In praise of Helen, Goddess of Punctuation

I've been deep in major edits for the last week or so, and this tends to put my head into a weird place. Just ask my wife Helen, who has to put up with me in this mode.

Helen is, of course, the perfect name for the wife of a Classical Greek mystery writer. She's my first reader for everything. I know I have a scene right when I want to read it out to her before I'm finished.

Helen is the Goddess of Punctuation. When she checks my writing, the conversation goes something like this:

Gary: What did you think of the scene?

Helen: There's a missing semi-colon on the first page, I fixed all the commas and broke up several sentences that were too long and--

Gary: No no no! What did you think about the story?

Helen: The story? Oh, it was fine.

At least, that's what used to happen. We now have a deal whereby she has to keep her hands off the text and can only comment about the story until the book's finished. Then Helen is unleashed and she fixes everything. Kathleen, Janet and Jo have all commented how clean my manuscripts are. It's nothing to do with me and everything to do with my wife.

Helen has an astonishing memory for text of any sort. She not only knows off the top of her head the phone number of everyone she's ever called, she can tell you what their phone numbers were twenty years ago too. I haven't remembered a single phone number since we got married; I don't need to when I have a walking database beside me. Helen used to do immigration law, when she could recite from memory the entire immigration act. Not only that, but the applicable law for a visa is whatever it was on the day of application, and there are hundreds of tweaks made to the rules every year. If you nominated any random date, Helen could recite what the law was on that particular day. This remarkable ability found its way into my stories.

Here is Diotima, wondering why the other priestesses are a little bit annoyed with her. Nico says:
“I suppose, when you arrived here, they asked you to learn the local prayers?”

“Every temple in every city has its own festivals and rituals and prayers. I could hardly do my job if I didn't know them.”

“Tell me, did you by any chance learn the rituals better than women who've been here for years?”

“Well...maybe,” she admitted. “The actions were a bit complex, but mostly I only had to remember some simple lines.”

“How many simple lines?”

“I don't know, I didn't count. Should I have?” She chewed on her thumbnail as she thought about it. “I did get through all the rituals for the year, plus the special events...umm, three thousand, maybe four thousand?”

“Let me guess; you had them word perfect within a month.” Diotima could recite much of the Iliad from memory. If she hadn't been a woman, she could have become a famous bard.

“Eighteen days. Practically all of it rhymed.”

“And now you're wondering why the other priestesses dislike you? Diotima, couldn't you at least pretend to make a mistake?”

“Is it my fault their memories aren't good?”
Despite her outstanding memory Helen has zero willpower when it comes to study. When we were first going out she did everything in her power to avoid studying for her law exams. This drove me up the wall, to the point at which one day I removed all the shoes from her apartment so she couldn't leave, and then left her to spend the day with nothing to do but study. When I returned that night her oven was spotless. She'd spent the whole day cleaning it.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I like Helen already! You can always tell when I'm procrastinating- my house gets amazingly clean.

Sounds like you're a lucky guy!

So does this mean you're done with this round of edits? This isn't for the first book is it?

Gary Corby said...

I am indeed a very lucky guy! I should have added Helen's unique ability to do no study, swear she'd failed every exam, and then garner credits and distinctions.


The edits I'm doing are for book 2 which has working title The Magnesia Sanction. I can promise you that title will change.

Am I done with edits, after a mere week? Oh no! To paraphrase John Paul Jones, I have not yet begun to edit. I could easily keep going for another month or two.

(Janet just fainted...someone please catch her...)

Seriously, this is major revision #8, and it's a big one. I'm rather hoping it's also the last, but you know, I say that every time.

Amalia T. said...

I'm jealous-- I have to twist my husband's arm to get him to read my stuff, never mind checking my punctuation.

Good luck with the editing!

Merry Monteleone said...

Your Helen sounds awesome, Gary! Though, if someone had done that to me, I'd have gone and borrowed a friend's shoes and spent the day out just to spite them :-)

You're very lucky with all the writing support from your wife, too. My husband doesn't read anything I write, and usually thinks I'm wasting time when I'm on the computer, even when I'm working on paying articles. (I kind of get the thinking that the fiction isn't real work as I'm not getting paid for it yet - though it's still pretty annoying that he thinks it's any less important than what he does.) sigh. Yep, you're very lucky. You should go buy her a nice dinner or something.

Mimzy said...

Hmm, I'm hearing that I need to limit the boyfriend search to those that have a mind like a steal trap and posses l33t oven cleaning skills. Excellent. I hate cleaning the oven.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia & Merry, it seems I should also be praising Helen for something I took for granted: she reads every word I write, sometimes over my shoulder, but usually holds out until there's a coherent story. She doesn't like to read scene by scene but prefers to see the whole thing in one go.

I've been under-appreciating; thanks for letting me know.

Gary Corby said...

Mimzy, I can set you up with a couple of young guys I know with a future in writing. Their names are Patrick and Dan. But I'm pretty sure their oven cleaning skills are minimal.

scaryazeri said...

My husband gets annoyed when I ask him how to spell a word, or whether it needs an "a" or "the" in front of it- a typical mistake of a non-native speaker. As for reading my stuff...None of my family do, except for my mother.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Scary,

I have to ask...having read some of the posts on your blog about life as a young woman in Baku...what does your mother have to say when she reads them?

A Writer said...

Ha, you did a blog post about this! That's great, because I was telling Luke (while he was being forced to read my WIP) about Helen, but I couldn't remember just everything you said.

Spouses make awesome critique partners--we just have to realize and (gulp) accept that they may not always be 'into' the story.

Great blog post, Gary

Bill Kirton said...

Strange to read of writers' partners who take little interest in their writing but I know it's more frequent than one would suspect. My wife is a great critic and always constructive. In my second book there's a rape scene. She read it and made suggestions for amendments which would never have occurred to me. Mind you, when she read a scene in the first book where the detective sits in his car at a traffic light watching schoolgirls cross in front of him, she did say to me 'So, you fancy schoolgirls, then, do you?'

Joanna said...

Aha! So THAT'S why that scene is there! Well, Helen's fantastic memory and outstanding copyediting skills aside, you know my feelings on this...
But I do feel like we (your editorial boon companions) owe Helen something for all of her hard work on these stories. After all, if it weren't for her, Ephialtes wouldn't have been in shipshape for submission. I will have to think of the perfect gift for her--and you better bring her next for your next visit!

As a sidenote, I gushed about you to every writer who would listen at Crimebake this weekend. You have some new fans awaiting pub date!

Janet Reid said...

I love Helen.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Ah, yes, I've heard of Helen.

The ace that staunched a thousand slips.

Seriously, Gary, you've got a treasure in Helen.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jonathan, I believe the usual joke is that a milli-Helen is the standard unit of beauty required to launch one ship. And yes, I'm very lucky since I have a full Helen.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jo,

Yep, I agree about the scene. Luckily for us, I'm not sentimental.

There are actually 3 biographical events in Magnesia Sanction. I think you've got enough information to spot the other two.

Thanks for the PR at Crimebake! Hope I don't disappoint. I'd love to turn up to these things but it's tricky.

As for Ephialtes being shipshape, that had a very great deal to do with you too, and very grateful I am.

Gary Corby said...

Bill, you've put me in mind of something else...negotiating with my wife over the fate of characters. It's worth its own post. Thanks!

Gary Corby said...

Janet, when I got home I told Helen your comment that she would have made a good contracts manager.

Come to think of it, Janet & Helen would make a fairly terrifying team.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Oh, I love that Helen is a grammar stickler! That's me in spades. For years (truly, almost a decade) I was that person who quibbled over commas and phraseology in the critique group.

But alas I don't have Helen's admirable memory. My husband does. He remembers every phone number we ever had as well and can have happy conversations with people about every neighborhood we ever lived in, the local haunts and personalities and quirks. I'm far more fickle: once gone, I abandon all the details....

Gary Corby said...

Hi Sophie! Your gorgeous grammar shines through in your writing. Never a word out of place!

I'm afraid commas are a bit random in my world. To compensate I work fairly hard to make everything sound right and flow easily.

Your husband sounds the perfect person to have around when you need to supply some realistic detail in a scene.

scaryazeri said...

Gary: What's wrong with life in Baku as a young woman? What was it I wonder that I wrote that made you think my mother would disapprove? :)))

Bill: Schoolgirl fantasy, your blog post about breasts....I can understand your wife's concerns! LOL

Joanna said...

I know, I know! The other two biographical scenes in Magnesia are when they drink from the well and when Nico and Diotima are hiding in the closet...right???


Gary Corby said...

You got the well right. It exists to this day, and I drank from it as Nico does.

I wish I could claim the closet was true, but sadly the one which happened (to me) is what Nico's doing immediately before Araxes says, "Gah!"

This is a bit unfair on everyone else...sorry for the teasers.

Just Another Sarah said...

Amen, Helen! Keep the semicolons in there!

Gary Corby said...

I think we're all pretty safe on that one, Sarah. Just yesterday Helen was asking when she could do another round on the second book, after I've finished some major edits.