Thursday, 30 May 2013

Let Me Get You Some Comps...

If it sounds too good to be true, it most definitely is too good to be true. There is no such thing as a free lunch or even a free ebook for that matter. To explain why, I will need to take you back to Vegas with me. It is was the first morning after we had arrived and we were both eager to get stuck into the action. Cue Rodney. This was the name of one of the many casino workers who prowl the floors looking for naive tourists. It did not take long for him to spot us.

'Is this your first time in Vegas' he asked me, as I was still trying to figure out the internal architecture of the pyramid that we had just entered.

'Er yes,' I tentatively replied, whilst unconsciously placing a protective hand over my money belt.

'In that case, let me get you some comps,' he said.

We were led to a desk just outside of the main casino, were we were introduced to Joan. She asked if we were interested in seeing any shows whilst we were in Vegas. It turned out that she could get us tickets for anything that we wanted to see free of charge. She then asked if we liked food (is there really more than one answer to that question?) It also turned out that she could get us some vouchers for a free meal. Now I know what you are thinking - there has to be a catch right? I was thinking the same thing myself.

'What's the catch?' I asked.

'No catch,' replied Joan. 'Everything is entirely free. You pay nothing. We simply want to make sure that our guests receive the best possible treatment whilst staying with us.'

I decided against telling her that we were not guests of the hotel. We were staying in the medieval castle across the road. If you have been to Vegas, you will know the one that I am talking about - it overlooks the Statue of Liberty.

'In that case, I love food and shows,' I told her.

During the next twenty or so minutes she talked us through all of the dining and show options and helped us to make our choices. Once everything had been booked she asked for a $50 deposit.

Spot the clue that all was not as it seemed.

Did you find it? Thought so. It was the $50 deposit on a zero fee. She informed me that this was fully refundable, but that she had to take it as a formality (I would find out why later). She then asked if I liked luxury hotels. It then transpired that in order to receive our comps (and $50 refund) we would have to go on a tour of a new development that would take up just 2 hours of our time. Apparently, the developers were looking for opinions and feedback on the resort only and that was why we were being comped so generously. Naively, I paid the deposit ($150 worth of freebies for 2 hours was a good deal) and signed up.

We were booked onto the 10 'clock tour. It left fifteen minutes late, took fifteen minutes to arrive at the resort and we then had a further fifteen minutes wait for our guide to come and meet us. That should have left just an hour for the tour when the fifteen minute return trip was factored in.

Our guide was a Las Vegas native named Maya. She introduced herself and then laid out the basic structure of our 3 hour tour.

'3 hours?' I queried. 'We were told two and we have already been here for 45 minutes.'

'Well you've heard wrong,' replied Maya, her tone pointing the blame for any misunderstanding firmly at my door. 'This here tour is 3 hours, but it can sometimes go on a little longer.'

Katie and I exchanged a nervous look. We had not budgeted for any more than the original two hours as we needed to get to the County Court to pick up our marriage license. We should have left then and there, but the $50 deposit and the prospect of a fifteen  minute taxi fare prevented us.

The first part of our tour was an hour long presentation from a failed actress named Kembra. The presentation was on Timeshares. This was the first time that there had been any mention of this. Kembra though, was an entertaining host. All of the guests present were couples and she created a feel good, loved up atmosphere. She also promised that we would not be placed under any pressure to sign anything. Following the presentation, Maya spent two hours showing us the complex. We were well over time, but with no intention of buying anything, all that was left was to say no, pick up our comps and go home. This proved to be the longest part of the day.

Maya would not take no for an answer. The whole time she insisted that she was not pressuring us to buy, but that it would break her heart if we missed out on such a terrific deal ($39,000 and a yearly fee of $199 for a 1 in 52 share of a holiday apartment fifteen minutes from the strip, when a week at a hotel on strip could easily be found for less than the $199). After 30 minutes of refusals, she explained that only her manager could sign off on our comps. "Rules is rules".

Lindley, Maya's manager was a busy man it seemed. It took him 30 minutes to finally come to us. Did he sign off on our comps? Of course he did not. He just lowered the offer to $25,000 before making a quick exit. It took 30 minutes for him to return, at which time I firmly explained that we will say no to all offers and that we have wasted enough time already. His response? $9,500 and a double length ownership share of 2 weeks. He then left for another 30 minutes. When he returned, my response is not printable as I am writing this pre-watershed. I actually suspected that they were deliberately procrastinating in the hope that we would walk out and forego our deposit/comps.

After a lengthy argument, Lindley finally caved and signed our papers. He then let us know that not only were we bad people for wasting his time, but that poor Maya would never forgive herself for the horrendous cost we would have to bear for all future holidays. We were then told to take our signed papers to a room downstairs. Here, a lady added a stamp of approval before ushering us into a waiting room full of other, equally angry couples. The wait this time - 30 minutes.

By the time that we finally got our refund, our tickets and our meal voucher we had wasted more than 6 hours of our time. With only four days in Vegas, this was time that could certainly have been used more productively. We paid a lot to fly out to Vegas for that holiday and to lose such a large part of that begs the question as to whether the comps were free after all. Time is, as they say, money. With 6 and a half hours, we could have seen a lot more of Vegas or even just stayed in the hotel and read a novel.

This brings me onto the subject of book giveaways. Despite making no income from a giveaway, writers love them, because the potential of gaining readers and reviews can be immense.

Is it a good deal for the reader though?

Well, the answer to that question all depends on the quality of the book. Uninterrupted, an average length novel can be read in 6-7 hours (about the same time as a timeshare sales pitch). That is a lot of time for a reader to commit to. Losing that time in Vegas annoyed me greatly and why should it be any different for somebody who wastes it on an awful story. It does not necessarily have to be a bad book either. Just mismatching reader to genre can lead to disappointment and ultimately bad reviews. I know that if there was a process to review my awful waste of time on the timeshare sales, I would not hold back. Why then should a reader, who has lost just as much of their time?
So the important thing to remember, is that the next time that you offer your book for free, there is still a price to be paid. The reader will be paying, but with time rather than money. Never therefore, give anything away that is not at the same standard as that which you would charge for. Writer's are not the only ones who have a voice and if you waste a reader's time, they may just use theirs...

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Leave it to the experts?

In an earlier post I talked about the importance of always writing about what you know. Learning a craft takes time and it is important to be clear on your subject matter in order to experiment with style. What happens though, when you have finished your first novel and want to be more adventurous with the theme for your follow up?

Do you have to be a spy in order to write about a spy? The most famous spy character of all was created by, you've guessed it, a former spy. Ian Fleming worked for naval intelligence during the Second World War and it is fair to assume that this is where much of his inspiration for Bond will have come (like his creator, Bond was a former naval commander). Another well known former military man turned author is Andy McNab, who made his name with his account of his time spent in the SAS; Bravo Two Zero. He then went on to write a series of thrillers featuring the character Nick Stone, who shares much in common with his creator.

What about those writers that are not drawing on real life experience? Surely these outnumber the Ian Flemings of the world and they write stories that are just as enthralling. Take David Baldacci, for example. I recently read an interview with the American author, who bases his fictional thrillers around military and secret service characters. Even though he is not a veteran himself, Baldacci has made himself an expert. He has conducted countless interviews with real life secret service personnel and even taken part in military training exercises to find out how it feels to be placed in their shoes. Of course, he is a very successful author and therefore can draw on resources that are hitherto unattainable for the rest of us mere mortals. So where does that leave us?

Well, I am no spy and I have certainly never met one (would I know if I had?), but I like to think that I could still pen a good spy thriller based on my imagination. The internet is the greatest resource there is and can provide all of the technical facts and details. From here I can learn all about military protocol and what kind of equipment that they would use and so forth, but is that enough? The short answer is no. A writer needs to know what his characters are feeling. He needs to know how he would react if he were in their place. Imagination is an essential attribute for a writer, but on its own it is not enough.

When I started to write it was after spending several years travelling around the world. I went to places that I could never have imagined (they never look exactly like the brochure) and met people that I would otherwise never have known. I also turned my hand to quite a few things that James Bond is rather fond of. I have attained an advanced level certificate in scuba diving (there is an underwater segment in my upcoming novel that would have been impossible without this), I have ridden horses, camels and elephants (no plans to incorporate these experiences into my writing at the moment, but you never know), I have been mugged (I have used this experience in two novels), I have been around men who carry guns too many times to mention (the Philippines are so rife with firearms that many business' leave a "gun amnesty" box by the entrance and every Starbucks has an armed guard on the door), I have been kidnapped (okay, that's a lie, but I did think that I was being kidnapped at the time) and I have come close to death on more than one occasion (those mountain roads in New Zealand are pretty to drive around, but boy are they dangerous!). Without all of these experiences I would not be the writer that I am today.

My advice therefore, if you want to write about exotic lands or dangerous situations is to get out there and live. Experience as much of life as you can. Try everything, no matter how gross, stupid or dangerous (within limits obviously). You will be a better writer for it I promise.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Some years ago when I was travelling in Malaysia, I spent a few days in a small city named Malacca. Although the country is predominantly Muslim, it caters to all faiths and this city in particular was known for its diversity. This is exemplified no more than in Harmony Street (also known as Temple Street or Jalan Tokong, to give it its official name), which contains places of worship for Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, all in close proximity. (Christians need not feel left out, as they too are amply catered for elsewhere in the city, which in its colourful history regularly passed between British, Dutch and Portuguese rule.) The street was also the setting for one of my strangest experiences in Asia.

I was on a walk with Katie (my bride to be for those who have not been following the blog) when we saw a Buddhist monk walking towards us. I knew that he was a Buddhist Monk, because he was exactly how I had always pictured one to look. His face was round and kindly, with a shaven head and he wore simple robes (more closely hued to yellow than orange) and sandal-less bare feet. I was quite excited, to say the least.

As he came nearer and we made eye contact, I felt that I should make some kind of gesture to acknowledge his status, so I respectfully bowed my head to him. The monk returned the gesture, but did not carry on walking. He carried with him a small cloth satchel, which was slung over his left shoulder. From the satchel, he removed a sheet of paper, which he then handed to me.

The paper bore an official looking seal and explained that the bearer of the message spoke no English. It then went on to explain that in order for the local monastery to be maintained it relied upon donations from the public. The monk urged me to keep reading, but it was clear that he was merely seeking a donation, which I was happy to give. I reached into my money belt and removed a ten ringit note. Petty change by western standards, but here it could pay for several meals.

The monk raised his palms in refusal of my offer and instead invited both Katie and I to hold out our hands to receive something ourselves. Eager to gain spiritual favour, we happily obliged. A small golden token embossed with a motto in Chinese script was placed onto each of our palms. The monk closed our hands around this gift and again invited us to make a donation. Unfortunately, aside from the ten ringits all I had was denominations of one hundred. That was a full days spending money for each of us and not something we could really afford to give away. (well, we could have, but how many people give the equivalent of £20 to charity collector they pass on the street). I once more offered him the ten ringits.

In response the monk then removed a small leather bound pocket book from his satchel. Opening it to the first page, he invited me to take a look inside. The page was divided into two columns. Along the left side were a series of western names. Along the corresponding side were numbers ranging from 150 to 300. At first I thought that he wanted me to sign along with my donation, but he drew particular emphasis to the numbers. At this point it became clear that he was requesting a fixed donation of at least one hundred and fifty ringit.

I tried to explain that we could not give so much, but he could have what small change we had. The monk did not seem to understand and continued to point at the numbers. When I was not forthcoming with the cash, he then pointed to the tokens in our hands and then back to the numbers in the book. He was trying to say that we had to pay for the tokens. Unable to meet the price, I attempted to hand the small gold leaf back.

‘Here, I do not want it,' I told him.  'No tokens, but we will give you ten ringit.’

As I said this, I handed the token and the money to the monk, but he refused them both. Every attempt that we made to return the tokens was rejected and the monk now had his hands folded in prayer and began smiling serenely as if beckoning us to do the right thing. This went on for some time and in the end I had to tell Katie to just place her token on the floor and walk away. I did the same. The ten ringits had at this point returned to my money belt. The monk began to follow us, before finally giving up the chase when we crossed the road. I felt ashamed somehow, but then, I had not actually done anything wrong. I actually wanted to give him some money, just not as much as he was looking for.

This was the first time I had ever known a charity collector to turn down a donation because it was not enough. Surely the whole point of giving money is that every little bit helps? In this case - apparently not. It was not an experience that I wished to repeat. In future the merest hint of an orange robe would send me running for cover with my hand firmly on my wallet. Looking back, the irony is that it was effectively a reverse mugging. Instead of forcefully taking money from me, he effectively insisted (strongly, but not quite forcefully) that I keep my ten ringits for myself!

So is there a lesson to be learned from all of this? if anything, it is that sometimes you cannot give something away and it is with this in mind that I will now turn my attention back to my writing. I have learned a lot from other authors since I self published and one recurrent theme is that as well as the risk of over charging and pricing oneself out of the market, it is also possible that undercharging can also scare potential readers away. Although it sounds ridiculous, a book priced at 99c may not sell, but the same book priced at $2.99 could. In fact, a recent analysis of self published book sales on Smashwords has shown that $3.99 seems to be a favoured price point and books at this price sell considerably more than $2.99 and even 99c! (click here to see the original article) So perhaps we writers need not feel downhearted when our sales fall. Maybe a price rise will draw readers back in, because just like the monk in Malacca, some people are willing to look a gift horse in the mouth.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

One Month In...

It is now one month since I self published my debut novel, the Outback, but it seems like longer. Much longer. I have learned a lot in that time, but even then, there is a great deal more that I am yet to discover. Perhaps the biggest lesson (aside from patience) is that my book looks very lonely sitting on its own on my virtual bookshelf. My number one priority at the moment is to get my other novels up to a polished standard to upload too. For promotional purposes and to get the most out of Kindle Select in particular, I think that I need more product on the shelf. (I am yet to enroll for that reason).

Google+ has been a blessing. How much it helps to attract readers at this early stage is negligible, but the wealth of information that I have picked up from other writer's in the communities has been invaluable. I have also found these communities to be very encouraging, which also helps. The Amazon and Kindle Boards forums are not as positive. Whilst I can see the potential benefits that they offer, I just find them to be really cynical. The fact that direct promotion of books is banned from most threads only leads to sneakier tactics being employed. There are several book adverts disguised as advice that I find particularly annoying.

This brings me on to my next gripe with self publishing. The "how to make money from self publishing" books that are flooding the market. The sad fact is that all they actually offer is the rather shaky concept that people want to know how to make money, so they purchase the book. Therefore, if enough people buy the "how to make money from self publishing" book, the author of said book makes a profit. The reader then effectively repackages the book and sells it themselves for the same purpose. It is really just the world's most unimaginative pyramid scheme and it is a pity that Amazon allow it (so long as they get their cut, I suspect that they will allow pretty much anything).

Of course, the gripes that I have are just that - gripes. Overall, I think that I am feeling more positive about self publishing than I did a month ago, but I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books available. Being heard amongst all of this "noise" does seem like an almost impossible task. There are just so many books out there and yet only a tiny percentage of these actually sell. A good example of this can be found by looking at the Kindle charts. On just a single sale in a day raised my chart position by 750,000 (that is 750,000 books that were ahead of me, but did not sell any on that day). On where I am selling the bulk of my books, my chart position still fluctuates wildly. It only takes 3 sales to make the top 10,000, but just 2 barren days can send that rank plummeting close to 100,000!

So where do I go from here? Well, there is still much for me to get to grips with, particularly on the promotional side of things. I have not yet started using twitter, due to my forthcoming holiday (did not want to start and then have 2 tweetless weeks) and I have put off upgrading to my own website domain for a similar reason. Basically, publishing one month before my wedding was not the best timing. Obviously, the wedding has to take precedence.

With that in mind, I have prepared a few blog posts that are ready to go. All that they require is one click of a mouse and they are up. Although I have promised Katie that I would not tinker with my writing on our Honeymoon, there are several bookings that need to be reconfirmed during the trip and whilst we find an internet cafe to do this, it will not harm to perform that one small mouse click on the blog.

So you will not be hearing from me quite so much during the next three weeks, but when I return, I will be revitalised and more hungry than ever. And just hopefully, it will not be too long before I have a few more books to sell to you....

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Share, Share, Share

Last night, Katie and I were invited out to dinner with her work colleagues to celebrate our upcoming wedding in Vegas. We arrived at the pub for drinks before moving on to the restaurant. This was the first time that I had met her colleagues and we exchanged the usual pleasantries, but then things took a slightly surreal turn. After meeting the final member of the group, Jose (pronounced Josie), I was handed a flower garland.

'Put that around your neck,' said Jose.

She then gave me a pair of matching flower wristbands and a cheap plastic bowler hat, with another flower garland wrapped around it.

'This is a little strange,' I said to Katie, who had been given a pink headband to wear. 'Anyone would think that this was a hen party the way that everyone is dressing up.'

As the words left my lips, the reality of the situation began to settle in. I noticed that Katie's headband had "bride to be" written on it. I also noticed that all but one of her colleagues were women and they had all costumed up when we arrived. This was a hen party!

I exchanged horrified looks with Katie, but it was already too late. There was nothing that we could do to avoid a night of embarrassment. Luckily, the restaurant was not busy and our party popper and bubbles shenanigans did not cause too much of a stir. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable night. There was one moment however, that rang a bigger alarm bell than the hat and flowers. When I was introduced to Katie's friends, they seemed to know all about me except for one important detail. None of them knew that I was a writer. Katie had not told them.

To make matters worse, when they asked what I do for a living, I spent more time talking about my day job than the writing. The problem was that I did not really know these people and at times like this I always feel hesitant to bring up the fact that I have a book available. What I should be doing is shouting it from the rooftops.

Do not get me wrong, this is not my ego speaking. I do not expect everybody that I meet to be bowled over by my self publishing exploits. It is just that I seem to spend so much time online trying to network and build relationships with people on the other side of the world, that it seems crazy that I am missing opportunities to spread the word about my books a little closer to home.

If I am to have any success, then surely I will need all of the help that I can get. I need for as many people as possible to know that my book is out there. This means that I have to have all of my friends, family and anybody else that I can working to spread that message for me.Word of mouth can only spread if we get people talking. I am not one for pushing the hard sell, but that does not mean that I cannot be proactive in my approach. We also need to make sure that those close to us are doing the same. Just not in a pushy way. The keys words are not sell, sell sell. What we need to do is share, share, share.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Too Big or Too Small?

With just days to go until our big Vegas trip, Katie and I have been doing a lot of shopping lately. For me it is simply a case of finding the correct size for the first thing that I see and then buying it. When it comes to Katie, it becomes much more complicated. For a start, she is the kind of woman who insists on buying shoes online. Not content with the logical approach of going into an actual shoe store and trying different pairs on, she orders dozens of pairs to try on at home and then sends them all back. This approach may work with LoveFilm*, but shoes?

What really takes the biscuit though, is when she goes shopping for accessories. Recently, I was dragged along whilst she went to purchase a new handbag for our trip. To give a taste of what this was like, I will share the conversation that we had when we entered the first store.

'Do you think that I should go for too small or too large?' Katie asked

'Neither,' I replied.

She frowned at me, suggesting that my reply was less than of help to her.

'Well, if you go for too small, you will not be able to fit into it what you want,' I added. 'By definition it will be too small.'

She nodded thoughtfully, before replying; 'So you think that I should go for too large then?'

'No, I don't. If it is too large, you will have a similar problem. It will be too big.'

'So you do think that I should go for too small then?'

'No, I think that you should go for somewhere in the middle. Why not look for a bag that is just right?'

At this point, she shook her head in frustration at me.

'You're a boy and you do not understand,' she told me. We then left the shop bag-less. A few days later several parcels arrived and I came home from work to find a pile of handbags stacked up in the bedroom. Unable to decide between "too small" or "too large", she made the logical compromise of going for "too many" instead. I guess that she was right - I don't understand.

This brings me back to a point about writing. Authors tend to focus on content and style, but perhaps the most key element of any story is balance. If Katie were a writer, she would no doubt be fretting over whether to use too little or too much description in her books. She will struggle between a story that is too short and one that is too long. She would also struggle to attract readers. If we want to write stories that capture and then maintain a reader's imagination, they have to be "just right". Too little or too much will never do. That is what makes drafting so important. If something is not perfect, then keep going until it is. This is the one occasion when you can never do too much. If only shopping for handbags was that simple.

*LoveFilm is a subscription movie rental service in the UK.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Keep Your Eye on the Ball...Not the Bandicoot!

Okay, not the most revealing of titles, I admit. When I said that this blog was going to be about writing tips, I never promised that they would be conventional. There are already too many blogs to mention that can guide you step by step through the writing process and even more published books on the subject. What I prefer to focus on is my own experience in general, so I am going to tell you a little story.

Anybody who has been following this blog will know that most of my anecdotes spring from my time spent travelling. This one is no different. It begins a few days after I first stepped off the plane in Sydney to begin my backpacking adventure. I was hungry to see the sights and had already been to the Opera House, Bondi Beach and Darling Harbour, so the next port of call on my agenda was Manly, a beach suburb on the northern shore.

I spent the morning on the beach, soaking up the sun and wanted to see something a little different for the afternoon. I followed a short walking trail that led up to the cliff tops and a small wooded area. As with most places of natural interest this close to the city, there was a small board that detailed the flora and fauna that one could expect to find along the trail. Alongside this information board was a small signpost containing only the word "bandicoot", a picture of said animal and an arrow pointing into the woods.

My only experience of bandicoots was from the Playstation video game featuring the eponymous Crash Bandicoot. Suffice to say, I was excited at the prospect of seeing how closely these little marsupials resemble their digital counterpart. Without a seconds thought, I ran into the woods, eyes glued to the ground in the hope of spotting some tell tale fur. I saw none, but undeterred, I carried on deeper and deeper into the wooded area whilst all the time scanning the ground for bandicoots. It was only when I caught my head on a branch that I stopped to take stock of where I actually was.

Hold on a minute. Did I just say that I caught my head on a branch? That is not strictly true. It was actually something attached to the branch that I had happened into. A spider's web to be even more precise. Now, I have always been a bit of an arachnophobe. Even growing up in England, where they are all completely harmless, I never could stand the little critters. For me they were the stuff on nightmares (literally, there is nothing that wakes me up in the middle of the night like a really vivid spider dream). So when I looked around to see not one, but a whole tarpaulin of spider web covering the entire upper half of the woods I was more than a little petrified. The webs were not empty either. I could see dozens and dozens of the biggest, most scary looking arachnids that I had ever seen. I am talking about spiders bigger than your face!

All that I could do was freeze and try to crouch down as low and as far away from the webs as I could. At this level I could no longer tell which way that the trail led. I was lost and trapped in my own worst nightmare.

I do not know how long I remained curled up in the foetal position for, but I would probably still be there now if not for an elderly couple who came across me by chance. With self preservation taking precedence over dignity I asked the old couple if I could "walk with them" for a while. Still crouching and barely able to open my eyes, I meekly followed the old pair as they led me out of spider city. The worst thing is that I did not even get to see a bandicoot.

So what was the purpose of sharing this embarrassing incident you may well ask? Well, in reply, I invite you to take another look at the posts title. You see, sometimes we cling on to an idea so appealing and exciting that we lose track of all else. Like when I ran into the woods in search of the elusive marsupial, it is very easy when we are writing to be so taken with one particular plot development that we lose sight of all else. We carry on writing our story with tunnel vision and in turn our work loses balance.

It is therefore essential that we give just as much attention to our minor characters as our lead. Our subplots must be as lucid and interesting as our main narrative. In short, we cannot become so blinded by one aspect of our writing that we run into the woods chasing bandicoots. If you do, don't be too surprised if you find yourself surrounded by spiders.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Who Gives a **** About an Oxford Comma?

Do not worry, I am not about to charge into a highly charged rant about correct grammar usage. The title is actually the first line of a song by an American rock band named Vampire Weekend. So when a friend texted me earlier today and asked for my opinion on the Oxford Comma, I gave him a critique of the band. It turned out that he was referring to an actual Oxford Comma. As much as it pains me to admit this, I had no idea what he was talking about.

Thanks to Google, I now know what an Oxford Comma is. It is when a comma is used before the "and" at the end of a list. For example: one, two, three, four, and five. Did you spot it? Of course you did. The way that most would write this list would be: one, two, three, four and five. The Oxford Comma does not really come into its own unless we are talking about a list of pairs?

Take this next example: Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Page and Plant and Bono and the Edge. Is there possible confusion this time around? They are all duos, but whilst this is clear with the first two, it could be read as if the rest make up a quartet. So, let's try it again, but with the Oxford Comma. Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Page and Plant, and Bono and the Edge. Obviously, this time it is clearly four entities that are being listed rather than three. Is the Oxford Comma then essential? It all depends on the writer's preference really. Personally, I would not use it, as content should be self explanatory. I am, however, worried that such a simple grammatical tool had escaped my attention for so long.

A few weeks ago I attended a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) training course. Obviously, grammar was an important factor on the course and I was surprised that I was the only person present (apart from the instructor) who was aware of the "gerund". Everybody who speaks English uses gerunds (a verb ending in "ing" that forms the basis of a phrasal noun*), but it seemed that not many could actually label it. This did get me thinking as to how much a writer needs to know about grammar. The conclusion that I came to was AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.

This is not to say that a writer needs to know everything, but they do have to be willing to learn and they should definitely know considerably more than the layman. A good book (or ten) on the ins and outs of English grammar is an essential piece of kit for any aspiring author. It is not necessary to memorize the contents of such a book, but they should be referred to regularly.

Of course, some will argue that all rules are made to be broken. If your writing departs from convention, it can make it stand out and appear more interesting. However, it does take a skilled wordsmith to be able to achieve this successfully. The reader will know if your digression from the path of correct grammar is a deliberate and calculated move or simply a case of ignorance.

Quentin Tarantino once said that he would never insult his audience by assuming that they know less than him. He has a point. A writer will not get very far if he or she tries to bluff their audience. An author's voice must carry authority. There is no room for shortcuts.

* Note the difference between "I love to write" and "I love writing". In the latter, the verb "write" is transformed by the gerund into providing the function of a noun.

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