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.

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