Monday, 27 September 2010

The Oxford Comma

Okay, I don't usually get technical with punctuation, but having read a brilliant example on Twitter this morning, and having had this issue crop up with an assignment I was marking over the weekend, I thought it was worth mentioning. 

When I was at school (which for me was many Prime Ministers ago), I was always told that we had to use a comma to separate words in a list. For example, if I'd been on a school visit to a local farm, the teacher may have asked me to write about it. As a seven year old, I'd have written something like this:

Last week I went to the farm and I saw cows, pigs, sheep, goats, horses and geese.

My teacher would have praised me for using a comma to separate each item in my list of animals. I would also have been praised for NOT using a comma after the word 'horses' and before the word 'and'. I was always told at school that we did not need a comma before an 'and'.

BUT ... there are times when you do, and it is known as the serial comma, although many people know it as the Oxford comma, because it is a stylistic point used by the Oxford University Press. 

Which brings me to the great example mentioned on Twitter this morning. Here is a sentence that has a list and does not have a comma before the word 'and':

"I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling."
Reading this sentence as it is, it suggests that this author is the love child of Martin Amis and JK Rowling! Now, I'm sure this isn't the case ... Martin Amis and JK Rowling may never have even met ... but this sentence, as it stands, tells us that this book is dedicated to two people.

To clarify the sentence, we need to insert the Oxford comma, before the word 'and', like so:

"I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling."

Suddenly, all becomes clearer! Instead of dedicating the book to two people (Martin Amis and JK Rowling), the book is now dedicated to four people (Martin Amis, JK Rowling and both of the author's parents). The Oxford comma may break the rule that I was always taught at school, but it clarifies the sentence, which is what all good punctuation should do.

A comma may only be a small squiggle of ink, but sometimes, it's an important squiggle!

Good luck!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Make The Most Of Opportunities ... Before They Disappear!

So, there I was, last Thursday, with a magazine editor sitting on my sofa, drinking a coffee I'd made him five minutes earlier, when he flabbergasted me. It had nothing to do with a decision he was making - but the reason he was making it.

Inside the back page of his monthly magazine was a sunny/cloudy column. Somebody would write a 300-word pessimistic outlook on life, and then someone else would counteract this with a 300-word optimistic version.

At the bottom of the page was his call for submissions - he asked writers to submit something suitable for one of the 300 word slots (either a pessimistic outlook, or an optimistic one) and someone from the editorial team would write the other pessimistic/optimistic angle. I had my piece published in the March issue. So what was it that the editor said that flabbergasted me?

How many freelance submissions do you think he'd received during the two year period (that's 24 issues)?

  • 1,000?
  • 800?
  • 392?
  • 89?
No. The answer was none of those. In two years, all he had received were four submissions. Four.  FOUR! And one of those was mine, whilst another was from a friend in my writers' group.

No wonder he was dropping the column. He was fed up of having to write it himself each month!

So the message is, don't dismiss any writing opportunity. If you see an editor calling for submissions at the bottom of a page, then give it a bloody go! Write something and send it off. You don't know how grateful the editor may be! And when you've done it once, do it again. Who knows where it may lead? The editor may ask you to write more things for the magazine.

The editor sitting on my sofa believed that many writers simply assumed that hundreds of other writers were sending material in. Don't fall for that assumption. If you do, you could find that the opportunity is taken away.

Good luck.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Kicking About With Kindle

I don't know where you stand on the 'eBook' issue, but my attitude is that physical books will never die. There are times when a physical book is the right tool for the job (reading in the bath, or that huge, heavily illustrated tome on the coffee table, for example). I do think that eBooks are a new market, not a competing one. I have just ordered an eBook reader, because I have limited space and, horror upon horrors, have found myself in bookshops recently, putting books back DOWN on the shelf because I don't much space left for them!

I will still buy physical books, but I will buy more books overall as a result of having the eBook reader.

So, I decided that I ought to get into the eBook market, and today, my second dog humour book, One Hundred Muddy Paws For Thought is now available in Amazon Kindle format. It can be downloaded onto Amazon Kindles from the UK store and the USA store. (And if you have the free PC or Mac version of the Kindle reader, or the iPhone App, you can download it there too.)

The print version of the book was published in 2004 and sold 50,000 copies, but by 2009, it was out of print. So, having checked my contract with the publishers, I wrote to them and asked for the rights to revert to me. Once this had happened, I was then able to start working on the Kindle version, because I held the electronic rights once again.

This illustrates the importance of keeping a record of which rights you have sold in your text and which rights you have retained. It does annoy me a little, when publishers buy the eBook rights to your text and then do nothing with them!

So, if you happen to be the owner of an Amazon Kindle, and fancy reading a short, humorous book about how dogs train their humans to cope with the great outdoor life, then why not take a look?  It's currently £3.44 including VAT (yes, VAT does apply to eBooks - oh, there is still so much for the publishing industry to sort out!)

There are some writers who have uploaded their books to Amazon in Kindle format and seen sales that have attracted physical book publishers. It won't work for everybody, but it's a different stepping stone to consider. 

Good luck!

Monday, 13 September 2010

It's All About The Competition!

Well, on Friday I was visiting the Writing Buddies in Southampton for their fortnightly meeting, although this one was slightly unusual - it was an awards ceremony!

They'd organised an internal competition, with categories as diverse as article writing, fillers, short stories, flash fiction, drama and poetry. I'd judged the article and filler categories. The winners from each category will have their entries printed in the first Writing Buddies anthology. The poor souls though, had to endure having their photos taken with me as I presented them with their winning certificates (hence why I'm now hiding at the back of this picture here, because by this stage I was all photographed out!).

Many of the entrants were surprised at their own achievements, and this demonstrates the importance of competitions. When we sit in our writing garrets alone, we're unaware of the standard of writing around us. As writers, we tend to think that everyone else is better than us, despite there often being no evidence for this! Competitions can help to put that into perspective.

If you enter a competition, the judge will be assessing your entry blindly. He or she will not know who wrote the entry, they will merely judge the writing. And it was a point I mentioned at the Writing Buddies meeting. Their competition had been judged externally. Every category of entries had been judged by someone who wasn't a member of the group. As judges, we weren't offering them a prize because we wanted to be nice to them, or because we didn't want to offend anyone. This competition was judged by people who did not know their writing. So it was their writing, and their writing alone, that led to their success.

In some ways, this has parallels with getting published. Whenever you send anything off to a publication, whether it be a short story, article, poem, novel or a serial, it's like entering a competition. The judge (editor) probably doesn't know you - and they certainly don't owe you any favours. But you also need to remember that your submission is 'competing' with the other submissions the editor is receiving. 'Hobby' writers are competing with other 'hobby' writers, who are also competing with 'professional' writers, who are also competing with other 'professional' writers. A magazine has a set number of pages to fill in each issue. A publisher has so many books it can publish in a year. Your work, is therefore competing for a limited resource.

So, remember when you send your work out there into the big wide world, you may not be technically entering a competition, but your words are competing with the words of other writers. And the editor's decision, just like the judge's decision, is final. Remember that you are competing with other professionals, so be professional with your submission. 

Of course, one way to ensure that you don't isolate yourself in your writer's garret and have no knowledge of the standard of writing out there, is not to read anything. Alex Gazzola's post the other week,, explains why writers should be voracious readers. If nothing else, reading gives you an idea of the standard of writing you are up against.

I didn't start writing short stories until I'd judged a couple of short story competitions. It wasn't a market that I read, so I knew nothing about the standard of writing. But when I did read it, I felt I could write stories that were just as good, if not better. Reading other writer's work also teaches you. You learn from another writer's mistake, which is what I did and have now seen my stories published in the UK, Ireland and Australia.

Competitions offer an opportunity to practise your writing. They also give you a deadline. In some ways, the world of publication is one continuous competition. If you want to win and be published, you've got to be 'in it to win it'. People who don't enter competitions, don't win them.

Good luck!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Punctuating Dialogue

Dialogue can make a piece of text more interesting to read, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it can make the reader feel as though they are there at the scene themselves, eavesdropping on the conversation. It doesn't matter whether the scene is a piece of fiction, or an interview in an article, using dialogue allows the people in your writing to talk directly to the reader, rather than you, the writer, recount secondhand what was said.

Dialogue also benefits a piece of text by breaking it up on the page and making it easier on the eye for the reader.

But as I was marking a few assignments over the weekend, I noticed that there appears to be some confusion concerning punctuation and dialogue.

When using dialogue in a piece of text, you must always have a piece of punctuation before the closing speech marks. If the speech or quote is part of a longer sentence, then you use a comma, before continuing your sentence, like so:

“The weather is absolutely barmy today,” he said, as he found some shade to sit under.

(NOT "The weather is absolutely barmy today", he said, as he found some shade to sit under.")

If your piece of dialogue is the end of a sentence, then use a full stop, or other final punctuation mark, like a question mark or exclamation mark, before the closing speech marks.

Sitting under the tree for shade, he said, “I can’t believe that it can get any hotter.”

(NOT Sitting under the tree for shade, he said, "I can't believe that it can get any hotter".)

If your dialogue is a complete sentence in itself, again, the punctuation mark goes before the closing speech marks.

"What the blazes is going on here?"

Never have a space between the punctuation mark and the closing speech marks, because this may confuse your word processor to insert opening speech marks, not closing speech marks.

Good luck.