Friday, March 20, 2009

Damn Good Advice to Newbie Writers In the Write-to-Sell Workship by Professor Robert "PEDANTRY" Walker

It's like this for just about everyone. Very hard for a writer so close to his own work (including a professional like myself) to see items and bothersome analytical needs and stuff like missing commas—or worse too many commas or semi-colons jammed in where commas need go—when the creative side sees and often fills in whole words even where they may be missing. (Whew! Take a breath . . . Jot notes on the blackboard).

As far as the grammar rules go, if you have problems with these— as so many people do these days thanks to our screen-on-generation now, wherein if it isn't on a screen but coming out of a classroom or on a blackboard, it isn't worthy of anyone’s attention, well then join the crowd.

Could you follow that compound complex on top of complex last sentence? In a novel, if your reader gets lost, you have committed the number one writing sin of all—being unclear. Bringing your reader to a confusion at the cellular level of the sentence that cannot be followed. If you can’t make it sing, at least make it clear –great bumper sticker advice that. Call for Claritin. If it’s fuzzy and hard to follow, you’re in violation and ought be arrested for the biggest of the ten deadly sins of writing.

Yes, a question from the foor? I am asked by a young writer in all seriousness why some people—and he was naming no names—were such PEDANTS when it came to sentence structure and such thingies or thingys as the rules of grammar. My response (being an English and writing teacher) came fast and furiously as the question irritated me to no end. The question reminded me of the student who has no sense of history and does not want any either when we all know that what we do today determines our outcome for tomorrow—history! Okay back to the constraints and restraints of rules of the road in writing: There are some ways to work around comma issues and semi-colon gaffs as in pay a professional, someone like myself who does freelance editing at cut rate prices to "fix" whatever issues a person has with grammatical "stuff" –and or find an instructor who really knows how to put it across (not all teachers can do it as well as they should, and most think they have but haven’t). Or . . . or find a friend or acquaintance who LOVES to edit stuff and will happily do it for you.

My young protégé’s response is immediate, and he says that's been done—50 times over—so that's not working (by the way if it is under 100 spell it out—fifty!)

So I take the young man aside and I say, “You know, son, there really are only like TEN deadly sins in writing, and most of us are committing only two or three of these offenses, and if someone can point out the pattern errors—serial killer errors—of the type that keep coming back at you, then once you SEE the connectedness of the error(s) and that it is the same error repeating itself like a recurrent nightmare, then and only then do you begin to feel a darn sight better about your single (or two or three issues).

At such an aha moment, when the writer himself realizes that he is not making every error in the fat English Grammar text, but rather less than a handful—then he Learns with a capital L. People learn when they see the patterns and connections between and among things, and there are many such patterns and connects in the rules of the road in English and writing.

That does something for you, learning that your errors are not so enormous and not so terribly many that you can’t defeat them. For instance, you learn that commas travel with "fragmentary" lines like pilot fish shadow sharks. Remember fragments? Early each day—comma!—followed by a whole thought as in: I climb out of bed.) The three-legged dog of a sentence is the fragment ending in a period as in Early each day. Or it’s a two-legged stool of a sentence, which we fictionalists use handily and heavily in story writing since characters often TALK and THINK in fragments. You learn the converse is true that periods travel with complete, whole sentences or thoughts. You learn that a semi-colon is a comma that calls in its cousin the period because a comma alone can’t go with a whole sentence/thought.

This is what is meant when they say, "You must know the rules before you go around breaking them." And I would add to that that if you know you are breaking them, and it is obvious that the reader knows that you know that he knows, and everyone knows then you have tacitly agreed that you are breaking them with the reader’s understanding. Then it legitimizes breaking them. Perfect example: the great fantastic Richard Matheson's short-short story Born of Man and Woman. Breaks every grammar rule and spelling rule but it all works! Why? Because it is a story narrated from the point of view of a totally illiterate, abused yet intelligent and compassionate child (written in 1960). Matheson like the fabulous Robert Bloch—pure genius. Matheson wrote I am Legend by the way and Stir of Echoes. Bloch wrote Psycho and American Gothic and many wonderful short stories.

One final word to my students is to read, read, and read in the field or genre you wish to write in, and also read widely in all areas, and to read as a writer reads—noting how a Matheson or a Bloch moves you. The more you read fiction, the more you pick up the cadence and the music of this unusual art form, the more your grammar will simply fall into grace . . . ah place.

I did not free myself of the "fear" of grammar and what is right and wrong until I sat myself down and shouted, "If it sounds good to my ear, and it makes sense to my mind, then I will use it." This does not preclude revisions and self-editing and having friends edit your work, and then more revisions, but it is a great place to call your springboard—Sound and Sense. I got that idea from a poetry book I came across—stumbled on rather serendipitously—when a freshman in college, a book entitled: Sound and Sense.

Next question comes from a poet in the class who insists that anything can be poetry, and that poetry did not need any rules or to take any form or shape . . . Ohmygod! (Now there’s a poem in a single word—OhMyGod!) This young man states that a single word such as IT can be a poem. But who’d want to read IT? How much enjoyment can one get from IT, and hasn’t IT been done to death by Stephen Kingit?

I grit my teeth and smile with lips pursed so no one can see my grinding molars.

For those of you who want to groove on grammar, check out a book entitled The Transitive Vampire. For anyone who wants a thorough going over with a kick in the teeth take my corrections in the spirit in which they are given—for the betterment of the story, not your ego. If that does not work, check out my “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” at The Knife Editing Services at my website below.

For those who want to read a FREE suspense-filled moonlighting-styled modern thriller set in Atlanta, GA and learn the lesson of reading like a writer, check out the book I wrote for and dedicated to one of my heroes, Ed Gorman. This is my DEAD ON found at my website – See if I practice what I preach. . . and when and where and how I move you, take some notes, reread that scene, and ask how’d Walker pull that off? How’d he make me laugh, how’d he get me to choke up with emotion, and how’d he so completely surprise me with that twist? It’s how I learned from Matheson, Bloch, and many another “master”.

Happy Writing –

Rob Walker


Morgan Mandel said...

And Deadon's cover is great!

Morgan Mandel

Unknown said...

Good advice. Once I discovered a couple of my major and consistent grammatical errors I was surprised to discover that a single run of MS Word's Find & Replace tool corrected a huge number of said errors in my 100,000 word mss in one fell swoop.

It's just figuring out what the common mistakes are, like you said.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Ah, Robert, you always make me feel I need to work harder!

Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Anonymous said...

Hey everyone, thanks for coming by to say hello!