Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Being Wrong

4 x 4 + 4 x 4 +4 – 4 x 4 = ?

The above arithmetic sentence has been floating around Facebook recently. Can you work out the answer? Apparently (we are told) 73% of people get it wrong. To work it out you have to know a rule: in calculations like this, multiplication and division take precedence over addition and subtraction. That means, simply put, that you carry out any multiplications or divisions before you carry out the additions and subtractions. So it works like this:

4 x 4 + 4 x 4 +4 – 4 x 4 = 16 +16 + 4 -16 = 20.

Most people (73%), though, don’t seem to know this rule. They simply carry out the calculations from left to right:

4 x 4 + 4 x 4 + 4 – 4 x 4
= 16 + 4 x 4 + 4 – 4 x 4
= 20 x 4 + 4 – 4 x 4
= 80 + 4 – 4 x 4
= 84 – 4 x 4
= 80 x 4
= 320

That’s okay. It’s an easy mistake to make, if you have forgotten the rule or never learned it. The interesting part of this is the reaction of many of those who get it wrong. Some insist that theirs is the correct way to do it. Okay, fair enough. They’re wrong, but at least I can understand their position. Other arguments are more bizarre. ‘Different people do things different ways. You can do it any way you want to.’ ‘So someone made a silly rule! So what, I’ll do it however I want to!’ Rather than simply admit that they were wrong, or that they did not know the rule, they adopt a defensive posture. ‘I didn’t know that rule, so it can’t be important anyway.’ ‘No one’s going to tell me how to do it. It’s a free country, I’ll do it my way.’

Arithmetical or mathematical anarchy is not an option, but there is a deeper point here. It demonstrates how difficult it is for people to admit that they are wrong, once they have committed themselves to a position, even on such an apparently trivial—it’s not actually trivial, although many might think so—issue such as this. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. I see it now,’ people would rather defend the incorrect answer or adopt the attitude that ‘it doesn’t matter anyway’. If this is possible on an issue that people will have forgotten tomorrow, imagine how difficult it is for people to admit they have been mistaken on what appears to be a more important issue: religious beliefs, political opinions, scientific theories.

Our politicians demonstrate this kind of attitude every day. They obstinately cling to an outmoded policy or point of view today for no better reason than that they held it yesterday. To admit that they might actually have been mistaken…? It can’t be done. And were they to do it—in fairness to them—the media and the public would bay for blood. People cling to religious or superstitious beliefs long after they are even remotely defensible. Pride—and a lack of anything to replace the old view—prevents people from changing their minds. Or admitting that they may have been mistaken after all.

As a society we should applaud scientists, politicians, religious and other leaders—anyone who has the courage to stand up and admit: ‘Yes, I was wrong. I see it now.’

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Writer as Architect, Builder and Interior Decorator: Part Three

The Writer as Interior Director

I have talked about the writer as architect and the writer as builder. As architect we plan and design our story; as builder we put together the words, sentences and paragraphs that give our ideas form.

Hemingway argued that writing was not interior decoration, and that the Baroque was over. Many writers, once the building has been constructed, would consider their job done. However, I believe there is one more step that can turn competent and even good writing into excellent writing. It is what transforms writing as craft into writing as art. This does not necessarily involve the elaborate constructs of the Baroque; but it does require attention to detail. It is about word choice, sentence structure, and the careful construction of paragraphs. It is beyond good grammar, and often even breaks those rules. This I call ‘interior decoration’. It is writing to create a mood, to generate an effect, and to vary pace. As with all art, this will often come down to a matter of taste.

Consider the following passage:

She came in the Towers’ front entrance and walked up the stairs, passing her neighbors on the way. She walked down the hall of the fifth-floor to room 5C, dug in her purse, unlocked the door and let herself in. She was shocked to find blood splattered on her living room walls, her flat screen television smashed on the floor below its wall mount, her plants uprooted and dumped out of their containers.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this. It’s not badly written. The grammar is fine. It’s clear and concise. Now consider this:

Coming in the Towers’ front entrance and walking up the stairs had been a familiar experience. Passing her neighbors on the stairs had been a familiar experience. Walking down the hall of the fifth-floor to room 5C had been a familiar experience. Digging in her purse for her keys, unlocking the door, and letting herself in… all familiar as well. Finding the blood splattered on her living room walls, her flat screen television smashed on the floor below its wall mount, her plants uprooted and dumped out of their containers, well, all of that was very unfamiliar.

What the writer has done in that second version is to first of all create a rhythm, using repetition and well measured phrases. They have avoided overusing that repetition by varying it on the fourth pass: ‘all familiar as well’. Then comes the reveal, with the antithesis: ‘all that was very unfamiliar’. The writer has used this measured rhythm to build suspense and create a mood. The reader knows something is coming, and is led skillfully towards it. That is interior decoration, and it turns good writing into something much more powerful and evocative.

This is not something that should be done all the time. To do so would be to stumble back into the Baroque, or even the glitzy pretention of the Rococo. The book would become far too long-winded and annoying. This, I think, is what Hemingway is warning against. But it should be done at key moments, and to a lesser extent along the way.

Interior decoration is not always about adding words. Minimalism is also an interior decoration choice. Less is sometimes more effective than more. A simple word or phrase can be just the right touch. Listen to this from The Dubliners, by James Joyce. ‘Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body.’ So few words to say so much. There is an entire personality—a philosophy even—in that sentence. ‘All this happened, more or less’, is the opening line of Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Slaughterhouse Five. It forewarns you about what you are about to read. How much more? How much less? This is a true story but, well, maybe not so true, too. This is sort of what happened, and sort of not.

When it comes to interior decorating, words are used—even fewer words—to do far more than just tell a story, or convey information. They are used to create an effect. They are used to evoke. Poets do not have a monopoly on this. And creative writing is not journalism. Any number of combinations of words can convey the information. When we choose this word rather than that one… When we decide that this sentence sounds better before that one… We are already doing the interior decoration. It is a fine line we tread and it will come down to taste in the end. Did Joyce go too far when he wrote that ‘Love loves to love love’? Or when he described ‘The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea’?

This is not something that an editor can necessarily help you with very much. I might say to you: bring this passage more to life. I might say: tone that down a little. I may suggest a better word here and there. I may suggest that a particular metaphor does not work well. But this, more than anywhere else, is where a writer’s individual style comes in.

It is also where the rules are broken. It is where sentence fragments are used, where words are used with unusual meanings. The rules are broken intentionally to create a particular effect. And this is where a copy editor must tread carefully. Often it is obvious when a writer is simply making a mistake; but sometimes there is the suspicion that an ‘error’ is intentional. Here, as copy editor, I will just raise the question. Did you intend to do this? And I might also suggest that, in my opinion, it does or doesn’t work. But this is a judgement call, not an appeal to the rules.

The best writing, then, demands that the writer be architect, builder and interior decorator. There need to be good ideas, an interesting plot and strong characterisation. The right building blocks and materials need to be used. But this empty building also demands decoration. This will give it interest and even beauty. This will generate the surprise and delight when we turn the corner. It is this which helps to transform writing from a craft into an art.

If writing as art is frowned upon today, regarded as something pretentious, we are the poorer for it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Review: Baggy Pants and Bootees, by Marilyn Chapman

The first thing I want to say about this book is that I wanted to read through to the end. That’s already a sign that a book is worth at least three stars. I was particularly interested to learn the fate of the characters from that part of the story set during the Second World War.

The story takes place during two time periods, related side by side. In the late 1960s we meet Sophie, an ambitious, capable young woman trying to make her place in the very masculine world of journalism. She works for a small town newspaper with links to national newspapers. As a young teenager, her alcoholic mother threw her out of the house and she was forced to make it on her own. It is when the mother she has not seen for years makes contact with her that the story begins in earnest. When her mother has an accident and loses touch with reality, Sophie begins a quest to find out the truth about her own origins. Was her father really a US Army officer, or was this a story concocted by her mother to cover a darker secret?

This introduces us to the other time period, during the war years. We meet Sophie’s mother, Frances, at the time when her family is killed during an air raid, and follow her story up to and beyond the birth of Sophie.  For me, it is this second story that has the greatest depth of characterisation and in which there is real drama to be found. For me, Frances’ story is at the heart of the novel.

In her quest to find the truth, Sophie is aided by two men. The first is Steve, a photographer at the newspaper who has a reputation as a ladies’ man, and who begins a pursuit of Sophie. She resists, and in this storyline there are some rather conventional themes. The other man is David, who is the son of the woman in whose house Frances lived as a boarder, and in which Sophie suspects she was born. From the beginning she feels a strong connection with David, for reasons that she cannot understand. In this part of the story, there are fallings in and out, misunderstandings and jealousies, which I largely found myself impatient to get through until we were returned to Frances’ story.

Frances, for me, is clearly the best delineated and most interesting character. Sophie is not a caricature, nor is she exactly two-dimensional. At times, though, I did find her annoying. David and Steve are both given some complexity, but still seemed rather half-heartedly drawn. During the 1960s episodes, the author largely adopts the point of view (POV) of Sophie, although occasionally she does adopt the POV of these men. I never felt that I quite came in touch with any of these characters inner lives, the way I did with that of Frances.

During Frances’ era, the minor characters have some life and colour. During Sophie’s era, the minor characters—mostly her co-workers—are little more than names on the page. Occasionally one will surface briefly and do or say something, but this never constitutes anything of real significance for the story. Usually I had no idea who these people were if they were eventually mentioned a second time.

As with the characters and story, so with the setting and ethos. I felt that the author did a much better job of making me present during the war era than during the sixties. The mood and feeling of the former period was reproduced much more effectively than that of the latter. Apart from the mention of Woodstock, there was little here that felt like the sixties. The attitudes expressed by the characters, including Sophie, smacked more of the fifties than the sixties. In 1969, would people really react with such shock to the thought of a man and woman spending the night together? Would Sophie really refer to an unmarried woman in her thirties as a ‘spinster’? There was so much going on in the world at that time—the moon landing, Vietnam, drugs, the hippy movement, the music, other social movements. This strand of the story would have benefited greatly by drawing on some of these elements.

The central plot—I refer here to the mystery that gradually emerges as Frances’ story is told—is clever and plausible. The revealing of it is also well told. The writing at times is very good—again mainly in the telling of the earlier story. This is a good illustration of the interaction between plot, characterisation and writing style: it all just works so much better when Frances’ story is being told. Perhaps, like me, this is where the author’s heart really was.

I had a few minor quibbles here and there with some details of the plot. There were also a few typographical errors that might be corrected. What defines this novel for me, though, is the contrast between the two time periods. Frances’ story would easily get four, if not four and a half, stars from me. Sophie’s story, though, would get three stars. I will therefore compromise and give this three and a half stars (rounded up to four where necessary). 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Writer as Architect, Builder and Interior Decorator: Part Two

The Writer as Builder

In this three part series I am considering the words of Ernest Hemingway: ‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration and the Baroque is over.’ I am not so much taking issue with this sentiment, as giving it a slight twist and introducing some nuance.

In the first part of this series I talked about the writer as architect. Every writer needs some kind of plan to work from, even if at the beginning it is little more than an idea. By the end, there is a beautiful, stable, coherent structure in place. Right?

It is when we actually begin to build this structure that words appear on the page. Words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters—these are the bricks and mortar of the writer as builder. This is where we draw upon our skills as an artisan. The writer as builder is the writer as craftsperson. Every craft has its technical skills, and those of writing involve the correct use of words, sentences and so on.

For many reasons people struggle with the rules of grammar these days. Perhaps they have never been taught them at school. Perhaps these rules seem petty and unimportant. The rules, if rules they are, seem fluid and unstable, particularly in this world of tweet-speak.

In fact, these are not so much rules as descriptions of accepted usage. They are descriptive rather than prescriptive, although they can certainly have the appearance of the latter. They are a gathering together of the ways in which we actually use the language. These ways change over time, and the rules can often lag behind. Sometimes battles are fought to retain a usage which seems to be facing extinction. Sometimes these battles are worth fighting; sometimes they are not. Nevertheless, these rules exist in order to facilitate communication, to ensure that we understand each other. Private languages are of little use.

The more subtle rules of grammar enable the writer to introduce nuance into his or her work. The basic rules of grammar make that work comprehensible. Using the right words with the correct spelling, structuring sentences and paragraphs correctly—this is nothing more than the process of ensuring that the bricks of the building are laid evenly and without gaps, that the window frames are square, that doors open and close. When someone looks at a building, they will often comment on the fine finish, the attention to detail—or lack thereof. Poor grammar and bad spelling are the equivalent of poor workmanship. In a beautifully designed, expensively furnished building, who wants to see shoddy tiling in the bathroom?

But the writing process is about more than just getting everything technically correct. It is also about expressing the writer’s intent as clearly and concisely as possible. The need for conciseness is not the same as the quest minimalism. It is not about eliminating adjectives and adverbs. These are often necessary and enhance the writing. But it is about avoiding redundancy, eliminating repetitious words and phrases, and using simpler constructs where possible.

Proofreading and copy editing are the ways in which an editor assists the writer in this part of the writing process. Copy editing is about more than just good grammar. It is about structuring sentences so that they express as clearly and concisely as possible the intent of the writer.

Consider these examples.

1.      ‘Do these guys think that they can get away with leaning on my friend’s son and get away with it?’

There is nothing wrong grammatically with this sentence. All the words are spelt and used correctly. Yet it clearly needs work: ‘Do these guys think they can get away with leaning on my friend’s son?’ Not only is the second ‘get away with’ redundant, but ‘that’ is also redundant.

2.      As a fellow artist, he could sense better than anyone else what his desires were.

There is nothing technically wrong with this sentence. But it is unnecessarily wordy and convoluted. This is better: ‘As a fellow artist, he could sense his desires better than anyone.’  

3.      Unlike Sarah or Geoffrey, she wasn’t as powerful as they were, or even as powerful as Michael was.’

This is better: ‘She wasn’t as powerful as Sarah or Geoffrey, or even Michael.’ After copy editing, manuscripts are invariably shorter.

The proofreader will correct obvious errors, but will not restructure sentences or paragraphs. The copy editor will. These are all parts of the building process, of the craft of writing. Already this goes beyond mere technical correctness. The line between craft and art is forever fluid.

The writer as interior decorator takes this a step further.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Writer as Architect, Builder and Interior Decorator: Part One

The Writer as Architect

This is my first blog ‘series’. It is inspired by some oft-quoted words of Ernest Hemingway. ‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,’ he once said, ‘and the Baroque is over.’ He was taking a stand against that pretentious, egotistical writing which is more about showing how clever the author is than it is about creating real people and telling real stories. Characters are no more than caricatures, mouthpieces for the author’s own views. Writing is an opportunity for the writer to show the world how cultured he or she is. Hemingway’s assertion is a protest against literary excess and intellectual pretention. Anyone familiar with the Baroque style of art can appreciate Hemingway’s distaste for this in the field of literature.

It’s also important to remember that Hemingway came from a background in journalism. Journalism continues to influence other writing styles even today. In my opinion, however, it tends towards a certain minimalism and reductionism, which is not always desirable when writing fiction. As with all movements, the movement away from the Baroque can become extreme in turn, and perhaps we have lost sight, to some extent, of prose as a form of art.

Focusing on creative prose, and especially fiction, I want to argue for a more balanced position in which the writer is not only the architect, but also the builder and, indeed, the interior decorator of their work. To achieve the best writing, in my opinion, it is necessary to pay close attention to each of these aspects of writing: architecture, building and interior decoration. Of course, by interior direction I will mean something other than the pretentious excesses that Hemingway had in mind.

In this first part I will consider the writer as architect. I approach this both as a writer in my own right, and as an editor of the work of others.


As with a building, so with a story, there needs to be on hand some kind of overall design to guide the building process. The elements of the plot need to hold together. Often in a story there are two or three main narrative themes. These need to dovetail and weave together. The characters are part of this overall structure: their role in the story; their relationships to each other. All of these things need to work together, rise together, so that in the end there is a structure that is stable, cohesive and even (we hope) beautiful.

How and when you, as the writer, arrive at and conceive this structure will depend on how you work. Some people like to start with the entire structure mapped out, at least in outline. Before they write a word they know where the plot goes, from A to D, via B and C. They know who all the characters are and the precise roles they are going to play in the story. They have a complete set of architect’s drawings, to maintain the analogy. Others prefer not to work like this. They design as they go. They have a few sketches to work with, some broad ideas and outlines, but they prefer to let the story evolve. It’s not for me to prescribe the best way to work.

This is not about a chronological process. It is not a series of steps. It’s not about having a complete design before you write a word. Writing, for many, is a more organic process: the design emerges with the writing, rather than precisely defining its parameters. The point is that, whether you start with a design or not, in the end what you hope for is a structure that is cohesive and holds together. You don’t want to end up with a structure that won’t stand. You don’t want walls that don’t fit. You don’t want one part of the building to clash badly with another part.

This is where structural editing comes into its own. The job of the structural editor is to ensure that the whole edifice is sound. Are there inconsistencies in the plot? Do the characters behave in consistent and believable ways (within the context of the plot)? The structural editor helps the writer to remove ugly excrescences, to remove redundant or conflicting features. The editor will tell you that this gets in the way of that; that you need to underpin this or that point of the story more securely. I prefer to call this process manuscript assessment, because at this point I, as the editor, am not making changes. I am advising the writer about what works and what doesn’t. An in-depth assessment of your manuscript covers its strengths and weaknesses, and offers specific suggestions and advice for improvement. It will include comments on structure, plot, characters, style and format, among other things.

These are broad questions. I believe this is a process the writer needs to go through after the first or second draft is complete. There’s no point at this stage in polishing your manuscript too much. You might write a beautiful chapter... And the editor will suggest you cut it entirely, because it plays no real part in the development of the story. A beautifully written chapter might be entirely off point. You, as the writer, might need to omit sections, add new sections or entirely rewrite existing sections. If you polish too much at this stage you are probably wasting your time.

Consider these examples.

1. Plausibility. The actions of characters and their motivations always require a certain plausibility. This is the case even in speculative fiction, where the rules of this world and everyday life do not necessarily apply. Even in this context, there needs to be an internal, consistent logic. For example, if one character is the only one in an entire town not to be aware of certain facts, some plausible mechanism needs to be established to account for his ignorance. If a monster attacks our hero, that monster cannot be a randomly designed creature with no organic link to the world in which it appears. This fantasy world has to have its own ecology and biosphere. If a character travels through time, there need to be certain rules governing this activity that make sense within the 'science' of this world, and which can't be arbitrarily set aside if the plot requires it. Characters behaving 'out of character', implausible coincidences to aid the plot... A character, suffering from memory loss, who can describe the bedroom he slept in, but 'forgets' that he his gay. The editor, from a more objective distance, can identity these issues and challenge the author. And sometimes, yes, the author needs to be challenged.

2.    Consistency. Consider a mystery in which a series of murders is committed. There are only two or three possible suspects. As with any good mystery, in the course of the story the author tosses out a few red herrings. While in principle this is a good idea, at the end of the story I am left with the feeling that some of these red herrings didn't really make sense. Why did the character do/say/think that if they were not the murderer? The answer seems to be: To throw the reader off the scent. And, when the identity of the murderer is finally revealed? The nagging sense that this person would not have had the physical strength to commit these murders. All mystery writers will cheat to some extent. All readers will allow the author some liberties. Sometimes, though, the edifice collapses when the final bricks are laid. 

3.   Following through. A major event occurs early in a thriller. The unfolding of this event occupies fully one third of the novel. Then it is never referred to again. Although it was a major source of trauma for our heroine, within pages it has faded from her memory. A thrilling cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. 'If he'd only known what Fred was going to do, he would have...' What was Fred going to do? Read on... and never find out. Nothing 'Fred' does lives up to the expectations raised. Ideas developed at one point in a story often fail to bear fruit later. A 'clue' in a mystery is never explained. Sometimes the story has moved on in the writer's mind. This clue, this hint, this teaser is forgotten, but remains there to frustrate the reader. The editor can spot these unfinished threads that the writer overlooks.

I don’t give these examples to suggest that these real or imagined authors are necessarily bad writers or that these are bad books. Far from it. You might be confident that you, as the writer, would have noticed and corrected these issues. Or that they would never have arisen in the first place. However, these examples are in no way exceptional. People are often so taken up with the story they have conceived that they forget to lay the foundations. Other parts of the narrative become twisted or blurred to accommodate this main idea. The author wants to get from A to C and hopes the reader doesn’t notice that B is missing. An underdeveloped character; an undeveloped idea. Plot inconsistencies and discontinuities. These are common, if not, indeed, abundant.

Writers will not always like to hear what the editor has to say at this point in the process. For many, conceiving and constructing this idea is the heart of the creative process. Writers find it very difficult to let go of a treasured chapter or character. Alternatively, they find it difficult to give more substance to an underdeveloped character in which they have no real interest. I try to present criticisms in a positive light; and I always provide suggestions for resolving the issues, rather than simply pointing them out. Nevertheless, it is always with some trepidation that I press the ‘send’ button when I have written a manuscript assessment. And it’s always with some trepidation that I press the ‘open’ button when I receive an assessment of my own writing.

It’s very important that the final product is structurally sound, that it will bear the weight of the words it carries. We hope for a harmonious structure, in which everything has its place. Of course, it is not only the design on which this depends. It also depends on how well the structure is built, and it is to the role of the writer as builder that my attention will turn in Part Two of this series.