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Grammar allergies

Comic by Cyanide and Happiness

Happy Memorial Day, to my American readers!

You see, I may live in Greece, but I know it’s Memorial Day today.  Likewise, English is not my first language.  I was taught English at the tender age of two and a half, alongside Greek.  I had English-speaking au pairs to improve my English, I went to a school with plenty of English courses and I read English books, but I grew up in Greece, had Greek friends and spoke and read Greek on an everyday basis.  Therefore, you can understand why I was concerned when I decided to write in English: I was worried of making the odd silly mistake, having people laugh at my writing skills.  I have studied more grammar and vocabulary websites and books than I care to remember, just to make sure my English was correct. And then I realized that perhaps I was overreacting.  Grammar books are wonderful for essay writing or for learning a language.  However, somewhere along the creative process, I realized that I needed more freedom and I did not want to stick to the norm of “how to write proper English”.

A few days ago, I read a fascinating blog post by Rebecca Dickson, about the writing lessons we should forget and the writing tips we should remember.  It gave me inspiration and consolation because I grasped that I am not the only one having a rough time with all the rules, constantly wondering whether I should actually follow them or not. A while ago, I wrote about the limitations of Showing-Not-Telling.  So, how do I feel about other rules?  Please join me as I go through some of the most popular ones.

  • Three sentences make a paragraph: I confess: I dislike that rule.  I think a paragraph is created when the sentences that comprise it make sense and compose a concrete meaning.  Then, you should move to the next paragraph.  Simple!
  • Leave two-spaces between sentences (and, may I add, one space after a comma).  I still follow that rule.  Rebecca Dickson thinks we shouldn’t, but it comes naturally to me –and the autocorrect on Word thinks the same, so instead of having a text full of words underlined in red, I choose to follow their rule. Lorelei (my editor), however, is adamant that I should only use the one space.  I guess it depends on who your editor is, then!
  • Every sentence needs a noun and a verb.  This is one of the things I completely disagree with, especially in the context of fiction writing.  Sometimes, a sentence just needs a word.  A single, meaningful word.  Evidently, writing pages after pages of sentences without a noun and a verb can be tiring to the reader.  But in a moment where you need that special ‘oomph’, a sentence that would otherwise be ‘grammatically incorrect’ is interesting and gives special depth to your text.
  • You need a beginning, a middle and an end.  I generally stick to that principle.  But, sometimes, bringing the end before the beginning can create suspense and an interesting introduction to what is to come.  It’s just like in the movies, when you see something awful happening and the next scene reads ‘23 hour earlier’.  It’s not the ‘right’ way to present events but it’s the enjoyable way, and rightly used as a means to create tension and anticipation.
  • Say things your way: don’t use a thesaurus.  Why not?  I use a thesaurus.  I’m not a skilled enough writer that I don’t need one.  I also jot down verbs that I love, but I know I will forget the next time I want to use them.  Of course, you don’t want to be Friends’ Joey, either.  Or, to use any Forgotten Words!
  • If it’s noise, omit it.  This is a variation on the well-known “Less is More” design rule, and on the “Kill your darlings” advice.  My definition of noise is like this: “if it’s not information, it’s noise.” For example, I often have a tough time with descriptions.  I want to create the space within which my heroes work and function, but I am anxious about boring the reader with overtly detailed descriptions.  Sometimes, when I wonder whether I want to buy a book, I flick through it, just to see whether there is enough dialogue.  If I see too many descriptions, I am probably not buying that book.  Judging from experience, I try to set the setting through dialogues, so that my book is more active.  I just think that some authors have an amazing capacity to describe something and some don’t.  I am the latter.  So, my golden rule?  I don’t write anything that I would skip over.
  • Have a plot.  There’s so much information on how to write a plot, that in the end we might forget it all boils down to a simple rule: write something that makes readers want to find out more about the story!  A quest, a complication, a solution to the problem, something in between that makes readers go ‘oh, will she live?’ or ‘what happens to him?” or ‘oh my God, he dies?’, and you have a plot.
  • Write a lot.  Read a lot, write a lot, and then re-read and re-write.
  • Hire an editor.  Nothing else to say, these three little words say it all. If you feel particularly brave or are Steven King, at the very least make sure that enough people have read your manuscript, and hire a proofreader.
  • Use “said”.  I have mixed feelings about that.  I used to use ‘say’ a lot.  Then I wondered about the many wonderful little verbs the English language has given us.  So, I replaced some ‘said’ with other verbs, more representative of what I was trying to say.  Some feel that this is a mistake.  It seems that readers are so accustomed to ‘said’ that when reading a dialogue, they pass it without consideration, and focus on the actual dialogue.  Putting interesting little verbs will distract them from your story, which, as we have said, is the main point of your book.  However, I feel that substituting “said” for another word makes the scene much more alive.  Consider this simple example: “This is wrong,” he said. “This is wrong,” she protested. “This is wrong,” he screamed. “This is wrong,” she whispered. The dialogue has not changed, but the feel is completely different. Why should we deny ourselves the power of words, when a verb can easily underline what we are trying to say?  Obviously, one should not go overboard with this – but isn’t that the case with all advice?  As with everything, moderation is the key…

Anyway, that’s my take on the rules! If you want to find out how that’s working for me, feel free to check out my short stories.  Or, use the comments area to let me know what you think!  Which rules do you obey, and which ones do you break in your writing?

Update

My editor friend, Dellani Oakes, had these great points to make on the subject:

“I would like to touch on a couple of things. Firstly, the reason your editor dislikes the double spacing is because it takes up too much room. I am the two space person as well, but learned from my editor & publisher that it has to go because of “space” issues in a book. The more empty spots, the more room it takes up. Therefore, I have changed myself over to the one space rule.

Secondly, I agree with you about “said”. I find the constant use of “said” to be boring and intrusive. I like more exciting dialogue tags. “No!” she screamed. “Why not?” he blustered. You can say so much more with a creative tag. It adds to the action, pace and tension of a scene to have characters interject, cajole or expostulate.

Of course, not all my readers may understand those words, but they are terms that I use and understand. I’m not trotting out the thesaurus to come up with something new, they are in my everyday vocabulary. There are times that a thesaurus is helpful, but choose a word that’s not so esoteric that your readers can’t comprehend its subtle nuances.

I decidedly agree that less is more and I adhere to that idea. I also love dialogue and find myself somewhat lacking in descriptions. However, I try to give enough of the environment by the movement of my characters, that I create the space around them, rather than creating the space and dropping them in it.”

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