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


Something in the way

The planning continues. The grey matter is stretched, twanging like elastic until one breaks and the mind is catapulted back to its starting point. The work is endless, relentless. And I’ve also got a novel to rewrite.

See, I’m getting married in six weeks, and this has caused some degree of disruption to my habitually disorganised routine. Arranging music, guests and the bar – that last a not insignificant concern – I expected. I did not, however, expect to be taken out for a grey-skied stroll with my intended so that the photographer could get some ‘lifestyle shots’ pre-wedding. To be honest I wasn’t even aware that I had a lifestyle, let alone that it was worth recording.

And then in September I start a new job. This will increase my working hours by a third. Great for the old bank balance. Not so good for writing.

That’s life. That’s (apparently) what people say. Everybody out there who’s struggling to make it as a writer has commitments; family, friends, work – all are more ‘important’ than your unproductive scribblings. It’s not likely you’ll be able to earn enough through writing fiction to leave the cubicle (or desk, or van – whatever) behind. Picture it for a moment: twenty years on, still in exactly the same position. Maybe with a bit of a reputation behind you, a string of moderately successful publications to your name – and yet you’re still doing the same old job because you don’t want the distraction of a career.

This is where you need to grit your teeth and get your determination on. To reassure yourself that you’re writing because you want to, not for the material benefits. This is where I need to knuckle down and work out a new routine. Strategies have to change. I read a lot of interviews with authors that get up an hour earlier than they need to get some writing done. Is this a viable option for me? Or will my finely-honed laziness-skills thwart such a plan? Will the long-threatened purchase of a laptop incite me to work through breaks and lunchtimes?

Something will work. Something will have to work. I’ve barely begun this writing thing; seven years? That’s nothing. This is a lifelong commitment and this is just another stretch of tyre-shredding gravel on the long road to fulfilment. And this time I’m not talking about marriage. I ain’t half as introspective about that as I am about writing, which should probably tell you something.

Anyway, time to roll my sleeves up and get to it. Make hay while the sun shines. And other assorted metaphors/clichés.

See you next week, boys and girls. Maybe I’ll even have something writing-related to communicate…

A cunning plan

So: Planning. Retrospective planning, no less. I’ve been working my way through my manuscript to work out what exactly happens, when and to whom. Transcribing this info onto a spreadsheet, and then condensing that spreadsheet into another…

If you type ‘novel planning’ into Google (other search-engines are available) you’ll get dozens of results, each advising you to do something slightly different. Read books on writing and every author will recommend their own technique. Ain’t no right answer, baby. I’ve just done something that – sort of – works for me. But it doesn’t feel like writing. I feel the pressure to crack on with things, to get to grips and to get to work. To get back to actual proper creation, to get words down on paper, on the screen.

I need to do this synthesis first. Night Shift, I realise, has structural flaws that need repairing and for that I need to step away from the minutiae and see the full sweep of the novel. What scenes can be cut or combined? Does that leave me with gaps elsewhere? What are the consequences, what am I missing?

This is not fun. It’s painful and slow and – when I encounter particularly acerbic comments from the agent – painful and embarrassing. But it needs to be done.

And now it is. Finally. I have my spreadsheets and it’s time to –

It’s time to do nothing. It’s time to step away from the computer, grab my biro and – hopefully over a cup of joe and maybe a Danish – scribble all over that document. Jot ideas. Cross said ideas out. Make a note of what out-of-shot characters are up to. Be wild and creative and curious and radical. And hopefully come up with a new structure – and maybe new depths of character – that’ll keep the story moving forwards always.

Only then will it finally be time to sit back at the machine and actually do some real writing. And then, and then, and then… Then it’ll be time to go back to the beta readers and call in favours and inquests and beer-based bribes.

It’s quite dispiriting at the moment. I’ve got people – professionals – asking for my work and I’m not in a position to show them anything. Do I stall or give them my last draft – one that I was happy – nay, excited – about? After all, I thought it was good, my readers said it was good… It’ll take months before anything new is ready. Can I keep these professionals hanging on?

But in the meantime it’s to the printer for the plan and then to the coffee shop for the inspiration. Let the head-scratching commence.

Poem #2

Circles and Spirals

If my reasons were opaque
Hers were just insane – or maybe it was the other way around
I’d slipped through the cordon to find her
Sitting on the altar as if carved flesh
As if she belonged

The east was unburned;
The west awaited only robbery
She sat impassive in the shadow of the broken tower
Open to a dying sun
She looked to me; said she’d set the fire
Set free her ghosts

I watched in silence. I stood and listened
As the stonework trembled beneath her lies
Asking a stranger to carve her open
A sacrifice to her demons: something to make her feel
But I was only there for myself

Only ever for myself
I needed something, I think, to make me whole
To turn a circle to a spiral
And she saw an echo in me – or maybe it was just the danger
Or the grip of ash and smoke

But that no longer matters.
She left me then and forever, and still I was chained
Locked in to these repeats
No stigmata but those echoes
They nail me, nail me down hard

So I returned that night with tinder, with oil for the east
– Never an unstolen move
Never an original line –
As if I’d ever known free will
As if, as if
It could ever be me upon that altar