Thursday, 23 March 2017

Twelve Steps to Punctuation by Steve Gladwin

We feel ashamed about many things. Some of these are easy to share and others not so, but sharing the more difficult things can bring a form of healing and even a catharsis. This is what always seems to happen at the end of certain books where an act or statement at the right time will in turn set right many of the bad things which have gone before.

Then there are those things which aren't quite as easy to share. I have been an abba blogger now for over eighteen months and so I feel now is the time to share my guilty and perhaps not so closely guarded secret.Maybe some of you have guessed and are already shaking your head or brandishing a metaphorical red pen as you read my monthly thoughts. No it’s not the fact that I waffle, although I can well imagine that were there a twelve step programme for wafflers, I might be one of the first through the door, (you certainly would – ed!)

Let's instead conjure up the darkened room or cellar where myself and my fellow sufferers are sitting in a semi-circle while our doughty facilitator allows us each our turn to speak. Almost before I'm ready, it's my turn. I stand up awkwardly because this is my first time and I can’t yet believe that the suffering and embarrassment of my fellows can be in any way be equal to mine. I clear my throat and hear a tiny squeak of a voice confess that -

‘My name is Steve and I’m a bad punctuator!’
‘Welcome Steve’, says a roomful of fellow bad punctuators, and I feel a little better. Then I tell everyone else why I am here tonight.

The young writer contemplates a life of punctuation failure!

The Pupil’s Tale

‘It was a long time before I knew I had a problem with punctuation. I went to a pretty good school but it was never really emphasised and certainly no-one picked up much on things like the use of commas, or the correct use of ‘and’or‘but’ and certainly not the - to me at least – wholly pointless colon and semi-colon. Maybe it was because I was thought to be a good storyteller right from the infant days of picture story, to junior school composition and right on through secondary school into higher education. So praise concentrated on all that rather than criticism of my more obvious technical deficiencies. Or maybe - as seems more likely, I either remained completely oblivious of my writing’s failings or else ignored them, (either of these approaches the oblivious or the stubborn – would be equally like me!)

When I wrote my first proper story, ‘The Chronicles of Action’ in my new red notebook, my parents and sister chose to enjoy it rather than offer criticism.. When I wrote my first play, ‘Is the Sultan Guilty?’ (he wasn’t!) for the Hereford School House Drama Competition, punctuation wasn’t the issue either. Maybe spelling was, but I would steadily improve at both that and grammar and besides it was plot the judges were looking for.

The Tutor and Marker’s Tale

'As I began to write more and more stories and less and less plays, the dreaded punctuation became an issue. Ironically, part of my Further Education work at two of the three colleges I’ve taught at was as an English teacher for GCSE retake students. In the two full years I taught there, over 70% of the students passed. Their work involved studying the Welsh poets Meic Jenkins, and RS Thomas, as well as Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’ and at least one creative composition and written comprehension. What can I say! Despite my not being able to teach correct punctuation or grammar, (because I may not have recognised it as such in 2005,) a huge percentage of them passed. In summer 2006 I even served as an examiner for Paper One for WJEC and there were no clanging alarm bells for that, only a question mark about my generosity marks wise  What I remember instead is marking 450 papers and going slowly mad while despairing of the quality of any than about fifty of them, (mostly the same school). One poor soul had simply written on the right hand page, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this.’ This simple confession broke my heart just a little. Overall however I was glad to have been able to give two years of my best to help no more than thirty five students of varying ages through a hurdle they had already refused..

My editor in disguise to protect her anonymity!
The Editor’s Tale

None of this would have mattered normally for we all go through life with crosses to bear and most are a great deal worse. In the meantime I just carried on writing, saving the occasional embarrassing moment. One of these came when I sent in the first part of a serial fantasy story for a site called keepitcoming.  The editor liked my story but was a little miffed at some of the technical stuff. Didn’t I know that the inverted commas go after the full stop or comma? No maam, I honestly didn’t, and will try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I did try after that. but you wouldn’t believe how hard it was, and I still get it wrong now and then. People never talk about how this sort of thing feels and do you know, we really should.

What changed everything was when I sent a hopeful MS of my first real attempt at a children’s book to Pont Books here in Wales, and got a positive but qualified response. This led to a deal of re-writing where only once did my wonderful editor let rip with her frustration at a small part of my technical deficiencies, (in this case the inverted commas weren’t misplaced, there were just too many of them).

I look back now - as I’m sure many writers do - at the standard of what I sent her. My submissions are still not wonderfully set out and I think my dyspraxia has as much to do with that as anything, but I try and comfort myself by thinking an editor or agent must have had a great deal worse. 
Anyway the happy ending to this part of my story is that the book she spent so much hair tearing time over, ‘The Seven’ was eventually published in 2013 and was then short listed for the Tir Na N-og prize.. She had used all of her considerable technical skills and experience to draw the sow's ear technical elements out of my baby and turn the story into enough of a silk purse to impress a panel of judges. I will always be grateful to her for that.

The Raven calls and complains about the punctuation!

The Raven’s Tale

Sometime in October, my need for punctuation twelve-step therapy caught up with me and just when I thought I was doing well. Our wonderful book ‘The Raven’s Call’ – a new way of using stories and the old cycle of the year to help deal with loss and change – went out into an unsuspecting and cruel world and as it turned out, as Richard Duke of Gloucester might put it, ‘scarce half made up.’ Due to a sequence of accidents, the proof-reading hadn't been done and all my deficiencies were suddenly out there for all to see, thus obscuring the effort I’d taken on the stories and their so important message. The first comment we got back was that although it looked beautiful, there were errors throughout.

Luckily few copies had gone out and the people we sold them to or gave to contributors, came to see the book for its qualities and not its deficiencies. We even started to joke about it being ‘the quirky original’ Now, as we await the re-launch of the book I try not to feel so embarrassed, but it’s not always easy. It doesn’t of course help that I am dyspraxic, because of course part of that can be about missing the things which are right in front of you. I am not, needless to say, a driver!

Eats, Shoots and Complains.

At the end of Bill Bryson’s hilarious 'The Road to Little Dribbling',  his latest UK travelogue cum diatribe, he writes down a list of all of his pet hates. It’s clearly a wonderful exercise and we should all try it and maybe have.
I have a substantial list of such things but high on the list would be any books which hanker after perfection in things like punctuation or grammar. It might be highly amusing for some people to notice where their local grocer or publican has misplaced his apostrophe, but for all they know the whole business might for him be one continuous hell and he’s just had a stab at it and hopes to hell he’s right. Too many of these pedant’s guides to perfection ignore the very real truth that most people and yes even professional children’s writers, don’t possess enough skills to know where one thing should go and another be missed off. Instead people do well to do as well as they do in a lot of cases and I should know!

But now the time has come for change and an end to our lifelong shame. So come forth my fellow sufferers from your caves and underground concealment. Come forth and be guided into all your future success and a light now longer dulled by feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

That then is my story. Thank you for listening.'

PS This blog is doubtless littered, like my others, with punctuation errors and the occasional bit of bad grammar. Count them by all means but please don’t tell me or I might go home and take my ball back.

PPS The group asked me to leave by the way!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Julie Sykes said...

Well said Steve and thanks. Embarrassed to say, I'm a bad punctuator and I can't spell, either!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you for sharing, Steve! Just out of curiosity - do you wish your teachers had paid more attention to your punctuation? Or do you think it wouldn't have made any difference, and would just have stifled your creativity?

Penny Dolan said...

Very interesting, Steve. That speech marks and full stops rule was something I had problems wit, too.

Another confusion came from changes in writing styles, especially the move from longer, more formal sentences that needed a variety of punctuation and the shorter contemporary styles of writing. Examples in text-books seemed to quote examples of writing that no longer seemed relevant or classless: a kind of RP Writing.

Thought there's always the wonderful Strunk & White on The Elements of Style.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks all. I really appreciate it. An interesting question Sue and I think my answer has to be half and half. I think it may equally be about my dyspraxia which makes me oblivious to important things and quite literally not see or pick up on them. I think to be fair it was more that than any fault of teachers who I seem to remember as always being encouraging. And I must look out Strunk and White thanks Penny.