Cutting a dash

It is remarkable how much personality a simple punctuation mark conveys.

An exclamation mark suggests a giggling schoolgirl: ‘Oh how funny it was!!!” Of course, the irony of the exclamation mark is that it quickly strips a funny anecdote of its humour. No reader likes to be told, You must find this funny, Ja?!  

The ‘dot, dot, dot’ has the giggling schoolgirl about it too. Overdramatic and a bit uncool. It reminds us of the Mamma Mia diary script, when ‘dot, dot, dot’ is archly used to indicate that the mother has had sex. It also sits comfortably in the toolbox of the ghost-story writer. Then it adds a hammy frisson to the proceedings:   And then the door creaked open … If they had only known what horrors lay in store …

The colon and the semicolon lie at the other end of the spectrum. Writers of popular fiction tend to avoid both of them in case they confer a stuffy or uncreative texture to their work.  I have to admit that I have an affection for them, but the semicolon is widely considered to be a tad academic and old-fashioned, and the colon feels clinical (or maybe I’m just reacting to the word) – and it has widely given way to the dash.

I am in two minds about the dash. I’ll never forget a writing teacher telling me to ‘Cut the dashes, Wanda.’ I am still uncertain whether she asked me to do so because the dash is still considered in some circles as ‘not quite the ticket’  ̶  something a little bit vulgar and new   ̶. or because my dashes spoiled the flow.

Writers are increasingly fond of the dash. And, yes, it can be a neat and useful way of slipping a parenthetical thought into a sentence, or of amplifying a thought that appears in the previous part of your sentence. However, I’d say beware: although not now viewed as uncouth, it has become a favoured tool of the sloppy writer.

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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Grammar again…

Don’t get confused between a writer’s unique voice and the need, nonetheless, to tidy one’s text so that readers can find their way through it without stumbling around. Working on grammar and structural issues is not going to drown your voice, nor will it stifle your creative juices. In fact, that kind of close work uses entirely different mental muscles. I find that it feels more akin to working on puzzles or crosswords than anything else.

This year many students failed to get their expected grades in English GCSE. Libby Purves, in an article in the Times, raised an issue that, for her, underlies the whole fiasco. For years now, students have not been marked down by examiners when they fail to write clear, correct English. Instead, ‘creativity’ (and, presumably, good ideas) were the sole consideration when they were given their grades. One creative writing teacher I know was bemoaning the fact that so many of her undergraduate students become positively aggressive if she dares to correct their grammar. I asked her if she had thought of using games to make learning it more fun. “Games? God no! I have thought of using an AK47 though.”

Let’s face it, most white-collar professions don’t demand a knowledge of war poetry or Shakespeare. What they do require is the use of clear written English. If your grammatical presentation is good, people might think you’re intelligent, and you could rise through the ranks more quickly. I have a dyslexic client who is in a senior position in the hospitality industry. He doesn’t get aggressive or chippy about the issue of spelling and grammar: he sensibly recognises that his emails, as the company’s interface with the outside world, need to be checked before they go out. It’s just one bit of presentation, like wearing a clean suit or turning up at meetings on time.

And a warning to all those sending out manuscripts to agents or publishers. If your query letter is muddled or grammatically untidy, beware:  the whole thing will probably get thrown in the bin.

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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Road-testing books

Ben Macintyre, writing in The Times, noted that publishers are using digital feedback they receive, courtesy of Kindle and Kobo, to ‘road-test’ new works. The thing about e-readers is that although they let you read in privacy, they record what you’re reading and can measure your responses: they chart when you slow down or read faster; they know when you get bogged down or give up on a book.

Although it sounds good, I am somewhat doubtful that publishers are actually finding time to analyse the data. But this does raise an interesting point. The publishing industry is almost alone in its tendency to ignore some obvious marketing processes other industries abide by. The film business uses focus groups, as does the music business. SlicethePie is just one company that entices music fans to rate tracks on line, paying them between two and ten cents for a written review. It might strike you as odd that publishers do not use focus groups to pre-test forthcoming books. Instead, a small group of highly educated staff members make decisions on a huge gamut of book genres based on their gut response. Forget market research. Bah! Who needs it?

So that leaves you. If you want to make sure your book is a success why not create your own focus group? Alafair Burke, an American thriller writer, thanks over 500 web fans by name for their help in making various decisions, from thinking up a good title to choosing the best author photo. There is nothing to stop your getting feedback from objective people who are keen readers of your particular genre. The web is a brilliant way of gathering like minds, but local book groups might oblige if you ask.


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A tale of hardship

Let me tell you the story of Linda Cruse, a single mother who changed her life entirely once her children were grown. She is a humanitarian aid worker whose book Marmalade and Machine Guns is out in a couple of weeks. Linda has worked with some of the poorest communities on earth: on rubbish tips in Guatemala, in Burmese refugee camps, and Nepalese mountain villages; as well as with victims of natural disasters: after the earthquake and floods in Pakistan, and the tsunami in Thailand. She has been captured by Maoist rebels and nearly perished from hypothermia on a yak in Tibet.

I wonder if anything has been as hard as trying to find a publisher.

OMG. For a woman used to rolling up her sleeves and getting things done, the endless wait for publishers to make decisions and to return phone calls was agonising. I was almost as frustrated as Linda, having spent a year helping her write the book. Her agent, Sheila Crowley, was tireless and more than once got the book as far as an acquisitions meeting, only to be told that the head of sales didn’t think the story of a humanitarian aid worker would sell. Apparently, local tales of misery work, but not those from third world countries.

Finally, the publisher John Blake came to Linda’s rescue, willing to take a punt. And tomorrow the Daily Mail kicks off the publicity campaign, after a lively serial auction. Yay!!

Good luck, Linda!

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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The killer idea


Ray Bradbury, who died the other week, bashed out Fahrenheit 451 in nine days at his local library on a coin-in-the-slot typewriter. He described a future where books are banned and burnt. It was a great idea, written in the fifties when censorship was a big issue. The title, which refers to the temperature a book needs to reach to catch fire, caught the imagination too. The book was given a place on school reading lists for decades afterwards.

A commissioning editor has half a minute to grab the attention of their sales and marketing, editorial, PR, design, and foreign rights colleagues when they pitch one of their authors’ books. And they will give that same pitch over and over again in the run up to publication, with only a sentence or two to deliver the concept. It is not so very different from screenwriter and studio boss or ad-man and client.

Sometimes they just know the book will strike gold. But, as any publisher knows, if they find themselves stumbling over a pitch, the book shouldn’t be taken on, even if they themselves like it. Because, by the time they’ve seen the umpteenth person’s eyes glaze over at their pitch, they know the book is probably a lost cause long before the actual publication date.

So try out your sentence, or question, such as:

How does a rookie lawyer, fresh out of Harvard, get the better of the dangerous and dirty legal firm who employ him, whose clients include members of the Mob? [The Firm]  

And work on a short dummy cover blurb. Then try out your pitch on a few people. If you detect any glazed eyes it might be worth thinking again, or restructuring, before you embark on thousands of hours of toil!

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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First Page Nerves

Whenever I critique or edit a manuscript I find that the first chapter, and the first page especially, is invariably the weakest. It is as if the writer is suffering from stage fright: their words come out in a ghastly croak, sounding quite unlike their real voice.

First page writing is often self-conscious, as if the writer knows they need to act like an author but isn’t entirely sure how. It can be stilted, too flowery, or trying to cut a dash and failing.

I wasn’t surprised that Harry Bingham, author of How to Write, said that he had cut the first 60 pages from the draft of his first novel.

Unfortunately, while the first page won’t necessarily reflect the quality of the rest of the MS, which can change immeasurably for the better once the author has got into their easy stride, it is the one that will be judged. The agent, the publisher, the reviewer, and the reader will pick the book up, and if that first page doesn’t grip them they will put it aside. 

So let’s look at some helpful tips:

–          It’s a good idea to introduce your lead character on page one, and engage our interest in him or her

–          In young adult adventure novels, gripping action kicks in at the start. A murder? Hey, why not!

–          A whole chunk of description is a no-no. Give us dialogue, give us action, but don’t waste your energy on exposition or backstory. Engage our interest in the lead character.

–          Try bringing the inciting incident forward (or losing an unnecessary chunk before it). Catch us quick, before we lose interest and start playing Angry Birds

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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Bad editing

I was interested to read a recent review of Nadine Gordimer’s latest novel, No Time Like the Present. Hannah McGill in Scotland on Sunday said that Gordimer’s writing often tips into ‘straight-up incomprehensibility’. And there was the speculation that her copy-editor may have been too intimidated to point out ‘horrible bits of phrasing’.

There is probably truth in this. Gone are the days of the Diana Athills of the editing world. These days, the commissioning editor will have too much time taken up with budgets, covers, publicity, contracts, and rights issues to spend an adequate number of hours on the MS. These individuals have the necessary chutzpah to tackle an author on the hiccups in their manuscript, but beyond making a few ‘big picture’ comments they clearly are very often not doing enough. The freelance copy editor may well not have the quality of relationship with the author to tackle them so boldly. (Incidentally, in the States, many more commissioning editors still edit their manuscripts, and that way the quality – and relationship – is better preserved.)

Books are being published with an increasingly short lead time. Both the commissioning editors and freelance copy editors are invariably horribly pressed for time, and the freelancer will be encouraged to work hell-for-leather for a flat fee. It is no wonder that standards have slipped.

It is fairly well-known that Lord of the Flies started out as a religious fable, and a much longer novel. It was turned down by numerous publishers before a Faber editor got his pruning shears out. In the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I have often asked myself whether the editor was smoking weed when he/she should have been doing the weeding. (Do we need to have such a long inventory of every piece of IKEA furniture the Girl buys for her flat?) And one can only speculate why the first Harry Potter was so short when the later volumes were as big as phone directories. (Did an editor prune vigorously before Ms Rowling became famous, giving up – and doffing their cap – later on?)

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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Comma Commotion

My sister, a lawyer, rang me in a tizzy last week. A marketing individual on her team had altered the punctuation in an article she had written, so that  it made hardly any sense at all. Lawyers are a different breed from other writers: they’re schooled to use no commas at all. That way, with sentences constructed to make sense without the help of the little blighters, no-one can possibly be hanged as a result of a misplaced comma (which once, famously, did happen).

I love the comma. It dances around, tapping the beat, making music wherever it goes. In the States, writers always tend to use the Oxford comma (also called the serial comma). It’s the comma that comes before the conjunction at the end of a list, or series of things (ie: I love the colon, full stop, and comma). In the UK, editors like to be free to use the Oxford comma whenever they think it is appropriate to do so. That’s the fun of the comma – unlike the full stop, its usage isn’t cut and dried.

Mostly, writers use too many commas. Teachers at primary school, ducking the job of teaching grammar properly, used to tell their pupils to pop in a comma whenever there was a ‘breath’ in the sentence. As a result, most manuscripts I read are peppered with far too many commas. It’s worth going back to your Times Style and Usage Guide or Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (if you’re American). And if you want a really readable grammar, try Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves or Bruce Kaplan’s Editing Made Easy. Doing so really does pay dividends.

Journalist Giles Coren was recently let off a parking ticket by Westminster council by arguing that the punctuation on the sign above the parking bay was so confusing that he was tricked into making an error. Good lad!

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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When Persistence Pays Off

Those of you who read my ‘foot in the door’ piece will be pleased to hear that my client, a first-time author who flew 6000 miles to knock at the door of the agent who hadn’t answered his submission email, has found himself a publisher. I was so delighted that his rubber-ball persistence paid off. Some things I learned from his experience:

–          The author’s persistence wasn’t bred of blind self-belief. He had asked people to read his manuscript and, once friends whose opinions he rates had done their bit, he came to me to give an unbiased critique. (If your manuscript takes 8 hours to read, it can be a lot to ask of a partner or friend so if you can afford it, a book doctor is a sound course to take)

–          Before he came to me he had been turned down by a couple of agents. His response to this had not been: ‘Help! Rejection! Defence-wall-up!’ but ‘Okay, I’ll take what comments I’ve gleaned so far and do what I can to rework my draft.’  It is hard not to take rejection to heart but you need to remind yourself that every work can be improved if you open yourself, and your ears, to listen to feedback.

I have seen manuscripts full of stylistic and structural flaws turned around, and it has always moved me to witness the transformation. Such transformation has only come about through humility and hard work:  not taking rejection personally – ‘the Oh help my teacher/parent doesn’t love me’ knee-jerk response – but being grown up about it. Life is full of knocks and we all know that to pick ourselves up, reevaluate our course, and soldier on is part of the experience. Not to soldier on doing things in exactly the same way (after all, as the saying goes: one definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results) but realising that there are other opinions, other roads to take, and that the one we choose isn’t necessarily the only one, or even the right one. We are all learning, all of the time.

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Funny women

Novelist Rebecca Abrams once told me that the reason that men loved puns and women couldn’t see the point of them was because women’s brains worked in a different way. (A faster way, naturellement.) A woman’s brain moves with a speedy athleticism, skipping over the pun as something far too obvious to stop for, while the ponderous male pauses to wonder at the (usually very obvious) wordplay.  

That said, I do wish there were more women who felt they had the license to be funny. Or had the energy, time and will to be playful (an ability that seems to desert them in adulthood). Chick lit may be out of favour but there is always room on the shelf for good rom-com. It is one of the hardest genres to do justice to, and probably the one for which Hollywood scriptwriters get most handsomely paid.

When an author does get it right, word gets around very fast and the cash registers go ting-ting. Cue Marina Lewycka, author of the wonderfully funny A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and the recently published Various Pets Alive and Dead. Born in a refugee camp in Kiel after the war, it is a miracle she finds so much to laugh about.

It took Marina Lewycka a long time to get published – she was 59 when Tractors came out – which is another reason she is well-liked. (We all love a ‘Seabiscuit’.) Younger rom-com writers are generally nowhere near as good. In Lewycka’s books the jokes come thick and fast, but humour is just one excellent quality in a rich canvas that includes wisdom, astuteness and warm-heartedness.

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