What is correct grammar and punctuation?

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I have just finished going through the copy-edited manuscript of my 2nd novel ‘Payback’. God, I hate this part of the process of creating a book!

First you realise how many stupid, unintentional punctuation errors you made and failed to spot (my favourite is failing to open or close speech marks when writing passages containing dialogue). How is it that no matter how many times you read your own work, these little devils remain invisible, until of course someone else reads it?

Then you come to the things which you thought were perfectly OK but the copy-editor doesn’t. You tend to assume the copy-editor is right, but then you check the grammar guides to find these things are optional, perhaps depending on how ‘traditional’ is your approach to grammar. Things which tend to exercise me are comma placement, capitalisation of certain words (like job titles), use of hyphens (table top, table-top, or tabletop?), and the ‘Oxford comma’ (the optional comma placed before ‘and’ at the end of a list – check the last few words before this bracketed section and you will see that I have used it there). My copy-editor hates the Oxford comma, but I think it sometimes avoids ambiguity so I stubbornly insist on using it all the time!

What all this reminds me is that language is a constantly evolving thing, and that yesterday’s firm grammatical rule is today’s optional guideline and tomorrow’s obsolete and discredited practice. This made me think about some of the grammatical abominations (my opinion!) which I hear every day, such as …

The use of ‘sat’ (he was sat there) and ‘stood’ instead of the gerund ‘sitting’ or ‘standing’.

The use of ‘there’s’ (there’s many reasons to be scared) instead of ‘there are’ when referring to more than one item.

This latter example is now in such common usage that even BBC news presenters regularly use it. Come to think of it, in Spanish (of which I can speak a little), ‘there is’ and ‘there are’ share a common translation, ‘hay’. Maybe it will be the same in English soon?

What about text-speak’ such as ‘ur’ instead of ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ – or even ‘4’ instead of ‘for’? It may seem absurd to contemplate the possibility of such things entering mainstream accepted grammar, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Just look back at acclaimed literary works written a few hundred years ago. See just how outdated and clumsy the language appears today.

I guess we are all products of the era in which we grew up and were educated. I am no exception, so when I am writing, I’ll stick to what I was taught and what I feel is right for me – even if future generations may consider it frumpy or old-fashioned.

Anyway, ‘Payback’ is done now (to be published Feb 2014), and it’s off for typesetting (or is that type-setting?) so soon I’ll be worrying about page layout style, font size etc. I’ll be glad when the thing is past the point where I can no longer keep tinkering with it and move on to the much more enjoyable task of mapping out the plot for the 3rd book in the series!

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Just because you can write well, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can write good fiction.

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I’ve always thought I can write pretty well. In my previous life as a senior director in industry I used to take quite a bit of trouble over reports and other pieces of writing that I needed to do. I would always make sure that my words were accurate, concise, and unambiguous. If I wrote a sentence that seemed clumsy, I would rewrite it until it flowed nicely. My command of grammar is pretty good, and my writing therefore contained few grammatical errors. If I say so myself, my reports etc. were, in terms of the quality of writing, a good deal better than what one normally sees in industry.

When I came to write my first novel, ‘Buyout’, I applied all of these skills, and when the first draft was completed I felt I had done a pretty good job. Nevertheless, I decided to send my work to a literary consultant (Daniel Goldsmith Associates – http://www.danielgoldsmith.co.uk) for an independent assessment. It was one of the best decisions I have made.

The report on my manuscript was pretty scathing: it acknowledged that my writing was accurate and grammatically correct, and also that the basic plot premise was good, but pointed out that I had made just about every common error that first-time fiction writers typically make. Here are just a few:

– My characters were introduced too quickly, one after the other. This overloads the reader and doesn’t allow time for him/her to become familiar with each one.

– Many of my scenes were too short and I hadn’t included enough descriptive text to allow the reader to settle into the scene before moving on to the essential elements which move the plot forward or reveal more about a particular character. (Interestingly, my years of writing as concisely as possible actually worked against me in the context of writing fiction).

– I had been mixing ‘points of view’ of different characters in the same scene, which detracts from the writing. For example ‘Harry told me that he hadn’t been there that night’ followed by ‘Harry wondered whether Sarah believed him’. If the scene is being written from Sarah’s point of view, she has no way of knowing what Harry is thinking. She might observe that he is sweating or looking uncomfortable and interpret these things as clues that he may be lying, but if that’s the case then that is what I should have written – not suddenly jumped inside Harry’s head.

– I had ignored the golden rule (of which I was blissfully unaware at the time) of ‘Show, don’t tell’. In other words build a ‘word picture’ to indicate how someone may be feeling rather than just state how they appear to be feeling. For example, rather than say ‘Jonathon looked angry’, say something like, ‘Jonathon clenched his fist and narrowed his eyes; a vein in his temple began visibly to pulse’.

I could go on and on; in fact I think I could now write a book on the subject! Happily, there is no need, as Lorena Goldsmith has already done so, ‘Self-editing fiction that sells’. I wish I’d read it before I wrote ‘Buyout’ – it would have saved a great deal of time and heartache. I’d recommend it to any first-time author. Anyway, hopefully the few examples above will be sufficient for you to see what I am driving at: just as report writing has its particular rules, fiction writing does too. No -‘rules’ is too strong a word, for fiction should not be formulaic or it will become boring and predictable, but there definitely are technical aspects of writing fiction which if not observed, detract from the quality of the outcome.

What this experience has really brought home to me is that there are two distinct phases to creating a novel, and each requires a different mind-set. When you are writing the story you need to be in creative frame of mind and concentrate on the flow of the narrative, without stressing unduly about the kind of things mentioned above. When you come to self-editing your work, you need to adopt a critical mode of thinking to spot these errors.

This story has a happy ending. With patient coaching from Lorena Goldsmith and Katie Green at Daniel Goldsmith Associates I rewrote and re-rewrote the manuscript of ‘Buyout’ as many times as was necessary to correct these errors and realise the potential which was always there in the book. That’s not the end of the process of creating a book, though. After self-editing, comes copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading, cover design, and more. These are subjects for future posts though.

How I got started with writing

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I never set out to be a writer. For many years I worked in the electronics manufacturing industry, eventually rising to boardroom level. I loved the job, but hated the back-biting politics.
Eventually there came a possible opportunity for the management team – of which I was one member – to buy the company I worked for from its huge American multinational parent corporation. We went for it – convinced that we could be far more successful as an independent company. I could never have imagined what a tortuous experience it would be, or the lengths that some individuals would go to in order to try to scupper the bid. It was, as they say, ‘stranger than fiction’. I won’t tell you what the eventual outcome was, but suffice it to say that the experience inspired me to write my debut novel, ‘Buyout’.

‘Buyout’ is probably best described as a ‘corporate thriller’, and describes the trials and tribulations of a group of 5 guys fighting corporate politics and personal vendettas in an effort to buy the company they work for. It also charts the stresses and strains on personal relationships and marriages as the buyout bid gradually turns into a nightmare. It is a work of fiction, but from my own experience, I would say that it could be happening for real somewhere, right now.

Whilst writing ‘Buyout’, I discovered that writing is something I love, so the sequel, ‘Payback’ will follow shortly (early 2014). It follows the fortunes of the main protagonists in ‘Buyout’.

Website http://www.mainsailbooks.co.uk
Twitter http://www.twitter.com/RayMainsail