One of my learnings as I’ve been writing and reading other authors’ work is the importance of subtlety.  Rather than spell out what has happened or what is going to happen, it is often better to imply and let the reader draw his/her own conclusions, or guess.  Obviously, there are times when it is necessary to be explicit: for example, when an author wants to elicit strong  feelings in the reader.  But there can be a fine line between developing strong feelings about a character and the reader developing negative feelings about the book.

Sex is one area where I feel, now, that less is sometimes more.  Presently, I feel that the use of explicit words can interrupt the reader’s attention, and force him/her to develop an explicit mental picture of what is happening.  Depending on the reader’s reaction, the explicit picture may or may not be erotic, or enjoyable.

Here is an example of the more explicit approach from my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas:


He stepped into the shower and closed the door behind him. They embraced, luxuriating in the delicious feel of wet skin against wet skin. He redirected the shower head so that it did not spray into their faces. They began a long, sensuous French kiss, their hands wandering over each other. Caterina’s legs had drifted apart, and his fingers found her black curls and then her secret cleft. “Oh, Jamie, don’t stop.” Her hand found his erection, and began to stroke. They moaned into each others mouths, their hearts racing and their breathing erratic, as they clung more strongly to each other, their eyes closed. She became rigid and stifled a cry of release.

“Oh, yes!” he groaned, and she opened her eyes to see his semen disappear in the streaming water.

They kissed slowly and lovingly, holding each other close.

Oh, God!

“What a beautiful way to start the day!”


And here’s a sample from my latest novel, which will be sent for final editing next week:


“Mary Jo, I must have tried to visualise you as you are now a hundred times.”

There was a slight giggle. “I didn’t try to visualise. I tried to feel your touch and smell your body. Now, it’s so nice to be real.”

He run his hand slowly and repeatedly from her cheek to her knee, pausing at her breast, her navel and her mound. “God, you’re a beautiful woman!”

“Well I’m not, but I’m glad you think so. Let me see your scars.”

She raised herself to a sitting position. She giggled again. “Rob!”


“You know perfectly well what.”

“What am I supposed to do about it?”

“Nothing right now. Maybe later. How many stitches do you have here?”


Another area where caution is required is in descriptions of violence.  Violent scenes are sometimes necessary: they may represent an essential turning point in the plot; they may shed clarifying light on one or more of the characters, but too much clarity can turn the reader off.

Writing my latest novel, I discovered the importance of the use of ambiguity in the description of what has happened to a character, what she is doing, or what she is thinking.  Sometimes, if one paints too clear picture of these events, we are forced to develop a specific view of the character: strong approval, or disapproval.  What the author may want is a feeling of ambiguity about the character: I like her, but . . .  So,  for example, in my latest novel, one of the main characters may have become pregnant by her brother.  The circumstances and the symptoms are not clear.  What did she (and he) do?

Punctuation: the comma

There was an article by Harry Mount in The Daily Telegraph recently.  It was titled: “Commas and colons: without them we’re sunk.”

Harry Mount (born 1971) is an English author and journalist, since 2009 a frequent contributor to the Daily Mail.  He has written several non-fiction books; topics include his time working in a barrister’s office, British architecture, the Latin language, and the English character and landscape.



I don’t know Harry Mount, but he looks like a presentable, intelligent chap.  In any case, what he said about punctuation makes sense to me:

“There’s one aspect of grammar that’s wonderfully simple and easy to learn. . . . Putting aside a few really obscure punctuation marks, the 15  main elements are: the full stop; colon; semicolon, comma, apostrophe, quote marks; question mark, exclamation mark;  round brackets; square brackets; hyphen; dash; asterisk; ellipsis and slash.  Most of these are pretty easy.  Even people with dodgy grammar can use practically all of them pretty well. . . . It’s mainly the comma and the apostrophe that let people down.  The apostrophe gets wickedly abused and not just  by grocers.  The comma is underused, particularly in its agile capacity as a throat-clearer, a pause-provider and direction market in a sentence.  Just look at Churchill’s famous speech – and one of his longest sentences – without the merciful assistance of the comma (and the odd semicolon):

We shall fight on the beaches we shall fight on the landing grounds we shall fight in the fields and in the streets we shall fight in the hills we shall never surrender and even if which I do not for a moment believe this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving then our empire beyond the seas armed and guarded by the British fleet would carry on the struggle until in God’s good time the New World with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

“Without the commas, Churchillian prose loses all its careful pacing – and you’re lost, too.

“Punctuation, more than anything else, turns the written word into the spoken word inside your head.  Know your punctuation, and you can magically signal to the reader of your writing when to speed up; when to slow down; when to make the prose flow; when to give it a stop-start, staccato rhythm; when to pause; when to trail off into ellipsis . . .

“Without precise punctuation, who could tell the difference in meaning between these two sentences? (a) “My favourite things in the world are Abba, tartar sauce, and fish and chips on the last fairway.” (b) My favourite things in the world are Abba, tartar sauce and fish, and chips on the last fairway.”  It’s the Oxford comma there that distinguishes between the keen gourmet and the keen golfer.

“At first hearing, an expression such as “the non-restrictive comma” will freeze all but the biggest brains.  But explain the difference between “Sailors, who are drunks, are dangerous” and “Sailors who are drunks are dangerous”, and most children will get it in a second.  Insert the non-restrictive commas and you’re being rude to all sailors; take them away and you’re being rude only to the restricted group of sailors who are drunk.”

Summer Reading

There was an interesting article in The Daily Telegraph on July 8th which was subtitled: “‘I couldn’t put it down . . . Holidays are not the time and place to read books that you think you ought to read’, says A N Wilson. So, yes, leave Thomas Piketty at home.”

Wikipedia informs me that “Andrew Norman Wilson (born 27 October 1950) is an English writer and newspaper columnist, known for his critical biographies, novels, works of popular history and religious views. He is an occasional columnist for the Daily Mail and former columnist for the London Evening Standard, and has been an occasional contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, The Spectator and The Observer.”


Mr Wilson says that “there is a revealing and amusing survey that has been conducted  by a maths professor for the Wall Street Journal.  It is based on the ‘popular highlights’ chosen by users of the Amazon Kindle and comes up with a list of the summer’s ‘most un-read books’.  In the past when we only read books in book form, it was impossible to know, scientifically,  how far the average reader had penetrated into , say, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time – an impenetrable work, which it is sometimes tempting to believe that no one, except, perhaps, the book’s original copy-editor, has ever read to the end.  But now that so many of us read books on Kindle, it is possible to make an educated guess about how far the average reader has got.

“Each best-selling book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers.  These extracts, designed to whet the appetite of other Kindle users, would – if they represented a thorough reading of the works considered – surely contain quotations from the whole book, and not just from the first few pages.  Jordan Ellerberg has come up with a playful ‘Hawking Index’ with which to estimate how much of a book most people have read.  The top five ‘highlights’ from Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, for example, all come from the final 20 pages of the book, which suggests that 98.5 percent of readers made it to the end.  Highlights from Michael Lewis’ page-turning analysis of financial sharp practice, Flash Boys, suggest most people only read the first 21.7 percent of the book.

“And how about the book we of the Chattering Classes are all supposed to be reading and talking about this year – the French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century?  Here the quotes do not dig deeper into his 700 pages than a pathetic 2.4 percent – in other words, Piketty, the great economic sage of our time, is as unread as Hawking, our greatest scientific sage.

Wilson goes on to observe that, for most of us, a holiday is a time of relaxation with the distractions of children, sightseeing, family and friends.  He says, “Many is the thick paperback edition of some supposedly ‘great book’ that either gets left behind in the rented villa or hotel, or comes back home with only its first 30 pages smudged with sun-tan lotion.  The idea that this should induce ‘guilt’ is absurd.  Although to be as well-read as possible is a sort of duty of any intelligent person, this does not mean that it is a duty to read Plato’s Republic on a beach, or Proust by the poolside.”

Wilson says that the best sort of holiday reading is short.  In this case, he would probably recommend taking Hemingway’s short stories along, and I would agree.  In my view, the best summer reading is something that keeps inviting us back, all the while keeping us interested.

Of my own works, I would recommend Sin and Contrition (there’s a different sin in every chapter, and a discussion with the sinners at the end).  Or Efraim’s Eye or The Iranian Scorpion (both are unique thrillers).


Review: The Guns at Last Light

I bought this book on the recommendation of a friend who fought (and won a Silver Star) in the Second World War.  It was well worth reading, although the text runs to 641 pages (plus 234 pages of Notes, Sources, Acknowledgements and Index).  There are 16 pages of photographs, as well.

This is volume three of the Liberation Trilogy written by Rick Atkinson, and it covers the war in Western Europe, 1944-1945, beginning with the invasion of Normandy.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  The other two volumes of the Liberation Trilogy are: An Army at Dawn (covering the war in North Africa, 1942-1943) and Day of Battle (covering the war in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944).

For me, the most remarkable aspect of The Guns at Last Light is the enormous depth of research that went into it.  In fact, Atkinson says in his Acknowledgements that it took him fourteen years to write the Trilogy.  Every battle is described so that one feels like a well-informed observer, and there are maps aplenty to which to refer.  One is left with a clear understanding of what the objective of the battle was, what went right and what went wrong, and, and what difference in made, ultimately.  The story is largely told from the viewpoint of the relevant commanding officer, but with commentary provided by junior officers and even enlisted men.

The focus is strategic, rather than tactical, and Atkinson reinforces this emphasis with portraits of the officers in command.  These portraits are formed from the comments of colleagues, superiors, subordinates, others and the individual himself.  For example, Eisenhower comes across to me as a man who had an extraordinary ability to motivate, cajole, an occasionally order wayward senior officers to pull together in the same direction.  Montgomery comes across as an egotistical prima donna, who over-rated his own skills as a general.  These portraits come alive through timely, pithy remarks that Atkinson has found and included.

There are statistics on everything from the quantities of ammunition expended to the number and sizes of boots used by the GI’s, but they are inserted at appropriate moments.  Moreover, the battles behind the lines are covered, as well: particularly logistics; but also care for the wounded, injured  and dead; and ‘recreation’.

Perhaps the one thing which is missing is the perspective of the individual soldier in combat, though there are many brief comments on what it was like.  To be fair, I think it is impossible to tell so sweeping a story from the perspective of both the commander and the individual soldier.  What does come across clearly it the enormous physical, mental and spiritual hardships that the soldiers endured.

The story is not told entirely from the allied point of view.  There are passages which cover German activities, from Hitler on down.

For as long as it is, this is not an easy book to put down.  The writing is fresh and innovative.   There is a sense of immediacy.  One knows in general, how things will turn out, but once a particular battle has begun, one wants to find out exactly what happened and why.  When one does put it aside, it is easy (and rewarding) to pick it up again.

Because of my own interest in Italy, I’m planning to ready the second of the Trilogy books.

If you’re interested in military history, they don’t come any better than this.