books

“You said Moira had the baby but you didn’t use an exclamation point.”
“So?”
“I just found it curious.”
“What’s so curious about it?”
“Well, if one of your close friends had a baby I’d use an exclamation point.”
Seinfeld, The Sniffing Accountant

I’ve been thinking a lot about exclamation points (or marks) lately.
I was reading a thriller by a male writer when a single exclamation mark leapt out at me. It was to punctuate the fact that someone had just been fatally shot – surely, like the baby news of Elaine’s friend from Seinfeld, an event worthy of an exclamation mark.
Yet I sometimes wonder how – and why – the exclamation mark has crept into modern discourse … and whether it truly belongs there.
Certainly, Elmore Leonard would agree with me: in his book the 10 Rules of Writing, he once said, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” He kept his word (or words), too: in 45 novels, he used 49 exclamations per 100,000 words.
The late, great Terry Pratchett seem to have agreed:  “Five exclamation marks … the sure sign of an insane mind,” he wrote in Reaper Man.
Contrast that with James Joyce, who plastered – festooned, even!!! – his three novels with thousands of exclamation marks.
Perhaps there is one rule for writers of gritty crime fiction such as Get Shorty: another for authors of indulgent stream-of-consciousness odes like Ulysses.
Writer Tom Ewing was onto something when he said the exclamation mark was a “kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes”: another arrow in the quiver of the writer to grab the attention of the reader.
And today’s social media-obsessed world is all about those eyeballs. We’re desperate for clicks and tweets and shares.
As Neil Postman posited in his seminal work Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business, we’ve become a visual rather than a literate society.
He discussed this idea decades before everyone started expressing their emotions with gifs and memes and emojis rather than words, but he was on the right track.
The old rules of grammar and punctuation are disappearing.
Words have lost their primacy: the visual is all.
And no punctuation mark is more visual than the exclamation mark.
Today, there is no escaping them. You use them every day. So do I.
How often do we tell someone to “have a great day!” on social media? Or type “OMG!!!”? Or describe a meal or a person or a TV show as “amazing!”?
Why, sometimes we just type “(!)”.
To not use exclamation marks on social media is to suggest we are as emotionally dead inside as Elaine’s soon-to-be-ex boyfriend Jake.
On social media, we are all James Joyce.
Personally, I feel the Joycean use of exclamation marks outside of social media to be intemperate: to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “like laughing at your own joke”.
For me, the exclamation mark is the literary equivalent of the apocryphal “Millennial Participation Award”, where everyone gets a prize regardless of achievement or merit.
Verily, it is the Seinfeldian “puffy shirt” of punctuation.
In print, exclamation marks should be banished to the realms of children’s books, comics and Hansard records. To see them in serious works is an inky dagger thrust into my soul.
Perhaps there is a reason why exclamation marks are known as “dog’s dicks” in journalism, an unwanted sight to be marked and removed by the sub-editor’s red pen.
One can forgive the occasional act of Joycean exuberance in papers – such as the Japan Times & Advertiser’s headline of December 8 that “War is On!” after Pearl Harbor or the San Francisco Chronicle emoting that “Japan Hit By Atom Bomb — Mightiest Weapon In History!”
Yetr more preferable is the sober restraint of The New York Times’s headline “Men Walk On Moon”.
If the fact that we slipped the surly bonds of Earth to explore our universe didn’t deserve exclamation marks, then maybe Moira’s baby announcement didn’t warrant one, either.

My new thriller Game Of Killers: The Spartan is available as an ebook and paperback!

Inspired by the excellent story in The Guardian about how Wyl Menmuir wrote his first, Booker-longlisted novel, The Many, I offer you the uncensored diary of writing my own, unpublished, second novel, The Last Newspaper On Earth.
Enjoy.

Day one: Bursting with ideas. This will be the best book ever!
Day two: Put in a killer second sentence: “And then the murders began.”
Day three: Drink four coffees in quick succession. Manage to pound out 2000 words. And they said Graham Greene only wrote 500 words a day. Slacker!
Day four: Reduce the 2000 words I wrote yesterday to 500 as the rest are mostly caffeine-infused gibberish. Wonder if Greene had it right all along, seeing how he wrote Brighton Rock, The End Of The Affair and The Quiet American.
Day seven: Ask a friend to act as my editor. He says he’d be honoured, as long as it doesn’t take up too much time and that I know how to take criticism. “I’ll show YOU criticism,” I mutter to myself, an instant ball of rage.
Day 10: Wonder about padding out the plot with copy from 19th-century horror novels out of copyright. Laugh like a maniac. “This secret will remain between you and me, Bram Stoker,” I cackle as I hit control “c” and “v”.
Day 11: Friend/editor wonders whether aristocratic vampires have any place in a tale about the decline of newspaper publishing. “Of course they do,” I reply.
Day 20: Read a story, possibly apocryphal, about an author who shot himself in the foot so he would be forced to finish his novel. I stare down at my foot, wondering where would be the least painful place to shoot myself. Also wonder where I could get the least-painful gun.
Day 40: Friend/editor says the main character isn’t likeable.
“Is he based on you?” he asks impertinently.
Day 50: Spice up a dull scene where journalists are sitting around a table at a news conference with a sudden explosion.
Day 55: Make my character visit an orphanage so he will seem more likeable. Friend/editor loves it.
Day 60: Filled with sadness as I glance at the Amazon ranking of my last book. Is this new effort also destined to end on the scrapheap, next to the biographies of sporting heroes who have fallen out of favour due to sex scandals?
Day 61: My main character interviews a sporting hero who has suddenly fallen out of favour due to a sex scandal.
Day 65: Up to 20,000 words. Celebrate by throwing in a spicy sex scene for my unlikeable main character.
Day 75: Reward myself with a digestive biscuit.
Day 80: Wonder if Tolstoy also had days where he thought everything he wrote was crap. Day 85: Friend offers to install a social media blocker on my computer to remove distractions. “Hemingway never would have agreed to that,” I tell him.
Days 90: Wonder if it’s too late to change it into a children’s book. Anyone can write those! Just look at all the celebs who do it.
Day 125: Editing a particularly dense piece of text, my friend/editor says: “You should consider the reader’s point of view.” “Why would I want to do that?” I reply.
Day 145: In my novel, the internet is starting to affect newspaper sales. The fictional newspaper editor shows the staff a website that is eating into our classified sales. “As the editor hits ‘return’, the computer suddenly explodes,” I type.
Day 150: Break the 50,000 word mark. Huzzah!
Day 170: Friend/editor whittles the 50,000 words down to 40,000. Leave an anonymous one-star review of his own book on Amazon, accusing him of being a “pulpy hack”.
Day 171: Friend accuses me of writing the one-star review. I deny it. When the review is mysteriously deleted, we both mutually agree to never bring it up again.
Day 180: My character is disturbed by the number of redundancies in the newspaper industry. I go down to the harbour and stare moodily at the sea for a few hours.
Day 200: Italicise the name of a book, but don’t bother unitalicising the comma next to it. No one will notice it – or the gaping holes in the plot.
Day 201: Friend/editor notices the gaping holes in plot.
Day 210: My character has an Aaron Sorkin moment, standing up on a table in the newsroom and lamenting what will happen to the world if quality journalism continues to decline. Pathos!
Day 220: Up to 80,000 words! Friend says more needs to be cut. I remind him of a story from my days in magazines where a company actually sold their magazines by weight. “Is that what you plan to do?” he asks, incredulous. “Sell your books by weight?” “Why not?” I reply. “It works for chocolate.”
Day 250: Near the end. I wonder if I really need an end. Can’t it just end abruptly, like in The Sopranos? Maybe even mid-sentence? Or with an explosion?
Day 265: Hurrah! I finish the final sentence. Light a Cuban cigar, then choke as I remember I hate smoking.
Day 270: Friend/editor yet to get back to me. Does he love the ending? Or hate it? I can’t bear the almost Hitchcockian suspense.
Days 277: Friend hates the ending. “It’s simply not believable that our ‘hero’ goes back in time, destroys the internet from ever being created, and thus ensures the survival of newspapers forever.” “That sort of thing works for Doctor Who,” I reply meekly.
Days 278: Friend gets back to me. “I know how to rewrite your ending – and realistically save newspaper journalism forever!” he says. The simplicity and brilliance of his subsequent idea astounds me. I wonder why no one ever thought of it before.

My ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.