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Building blocks, marinara sauce, and sentences

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.comA couple of weeks ago, I was at a retreat with several other writers. The topic of indie writers, small presses, and general writing quality came up. If you’ve ever spent more than ten minutes in a room full of writers, you’re not surprised by that, I’m sure.

One thing I said was this: I’ve read books published by a well-known (in the horror community anyway) medium-sized press where the copy editing was so lacking that I found glaring errors on nearly every page. I’d rather self-publish and pay for my own editing than publish with a house that doesn’t provide a good editorial staff.

Immediately, a chorus of objections arose. “That’s not all there is to editing!” “The story is more important!”

I don’t actually disagree. I know, shocking! 🙂

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explain myself because unpleasant news about Hurricane Matthew’s looming party-crashing seized everyone’s attention, including mine.

So let me elaborate on what I meant.

If I go to a new Italian restaurant and find that the cooking staff cannot produce a substantial, rich marinara sauce, I don’t need to know much more. I don’t need to wonder if the tiramisu at that restaurant is substandard. I don’t need to taste-test the Pizza Rustica. I don’t need to sample the spinach ravioli either. Why? Because the basics aren’t there. The foundation is weak. I will look elsewhere for my lasagna fix.

If the building blocks of the story — the actual sentences the writer uses to build the plot, develop the characters, and weave the magic spell — are flawed, the structure of the story won’t be as strong as it could be. If the structure isn’t strong, things will fall apart sooner or later. Usually sooner.

When I check out a book, usually via Amazon’s “look inside” feature, I can’t read more than a few pages. I can’t read enough to know if the story itself will pass muster. I can, however, notice the basics. If I see spelling errors, bad grammar, screwy punctuation, etc., I have a pretty good idea I won’t enjoy the journey very much, no matter how good the story idea might be.

That said, can a book be perfectly grammatical, excellently punctuated, and brilliantly spelled and still be lousy? Oh, heck yeah. I’ve run into a few of those, too.

On balance, however, I’ve seen way more badly spelled, badly punctuated, ungrammatical books — usually with stories I can’t get into because the basics aren’t sound —  than correctly spelled, well punctuated, grammatical books with incompetent stories.

In my opinion, the ultimate responsibility for correcting these errors rests with the publisher if there is one and with the writer only if the book is self-published. If a publishing house is involved, I hold them responsible for editing. Granted, some writers are as obsessed with words and grammar as I am. Some aren’t. If you write and aren’t good with grammar, hire a copy editor, especially if you plan to self-publish.

Who? Whom?

Today I want to talk about who/whom and how they’re used.

Two of the most frequently misused words are who and whom. I keep reading that whom is going the way of top hats and button-up shoes.  Maybe so, but for me it’s still a useful word, as long as it’s used correctly.

The easiest way to  know which one to use is to look at the sentence, keeping in mind that who = he/she/they and whom = him/her/them.

“Who is going to the dance tonight?” This can be reworded as “He is going to the dance tonight.” Or “Is she going to the dance tonight?” “Are they going to the dance tonight?” So who is the right word. You wouldn’t write, “Him/her/them is going to the dance tonight.” Nor would you write, “Is him/her/them going to the dance tonight?”

“To whom am I speaking?” Reworded, this would be “Am I speaking to him/her/them?” Or as a statement, “I am speaking to him/her/them.” Granted, this sentence is both formal and pedantic.

And that brings me to one good reason writers might want to know how to use whom — or how to “correctly” misuse it. If you’re writing an overly-educated, pompous, snooty character, you can reveal a lot by writing dialogue like this. “Wallace, my dear, I have not an inkling as to the identity of the miscreant whom you accuse of such blatant thievery.”

On the other hand, if you’re writing a character who wants people to think he’s highly educated, you can indicate the truth by writing a bit of dialogue like this one. “The people whom went to the dance that night were all cretinous fools.” Do it once and it looks as if you don’t know what you’re doing. Do it a few times — and only with that one character’s dialogue –and his pretension becomes obvious.

Finally, I suspect the knowledge of the correct usage of whom will be more relevant to those of us who write non-fiction or literary fiction. Most of the rest of us will rework our sentences to avoid the use of whom at all.

Just remember that who = he/she/they in a sentence; whom = him/her/them. You won’t go wrong if you do.

The passive voice: Is it always an error?

Today I was browsing books on Amazon, and I came across a likely-looking mystery. I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately, for reasons known only to my subconscious, I suppose. Anyway, I had never read anything by this particular author, so I clicked “Look Inside,” as I often do for books written by authors I know and always do for those written by authors I don’t.

The first sentence was a tortured attempt to avoid the use of the passive voice, in my opinion. I’ve changed the specifics, but the gist is as follows: Jack Smith had two forces in his life that drove him to excel.

Okay. I know, I know. Writing craft books, articles, and teachers have drummed into our head that we shouldn’t use the passive voice.  “Write active sentences!” Great. Sometimes, however, you might want a passive sentence. (The most important word in the preceding sentence is “Sometimes.”) Passive construction puts the emphasis on the object of the sentence, not the subject. “The accused man was found not guilty by the jury.” That sentence is passive. The emphasis is on the object (the accused man). The subject is soft-pedaled (the jury). You could even delete “by the jury” and still leave the meaning intact: The accused man was found not guilty.  What’s important in the sentence is that the accused man was found not guilty. What’s not important is that the jury did the finding. See? When you want to put the focus on the one being acted upon rather than the action or the person/persons doing the acting, you can use the passive voice to accomplish that.

So if the writer of the mystery I looked at wanted to focus on Jack Smith, she could have written, “Jack Smith was driven to excel  by two forces in his life.” Or she could have written, “Two forces drove Jack Smith to excel.” Which one is better? Tossup, in my opinion. It depends on where the focus is supposed to be. On Jack Smith? Or on the forces?

Now, having said that, let me add that most of the time, you will want your writing to be active, not passive.

The little dog darted into the yard and caught the ball.

The ball was caught by a little dog who darted into the yard.

In this case, the first sentence — while no masterpiece — is certainly livelier and easier to read than the second.

Use the passive voice when you need to. Be sure you really need to. And use it sparingly. old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.com

First Person POV

 

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.com

 

I could write a whole book about first person point of view, but I won’t.  It’s a very common writing technique (hereafter abbreviated to POV). Some people hate to read it or write it. I love first person, though, and I’m going to write just a bit about it now.

First person POV in a nutshell is the one where the narration is “I” did this, “we did that.” It’s easy to spot. (Third person can be either close or distant, or omniscient. Those distinctions make knowing which sort of third person you’re reading more difficult than with first person. Also a few books and short stories have been written in second person: you did this or that.)

The strength of first person is that the reader is firmly in the heart and mind of one character. The weakness of first person is that the reader is firmly in the heart and mind of one character. That identification with one character is both the main strength and weakness of first person POV.

At first glance, first person seems to be easy to write. It isn’t. The character through whom the reader will experience the story must be worth spending time with.  That voice must be distinctive and interesting. Otherwise, the reader will check out.

When writing first person POV, you can show only what that character sees, hears, feels, knows. Therefore, a set of sentences like these will jar the reader. I followed Joey down the hall. His eyes were focused on the closed door, and he bit his lip nervously. If your narrator is following Joey, he has no idea what Joey is looking at or if he’s biting his lip. All your narrator can see is the back of Joey’s head. You’d think this sort of thing would be obvious, but I read these things all the time. As a writer, you must constantly think, “Can I really see this? Can I know this?” If the answer is no, you must rework the sentence until you can answer yes.

Or this. Bob sat at the bar, nursing a beer. I sat two stools down, pretending to drink a Bloody Mary. Bob sighed, worried about his job. Okay, granted that’s some less-than-stellar narration. The point is, the narrator couldn’t know what Bob was thinking, not unless he said something to her. I read these sentences even more often than the first example.

The strength of first person POV remains the ability to see things from one person’s perspective. To be inside that one person’s mind, heart, soul. The writer cannot scrimp on the emotional content. Just showing us what’s happening without letting us see what the POV character is thinking and feeling will leave us cold. If the writer does show us the POV character’s reactions and emotions, we will feel them, too. We will live the story right along with the POV character.

In the hands of a skillful writer, no other POV allows us such access to the depths of a single character’s mind.

“I’ve written a GREAT book!”

 

Really? You have? Well, don’t be the one to say so in your ads. One of the things that will totally turn me off a book is an ad/promo like this one WHEN POSTED TO A WRITER’S SOCIAL MEDIA AND WRITTEN BY THE WRITER HIM/HERSELF: This is a great book for horror readers! OR This is a wonderful book for children ages three to five.

When I promote other writers’ books, I might very well say the same things, but when a writer says that about his/her own book, it sounds desperate or self-aggrandising. I mean, what writer doesn’t think his/her own book is great and wonderful? Still, let others toot your horn; don’t do it yourself.

Let your readers say how wonderful, amazing, insightful, awe-inspiring, great, moving, and hilarious (all words I’ve seen just in the last few months applied by writers to their own work) your book is.

Photo credit: Patrick_Denker at EveryStockPhoto.com

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