Writing, life, politics

Tag: uninformed and ignorant opinion

Three Pieces Of Creative Writing Advice For School Children

Marie Phillips (@mpphillips), author of Gods Behaving Badly, tweeted the following this morning:

Preparing my first ever day of Creative Writing teaching for teens for First Story http://bit.ly/aCq9A Any advice welcome!

Well I figured I’d bash my advice out, random and uninformed as it is, as a blog post, and then tweet that. So here it is!


When your primary school teacher told you not to use “said” in fiction she was wrong. Contrary to what she told you, said is a nice unobtrusive way of connecting dialogue to its speaker. As a rough rule of thumb, always use said unless you particularly want to convey that the dialogue wasn’t merely spoken, but was instead asked, whispered, shouted, mumbled and so on. If every time you want to say “said” you think of some alternative, you’re just providing a distraction to the reader as they try to read your dialogue.


Punctuation is important. It’s not old fashioned. It’s there for a reason. Consider the classic (and perhaps apocraphal?) line by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“Holmes!” I ejaculated.

If ever a sentence needed punctuation, I think we can all agree that by Christ it’s that one. (And as an aside, if your teacher insists that you must use words other than “said”, try throwing an “ejaculated” into your story).

A lot of people will say that they leave punctuation out of what they write because it’s quicker to write that way. That’s true, but they’ve missed the point. What counts is not how quick your text is to write, but how quick it is to read. Your text will be written once, by you, but read many times, by many people. Punctuation makes text quicker to read. It’s like a rally-driver’s co-driver, constantly instructing the driver about the twists and turns ahead.

Without punctuation, the brain has to waste time working extra hard trying to resolve the ambiguities that unpunctuated text is full of – and each time the brain guesses wrong, the reader has to back-track, which wastes even more time.

Take the sort of sentence that I often see on the Net, and which I absolutely loathe.

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging something I’d always wanted to do.

As you read, you stream the words in, attempting to guess the context with which they are said by guessing what might come ahead – with commas and fullstops providing “milestones” at which you can tie down certain meanings. Take the sentence above, at the point at which we’ve read the following:

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging

Now because there isn’t a comma after “sledging” we know that the next word must be something like “as” or “with” or “down”. Something like:

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging as it was something I’d always wanted to do.

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging with my friend Dave.

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging down the hill near my house.

Except we don’t get that, do we? We get:

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging something

This can only make sense if you use the word “sledging” in its Australian sense, to insult someone. And even then it doesn’t make much sense. You saw that it was snowing, so you decided to go out and insult an inanimate object? Of course, as you struggle over the next few words, getting to:

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging something I’d always

…you realise there’s a bloody comma missing. At this point you have to mentally deconstruct the sentence you’ve been building up about a snow-bound Australian, and then reconstruct it as it was supposed to be, with a change of context after the word sledging.

It’s the literary equivalent of putting a rod through the spokes of cyclist speeding past you, and as with that act, should only be done if you actually want to bugger up the person concerned.


If you have teachers who are anything like mine, they’ll have pretty strict ideas about what sort of literature you ought to be reading and writing and it might well not be anything you particularly want to write. In my case, I wanted to read and write science-fiction, and with one exception, they significantly failed to be wild about that. They chided, they cajoled, they critised (one appended a comment along the lines of “This is stupid… why can’t you write about something that might actually happen” to a story I’d written about the destruction of the ozone layer, about a year before that become common knowledge outside of hard-core greens and SFers).

In the end, they so ground down my confidence in my ability to write fiction that in my O’Level English Language exam (yes, I am so old that my education predates GCSEs) I took the safe non-fiction option in the essay writing section and got a “safe” grade B. I’ve always wondered if I might have got an A if I’d attempting the more standard fiction piece.

I was wrong to listen to them. Read what you enjoy reading. Write what you enjoy writing.

Unless it’s slash fiction, of course. I’m sorry, but having Riker get it on with Piccard is as wrong as having Will getting it on with Grace would have been. (Although I’ll make an exception for Kirk / Spock slash purely because the idea of William Shatner saying, “My. God. Spock. It’s. E-normous.” is just too delicious for words).

Anyone else got any thoughts about advice she could give?

Strictly Week One: Thoughts and Musings

Last night, my other half and I finally got round to watching last Saturday’s Strictly Come Dancing (what the rest of the world calls “Dancing with the Stars”) on catchup. It eventually came down to a dance off between former tennis player Martina Hingis and former policeman and now TV presenter Rav Wilding, with the judges plumping to keep Wilding in the contest after a two-two vote broken only by the casting vote of Len Goodman, the chief judge.

We both felt that Martina was unlucky to go. Now I’ll admit that in my case, a lot of this is probably due to the fact that I’m a heterosexual bloke and will thus – given the choice between two people whose dancing I have no particularly strong feelings about – generally go for the pretty girl in the nice dress.

And I did think Martina was looking quite pretty on Saturday night. Actually, I’ve always thought she was quite pretty… [Day dreams for a moment]. But anyway. [Takes deep breath – focus, focus!]

In the dance off, both couples had to dance the one dance of the two they’d done over the two shows that had scored the highest, which in both cases was the rumba they’d danced that night. Both, in my totally amateur and frankly ignorant opinion, were a bit ropey, but in different ways: Martina danced badly; Rav didn’t dance.

And this is where I think that male and female contestants who can’t dance (such as these two) are affected in different ways by the various dances – in particular which dances will make them look awful as opposed to merely bad.

I’m probably drastically oversimplifying this, and I should stress in advance that I have no idea what I’m talking about, but the dances break down into two families: ballroom and Latin. In ballroom (except for the bit at the start that always pisses Len off) you dance round together in a hold, with the man leading; in Latin you generally dance together, but not in a constant hold.

So if you’re a woman and you can’t dance, you’re best off doing a ballroom dance, because then your male partner can drag you round the floor while you hang on to him trying to look beautiful (and attempting to avoid “the claw!!!”); whereas in the Latin you’ll be all flailing arms and wooden legs.

By contrast, if you’re a man who can’t dance, the ballroom dance will be a horror show in which your partner attempts to maneuver a weight much larger than her (that’s you!) around the floor while making it look like the complete opposite is  actually occurring; whereas in the Latin you can simply stomp around looking macho and masterful while she desperately dances around you in an attempt to stop anyone noticing that you aren’t actually dancing. (If a woman tried that, she’d merely look dull and slow, and her partner would probably look a tad “flamboyant”).

Anyway, this was exactly what happened on Saturday night. Rav stomped around looking masterful; Martina flailed her arms about.

Personally, I’d have given it to the one who was actually dancing.

And the fact that she’s cute doesn’t hurt.

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