The value of art

Painting: Yes, it hurt when I fell
I’m talking about art today, so I’m using my own work for colour.

I saw a series of gifs the other day from an interview with Kevin Conroy, who died on November 30. Conroy was the voice of Batman, in Batman: The Animated Series, and he was recounting his experience of meeting a fan at a convention.

The fan wept and embraced him, and he did his best to reassure her. But she was aware of how strange it must seem. She said: ‘You don’t understand what you did for me,’ and she explained.

She’d grown up in an impoverished area, and every kid she’d known had died or ended up in jail or on drugs. Her parents had worked hard and couldn’t watch her after school, but when her school mates had been outside, getting into trouble, she had been at home watching Batman. It gave her a safe space in which to learn and grow

That time with a guardian-like figure who seemed to genuinely care saved her life. And she was meeting her saviour.

It is such a wonderful thing to have done for someone else. And yet, as Conroy reflected, we so rarely get a chance to know of the deep impact our art can have on others.

I am so very glad he got to know.

It made me reflect on the value of art, and how easy it is for us to not know how important even small and rough works of art can be to others.

I thought about a piece of GCSE art that was displayed in my school’s assembly room. All GCSE art was displayed there for a week after it had been submitted, and I always LOVED that part of the year. Those works of art made my heart soar in a way I’ve rarely felt in adult life.

I remember one tiny work very clearly. Most GCSE students (myself included) take the opportunity to produce art on giant canvases – or at my school, pieces of wood. We see what ‘the greats’ do in galleries and think that bigger is better; although many of us lack the skill to fill that space. Not this artist, though.

It was small – smaller than A4. A painting with a frame cut from lino. The image continued out, carved into the frame. We’d all had a go at making prints out of lino in Art, so I shouldn’t have been surprising that someone used it, but this was pure genius. To make a print with lino – fine. But actually seeing beauty in the form – making the lino itself a work of art – that was another level. And then they had used that to extend the work of art beyond the painting and into a 3D form – sheer brilliance!

The painting itself also caught my attention. It was a little fantasy landscape. Villages stood, implausibly, on top of great spikes of rock that rose up from a green valley. I knew enough at 13 or 14 to suspect that physics would not support this and it would be a very impractical place for a village, but I didn’t care. I was transfixed. Even now I feel my own inadequacy when it comes to describing this with words.

I wish I could recall the artist’s name or that of the painting, but it’s gone. I wish I could have spoken to that artist, to tell them how looking at their tiny work, in a room full of gigantic pieces, had made me feel. Perhaps they already understood the power of art. Perhaps the lino frame was a metaphor for how art can empower the fantastic to escape its frame and impact the real world.

At the time, all I could do was vainly wish I could talk to them and ask them what it meant. What else they might have imagined in the world they showed me through the lino frame.

They may not even think of that piece at all anymore. Maybe they threw it out. My art teacher threw out one of my paintings before I could rescue it. I was horrified. I still am, to be honest, but I now realise that was common. Part of the reason they let us create those gigantic pieces was because often they were not collected, and those works would be painted over with white emulsion, ready for next year’s students.

It’s something I struggle to get my head around. I never throw out old art or old writing. And yet I never wondered if any of my GCSE artwork had moved anyone the way that small piece moved me. Which is strange, given how I poured myself into it with complete and unabashed confidence. I was a different person at 16.

This was one of my first times with oil paints. The complete lack of face is, uh, deliberate.

We often hope to create a Great Work that moves others the way we have been moved ourselves. I think that’s fair to say. I suspect most of us do not think our current project to be that work.

If you did anything creative at school, would you ever imagine that a stranger might still think about your project twenty-five years later? That they still regard it as one of the most powerful pieces of art they’ve ever seen, even though they are beginning to forget the details? That whenever they’re reminded of it, their heart still soars?

I doubt that unknown artist imagines such a thing about their piece. They may have affection for it, but I’m sure they can see childish flaws in it the same way I see the flaws in my own old schoolwork.

The point is that art does not have to be recognised as a Great Work to have value. To make someone’s heart soar. To save someone’s life.

There are books I’ve read and TV I’ve watched that saved my life too. I escaped into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series as a teenager, and Menolly’s story of success and escaping through her music helped me hang on through my own experience of bullying. Those books are not without flaws, but they made my heart soar and made me believe there was a way out. That life could get better.

When I first got sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but had no diagnosis, I ran into trouble at work. My anxiety about the situation was so bad my heart never stopped racing. At that time, my escape was Fringe. I watched it for hours and hours, and when Peter Bishop was taking care of his father, it felt like, finally, someone was taking care of me.

Fringe is a great show, but it’s not without it’s flaws. The first season is uneven, and I found the last season unwatchable. It doesn’t matter. Those middle three seasons still saved me.

I could go on a long time about the invaluable impact on my life of imperfect art, but I fear I’d just be entertaining myself. Instead I want to spend a few minutes thinking about a comic that’s often passed around among creatives.

Original comic, by stuffman

The comic, in its original iteration, has only two panels. Both show a person looking at two cakes. One cake has tiers and lots of detailed icing work. The other has only two layers and sloppy frosting. The first panel is captioned ‘The Artist’ and the figure in it looks glum because their cake isn’t as good as the other cake. The second panel is captioned ‘The Audience’ and shows an excited person saying Holy shit! Two cakes!’

This comic is well-liked for good reason. It shows that even if your work isn’t perfect, it can still delight someone. But I think (in this version anyway) it misses some of what’s disappointing for an artist when they compare their work to someone more skilled.

Because I think we’re all secretly hoping to produce that Great Work that really moves someone. And one of the two cakes is visibly better than the other, at least by some standards. An audience that just wants something sugary will be pleased, but will they really be moved? Which cake will they remember 25 years later? Which cake could save a life and inspire someone to become a baker themselves? Which cake will make them feel like there is love and beauty in a hopeless world?

I may be stretching this metaphor, but that’s sort of the point.

The ‘Holy shit! two cakes!’ response suggests that the audience has no deep appreciation of, or response to, either cake. So a creator can easily look at the comic and secretly think to themselves, ‘Yes, this is an important message for others. But MY problem is that I want my audience to get more from my work than that. Maybe it is foolish of me, but I do want to move someone and to satisfy more than a momentary craving for sugar.’

What the comic – and discourse generally – fails to celebrate, is that our imperfect works can also save lives. Offer comfort and escapism. Encapsulate beautiful, moving, and original ideas. Make someone’s heart soar.

Kevin Conroy was surprised by his fan’s reaction to what was, for him, just a job. You can never know the impact your work has on others. Or when you created the right thing for someone else to find at just the right time.

It does not have to be your best work. Not because the audience doesn’t care about the content, but because imperfect works can still be of incredible, priceless value.

At the moment, it feels like the work of creators has never been so undervalued.

Even for Great Works that have an estimated value in the millions, that value seems utterly divorced from their ability to move their audience. They are trading cards for the super rich. A Van Gogh painting does have value, but does it have really so very much more value than the work of millions of artists around the world who cannot earn a living?

This Van Gogh self-portrait is in the public domain. Nice.

Let us all remember, Van Gogh’s work was not valued that way in his lifetime. How is it a recognition of greatness to overvalue a work of someone who will never profit from it, and undervalue the work of a living artist who needs to heat their home this winter?

In the last month, creative industries have been under attack like never before. It’s been part of a steady, longterm devaluation of art by those with a vested interest in framing art as ‘unproductive’. (Often the same people who can afford to own Van Goghs.)

But if that were the case, why would so much money have been poured into creating AIs like DALL-E 2, which automate art creation?

I’m not actually against artistic AIs as such. I think some of the works that have been produced that way are haunting and beautiful. I also think there could be skill in selecting which works to train an AI with and the teaching methods employed. In this sense, developers can be artists. Moreover, as a philosopher of mind, I have long been fascinated by AI – what it tells us about our how we think and what it could do for us in the future.

What’s alarming is the reports that both art and writing AIs have been trained using databases for which the owners of the AI did not have any rights. Art not in the public domain, not licenced for commercial use. Art to which the companies that created the AI did not have any right.

Most notably, DeviantArt – one of the oldest and larget art archives on the web – launched an AI art tool called DreamUp. As part of the announcement, they noted that DreamUp was based on Stable Diffusion, which scraped the web for art to create its database, and many have reported that it’s likely to have used artworks on DeviantArt itself. DeviantArt paired their launch with an announcement of a way for users to opt their work out of being used in the future, but the opt out system was impractical for artists and relied on developers voluntarily respecting the marker that the opt out added to the code for works.

Even artists who had been pro AI art before reacted to this with horror.

Then, this week, evidence was found that Open AI, which is a writing AI, may have been trained on Archive of Our Own – the largest and most well-known fanfiction archive. That’s not currently been confirmed, to my knowledge, but the evidence is striking. For example, this prompt:

Steve had to admit that he had some reservations about how the New Century handled the social balance between alphas and omegas.

This one’s public domain, too. From Pixabay.

creates a story in which Steve is roommates with someone called Tony, with pretty detailed reference to omegaverse dynamics. Steve (Captain America) and Tony (Iron Man) form one of the most popular ships in the Marvel fandom. Being roommates (Oh my GOD they were roommates!) is an extremely well-loved fanfic scenario for setting up romance. And if you don’t know what omegaverse is, don’t click that link if unless you’re prepared for it to awaken something in you. Suffice it to say it’s a set of very specific, usually erotic, highly kinky tropes that arose from fandom and is unlikely to be referenced outside of recent erotic romance stories.

This is especially concerning as fanfic writers produce their work entirely for free. As fanfic usually uses copyrighted characters, its legal defence lies in the fact that the writers do not seek to profit from their work in any way. Archive of Our Own has no adverts and is a charity. But a for-profit AI does not and should not have the same protections. Stealing from work offered for free is immoral, but if the AI produces works that involve copyrighted characters, that seems open to legal challenge by intellectual property (IP) owners. Especially as it’s clear that the works produced are likely to involve situations that the IP owners would not approve for their characters.

There’s a risk that large, litigeous companies (such as Disney), that have been turning a blind eye to fanfiction (because no one profits from it) target fanfic writers again if AI writers use fanfic to endanger their IP. While the last 15 years have seen a swing towards fanfiction being generally accepted, many still remember attempts by the likes of Anne Rice and Lucasfilm to suppress fanfiction – especially erotic fanfiction.

And beyond these specific troubling developments, there’s the more general concern that the recognised value of art is disappearing as AI seeks to replace it. AI art is already being used in posters and on book covers by companies and individuals who do not want to pay artists. Many now worry: could the future see AI making all our art and telling all our stories?

My thoughts on this: in the near future? No. Not all of it. The stories in particular are not good enough. But some of the art is very good. And AI could easily replace a lot of formulaic writing, such as clickbait articles.

In the abstract, this shouldn’t have to be a bad thing. Automation should make all our lives better. If AI could take over the kind of work that’s often uninteresting and uninspiring and generate profit more easily, in a just world, that extra profit would go back into society to enable more funding for arts and humanities. Artists and writers who have made a living churning out low-value work to uninspiring briefs could be freed up to make the art and novels that would really fill our lives with purpose and meaning.

But this is not a just world. We have seen that automation has not been used to make the lives of the people whose labour it has replaced better. Instead, the people at the top of the pile, who are furthest away from production (let alone creativity) earn ever more, and the people are the bottom of the pile can no longer earn a living wage – let alone pursue a career in something they enjoy.

Don’t despair yet, though. Just as artists have apparently used big company’s like Disney to take down T-shirt bots that steal their designs by tricking them into stealing Disney’s IP, it may be that Open AI scraping from AO3 will be its undoing. The Organization for Transformative Works (of which AO3 is just one project) also has its own legal team, which has been defending fanworks from the outset. They have been alerted to the matter.

Similarly, there’s already a lawsuit against Github’s Copilot for stealing code that was shared for free and using it for profit. Which is to say: AIs that are using databases they have no right to are probably going to land themselves in hot water, and there is reason to hope that some kind of sensible regulation will result.

Moreover… I don’t know. I’m not especially interested in reading stories written by a robot. Unless that robot has reached true artificial intelligence, and has ideas of its own, in which case, it’s not a robot anymore. But that is a very long way off. Part of what I get out of reading is a sense of connection and recognition from other human beings.

Stephen King has called writing a kind of telepathy. It’s one thought transmitted from one person to another. I cry at some books not simply because I imagine something painful, but because reading those books makes me feel seen. I see a pain I recognise on the page and I know that somewhere out there is another person who understood.

Reading lets me know I’m not alone. It can’t do that if it wasn’t created by a person. If it was made instead by something that knows nothing at all in itself.

And I think the same is true of art. For artistic work that isn’t meant to make you feel anything particularly profound or interesting… yes. AI might take over that. The artistic equivalent of clickbait. It’s not great. Because society is injust, it will hurt the livelihoods of artists. But it won’t end art.

You might get a few gallery displays out of AI art, but it will be a novelty. A curiosity. I very much doubt any of us will still be thinking of a work created by AI twenty-five years later.

A mindless robot isn’t going to save many lives. It’s not going to make people feel less alone. It’s never going to make anyone wonder what it was thinking when it made the piece (not if it is mindless, and the audience knows enough about AI to know that this kind of AI is extremely simplistic and could not possibly think).

Your works matter. Even your student works and your fanfics and the little things you did and only shared on social media and got a handful of likes. Because art can stay with the viewer for decades after, even if they never spoke to the artist.

Art – creativity – has a value that is dismissed because it is hard to squeeze capital from. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s so valuable it can make someone weep in a stranger’s arms. It can make you stay up all night reading. Fill hours of anxiety with love. Provide hope that humanity can be better than it often is. It helps us hang on when we feel like there’s nothing else to live for, and it helps us dream of everything wonderful that life could be.

Art can do all that, without ever being perfect.

We should pay creatives more, because their work is already so very valuable, to all of us.

Speaking of which, if you got something out of these thoughts, you can always buy me a ko-fi…

First, second, and third person: choose your style

I’ve been intrigued by two recent trends. One is an increase in stories written in the second person. The other is the discussion of whether it’s OK to write in the first person. Both of these surprised me, and I thought it would be useful to explore what these devices do for readers, and how to use them.

When I was an editor I read an awful lot of novels in an awful lot of styles. There is wondrous variety in fiction. In general, I take the position that all rules can be bent or broken, but to do so well, you need to understand the reason for the rule in the first place.

Third-person limited is a generally accepted norm for fiction writing. Over the past three decades, first-person perspective has become more accepted. Second-person perspective is relatively rare. None of these is inherently good or bad as a writing style, but it’s worth thinking about why you choose the perspective you do.

Here’s my perspective on the first, second, and third person.

Back to basics

Stories are acounts of events, delivered by one person to an audience of one or more people. Sometimes the audience is the same person as the narrator, but usually there’s at least one other person you’re talking to. Nowadays, a lot of our stories are written down, or performed by actors in TV or film. There are a lot of different ways to deliver a story. But the oldest kind of story is oral.

One person telling a story to another, with their voice*.

Our written traditions of storytelling still owe a lot to oral traditions. There are differences. For example, oral story telling relies on tropes – like repetition, meter, and verse structure – to help the person telling the story remember it. That’s why Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter  – not because he’s trying to be poncy, but because before the printing press it was very laborious to write down stories to deseminate them, so most stories were written in verse. Shakespeare was following that tradition. Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and The Blazing World (1666) are some of the earliest examples of long-form prose fiction. The printing press had spread across Europe about a century earlier (the first European printing press being invented in 1440), causing an explosion of literary innovation, but it still took a while before people started the think that long-form stories didn’t have to be written in verse.

Those restrictions of form really only existed to help people memorise very long stories that could be passed from storyteller to storyteller across distance and time. Even older forms of storytelling didn’t require it. Things like recounting an event that happened to you (“I says to him, I says…”), things that happened in the past (“You know that old standing stone, out in the field, well, that’s there because…”), spooky stories told round the campfire, (“There was this couple driving down a dark country road, and they heard this news report on the radio…”). So many different, every day kinds of story.

When I choose whether to write in the first or third person, I think about it in terms of those ancient, oral forms of storytelling. And I think that, consciously or unconsciously, that’s how most readers understand those forms, too.

First person

When you choose to tell a story in the first person, you tell the story as though it happened to you, the narrator. Whether the narrator is presented as the same person as the author depends on the external framing of the story.

If you frame your story as an autobiography, you present the story as something that literally happened to you. The narrator and the author are presented as the same person (even though sometimes that might not be entirely true – you may have hired a ghost writer). Sometimes, fiction writers also frame the narrator as the author, even though the story is clearly not autobiographical. For example, Lemony Snicket is both the narrator and a character in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Lemony is presented to readers (framed) as the author. But Lemony Snicket is clearly not a real person and the unfortunate events clearly didn’t actually happen. Daniel Handler made up both Lemony and the events.

Comedians also sometimes frame stories as autobiographical when they’re not, because the joke seems funnier if it happened to them.

But usually, in the realm of fiction, if you choose to tell a story in the first person, you frame it so that it’s clearly about someone else. The narrator and the author are not the same person. This is a bit of a departure from the oral tradition. While an oral storyteller might make themselves the same as the narrator in telling a story, if it’s clearly fiction, they’ll do so at a bit of a remove. “I’m telling this to you as my grandmother told it to me, and her grandmother told it to her. When my great-great-great-great grandmother was a very small girl, as you are now…” Or they do it with a bit of a wink or a nod, in the manner of the comedian, indicating that this event may not be quite as true as it’s presented as being.

This is because, when you present something in the first person, you automatically imply to your readers that it’s closer to the truth, to reality. This can be a great way to make a story more compelling and more immediate. The reader feels closer to the action because the narrator presents themselves as closer to the action. To the turth. To the idea that this really happened.

There used to be more hesitency about telling stories in the first person. A thought that if one did so, one had to get the framing right. To tell a story in the first person in which the narrator died was a big no-no, unless you managed to frame it in such a way that the character didn’t have to write “And then I died.” Because how could they have written it if they died?

This is because the reader is still tacitly imagining another human being physically telling them a story. A thing they can’t do if they’re dead.

Stories that found a way to do this were lauded as especially clever. The first story we read for my English Literature A-level was a first-person story in which the narrator died. It was told as a series of diary entries by a scientist who was experimenting on animals to make them super-intelligent. At the end, the entries abruptly cut off. “What happened?” our teacher asked us. “The animals killed him,” I answered. Because the storyteller had woven in enough information, through the diary entries, for us to work the ending out. A neat trick, if you can pull it off.

In the decades since then (bah, I’m getting old), both writers and readers have loosened up a bit.

I think that’s partly to do with the huge success of authors like Robin Hobb, who has masterfully written nine books in the first person perspective of Fitzchivalry Fareseer. As well as several others in the first person from the perspective of other people. And even in Hobb’s works, the tightness of the framing has loosened. In the original Farseer trilogy, Hobb is very specific in her framing, using Fitz’s obsessive writing about his own life as a device, and his abuse of a specific drug to explain the depth of detail in his memory. By the final trilogy, although Fitz’s continued writing about his own life remains a motif – a habit he passes on to his daughter, that we might have her perspective too – it isn’t entirely clear how we, as readers, have access to all that is written. Without giving too much away… I have questions.

Perhaps I attribute too much to Hobb, as I value her work so specifically, but it seems to me that as writers like her showed it was possible to write the first person well. As a result, many more writers have adopted the habit without any attempt to provide a frame that explains it. We have moved a little further away from the camp fire and the oral tradition.

The third person

The third person has long been more common when writing fiction. This is for obvious reasons. Many tales in the oral tradition were about myths and legends – larger than life characters and events that could not possibly have been witnessed by the storyteller themselves.

It also offers the valuable opportunity to present events that could not all have been seen by the same person. Or multiple perspectives on the same event.

A skilled writer, like Hobb, can introduce a second character who also writes from the first person. But if everyone calls themselves ‘I’, it can leave the reader wondering who is who. Again, I think that without some framing that explains it (as when Bee takes up her father’s habit of extensive journaling) the reader is still tacitly imagining a single person telling them the story – the narrator – as they would have been in the oral tradition. A single story teller can easily tell the story of many different people, but only if they don’t claim that each of those people was themself.

So, most stories are still written in the third person.

Intriguingly, we have seen a shift away from the oral tradition here, too. It did not used to be a very great issue to write in the third-person omniscient. That is to say: to write in the third person, but from whoever’s perspective you like, whenever you need to.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is written in the third person omniscient, along with many other great works from the twentieth century. It can be a great tool for irony to say with full confidence what one character thinks is going on, and then immediately undermine it by revealing another character knows the complete opposite is happening.

Yet most writers today will tell you that third-person omniscient is terrible, lazy writing, that’s confusing for readers – even if half an hour ago they were praising a work you know was written in third-person omniscient.

What’s going on?

Changing fashion, for the most part. But it’s not entirely without reason. Writing is not and should not be treated as a monolith. That wondrous variation I mentioned before still exists. But there are trends. Some of them are caused by editors and agents who want concrete, categorisable things they know how to market. Some are less artificial. What I see is a general trend, across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, towards realism and naturalism in most forms of media, and a drawing closer to immediacy and the emotions of characters.

I don’t mean that our stories have become less fantastical. Quite the reverse, as CGI has improved, our ability to present the unreal as though it were real has increased, and endless CGI superhero movies have been the result.

Rather, with the advent of film, and especially television, our ability to present stories has become increasingly immersive. The proscenium arch of the theatre remains a significant metaphor in how we describe and think of storytelling. It’s still a big deal that Deadpool frequently breaks ‘the fourth wall’. Nevertheless, I watch most film and TV on my laptop. I take TV with me from room to room. All the stories of the world live inside my phone, which I can hold a few inches from my face, in bed.

You can see in early film that actors perform as though they’re still on stage, and how that shifts across the twentieth century as directors, cinematographers, actors, and set designers all start figuring out new ways to interact with the audience, bringing not only the actions, but the emotions, closer. Dialog can actually be whispered, not merely stage whispered. In 2011 we get Lie to Me, a whole show premised on the idea that you can read the truth in microexpressions – imagine trying to perform Lie to Me on a stage. It wouldn’t work.

So, we’re telling different stories now, as well as telling them in different ways.

When people praise Game of Thrones for its realism in a fantasy setting (I know, we’re in a new phase of critique for GoT now, but it was a big deal at the time) it was a very shallow response to point to the existence of dragons. We were talking about how up-close-and-personal we got with the emotions, as well as the in-depth consideration of politics and the horror of war.

The omniscient narrator is often felt to be slightly more detached. If we use omniscient narration for humour and irony, that’s a form of detachment, too. The deeper I am into the emotions of one character, the more jarring it is to switch to the perspective of another without warning. That’s why so many people advise to stick to third-person limited perspective. Not because third-person omniscient is inherently wrong.

And the more I see advice become prescriptive about this, the more I want to resist. People are starting to say that if you’re going to change perspectively in third-person limited, you have to do that in separate chapters. That you have to have a specific number of point-of-view (POV) characters and distinguish your POV characters from other types of characters.

If you want to do that, that’s fine. It does work for George R R Martin. But the idea that you must do this is utter nonsense. Stephen King hops minds as he pleases, with no more than a scene break, and it works exceedingly well.

I’ve also seen it argued that how you approach the thrid person should be determined by the genre you write in. I resist that too. Third person omnipotent may work particularly well for irony, but that doesn’t mean it should only be used for humour. I know that Hitchhiker’s Guide is a funny book, but it’s also science fiction, and I’ve cried at parts of that series. When I read it, it does pull on my feels. I very much do inhabit the character of Arthur Dent. I read the story, it just so happens that it’s often very funny too.

Play with genre. Play with style. Mix them up. Rigid rules stifle creativity, and honestly they just make me sad. It is worth understanding why people tend to do one thing over another, but that absolutely does not mean that only that one thing will work.

Second person

“But Ro, why are you talking about the second person last? Why wasn’t this second?”

Yeah, well, I’m gonna be up front and say that I do not like this one. And I think it is because I tacitly think of storytelling in terms of that oral tradition.

A person telling a story in the first person is presenting it as their story.

A person telling a story in the third person is telling a story about something that happened to other people.

A person telling a story in the second person is an accusation.

“You went to the standing stones, performed the ritual, and released the Ancient One, didn’t you?”

No, I fucking did not. Wow.

And yet, very recently – just the past few years – I’ve seen people telling stories in the second person more and more. It seriously confused me.

I first noticed it in fanfiction. Specifically, Detroit: Become Human (DBH) fanfiction. And that made me wonder if it’s because of the first-person persective of the game. You play three different characters (androids) and decide what to do in various situations. Were people in the fandom more likely to think of the player as a character, taking actions, because there was one person effectively puppeteering three people? And did that make them more likely to literally insert themselves, the reader, as a character, instead of doing the old-fashioned thing of writing a self-insert original character?

But I’ve seen it pop up elsewhere, too. More self-published stories are being written in the second person. I’m not really seeing it in tranditional publishing yet, but I wonder if it may spread.

Is my visceral negative reaction to second-person storytelling how some people feel about first-person storytelling?

Another author recently mentioned that when he reads a story in the first person, he feels like he’s being told the story is about him. This was a real eye-opener for me, as it doesn’t fit into my paradigm of tacitly thinking of stories in the oral tradition, as of a narrator telling a story to you. For him, a story in the first person behaves exactly as a story in the second person does for me.

This is not the criticism of first-person storytelling that I’m used to hearing. Not the objection I was raised with and slowly learnt to unpick as I saw just how well and how powerful first-person storytelling can be.

But perhaps, as writers use framing less and less to explain how a story came to be told in the first person, younger readers approach stories without thinking about how they relate to a story’s narrator. Maybe the shift away from explicit framing of first-person stories could also explain why the question of whether first person stories are OK is coming up again, when it seemed to me that we’d adjusted to simply considering them another storytelling device.

I’ve also noticed an increase in interactive storytelling over the past few years. Some authors have successfully built a platform on Twitter through telling stories where readers decide the next story via Twitter poll. In fanfic, and platforms like DeviantArt, I’ve also increasingly seen Choose Your Own-style stories, where an author posts a chapter, and asks commenters to choose from a list of options about what will happen next.

Computer role-playing games (like DBH and Dragon Age) also increasingly allow players to create very different stories and outcomes in the game based on the choices they make, not simply whether they succeed or fail in combat.

Perhaps the rise in second-person storytelling is linked to a rise in interactive storytelling, in which readers do see themselves more as part of the story.

Perhaps the paradigm is shifting, and there is no longer just one storyteller anymore.

For myself, I still cannot bring myself to read stories in the second person. But that doesn’t mean people are wrong to tell stories that way.

I would encourage writers to think – when they choose first, second, or third person perspective – about why they want to write that way. The answer can be, “It just feels right to me and I like it,” – any story should first and foremost satisfy you the writer. But if you want other people to read your story, it does help to think about how they are likely to read it.

At the moment, most people are most likely to get on with a story told in the third-person limited. You’re more likely to get pushback on a first-person story if there’s no framing that explains why it’s told in the first person, but that’s still a lot rarer than it used to be. In general, second person stories are going to be a very hard sell. A lot of people are going to read that as being told that they themselves feel a certain way when they don’t.

That doesn’t mean don’t write it, it just means… think about your audience.

*Of course, there have also always been other ways to tell stories so as to be accessible to people who can’t hear or speak. Oral traditions predate writing, but one must assume that people have always been telling each other things with their hands and other kinds of body language. I focus on oral tradition as the most influential, and as something we have a record of.

Poem: On the Fall of Edward Colston

On the Fall of Edward Colston

Let them pull the statues down

Let them sing around the town

Let them scream in fascist faces

And disrupt the brutal stasis.


I have seen the soft rebuttals

All the pleas to be more subtle

But this speech in quiet voices

Smothers those who beg for choices.


Let them pull the statues down

Let them throw them on the ground

Let them vent their rage and pain

And find air to breathe again.


I’ve been silent and complicit

Made excuses to dismiss it

But I knew our heart was rotten;

Those in pain have not forgotten.


Let us pull the statues down.

Let us build a better town.

Let us force the fascists back.

I will help you to attack.

I wrote this last Sunday, to try to express my feelings at the news that protestors had removed the statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, and dumped it in the river.

The action was non-violent (no people were hurt), powerful, and important. Yet so, so many white people were flooding social media to condemn it. Their ignorance and thoughtlessness churned my stomach.

I, too, was raised in a society where peaceful protest was put on a high pedestal, and defined away so that the only protesting actions that were deemed acceptable were those that inconvenienced no one at all.

Protests must be approved by police first.

Strikes must be scheduled to ensure the least possible disruption to service.

A man kneeling when the national anthem plays is deemed shockingly disruptive. To the extent that he lost his career.

I only started to learn a little about civil disobedience when I studied philosophy at A Level. 16 years old and no one had mentioned it to me before.

Oh, I had heard of Martin Luther King. I knew he gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, and that he was killed. I knew about Rosa Parks solely because the character Odetta, in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three, was a black woman who had been involved in the protests, and she reflected on Rosa’s simple action of not moving from the ‘white’ section of the bus.

But I didn’t know what civil disobedience is or why it is important. That it is the action of breaking laws because those laws are unjust, as a form of protest. I didn’t understand until I took a A Level that most colleges didn’t offer, because it isn’t thought relevant to career development.

And even then, I don’t think I got it. How could I? I had been insulated from black history and the history of British imperialism my entire life. It had not featured at all in any history class. Oh, I learnt that the Spanish did terrible things to the Incas and the Mayans, but the British…?

Since then I’ve done work to try to understand. I know that there is a lot more work left to do.

For example: I did not know the history of Edward Colston, until those protestors tore down his statue.

I did not know that campaigners had petitioned to have the statue removed and been refused.

I didn’t know that the plaque on the statue described him as ‘virtuous and wise’.

I didn’t know that a new plaque was proposed that put his philanthropic contributions to the city in the context of his transportation of 84,000 enslaved people, of whom 19,000 died.

I didn’t know that the new wording was blocked by the Society of Merchant Venturers and revised wording that minimised his flaws has continued to be debated while black people in the city had to walk past the statue praising him.

Yet white people decry the destruction of this statue because the statue is supposed to be teaching us about history?

No one learnt anything from this statue but lies. And peaceful, law-abiding efforts to remove the statue to a museum, or even change the plaque to put the statue in the context of history, failed.

An MP – a Minister of Parliament – had the gall to compare this statue to the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum. (A historical site he also wrong thought to be in Germany, rather than Poland.)

A tweet from Simon Clark MP, replying to @IrvineWlesh: Irivine, it's precisely because Germany has bravely confronted her past that Auschwitz stands as a memorial of man's inhumanity to man.
The tweet has now been deleted, but responses to it are still visible.

Auschwitz is a museum that memorialises those murdered by the Nazis and presents the history of the terrible crimes conducted there for the purpose of education. The statue of Edward Colston celebrated him as virtuous. Virtuous! A man who transported 84,000 people into slavery and killed 19,000 of those.

Again: lawful attempts to place this statue in the context of Edward Colston’s violent history had failed. The statue was purely there to celebrate him and rewrite history to mention only the his philanthropic contributions. Contributions that were paid for with the blood of black people.

A better comparison would be what Germany did to the site of Hilter’s bunker: it is an unmarked and unmemorialised car park now.

Statues like this one don’t educate, they celebrate. And it is right that we remove them from our streets.

Martin Luther King is remembered by white people as an advocate for peaceful protest. But we should remember that he also said that ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’

Black people have been unheard for a long, long time.

I submitted my poem to a market that publishes poems in response to news stories. It was not accepted, and to be honest, I expected that. I hope they choose poems by black people, whose voices deserve to be heard above mine.

This is a poem for a specific moment in time, however. And it seems worth saying to share a message that other white people seem to be struggling to hear: something is very wrong in our society. And it affects black people disproportionately.

The celebration of slavers and other rich white men who perpetrated genocidal atrocities continues in our towns and cities is a part of what’s wrong.

We can stop that. We can say: we do not celebrate these men and what they did. We can say: these are not the aspects of our history that we want people to venerate when they come to our towns and cities.

We can remove the goddamn statues.

You can take action today.

You can write to your MP and ask for the removal of statues that venerate slavers. The website makes it easy to find out who your MP is and send them an email.

You can sign the petition to remove all statues of slavers across the UK.

You can sign the petition to teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum.

You can donate to support causes that combat racism and police oppression, such as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, and the Black Lives Matter UK Legal Fund.

It’s important that we educate ourselves and each other, but it’s even more important that we take concrete action to create change where we can. As a disabled person, I can’t get out and protest, but I can donate, I can write to my MP, I can sign petitions, and I can ask for change in the institutions I work for and with.

All of us can take some kind of action to build a better society. And we should.

2015 – that was a year that happened, didn’t it?

Me in 2015

I wasn’t going to write one of these. 2015 is… exhausting to think about.

I was so poor, and depressed, and ill at the start of the year. A week into January I had to ask for your help to pay my rent and my bills. I was flat broke and had exhausted all other avenues. It’s a humiliating and panic-stricken situation to be in. I am so very grateful to the strangers and friends who kept me afloat in that period. I quite literally would not have made it without you. In the end I raised £1,460 via Go Fund Me, and about £60 via my tip jar (that last may have been smaller, but was immediately accessible funds badly needed at the time!).

Thanks to you I kept a roof over my head and I was able to finish my PhD.

The PhD

Which I did. I submitted at the end of May and was examined at my viva on 26 August, where I passed with no corrections. I was completely floored. Having spent the previous year largely bedridden due to illness (and the two years before that ill enough that I often went immediately to bed after work), I spent the final months of my PhD frantically writing up in my supervisor’s office. He didn’t get to see a full draft before I submitted. I was convinced I’d have major corrections – another chapter to write at least! – but I didn’t.

I had typos.

And they decided to accept the thesis with them anyway.

It’s… a bit hard to deal with. I had no reason to think it would go so well. A lot of people had told me I couldn’t do it over the years, and that my depression and illness were symptoms of me trying to do something I wasn’t cut out for. I knew I was ill because of the poor diet I had adopted because I had no money and was depressed, and that I was depressed because of long-standing issues combined with the fact that so many people had no faith in me to do my PhD, which was the most important thing in my life. And now a few people have made comments along the lines of ‘You see, you had nothing to worry about!’ … I can’t sweep it under the carpet that easily. I can’t just set aside how difficult it has been.

Being happy about finishing my PhD is… complex.

I am looking forward to graduating, though.

Today I told a salesperson that my title was ‘Dr’. That was nice.

A New Mattress

I was ordering a new mattress when I did that. I can afford a new mattress now. That’s nice, too.

My current mattress is the one I bought at the start of my PhD when I moved in to share a house with my friend Fred. It was the first unfurnished place I had ever lived in. It seems a lifetime agio.

It was never a particularly good mattress, and it ceased to be anything but deathly uncomfortable years ago. I got a couple more years of life out of it with a mattress topper, but even that has been struggling for a while.

Imagine being bedridden on a broken mattress and too poor to replace it because you are too ill to work. It’s not fun.

I’ve been temping full time since June, and now I can afford a new mattress. It’s good.


Full-time income is really good.

Not working in the evenings and weekends is really good.

I have played a lot of Dragon Age. Which is really good.

Temping isn’t really good for me, though. I work with nice people and they don’t mind if I have blue hair, but I only get half an hour for lunch and is in an Enquiry Centre. I answer phones all day every day. I find phones very stressful. I have a very good phone manner, but phones are not good for me.

I need a job in something I’m actually trained for, but I can’t get an academic job without publishing, and I needed a break from all that, and I’m so tired when I get home from work that all I do is play Dragon Age.

And instead of losing weight after the PhD was over, I’ve continued to gain weight. Because work is stressful and there’s a food table at work and when I’m stressed I eat from the food table. Also, I have continued to be ill, so even though I have been exercising, I have not been exercising enough. Yeah.

Nine Worlds

I had my least ill Nine Worlds ever, which was nice. And I also gave my first paper on their academic track, which seemed to go down well. And I was on a panel about geekdom in academia. I enjoyed both a lot!

I also had an updated Daenerys costume, and I got to take part in Knightmare Live – childhooddream fulfilled!

For various other reasons I have a lot of anxiety right now about the thought of going back. I hope I will overcome them. Nine Worlds has been a real bright spot in some very dark times, and I would like to feel that way about it again.


Although I have done less editing overall this year than previously, it’s still formed a fair chunk of my income and was vital in seeing me through those last few months of my PhD. I’ve also expanded my client base of authors and come to enjoy working directly with people who know what they want.

My sincere thanks to all my clients for being wonderful and a joy to work with this year.


It’s not been a great year with regards to writing for me.

I had one story published – ‘The Runaway King’ in Fox Spirit Book‘s Missing Monarchs anthology. I got to second round with pro magazines more times than I ever have before, but nothing was actually accepted.

I’ve barely progressed at all with my novels.

Some of that is deliberate. I put a hold on more or less everything in order to finish the PhD, but I had intended to return to writing when I was finally free. I haven’t.

I have mostly just played Dragon Age.

Some of that is much needed rest. Some of that is still me not being particularly healthy. Some of it is the FEAR.

I need to get over it.

I’m 32 and my life has been on hold for the last nine years whilst I finished the PhD. I can’t bimble along waiting until I’m Ready to become a Writer anymore.


I want to have a full first draft of one of my novels before I’m 33. That’s six and a half months. It’s not impossible, but I need to get serious about it if I’m to manage to do that alongside a full time job.

I want to lose at least a stone in weight. I need to lose three or four stone, but I’ll settle for one. My clothes don’t fit and my health is suffering. This can’t go on.

I want to be earning more money this time next year than I am now. I’ve never earnt as much as I do now, but it’s temp work. There is no job security and I don’t get paid if I’m ill. I also have a lot of debts to pay off. Things are better now, but they’re still tight. I want to get out of this situation of limping by and owing lots of people money. I need a proper job.

That might be an admin job or a job in publishing or an academic job – those each come with varying levels of difficulty, but at some point I need to stop just coasting and take control of my life.

So. There’s three resolutions. I know a lot of people don’t believe in resolutions, but they have sometimes worked for me in the past. I want 2016 to be the year that everything changes for the better. A lot happened in 2015, much of it for the good, but there was too much hardship for me to really look back on it with any fondness.

Thanks to my wonderful friends who have been with me through it all. You’re very special people, and I’m inadequate in expressing quite how much your support has meant to me.

Thanks also to the friends, family, and strangers who kept me afloat this year.

And now I think I need to move on from thinking about 2015. I want to look forward, instead.

But, I mean…

[Cross-posted from my Tumblr, In Search of the Happiness Max.]

Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay, A Room of One’s Own, which I come back to again and again when I see in myself and others the struggle to engage in intellectual pursuits whilst beset by poverty and the impossibility of peace and quiet and the room to fully develop complex thoughts, starts with an unusual word:


But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own?

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

It is an essay that starts with a conjunction. It is an essay that starts with an interruption. It embodies how opressers (especially white men) constantly seek to cut the less privileged off before they get started. She has only given the title of her lecture and already her interlocutor has cut in to object. Wants to argue that she hasn’t understood the question. Devalues her right to speak. To have been invited to talk on women and fiction in the first place.

After all, she is only a woman who writes fiction. What could she have to say? How could her thought about the room possibly be something she could explain to be relevant. The connection is not immediately obvious (before she has explained it) so it could not possibly contain a ‘nugget of truth’.

And at the same time as embodying her interlocutor’s aggression and silencing, it is also her word, the word with which she begins her essay.

It expresses how women are constantly battling to find a voice. To force a wedge into conversation from which we have been excluded.

The combination reminds me of a man I once knew who became incredibly angry with me, because he perceived that I was always interrupting him. Which was not true. What would happen would be that I would start a sentence, he would interrupt me before I had completed my thought, and then when I sought to complete my thought – or (very frequently) correct the assumption he had made about what I had been trying to say (he almost unfailingly assumed I was trying to say something very simplistic, something he could easily debunk) – he would become furious that I had been so rude as to interrupt him.

I was both interrupted before I could fairly get started, and having to interupt to find a way back into the conversation.

Because men don’t make room for women to talk in the pauses between their sentences.

I watched this same man constantly allow other men to talk over him. He would begin a sentence and then stop when another man started talking. He would attempt to interject in another man’s talk and acquiesce entirely unruffled when the other man pressed on to complete his thought.

My problem was twofold: a) I listen when other people want to join a conversation and allow them to speak, to voice counterpoints; and b) he would not permit me to complete a thought the way he would another man.

And thus it is for women to attempt to speak and voice our thoughts and get them out whole. So too, I think, with other people who are oppressed, in the presence of those with privilege over them. Although, it is a complex thing. A gay white man may still talk over a woman; a disabled white man may find himself ignored completely, and so on. Privilege and oppression are not a single axis.

People who have been marginalised are perceived as being at the edges of conversations. Always butting in. Even when they sit at the very centre of the issue. Even when they have been asked to talk on that issue.

And what intrigues me is the language we see evolving, especially in places where the less privileged feel more free to talk and to experiment with language.

I find it with my own writing. I take a conversational tone on my blog, and somehow that winds up with me starting a lot of my posts with ‘So,’. There’s no need for it. In formal writing this would be a faux pas. Drop the filler word and just make your statement. Not ‘So, there was this thing I was watching the other day’; rather: ‘I was watching x’.

But that filler word is important in the speech of marginalised people. It’s how we get our foot in the door. It’s very rare that we simply be allowed to speak, just because we want to. ‘So’, ‘But’, ‘And’, ‘I mean’, these are ways of us interjecting without immediately launching into the thought no one wants to hear. The thought we need a breath to formulate when people aren’t talking over us. These ways of beginning are often labelled as ‘weak’. But Virginia knew the truth.

These aren’t things that weaken our language. These are tools we use to crowbar our way into getting heard.

And it’s not just my idiosyncrasy. Tumblr, renowned (or notorious, depending on one’s perspective) for social justice, is full of people beginning posts with ‘I mean’, ‘OK, but’ and ‘But what if’ – as though they were entering an existing conversation, rather than starting a post fresh. And where in a conversation with an oppressor such terms can make you feel weak, on Tumblr they are lighthearted, freeing.

I do think they reflect the patterns of talk of people who are used to joining conversations in an underconfident way, but they are not taken as underconfident in that context. They are taken as reflective of the fact that on Tumblr we are in conversation. Not a literal back and forth (the platform is uniquely poorly set up for that, as a form of social media) but an evolving exchange of ideas between people who are not being interupted. You say as much or as little as you want in your post, and people engage, for the most part, by reblogging or liking that post – by spreading your thoughts, rather than interrupting or smothering them.

It’s also part of the linguistic signalling that identifies Tumblr users as part of a group. Dispite the fact that it is an unusually diverse group. That’s how we talk, here. It goes along with the linguistic ticks of using no punctuation or capitalisation to suggest a certain tone. And it’s done in the presence of people who rejoice in language and provide fascinating analyses of the evolving syntax with which we are engaging.

If I start a post with ‘I mean’ on Tumblr, I know I’m not likely to be judged for it, because everyone there knows what I’m doing. They speak the lingo. They are already listening. They are a part of my conversation and they have decided to let me talk.

It’s a powerful thing. Turning the brokenness of being constantly interrupted into strength and community.

I wrote a poem today


I went to tea
with my heroes today,
Eagerly awaiting
what they would say.

Lucy the Brave
and Susan the fair –
Daenerys, Khaleesi
Unburnt, was there.

Susan to the
Khaleesi said:
“Your brother, I hear
you burnt his head.”

Queen Lucy frowned,
“A little harsh, I think.
We forgave our brother
such terrible things”

Daeserys shrugged.
“I killed him not,
but Drogo’s crown,
he found it hot.”

Cersei snorted.
“The crown was yours!”
“I know, but still–”
“Male poison pours…”

Rapunzel frowns
“I don’t agree
My prince, he risked
his life for me.”

“And then what?”
she said, “He takes you to bed
That nary you worry
your fine little head.”

“The head from whence
your locks did flow,”
she sighs, “They cut
off mine, you know.”

Alanna the Lioness
raises her mane
“I cut off my own,
and I’d do it again!”

“I believe the point,”
said Susan, thinking,
“Is that you did it for you,
and not for your king.”

“King,” Susan laughs,
High king,” she says.
“But not a high queen,”
adds the Lioness.

“Not even a queen,
not anymore”
Susan replies
eyes to the floor.

“A queen, but a girl
forever,” Lucy says,
“Forever alone
And forever unwed.”

who had sat quiet, immobile,
Pours her own tea,
then addresses the table:

“Ladies, when you say ‘queen’
I think twice
What really you mean
Is Sacrifice.”

Missing Monarchs Photoshoot!

My author-copy of Missing Monarchs arrived – Eeeeeeeeeeeeee! Quite obviously only one thing to do: PHOTOSHOOT!

Me, posing with my copy of Missing MonarchsMe, posing with my copy of Missing MonarchsMe, posing with my copy of Missing MonarchsMe, posing with my copy of Missing MonarchsFor those not in the know, Missing Monarchs is the Fox Spirit Books anthology in which my story, ‘The Runaway King’ was published earlier this year.

It’s super awesome because it contains ME, but also because it contains stories by cool people such as Lou Morgan, Jo Thomas, Chloe Yates, Geraldine Clark Hellery and more!

You can buy this as a Kindle ebook, or as a paperback.

OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! Missing Monarchs is out today and I am in it!

Cover art for Missing Monarchs

Cover art for Missing Monarchs

I’m so excited! Missing Monarchs is finally here! And inside it is my story, ‘The Runaway King’!

Missing Monarchs is a Fox Pocket Anthology – flash fiction on a single theme collected for your pocket-book delectation. My story is a sweet little tale of love and abdication.

Other amazing authors in this anthology include Lou Morgan, of Blood and Feathers fame; Jo Thomas (aka Journeymouse); Chloe Yates; Geri Clark Hellery and more!

You can buy this as a Kindle ebook, or as a paperback. (An ePub will be forthcoming from Spacewitch.)

Full contents below:

Graham Wynd – Headless in Bury

Emma Teichmann – In Absentia

Lou Morgan – Oliver Cromwell’s Other Head

Jonathan Ward – The Collector

Victoria Hooper – The Lost Queen

Ro Smith – The Runaway King

Geraldine Clark Hellery – The Blooding

Rahne Sinclair – Monarch of the Glen

Michael Pack – Paths in the Forest

Jo Thomas – the Lost Kingdom

Christian D’Amico – Matriarch

Paul Starkey – Checkmate

Chloe Yates – Tits up in Wonderland

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I’m excited – you should buy it!

Proofread Along with Rhube #4: Colons and the Rules of Grammar

An excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of GawthwateMost people find colons to be more intuitive than semi-colons, but even so, it helps to have a clear idea of when to use them, rather than just a general feeling. Some confuse them with semi-colons, or have a general uncertainty about which is appropriate and, where intuitions are confused, it’s easy to go wrong. There are also a number of myths about colons. All of which can turn something that’s actually quite straightforward to use into an intimidating nightmare.

But never fear! Rhube is here!

What I’m gonna do, first off, is give you the rules of colon use. If you follow these, you’ll be doing it right. But I’ll also go on to debunk some of the myths about colons that might be floating around confusing you about which rules are the real rules. Then I get into what this rules business is about, anyway, and my thoughts on how to walk the line of creativity vs intelligibility in the matter of using and breaking the ‘rules’.

Colons: the Rules

When to use a colon:

1. to introduce a list (such as this list)

2. to introduce an explanation or example that clarifies the clause that precedes it

The example in my excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate (above) performs both these functions (lists often perform an explanatory or expansive role for some aspect of the clause that precedes them):

Calith learnt all the skills he was going to need in battle: sword fighting, lances, archery and that sort of thing

This is both a clarification of the kind of skills Calith needs in order to go into battle, and a list of those skills.

Note that sometimes (usually only in non-fiction works) a colon can be used to introduce what is called ‘displayed material’. It’s ‘displayed’ in the sense that it’s set off from the rest of the text – typically by being placed on a separate line (or lines), with extra line space before and after, and often also indented (set further into the page horizontally), as is the case with the quotation above. Displayed material will perform one of the two roles listed above, but note that listed items are usually only displayed where they constitute a full proposition (statement/independent clause), rather than a single word or brief phrase. Quotations are usually only set as displayed material if they are quite long, or if they are of a form where parts of the text are divided by ‘lines’ (i.e. poetry, lyrics, plays).

Styles differ as to how displayed propositions should be treated. These can be numbered (‘1, 2, 3…’, ‘i, ii, iii…’, ‘a, b, c…’) or bullet-pointed. Bullet points are less accessible (they are harder for screen readers, used by blind and visually impaired people, to process), so I try to avoid those. If you do use bullet points, some people will tell you to put a semi-colon at the end of the bullet point. Grammatically, this is wrong. Bullet points are used for independent clauses, just like semi-colons, but they render the semi-colon unnecessary – they perform the same role. However, I have been told that bullet points are made more intelligible to screen readers if used in conjunction with semi-colons, so then you have to choose between style and accessibility. I prefer not to use them at all to avoid the conflict.

Numbered lists introduced by a colon also should not have terminal punctuation. A lot of people want to use a full-stop at the end of each one. This doesn’t make sense, in that each is part of a list introduced by the colon, so they’re all part of the same sentence, and therefore shouldn’t be punctuated by full-stops. You also really ought not to include more than one sentence in one bullet point or numbered proposition (where introduced by a colon) – it’s supposed to be just one point you’re making, and if you’re using more than one sentence, you’re making more than one point. If you really feel the need, try a semi-colon instead, but where possible, consider if the point doesn’t really deserve it’s own line. Also, consider that numbered lists permit of more than one level. Your first level can be numbered ‘1, 2, 3…’, and then you can have sub-lists of points dependent on 1, or 2, or 3, numbered by ‘a, b, c…’ or ‘i, ii, ii…’ (convention is to avoid using the same type of numbering more than once in your list, as this confuses the reader and inhibits your ability to refer back to numbered statements later on). Some people like to put a full-stop at the end of the final numbered statement, ending the ‘sentence’. I prefer not to. I follow OUP style, which treats displayed lists as a break in conventional punctuation, but I can see the argument the other way, and have worked with style guides that recommend that.

At the end of the day: if it’s up to you, and there is disagreement amongst style guides, pick what you like and stick to it; if you’re working for a company or person with a specific style guide, you follow the style guide, regardless of person feelings.

Colons: myths

A lot of people think that you need a capital letter after a colon. You do not. The thinking is that, when it comes to colons and semi-colons, you obey the dot at the lower level. I.e. colons have a point at the bottom, so they should be treated like full-stops, and the next letter has a capital letter; semi-colons have a comma at the bottom, so they should be treated like commas. This is misguided. There are no full-stops or commas in either colons or semi-colons. They are their own symbols, they merely resemble commas and full-stops in form. If you’re using a colon or a semi-colon then you are making the decision that you want whatever follows to be treated as part of the same sentence as what has gone before. So you don’t use a capital letter after a colon as though you were starting a new sentence.

EXCEPT, where  a colon introduces displayed material that is the start of a new sentence (typically only in quotation), OR where a colon introduces a question. Not all style guides agree on these exceptions. But the thinking is that sometimes a colon allows you to introduce a whole new sentence. This is typically only in the case of questions, because the tone of the independent clause following the colon is entirely different to the tone of the sentence prior to the colon. Prior to the colon is not a question, after the colon is, and we indicate that by using a capital letter as though it were a new sentence.

Personally, I’m inclined to never use a capital letter after a colon. However, when I’m editing, I follow the guide given. It’s like the golden rule of editing and proofreading: house style always trumps personal preferences.

Another myth is that you can also use semi-colons to introduce lists and explanatory clauses. I don’t know where this one comes from, but I suspect it originates in a desire to use semi-colons combined with an uncertainty about when to use them. Some people seem to view semi-colons as anathema, others as though they are a mark of sophistication. At the end of the day, they are neither. Colons and semi-colons are tools, and to be effective they need to have discrete roles.

Rules, flexibility, and creativity

You may be concerned about this laying-down-of-rule-ness. Didn’t I say in my first post that it’s all just convention, and a lot of the conventions conflict? Well, yes. All of language is convention, and language is by nature fluid and dynamic and always changing. The flipside of that is that we need to hold some stuff still in order to make sense of the rest of the moving masses. And, actually, as much as language is fluid, the vast majority of it is widely agreed upon within the language – that’s what distinguishes one language from another. In English, we all agree that a cat is a ‘cat’, whereas in French it’s a ‘chat’, and whilst those are similar, they are distinct, and we distinguish ourselves as language users by which group of rules we broadly stick to. And whilst larger groups of languages share similar punctuation rules, there can be some variation, there, too. So, where the English use quotation marks, the French use guillemets: « »

So, some of it is about making sure we’re all doing enough the same to be understood. Most writers are in the business of wanting to communicate with their readers as easily as possible, so it’s best to follow the central conventions of your language. When I say that something is a ‘rule’, that’s what I’m saying: that if you don’t follow it it will be jarring and/or confusing to your reader.

Sometimes, you may have a specific reason for wanting to do something even though it might be jarring to the reader – or even because it will – especially if you’re into experimentation with form and style. You just need to be sure you know why you’re doing it, and what affect you’re trying to achieve. Emily Dickenson made heavy use of the ‘dash’ in place of conventional punctuation, both to give her poems a sense of urgency and as a deliberate violation male, patriarchal restriction on female creativity. e. e. cummings’s use of lowercase and avoidance of full-stops also represent a break with tradition and a rejection of artificially imposed absolutes. These are interesting and creative innovations that have changed the way we view language today. But if you think using a semi-colon where a colon is needed sends a similarly important message, you may wish to check with yourself whether the message you intend is going to clearly come across.

I really hate the oft-asserted idea that you ‘need to know the rules before you can break them’. There’s a strong whiff of elitism about it, and I feel like it introduces an extra layer of uncertainty that inhibits creativity. Most of us have successfully internalised the majority of the rules of grammar. Human beings are really startlingly good at understanding one another and how to use at least their first language. I think if you tell people that they need to know the rules before they can break them there’s an implicit attempt (conscious or not) to control who gets to be an innovator.

I don’t think most people who say ‘You need to know the rules before you can break them’ consciously mean to inhibit other people – I think there’s a deeper, better truth, which is what they intend to convey, bundled up with this uncomfortable baggage. And this is the truth that there is a difference between making a deliberate violation of traditional grammar and simply ignoring the rules because you think they don’t matter.

It’s a fine line. It’s difficult to provide a rule for when it’s ‘OK’ to break the rules, which is why I think people go for the overly restrictive version – it’s easier to encapsulate. What is the difference between a deliberate violation of traditional grammar and simply thinking that grammar doesn’t matter? Is not thinking that traditional grammar doesn’t matter itself an act of rebellion? I think the answer is ‘In some cases’.

How I would make the judgement call is based on how likely your aim is to come across to your reader. At the end of the day, language is all about communication. You can choose to stop trying to use the form of language – the signs and syntax that are usually used for words and sentences – to try to convey meaning, but at that point, you’re no longer engaging with language at all. You just look, superficially, as though you are. As long as you’re still trying to convey something to your reader, the success of that act is still going to play a role in determining whether your methods were suitable to the task.

Text-speak is widely criticised as laziness and a failure to learn rules – always be wary of criticisms of language innovation that go in the direction from privilege and age towards the less privileged and youth, especially where they use words like ‘laziness’. But what we see is actually the development of new rules designed to facilitate a specific purpose: quick and easy communication. The users of this language group are often criticised from outside by complaints of ‘But I can’t understand a word you’re saying!’ It’s tempting to see this as satisfying my criterion of failure-to-convey-meaning, but the crucial point is that the ones who are failing to understand are not the intended recipients of the meaning. Text-speak has its own grammar and rules – rules which are understood by those who use it. Those who will not take the trouble to learn those rules when they wish to communicate with those who use it, they are the ones who are being lazy. Or, perhaps more accurately: disingenuous. For if they had really wanted to communicate, they could have learnt the rules – they are not that complicated. The ire comes not from the laziness of text-speak users, but from a frustration with being expected to learn new rules when one has already learnt a set of rules for a shared language, and from the sense that one is being excluded from communication by those to whom one expected to be able to communicate with ease.

Which, of course, is one of the purposes of text-speak: to exclude parents and the uninitiated. One can have legitimate reasons to be frustrated with being excluded from a conversation, but falling back on elitism to try and bully the other person into talking in a way you can understand is an action one should be wary of.

'Hello, world' rendered in leet-speak, lolcat, and doge.What I find particularly wonderful is that from functional adaptations, like text-speak, and deliberately exclusionary languages, like 1337 (AKA ‘Leet’), we see an evolution of language experimentation, and joyful play in other internet-languages, like lolcat, and, more recently, doge. There have even been translations of The Bible into lolcat, and a LOLCODE coding language. These are breakings of the rules of grammar with the intent to forge new ones, and for which an expression of joy and playfulness is a central component of most communications using these rules. Laziness? No, not in translating the Bible into lolcat, or devising a whole computer code in lolcat. But there is a definite intent and the rules have been broken and reforged with purpose.

And note that, although people have since retro-analysed lolcat and doge for grammar rules, these evolved organically. You can break the traditional rules of grammar without either trying to or even necessarily being able to articulate the traditional rules yourself.

But if you want to be a successful communicator with some audience, you should think about whether the way you break old rules or forge new ones is likely to communicate the desired effect upon the reader. Even if you only think about it in such as way as ‘If cats spoke, it would be with imperfect grammar and spelling’ or ‘If dogs spoke, it would be with great enthusiasm and they would be easily distracted’. Playing with languages doesn’t have to be stressful or overthought, but understanding the rules can help you to make informed judgements about when to break them.

Proofread Along with Rhube #2: Clauses, Sentences, and Paragraphs

A dissection of what's wrong with the opening sentence of The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate.

It’s tempting to jump right in and just tell you about the things that a) people are asking me about, and b) I see come up most often in manuscripts. But I believe that understanding the whys and wherefores of a thing not only helps you to make the best judgement calls, it also makes the rules (even where you choose not to obey them for stylistic reasons) easier to remember. I could tell you that one of the uses of a semi-colon is to join two independent clauses, but if you’re anything like me, that’s just gonna make your eyes glaze over at the impenetrability of an unfamiliar language.

So, we’re going to talk a bit about the nuts and bolts before we get on to the big headliner pieces, like when you should use a semi-colon, as opposed to a colon or a comma or a full-stop. There will be thrills, there will be chills*, but not quite yet. Like I said in my first post, this is all about demystifying grammar and spelling and what constitutes good style.

Today, what I’m going to be talking about are the main ways that we divide things up. What are the chunks of things that we use when we’re writing? Clauses, sentences, paragraphs… One of the really unhelpful things that teachers can say to pupils trying to master these basic building blocks is that a clause should be ‘just one thought’, or a sentence should be ‘just one thought’, or that a paragraph should be ‘just one thought’. Teachers say things like this because they don’t want to confuse you with technical terms, and because, from a certain point of view, all of these statements are true. The trouble is that the way in which we’re using the word ‘thought’ is vague. With my philosophy hat on, I know that the idea of singling out a single ‘thought’ is something of a ludicrous fool’s errand – the concept is vague, and our brains don’t work like that. If you read and write enough, then you do get a kind of a sense of what it is for a sentence to be ‘just one thought’ as opposed to a paragraph being ‘just one thought’. But the vagueness of this understanding is such that when you come to a moment when you’re not sure if you need a comma just there, if what you’ve written should be one sentence or two, if your paragraph needs splitting up, you’re just not able to make a decision with confidence.

So, what I’m gonna be talking about today is how to divide things up.


We’re not going to delve too deep into clauses in this first round. There are lots of different types of clauses – independent clauses, subjunctive clauses, dependent clauses, and many more – don’t worry about learning all that just yet. The important thing to get behind is the basic structure of a clause. So, let’s have some definitions:

The essential nature of a clause is that it should have a subject… and a predicate

The New Fowler’s Modern English, Third Edition, R W Burchfield (ed.)

Wonderful. Now, what’s a “subject”? What’s a “predicate”? Well, just as there are different types of clauses, there are different types of subject – Wikipedia has a nice table of the different types of subject – but don’t worry about the niceties too much. The main thing to remember is that the subject is what the clause is about, and the predicate tells us something about the subject. We also sometimes say that it ‘modifies’ the subject. Typically, the predicate is formed of a verb and an object. So, another way of describing a clause is to say that it’s something that has a subject, a verb, and an object (this is what Grammar Girl goes by).

I know, I know, more terms. What’s a verb, then? It’s sometimes called a ‘doing word’. In fact, ‘to do’ is a super interesting verb, as its function is to stand in the place of any other verb. Like, if I’m not sure whether you’re touching your toes or tying your shoelaces, I might say: ‘What’s she doing?’. The wonderful word ‘do’ allows me to ask about your activity whilst not even knowing what it is. The downside of this is that to define a verb as a ‘doing word’ is to define it by reference to a particular verb whose function is to stand in place of other verbs, which is circular, and thus not very helpful. Another way of putting it is to say that it’s an action word. Verbs, then, relate subjects to objects, in the sense that the verb is the action the subject is taking on the object.

I love you

I = subject | love = verb | you = object

So in this sense we can understand the subject as the thing that acts, and the object as the thing that is acted upon, whilst the verb is the action. Note that action, here, doesn’t have to be physical action. In one sense, there’s nothing I’m physically doing when I love you. I might be sitting perfectly still, with a blank face, thinking wistfully about you. Mr Darcy loves Elizabeth Bennett, but from a certain perspective (hers) he doesn’t act as though he does for most of the novel. Nevertheless, he holds the attitude of love towards her, and his holding of that attitude is a kind of action.

So, a clause needs to have a subject, a verb, and an object.

‘But,’ you may be thinking, ‘I am sure I have seen things that are called clauses that do not have all three of those things! Was I just being fed nonsense?’

Maybe. You might have gleaned, or been told, that commas are used in a sentence to delineate clauses. In which case, you might look at something like ‘or been told’ (in the previous sentence) and go ‘Well, I think I can see the verb, but where’s the subject? Where’s the object? Who has been told what?’ This is where complex sentences become… complex. Because what’s going on is that this sentence has more than one clause. It’d be helpful, here, to say something about what a sentence is.


In a simple, technical sense, we can say of a sentence that it should have a subject, a verb, and an object. But ARGH – that’s just what we said clauses were! Don’t worry. The key thing is that some sentences are just one clause long. These are called ‘simple’ sentences. ‘I love you’ is both a simple sentence and a single clause. So is ‘Do you love her?’ and ‘You will love me’ – sentences don’t have to be statements; they can be instructions, questions, commands, and so on. Complex sentences combine one or more clause. For example: ‘You love her, don’t you?’. ‘You love her’ is the main clause of the sentence, and it is an independent clause, because it could be its own sentence. Strictly speaking ‘don’t you?’ could not be a complete sentence; it depends for some of its content on the first clause. The verb that ‘do’ is standing in for is ‘love’, and the object is ‘her’. A full version of this clause would be ‘Do you not love her?’, but we can save time and space by making this clause parasitic on the first clause, and putting it in the same sentence.

I say ‘strictly speaking’ that ‘Don’t you?’ is not (in a technical sense) a sentence. But, of course, in practice, a lot of our sentences (or what we think of as sentences) are just like this. Because conversation, and even prose, can become quite stilted if every sentence has to explicitly spell out its subjects and objects and verbs. In practice, ‘Don’t you?’ doesn’t actually have to be in the same sentence as the verb and object that would complete it in order to make sense. In fact, you could be the one saying ‘I don’t love her!’ and I could be responding ‘Don’t you?’, and we both still know what I’m talking about, even though the object and  (proper) verb weren’t even spoken by me at all. The context fills in the gaps, and we’re perfectly happy to allow such incomplete sentences into our language.

So, that’s one reason you might have a multi-clause sentence: to speed up talking. It might also be because you want to make a lot of modifications to the same subject all at once. So, for instance, if I’m describing a character and saying ‘Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword’ I could say ‘Brienne was tall. Brienne had broad shoulders. Brienne had blue eyes. Brienne had impressive skill with a sword.’ Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s rather tiresome to read. So, I have a stylistic motivation to put it all in one sentence; moreover, I’m doing the same thing in all these sentences: describing Brienne; so I can quite easily make these separate sentences into dependent clauses, taking the verb and subject from the first clause. Why can’t I just do that for a whole paragraph, then?


I might want to say, in a single paragraph:

Jaime had conflicted feelings about Brienne. Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword. There was much to be admired in her. She could hardly be called feminine, though. Not in the way that Cersei was.

(This isn’t a quote from A Song of Ice and Fire, by the way – I would never slight George R R Martin by suggesting his prose could ever be so prosaic.)

OK, so, these sentences all belong in the same paragraph. Why? Well, they’re all involved in making the same point: that Jaime has conflicted feelings about Brienne. Why split them up into discrete sentences, then, if they’re all about doing the same thing? Well, let’s try it (just using the tools at hand, for the time being**):

Jaime had conflicted feelings about Brienne, Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword, there was much to be admired in her, she could hardly be called feminine, though, not in the way that Cersei was.

Ugh. That’s a bit of a mess to read, isn’t it? But why is it a mess? It’s because we’ve got a bunch of competing subjects and verbs and obejcts and it’s not entirely clear which bits should relate to what. We move from Jaime feeling conflicted to a description of Brienne, to a remark about the description of Brienne, to an unrelated criticism of Brienne, and finally, to a comparison of Brienne with Cersei. And that’s because there are a bunch of independent clauses, and a bunch of dependent clauses, but what is and is not dependent on what has not been clearly delineated. This is what your teacher meant when they said that each sentence should be a single thought. Identify the main thing your sentence is about: what subject, what verb, what objects that verb relates that subject to. Anything that relates to a different subject or verb should be given its own sentence. (There are, of course, exceptions to this, but just get the hang of this basic principle for now.)

This not only makes for easier reading, it makes it easier to see the relations between the sentences. That ‘There was much to be admired about her’ is a comment on all the attributes assigned to Brienne in the sentence whose focus is on describing her. And by grouping all these points together in a paragraph we can see how they support the central claim of the paragraph: that Jaime was conflicted in his feelings towards Brienne. He notes certain things about her. He likes those things. He notes another thing about her. He notes that he doesn’t like that aspect of her so much. He likes someone else better who exhibits the opposite. We divide these points off from some other points that may come before or afterward (maybe regarding what Brienne is currently doing, maybe about what Jaime wants her to do) because it’s easier to see how they support this central point if they are separated out from things that do not relate directly to that point.

Now, you may be thinking, ‘Oh God, I can’t be doing with thinking about all this shit every time I write a paragraph!’, and that’s fine. A lot of this stuff you have absorbed subconsciously without even knowing. Where this will help you is when you don’t know what to do. When a sentence or paragraph feels wrong, but you don’t know why. If the paragraph is really long, ask yourself what its central point is. If you realise that there is more than one, separate out which sentences support which point and put them in different paragraphs respectively. If a sentence is confusing, identify the main clause. If you think there might be more than one, separate out the clauses into different independent clauses (ones that could be their own sentence), and those clauses that are dependent on each of those independent clauses.

But remember, there are stylistic reasons why it can be OK to not follow these rules exactly. Maybe you want to have a paragraph that’s just one sentence and the sentence is simply ‘No’. You could do this if the previous paragraph makes it clear what is being negated. For example:

‘I know you love me! Tell me you love me!’


Here ‘”No.”‘ is standing in for ‘”No, I do not love you. No, I will not tell you that I love you.”, but it’s more dramatic, firmer, if it just reads: ‘”No.”‘. We can tell what the full sentence would be from context, though, so it’s fine. It can be an incomplete sentence (what Word likes to call a ‘fragment’), and it can be a paragraph of only one sentence, because the point of the paragraph (to deny that the speaker loves the previous speaker) is obvious, and the subject, object, and verb are implicit from context.

So, them’s the bare bones of how to divide up your prose. Go forth and punctuate!

*Subject to availability.

** We could use semi-colons to make this a bit better. It would still suck, though, and I just want to illustrate why separating with commas will not do, right now.

(Read Proofread Along with Rhube #1)


Index to other Proofread Along with Rhube pages.

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