Wednesday, 19 October 2016

60 Seconds with Katharine D'Souza

By Gillian Hamer

Katharine D’Souza writes contemporary fiction about families, friends, and the issues they encounter. She’s published three books set in Birmingham, UK, and also runs a writers’ group, is chair of a festival of writing, undertakes freelance editing work, and works part time at a university. All of this cuts into her reading time, a situation which annoys her. Her most recent novel, No Place, came out in August.

Hello. Tell us a little about you and your writing. 
While I’ve always loved to write stories, I didn’t take it seriously until I went part time at work over ten years ago and now find that balancing my own writing, running a writers’ group, editing, and working part time in an office is a good combination to ensure I both get some writing done and have something to write about.
What’s the best thing about being a writer? 
Well, I’m not quick with a witty comeback, so I like the opportunity to write a draft, delete it, rewrite it, revise, etc until the lightning-fast response actually appears in print.
And the worst? 
Writing first drafts. I very much prefer having material to rework.
Why did you choose your genre? 
I want to write about the way we live in contemporary Britain, so contemporary fiction set in British cities is the perfect fit for me to explore the issues I think about.
Do you have a special writing place? 
I am lucky enough to have a study of my own, but writing the first draft often happens in cafes, on trains, while lying on sofas, anywhere I can force myself to do it, really.
Which four writers would you invite to a dinner party? 
Oooh, can they be from history? Because I’d love to invite Jane Austen, no competition. There are a lot of things I’d like to ask her. Though I’d also like to talk to J K Rowling and Maggie Farrell as they’re my modern day inspirations. Then, because meeting her at a Puffin Club event when I was very small was probably the seed of me wanting to write, Noel Steatfeild, so I could say ‘thank you’.
If you could choose a different genre to write in for just one book – what would it be? 
Tough choice – perhaps fantasy. I enjoy reading it, but have never tried writing it. I think I’m intimidated by the complex world-building in the books I’ve read.
What do you know now you wish you’d known at the start of your writing journey?
The importance of independent critique, from writers’ group colleagues or an editor. Finding the courage to request and then listen to honest feedback is what really helped me improve as a writer.
What is your proudest writing achievement to date? 
Whenever I hear feedback from readers. When someone tells me how much they enjoyed a book, or talks about the events or characters with insights which show how much they identified with the issues, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
What are your future writing plans? 
I am working on a new novel. But it’s at first draft stage. Which means I’m hating it. Watch this space!
Find out more :

Twitter: @KatharineDS

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

How To Write Subtext

By Libby O'Loghlin

  • What’s its purpose?
  • How do we spot it?
  • How does it work?
  • How do we write it?

From Wikipedia:
Subtext or undertone is any content of a creative work which is not announced explicitly by the characters or author, but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds. 
1. What’s its purpose?

When a character’s actions, mannerisms or words don’t quite ‘sit right’—when they don’t match that which we perceive as their intentions—it raises questions in a reader’s mind. And when a reader has questions, it generally leads to that golden action known as Page Turning. This is to be encouraged!

Psychologically speaking, readers like to think we can tell when there is incongruity between a character’s intentions and their actions. In evolutionary terms, it’s necessary to be aware of inauthentic behaviour because it might mean there's a threat from those outside our tribe ... so we’re wired to be able to spot it.

Of course, reading isn’t exactly what you'd call a survival situation, but we learn an awful lot about the world and humanity when we read a good book, and we do like to think we can tell when something fishy is going on. And—if a story is written well—we will hang in there to experience that a-ha moment when our suspicions are proven correct.

2. How do we spot it?

Subtext can be found on two levels:

Between characters within the story (screenwriters call this ‘diegetic’); or

On the meta level: how the story is being told/the narrative voice (‘extra-’ or ‘non-diegetic’).

Jane Austen was a master of subtext. Her characters are full of innuendo and blushing cheeks and restrained civility: Austen’s was an environment in which one could not air one’s opinions nor say what one most desired, so characters had to find ways to say things to each other in a coded fashion.

One of the easiest ways to spot meta level subtext at work is to think of it as a joke or secret—something revealing—between the narrator and the reader; one that the characters themselves may not be aware of.

3. How does subtext work?

Level 1: Character

Level 2: Meta

1. Character. In storytelling terms, every character has at least two forces at work from within: fear and desire. Push and pull. They want something, but something is getting in the way. They fear something, but something propels them forwards.

This is story currency. It happens at every level: sentence, scene, chapter … It’s the only way to reach a state of change. (And we all know by now that without change, there’s no story.)

Luke Skywalker desires to get off the planet Tatooine and go on an adventure … but he’s an adolescent and he’s afraid of what’s out there. How could these conflicting forces manifest as subtext? Luke speaks with bravado, but we hear the tremor in his voice.

Frodo is loathe to take the ring all the way to Mordor … but he desires to do the right thing by his friends, by Gandalf, and by All Things Good. Frodo continues bravely, but we see the weariness in his step.

You see the pattern: Character does one thing … Reader/Audience perceives something different. There’s a gap.

2. Meta level: For subtext to work on this level, the writer should be utterly clear about the distinction between what’s going on in the the story and how the story is being told. It’s also critical the writer understands exactly what the character does and does not know (or need to know) about themselves and their environment. Clarity is key!

You can most often spot this kind of subtext where the narrative voice is an unreliable narrator (e.g. Huck Finn tells the story but over time we wonder if we can trust his judgement or credibility), or it can also work with a neutral third person narrative, where the narrative voice reveals information about a character’s context that changes the value of how we view the character. (Usually by juxtaposing the seen with the spoken.)

4. So how do we write it?

Level 1: Character

Level 2: Meta

1. Character. For subtext to work best on this level, we need more than simply a theoretic fear or a desire. We need to propel them into the realm of action.

1. What does each character desire? What do they fear?

2. What do they know? What are they trying to hide?

Once we can answer these questions, we can work on how to best mete out clues to the reader that all is not as it seems ...

Body. We have our character’s whole body to work with. What are their gestures and body language? How are they holding themselves? Does their expression fit with the words they are speaking?

Words. Think about the language they use. Are they trying to hide something? Or send a coded message? Do they therefore use words they wouldn’t otherwise choose? What's their tone of voice?

Objects. With which objects do they set the table when they loathe their guests? A vase of flowers to make them sneeze? An object that would incite a fit of jealousy?

In all cases, we’re looking to disrupt. To drop in something unexpected.

2. Meta level. The same questions can be applied to the narrative voice:

What does the narrator desire? What do they fear?

What do they know? What are they trying to hide?

This is where the selection and arrangement of story elements matters. The reader needs to get the message that despite the action in the scene, something else is going on. We can do this by manipulating choice of:

Objects and environment. (Mise-en-scène.) Does their chaotic home speak volumes about their state of mind, despite their neat attire?

Qualitative language. Intentional use of value-loaded verbs (‘ugly’ vase; ‘beautiful’ sofa) can tell us a lot about how reliable a narrator is.

Ultimately, the meta level of subtext is about holding the mirror up to the narrator or even the author. (The two are not to be confused with each other!)


Exercise 1: Subtext in Dialogue

Coffee drinkers will go to great lengths to get a cup of coffee. Write a scene where a young woman is late for work. She dashes into the office kitchen and sees a hot guy reaching for the last coffee pod. She thinks he’s a 10 ... he thinks she’s incredible … but, more than that, they both want that coffee pod. What do they say to each other? How can you ‘show’ us they have an ulterior motive? What element of deceit or knowledge can you add to the mix to heighten the story stakes? (e.g. she knows he’s the new boss; he’s trying to hide that he’s been living in the office.)

Exercise 2: Subtext in Narrative Voice

Our protagonist has finished a painting and is hanging it on the wall in anticipation of presenting it to their spouse. Using a third person narrative voice—no dialogue—how can you let the reader know that, unbeknown to the protagonist, the painting is terrible? (You can also try with first person.) Remember, the same rules apply here to the narrative voice: what does the narrator know? What are they trying to hide?

Have fun!


Libby O'Loghlin is an award winning short story writer, novelist and ghostwriter. Her independently published YA mystery adventure, Charlotte Aimes, was longlisted for the 2015 Bath Children's novel award. Her latest project, a co-written literary thriller, will be released at the end of 2016. She is co-founder of The Woolf Quarterly, an online cultural publication based in Zürich, Switzerland.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

My Publishing Journey .... with Chris Curran

By Gillian Hamer

Chris Curran has written two psychological crime novels for Harper Collins Killer Reads. She left school at sixteen to work in the local library, returning to full-time education after studying for ‘A’ levels at evening classes. She was born in London, but at university in Brighton she fell in love with the south coast. She eventually persuaded her husband and family to move to Hastings where she is a proud shareholder of the recently reopened pier. Amongst other things she has worked as a primary school teacher, an actress and an editor.

Her first book, Mindsight, a psychological thriller set in Hastings was published last year. And her second novel, Her Turn To Cry, came out as an e-book on July 8th and publishes in paperback on September 8th.
In the second in our series where we investigate author's personal publishing journey from first scribbles to published novels, Chris gives us an insight into the highs and lows of her career.

What was the first short story or novel you wrote?

When I was a teenager I was obsessed by tragic women from history, particularly those who died young. So my first attempt at a novel was about Joan of Arc. I never finished it, which is probably for the best. I must have become more cheerful after that because my next two attempts at novels were comedies. I only have fragments to show for the years I spent writing them, but again that’s probably a blessing. My first published fiction was a light-hearted short story about a cheating husband, which appeared in Bella magazine. With my crime novels, I seem to have gone back to the dark side.

Was writing just a hobby to begin with for you?

I’ve always taken my writing seriously so I never considered it a hobby and I had ambitions to be published right from the start. Of course at first that only meant having my work read out in class or put on a school noticeboard! But even then I dreamed of seeing my name on the cover of a real book one day and was determined to make that dream come true.

When did you know you were ‘good’?

I’m not a confident person, however a few short-listings in competitions and some of my stories beginning to be accepted for publication convinced me I must be doing something right. A negative review can still shake my confidence however and of course that’s the one that sticks in my mind. I shouldn’t read them, but the lure is irresistible!

In fact, painful though it is, I have the feeling that it’s good for a writer to be full of doubts. That way you are always striving to improve.

What were your first steps towards publication?

Because I was doing a demanding full-time job, as well as bringing up three children, I started by writing short stories, mainly for women’s magazines. I used the small amount of money I made to fund two Arvon courses. These were incredibly useful not only for the intense writing sessions with the successful writers and publishing professionals tutoring the courses, but for practical advice about getting your work out there. It was also great to meet other students who were in a similar position and to share experiences and ideas. Quite a number of us have now published novels.

Chris's latest release
What has been your proudest writing moment to date?

It was an enormous thrill to see my first story in a magazine. When I opened the letter telling me it had been accepted I ran around the house screaming with excitement and terrifying my husband! One thing that really makes me happy even now is that my mum, who died before my novel was published, was so excited to read that story.

But I was most proud when Mindsight (recently picked as a Sunday Express best summer read) was chosen by such a major publisher as Harper Collins. It was unexpected because I didn’t have an agent and had submitted the novel during an open submission slot imagining I would hear no more about it. When the email from my soon to be editor popped up in my inbox, saying she loved the book and wanted to take it on, I was so surprised that I kept telling myself not to get excited because it was probably all a mistake!

Any mistakes you wish, in hindsight, you had avoided?

Losing faith in my writing at various times and letting it hold me back, although being the person I am I’m not sure I could have avoided that.

What do you know now you wish you’d known at the start of your journey?

That all the ups and downs along the way would feed into my writing and help to make it better.

What top 3 tips would you offer new and up-coming authors hoping to publish? 
  • Try to find a group of trusted readers who will give an honest and perceptive opinion of your fledgling work.
  • Don’t rush to submit before you are certain the book is the best it can possibly be. Ideally when you think it’s finished you should put it away and try to forget it for a while so that you can reread it with fresh eyes.
  • Brace yourself for rejection, but persevere.
Connect with Chris and her books:



Twitter: @Christi_Curran

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Snapshots from... Stockholm

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today Luna Miller (aka Monica Christensen) shows us around the Swedish capital of Stockholm.
Images by Peter Luotsinen

By JJ Marsh

What´s so great about Stockholm?

When in Stockholm, within walking distance there is always a green spot, a park or a big stone on a hill with a magical view. Built on 14 islands and with few high buildings the capital of Sweden is a picturesque and green city. Although the city shows itself at its best during the summer, with the bright nights, it can also be enjoyable to have a walk along the streets when big snowflakes are doing their best to cover the city in its winter dress. The cold wind bites your skin and the colourful city lights up the dark days and it gives the feeling of Christmas.

Compared with other capitals Stockholm is a pretty small city. The city of Stockholm does not even have a million citizens. That makes it a nice city for walking and biking, because distances are not big.

And then there is all this water around. You can both swim and fish in several places around the city. Not to mention all the areas where you can take a break during your walk beside the water and sit by the quayside, dangle your legs and just enjoy the view.

There are many boats taking you out in different directions into the archipelago. It´s actually one of the world most island-rich archipelagos, 30 000 islands. Too many to imagine, but it is amazingly beautiful.

Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place.

Stockholm has a long tradition of theatre. As well as the royal theatre and the city theatre there are several small theatres with financial support from the city. There are also free, outdoor programmes in the summer. Mostly theatre, but also dance and music.

As all big and proud cities, Stockholm of course has a Royal Opera. But there is also a public opera that is more about experimenting with the art form and always singing in Swedish. I still have a problem to hear what they are actually singing but I really appreciate the thought.

The Cullberg Ballet have been world famous since the sixties. And it seems like, during recent years, more and more Stockholm contemporary dance companies are becoming established on the international scene.

The music scene is of course one of the biggest and a big part of the city’s pulse. Compared to the number of citizens Sweden has great international success in music. And of course, Stockholm is the centre.

The most conspicuous development in recent cultural life must be the explosive growth of new film festivals. Niched by ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ or thematic. Everyone wants their own festival and that is really exciting.

What´s hot? What are people reading? 

I believe that crime stories are the most popular genre. There are a lot of famous crime writers in Stockholm. And I think there is something very special about reading a book from your own environment. It makes it easier to build up the “inner picture”.

But there is also a big interest in other culture or just other ways of doing things, like the books of Jan-Philipp Sendker. “The art of hearing heartbeats”, about a romance in Burma, have made more than one Swede cry over the relentless faith of a loving couple followed by decisions that are really hard to understand. A Swedish book that got a lot of attention a few years ago was the true story about Katarina Taikon, a Roma woman, and her struggle for both her artistry (she was a writer) and the human rights of her people.

There are big investments being made into getting children to read. Modern technology and communication are still the most attractive alternative for many young people, compared to the slower art of reading. But when they read they enter the world of fantasies; anything from Harry Potter, vampires, space wars, dark angels to tiny creatures that live underground. Being a child of the sixties when social realism dominated children´s books I totally love fantasy stories for kids (and adults) to explore.

Can you recommend any books set in the city?

The most famous book is of course “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. The City Museum even offers very popular hikes, with a guide who leads you in the footsteps of the characters. As if it had happened for real. A really interesting phenomenon.

Per Anders Fogelström has written a series of books, starting with City of my Dreams, about a family in Stockholm from 1860 to 1968. An important piece that helps you understand the city’s development during the last few centuries. Reading these books, you learn to know these families so well that you mourn the one who dies and eagerly welcome new-born family members.

Jens Lapidus takes the reader, with his books Easy Money and Never Fuck Up, into the violent and criminal world of Stockholm. Where a mistake is never forgiven and drugs mess up too many minds.

And of course I have to mention the most famous of them all, even if dead for many years. August Strindberg. One of his books, Röda Rummet (The Red Room), describes Stockholm more than a hundred years ago and the city’s hottest spot both then and in the early eighties. A place with red-velvet covered furniture and big mirrors, where me and my friends used to hang out as much as we could afford.

Who are the best-known local writers?

In crime the queens and kings are: Camilla Läckberg, Lisa Marklund, Jan Guillou, Jens Lapidus, Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, Arne Dahl

Famous novel writers: David Lagercrantz, Lena Andersson, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Klas Östergren, Katarina Mazetti, Ernst Brunner

And the classical writers who are long gone: August Strindberg, Astrid Lindgren, Hjalmar Söderberg, Stieg Trenter, Lars Widding

Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?

When I first moved to Stockholm, from my hometown in the far north, I was amazed by all the nice and beautiful inhabitants. That first summer I got to meet a lot of new people, just by walking the city. I was saving for a trip to Europe and had nearly no money to spend. But the summer was fantastic with the bright nights, new friends and never knowing if the evening would end in a party somewhere or just chatting hours away with some inspiring person.

I went off to southern Europe around late August and returned in November. I could not believe it was the same city. This was long before the iPhone entered the world. So I did not have any phone numbers of my new friends. We just used to meet outdoor in the city centre. In the cold November, filled with rain or snow, they were no longer there. At this time of year, you were no longer met by curious eyes and friendly smiles in the street. Everyone was more or less in their own bubble — pale, tired and avoiding eye contact when stressing towards work or home again. All the magic was gone. Until the next summer.

So summertime it is amazingly inspiring to live in Stockholm. I no longer hang around meeting new friends as I used to. But I love to walk the city, especially close to the water. During winter, when there is only daylight between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon, it´s harder. All these hours of darkness make me exhausted. It’s hard to get up in the morning, hard to get out into the cold, hard to muster energy for writing.

What are you writing?

I am writing my second book about Gunvor Ström, a woman who started to work as a private detective in her mid-sixties. She lives in the suburb of Fruängen, in the outskirts of Stockholm. She engages two young friends that have always seen themselves as losers until they start working together. They are not always good at what they do but they struggle to develop and sometimes they really succeed.

My best news today is that my first book “Three Days in September” will soon be published in English. It’s a story about friendship, love and adventure but also manipulation, infidelity, violence and death. As it says in the text on the back of the book: After three days in September there is no way back.

Sum up life in Stockholm in three words.

Beautiful, contrasting, challenging.

Luna Miller is a pretty new part of me that has been living my passion for writing over the last few years. I published my first Luna Miller novel, Tre dagar i September, in Swedish, towards the end of 2015. A few weeks later I followed it with Den som ger sig in i leken (Playing with Fire) – the first book in my crime series, which has been translated into German as Wer sich auf das Spiel einlässt and Spanish as Quien juega con fuego.

Right now, I am working on my second book in the crime series, but at the same time, I am really excited about the imminent release of my first book in English. You will soon be able to find
Three days in September on Amazon and other major e-book distributors.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

60 Seconds with Eliza Green

By Gillian Hamer

Eliza Green tried her hand at fashion designing, massage, painting, and even ghost hunting, before finding her love of writing. After earning her degree in marketing, she went on to work in everything but marketing, but swears she uses it in everyday life, or so she tells her bank manager.

Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Eliza lives there with her sci-fi loving, evil genius boyfriend. When not working on her next amazing science fiction adventure, you can find her reading, indulging in new food at an amazing restaurant or simply singing along to something with a half decent beat.

Tell us a little about you and your writing.

I’m from Dublin, Ireland. I was working as a public servant up until March 2016. I finally quit my job after threatening to do it every year, to write full time. I began writing seven years ago after I got an urge to rewrite a book I was reading. I write character-centric science fiction thrillers.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Living inside a world you created and watching your characters grow up, make mistakes and take shape.

And the worst? 

Killing your darlings.

Why did you choose Sci-Fi as your genre?

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been obsessed with Sci-Fi TV and movies. When I think of new ideas the futuristic ones always pop into my head first. They’re the most fun and the most challenging.

Do you have a special writing place?

At home, at my lovely new desk that’s at least double the size of my previous one. My last desk was no bigger than a postage stamp!

Which four writers would you invite to a dinner party?

Charlaine Harris, Tahereh Mafi, A.G. Riddle, Gillian Flynn. I like variety!

If you could choose a different genre to write in for just one book – what would it be?

Hmm, contemporary women’s fiction. I wrote a book years ago in that genre that I never published.

If you could have written just one book by another author – which would it be?

Any of the Dexter books by Jeff Lindsey. How he managed to make us fall in love with a serial killer is beyond genius!

What are your future writing plans?

Publish book 4 in my Exilon 5 series, available in early 2017. Becoming Human, Altered Reality and Crimson Dawn make up the first three books. Echoes of Earth and New Origin are two new prequels I published in May 2016.

I’m also writing a young adult sci-fi series, starting with Feeder. It’s The Hunger Games meets The Maze Runner. Book 1 will be out in late November 2016.

Thanks, Eliza, for more information please see below and if you'd like to try Becoming Human for FREE follow the relevant link!


Wednesday, 7 September 2016

TLF - The Triskele Lit Fest!

Saturday 17 September sees the very first Triskele Lit Fest!
This is a litfest with a difference. We set out with five aims:
  • trade and indie authors together on the same platform
  • literary fiction on an equal footing with other genres
  • BAME authors talking about their books, not about diversity
  • speakers paid an appearance fee
  • admission free and accessible to all booklovers 

After a tremendous amount of hard work by Catriona Troth, TLF Administrator, plus the generosity of our sponsors, it's actually happening.

From 1pm-6pm, we have panels of authors to talk about their genre. Sci-fi and Fantasy, Romance, Historical Fiction, Crime and Thrillers, and Preserving the Unicorn.

In parallel, we have our trademark pop-up bookshop, where forty different writers will be available to interact with readers, sign books, talk about their work and make new friends.

And we've ticked every box.
  • A near 50:50 mix of trade and indie authors, not talking about routes to publication.
  • BAME authors like Radhika Swarup, Leye Adenle, Sareeta Domingo, Yen Ooi and Sunny Singh, talking about their books, not diversity.
  • Our literary panel – Preserving the Unicorn – brings together literary authors and their editors to discuss working on a manuscript that defies the 'rules' of storytelling.
  • And yes, we are paying our speakers and admission for readers is free.

Triskele Books is all about building bridges.
Words with JAM is a source of ideas and information for writers.
Bookmuse provides reviews and recommendations for readers.
The first Triskele LitFest offers something for everyone.

We know it’s far more important to build bridges than to erect barriers.
Seems people agree - here's an extract from our Tuesday #twitchat #bridgesnotbarriers

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Donkeys and vodka: the mad science of proofreading

by Perry Iles, Chamber Proof (

Proof readers, proofreaders or proof-readers? We can’t even agree on how our job titles should be written down. What total bellends (bell-ends or bell ends) we are. But then no two proofreaders think alike anyway, because we’re all maverick geniuses, frustrated novelists and deeply flawed garret-dwelling paupers with nothing better to do than use our combination of OCD and Asperger’s Syndrome to pick apart the work of others. And we’ll never get it right because there is no right. Language is fluid—especially English, because the world’s greatest superpower speaks it all over the globe. There are those who think that America has dragged the English language kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, and there are those who think that America has dragged it into a dark alley and beaten the living crap out of it. Who in the hell ever thought to use the word “disrespect” as a verb? It wasn’t one of our chaps, I’ll bet. Either way, an assault has been mounted, and the proofreader’s job is to defend a book against the slings and arrows of error and change. Which of course means that while I’m fending off mediaeval English weaponry with a stout oaken shield, some American in a sharp suit and sunglasses will pop up in front of me and shoot me in the face. While dictionaries and manuals try to pin down the elusive butterfly of correct prose and grammar, off it goes in a different direction, raising either two fingers or a middle digit at you, depending upon which side of the Atlantic you’re on. Language flows elegant and smooth like a glacier, changing shape and form as it goes.

Which means that for some words there is no right or wrong. When you get into your car, do you put on a seat belt, a seat-belt or a seatbelt? When you can’t be arsed to cook, will you have a take-away a takeaway? There is only consistency, which is the First Rule of Proofreading. Be consistent. Check the preferences of your author. It’s their book after all. Maintain an open channel at all times, dash off query emails. They’ll love you when you find a spelling error or some missing punctuation, but they’ll hate you when you overrule their preferences with your own when rules don’t apply. It takes only a moment to ask an author if their main character eats hash browns, hash-browns or hashbrowns.  
And don’t even talk to me about punctuation. Go talk to Lynne Truss, she knows it all. She’ll tell you when to use the Oxford comma and when to eschew it. Read Strunk and White, they’ll tell you when to use colons and semi-colons instead of full stops. Then try to act on what they say in a real life writing situation. Often you’ll find they’re talking bollocks. Or they’re trying to be clever buggers by shoehorning correct grammar into a sentence that needs changing anyway because it hasn’t been written right in the first place. These books are to writing what the Highway Code is to driving. They’ll tell you the rules, but they won’t make you a good writer. They’ll just teach you to run over fewer people, rather than less people. So here’s the Second Rule of Proofreading: If you’re stuck on the punctuation, the chances are the wording is wrong, because if the wording was right, you wouldn’t be stuck on it, would you? There you are, happily proofreading away without a care in the world, and then you get to something that stops you in your tracks with one of those comedy skid-noises they use when Fred Flintstone brings his car to a standstill using his feet. Here:

“Honestly, darling, I went to Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Marks and Spencer’s but I couldn’t get those socks you like; perhaps you should try shopping on-line.”
The author (and the proofreader) is all in a lather about the use of semi-colons in dialogue, Oxford commas, possessive apostrophes, the double-use of “and” and that unnecessary hyphen in “on-line”, when they should be worrying about the ghastly dialogue instead. You could proofread that sentence until your brain started dribbling out of your ears. Go on, knock yourself out. But rather than just checking the grammar, the proofreader should offer a gentle nudge and tell the writer that people don’t really speak like that, and that it might be better to re-write the sentence along the following lines:

“Listen love, I went to every bloody supermarket in town and none of them had your socks. Try online, OK?”
There, that’s better, isn’t it? A good proofreader would underline that first sentence and suggest rewriting it a bit more like the second, because that sort of light copy-editing is part of a proofreader’s job. It’s part of mine, anyway. And when punctuation stops me in my tracks, re-wording the sentence will improve matters nine times out of ten. So before you start dicking about with the semi-colons and the fiddly shite, read that sentence out loud in front of a mirror or a loved one. Chances are you can say it better and more simply without, as Cormac McCarthy puts it, “peppering your writing with all those unnecessary marks”. Think about what punctuation actually is. It’s not writing, it’s not poetry, it’s not great literature. It’s instructions. Stop here, pause there. Add emphasis! Are you asking a question? Oh gosh, someone’s about to say something. Here come some speech-marks, look! In good writing, most of these things come naturally anyway. Punctuation should be light, unobtrusive and minimal. Punctuation tells the readers what your writing should be showing them. You don’t need exclamation marks. Get rid of them. All of them, unless you’re writing children’s fiction. Adults know when someone is shouting, and it’s your job as a writer to show people being angry, not tell us they’re yelling their heads off. Get rid of colons and semi colons in fiction. They’re horrid little nasty half-hearted things anyway. They’re not big and they’re not clever. They are to punctuation what adverbs are to prose. Write your way round them and your writing will be better for it. Declare war on commas, use “and” more often. Write shorter sentences. Write longer sentences. Free your prose. Let it dance about without being tied down by unnecessary punctuation. Be more colloquial. Be free. You’re a writer. It’s fun. You’re dancing with the wind in your hair, not tapping out two-fingered sludge.

Proofreaders are there to polish your little red wagon, to make sure your book doesn’t go out into the world with its skirt tucked into its underwear. We do that not only by finding errors, but by making suggestions—small, light and often. Editors will tell you to make structural changes, to write out unnecessary characters altogether, to revise entire chapters. Proofreaders won’t do that, they’ll just buff up the details and offer a light copy-edit. They aren’t there to check out the shape of your forest, they’re there to examine the bark on the trees. And even then, there will be errors. There WILL be errors. I bet there are errors in this article if you look hard enough, and if there aren’t errors, there are things you’d have written differently. I once wrote and self-published a book in which it got cold in my car so I turned the heather on. This was doubly embarrassing, as Heather is my wife’s name (she was not in the car at the time. We were not dogging. Honestly, officer. Look at the moon, my mother would have understood…) The point there is that you read what you want to be there. You read what makes sense. As an author, I not only wrote that error, but on the dozens of rewrites and re-reads I let it stay there until it became encysted in my head, part of the manuscript. A friend read it once, after I’d published it, and said “You’ll never guess what you’ve written here…” so I had to kill her. A simple proofread and that poor woman would still be alive today.

Which also applies to names, by the way. Rule whatever (I’ve lost count) of proofreading is to google every single one of the fictional characters’ names in the book you’re working on, just in case the author hasn’t done that first. That way you’ll be able to check that they aren’t the same as famous people in fields you’re unfamiliar with, or a name you perhaps heard on the news and has stuck in your mind to re-emerge seven years later as the name for your baddie. You may not be familiar with football, movie stars of the 1930s or death metal, but some of your readers will be. Remember that the bad guy in Double Jeopardy was called Nicholas Parsons and that a book by English romantic novelist EV Thompson had a leading character called Tom Hanks in it. So before you use a cool name like Harry Styles or Matt Bellamy or Frank Black, go and google it, or people will point at you and laugh.

Your book is the God to which its creators bow down. The author is the prime creator, but there is a host of others who help dress your book up and make it look nice. The proofreader is but one of many, he’s the final polisher, the one who buffs the lacquer on what Stephen King calls your little red wagon. But proofreading is an inexact science. Pinning the English language down into a static form is like a pin-the-tail-on-a-donkey game in which you’ve been rapidly spun ten times and then force-fed a pint of vodka. And the donkey is real and moving and wants to kick you very hard because some cruel bastard has cut its tail off. The best you can hope for is that your book is enjoyed, recommended, critically acclaimed and sells by the warehouse-load. But one day, when you’re relaxing on your yacht in Monte Carlo harbour surrounded by women made of silicone or men with abs you could bounce marbles off, you’ll come across an error in your latest manuscript and suddenly you’ll feel like Madonna falling downstairs at the Brits, and your screams will echo from the mountains that surround the bay, and the head you’ll call for will quite possibly be mine.