Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

I’ve spent most of this year reading depressing non-fiction about the Second World War, but after I handed Montmaray Three over to my publisher, I gave myself permission to read anything I wanted. Something fun! So I decided to read a book about punctuation.

I heard a lot about this book when it first came out, but the author came across as kind of bitter and humourless in interviews, so I thought I’d give the book a miss. Readers, I was totally wrong. Not only is this book hilarious, it could have been written specifically for me. As Lynne Truss says, it is a book for punctuation sticklers:

“Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation . . . No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to ‘get a life’ by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves.”

'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' by Lynne TrussMs Truss is the sort of person who stands outside cinemas “with a cut-out apostrophe on a stick” in order to demonstrate how to punctuate the film title Two Weeks Notice. However, she readily acknowledges that the rules of punctuation are complex, that rules vary between nations (and even between publishers) and that one stickler’s pet hate might not be shared by another stickler. She is not a pedant. She loves punctuation because it helps us understand what we’re reading, and she hates punctuation errors because they cause confusion. For example, look at how punctuation alters the meaning of these two sentences:

“A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

She claims the book is not a punctuation guide, but it does provide clear instruction in how to use apostrophes, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks and other forms of punctuation. I particularly liked her discussion of the comma, which demonstrates her pragmatic approach to punctuation:

“See that comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves in this direction? Hear that staccato cello? Well, start waving and yelling, because it is the so-called Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) and it is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest. There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken . . . My own feeling is that one shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.”

[Evidence for the passion the Oxford comma evokes can be found in this post at Bookshelves of Doom. And don’t you love that American commenter who chose to study at a British university, then was outraged that the British professors wanted her to use British punctuation? The nerve of them!]

Eats, Shoots and Leaves also contains some fascinating historical facts about punctuation, and an interesting discussion of the future of punctuation in a world of e-mails and texting. My only criticisms of the book are minor. Firstly, it lacks an index. I think it ought to be compulsory for all non-fiction books to have an index. (Actually, it would be quite nice if fiction books had them, too, so that I could go straight to my favourite bits when re-reading a novel. I can see that constructing an index for a novel could be rather difficult in practice, though.) Secondly (and this isn’t the author’s fault), the edition I read was written in 2003 for a British readership, so it was not completely relevant for this Australian punctuation stickler. Nevertheless, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a terrific read and I heartily recommend it for fellow sticklers.

Hermione Granger Rules The World

I love the Harry Potter books, but I also agree with Sady Doyle’s feminist criticisms of them. Ms Doyle discusses the REAL hero(ine) of the books in her article, In Praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger Series, and follows this up with The Further Adventures of Hermione Granger. Both articles are well worth a read, if you’re interested in either Harry Potter or the way girls are portrayed in popular culture.

(Thanks to Read Plus for the link.)

Miscellaneous Memoranda

I’m officially on holiday this fortnight, and I think I’ve lost the ability to construct proper paragraphs. However, here are some things I noticed, but was too busy to post about, during the past month or so:

Kate Beaton put up some new Julius Caesar comics on her website. Here’s Part One. Part Two involves Cassius glaring actual daggers at Caesar, and the introduction of the truly awesome Dogs of War (even if one of them looks more like a Bunny-Rabbit of War).

Montmaray has also popped up on NationStates. It used to be The Kingdom of Montmaray, but is currently The Incorporated States of Montmaray and is ruled over by a “corrupt dictatorship”. Its “national animal is the Blue Heeler, which frolics freely in the nation’s many lush forests” and “an increasing percentage of the population’s youth have homosexual parents”. (I had nothing to do with this, I swear.)

Two authors, Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix, have also published an article about their experiences writing YA fiction. Apparently, writing for teenagers means throwing aside all the rules for good writing, because:

“. . . readers in Y.A. don’t care about rumination. They don’t want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase . . . In Y.A. you write two or three drafts of a chapter, not eight.”

Oh, really? But the funniest bit was:

“The average length of time you get to write a Y.A. book is six months. Compared with ‘literary’ fiction, that’s warp speed.”

SIX MONTHS? I spent longer than that just doing the research for my last book. Gosh, I wish someone had told me earlier that I didn’t need to put any thought or care into my YA novels. Think of all the time and energy I would have saved myself. Also, apparently ‘YA fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ are mutually exclusive categories. Has anyone told M. T. Anderson, Margo Lanagan or Sonya Hartnett this?

I’ll be back soon (as soon as I’ve remembered how to write in paragraphs) to post a rant and a rave about some books I’ve recently read. In the meantime, don’t forget my book give-away is still on.

The FitzOsbornes in Exile Book Giveaway

The FitzOsbornes in Exile - North American hardcoverMontmaray Book Three has been handed over to my publishers, so to celebrate, I’m giving away five signed copies of Montmaray Book Two. Yes, that’s the lovely North American hardcover edition of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, with the glamorous girl on the cover. This particular giveaway is just for Australians and New Zealanders, because they are special. (Actually, if you’re from elsewhere in the world, but have an Australian or New Zealand postal address, you can enter, too.) All you need to do is leave a comment below, telling us the title of a book you’ve recently enjoyed.

Here are the conditions of entry:

1. You can mention any kind of book you’ve enjoyed – young adult, children’s, fiction, non-fiction. You don’t have to say why you enjoyed it, but you can if you’d like. There are no wrong answers!
2. Make sure the e-mail address you enter on the comment form is a valid one, so I can contact you if you win (no one will be able to see your e-mail except me). Please don’t include your real residential or postal address anywhere in the comment.
3. The five winners will be chosen at random, unless there are five or fewer comments – in which case, it won’t be random and ALL will have prizes.
4. Entries close on the 31st of July, 2011. The winners will be e-mailed then, and I will send off the winners’ books as soon as possible after that.
5. Remember, Kangaroos and Kiwis only for this giveaway.

The End of Montmaray

In the small hours of this morning, I e-mailed the manuscript of the third Montmaray book to my publisher.

'Frau am Schreibtisch' by Lesser Ury (1898)
The author wonders how many exclamation marks to add after writing, 'The End'
The final book in the trilogy. The end of The Montmaray Journals. Farewell to the FitzOsbornes, who’ve been hanging out in my head for the past seven years. If I weren’t so sleep-deprived, I might actually feel a bit sad about this.

There’s quite a lot of work to do before the book appears on bookshelves – some of it to be done by me, much of it by the talented, hard-working people at Random House. Structural editing, copy-editing, fact-checking, type-setting, proof-reading, designing an appealing cover, making sure the real people in the book who are still alive aren’t going to sue me for defamation of character . . . But at some point next year, the book will be released in Australia, all things going well. Here’s what I can tell you about it:

  • It follows the fortunes of the FitzOsbornes throughout the Second World War and beyond.
  • It contains dashing young men in uniform, brave young women in uniform, spies, diplomats, secret agents, scary bombing raids, fiery plane crashes, funerals, weddings, heartbreak, despair, courage, determination and a hopeful ending. And also, kissing.
  • If the first book was Sophie’s coming-of-age and the second was Veronica’s, then this one is Toby’s.
  • The novel is ridiculously long, although I’m hoping my brilliant editors will provide some suggestions for trimming it, because otherwise, the hardcover edition is going to weigh a tonne and a half.
  • The novel may or may not be called The FitzOsbornes at War.
  • Any of this might change between now and the (still unknown) publication date, of course.

    To celebrate finishing this manuscript (and also because I’ve had three boxes of books cluttering up my flat for weeks, but have been too busy to find somewhere to put them), I’m giving away some copies of The FitzOsbornes in Exile. See here for details.

    Oh, Goodreads . . .

    If I were a Sensible YA Author, I’d stay well away from Goodreads reviews of my books. After all, reviews aren’t for authors; they’re for readers. Of course, I’m not a Sensible YA Author (if I was, I’d be writing about zombie mermaids, not 1930s politics), so I do occasionally visit Goodreads, where I get to read one-star reviews like this [warnings for plot spoilers and homophobia]:

    “The story was interesting and engaging until the end when the author suggests the boys are lovers. WHY? For a young adult book–or any for that matter? Too bad Ms Cooper ruined the book.”

    That was the entire review – and that’s a very polite, positive and coherent review, compared to some of them.

    But then, there are also Goodreads reviews that are critical, yet thoughtful and entertaining, such as this one of A Brief History of Montmaray, which begins:

    “Michelle Cooper is the Quentin Tarantino of young adult novels.”

    Um . . . what? It turns out the reviewer isn’t referring to the gory murders in the book, but to Tarantino’s habit of wearing his influences on his sleeve. The review consists largely of complaints about the characters and the plot, but it’s smart and passionate and, most importantly, uses LOLcats to illustrate its points. I loved it.

    Then the same reviewer tackles The FitzOsbornes in Exile:

    “Dear sir or friend,
    I am a princess in exile. My family cannot access our funds unless you, a kind American, will launder money through your bank account and send letterhead, bank statements and personal documents. Thank you for helping.

    the FitzOsbournes

    I don’t know why they didn’t just send out a letter like this, if they needed money so bad . . .”

    The review goes on to compare the plot of The FitzOsbornes in Exile to that of the recent X-Men film, and regards Simon as the Clark Gable of Montmaray. It’s absolutely hilarious. Thank you, Mariel, you made my day. Well, my morning, at least. Or part of my morning.

    Now, to slightly more serious matters. Here is my blog’s Spam of the Month:

    “Dude, you should be a writer. Your article is really interesting. You should do it for a living.”

    Okay then, I will! Unfortunately, I’m finding ‘writing for a living’ a bit busy at the moment, so my poor blog has been neglected this month. However, in a few weeks, I will (hopefully) have handed over the manuscript of Montmaray Three (currently known as The NeverEnding Story) to my long-suffering and infinitely patient editor. Then I’ll return to my irregular – but slightly more frequent – blog posting.

    In the meantime, just talk quietly amongst yourselves.

    A Public Service Announcement: Smoking Is Bad For You

    As I’ve previously mentioned, I love the North American cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, which features a girl in a glamorous 1930s ballgown. One of the shadowy figures in the background is a young man who seems to be smoking a cigarette, and I did wonder how long it would be before someone objected to this. Not very long at all, it turns out. A few weeks after the book was released, this US librarian commented about it on her blog:

    “It’s probably a good idea when you market a book for teens that the cover image not feature things that teens can’t do – so, having someone drinking on the cover isn’t usually a good idea. Neither is smoking.”

    'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' North American hardcover
    Yes, he's smoking – but that doesn't mean YOU should smoke
    The librarian was far more observant than I was, because she noticed that the cigarette in the young man’s hand had been Photoshopped out of existence – and that was before she compared the cover to the look-alike cover of Consequences of the Heart, in which the cigarette is clearly visible. I’d just assumed ‘my’ young man was holding a cigarette and that the camera angle meant the cigarette was hidden behind his fingers. It’s obvious that a white cloud is hovering next to his hand, and I imagined most people would assume he was smoking. Characters in the book smoke, so why shouldn’t characters on the cover do the same thing?

    I can see why responsible adults might be concerned about this. Smoking is bad; therefore, we should make sure that all images of smoking are unappealing, especially if they’re going to be seen by impressionable teenagers. The question is whether art and literature should be censored to achieve a social aim, and whether such censorship is actually effective in achieving those aims.

    I should say here that I’ve never smoked. I loathe the smell of cigarettes and I wish everyone in the world, but especially people in my apartment building, would stop smoking. I also worked as a speech pathologist for fifteen years and not many speech pathologists smoke, because we have a very clear understanding of the awful health problems caused by smoking (and those dissected tar-soaked lungs they insisted on showing us during our university anatomy lessons were fairly off-putting, too).

    However, I also write historical novels, which I try to make as realistic as possible, and the fact is, attitudes to smoking were quite different in the past. I’ve seen 1930s advertisements in which ‘doctors’ solemnly claimed that a certain brand of cigarette was a healthy way to relieve stress. No one knew about lung cancer or laryngeal cancer or heart disease then. (Actually, some of the first research into the health dangers of smoking was carried out by a Nazi doctor on the orders of Hitler, a non-smoker). In 1930s England, most men smoked some form of tobacco, and ladies who wished to be thought of as ‘sophisticated’ carried around little silver cases of cigarettes. And is there a photograph in existence of Winston Churchill without his cigar?

    It would be ridiculous if none of the dozens of characters in The FitzOsbornes in Exile smoked, but I did think carefully about who would smoke. Of the young characters, Sophie and Veronica are too well brought up (and impoverished) to have developed a cigarette habit. Julia, despite her sophistication, is never seen smoking. Rupert’s health problems preclude him taking up smoking. Daniel either doesn’t have the money to buy cigarettes, or doesn’t want to support capitalist tobacco companies. The only main characters identified as smokers are Toby, who mentions cadging cigarettes at the beginning of the first Montmaray book, and Simon, who’s occasionally seen lighting the cigarette of a woman he’s trying to seduce. I don’t think either of these characters could be regarded as good role models for teenagers. Toby has a perpetual hangover and gets expelled from a series of educational institutions, while Simon’s morals are ambiguous, to put it generously. I don’t think any non-smoking teenager is going to read The FitzOsbornes in Exile and think, “Gosh, I want to be just like Toby and Simon! I’m going to start smoking!”

    Come to think of it, even the ‘good’ FitzOsbornes behave in ways that are not terribly healthy. They speed around the countryside in a sports car while not wearing seatbelts, eat pastries laden with refined sugar and full-fat cream, and taunt Nazis from the windows of slow-moving trains. But I really don’t think my readers are going to emulate any of those behaviours. (Apart from eating cakes – and I’m sure my readers would consume them in moderation and then incorporate an appropriate amount of exercise into their daily routines.)

    However, is it possible that teenagers might see the cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile in a school library or a bookshop, and, not having read the book, start to think, “Smoking is cool”? Yes, it’s possible. They could also get the same idea from watching Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, or from viewing any number of modern films. It’s far more likely they’d be influenced by the attitudes of their friends and family.

    So, I have to say to teenagers: if you’re reading this and you’re tempted in any way, for whatever reason, to start smoking, DON’T DO IT! SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOU!

    You’re allowed to read my books, though, if you really want.

    The Kitchen Front, Part Two: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam . . .

    I’d been intending to do another Kitchen Front post for a while, but sadly, my attempts at authentic 1940s meals have not been a success. The vegetable part has been easy – I like vegetables – although I must admit, quite a lot of British recipes of the time seem to involve boiling the poor things to death, then smothering them in a margarine-based white sauce.

    No, the problem has been meat. Meat was rationed during the war, of course, but what made it tricky for me was that it was rationed by price, not weight. Each adult was allowed one shilling and ten pence worth of meat each week, although this had fallen to one shilling’s worth by 1941 (while food prices had soared). I think this would have bought a couple of chops or about twelve ounces (340 g) of mince or stewing beef. That doesn’t seem so bad to me (it’s as much meat as I’d usually eat in a week), but I had to remember that in pre-war Britain, families who could afford it ate meat at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It must have been a real hardship for them, trying to adapt to rations. I should add that bacon and ham were rationed separately, with the total amount ranging from eight ounces (225 g) to four ounces per week. Poultry, fish and rabbit weren’t rationed, but were difficult to obtain, unless you were lucky enough to live on a farm in the country.

    SPAMGiven these restrictions, it’s no wonder the British welcomed the first shipments of SPAM® after the signing of the Lend Lease agreement with the United States in 1941. I thought I’d try it out myself, and purchased a tin from my local supermarket. I’d read that it could be used straight from the tin to make tasty sandwiches, so I put a few slices of it on wholemeal bread with margarine, mustard and lettuce. Readers – do not try this at home. It was like eating a very salty piece of pink sponge – and I’d bought the salt-reduced version. But perhaps I’d put too much SPAM® on my sandwich. My next experiment involved dicing it and adding it to a hash of potato, cauliflower, spinach and whatever other vegetables I could find in my fridge. This was better, although I don’t think the SPAM® contributed much to the dish. I still had a third of a tin of SPAM® left, so in desperation, I added small cubes of it to a stir-fry of bok choy and rice noodles. This was quite nice, the little pieces of SPAM® providing some salty, fatty goodness to an otherwise healthy meal. However, it wasn’t exactly an authentic 1940s British dinner. Bok choy would have been unknown to most British diners, and rice was in extremely short supply, due to the British not being able to import it from Asia, especially after the Japanese entered the war. In fact, I read about one Chinese restaurant in London that chopped up spaghetti to make ‘rice’.

    Still, if I’d been living in England during the war, I probably would have eaten SPAM® and liked it – although I think I might have been tempted to become a vegetarian and exchange my meat ration for cheese.

    And speaking of spam, why does my blog attract such weird examples of it? I don’t mean the usual offers to increase the size of my (nonexistent) penis or make me a millionaire in thirty days. I’m talking about the spam comments that seem to have been translated through several languages by someone with very little understanding of any language, let alone English. For example:

    “Out! Gone. And I maid the, misconstrue the bus, the close halfwit!
    Clara Hyummel kicked in spleen nor innocent stool. My sinfulness, Alya, overlooked! Underestimated.”


    “All the in in the terra won’t mutate the at one’s fingertips’s awareness of him as a scant Napoleon with a eminent mouth.”

    I know it’s usually generated by a computer, but it’s hilarious how even the relatively coherent ones manage to be completely unrelated to the blog post on which they are ‘commenting’. For example, this appeared on my blog post about fan mail:

    “my partner and i love this specific, where can I receive much more home elevators this particular topic?”

    (And it wasn’t even advertising ‘home elevators’ – the link in the address looked like a site that sold Windows-related software.)

    And this was a response to my post about my favourite fictional girls:

    “I have to say that I thought this piece was very profound . . . It has shown me a new insight in to my research about current government policy.”

    Of course, most spam is far more creative when it comes to English grammar:

    “I firm next to way of this blog ask for up and it is really incredible.I patently genuinely enjoy your website.Perfectly, the chunk of posting is in pledge the very finest on this genuinely worth even though subject.”

    However, my award for Spam of the Month has to go to this spammer (advertising a real estate agent), who posted the following comment to my blog:

    “Im completely fed up with this, in the event you spam my internet site or even blog site 1 more point in time I am going to expose you!”

    Even the manufacturers of SPAM® are fed up with spam. Thank goodness for Akismet spam filtering service.

    Writers Read and Top Ten Castles

    I love discovering what other writers are reading, so I was pleased when my attention was drawn to Writers Read, a blog that asks authors to discuss what they’ve been reading recently. After only a few minutes of looking through this blog, I’d added three titles to my ‘List of Books That I Must Track Down Because They Sound Really Interesting’. As if I don’t already have enough books awaiting my reading attention. (Disclaimer: I may possibly be one of the authors featured on the blog this month.)

    Also, as I can never get enough of castles, I was happy to find this list of the Ten Best Castles in Literature, and in particular, to see Udolpho mentioned. The Mysteries of Udolpho remains the only book that has ever made me miss my train station due to paying too much attention to the story and not enough to the scene outside the train window. This list also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series for years. Perhaps I’ll get around to it once I’ve finished this book I’m trying to write (which, by a remarkable coincidence, also contains a castle . . . or at least, a fortified house).