Why write?


Joe’s Post #24 — It’s a good question. It takes away time from watching Glee. It’s hard. Generally, pimply-faced kids make more at McDonald’s. And, at the Oscars, no one could give a hot damn who wrote what.

So why?

For me, 11 things (11 ’cause Letterman has a patent on the top 10 list, so, like Spinal Tap, I’m going to 11!)

1) Zombies can’t write and someone needs to tell their stories.

2) Every time I invent a new verb, I get a little tingle in my private parts. Verbing new words…So fun.

3) I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I can’t play the didgeridoo. It’s pretty much the creative outlet of last resort.

4) I learn so many new things that I would otherwise never think of looking up. Coke was originally green. Nagasaki was not the city the 2nd bomb was going to be dropped on. Decimation came from a Roman form of discipline. Banging your head against a wall burns 150 calories an hour. Who knew?

5) I get to be all sorts of people. Serial killers. Unicorns. Unicorn serial killers. Grief-stricken victims. Brave teenage girls. Tough-guy PIs. Wise-cracking rogues. I guess the cool thing really is I don’t get locked up for having so many personalities.

6) I can write-off my laptop.

7) I have all sorts of excuses to go to other places in the world.

8) When a scene comes together and sings, it’s a magical moment. Heroine addicts know what I’m taking about. Sex addicts, too, I should imagine.

9) I have an excuse to go to a coffee shop every day.coffee

10) Hot women will read my writing and want to meet me. (Actually, I never thought this was true until the other day.)

11) It’s what I’m meant to do. I may not be successful at it, I may never sell a bizillion books or appear on the Tonight Show, but I know it in my bones. This is my calling.

Now, I need to burn off some calories and bang my head against a wall.

Queries: 5

Rejections: 1

New Novel Ideas: 2 (I love the idea of serial killer unicorns.)

Holes in Wall: 1

How does a writer describe taste and smell?

How Smell WorksKaralee’s Post #24

I find describing taste and smell a challenge.

I also have an interest in medicine and biology so if you are want an introduction to the mechanism of how we taste and smell you can look at:

http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/human-biology/smell.htm and http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/human-biology/taste.htm

When I think of a taste or a smell I automatically try to describe it through something else that has a similar taste or smell. This is effective when I’m trying to describe a mixture of things such as a cake, a summer day in the woods, walking into a grocery store or a shoe factory, or driving by a dump or going into a gym locker room, etc.

But what if the item I’m trying to describe has its own unique smell and taste, what I think of as a primary smell or taste?  For example many fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, many flowers, or pine trees.

Take coffee.

coffeeHow do you describe how it tastes and smells? Like coffee, right? We can give it adjectives such as its color, temperature, or if it is bitter, nutty, or burnt or moldy, and even what type it is such as a latte, cappuccino, etc.

But the essence of coffee is coffee.

So if our readers have never smelled or tasted coffee I don’t think I could describe it in a way the reader could really experience and understand its taste and smell.

The same goes for bananas. Or apples, or garlic, roses, or onions. And on and on.

When you think about it, much of what we write relies on the reader experiencing something similar to it before. Even in science fiction and fantasy new concepts and special powers can be introduced, but they are generally described through familiar sensory words so the reader can relate to the new worlds and concepts albeit in unique ways.

There are so many sensory words that can be used in multiple combinations to describe our settings that there is no need for readers to ever be bored, but I do believe readers have to have experienced primary tastes and smells in order to understand them in our writing.

What do you think?

Another writer has blogged on this topic and has accumulated many smell words to refer to: http://andrea-mack.blogspot.ca/2012/02/words-for-describing-smells.html

There other ways to use smells and tastes in writing. They are linked to memory and can be used in characterizations. For example, the smell of roses can remind an old woman of her daughter’s wedding many decades ago. Or the taste of burned toast can remind a man of his mother’s cooking.

Verbs are inherently used in the description of smells and tastes. For instance a smell can waft, drift, linger, or permeate. Both taste and smell can also be associated with its source such as baking, frying, rotting, etc.

A person’s reaction to a smell or taste can also add to its description. This includes one’s face puckering if something is bitter, smiling when eating a cookie, running from a burning building, fear at the smell of a gas leak, etc.

 smelling cakesHow do you describe taste and smell in your writing?

Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vsorathia/3549251418/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Painful truths

Snoopy Tennis tooPaula’s Post #24 – This week, I’m battling tennis elbow, a common term for a condition caused by overuse of arm, forearm, and hand muscles that results in elbow pain.

tennis elbow

You don’t have to play tennis to get tennis elbow, but in my case, tennis is the culprit.


I’m not complaining. I’ve had lots of fun these past few weeks and, as the saying goes, no pain, no gain. But tonight the pain and inflammation is acute enough for me to cancel tomorrow’s match and cut this blog post a wee bit short.

I have to admit this isn’t the only time i’ve had trouble with the tendons and ligaments in my fingers, hands, wrists and arms. Guess what? Writing causes tennis elbow, too. And not just tennis elbow. Ask Karalee, my 5writer colleague who is also a physiotherapist. She could probably write a treatise on the maladies that afflict writers.

Snoopy Typewriter

Paper cuts aside, most appear to be the result of repetitive strain injuries (RSI’s). For writers, both the keyboard and mouse are the chief culprits, though I have to say that, for me, excessive web surfing and the repetitive action of flicking my wrist back and forth between the return key and my Mac’s trackpad caused the chronic, lingering injury to my right wrist.That one took years to subside, mostly because I kept writing.

That’s the problem with RSI’s. You get them because you do something over and over again, and you do something over and over again because you like doing that thing over and over again. I think Joseph Heller would refer to his conundrum as a Catch-22.

catch 22

I know I need to be careful. But the truth is, I’m not. Not all the time. Not like I should be. Karalee, I know, would be horrified to see me my favourite writing pose, lying supine on the bed, a mound of pillows behind my neck, laptop on my tummy and wrists… well, not always in the recommended position.


Why do I do this? Why do we all do this? I honestly don’t know, but I’m reasonably certain I’m not alone. I’d love it if Karalee could assist in shedding some light on the compulsion that keeps us doing what we know we ought not. In the meantime, I’d like to share a cornucopia of arcane trivia I’ve dug up on the topic of ‘writer’s injuries’.

1. Nitwitism appears to run in my family – this summer my husband, a lawyer, needed surgery on his hand to repair a condition known as ‘blackberry thumb’ caused by excessive twiddling of the buttons on a blackberry’s keyboard. His surgeon asked him if he’d ever heard of an iPhone. That, however, may not solve the problem, as we must be careful to prevent iPad hand, a malady caused by too many ‘swiping’ gestures.


2. Students at Harvard University in Boston have formed an action group to provide preventative education, advocacy and support for students with RSI, and for those hoping to avoid it. You’d think they’d be smart enough to do that all on their own, but apparently not.


3. Across town at M.I.T., those clever students appear equally challenged when it comes down to knowing when to quit:


4. One form of RSI is “Writer’s Cramp” a focal dystonia, caused by misfired signals in the brain that make the hand involuntarily cramp.

5. The Guardian Newspaper style guide suggests that phrases such as butcher’s knife, collector’s item, cow’s milk, goat’s cheese, pig’s blood, hangman’s noose, writer’s cramp, etc be treated as singular.


6. J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, suffered from writer’s cramp and taught himself to write with either hand. He believed that the works he wrote with his left hand seemed more creative and other-worldly then those written with his right hand.

Calligraphy Brush

7. Writer’s cramp is the colloquial name for Mogigraphia, also known as Scrivener’s Palsy and Graphospasm.

8. The first epidemics of writers’ cramp were reported in the 1830s among clerks of the British Civil Service, where it was attributed to the new steel pen nib.


So, fellow writers, what maladies plague you and how do you cope? Rest? Ice? Gin? I think I’m going to try combo-therapy and hope that by later in the week, my tendons and ligaments will feel better. Vacation’s over. Time to get on with the rewrites and second draft.

Oh, and Karalee? Don’t worry too much. They’ve already invented a chair for me.

supine work station

“This is the year for writers.”

iStock_000022917713XSmallSilk’s post #24 — Thank you Quentin Tarantino. And, quite frankly, I don’t say that very often.

Tarantino won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar Sunday night for “Django Unchained”. Good for him. But it was what he said about it that I want to thank him for.

He saved it for the end, when the “Jaws” music was just starting to rise. That was the music they played this year when someone took too long thanking too many obscure people. Dun—dun—dun–dun–dun-dun-dun-dundundunDUNDUN …

Yes, he almost got sharked. But fortunately, he said this before the Oscars timekeepers bit off his legs: “This is the year for writers.”

And he was really, really right. The Oscar nominees this year in the categories of Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture covered a wide gamut. “Life of Pi” vs. “Lincoln”. “Amour” vs. “Django Unchained”. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” vs. “Zero Dark Thirty”. But they all had one thing in common.

Great writing.

Tarantino acknowledged this in his characteristically vernacular acceptance speech. After he thanked all and sundry, he tipped his hat – almost as a seeming afterthought – to all the other superb writers he had had to beat out. He did more than that, he figuratively took his hat right off and bowed deeply to his fellow talents.

That’s what I want to thank him for. For his thanks to the other writers who made these award categories tough. And for the driving truth behind it …

It all starts with the writing.

Sometimes I think we writers don’t realize our potential power. We make stories, and stories make a difference. They change people.

Yet we often write with the subconscious goal of pleasing people, rather than provoking them. Especially if we’re unpublished. We want the thumbs up from an editor, a publisher, a critic. And, of course, every single reader who picks up our book.

We sit somewhere alone, fingers glued to a keyboard, and we try to get lost in our story. It’s just us and our words. The next day, maybe, we read what we wrote. We react to it. Maybe we’re still in love with our turns-of-phrase at that point. Or maybe we make a bad face and want to delete delete delete. Maybe we imagine how an agent would react – our agent, if we have one. Most of us don’t.

Maybe we read our own stuff and worry. Of course we worry, we all worry. What judgement will be pronounced on our words? Will it elevate them to ‘published’ status, or crush them? How can we tweak it to make sure someone – someone in the publishing industry, that is – will like it? Will like it at least well enough to turn the page. What do the writing books say? What’s the magic formula?

Wrong questions.

“My work is kind of unmistakably me, and I like that about it. But you know, you are either going to really dig it or you’re gonna be against it.” That’s what Quentin Tarantino said on Oscar day to CBS News Sunday Morning.

Maybe he was inoculating himself against disappointment, knowing the Oscars’ judgement was about to be passed on his work just a few hours later. After all, it had been 18 years since he’d won his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the jarring “Pulp Fiction”.

Nevertheless, his were words of great courage.

He doesn’t write for the approval of everyone. And, I suspect, neither do the other writers who were nominated this year. Like David Magee, who adapted Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Or Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, who wrote the screenplay for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” These are not tame, mainstream stories. They’re creatively bold and commercially risky.

You don’t write boldly, from the heart, in hopes of getting a B+ from the teacher. You write like this to evoke a visceral response from your readers, or your viewers. To make them laugh, or cry, or get angry. To touch them. To surprise them. Not by being manipulative, like the unimaginative, formulaic fare that never gets nominated for serious awards. But by burrowing deep into people’s hearts with a story that won’t let them go. With words that bring that story to life, then keep haunting like ghosts when the story is done.

I want to thank Quentin Tarantino for reminding me that I don’t want to spend my life writing just to get published. That’s too low a bar.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to get published and I have no illusions about how tough that is to achieve in a market where unsolicited manuscripts make useful doorstops, and every adult who’s ever read a book seems to think he or she can write one. But what Tarantino’s words Sunday triggered for me were two obvious epiphanies:

  1. Reach has to exceed grasp.
  2. Creative integrity has to have attitude.

Great writing pushes people. It pushes the writer, and it pushes the reader. It takes courage and confidence to write with the intent of provoking a strong reaction, knowing that some of the reactions you’ll provoke will be negative. Rejection hurts.

But here’s the bad news: rejection is inevitable. The publishing business is a numbers game, and the numbers don’t favour unpublished authors, who are inherently commercially risky.

I heard a senior publisher at the Aloha Writers Conference in January describe his discovery of a new writer, a ‘fresh voice’. He was genuinely excited and proud. It was very encouraging. Here was a big name in the business from a big publishing house, and here he was taking a risk on new, unproven talent.

“How many unpublished authors did you take on last year?” I asked him, full of hope.

“Two,” he said.


So how can I increase my chances of winning this lottery? I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing that makes sense is to aim higher. Way higher. Audaciously higher. Writing by the ‘rules’ isn’t enough anymore. Writing to impress an agent, an editor, a publisher isn’t enough anymore. Writing a book that’s better than average isn’t enough anymore.

The baseline necessities – talent, craft, imagination, determination, endurance – will only take an aspiring writer so far. Raising the bar requires vast quantities of courage and attitude. It’s the difference between aiming to make a movie, and aiming to win an Oscar.

On the other hand, if my Tarantino-inspired ambitions never come to fruition, I can take pride in the knowledge that my unpublished manuscript doorstop is truly a thing of beauty.

Animate the monster

Helga’s post # 22 — As the story goes, if you were to eavesdrop at the London Book Fair, the comment you’d most often hear as novels are pitched is, “It’s beautifully written,” followed by:  “of course.”

At least that’s how Donald Maass tells it.

In one of Joe’s previous posts, ‘Book buying’ his point, especially poignant for newbie writers, is this: ‘As new writers, I think we need to remember this. Words matter. Voice matters. Style matters. How a story starts… matters.’

Truer words were never written. Think about it:

If ‘beautifully written’ will someday be said about a novel that you have written, you’d likely think there is no greater compliment, no bigger reward, than your readers saying:

“She (Karalee, Paula, Silk) or He (Joe of course) has got a way with words.”

Conversely, as a buyer of books, if the words don’t captivate me right from the start, no matter how clever the plot, how stylish the cover picture, even the smart title, the book will probably be a flop. I will feel duped as a buyer and reader. The writing sucks.

So then, how do we make our words sing, make them float on the page, make them ‘swirl and swing as they tangle with human emotions’, as James Michener said.

Maybe to do what Anton Chekov had in mind when he said: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

As writers, we need our compass for pointing us in the direction of ‘beautifully written’ vs. the opposite, ‘the writing sucks’. We know instinctively what we need to do. Sometimes it helps to be reminded though. Legions of books are written on the topic, their authors not always in agreement. There are however some common traits.

‘Beautifully written’ is more than description, images, and metaphors, though that’s part of it. More so, a beautifully written novel invokes emotions, ‘moving readers’ hearts, ‘changing their ideas, and even rocking their worlds’.il_570xN.350947546

To quote from Maass again: Beautiful writing is more than pretty prose. It conjures a world that is unique, highly detailed, and brought alive by the characters who dwell there. Beautiful writing also illuminates a story’s social world, its era, the passage of time and the story’s larger meaning. When a novel’s grasp is sure and its ambition is vast, then it is beautifully written.

At the other end of the compass, the ‘writing sucks’ point, there is one writing tool that should be thrown away: description. Most readers skim it. Even if using the five senses, it’s dead weight. Instead, describe a character’s experience, conveying how things look, smell, sound, taste, etc.

For example, it’s not enough to show that a character owns a luxury home and to describe its details. The reader needs to see him in that house when the family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. We want to know his feelings. Is he conflicted? He loves his wife and he hates her. He feels trapped by her, thrilled by her, disgusted, but unable to leave. It’s his personal world. His feelings are the lightning bolts that ‘animate the monster’ and make it live.’ (Maass)

2336426905_fa1dcb6ef7_oSo much advice, so little time. Perhaps it boils down to this:

‘Write for the right reasons. The ability to write is a gift and should not be abused for cynical purposes. Resist the temptation to imitate what is currently commercially successful. Write what’s in your heart.’ (Thrity Umrigar, The Space Between Us)



Joe’s Post # 23 — I got nuthin’. No words of wisdom. No amusing anecdotes. No tales of a hero overcoming obstacles. So, time for another journey into the bizarre world of spam. Here are the latest additions, all unaltered.

Spam #2

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Queries Written: 2

Queries Sent: 0

Synopsisesesess Written: 1

Synopsisesesess that suck: 1

Bios written: 1

Not the best week of my life. Need to do better.

What is the purpose of conflict?

Karalee’s Post #23

A writer’s imagination is never really turned off, even in everyday activities. I read a twitter feed last Sunday that got me thinking of the meaning of a particular word. It fits right in with my manuscript writing too.

It’s conflict.

Now we all know that fiction writers, no matter what genre, all need conflict to keep a reader’s interest. Human curiosity drives the need for readers to keep reading, but only if the author poses questions that the reader wants answers to. This is the infamous: Who, What, Where, When , Why and How?

They all create conflict.

My mind begins tossing around the word, doing its connect-the-dots game, and the word conflict has mostly negative connotations for me. So I ask myself, why do humans have the need for conflict? In reality isn’t it horrific in terms of wars, prejudice and violation of human rights?

I remember leaving high school in a state of naiveté (although at the time I thought it was a high state of maturity). In 1977 I truly believed that within my lifetime there would be world peace.

That’s right. World peace.

The opposite of conflict.

As a human race we want peace, right?

So why do we all strive to have conflict? An oxymoron?

Then the connecting dots come together in one big bang in my brain, and it occurs to me that, if taken on a very small individual scale, conflict plays the role of making us strive to do something about it, to resolve it in order to have more peace within us and for the people around us.

So does conflict drive us towards creating a more peaceful state?

For example:

  • A mother or father’s nurturing of a newborn crying for attention.
  • Or a CEO of a company bringing a team together to solve problems in order for the company to thrive.
  • Or a sports team playing together to either stay ahead of or to catch up to the other team.
  • Or a heroine striving to catch the killer
  • And on and on and on.

Therefore it make sense to me that we thrive on conflict. We need it as a mechanism to spur us to do something to fix “it” and make ourselves or others feel better, or to give back to society, or to make peace.

Even in the books we write.

What do you think?

Now if only wars remained between the pages of a book we really could have world peace.

And the twitter post I read referred to the Ted Talk about how one man by accident opened a new avenue towards peace in an area of our world full of strife and conflict.


Just My Imagination… Running Away with Me…

Paula’s Post #23 – You can hear it, can’t you? The Temptations number one hit single from 1971. You know the one, sure you do.

In the first two verses of the Motown hit, the narrator establishes his relationship to his ‘dream girl’ – out of all the fellas in the world, she belongs to him.

Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by.
I say to myself, you’re such a lucky guy.
To have a girl like her is truly a dream come true.
Out of all the fellas in the world, she belongs to me.

He later reveals they are preparing to marry and raise a family, build a cozy home out in the country…. Only in the final versus do we learn that the ‘love’ is all in the narrator’s imagination:

(Her love is) heavenly.
When her arms enfold me.
I hear a tender rhapsody.
But in reality, she doesn’t even know me.

Just my ‘magination, once again.
Running away with me.
Oh, tell you it was just my ‘magination,
Running away with me.

I never met her but I can’t forget her.
Just my ‘magination,
Ooo yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Running away with me.

Ooo, just my ‘magination running away with me.
She’s in my mind and hard to find.
Just my ‘magination…

And what, you ask, do the lyrics of some dusty old Motown ballad have to do with a blog about writing?


Imagination. That’s where our stories always start. In our imagination. Think about it for a moment. My novel is nothing more than ‘just my imagination’, running away with me.

In every novel, every word after: Once Upon a Time, is entirely dependent upon the power of the writer’s imagination.



noun \i-ˌma-jə-ˈnā-shən\

Definition of IMAGINATION

: the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality
a : creative ability

b : ability to confront and deal with a problem :resourcefulness <use your imagination and get us out of here>

c : the thinking or active mind : interest <stories that fired the imagination>

a : a creation of the mind; especially : an idealized or poetic creation

b : fanciful or empty assumption

Who in their right mind would have imagined a bestselling trilogy based on the concept of children forced to fight to the death for the amusement of others? Okay, come to think of it, maybe that’s not the best example, since the Romans pretty much had that covered almost 2000 years ago.

Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy, has revealed the inspiration for her bestselling novels came from channel surfing.

 “I was very tired … and I was flipping though images on reality television where these young people were competing for a million dollars or whatever, then I was seeing footage from the Iraq war, and these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is the moment where I got the idea for Katniss’s story.”

Taste of the Past, a collaborative novel I wrote with fellow 5writer Helga, was inspired by my trip to Villa Delia, Umberto Menghi’s idyllic Tuscan cooking school. Once I visited the villa, I just knew I had to write a culinary mystery set in an imaginary Tuscan villa. Had I not, Agatha Christie would have rolled in her grave.

Villa DeliaBut once I had the setting and the genre, I was, well, stuck. I needed more. I needed characters and plot and dialogue. My ‘magination was running, but it wasn’t really running away with me.


My imaginary friends had stopped talking to me.

Then, quite by accident, while researching my husband’s Scottish roots, I stumbled upon a surprising discovery: during WW II, Italian POW’s captured by the Allies in North Africa were imprisoned in Scotland. Coincidentally, one of the camps was located in Newton Stewart, a town I’d visited with my husband to see the rellies.

Suddenly, I had a spark of an idea. My imagination kicked in and I had the rudiments of a plot and some ideas for characters.

About this same time, Helga, and I were introduced by a mutual friend. Within an hour of meeting, we decided to write a novel together.


Ya think? I mean we barely knew each other. And, at the time, my idea for this novel was still little more than a small flame, burning not-so-very-brightly.

But Helga, who’d just returned from cooking school in France, helped fan that flame with her enthusiasm, talent and culinary expertise. With the “power of two” on our side, we fleshed out the setting and acquired a full cast of quirky characters. All from our imagination.

Victorian Women

Oh come on! It wasn’t that long ago!

Anyway, enough about Taste of the Past. We’re still hoping to get that one published and I don’t want to spoil it for you by giving away too much of the plot.

But I am intrigued about where our stories and characters come from. If you’re a writer, perhaps you’d like to share the inspiration for your stories? What got your ‘magination ‘running away with you?”

I miss the exclamation point!

exclamation-pointSilk’s post #23 — No one ever seems to talk about punctuation anymore. Once upon a time, students were forced to diagram sentences – an exercise as exciting as algebra, and just about as relevant to the enjoyment of literature. Sentences were to be taught to behave, like errant schoolboys.

Now, despite an entertaining selection of modern books dedicated to preserving some semblance of grammatical purity, advertising-speak and email have pretty well demolished punctuational discipline forever.

Nevertheless, I love Lynne Truss’s sensible definition of punctuation in her surprising bestseller Eats Shoots & Leavessubtitled “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:”

“Best of all, I think, is the simple advice given by the style book of a national newspaper: that punctuation is ‘a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.’ Isn’t the analogy with good manners perfect? Truly good manners are invisible: they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves. … As we shall see, the practice of ‘pointing’ our writing has always been offered in a spirit of helpfulness, to underline meaning and prevent awkward misunderstandings between writer and reader.”

It has often been pointed out that poor use of punctuation is one of the quickest ways to recognize awful – or at least sloppy – writing. My heart goes out to all the editors of the world who labour to round up herds of squiggles rampaging across the manuscripts before them, and coax them into the punctuation corral. So, to give myself a break from the hard work of writing an actual book, I’m going to do a little series of blog posts on punctuation – just for pure amusement.

My first topic is a eulogy, of sorts, for the dear, departed exclamation mark (or point). I miss it! Don’t you? Just a little bit?

It started out life with so much promise, or so the theory goes, back in the days when Latin was a spoken language. It was an expression of joy, intended to connote wonderment and admiration. How far the poor thing has fallen!

The exclamation point didn’t earn its own dedicated typewriter key until the 1970s. Before that, you had to type a period, then backspace, then type a straight apostrophe over top of the period. I’m old enough to remember actually having to do this. I certainly used fewer exclamation points as a result. It’s my theory that the seeds of the exclamation point’s demise began with this mechanical advancement in typography.

Easy keyboard access to “!!!!!” proliferated its use. Like a drug.

By the 1980s, the exclamation point was becoming ubiquitous, and in the 1986 edition of The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer (a companion to the better-known The Elements of Style by Strunk and White), six rules for its use are prescribed:

  1. Use an exclamation point to mark an exclamatory word, phrase or sentence.
  2. If the whole sentence is exclamatory in form, place an exclamation point at the end.
  3. Use an exclamation point at the end of sentences that are interrogatory in form but exclamatory in meaning.
  4. When an exclamation is not emphatic, place a comma instead of an exclamation point after it. (Note: this is the only ‘rule’ that advises discretion in its use)
  5. Use an exclamation point to express irony, surprise and dissension.
  6. An exclamation point is used after a command.

Today, many style guides have virtually reduced the rules for use to one: don’t. 

Even Wikipedia’s advice on usage warns, “Overly frequent use of the exclamation mark is generally considered poor writing, for it distracts the reader and devalues the mark’s significance.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” If he’d followed Margaret Shertzer’s rules, though, he would have written the first sentence as a command, with an exclamation point at the end of it.

In Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writingthe master of direct, pared-down writing advises:

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

In their hilarious book How Not to Write a Novel, subtitled “200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid them – A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide,” authors Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman wrote a whole section titled “I Mean This!! It’s Important!!!” to illustrate their advice about the exclamation point, which they describe as a graphical poke in the eye:

“The exclamation mark is the most commonly abused form of punctuation. While commas, often appear, randomly in unpublished manuscripts—and there is an epidemic—of unnecessary—em-dashes, it is the exclamation mark which takes the most punishment. 

“We understand that you are excited to be a novelist, but there are very few occasions when you should use an exclamation mark, and all of them are in dialogue. Even here they should be used sparingly, usually to indicate that a character is in fact shouting. … [With the frequent use of exclamation marks] the writing appears to be engaged in frantic hand-waving, straining every muscle to convince the reader that the action is important.”

If you really want to hear an editor rant about it, read this post by Erin Roof titled “Say no to exclamation points” on her interesting blog Grammar Party.

Need I say that literary agents also hate exclamation points? Almost nothing seems to curl their lips faster than encountering one on the page as they’re reading a few paragraphs of your manuscript – right in front of you – in a speed-date pitch at a writers conference. Just throw one at the end of an early sentence and then watch their faces. They won’t even say anything, but you know. You just know. That strained don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you look they give you is very likely a reaction to having been stabbed in the eye by an exclamation point.

Yes, the punctuation mark that began as an innocent and innovative expression of wonder has become the most reviled squiggle in literature. The hallmark of the amateur, the hack. Ridiculed by crude nicknames like a screamer, a gasper, a startler, a bang and a shriek.

And now it’s dead, chased from the page by literary do-gooders.

It’s sad. I know the exclamation point had its shortcomings and quirks – like all of us – but it was always a friend to me. It added a bit of a smile to electronic conversations (“Hi folks!” or “See ya later!”), and a little kick to the dramatic literature of yore (“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”).

I will miss it!! Really!!!

But wait. Is it too soon to write an epitaph for the exclamation point? Perhaps I’ll let Fyodor Dostoyevsky have the last word. He’d like that. This quote cited in Good Advice on Writing by William Safire and Leonard Safir sounds like Fyodor chewing out his editor:

“Every author has his own style and consequently his own grammatical rules. I put commas where I deem them necessary, and where I deem them unnecessary others must not put them! [And] remember that I never use superfluous commas: Never add or remove a single one!”

Take that, agents, editors and writing advice-givers everywhere!

I probably should have saved that quote for my future post about commas, but I couldn’t resist quoting Dostoyevsky’s use of exclamation points.

Writers of the True North

Helga’s post #21 — Question: If you were on a desert island, which of the remaining books (if you could only have one) would you want to have to re-read over and over? Which of the books would you not mind using for fuel to start a fire?

That was the question put to the panel of judges for this year’s ‘Canada Reads’ contest. For those who didn’t follow it, the five final choices were:

Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese

The Age of Hope, by Richard Bergen

Away, by Jane Urquhart

Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan

February, by Lisa Moore

The last two were the finalists, with February voted the winner of the 2013 contest. I thought I’d mention this because the topic of ‘reading’, and the importance of finding time for it even in the face of writing deadlines, has come up in a few posts recently.

But more than that, I would like to pay tribute to Canadian books and writers, which is a topic that for some reason has never come up on our blog. Never mind Canadian books and writers, how about BC?

As I listened to CBC Radio this last week, which was abuzz on the ‘Canada Reads’ contest and the Canadian book publishing industry, I learned some fascinating things. For example, did you know that we have over 30 publishers in our province? You can look them up at ABPBC, or the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia. The site has all kinds of interesting information and tidbits. It says for example that ‘Thousands of books are published in BC every year.’ Wow! I had no idea.

There is more to Canadian Publishing that is worth mentioning. Such as the annual event that celebrates the best crime and mystery writing in Canada. It’s held in Toronto at the end of May, where the Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing is handed out at a gala ceremony. There is an excellent website, ‘Crime Writers of Canada’ with info that could be useful to our group and our followers.

Another useful website is The Canadian Authors Association, subtitled ‘Writers Helping Writers’. Tons of good stuff here.

By the way, did you know that e-books sales are dropping off in favour of print? Apparently, over 90% of books sold are printed. The problem is, there are not enough book stores to sell them directly.

Then there is a story about Margaret Atwood collaborating on some zombie fiction. Atwood has been co-writing a serialized novel entitled The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home  with U.K. writer Naomi Alderman. Their satirical horror story is set in a dystopian future in which some kind of virus has turned many people into zombies and revolves around a no-nonsense, garden-tool-wielding grandmother trying to reconnect with her teenage granddaughter after her mother turns into one of the undead and eats her husband. You can read it online and it’s hilarious (regardless if you are an Atwood fan or not). What I found interesting about this story is how the two writers collaborated (having co-written a novel with friend Paula in the past). Take a peek, it’s worth it.https://i2.wp.com/www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/the-happy-zombie-sunrise-home.jpg

All to say, there are lots of unsung heroes of Canadian authors published in our country. They may not have the sales numbers like those published in the US, but perhaps we need to remind ourselves occasionally that writing is not only about numbers.