Let me start with an admission: I love inventive punctuation. Of course, you can do an awful lot, just by changing a comma into a dash. But some people go the whole hog into brackets, asterisks and the wild excesses of the exclamation mark. It all fascinates me.
Most people, of course, ignore it. Well, readers pick up the writers’ signals, I hope. But they don’t actually play around with the stuff. Why should they?
For some people, though, punctuation is a real headache, indissolubly tied to (horrors!) grammar. It’s a terrible shame.
That was the reason that, several years ago, Elizabeth Hawksley and I wrote a simple guide. Its working title was Punctuation for the Petrified, which the publisher vetoed for excellent reasons. It reflected our feelings, though. We wanted people to learn a few principles, have a source book to check things that worried them and, above all, relax and have fun.
Inventive Punctuation to Clarify the Plot
So when the Romantic Novelists Association started an online learning project, I volunteered to run a course on punctuation for romantic novelists. But life got in the way, as it usually does. My wheeze—to build up to some of the interesting stuff that novelists are doing with punctuation today—bit the dust. My itch to share is still there, though.
Hence this blog.
Science Fiction and Fantasy/Paranormal writers seem to me to lead the field on inventive use of punctuation. Often their typographical innovations are driven by the plot.
Take Ink & Sigil by Kevin Hearne for instance. This is urban fantasy in spades, set in Glasgow. The protagonist is a sort of guardian sorceror, protecting his patch from ill-intentioned supernaturals. Only his magical assistants keep dying off from horridly appropriate accidents—when it opens, the latest has choked to death on on a scone. What’s more, he is labouring under a curse from magical persons unknown: his voice makes people hate him. But man is a problem-solving animal. And so are MacBharrais and his creator. The sorcerer talks to people by using the text-to-speech app on his phone.
Here he is talking to an associate he has pressured into helping:
‘The text-to-speech app didn’t have a Glaswegian accent available, but it has a London accent, so I at least sounded like I was from the UK.
‘[Thanks for coming,] the app said for me in a slightly stilted delivery. [I need you to take Geordie’s inks and that somewhere secure, then go to your brother’s wedding. See you in the morning, We’ll talk then.]
It’s a cracking book, funny and fierce and truly exciting.
And, oh boy, I love those square brackets!
Inventive Punctuation to Establish Situation…
This one’s science fiction and I absolutely love the whole series. Unlike Ink & Sigil, its title made me nervous (my low nightmare threshold, remember) and I steered clear of Murderbot for ages. But what a joy it was when I finally scraped together enough courage to give it a try.
They’re actually called the Murderbot Diaries, which is absolutely right. The narrator is an irritable SecUnit, which seems to mean a sort of amalgam of automated industrial security guard and a personal protection officer. Officially it is described as a construct.
When we first encounter Murderbot, it is trying to hitch a ride off a space hub while keeping a low profile. A very low profile.
‘I pinged the transport again and give it the same offer I had given the first transport: hundreds of hours of media, serials, books, music, including some new shows I had just picked up on the way through the transit mall, in exchange for a ride. I told it I was a free bot, trying to get back to its human guardian.
(The “free bot” thing is deceptive. Bots are considered citizens in some non-corporate political entities like Preservation, but they still have appointed human guardians. Constructs sometimes fall under the same category as bots, sometimes under the same category as deadly weapons. (FYI, that is not a good category to be in.)) This is why I had been a free agent among humans for less than seven cycles, including time spent alone on a cargo transport, and I already needed a vacation.’
… And Explore Character
OK, I’m hooked by this voice, irascible, curious, incredibly self-aware. Not a robot, according to generally perceived wisdom in this world, not to mention its own assessment. But definitely not a human either. And, from all we can gather, on the run. Well, a bit. And it consumes media, including books by the gallon. It’s picked up the bracket habit, anyway. And I love, love, love those double brackets which nobody would approve of anywhere in the grammar and punctuation universe but are just so RIGHT.
Pretty soon, our diarist is telling us how it came to be as it is:
‘When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side-effects.’
So were the resourcefulness and the cynicism (fully justified as successive stories will show).
‘Stupid’ is one of its favourite words. The spiky humour. The opinions.
As Murderbot reads and listens to more books – and watches more soap operas, but that’s probably co-incidental – it becomes more and more opinionated and the opinions tumble into those brackets. Sometimes, even, back-to-back brackets.
From the latest diary:
‘The full station threat assessment for murder was sitting at a baseline 7 per cent. (To make it drop lower than that we’d have to be on an uninhabited planet.) (I’ve never been on a contract on an uninhabited planet because if I was on the planet on a contract then we’d be inhabiting it.) You never found dead humans lying around on the floor like this.
‘”Well,” Indah began, having finally finished reading the report. (I know, it takes humans forever.)”I don’t know how accurate this is—”‘
Those brackets, with their cynical observations and pitiless assessment of itself and others, turn Murderbot from a tragic figure into one of fantastic energy, enterprise and charm.
Inventive Punctuation to Make a Point.
When I first read it, many years ago, I had no idea she was taking the piss out of Mary Webb’s heavily ruralised melodramas. (Not sure that there isn’t a bit of a dig at Thos Hardy and maybe even George Eliot along the way, too.) I just hooted.
In her foreword she says that, for persons like herself, who work in offices and suchlike and have no idea whether what they are reading is ‘Literature or just sheer flapdoodle’, she proposes to mark what she considers her finer passages with one, two or thee stars. She points out that she is modelling herself on Baedeker’s tourist guides to cathedrals etc.
So here we have one her best efforts:
‘***His huge body, rude as a wind-tortured thorn, was printed darkly against the thin mild flame of the declining winter sun that throbbed like a sallow lemon on the westering lip of Mockuncle Hill, and sent its pale, sharp rays into the kitchen through the open door. The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the invisible ghosts of a million dead summers.’
There is more. But you get the drift. Wonderful stuff.
If you’re a writer, punctuation is one of the tools of your trade. If you want to be inventive, go for it! Don’t let anyone scare you off. It’s heck of a lot of fun for all concerned. Pip pip!