Pop Chart Lab’s “A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels,” a poster that “diagrams 25 famous opening lines from revered works of fiction according to the dictates of the classic Reed-Kellogg system,” with each and every graphic “parsing classical prose by parts of speech and offering a partitioned, color-coded picto-grammatical representation of some of the most famous first words in literary history.”
At the top of the post, we have the poster’s diagram of Humbert Humbert’s famous first words, by way of Vladimir Nabokov, in Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” That immortal sentence may always have struck you as incomplete — doesn’t it need a verb? — but hey, it diagrams, at least with the addition of the implicit (is) and a couple implicit (the)s. Follow the branches and you find the words’ concealed complexity visually revealed. Just above, you’ll see diagrammed a more traditional opening sentence from George Orwell, a much more plainspoken writer. “It was a bright cold day in April,” goes the first line of 1984, “and the clocks were striking thirteen” — a more linguistically involved description, as you can see, than it may at first seem. Fifteen years after the specter of Reed-Kellogg darkened my desk — in which time I’ve made writing my career — I still can’t claim the ability to produce properly diagrammed sentences for myself. But I like to think that I can appreciate them, especially when they show me the workings of a sufficiently great sentence.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” W Somerset Maugham
There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the same time.
To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.
The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake the language. They say it like nobody has ever said it before. And then they unsay it, and they keep unsaying it, breaking their own rules over and over again. So be adventurous in breaking – or maybe even making – the rules.
2. Your first line
“The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’” Michael Ondaatje
A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again.
The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.
But take it easy too. Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house. At the same time, don’t panic if you don’t get it right first time around. Often the opening line won’t be found until you’re halfway through your first draft. You hit page 157 and you suddenly realise, Ah, that’s where I should have begun.
So you go back and begin again.
Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake. This, of course, is a bit like being told to walk a tightrope. Go ahead, then, walk the tightrope! Relax yourself into the tension of the wire. The first line, like the first step, is only the first of many, yet it sets the shape of what is to come. Try walking a foot off the ground, then two feet, then three. Eventually you might go a quarter mile in the sky.
Then again, you might stumble and fall. No matter. It is, after all, a work of the imagination. You won’t die trying.
At least not yet.
3. Don’t write what you know
“The inexecutable is all I’m interested in.” Nathan Englander
Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.
A writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is still to be created. Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young writer.
The only true way to expand your world is to inhabit an otherness beyond ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. Once you go there, you can be changed. Get ready: they will label you sentimental. But the truth is that the cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their own limited nostalgia. They have no muscularity at all. Remember, the world is so much more than one story. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves.
In the end your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if we write towards what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of. We will have made a shotgun leap in our consciousness. We will not be stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me.
As Vonnegut says, we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.
4. The terror of the white page
“The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.” Maggie Nelson
Don’t let the terror of the white page shrink-wrap your mind. The excuse that you have writer’s block is far too easy. You have to show up for work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room. Don’t check the sports pages. Don’t open the mail. Don’t distract yourself in any way until you feel you have fought and tried.
You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.
A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.
Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again. Moving a word around a page. Moving it back again. Questioning it. Doubting it. Increasing the font size. Shifting it around again and again. Sounding it out. Figuring the best way to leave it alone. Hanging in there as the clock ticks on. Not conceding victory to the negative. Getting up off the ground when you’ve punched yourself to the floor. Dusting yourself off. Readjusting your mouth guard. Sustaining what you have inherited from previous days of work.
Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. You have to sit there sharpening that red pencil or hitting the delete button or flinging the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words fewer than you had yesterday. Even no words on the page is better than no time at the page at all.
Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.
Stare the blank page down.
5. Creating characters
“Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.” Gabriel García Márquez
Writing a character into being is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with. You don’t care (yet) about the facts of his/her life. Don’t overload us with too much information. Allow that to seep out later. We are attracted by a moment in time – a singular moment of flux or change or collapse – not by grand curricula vitae. So don’t generalise. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly (or indeed, learn to hate them quickly).
We have to have something happen to them: something that jolts our tired hearts awake. Make it traumatic, make it mournful, make it jubilant, it doesn’t matter – just allow your reader to care for the physical body that your words evoke, the person behind the language. Later on in the story we can settle down with them and get to know them in a wider sense.
Sometimes we take a character from our own immediate lives and we build a new person upon that scarecrow. Or sometimes we take well-known characters in history and shape them in new ways. Either way we have a responsibility to write them into life.
In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. You should be able to close your eyes and dwell inside that character’s body. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with her for a while. Let her dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Make a mental list of who/what she is, where she comes from. Appearance. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Childhood. Conflicts. Desires. Voice. Allow your characters to surprise you. When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Don’t be too logical. Logic can paralyse us.
Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.
6. Writing dialogue
“The declared meaning of a spoken sentence is only its overcoat, and the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons.” Peter Carey
There are so many rules, or suggestions, when it comes to dialogue. Forget the ummm and forget the errrs: they don’t translate on the page. Try not to use dialogue to convey information, or at least a slab of obvious information. Interruptions are great. Try writing a conversation between three, four, five people. Let the dialogue work for itself. Use he said and she said, but avoid clumsy descriptions. Forget about the overblown gasping, exclaiming, insisting, bellowing.
Make your dialogue distinct from the surrounding description, not just in rhythm but in length too. It will break up the prose. Have it be a respite on the page, or have it tee up the words that are about to come. Make each character distinct. Give them verbal tics. And never forget that people talk away from what they really mean. Lies are very interesting when they emerge in speech. Make action occur within the conversation. Seldom begin in the beginning: catch the dialogue halfway through. No need for hellos or howareyous. No need for goodbyes either. Jump out from the conversation long before it truly finishes.
Even if using dialect, or patois, or Dublinese, you must realise that there is a reader at the end of the sentence. Don’t confuse them. Don’t knock them out of the story. A wee bit is enough to get a Northern Irish accent. Don’t go Oirish on yourself. Don’t fall into stereotype. No arragh bejaysus and begob. No overdone southern twang. It’ll make y’all wanna holler. No Jamaican overdose, mahn. No Bhrrooklyn nasal noise.
Study the masters. Roddy Doyle. Louise Erdrich. Elmore Leonard. Marlon James. And always remember that what we don’t say is as important as, if not more so than, what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is. Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said.
7. Seeking structure
“A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” Jorge Luis Borges
Every work of fiction is organised somehow – and the best of them are more profoundly organised than they ever let on. Our stories rely on the human instinct for architecture. Structure is, essentially, a container for content. The shape into which your story gets is a house slowly built from the foundation up. Or maybe it’s a tunnel, or a skyscraper, or a palace, or even a moving caravan, driven forward by your characters. In fact, structure can be any number of things: you just have to make sure that it doesn’t become an elaborate hole in the ground into which we bury ourselves, unable to claw out.
Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure. A proper structure mirrors the content of the story it wants to tell. It will contain its characters and propel them forward at the same time. And it will generally achieve this most fully when it does not draw too much attention to itself. Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time. Sometimes, in fact, you don’t find the structure until halfway through, or even when you’re close to being finished. That’s OK. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.
7. Language and plot
“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.” Stephen King
We teachers, we editors, we agents, we readers, often make a mistake by concentrating too much on plot: it is not the be-all and end-all in a piece of literature. Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.
So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen.
Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. Let’s face it, plots are good for movies, but when over-considered they tend to make books creak. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear. In the world of film we need motivation leading to action, but in literature we need contradiction leading to action, yes, but also leading to inaction. Nothing better than a spectacular piece of inaction. Nothing more effective than your character momentarily paralysed by life.
The greatest novel ever written has very little apparent plot. A cuckold walks around Dublin for 24 hours. No shootouts, no cheap shots, no car crashes (though there is a biscuit tin launched through the air). Instead it is a vast compendium of human experience. Still, this doesn’t take away from the fact that every story ever told has some sort of plot (especially Ulysses, which perhaps has more plot than any).
“It’s not just a throwaway thing (Comma) When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.” Raymond Chandler (in a letter to his editor)
It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth.
Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Full stops. Colons. Semicolons. Ellipses. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Don’t overuse the semicolon; it is a muscular comma when used correctly. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Learn how to use the possessive correctly as in most good writer’s work. (Oops.) Never finish a sentence with an at. (Sorry.) Avoid too many ellipses, especially at the end of a passage, they’re just a little too dramatic … (See?)
Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker. The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. It’s the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow – especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line.
But then again, a sentence can be over-examined. Good grammar can slow a sentence – or indeed a wheelbarrow – down. The perfect run-along of words can sound so stiff. Every now and then we have to disregard the serial comma, or leave our participles dangling, even in the rudest way.
Sometimes we make a mistake on purpose. Perhaps knowing the difference between a main clause and a dependent clause doesn’t matter so much so long as you can intuit the difference. On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings. And the question is: would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?
Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come. Word.
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” Aldous Huxley
Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.
Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.
Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass – the American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen – once suggested, while invoking Maupassant, that we should never mention an ashtray unless we are swiftly able to make it the only one in the world.
Please remember that mishandling your research is also your potential downfall. At times we can pollute our texts with too much of the obvious. It is often a good thing to have space instead so that we can fill it out with imaginative muscle. Always ask yourself: how much research is enough? Don’t corrupt your texts with facts facts facts. Texture is much more important than fact.
10. Fail, Fail, Fail
“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett
Failure is good. Failure admits ambition. It requires courage to fail and even more courage to know that you’re going to fail. Reach beyond yourself. The true daring is the ability to go to the postbox knowing that it will contain yet another rejection letter. Don’t rip it up. Don’t burn it. Use it as wallpaper instead. Preserve it and reread it every now and then. Know that in the years to come this rejection letter will be a piece of nostalgia. It will yellow and curl and you will remember what it once felt like to throw your words against what everyone presumed would be your silence. Failure is vivifying. You know you’re better than it. Failure gets you up in the morning. Failure gets your blood circling. Failure dilates your nostrils. Failure tells you to write a bigger story and a better one.
And in the end there’s only one real failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery.
12. Throw it all away
“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” André Gide
Sometimes, young writer, you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.
Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. (One of the most liberating days of my writing life was when I threw 18 months of work away.) But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.
So you have to throw it away. (OK, let’s be honest here: you don’t actually throw the pages away. Box them up or back them up, just in case you might be making a mistake.)
It is terrifying of course. You close the file, you bury the pages. Now you’re pageless and your back is truly up against the wall. So you open up another file, sharpen the pencil, and settle down once again.
13. Your last line
“If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.” Ben Marcus
Gogol said that the last line of every story was: “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralise at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.
You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.
Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours any more. It belongs in the elsewhere. It is the place you have created. Your last line is the first line for everybody else.
•Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann is published by Random House. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
For some certain romantic reasons, a segment of the English-language reading population fell in love with Roberto Bolaño in the first few years of this millennium. One invariably glimpsed Bolaño’s award-winning 1998 novel The Savage Detectiveson endtables and nightstands after its translation in 2007, with or without bookmarks. When 2666—the Chilean writer’s dizzyingly enormous work on the darkest of events in 1990’s Northern Mexico—appeared, it did so posthumously, further elevating Bolaño’s literary outlaw mythos. In addition to being a hard-bitten Trotskyist nomad, Bolaño—who died of liver failure in 2003—was said to have been a heroin addict and alcoholic. Neither was the case, writes Hector Tobar in the LA Times, quoting a Mexico City-based journalist on the author: “He had a super boring daily life. It was a life built around his own writing rituals and habits.”
For all his legendary exploits as a globetrotting journalist and poet, Bolaño also seems to have built his life around reading. “Reading,” Bolaño has said, “is more important than writing.” He finds much company with this statement among fellow writers. Patti Smith, for example, who urges reading “anything by Bolaño,” could also “recommend a million” books to anyone who asks. A much shorter but still challenging list of hers reveals a deep and broad investment in literature. William S. Burroughs, who probably didn’t read Bolaño but worked in a similarly hallucinatory vein, taught a class on “Creative Reading” that was only secondarily a class on writing, filled with example after example from writer after treasured writer. The best writing advice writers can dispense, it seems, is this: Read.
Such is the approach of Bolaño himself, in a short, pithy essay on how to write short stories. He begins in a perfunctory way, almost with a sigh: “Now that I’m forty-four years old, I’m going to offer some advice on the art of writing short stories.” The advice, found in the graphic form above on The Paris Review‘s Tumblr and reprinted in a non-fiction collection titled Between Parenthesis, quickly becomes exuberantly pedantic, permeating the boundaries of its neatly ordered list form with tongue moving from cheek to cheek. Does he really mean that we should read “the notable Pseudo-Longinus” on the sublime? Or to suggest—after insistent reference to several essential Latin American writers’ writers—that “with Edgar Allan Poe, we would all have more than enough good material to read”? Probably. But the gist, with more than enough sincerity, is this: Read the greats, whoever they are, and read them often.
“In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”
Shortly after the young man’s arrival in Key West, Hemingway got right down to granting him what he had traveled there seeking. In one of their first exchanges, he hands Samuelson a handwritten list and instructs him:
Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.
This is the list of heartening and hopeless-making masterworks that Hemingway handed to young Samuelson:
Not on the handwritten list but offered in the conversation surrounding the exchange is what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” — Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (public library).
Alongside these edifying essentials, Hemingway offered young Samuelson some concrete writing advice. Advocating for staying with what psychologists now call flow, he begins with the psychological discipline of the writing process:
The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.
The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.
He then returns to the psychological payoff of this trying practice:
Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. It’s the hardest work there is. I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write I feel like shit. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.
When Samuelson asks how one can know whether one has any talent, Hemingway replies:
You can’t. Sometimes you can go on writing for years before it shows. If a man’s got it in him, it will come out sometime. The only thing I can advise you is to keep on writing but it’s a damned tough racket. The only reason I make any money at it is I’m a sort of literary pirate. Out of every ten stories I write, only one is any good and I throw the other nine away.
Hemingway tempers this with a word of advice on ambition, self-comparison, and originality:
Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one. In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own.
Annie Dillard on Writing “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”
Susan Sontag on Writing “There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”
David Foster Wallace: Writing, Death, and Redemption “You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”
H. P. Lovecraft: Advice to Aspiring Writers (1920) “A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”
Samuel Johnson on Writing and Creative Doggedness “Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”
Willa Cather: Writing Through Troubled Times “The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”
Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers “If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will…
What do exclamation points have in common with antibiotic drugs?
First, do you know why some previously effective antibiotics no longer work? According to the Mayo Clinic, the problem lies in the misuse and overuse of antibiotic medications. When people take antibiotic treatments, sometimes bacteria manage to survive. The surviving bacteria develop resistance to the given drug and pass these drug-resistant characteristics on as they reproduce. Though this survival mechanism is beneficial for the bacteria, doctors are finding that drugs that worked in the past are losing their effectiveness against resistant bacteria strains.
Now, let’s return to the original question. How are exclamation points like antibiotic drugs? Exclamation points serve an important purpose in the function of a sentence. However, this punctuation mark is misused and overused. As a result, some of its effectiveness is compromised. People don’t respond to exclamation points as they once did. In order to combat this problem, it is essential to avoid overusing exclamation points. Have you seen the following mistakes?
Multiple Exclamation Points at the End of a Sentence
Typically, exclamation points are placed at the end of a sentence to express extreme emotion.
I won a new car!
That doll is looking at me!
Stop, drop, and roll!
No, I don’t want to go!
Sometimes people try to intensify emotion by using multiple exclamation points: I won a new car!!!!!! But multiple exclamation points are like an overdose of antibiotics. One exclamation point is sufficient to express the idea of excitement. How else can you express intensified emotion? One way is by adding description to the rest of the sentence.
“I won a new car!” my mom exclaimed.
“I won a new car!” my mom shouted, jumping up and down on the bed.
Exclamation Points and Other Punctuation Mixed Together
To express surprise and puzzlement, writers sometimes mix exclamation points and question marks or ellipses.
In the first example, the solution is to make a decision. Would you rather ask for confirmation or exclaim over your missing prescription? Once you have chosen your direction, the right punctuation is easy to identify. The second example is not incorrect. It is possible, though not widely promoted, to use an exclamation point in conjunction with ellipses. Whether the exclamation point is placed before or after the ellipses depends on the purpose of the ellipses. (See the article “Ellipses” for a complete explanation.)
Another area of confusion is how to end a sentence with a title containing an exclamation point. Dr. Seuss wrote a book called Oh, The Places You’ll Go! As you may have noticed from the preceding sentence, you don’t need to add a period.
Parentheses and Exclamations
The closing parenthesis or the exclamation point, which comes first? While not as widely pondered as the chicken-and-egg mystery, this question confuses some writers. The answer depends on whether the entire sentence is inside the parentheses, or if only a clause or phrase is. If the whole sentence is encapsulated, the punctuation mark goes inside. (People overuse parentheses as much as exclamation points!) But if only part of the sentence is parenthetical, place the exclamation point outside the closing parenthesis. Here is an example from The Chicago Manual of Style:
He will not accept any papers submitted even one minute past the deadline (5:00 p.m.)!
In the Middle of the Sentence
There are not many instances where exclamation points are properly used in the middle of a sentence. One of the most likely reasons to use a mid-sentence exclamation point is to express dialogue.
“Run for your life!” Philip cried.
Rarely, you may see writers use an exclamation point enclosed by itself in parentheses. Usually, this is to emphasize the irony or unlikelihood of a particular element of the sentence.
After eighteen hours(!) of reading, the girl finally finished the novel.
It is possible to avoid using an exclamation point in both cases. For quotes, you can replace exclamation points with commas.
“Run for your life,” Philip cried.
For unlikelihood or irony, build a description of the sentiment into the sentence:
After an astonishing eighteen hours of nonstop reading, the girl finally finished the novel.
Does your mind boggle at all the possible ways to use an exclamation point? Although it is widely used, the exclamation point is one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks. The conclusion? Every writer should learn to use exclamation points correctly. In formal writing, avoid exclamation points or use them sparingly. Think of them as antibiotics. If you want them to be effective, you must have the proper dosage for the situation.
Dr Anne Toner believes she has identified the earliest use of the ellipsis in English drama, pinning it down to a 1588 edition of the Roman dramatist Terence’s play,
Andria, which had been translated into English by Maurice Kyffin and printed by Thomas East, and in which hyphens, rather than dots, mark incomplete utterances by the play’s characters.
Although there are instances of ellipses occurring in letters around the same time, this is the earliest printed version found by Toner following her chronological research into the earliest dramas in print.
“There is no play printed before Kyffin’s Andria and listed in WW Greg’s Bibliography of English Printed Drama that marks unfinished sentences in this way. This is not to say that these were the first ellipses in English print. There are appearances of the mark earlier in the 1580s. Henry Woudhuysen has identified dashes in letters printed in 1580 and 1585, where in both cases the mark occurs as part of an informal, conversational style.”
But drama was “especially important” in the evolution of the ellipsis, according to Toner, being the literary form “that is connected in the most concentrated way with speech as it is spoken”. And after its appearance in the 1588 Andria, the punctuation mark quickly caught on.
“It’s interesting to think about whose idea it was to use what turned out to be a very useful resource … was it the translator of the Terence play, or the printer? Who the agent was behind the mark is very unclear,” Toner said. “But you then start to see it being used relatively quickly in dramatic works … in Ben Jonson plays, for example.”
By the 18th century, said Toner, it “becomes very common in print, and blanking starts to be used as a means of avoiding libel laws”, with series of dots starting to be seen in English works, as well as hyphens and dashes, to mark an ellipsis.
Embraced by writers from Percy Shelley to Virginia Woolf, it was in the novel that the ellipsis “proliferated most spectacularly”, according to Toner. She points to Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad’s use of ellipses more than 400 times in their 1901 novel The Inheritors. Ford said that the writers were aiming to capture “the sort of indefiniteness that is characteristic of all human conversations, and particularly of all English conversations, that are almost always conducted entirely by means of allusions and unfinished sentences”.
The ellipsis makes its first appearances in the very first lines of The Inheritors:
‘IDEAS,’ she said. ‘Oh, as for ideas——’
‘Well?’ I hazarded, ‘as for ideas——?’
Not everyone approves of its use, however. Toner highlights Umberto Eco’s description of “the ghastliness of these dots” in 1994 – and today, according to Cambridge University, “we avoid using dots and dashes in formal writing”. But Adele’s Sunday night teaser, welcomed in the Guardian with the line “All hail the power of an ellipsis”, showed, according to the university, that “in our haste to communicate the moods of our thoughts, we just can’t resist them’.
Six of the best ellipses in literature
From Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne:
“Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?—Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,—Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing.”
From The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot:
“ I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
From The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
“… I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.”
From “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson:
“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -”
Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West:
“if I saw you would you kiss me? If I were in bed would you—”
Virginia Woolf imagines death by a bomb in her diary:
“Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so – Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness – and then, dot dot dot.”
They submit manuscripts on time. They never suffer writer’s block. And they don’t spend hours Googling their Amazon sales. There’s just one thing wrong with robot authors – their stories stink. Tom Meltzer talks to the scientists teaching creative writing to the next generation of androids, while Nicholas Lezardreviews the latest robot fiction
This month, several thousand aspiring authors are attempting to write a novel in 30 days. They are taking part in an annual event known asNaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, in the hope that the time pressure will spur them on. For a small community of computer programmers, though, NaNoWriMo has a lighthearted sister competition:National Novel Generating Month, the goal of which is to teach a computer to write a novel for you.
However, finished NaNoGenMo projects are unlikely to trouble Booker judges. They include a version of Moby-Dick in which the words have been swapped for meows of the same length (immortal opening line: Meow me Meeeeow); another version in which a few key words have been swapped out for emoji; and a novel made up of unconnected excerpts from an online database of teenage girls’ accounts of their dreams.
“I don’t think anyone’s really taking it seriously,” says Mark Riedl, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Riedl and his colleagues are not taking part, but they are among the many computer scientists working on far more sophisticated digital storytellers. For the past two years, they have been tinkering with a program calledScheherazade, which learns how to describe tasks by analysing crowd-sourced human accounts, and then attempts to produce plausible short stories about, say, going to the movies or a restaurant.
At its best, Scheherazade writes fairly convincing vignettes: “You entered the movie theater … You find the seats as indicated on your movie ticket … You sat comfortably in your seats.” But it’s prone to telltale errors. “For Scheherazade, a successful story is one in which people will read the story and recognise the activity and not find too many obvious errors,” says Riedl.
Novels require more than that, of course. Part of the challenge is teaching a computer not merely to describe, but to imagine. This is the goal of the What-If Machine (Whim) project, a venture involving teams at five universities across Europe. Like Scheherazade, the Whim, as the program is affectionately known, seeks to understand what is possible by analysing vast databases of human prose. It then inverts or twists what it has learned to produce a new idea that could serve as the premise of a story.
The results would not look out of place as taglines for children’s books: what if there was a little whale who forgot how to swim? What if there was a little cat who learned how to write? The next step is for the computer to figure out which of its ideas will resonate with human readers, by feeding it reams of data about how we respond.
“The What-If Machine was trying to do that with one of our experiments,” says Teresa Llano, of the team at Goldsmiths, University of London. “We were doing a survey about ideas for characters for Disney films. We had ‘What if there was a little goat that was afraid of eating?’ and people didn’t like it. They didn’t want to see a goat dying.”
Then there is metaphor, sarcasm and all the many ways we avoid saying precisely what we mean. Computers struggle enough with the literal. How can we teach them to talk figuratively? At the University of Dublin, Whim member Tony Veale is working on just that. His programMetaphor Magnet is designed to produce metaphorical insights and ironies by inverting and contrasting stereotypes harvested from the web. The results vary from the oddly witty (“When the sandals that are worn by humble monks are worn by the smuggest hipsters”) to distinctly robotic definitions (“Referee. noun. A fussy fusion of 5 parts evaluation-performing valuer to 4 parts jersey-wearing runner.”) “I suppose the outputs of @MetaphorMagnet might be described as cynical fortune cookies,” says Veale.
There are many other challenges, from the rhythmic qualities of the prose to character arcs and plotting. The hardest to crack will be the elements of great writing we ourselves struggle to explain: the poetic force of the sentences, the unique insights of the author, the sense of a connection. “It’s not hard to generate a story,” says Riedl. “It’s not hard to tell a story. It’s hard to tell good stories. How do you get a computer to understand what good means?”
Figuring this out involves stripping human creativity down into its numerous constituent parts, devising algorithms for every device an author might deploy. In building a computer that can write, we are exposing the computer within the writer.
‘I want to unplug the machine’ : robot fiction reviewed by Nicholas Lezard
How might a soothing mother become a threatening bank robber? What if soothing mothers were to give up their babies, plot bank robberies and become threatening bank robbers?
The most daring bank robber is not more demanding than the most scared child.
Bank robbers embrace criminality. Profiteers profit from the wars that encourage criminality. Who is worse?
When the bank robbers that break into calm vaults hide behind livid masks.
What if a principled scientist isn’t crooked enough to perform expensive research? Might this methodical scientist embrace criminality, become a methodical bank robber and steal the necessary money?
NL: The Metaphor Magnet looks the most formally intriguing of these, and the most plausible, but only because (a) it is in note form, and (b) its repetitions and stylistic stiffness suggest an avant-garde literary project that exploits repetition and stiffness, or deliberately seeks to emulate the kind of prose that might come out of a machine. Had these been presented to me as an early experimental work by, say, Ben Marcus, I may have been fooled, had it not been for the general sense of ineptitude. Then again, I rather liked “When the bank robbers that break into calm vaults hide behind livid masks” – “calm vaults” reminds me ofan Emily Dickinson poem.
What if there was a banker who lost her bank and couldn’t get money? But then she discovered that a robbery would solve her problem, so she forgot all about her old bank.
What if there was a doctor who lost her medicine and couldn’t heal? But then she discovered that a spirit would solve her problem, so she forgot all about her old medicine.
What if there was a poor, sluggish bird that couldn’t sing because he didn’t have enough practice? But he decided to perform anyway.
What if there was a banker whose regulator ran away and she suddenly became as excessive as traffic?
What if there was a clumsy banker who lost his hat and suddenly became as conservative as a nun?
What if there was a clumsy banker who lost her crony and suddenly became as tough as a brute?
What if there was a banker who woke up in an alley as a cat but could still use the phone?
What if there was a nurse who woke up in an aquarium as a fish but could still talk?
NL: The What-If Machine clearly signals itself as something whose first language is hexadecimal. “Couldn’t get money” means what? That is: what does “get” mean? Nothing, or nothing specific enough. There is perhaps a surreal charm in some of these scenarios, but even someone who did not know that they were computer-generated would experience something like the effect of the “uncanny valley”, whereby the attempt to get as close to human expression as possible only results in a sensation of great creepiness. Once you notice the formal similarity between the banker and the doctor in paragraphs one and two, of course, the jig is up (the bird who couldn’t sing etc). Three sounds like the proposal for a children’s story that will – indeed must – never be published, while “excessive as traffic” in four is word salad, not invention. As for the “clumsy banker”, at this point I want to unplug the machine from its power source to stop it from irritating us ever again, which is, rightly or wrongly, not an option available to writers made of flesh and blood.
John got into his car with his disguise, gun and note in his knapsack and headed towards the Old Second in the next town over, repeating his rehearsed demands silently over and over in his head.
John watched while a little old lady left the bank and walked to her car and then slipped on his gloves, slipped his gun into his coat pocket, grabbed his mask and strode determinedly to the lobby door and pulled it open.
John looked at his reflection in the glass of the door, gave himself a little smirk and covered his face. John took another deep breath as he wondered if this was really a good idea, and entered the bank.
John looked around the bank, making sure his timing was right.
John spotted a young blond teller, Sally, behind the counter.
John stood behind the lady and toddler and politely waited his turn, noticing the nameplate on the counter … “Sally”.
When it was his turn, John, wearing his Obama mask, approached the counter. Sally saw Obama standing in front of her and she felt her whole body tense up as her worst nightmare seemed to be coming true.
Once Sally began to run, John pulled out the gun and directed it at the bank guard.
John wore a stern stare as he pointed the gun at Sally.
Sally screamed hysterically which alerted other people in the bank.
NL: My first thought was: “Oh look, it’s an extract from Dan Brown’s new novel.” Then I realised it was even clumsier than the master of turning rubbish into money. But not that much clumsier. I suspect that Scheherazade may even have been programmed using algorithms determined by genre fiction in general and Brown in particular, so relentless is the parade of cliches, redundant modifiers, and dimwit expositions. “Sally screamed hysterically which alerted other people in the bank” is a killer of a closing sentence, isn’t it?
The disturbing thing is that a little tweaking of the program, such as getting the machine to learn that you don’t begin six consecutive sentences with the same word, especially if it’s “John”, could have turned this into something that might have been written by a very stupid human being with a tin ear; and there is plenty enough of that around. But even if one day the computer will pass muster at the level of the sentence, there is, on this evidence, no foreseeable way as yet that it will be able to construct a narrative that is both plausible and gripping. You may breathe easy. Unless you are Dan Brown.