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Do we need a punctuation mark for sarcasm?

29 January 2010


According to the Telegraph, a company has made thousands of dollars selling software and fonts to express sarcasm. The so-called SarcMark is a spiral with a dot in the middle, and is supposed to be used like a smiley to tell people when you're being sarcastic.

This is a great little ruse, and full credit to the company for actually shipping their idea. We've all had situations where people haven't understood we're being sarcastic, even in person. And if you want to join in the joke, it's probably worth $2 for the bragging rights.

But this misses a key point: if people can't understand you're being sarcastic, the fix is not to put a squiggle on the end to tell them. There is a saying that using an exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke, and the SarcMark must surely be even worse. The solution is to make your words work harder: intensify the language you use. When people can't tell you're being sarcastic, your sarcasm isn't good enough. If you know there's a potential source of confusion in your words, rewrite them. Punctuation is not a 'get out of jail free' card.

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Amazon offers Penguin book deal in novel writing competition

28 January 2010


Strictly speaking, it's less of a "novel writing competition", and more of a "novel written competition", given the timescales, but Amazon's new promotion is a fantastic opportunity, all the same. One lucky author is going to walk away with a Penguin book deal and an advance of $15,000 (over £9,000).

There are just two categories: general fiction and young adult fiction. Up to 5,000 novels will be accepted into each category. Eligible works are between 50,000 and 150,000 words. Both unpublished and self-published works can be submitted (although works under contract anywhere else are excluded, obviously). The closing date is 7 February 2010, but if you're serious about entering, you should do so as soon as possible. I think there's a good chance this competition will be oversubscribed.

With that many books to try to process, most of them will be entirely unread. Books will be evaluated first on the basis of a 300 word overview, and then in later rounds on the basis of an excerpt. The overview isn't a synopsis: it needs to sell the book's concept and themes, and so is more of a cover letter. Some might think it's unfair that only 300 of their 100,000 words are being read, but this is a microcosm of the entire publishing industry. It's no good having your best bits buried on page 37. Publishers Weekly will review 500 full manuscripts, and Penguin will read 100 of those.

Ultimately, Amazon customers will select the winning novel from a shortlist of six. This is a good way to ensure there is a market for the resulting novel (a bit like Pop Idol on the tellybox), but it does also tend to skew the results towards mainstream works. A romantic comedy is likely to win out over a political satire, purely on the basis of market demand. But the satire might have been the better book, and the better publishing decision if the publisher has ideals beyond market share.

As always with competitions like this, you need to check the small print extremely carefully. By entering this, you're effectively agreeing to Penguin's contract terms and royalty rates unseen, although I think you retain the right to walk away.

To find out more and start preparing your entry, visit the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award microsite.

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Should writers study for an MA?

21 January 2010


Andrew Motion has come out in support of creating writing courses, according to a story in The Times. He said: "People who had no qualms about RADA, or the Royal Ballet School, or the Royal Academy, were wont to say that writing couldn't be taught ... and implied that this sort of tutoring was a form of cheating, like taking steroids if you were an athlete."

His quote is in the context of prize-winning authors. The Times expresses concern that publishers might go fishing for writers on creative writing courses instead of seeking out talent in the wider writing community.

On the one hand, perhaps it's reasonable to expect authors to make an investment in their future and to take their profession seriously. If you want to talk to major publishers about your novel, you need to have a good answer for why they should talk to you. How do you stand out among the thousands of people trying to get their attention? Many of these are wasting their time, so how do you prove you're not? Having an MA shows a level of commitment to your craft that goes above and beyond what most people have invested.

There is a risk, though, that publishing becomes increasingly elitist. It can cost over £7,000 to study for an MA in creative writing, which effectively excludes that option for most writers. And while an MA might show that you've applied yourself to the study, it's no indication of the initial talent you're building on, or the consistency or originality of your ideas. The time required to study for an MA also excludes many people who could write (or indeed have written) a novel.

While an MA will certainly be of intellectual and creative value, does it make good business sense? The Bookseller reported last year that mid-list authors are having their advances cut. Are publishers offering higher advances to authors with an MA? That seems unlikely. It might take two or more novels before the investment in the MA is repaid, unless the first book turns out to be a massive hit.

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