Things I wish I’d written #2

I wish I’d written all six seasons of Six Feet Under which, for me, is HBO’s finest series to date.

The series ran for five seasons and followed the lives of the Fishers, an extended family whose complicated relationships were all the more poignant because they were dealing with mortality almost every day.

Six Feet Under blended real life and fantasy so seamlessly it was almost like watching a poem being written on screen.  The writing was trimmed to the bone: not a word of dialogue or a single scene was wasted. Truly brilliant stuff. I do a lot of fantasy/real-life writing myself and regard Six Feet Under as the bar to clear.

Weirdly, my favourite piece of writing didn’t actually appear in the programme; it was a strap line for the final season DVD. I don’t usually pay much attention to advertising, but I thought this phrase epitomised my whole experience with Six Feet Under: few words spoken, but so very much said:





Flipback books: I don’t get it.

These odd little things have started showing up in Waterstones, having taken the Netherlands by storm (I’m not sure if a million copies sold really qualifies as a ‘storm’ but I guess that depends on the size of your country). Amazon sells them too, and I’m still not sure I see the point.

The Guardian's Dominic Kinsey reviews flipback books

The flipback website touts the new format as a ‘reading revolution’. Your actual book ‘opens top to bottom and has sideways-printed text, so you get a full length novel in little more than the size of an iPhone.’

It’s probably the size of a lot of things, but having the word ‘iPhone’ in your ad does make the punters’ eyes light up.

Okay, it’s smaller than a Kindle so it fits in your pocket. That’s fair enough, but the Kindle’s size is down to its screen which is big enough to read comfortably. The flipbacks aren’t bad, though I’d still like to be able to hit a button to make the text bigger. No? Okay, maybe in the next version.

And doesn’t ‘pocket-sized’ depend on the size of the original book? Any one of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy would surely cause an unsightly and uncomfortable bulge. With a Kindle you get a few hundred books in your bag, and the size of the device stays more or less the same.

Your flipbook never needs charging. That’s also true, but the wireless switched off, you should be able to get a couple of weeks reading time out of a Kindle; plenty of time for most people to find a power point somewhere.

The biggest disadvantage of the Kindle is not its size, or its need for that rare commodity known as ‘electricity’; it’s the fact that it isn’t a real book, and folk still like real books. Like most people, I have two books shelves: one for the books I want friends to see that I read (anything by Ann Patchett and Lionel Shriver), and a shelf (lower down) for stuff that I don’t want them to know that I read (Wolverine: Origins and dodgy Victorian ‘literature’).

The Kindle doesn’t look as good as a flipbook on either shelf … 🙁

Breaking the Rules

If there is one thing guaranteed to send your submission from the envelope, straight to the ‘shred immediately’ pile, it’ll be a grammar/punctuation mistake in the very first paragraph. There are still so many writers send out this first submission without doing the care and due-diligence that will get them that vital initial read.

Now when I first started workshopping, my first few pieces were not so good. It wasn’t that they were poor stories; the main problem was the punctuation. It seems I’d managed to get through most of my life without really understanding when to use a comma and when to use a semi-colon. Fortunately, my immensely supportive group mentioned this (and it isn’t down to your workshoppers to educate you in the basics of language),  so before writing another chapter, I set about fixing things.

There is a wealth of tutorials and advice, on the web and in books, that can help if you feel you need improvements in style, grammar and punctuation. Personally, I think Trask is a must-read, and the Purdue University has an encyclopaedia of notes and exercises that covers just about every aspect of writing. Not a lot of effort, really, and it would be such a shame to have your work rejected for the sake of a few minutes reading.

So, the next chapter my workshop reviewed was a masterpiece in structured grammar and meticulously placed commas. They went wild for it! Loved it! Applause, flowers, underwear – thrown onstage! A work of literary genius!

Except for one tiny, tiny problem:


‘Well, it’s nothing really…’

‘No, go on.’

‘You seem to have lost some of your flow.’


‘You had a lovely poetic flow to your last chapter. This one seems a bit more, you know, rigid.’


‘Yes, rigid. The punctuation’s much better though.’

So now I’d gone completely the other way; applying the rules to such an extent that the piece, while easier to read, had lost much of its spark.

Law-abiding waterfowl

It’s an old analogy, but punctation symbols are like road signs: too few and the reader loses their way; too many and the reader becomes distracted, tripping and stumbling through the prose and losing any sense of flow. So when it comes to punctuation, you need ‘just enough’. Above everything else, you are aiming to guide the reader through the text with as light a touch as possible, and sometimes that means breaking the rules.