Saturday 25 September 2010

Punctuation (The Marks Brothers)

Have you met the marks brothers? No, not the brothers Chico, Harpo and Groucho Marx, but the brothers Exclamation, Question and Quotation Marks.

While the exclamation mark and the question mark both evolved from the full stop, the quotation mark stands alone—but not quite alone, as it’s always used in a pair.

The most important uses of quotation marks [“ ” or ‘ ’] are to:

• indicate direct speech  Example: ‘Don’t go,’ she cried.

• indicate a quotation  Example: ‘Shakespeare,’ Tim strummed a light chord on his old twelve-string, ‘said, “If music be the language of love, play on!” I’ll give you as much music as you can stand!’

• highlight a portion of text for a specific reason  Example: ‘We’ll stay at “The Four Feathers” tonight,’ Mr Beeves promised his wife.

American usage prefers double quotation marks [“ ”] for direct speech, while British English tends to favour single quotation marks [‘ ’]. Consistency is more important than worrying about which to use: if you start your direct speech with single quotation marks, keep that format throughout your novel.

The correct placement of punctuation is important when using quotation marks:

• include punctuation that is part of the direct speech inside the final quotation mark

• when a sentence of direct speech is split by a speech verb, the comma must be inside the quotation mark

• short quotations integrated into a sentence can be marked off with quotation marks, but longer quotations should begin on a new line and do not need quotation marks

As quotation marks are quite polite they, unlike the other two marks brothers, work well with other punctuation marks. Exclamation marks and question marks rudely push aside the other punctuation marks.

An exclamation mark [!] replaces the more sedate punctuation marks with extreme emotion. ‘I hate you.’ sounds a lot less angry than the dramatic ‘I hate you!’

But overuse—or, worse, multiple use!!!!!—of the exclamation mark turns drama into melodrama. Don’t fear the exclamation mark; use it judiciously to:

• convey strong emotion
• indicate irony or reverse meaning (Thanks a lot!)
• emphasising insults or expletives (You little shit!)
• command (Get lost! Vamoose!)

The question mark is not quite as brash as the exclamation mark. It replaces the full stop at the end of any sentence that asks a direct question. Compare

They’re flying to Timbuktu. Again. 


They’re flying to Timbuktu? Again?

Sentences that take the form of questions may not be questions and therefore do not end with a question mark. Example: Would the owner of the black BMW in the disabled parking bay please move it immediately. Although that’s framed as a question, it’s a request or command, and thus does not end with a question mark.

When deciding whether a sentence should end in a question mark or not, look at the intended meaning rather than the grammatical form. Indirect questions do not have question marks, but direct questions—no matter how long and convoluted they are—always require a question mark. If you use quotation marks or parentheses, make sure you place the question marks at the end of the question they belong to.

The marks brothers serve a special purpose that no other punctuation mark can. It’s best, though, to let their use arise naturally, as they can directly affect the pace and sense of drama in your text. Make sure you get the effect you aimed for.

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down,
I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
Groucho Marx

“The Art of Punctuation” by Noah Lukeman
“Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Punctuate” by George Davidson
“Collins Wordpower: Punctuation” by Graham King
Marx Brothers Image from FlikR/twm 1340

Monday 20 September 2010


It’s time for another progress report to tell you whazzup with my writing journey!

As you know from my last report back on my writing progress in November 2009, I had three projects on the boil:

Project A: This project revolves around the novel I wrote as part of my Master’s degree in English. The long arduous process continues. I’m busy completing the revisions based on the editorial letter I received from literary agent Weronika Janczuk of D4EO Agency.

I’m so pleased with the way the novel is taking shape. I never guessed how much it could improve structurally. Although it’s hard work, I’m enjoying the process. I get a real thrill when I find just this word or change that comma, and it lights up the sentence, page and story in a new and vibrant way. I’m starting to feel like a professional writer for the first time. My confidence in my work is blossoming and all the anxieties generated by the countless rejection letters that this poor ms has received are slowly dissipating!

When I’ve finished the revisions (target date: mid-October) I’ve decided to put the ms aside for a month or two before doing one final check and then deciding what the next step is.

Project B: This was the story I started with the sole purpose of entering into the Harlequin Mills and Boon Modern/Presents 2009 competition. My entry didn’t make it. First and second prize went to romance authors who, although not yet published by Mills and Boon, are multi-pubbed by other houses. I wish the two authors the best of luck with their winning entries. The competition whetted my appetite for romance writing again. I duly submitted a romance to e-publishers Wild Rose Press.

I must compliment WRP on their professionalism, their efficiency, their interest in helping an author and their incredibly quick turn-around times. What a pleasure to deal with a romance publisher who understands, and is considerate, of the author’s needs! The editor I worked with loved the manuscript but, when I received an editorial letter asking for a third round of revisions, saying the novel was very close to publishable standards and a possible contract offer, it was decision time: did I want to write romances or did I want to concentrate on my other writing? Romance, or any type of genre, writing requires a very special set of skills including the ability to multi-task, to write prolifically and to concentrate on good story-telling.

Sadly, I concluded that I am not endowed with those specific skills. Unlike when I blog, when I write I like to work slowly, to concentrate on characterisation over plot and to do detailed research. I can spend two days on re-writing a single sentence until I feel it’s perfect. This is what gives me pleasure - the manipulation and careful layering of words and their symbolic meanings. And so I regretfully declined to complete the third set of revisions.

It’s a strange feeling having made such a final decision. In one way, it’s as if I’ve wasted the last ten years of my life, when I was so determined to be a romance author. To get so close (again–this is the third romance ms that has come so close to being published) and to consciously chose not to continue…ouch! I had to ask myself if I was more afraid of success than I am of failure. Was I self-sabotaging myself because of this fear of success?  After much soul-searching I could say: NO!

In the past decade, I’ve evolved as a person and as a writer. I’ve moved beyond romances in both my reading tastes and in my writing dreams. Of course, my goals must alter too, but I was too stubborn, er, too tenacious, to admit years ago that I needed to re-assess my writing goals taking into account the obvious fact that I’m not cut out to be a Romance Author.

I have a huge respect for those authors who do choose to forge a career as a romance or chick-lit author—they are like master puppeteers, their fingers working dozens of strings at once—but I’ve accepted that I am not cut from that particular writing cloth. My writing skills and unique writing voice lie elsewhere.

So, while there is sadness at leaving an old friend behind, I have a sense of freedom too; a sense of commitment to my writing I’ve never felt before. That tells me I’ve made the correct decision to focus on literary writing, rather than genre writing.

Project C: For a variety of reasons, this project has taken a back seat. My research questionnaire to ex-Border War soldiers didn’t generate much response. Our friend, Colonel Young, who was helping me with it died tragically in January 2010 (my husband is still upset; they were friends for nearly thirty-five years). My reading list has morphed into this mass of books, which has taken over my studio. And another story I was working on before this idea came to me, has starting sulking because I pushed it aside, so I’m thinking of heading back to finish it first (Project E). I’ll keep Project C ticking by compiling a reading list, sorting the reference books into some sort of useful order and starting the reading.

Project D: I submitted a short story to The Literary Lab’s ‘Notes from Underground’ competition, and was chosen to participate in this exciting and experimental writing project. All proceeds are to go to charity. I must write 10 pages of any type of writing and submit it to the editors before December 15, 2010. The bliss of being able to write anything at all, with no restrictions except length, is exhilarating. I’ve decided to send in a mixture of prose, poetry and discourse.

Project E: I outlined this novel in March 2009 while Husband and I were in Bern, Switzerland. I put it aside when the Border War story started taking hold, but now that Project A is so close to completion, I’m drawn more and more to this story. It’ll be set in the same fictional land as Project A, so won’t need the research of Project C. I’m starting to hear their voices, but I’ll have to ignore them until January when Projects A and D are complete.

Blogging: I still have the final post on my series on punctuation to do; also, the final post for the South African Romance Writer’s website due in October (I’ll be focusing on overwriting). I have a few interesting writing topics lined up for my own blog; I’m hoping to do one a month over the next few months. I’ll continue with my book reviews of the novels I’m ploughing through from my ‘to-be-read’ pile. With all the non-fiction reading waiting for me for Project C, I hope I get to read some more of the tempting pile of novels that have been waiting and waiting. Oh, and I’m maintaining Husband’s blog, although that doesn’t take much time.

Writing Courses: I have two  writing courses coming up.

In November 2010, I’ll be attending a 3 day “Basic copy editing and proofreading course” presented by John Linnegar, a well respected local editor and chairman of Professional Editors' Group.

In January 2011, I start a ten week Creative Writing Course run by All About Writing, and presented jointly by published author Jo-Anne Richards and scriptwriter Richard Beynon.

And that’s whazzup in my writing life. I may just have to stop sleeping to meet all these goals, as well as those Life’s Obligations that keep me busy, but I’m excited and energized at the upcoming challenges of the next few months! What are you busy with in your writing journey?

Friday 17 September 2010

The AfroTenors

They made Pavarotti weep. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela gave them a standing ovation. They are the Afrotenors, Agos Moahi, Given Mabena and Lucky Sibandan.  Husband and I have often been  privileged to hear them perform. Last night at a client function these three highly talented young men gave an energetic and passionate performance of opera, traditional African and popular musical hits. Their perfect performance and sartorial elegance made us so proud of the talent that this great country of ours has! Here is a video of them performing Nessum Dorma:

You can buy their albums here or you can enquire about booking the Afrotenors by clicking here. I can promise you, you won't be disappointed!

Monday 13 September 2010

"Rainmaker" and others

After an extended break, I’ve started reading fiction again. I’d like to share my thoughts about what I’ve read. As my blog is more about my writing journey than it is about reviewing books, I’ve decided to do a monthly, rather than individual, blog book review post. Each monthly book review will contain a short review of some of the more interesting novels or books I’ve recently read. Please remember these reviews are only a reflection of my subjective experience of reading. If you have read any of them, I’d be interested to know what you thought, so please feel free to comment.

RAINMAKER (Don Pinnock)

Short-listed for the 2009 European Union Literary Award, this simply written, yet beautifully told, tale of a young man’s spiritual journey from a gangster in the Cape Flats to a shaman in the Chameleon Mountains is a delight. Ky’s growth and mystical experiences resonate with both the discordance of the modern world and the mysticism and myths of the land that is the Cradle of Mankind. This is Africa’s heart – deep, mysterious and wonderful. The evocative images of the African bush and the San shaman’s trances, which transcend ordinary experience, contrasted with the confusion of a young boy caught up in the violence and emptiness of life in the worst parts of the Cape Flats had me alternatively laughing and crying. A wonderful read.

THE VINTNER’S LUCK (Elizabeth Knox)

This is a difficult novel to review. ‘Strange’ is the word that springs to mind. The premise – a lifelong friendship between an angel and a vintner – interested me, because I like surreal and/or paranormal stories. When I started reading, I couldn’t put it down because the imagery was beautiful and the philosophical discussions on religious beliefs interesting although, at times, too obscure. So, what was the problem I had with this story? I couldn’t get emotionally attached to any of the characters. There was enough in the novel to keep me reading, but not enough to make me really care any more than an occasional twinge what happened to the characters because I was disconnected from their motives and emotions. Both Xas (the angel) and Sobran (the vintner) were not easy to know, and this was to the detriment of the story. The style was also difficult: too often, the reader was expected to make conceptual leaps of logic and/or imagination that, rather than intriguing me, simply made me lose interest. For such a beautifully written book, it’s a pity that it only engaged my head, but not my heart. I may have read the book, but I didn’t “live” it.

THE SIEGE (Helen Dunmore)

In the midst of the bitterest winter, and under siege from the advancing German army, Leningrad starves. And love could so easily die in the appalling conditions of deprivation and suffering. This interesting book paints a chilling (excuse the pun) picture of life in Leningrad in the early 1940’s, when Hitler’s army tried to invade Russia. The descriptions of extreme hunger and extreme cold, and their effects on the human body are detailed and fairly gruesome, but are well contrasted with human nature at its best and worst. A sister’s sacrifices for her young brother; a lover’s vigil in an icy room covered in frost and a doctor’s dedication to doing what he can in appalling circumstances, make this story real and readable. This is a harsh story about a bleak historical event, but it’s also an inspiring story about the strength of human nature.


As I’m not a science fiction fan, I can’t remember why I bought this book. I struggled through technical terms and a vision of a future world that I fear may be all to real – isolated humans living in steel-cold domes on distant planets – and, when I realised that for four nights in a row I’d managed to avoid any reading rather than carry on reading this story, I eventually gave in about a quarter of the way through the novel. In between the high tech words, there were enough flashes of wit and glimmers of wisdom that make me think any sci-fi aficionados will find this a brilliant read.

That's it for this month! In October I'll select a few more books I've read and do another book review post. At last I'm making inroads into that huge "to-be-read" pile of mine! If I persist, and do not buy another book for a year, I may even finish the pile by, oh, about 2020!

Saturday 4 September 2010

Help Save the Mountain Gorillas

The Gorilla Organization is an international NGO working to save the world’s last remaining gorillas from extinction. Whether you choose to join in the GREAT GORILLA RUN, London’s best all-costume charity fun run, track gorillas and raft the Nile on the Great Gorilla Adventure, the Gorillas need extraordinary people like you and my niece Nikki (who is an international political analyst living in London) to help save an incredible species.

Nikki is part of the world of furry-fun people united in their desire to see our ‘Big Furry Cousins in the Forest’ survive for generations to come.

Left: Nikki preparing for the 2009 Great Gorilla Race

Today, gorillas are threatened, not due to a demand for their meat or their infants, but due to a demand for the lush forest in which they live. For the poverty-stricken communities around the gorilla habitat, it is the gorilla forest that provides them with many of their fundamental human needs. But, sadly, the collection of basic resources such as water and firewood is destroying the gorilla habitat and, in turn, the gorillas.

Right: Nikki (No 541, in the pink tutu) working hard to save the Gorillas!

The Gorilla Organization understands that if gorillas are to have a realistic chance of survival in the context of Africa's significant challenges, conservation and poverty alleviation need to happen side-by-side. And so they work with local communities to find alternative resources to those found in the forest, lessening encroachment into the gorilla habitat and lifting local people out of poverty. Their grass-roots approach to gorilla conservation is sustainable, holistic and has a long-term effect.
Left: A Mountain Gorilla (photogaph taken by Nikki's Dad and my brother-in-law, Ian Cockerill, who is on the Board of the Leadership for Conservation in Africa)

The project types that the Gorilla Organisation are involved in include:

Conservation and Research: Without the forest the gorillas will not survive. Understanding the threats and protecting the forest is the first step to saving the gorillas.

Education: Africa's children of today are the conservationists of tomorrow. Giving local people knowledge of environmental issues is building a future for gorillas.
Development: Empty stomachs have no ears. Protecting the gorilla habitat starts with helping African people in need.

Left: Nikki out of her gorilla kit and as she really is

Why don't you go ape and help save the Mountain Gorillas from extinction?

Every single Pound / Euro / Dollar/South African Rand helps! So, click here to sponsor Nikki and help her reach her target donation.

If you can't sponsor her yourself, you can still help by re-tweeting her sponsorship page or linking to it on your Facebook. 

You can also visit Sam the Gorilla's Great Gorilla Race page and browse the hilarious photos of London, City of the Apes!

(Text and information about gorillas from the webpage of The Gorilla Organisation)