Sunday, 27 June 2010


In my occasional and arbitrary series on punctuation, I have reached one of my favourites, the ellipsis. I like it so much I have to be careful not to overdo it, for fear of giving my typescript a fly-spotted appearance.

You can use ellipses:
  • to indicate missing words in a quoted passage
  • to let a sentence trail off in an intriguing manner
  • in dialogue to suggest hesitation or reservations
Lynne Truss writes amusingly and authoritatively about the ellipsis in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but oddly doesn't mention how handy it is in dialogue.

Dialogue in a novel is not like genuine conversation; it lacks the repetition, the scrappiness and the verbal tics of the real thing. You'd drive the reader mad with a true depiction of the way people speak. No, good dialogue in a novel is a stylized version of speech which yet convinces the reader that it is natural, and for this the ellipsis is invaluable.

My current heroine, Beth, lacks confidence, and at the start of An Unofficial Girl lets people walk over her. One way I show this is the hesitant way she speaks, just asking for people to interrupt. I don't know how I'd manage without those three dots.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

What agents want

My sister bought me a book she'd enjoyed and thought I might like, The Last Time They Met, by Anita Shreve. It didn't sound quite my sort of thing: crimes of passion, incest, negligence, loss and guilt, but I started to read it. And stopped again. Here are the first two lines:

She had come from the plane and was even now forgetting
the ride from the airport. As she stepped from the car, she

Word echoes: from three times, she three times. Now I know no normal, non-writing reader would notice this, or mind it if he did. Goodness, look how popular Stieg Larsson's novels are, and on one of his first pages, I found five sentences in one short paragraph beginning with She. But you'd think an editor would pick it up.

Of course, what made it a real turn-off for me is the fact that as an unpublished author, I'm constantly being told that any error, particularly on the first page, will cause my typescript to be tossed in the shredder. If my writing is not polished till it shines, it has no chance of getting read by an agent's assistant, let alone reaching the shelves of a bookshop.

I no longer think this is so. What agents are looking for, it seems to me, is not a polished book; nor is it a book that they fall in love with (whatever they say). They are looking for a book they believe they can sell to a publisher.

That's all.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

I'd prefer to blame Royal Mail, on the whole...

This round of submissions I've taken to enclosing a stamped self-addressed postcard for the agent to post to let me know my chapters have arrived. The messages I put on them are getting increasingly frivolous:

Your chapters are now with our team of readers, being passed eagerly from hand to hand was the latest.

And the worrying thing is, three out of five haven't come back.

Is this because Royal Mail has lost my submissions, or my postcards? London deliveries are now so unreliable, this could easily be the case. Or have my envelopes joined a tottering stack of similar unopened submissions, waiting till the lowliest intern has time to send the lot form rejections? I can imagine that, too.

Unpublished writers are told to do our research; personalize our query, check out the writers the agent represents, submit in the exact format the agent requires. It's a downer to feel that this doesn't mean our submissions will necessarily even be read. My feeling is that the slush pile has now become such a burden to agents that they prefer to find their authors elsewhere. I've been approached by one agent via Authonomy, and by another after submitting a short story for a contest.

No wonder people pay Cornerstones or The Literary Consultancy hundreds of pounds in the hope of being thought good enough for referral to an agent, or throng to literary festivals to pitch their novels in person, or spend £99 on a day's writing workshop at Harper Collins' headquarters. These days, unless a new writer is very lucky, he needs to find some shortcut that avoids the slush. Any ideas?

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Alter egos and doppelgängers

This is a shot of my workshop balcony. Bang in the middle of that bay tree is a wood pigeon's nest, a twiggy and random affair. In the nest are two squabs, baby pigeons just out of the egg. Their mother sits tight when I water the tree, and we both pretend the other isn't there, even when our eyes meet.

Last week I heard a kerfuffle, and saw a crow after the eggs. I scared it off, twice, then hastily made the scarecrow in the picture for when I'm not there. I change my alter ego's clothes and move it about daily. So far it's worked...

My daughter remarked that it looks worryingly like me. Which got me thinking more about doppelgängers, those inexplicable and sinister harbingers of doom. (More, because the story I'm currently working on involves a young woman who is duplicated, and her inconvenient replica has to go on the run with just what she stands up in.)

In real life, people who see their doppelgänger, or someone else's, are inevitably shaken by the experience, and one can well see why. It happened to John Donne, Lincoln, and Shelley among the famous. There is something spooky about doubles - even twins, nature's clones, are a little weird - and you really, really, wouldn't want to bump into yourself; never ring your own number just in case you hear yourself answer...

If you haven't read it, take a look at Hans Christian Anderson's short story The Shadow. Now that's a strange and disturbing tale.