Errors in writing that can be so difficult to avoid

November 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Once they had decided that there was no point in their just standing there and that they had better start climbing, Connell took what at first looked like a portable radio from the car before he locked it.   The Siege of the Villa Lipp by Eric Ambler (Page 2)

The close succession of ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘there’ could have been avoided.

I felt slightly ashamed of myself as I left the flat, and that evening I told May I was sorry. But that didn’t make any difference to my feelings, and it didn’t make any difference to May, who still went on eating her toast and marmalade in the same way.  At about that time, the end of May, the McKenna case was taking up . . . . The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons (Chapter 11, page 56-57)

Much of the action of this book takes place in April, May and June. Why does Julian Symons call one of the main characters May? Surely Julian Symons’s editor noticed that the main character was called May and some of the events were taking place in May. The coincidence of a character’s name and a month’s was bound to make the reader stumble. And also there could have been a third ‘may’: “May may want to go on holiday in May.” Did Julian Symons have some clever reason for the duplication of ‘May’ the girl and ‘May’ the month?

With his free hand he took one of the handles of the heavy market-bag, and helped his grandfather carry the burden out of the station to the bus.  A dog so small by Philippa Pearce (Chapter 3, last line)

Here we have hand and handles in close succession.

Repetition of the same word or similar words usually has a jarring effect on the reader. Such flaws are minor and are almost impossible to avoid. They crop up regularly in my own writing. And I often find that I remove one such mistake only to introduce another of the same kind.

Of course, there are far more important things to get right than these trifles: to write a story that people like and find interesting would be one of them. First things first. I would quite happily leave hand and handles in close succession in any novel of mine, if it ended as movingly as Philippa Pearce’s A dog so small does.


Penalties for using plastic bags

November 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Perhaps the greatest users of the plastic bag are to be found in England. Why are the English such devotees of plastic bags? Plastic bags are not things of beauty. I don’t like looking at them or touching them or hearing their particular crackle.

It is not the norm for characters in novels to carry plastic bags. If writers were to be truer to life, novels would be crowded with people, crackling plastic bags. Characters’ accoutrements would often include plastic bags, sporting the logo of a much-advertised supermarket.

Writers don’t give the plastic bag much room in their fiction. Not as much room, I think, as brown paper parcels–those precursors of the plastic bag–were given. Brown paper parcels are a very different matter. They appeal to the imagination in a way that plastic bags never could.

Years ago (about 1992) a friend of mine spoke in disgust of our fellow country people, the Irish. They were a dirty littering species whose nationality he was ashamed to share. He had just come back from Bavaria where there was no devotion to the plastic bag. The Germans had their own receptacles for carrying shopping which they used again and again. They did not pollute the environment with plastic bags as the Irish did

Those were the bad old days: the Irish have made a considerable advance since then. Gone are the days when people emerge from Irish food stores burdened with plastic bags. What brought about this change? Were shoppers concerned about the environment? Sadly no! Their concern was a mercenary one. Food stores began to charge for plastic bags which they had formerly provided so profligately.

When people had to pay for plastic bags, they quickly found that plastic bags were dispensable. Shoppers managed to bring their own reusable bags or carry goods to the car in cardboard boxes. A revolution occurred.

You can tell people that cutting down their consumption of plastic bags would be good for the environment or you can simply penalise them for using plastic bags (make them pay for them). The second way has immediate results and the first—as can be seen in England—only negligible ones. In England there is plenty of talk about the environment, but the plastic bag still flourishes.

Euphony: such an essential part of good writing

November 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Wallace Hildick in Writing with Care indicates that George Eliot (Middlemarch) first wrote:

“What is it dear?” said Dorothea with dread in her head. She revised it to: “What is it?” said Dorothea with dread in her mind. In this way George Eliot got rid of that dread/head rhyme.

Let us say another writer had written, ‘dread in her head’. She replaces head with mind, and introduces another problem. Here is the fictitious example: She minded that he left her alone all day, marooned in the country. But there was always dread in her mind when he returned . . . .

The writer revises again:

It bothered her that he left her alone all day, marooned in the country. But there was always dread in her mind when he returned.

‘You couldn’t be bothered, could you, to have something ready for me to eat?’ he said when he entered the chill kitchen.

A further revision, to get rid of a bothered, is required.

She disliked being left alone all day, marooned in the country. But there was always dread in her mind when he returned.                                                                                         

‘You couldn’t be bothered, could you, to have something ready for me to eat?’ he said when he entered the chill kitchen.

The writer revises four times. The result does not dazzle. No reader will say what a wonderful piece of writing. They won’t notice it. But they would have noticed the dread/head rhyme, or the duplication of minded and bothered. Writers must make an effort to avoid writing badly. Yet not writing badly is not equivalent to writing well.

Mad, like Flaubert?

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Sometimes as I work on fiction that neither literary agents nor judges of writing competitions are interested in, I do question what I am doing.  How long should I go on doing this? How long am I willing to be a failure?

I am not a misunderstood genius. No one slanders me or mocks me. And although Flaubert’s letter makes me smile, it does not make me laugh. Of course, the thought has popped into my mind: “I must be mad to continue with all this writing that no one wants.”

The other day I learned that a young man I knew at school had been interned at Saint-Yon (the Rouen insane asylum). A year ago I read a book of stupid poems by him; but I was moved by the sincerity, enthusiasm, and faith expressed in the preface. I was told that like me he lived in the country, secluded and working as hard as he could. The bourgeois had the greatest contempt for him. He complained of being constantly slandered and insulted; he suffered the common ordeal of unrecognised geniuses. Eventually he lost his mind, and now he is raving and screaming and treated with cold baths. Who can assure me that I am not on the same path?

Extract from Flaubert’s letter to Louise Colet, October, 1-2 1852


Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh: Charity Christmas Cards

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Many supermarkets now produce some kind of charity card. It is important to read the small print on the back of the card. You may discover that only 8% of profits are donated to charity. How, in any case, is profit defined?

Where were the cards printed? In China? Under what conditions were they produced? How much were the workers paid? Has anyone involved in the manufacture of these cards been exploited? If so, in what sense are the cards ‘charity cards’?

Perhaps there has been no exploitation. But when people send me such cards, often cheap-looking, I do wonder how they came into being. Why buy such cards when there are small charities that sell genuine charity cards? No doubt their cards are more expensive. But small charities cannot subsidize the costs. Shouldn’t the price of goods reflect the cost of manufacture? To offset the higher prices, you can buy fewer cards.

See the cards sold by the Thai Children’s Trust ( This charity has an office in London. Buying their cards might not make good sense, if you live overseas. However, you could sponsor a child in the orphanage.

The Siren Call: What Edith Wharton resisted when writing Ethan Frome

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

While Edith Wharton was writing Ethan Frome, she had to resist the siren call of other work. We know what that is: the novel we have undertaken has lost its lustre; it may not be any good. The first flush of heady creation is long past. We have an idea for another story—altogether more vivid than the one we are writing. We are tempted to start it immediately.

Ideas for the new novel burgeon. This novel will almost write itself. We won’t have any difficulty with the ‘first person narrative’ because we will write a ‘third person narrative’ which, of course, is much easier. We don’t want to be confined in one person’s head any longer. We have been writing the wrong novel, so we abandon it.

Unwritten novels glow in our mind, and tantalise us with their unrealised potential. But once we have plunged ourselves into a new novel, we experience the same problems. We run out of steam; momentum is lost. Scenes, that promised so much in their inchoate state, are flat and incomplete when written out. They are no better than the dull scenes of the abandoned novel.

We now have another draft novel that needs a lot of work. This draft is even worse than the one we cast aside. Whatever else, we mustn’t start a third novel. We have ideas for one, and they are irresistible. But we must remain deaf to those siren calls. We have to stay the course for the long voyage that is the novel, or we will have another wreck on our hands.

A Children’s Year Book

November 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

A Year Book was devised for a class of twenty seven pupils* in the final year of their primary school (July 2012). Each child was allotted a page of the Year Book;  favourite films and books and so on were recorded there. The information had been obtained by way of a questionnaire.

Two difficult questions produced such similar responses that it can only be assumed that the children were influenced by the answers other children gave. Few adults, I imagine, would like to be confronted with either question:

How do you think your friends would describe you?

What three words would describe you best?

On average, three words of description were used to answer the first question. Eighteen children noted ‘funny’ as one of them (ten girls and eight boys). Fifteen of those children also used the word funny in question two.

‘kind’ was the next most popular adjective to appear. Seven children (four girls and three boys) put it down for question one, and three (of those children) for question two. Occurring a few times were the adjectives: fun, friendly, helpful, and caring.

A member of the class, who did not put ‘funny’ in either of his answers, was scornful of many who did: most of the children were not funny. And, no doubt, some of those children did not think they were funny either. They were more concerned with having an answer that was acceptable. To be funny must be perceived as a good quality but not offensively so. No children, for example, noted that they were intelligent or good at English or any academic subject.

It was clear from a few children’s idiosyncratic replies that they had no mind for their  classmates’ answers.

Does fear of their peers’ judgements prevent children from being what they might be? Do children feel, as many adults do, that to belong to a community they must conform?

* all pupils, apart from three who were ten-years-old, were eleven.

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