Dear Literary Selfies,
Don’t get me wrong. I think the breakout of self-publishing on Amazon and Kindle and whatever else is out there, is great. I love to write. And I write to be read. However, this market has been blasted by a tsunami of badly written prose that, with a proper editor, could have been at least a decent, entertaining read. Does no one proof this stuff?
A HUFF AND A PUFF WILL BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN
To write anything, from a simple blog post, to an essay, short story, or novel, you must have the right building blocks. You can’t build a house without a foundation and it won’t stand up without supports. You must have some structural rules to go by before you can build anything. Otherwise it will collapse like a house of cards — or sticks.
To attempt to write anything — even just a sentence or a paragraph — without at least a basic understanding of proper grammar, is like building that haphazard house of cards or sticks. It won’t take a huff and a puff to blow it down. A reader won’t tolerate too much writing like that before heading off to greener pastures. Why? Because it is, in a word, boring.
Yes, you MAY write ungrammatically on purpose, but you have to first know the rules in order to break them effectively. (That line is attributed to many famous people). Yes, feel free to build a house with an original, and even bizarre design. But it still has to stand up.
The flesh of prose gets its shape and strength from the bones of grammar. ~Constance Hale
Definition of a Grammar Checker – A software program that is not needed by those who know grammar and virtually useless for those who don’t. – Richard Turner
Don’t get me wrong. I do have to check behind myself for grammar and spelling. But that’s called “editing”. Nobody is perfect. That’s why there is a word called “editing”.
COMMA, COMMA, COMMA CHAMELEON
More and more, writers are using fewer and fewer commas. Likely, English writing could use fewer commas, but that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bath water. Commas are VERY necessary.
Making love to me is amazing. Wait, I meant: making love, to me, is amazing. The absence of two little commas nearly transformed me into a sex god. ~Jarod Kintz,Love quotes for the ages. Specifically ages 18-81.
STOP BEATING THAT DEAD HORSE!
Find a different word. That different word can be found in a thesaurus, which is not a flesh-eating dinosaur. These days a thesaurus is just a click away. No hunting up a dusty old book stuck away in the back of beyond. So why do authors insist on beating a dead horse with the same word over and over and over?
I once read a book called “Writing to Sell” by the late, great literary agent, Scott Meredith. It’s an old book and by now outdated in some ways, but the basic advice is priceless. He told of a client/author who came into his office once with a manuscript. Meredith liked the story, but advised the writer to quit using the word “stomped” so much. Your characters stomp everywhere, he told the man. They stomp here they stomp there. Don’t they ever just walk anywhere? At which point the writer stomped out.
I have never forgotten that little anecdote. In this day and time, Scott Meredith is probably turning over in his grave. In a book I recently muddled through because the plot was halfway decent, the word “tent” was used several times in one paragraph. “Windy” and “wind” over and over. And those are just the examples I wrote down. A simple example would be, “The boy stood on a hill. The hill was high and green. He walked across the hill, then walked down the hill and was already tired from his climb up the hill.” Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but no less so than some I’ve read in both self-published and published writings. That’s just plain lazy writing.
HE WAS SHUTTERING VIOLENTLY
You close the shutters if you are cold so you won’t shudder violently. Words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings are a bane to writers, but they can creep up on you. But the books I’ve read lately are rife with them, like weeds in the cabbage patch. Some examples I wrote down from both published and self-published are: roll for role; bridal for bridle; lay for lie; and tell for tale. I once wrote a headline in a newspaper that touted, in big banner print — “Men in Duel Roles”. Believe me. You never live those down. But at least I spelled “role” right.
MAYBE IT’S A HARRY JACK RABBIT
Also watch out for words you mispronounce and therefore misspell. A character in a recent reading experience went “harrying off”. Okay. Harry might have gone “harrying off” in a facetious way, but if the author meant “went haring off” he was way way off. The word comes from “hare”, a tall, rabbit-like animal with long legs who runs very fast. So your character must “hare off” if you want him to move fast like a jack rabbit.
Another writer-killer is redundancy. Check out this sentence from another example of my not-so-literary Kindle library. “The bridge was an ancient structure that had been built ages before.” Oookaaay. That’s as opposed to the ancient structure they built yesterday?
Or this one: “They walked through the winding valley they were in”. As opposed to walking through a place they were not in? The sentence should have ended with “valley”. The words “they were in” were completely unnecessary. As is the line that was written “where it wasn’t necessary to”. Of course, “to” wasn’t necessary. Then there was the author who wrote “went and joined”. Just “joined” was sufficient.
Then there was the guy who described his character as wearing a “venison coat”. Venison is deer meat — not deer hide. I don’t even want to think about that one. Oh, yeah. Lady GaGA did that already.
A KISS AIN’T JUST A KISS, HON
I was once asked to be a guest speaker on the subject of creative writing for a high school class. I gave them an immediate assignment. Describe your first kiss. If you haven’t been kissed, describe how you want to be kissed. Then I told them to describe how it felt. If it was soft and sweet, think of how to describe it to help their classmates “feel” the sensation for themselves. Those kids came up with some sparkling images that got an A for originality. And they didn’t even need a dictionary or thesaurus to help them. They loved the assignment.
Yes, you may have a great imagination and are good at telling a tale. But give your readers a break and learn the craft of writing. I say it again. I’m finding this stuff almost as much in writers who have publishers as those who are self-publishing. It gets more and more difficult to find a good read.
Some good grammar quotes:
When I split an infinitive, (bleep, bleep) it, I split it so it stays split. ~Raymond Chandler
Grammar is the logic of speech, even as logic is the grammar of reason. ~Richard C. Trench
Bad grammar makes me [sic]. ~Author Unknown
This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put. ~Attributed to Winston Churchill, rejecting the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition.
I always put the apostrophe in “ain’t” to make certain I’m using proper improper English. ~Author Unknown