An article in today’s The Daily Telegraph caught my eye.  On page 5, the caption is “The genius of Shakespeare is in grammar, not the words.”  It goes on to say:

“For centuries, Shakespeare has been celebrated not just for his genius as a playwright but for creating many of the most commonly used words and phrases.
But an academic has challenged the view of Shakespeare as the father of modern language, claiming that he was no more inventive with words than his contemporaries”

Jonathan Hope, from Strathclyde University, compared Shakespeare’s work with that of Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe.  These men were, in proportion to the volumes of their work, responsible for inventing just as many new words.  But, according to Mr. Hope, Shakespeare reinvented grammar, breaking away from the conformity of traditional rules.

“Mr. Hope highlighted a passage from Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4, where Shakespeare plays with the normal rules of English that demand a sentence is structured in the order of subject, verb, object.  In the scene the queen says to her son: ‘Hamlet, thou has thy father much offended.’  Mr. Hope explained: ‘In present day English we would expect, ‘Thou hast much offended thy father, Hamlet’.

As you may know, other languages don’t follow this subject, verb, object convention.  In German, for example, the verb is often placed at the end of the sentence.  So in German, it might be, ‘Thou, Hamlet, thy father hast much offended.’  To me, this sentence seems a bit awkward, because it’s not immediately clear who is the subject and who is the object.

Nevertheless, I am very much in favour of creating different sentence structures to make it interesting for the reader.  But more importantly, different structures can convey sightly different meanings by emphasizing one part of a sentence over another.

Let  me give some examples:

  • “Handsome John passionately kissed pretty Mary and held her hand in the dining room.”  (conventional, except that the prepositional phrase at the end kind of dangles)
  • “In the dining room, pretty Mary was passionately kissed by handsome John, who held her hand.”  (in this version, Mary and the dining room assume more importance)
  • “Having passionately kissed pretty Mary in the dining room, handsome John held her hand.” (here, that passionate kiss takes centre stage.)
  • “Having held her hand in the dining room, handsome John passionately kissed pretty Mary.” (here, that hand holding seems most important.)
  • “Pretty Mary was passionately kissed by handsome John, who held her hand in the dining room.” (pretty Mary is the key character here.)
  • “John, who was handsome, passionately kissed pretty Mary and held her hand in the dining room.” (John’s looks get extra emphasis.)
  • and so on

In my opinion, it can make boring reading if one sentence after another follows the subject, verb, object format.  Much more interesting to throw in prepositional clauses, adverb clauses, adjective clauses, and participial phrases (using a verb ending in ing, for example).


I am a non-violent person.  While I served in the U S Navy, I didn’t see combat, but I was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The only time I have actually been in a fight was when I was about ten.  At summer camp, I got into a fight with an older, bigger boy who didn’t like me.  (Come to think of it, I didn’t like him much, either.)  For the first couple of minutes, I was giving at good as I got, but then his superior size and strength took over, and I was beaten up.

Violence happens.  We all know that, and sometimes a writer finds himself in a position where he has to write about it.  When writing about violence, I try to keep several things in mind.  First of all, violence is fast moving, so the description has to move rapidly.  So rapidly that sometimes the reader has to fill in the details with her imagination.  Details just slow the action down, and the violence loses its horror.  To keep the action moving, I try to use short sentences, so that the action seems staccato.  When describing violence, I  want to minimise the number of adjectives and adverbs, sticking as close as I can to nouns and verbs.  This also keeps the action moving  rapidly.  Finally, I think it’s best to use hard clear (punchy) words.

Here’s an example from Fishing in Foreign Seas.  Jamie and Caterina are on their honeymoon in Mombasa, Kenya.  They are walking back to their hotel after dinner at a nearby restaurant.

The road was nearly deserted, it was hot, and Jamie had taken off his jacket, which was folded over one arm.

“Good evening to you!”  It was a male voice with a Kenyan accent.   Jamie turned slightly and saw the man, dressed in a brown T-shirt and jeans, overtaking them.

Jamie said, “Good evening.”

Then the man swerved toward them and said: “Give me your money!”  He was inches away from Jamie, who reacted without thinking.  He punched the man in his mid-section and then delivered a kick which sent the man to the ground.

“Give us your money, man!” This from another man who had emerged from the shadows in front of them.  He advanced rapidly toward Jamie, who suddenly saw the gleam of a blade in the man’s hand.  Jamie stepped back and flung his jacket at the man.  The jacket covered the man’s face, and as he came on, Jamie kicked out at him, connecting solidly with a leg.  The man sprawled headlong forward, dropping the knife.  Jamie seized the knife and stood looking down at the man.  The man rolled away, and got to his feet.  He glared at Jamie for a moment; then he said: “Come on, Joe.”  The first man struggled to his feet, and the two of them disappeared.

Then, there’s this example of bullying from Sin & Contrition.  It takes place in the boys’ restroom at school.  Gary and Gene have been demanding candy from Xing, a smaller, Chinese classmate.

“Oh hi, Chinkie,” Gary intoned with an insincere smile, “Where’s our extra candy?”

“I can’t get it,” Xing said softly, hurriedly rinsing his hands.

Gary moved close to Xing: “’I can’t get it, Sir Aramis’ is what you meant to say – right, Chinkie?”

Xing moved away and drew a paper towel from the dispenser.  “I can’t get it,” he repeated.

Threateningly, Gary said: “No, Chinkie, that won’t do.  We deserve to be treated respectfully.”  And he took a hold of the smaller boy’s shirt.

Wordlessly, Xing pushed Gary away.

“Now, just a minute, Chinkie.  We haven’t finished our conversation,” Gary said through clenched teeth, and he balled his right fist.

This time, Xing anticipated the blow, and turned so that it struck him in the ribs rather than the belly.  “Leave me alone!” he shouted, and he hit Gary in the throat with a chopping blow.

Gary recoiled, then rushed forward in a frenzy at having been thwarted.  He aimed a roundhouse punch at Xing.  Instantaneously, Xing blocked the blow with his arm, and landed another chopping blow, this time on Gary’s neck.

“You little bastard,” Gary shouted, realising for the first time that Xing knew how to fight.  “I’m going to fix you good!”  And he hurled himself at Xing, who was able to partially sidestep the rush, striking Gary in the belly.

Gary doubled over in pain, and Xing turned to go, but Gary attacked again – this time landing a solid blow on Xing’s shoulder.  Xing responded with a kick to Gary’s shin.

Gene, who had been watching, began to realise that his friend would not beat Xing in a stand-up fight.  “He’s too quick and he’s using Karate, or something,” he thought.  The two combatants jockeyed for position in front of Gene, with Gary taking the worst of it. The thought sprang into Gene’s head:  “I can’t let Gary down!  It’s ‘all for one’!”

Suddenly, Xing had his back to Gene, and Gene reacted immediately: he kicked out at Xing’s legs, landing a blow behind one of Xing’s knees.

Xing crumpled to the floor, and Gary flung himself onto the smaller boy.  In a fury, Gary began to pummel Xing, hitting him on either side of his head and in the face with his clenched fists.

Xing began to scream, and cry out for mercy, but Gary refused to stop until Gene grabbed Gary’s shoulders and shouted at him: “That’s enough, Gary!  You’re going to really hurt him!”

In painful triumph, Gary stood and looked down at Xing, whose face was bruised, battered and bleeding.  “That’ll teach you, you little shit!” he spat out venomously.

And, finally, this passage from Sin & Contrition.  LaMarr and his buddy Mason are on guard duty at a Marine base near Hue during the Vietnam War.

LaMarr was nervous.  He looked at his watch; the luminous dial said three fifty-three.  Still another two hours to go, he thought.  Quietly, he walked to the other end of his sentry position, brushing aside the invisible foliage.  Deeper in the jungle, a bird called out an alarm, and monkeys in the treetops took it up.  Something’s going on in there!  He stood still, listening.  Nothing but the monkeys, and now several birds.  Dawn was still an hour away, and he tried to peer through the pre-dawn glimmer.  Was that something moving over there – behind those trees – maybe thirty yards?  Yes!  It was something bigger than a monkey.  Now, two dark shapes.  No!  Three or four moving between those trees.  LaMarr shouted out the challenge: “September five!”  (to which the correct response would have been ‘eleven whiskey’) but there was no response. Even the birds and monkeys seemed to be listening.

LaMarr raised his rifle and fired a single shot above, but in the direction of the shapes.  Out of the jungle came a cacophony of yells and high pitched battle cries.  LaMarr could see a line of muzzle flashes ahead.  He shouted “hit the deck!” to Mason, whose position was thirty-five yards to his right.  From the ground, he realized he could see nothing.  He crawled rapidly to a large tree, and cautiously rose behind it, his M16 now on full automatic.  Peeking around the tree, he spotted the muzzle flashes again.  They were clustered right there!  He fired a burst from the M16, and paused.  There were several loud cries.  Were they orders or have I hit someone?  He heard Mason fire three bursts in quick succession, and from his muzzle flashes, he could just make him out – also standing behind a tree.  It was absolutely silent for a long moment.  Then there was a shout from the jungle.  That was definitely an order!  The battle cries and the firing from the forest resumed.  LaMarr heard bullets strike his tree; one tore off a chunk of bark just above his head.  He dropped down to one knee, but still able to see the enemy’s position, and partially shielded by the tree.  He fired until his clip was empty.  Pulling a fresh clip from his jacket, he saw Mason firing again.  “Take cover, Mason!” he shouted.

We’re bound to get some backup from camp soon!  Then he heard the shouting from the barracks behind him.  There was another period of silence from the jungle.  Suddenly, ahead and to his right a heavy machine gun opened up.  It was firing toward Mason’s position.  LaMarr fired a burst at it.  There was shouting from that direction, and then it resumed its loud, staccato chatter.  Bullets sprayed through the forest, tearing large splinters from his tree.

Mason shouted: “LaMarr, I’m hit!”

“Hang on, buddy!  I’ll be with you in a minute!”  Gotta get that machine gun first!  Rifle’s no good in this situation!

LaMarr crawled on his belly for perhaps twenty yards, hearing the clatter of the gun and its bullets flitting through the jungle growth above him.  He pulled a grenade from his jacket, and waited for the firing to cease.  Cautiously, he raised his head just it time to see the muzzle flashes as the gun directed its fire at the camp.  LaMarr pulled the pin and lobbed the grenade.  There was a loud concussion and a bright flash.  Then silence.  LaMarr could hear reinforcements pouring out of the camp, and he heard Mason moan.  Rising so that he could run bent double, LaMarr dropped down next to Mason.  “Where are you hit, buddy?”

“Here!”  Mason was covering his lower belly with his hands, and pleading.  “LaMarr, help me!  I don’t want to die!”

LaMarr said: “You’ll be OK, Mason!  Just hang in there!”  Then he shouted: “Medic! . . . There’s a man down!  We need a medic over here!”

Gently but firmly, LaMarr pulled Mason’s hands away from his wound.  In the semi-darkness, he could make out the dark stain which was spreading over Mason’s trousers.  “Let me get a dressing on you!”   He fumbled in his pack for the medical supply kit, and tore it open.  He wrestled with Mason’s belt and trousers until he exposed the wound: an ugly tear just below Mason’s navel, which was overflowing dark blood.  LaMarr tore the wrapping off the field dressing and pressed it on the wound.

Weakly, Mason said: “I can’t feel my legs, LaMarr!”

“You’ll be OK, Mason.  There’s a medic on the way.  I’ve got to get another dressing on you.”  LaMarr had seen that the first dressing was already soaked with blood, and he thought, Oh my God!  This is really bad!”

A Marine (actually a U S Navy Corpsman) dropped down beside them.  “Let me tend to him,” he said.

LaMarr removed his friend’s helmet, and softly stroked his head, which was cool and sweaty.  Mason’s eyes would focus on LaMarr’s face for a few moments, and then he would seem to be looking at the sky.  “I’m not going to make it,” he whispered.

“Yes, you will, Mason!” LaMarr was pleading, now: “Help is here!  There’s a corpsman tending to you.”

Mason seemed to relax, and his eyes looked only at the sky.

The corpsman reached up to feel Mason’s pulse at his throat.  He withdrew his hand, and sat back.  “There’s noting we can do,” he said, “I’m afraid he’s gone.”

LaMarr collapsed on his friend’s chest.  “No, no, Mason.  You can’t go, buddy!  Please don’t go!”  He pressed his cheek to Mason’s and wept.

(For more information about my novels, see


Professional editing of the completed manuscript is a process that most published authors have to endure.  I say ‘endure’ because it involves work on the author’s part and because it involves at least some implied criticism of the author’s work.  However, when it is completed, the process should have added value to the work, making it a better experience for the reader.

I am presently ‘enduring’ the editing of my third novel, and it has been a bit painful.  More on that later.  My first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas,was edited by a professional, freelance editor to whom I was referred by a company I contacted on the internet.  She returned my manuscript to me via e-mail with the proposed changes tracked in red.  Ninety-nine percent of her proposed changes were perfectly fine.  They included a few spelling errors (where the spell checker let me down), punctuation changes, and some grammatical changes (I have a tendency to use ‘which’ instead of  ‘that’), and a few syntax changes.   She also inserted questions or comments for me to consider in order to improve the clarity for the reader.  Most of her proposed changes were eliminating the second space I like to put at the end of a sentence.  (I think it makes the text easier to read, but editors and publishers don’t like a second space.)  Going through her proposed changes was actually an enjoyable piece of work.  I felt that she had improved what I had written.  So, I accepted 99% of the changes and sent the revised manuscript to my publisher.  The publisher (bless his heart) sent the revised manuscript to another professional editor, who produced about fifty new changes.  Many of these new changes were incorrect, and most of the rest were inappropriate.  So, having conceded on a handful of additional changes, I reminded the publisher that the manuscript had already been edited and that enough was enough.

In the case of my second novel, Sin & Contrition, I decided to use the editor which the publisher recommended in order to avoid the double editing.  The way this process worked was different in the sense that I was expected to make a list of the proposed changes with which I disagreed, but I was advised not to alter the marked up manuscript.  So, I sent the publisher a list of well over one hundred items I didn’t agree with.  A few weeks later I got the manuscript back with all but about ten of my items suitably addressed.  A few weeks after that, the last items were addressed.

The moral I take away from this story is that publishers (or at least my publisher) likes to be in control of the editing process.  It would be a lot simpler if the publisher could bring himself to trust an editor and the author to work together to produce a final manuscript.  After all, the author and the publisher have a common objective: producing a novel which is well and correctly written, and in this process, the editor is a kind of technical adviser.

My third experience with Efraim’s Eye is much more frustrating.  The original manuscript was written mostly in Arial font, but I changed to Lucinda Calligraphy whenever a character is speaking or thinking in Arabic.  The reason for this is to remind the reader not only of the change in language, but to remind him/her of differences in culture and values.  I also like to put characters’  thoughts in italics to distinguish them from the spoke words.  This serves to highlight the dichotomy when a character’s thoughts and his words are in conflict.  It’s also useful to see a character’s reaction to a situation immediately without the need to include “She thought . . .”

Well, the publisher likes to see their books in Times New Roman, which is prefectly OK with me, except to get there, the entire manuscript was converted to Times New Roman before it  went out for editing.  So, at a later stage, I’ll have to go back and check, page-by-page, where Lucinda Calligraphy should be inserted.  Moreover, the editor didn’t like my use of italics in thoughts, so all of that has been put back to plain text.  More page-by-page work to re-instate the italics.

But what I find most frustrating is interference in the author’s creative perogative – as well as lack of professional competence.  For example:

  • making arbitrary changes to a word or phrase which has nothing to do with spelling, grammar, punctuation, or logic, but which the editor happens to prefer.  I tend to write very deliberately; arbitrary changes are seldom improvements
  • deleting descriptive passages which the editor thought were extraneous
  • putting what was intentionally broken English into correct English.  Some of my characters don’t speak good English
  • not listening to the voice of a character: e.g. adding “pm” to a sentence which reads: He said, “I’ll see you at about four.”
  • editorial errors: for example: substituting “where” for “which”, using the plural of a verb when the singular is called for, punctuation errors, failing to capitalise titles and proper nouns
  • inconsistency

There!  I’ve had my rant.  I’ll get over my frustration, and the good side of the editing experience is that the author can learn quite a lot about his craft, his novel and himself.


In Fishing in Foreign Seas there are over 100 footnotes.  Nearly all of these footnotes deal with the technology of steam turbine-generators.  At the time, I felt that if Jamie (the principal male character) was going to be deeply involved in a $300 million negotiation for two of the largest, most powerful machines ever built, I should not leave readers in the dark.

The good news is that non-technical people who have read Fishing in Foreign Seas tell me that they had no trouble understanding the issues.  The bad news is that they feel there were too many footnotes, and that some were unnecessary and distracting.  Point taken.

This raises a question: should there be any footnotes in a novel?  In the novels I have written since Fishing in Foreign Seas (one published – Sin & Contrition; one about to be published – Bitter Charity; and one roughly half finished) I have reduced the number of footnotes to one or two.  Several of these stories involve characters speaking in a language other that English sometimes.  In these cases, I change font when the character is speaking in Arabic, rather than English.  And when this first happens, I insert a footnote which reads: “this font is used whenever the words spoken, read or thought are in Arabic rather than English.”

One might ask: is this really necessary?  Can’t the reader recognise that when character A (who speaks English and Arabic) is speaking to character P (who speaks only Arabic) that the conversation must be taking place in Arabic?  Yes, the reader might recognise this, but having a distinctive font is a clear reminder of differences in not only language, but also of differences is culture and values.

Sometimes a character will  use a word which is common in (Arabic), but which would not be used in English.  For example, a character might say, “Aleesha was wearing a hijab.”  Since the average reader might not know what a hijab is, I could put a footnote which says: “a headscarf commonly worn by Muslim women”.  The trouble with this, of course, is that it distracts the reader’s eye to the bottom of the page.  So what I would typically do in this case is to write:

Abdullah remarked, “Aleesha was wearing a hijab.” (a headscarf commonly worn by Muslim women)  

In this way, the word ‘hijab’ is briefly explained, without distracting the reader, and from the structure of the sentence, it is clearly not something that Abdullah said, but rather an explanation that the author has added.  The addition by the author becomes particularly obvious if what Abdullah says (in Arabic), within the quotes, is in a different font than the rest of the line.

So, I try to minimise the number of footnotes.  If I were writing Fishing in Foreign Seas again, I would dramatically reduce the number of footnotes, probably by including an appendix which explains the technical vocabulary.

(For more information about my novels, see