The week before last I spent a blissful holiday in Dorset as a birdwatcher’s companion. We went on long walks in sea air and generally marvelled at the countryside. It was in full fig and glorious.
The Birdwatcher saw a couple of birds he didn’t expect, as well as one genuine rarity. And I spent a couple of hours communing with a Little Owl. It sat so still I worried that it was a stuffed toy. The Amiable Birdwatcher agreed that it might be a decoy to attract owls to that quarry as a des res, so took us back to check. And then, Sleepy Sam came out of his stupor to pursue a fly up one level on the rock face. So after that, I stayed and watched him doze.
Punctuation – the Reckless Volunteer
The peace and quiet was very necessary. This last week I have been wrestling with new and exciting challenges. For I am to deliver an online course on punctuation next month and I have never done such a thing before. The online course, I mean.
Punctuation I had covered – or thought I did, anyway.
The truth is that I offered to produce this course this time last year, when the Romantic Novelists’ Association started a new online learning programme. I knew from experience that many manuscripts which go through the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme show punctuation issues.
Some years ago Elizabeth Hawksley and I wrote a guide to punctuation, called Getting the Point. It’s now out of print, but there are sometimes second hand copies available. And when I checked on Amazon, I was quite tearful at the lovely reviews. THANK you, dear Readers.
We put a lot of work into researching it. And anyway, I love the stuff. So I was pretty certain I could help.
Punctuation – The Online Course Video
I had reckoned without Technical Issues. This week I have been struggling with trying to video myself. OK, half the problem is vanity. But not all. “Be natural,” said my guru, the wonderful Janet Gover.
Um. My mentor is an on-camera professional. Probably also a natural. So far, me being natural has resulted in:
- Horrified Woman in Mirror, discovering her nose is peeling after too much sun, never started speaking
- Rabbit in the Headlights, forgot what I was going to say
- Nervous Spokesperson, sonorously reading from prepared brief, apparently punctuated at random. Also basso profundo. AAARGH
- Manic Stand-up Comedian, gabbling at 200 words a minute. Danny Kaye could have taken my correspondence course.
Back to the drawing board, you think? Yup. Me, too.
Punctuation – The Online Course Challenge
Now this is where I thought I had it sewn up and have found that I hadn’t. Our book is basic yet reasonably comprehensive. But it’s not the sort of thing you read from cover to cover. You look up what you want.
My problem is the course attendees are taking time out of busy lives to explore what they need to know. But I don’t know which bit that is. And they almost certainly won’t all have the same problem. If I stay basic are they going to feel irritated and patronised?
Yet starting with the basics is the only way I know how to explain punctuation – as much to myself as to the audience. At the same time I am terrified of boring them to sobs.
One of the lovely Amazon reviewers said of our book, “The authors have managed to produce an interesting book about a topic which many people would consider boring.”
A topic which many people would consider boring. AAARGH.
Punctuation, the Writer’s Water Carrier, the Reader’s Friend
Punctuation seems to have been invented by a librarian, Aristophanes of Alexandria, somewhere around BCE 200.
The stuff that was coming from Athens and elsewhere came on scrolls in continuous lettering. So the very first bit of punctuation was a letter-sized space between one word and the next. Phew! And Aristophanes did it to help the reader.
My course is subtitled “Punctuating your work for clarity and expressiveness.” The basic aim is to help your reader to read in a continuous flow, without stumbling over something she doesn’t understand or that sounds wrong.
She puts her trust in you, opens the book and sets off on her journey.
Punctuation can also help the writer vary the pace, heighten drama, change mood, show who dominates a conversation and when someone is taking the piss.
And a whole lot more, if you want it to. It can even provide the key clue in a murder mystery.
Some years ago I explained how I came to read the Jack Reacher novels and why I was hooked from Book 1. The whole blog is here. But the following is the key point for the purposes of this blog.
Almost at the end, there’s a game changer. The Chief Detective needs evidence but he thinks it was destroyed in a fire in a garage belonging to a guy called Stoller.
Our hero knows otherwise:
“It wasn’t written like that,” I said. “The apostrophe came after the final letter. It meant the garage belonging to the Stollers. The plural possessive. The garage belonging to two people called Stoller. And there weren’t two people called Stoller living at that house by the golf course. Judy and Sherman weren’t married. The only place we’re going to find two people called Stoller is the little old house where Sherman’s parents live. And they’ve got a garage.”
Finlay drove on in silence. Trawled back to his grade-school grammar.
“You think he stashed a box with his folks?”
“It’s logical,” I said.
And they roll on to an absolutely cracking climax. Oh, that apostrophe! Happy Sigh!
Punctuation Course July 2021
If you think that this might be something you would like to join, you would be very welcome. You don’t have to be a member of the RNA to join nor a writer to get some benefit out it.
Having had my own close encounter with a Little Owl, Sophie, I understand your enchantment. And grammar as the final clue to a murder…fabulous!
Little owls are so special, aren’t they Liz?
Glad you enjoyed the apostrophe clue. Great, isn’t it?
Something that always proves the point (sorry!) to me is the use of punctuation when writing for the stage. You simply cannot insert directions all the way through dialogue – the punctuation has to do it for you. Good luck! (And I envy you the little owl.)
Excellent point, Lesley. I’ve often thought that early “punctuation” was probably personal and came from actors, lawyers and orators marking up a text to make sure they gave it full welly in performance. And then maybe a Superior Librarian saw some marks like that and thought: this has potential….
Speculation is dangerous in relation to something as important as punctuation, dear gel. But I am delighted that you are offering a course on punctuation, a sadly neglected competence these days. I don’t have time to offer a course myself, I’m afraid, but I’m sure yours will be an excellent substitute.
I stand rebuked, Dame Isadora. I shall endeavour to repress my speculative tendencies during the course itself.
But thank you for your encouragement and also your kind words.
I have to say that Lee Child books did not float my boat but I am tickled by the apostrophe clue to the murderer. I have found your book on ebay and bought it. I am an apostrophe fanatic but still find the rules tripping me up at times so I look forward to consulting it. So much better than the computer doing it for me 🙂
On another subject (I hope you don’t mind), since I know this blog is a fan of Georgette Heyer, I really enjoyed Kate Quinn’s The Huntress in which Heyer’s books featured as the favoured books of the Red Army WW2 female pilot heroine. It was charming, funny and incongruous all at the same time. I would recommend Quinn’s books anyway, even without this unexpected addition. I asked an English teacher friend of mine if she had read Heyer and she said ‘no’ with a very blank face. I persisted ‘but you have heard of Georgette Heyer?’ The response was even more negative. I can’t decide if she was being honest or a literary snob! Her loss I reckon
Definitely her loss! Love the sound of the Kate Quinn book. And I also book a copy of Getting the Point on eBay today. My daughter wanted a copy (she was at school at the punctuation-doesn’t-matter-period) and this prompted me.
I’m not sure I would have read another Lee Child, if it hadn’t been for being charmed by that first one, Alice. I do think he’s a helluva story teller and Jack Reacher is an intriguing character. But I admit that some of the violence I rip through with my metaphorical fingers in my ears.
I will look out for Kate Quinn’s book. Thank you.