this.

Would it really be quite decent (or prudent) to tell her he was dead?

The above sentence is from my novel. What we’re interested in here is the use of parenthesis or brackets, which I’m told I over-use, and which (I’m told) adds difficulty for the reader.

So – consider the following:

Would it really be quite decent (or prudent) to tell her he was dead?
Would it really be quite decent – or prudent – to tell her he was dead?
Would it really be quite decent, or prudent, to tell her he was dead?
Would it really be quite decent or prudent to tell her he was dead?

The question is: can and does the “average” reader mark the difference, appreciate the distinction? Or does the appearance of an “unfamiliar” punctuation mark (the brackets) simply act as a distraction, a stumbling block, a jagged impediment?

Consider, too, the following:

My hair is shoulder-length and mousy and (outside the private domain) invariably worn tied or clipped back. I had been a (the) DCI in Amberton for two and half years, having briefly been a DI in the Met. Amberton has a population of eighty thousand or so souls and a slower pace of life than the capital. Friends and colleagues had assumed (quite correctly) that I had craved a quiet (or quieter) life. I had, indeed, begun to find London brittle and dispiriting.

Here it is again with the parenthesis replaced with dashes:

My hair is shoulder-length and mousy and – outside the private domain – invariably worn tied or clipped back. I had been a – the – DCI in Amberton for two and half years, having briefly been a DI in the Met. Amberton has a population of eighty thousand or so souls and a slower pace of life than the capital. Friends and colleagues had assumed – quite correctly – that I had craved a quiet – or quieter – life. I had, indeed, begun to find London brittle and dispiriting.

To me, there is something of the theatrical aside to the parenthetic content, a change of tone, an extra thought – some of which might survive with the use of dashes, though it is distinctly weakened. With merely commas or no punctuation at all, this (the tone change, the extra thought) is entirely lost, and the meaning (not so subtly) changed.

Here it is again with the dashes stripped out and not replaced:

My hair is shoulder-length and mousy and outside the private domain invariably worn tied or clipped back. I had been a, the, DCI in Amberton for two and half years, having briefly been a DI in the Met. Amberton has a population of eighty thousand or so souls and a slower pace of life than the capital. Friends and colleagues had assumed quite correctly that I had craved a quiet or quieter life. I had, indeed, begun to find London brittle and dispiriting.

It seems to me a lot of tone and voice is lost in the above if one compares it with its parenthetic counterpart.

But… perhaps all this sounds rather too precious, and one should simply go with reader feedback. In this word-processing, digital age, these things are easily changed. It would take very little in the way of effort to swap out the parenthesis for dashes and/or commas, and I could later argue that brackets – as a punctuation – are just too visible for the “average” reader, too much of a surprise. They’re not used to seeing it, I would say regretfully, and don’t quite understand why it’s there, nor how they should read it. Nuance, I would add snarkily, must be sacrificed on the altar of marketability.

I worry about this, of course. I fear the ability to read generally has been (is being) degraded, that poetry and its cousin, style, are now regarded with suspicion and mistrust. Will I, then, be searching and replacing my brackets? No (actually), I think not. There are so many other reasons for the novel to fail (in terms of the market), its subject matter for a start. The “average” reader is not going to be clamouring for my book anyway, parenthesis or not. And there’s surely something to be said for authorial integrity, for an artistic rather than a mercantile decision.

You can be sure, though, I’ll have it in mind for my next novel (partially built and in abeyance), which will be written third-person (the “average” reader is more used to this) and unburdened with “eccentric” punctuation.

I’ll end on this:

While I was sleeping in Italy, I heard news from overseas – England to be precise – that affected me emotionally and made me want to write a poem in protest.

Or:

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

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Writing Services.

Have you written a novel? Well done! Pat yourself on the back. That’s a BIG achievement. You’ve every reason to be proud. But maybe, just MAYBE, you need a little help! I’m Doctor John, your manuscript doctor.

Yes, in your enthusiasm for getting your story done and OUT THERE, you’ve neglected the boring but IMPORTANT part – the writing. That’s where I come in. For a modest FEE, I can take your novel and make it into a book ready for an agent or publisher and the world. Remember, it’s all about YOU and your most important creation – your STORY.

It’s tedious, isn’t it? Worrying about boring things like punctuation and grammar and (don’t be silly) style when YOU just want to tell your story. I’m here to help with that. Send me your three less-good pages – and, hey, why not consult your friends to help you decide – and I’ll send them back to you EDITED. Not PROOF READ (that comes as a happy incidental), but EDITED. For FREE. Yes, your three worst (sorry, least-good) pages edited to the high standard agents and publishers demand. And, you know what, where I can detect a style, I’ll bake it right into the EDIT for you.

Once you have your FREE, fully EDITED three pages, do with them as you wish. They’re yours. Read them, learn from them, show them to your friends (the same ones you consulted earlier). They’re my no-obligation GIFT to you. After all, it’s your novel, your story, your work; I just helped a bit here and there with the boring part. Enjoy your writing and your life.

HOWEVER…  if you find yourself thinking, “Hey, wouldn’t it be REALLY great if all my novel were that well-written?” – well, hey, why not hire me. I’m yours for a one-off, flat fee of £10,000. Imagine. A mere £10,000 to make your novel, your story, your pride and joy, the best it can be. And while, of course, I can’t guarantee an agent or a publisher, I can guarantee you’ll have your special story as special as it can be.

But, hey, no worry, no obligation – read those magic three pages, talk to your friends, and ask yourself, “Is this story, my story, worth £10,000?”

I’m here for YOU! You know where to find me.

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It’s a brilliant story, but…

Have you ever been offered money to write someone else’s book? I have. Indeed, I imagine it’s fairly common. Usually, the offerer has a novel that needs a bit of EPR (editing/polishing/redrafting), but, having busy, complicated lives, they don’t have the time to do it… so would I be interested in doing it – for, say, £500 (okay, £1000)? I mean, yeah… because it’s just about a bit of time.

These askers are wannabe authors who don’t think a little thing like not being able to write should hold them back. What they know – or think they know – is that you can write. I mean, shit, you have a blog and you know how to punctuate; and didn’t you say you’d written a novel? I’m sure I heard you say something like that while I was mentioning how busy and complicated my life was – what with the divorce and kids and all.

Should you ever find yourself the askee in this situation, say no… but temporize. Say you’ll look at the manuscript without committing. The look will be instructive.

You’ll be briefly impressed. The first page will be near-perfect, though there might be a clunky sentence lurking in there that alerts the discerning to the car-crash to come. By page two, the standard will have slipped slightly, and by page three the deterioration will be marked, noticeable to anyone literate. The standard of page one will never be recovered.

This type of author will often have read writer self-help books on How to Write a Killer First ParagraphPageChapter… (you get the picture), but their efforts will generally never extend much beyond the Killer First Page, which will probably have been polished to death with the odd smear still in evidence.

Errors will be basic and inconsistent: “Okay”, she said. Or: “Okay” she said. Tenses will be mixed inappropriately as the effort to write becomes exhausting and tiresome – and isn’t it about the story, anyway? Shit, you can hire someone to sort out the clerical stuff. Except that the errors aren’t just clerical. The novel doesn’t just require the addition of appropriate punctuation; it requires rewriting. Sentences at first, then paragraphs, then pages, and then – disastrously – you’ll find yourself drowning in the realisation that their writing has entirely fallen apart. Indeed, that that Killer First Page cost them an enormous amount of time and effort. You will also know that £500 or £1000 isn’t going to cut it in terms of compensation for the work involved in effecting the necessary repairs. Notice I’ve said nothing about the story here, which (in this role) is none of my business.

Would I do it, then, for £10,000? Essentially, you’re being asked to take a scrappy manuscript and make it immaculate in terms of the writing. I can do that – and for £10,000 it would be worth the effort. The problem is the human considerations. Taking an old person’s life savings to edit, polish, and redraft the novel about their father’s experiences in WWII would not feel cool. I’d be less uncomfortable taking the money from a millionaire who wanted the treatment for his post-Cold War thriller because my only concern would be to  deliver an excellent EPR (do a good job, in other words). Whether or not the millionaire later recouped the outlay in the market-place wouldn’t be a concern. At least, he’d have something literary to sell online and show off to his friends.

This is an issue, though – the temptation to blame your editor for the the subsequent lack of success of your novel (since only they will have benefited from it in financial terms). Clearly, there are bad editors out there, or people advertising these services, who can’t do the job: novel doctors and get-your-novel-into-shape merchants willing to offer various levels of feedback and editorial input based entirely on how much you’re willing to fork out. Essentially, we’re moving into the shady world of literary bottom-feeders here – parasitical scamsters willing to exploit your dreams and take your money. Of course, there are also perfectly genuine people offering these services, who simply aren’t very good at what they do. Be careful if you don’t know the people you’re dealing with. You’re likely to come away disappointed – indeed, it’s probably safer to assume you’re being scammed.

As for me – well, I’ve had a few it’s-a-brilliant-story-but novels pass across my virtual desktop (historical romps, fictionalized rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, James Patterson type thrillers) and have offered some free editing (as I said, it’s instructive), enough to assess what a huge task it would be to treat the whole novel. Really, as you plough ever more deeply into their deteriorating writing, you’ll be glad you didn’t take the money and can return their novel telling them you don’t have the time to do it justice (because it’s such a mess), but you might want to keep the bit in parenthesis to yourself.

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Marketing your novel.

This is not a vacuous (copy and paste type) post about marketing your novel (designed to attract eyeballs and comments). It’s more to do with the dreadful necessity of doing it (marketing, that is), and the feeling of unseemliness that accompanies the so doing.

First, you have to be (or have something) “out there”. I’m not going to reflect overly long on the kudos afforded by the fact of being “out there” in a loud, notice-me, capitalist world. It’s perhaps enough to remark that it might be making a virtue of necessity where artistic endeavour is concerned, since post-production you’re engaged in the game of getting noticed.

Picture me walking into a room of disparate people who share my plight. My name is John, and I have something “out there” – a novel to be (somewhat) more precise – a stylish, philosophically bleak work of detective fiction. One of my readers (and, like all rare things, I value them all) told me recently that they’d read a quarter of it and put it aside because it was too depressing. Clearly, it’s bleaker than I thought.

Okay, so let’s put together an entirely fictional marketing strategy. You persuade twenty people to buy the book (I managed that bit). They read it (mostly succeeded in that. Thank you, dear readers), and then… what? Well, they feed back to you, which is helpful and useful and generous and kind. Unfortunately, what you really want them to do is blog and tweet and Facebook and review (on books sites, preferably those from where they purchased your book). You need to be talked about on social media. I’ve entirely failed in this. I just don’t know those sorts of people, and it’s surely deeply unseemly to be nagging people who bought your book as a favour in the first place to spend time reviewing it. I mean, life is very busy. I do more blogging than anyone I know.

In short, then, to succeed from Nowhere, you have to become a needy, whining, attention-seeking wannabe prattling on about yourself and your work at every opportunity, constantly racking your brains to come up with ways to attract attention to yourself. Not very dignified, is it? That presumably is what agents and publishers spare you, allowing you to get on with the art and (mostly) skip the marketing, notice-me indignity of it all.

I’m writing my second novel (or was; I have 9,000 words of it), which is much more mainstream in terms of subject matter and, perhaps more importantly, style. This is what feedback does to you. Needed and necessary, ultimately it promotes conformity. Truly individual voices go unheard.

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New Grub Street.

NNewGrubStreetew Grub Street by George Gissing is a novel that should be read by anyone interested in writing or the lives of writers. It should certainly be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to be a writer. It’s a novel I wish I’d read years ago, since it would have disabused me of some absurd Romantic notions I insisted on entertaining about writing. There are so many shocks of recognition. This is a late-Victorian novel, but – apart from the technology – nothing has changed. The tension between Art and Money remains, the need to make a living versus the desire to do Art. Fifty Shades of Shite triumphed in the market while, no doubt, novels with artistic merit struggled to get representation or recognition. I’ve no idea why this fact of life still rankles with me; you’d think I’d have grown up by now.

In Gissing’s novel, the shadow of poverty is large and looming, particularly for Edwin Reardon, who loathes his need to write for money, but feels guilty about not supplying a certain standard of living for his wife and child. Reardon is, in many ways, his own worst enemy, since he spurns advice and opportunities that would help him prosper. And as his poverty increases, and his inability to write impacts his health, his relationship with his wife, Amy, deteriorates. His friend, Jasper, on the other hand is interested in writing for the market, in furthering a career, and in getting on and becoming prosperous. He is, of course, rightly cynical about the tastes of the average reader.

The sensational and crass triumph with the masses while works of merit go unremarked and unrewarded. True then as now. Reardon rushes out a three volume novel called Margaret Home, which he despises and of which he refuses to speak. Again, opportunities to go out into Society as a writer are spurned because he doesn’t believe in his work.

New Grub Street is populated by men and woman broken by the struggle to make ends meet, and making the ends meet when you want to do art – or Art, upper case A – isn’t easy. It puts a strain on relationships and pollutes every aspect of your life. Just as it does today.  Then, as now, the crass and vulgar prosper. Art doesn’t triumph (what an idiot I was); at best it will only ever achieve a modest success in comparison to the crudely populace. Harold Biffen, unlike Reardon, is not embittered by his plight, though he is worn down by it. He has produced a novel of everyday life, Mr. Bailey, Grocer, of which he’s proud (and which he dramatically rescues from a fire), but which has little or no prospect of commercial success.

Alfred Yule is also broken: a man out of sync with his time, tormented and poisoned by unfulfilled ambitions. When his daughter, Marian, inherits five thousand pounds, he becomes uncharacteristically convivial towards her and her mother because he wants Marian to invest her money in a literary magazine, which he proposes to edit.  It is (has always been) his dream to be a man of importance in literary circles, something he feels has been denied him by fate and circumstance, those being the prospering of vulgar, less deserving men, such as Fadge. Marian, to whom Jasper proposes (also on the basis of the inheritance), doubts the wisdom of her father’s enterprise, and puts off a decision on the matter. Unfortunately, her inheritance falls through, putting her marriage to Jasper in jeopardy, and ultimately derailing it. Jasper is not a cad. He is not a one-dimensional self-centred character; rather, he’s a man who wants to do and be good, but believes that this will be impossible without a degree of affluence. During their extended engagement, the marriage having been postponed, Jasper proposes unsuccessfully to a wealthy woman, much to the disgust of his sister, Dora.

“We will never go to Greece together, old friend.” Reardon on his deathbed to Biffen. Another shared dream thwarted. Amy is, by this time, living with her mother, having left Reardon when he proposes to get a clerk’s position. She had wanted him to take break by the sea and to approach his writing with renewed vigour. Reconciled when their son becomes ill, the son dies while Reardon himself lies fevered on what will be his death bed. Amy, without ties (and in possession of a ten thousand pound inheritance), marries Jasper Milvain. Jasper subsequently secures the editorship of a leading literary journal, and they live comfortably ever after.

Poverty is the beast that walks abroad in this novel. Everything is done under its shadow, and poisoned by its proximity. Those who prosper in worldly terms, like Whelpdale and Milvain are ultimately unintoxicated by art, and attend to the business of getting on. Those who fail – tragically so – like Reardon and Biffen, are not men of the world, and are not equipped for the business of making a living – indeed, are ground down by the necessity to do so.

The moral seems to be (and it may be ungenerous to draw one) that the desire to do art is a handicap if you’re struggling with the necessities of life. Art is not commercial, art will not bail you out or ennoble you if you are poor. Alfred Yule dies blind and disappointed, leaving Marian to support her mother. They are spoken about sympathetically at one of Milvain’s parties. Prospects for them are, we come away thinking, a little on the bleak side. Reardon and Biffen have fallen. Milvain, despite the odd vacillation, has taken the necessary steps to ensure he prospers.

Quote: Nothing is easier than to condemn a type of character that is unequal to the coarse demands of life as it suits the average man.

No, indeed. I can’t help thinking of a homeless person struggling to capture their precarious existence in a ragged exercise book while E.L. James and James Patterson chortle all the way to the bank and line up the next self-regarding interview at a literary lunch with their agent.

I don’t know how I missed this book for so long.

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