Friday, September 13, 2019

Writers’ Sins

     Every so often, something another writer does trips one of my triggers. At this stage of my life as a reader, most of them are no longer easily tripped. However, a few remain to which I’m sensitive to the point of an eczema outbreak. As I have no desire to write about politics or public policy this morning, I suppose this will do for a substitute.

     To succeed as a professional fiction writer, there are several necessities. Among the ones that aren’t connected to marketing and promotion, two stand out:

  1. The aspirant must have stories to tell;
  2. He must be able to tell them in adequate English.

     Among the tragedies of the indie-publishing revolution are a great many gifted and potentially valuable storytellers whose writing is sub-par – often sufficiently below standards that regardless of the magnetism of the tale, the technical mistakes keep me, at least, from enjoying the story. I consider this tragic because many of those folks have stories to tell that are more original than anything that’s come out of Pub World in half a century.

     Still, you have to have the technical chops to go along with your stories. If you don’t acquire those skills before you set your fingers to the keys, you’re unlikely to get anywhere.

     I’ve ranted many times about the importance of adequate grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I shan’t do so this morning. It’s too nice a day here on Long Island. With the clouds receding, the sun shining, the Yankees atop the American League and pre-season ice hockey only five days away, I’m in a good mood I’d rather not spoil. But as I said above, I’ve experienced a trigger-tripping, concerning certain sins that I’ve encountered all too frequently in the work of indie writers with seriously original tales to tell.

1. Mood errors.

     Here’s an example of a mood error that disturbs the flow of prose, from Elizabeth A. Reeves’ book Baehrly Breathing:

     His blood was staining the ground around him red. If he died, I knew this land would be tainted by it.

     This is a relatively mild case. It arises from the author’s ignorance of how to do mood-matching. English has four moods:

  • Indicative,
  • Imperative,
  • Interrogative,
  • Conditional / Subjunctive.

     (NB: Some grammar authorities separate conditional into a fifth mood. I feel the great similarity of conditional statements to subjunctive statements makes that less than constructive. But your mileage may vary, especially if you’re a grammar authority. -- FWP)

     The indicative mood is the one in which the description of real events, whether past or present, is taking place. The imperative mood is the one in which commands are given. The interrogative mood is the one that pertains to questions. Thus, “He went to the store” is indicative; “Go to the store, John” is imperative; “Did you go to the store?” is interrogative. Most writers have adequate command of those moods.

     The conditional / subjunctive mood is the one that crosses up most writers. They handle it poorly, even when they have a clear sense for what they want to express. Miss Reeves has that sense in the quoted passage, but fails to do the proper matching of the two clauses of the second sentence:

     If he died, I knew this land would be tainted by it.

     The intended sense is conditional / subjunctive: the expression of what would follow if a particular event were to occur. That makes the proper mood conditional / subjunctive: the mood in which the words “would” and “should” are proper. But the sentence strikes a dissonant chord. It should have been:

     Should he die, I knew this land would be tainted by it.

     The use of should in the rewritten sentence indicates the conditional nature of the thing being expressed. The original predicate, died, enters the indicative mood despite the preceding if. It clashes with the clause that follows: “I knew this land would be tainted by it,” which is plainly conditional in mood. Worse yet, it’s past tense but pertains to something that hasn’t yet happened and that might not happen at all!

     Quite a few writers, otherwise of considerable ability, have fallen into this trap.

2. Temporal incoherence.

     Very few writers today would understand what I mean by the above phrase, Yet it refers to a practice that’s jarring enough to ruin just about any story, by ejecting the reader from his “story mentality.”

     The “story mentality” of which I speak arises from reader immersion in the setting and events the writer is depicting. A good storyteller causes you to become one with the tale: to live it alongside the protagonists. It’s the experience I most value as a reader, and the one I strive to produce for my readers in my own works.

     That having been said, anything that disturbs the reader’s immersion is bad. Indeed, it can be fatal. A really tolerant reader can overlook such a fault...but with thousands of new writers entering the independent-writers’ torrent every day, would you, Mr. Aspiring Pro Writer, want to take that chance?

     I have a high regard for John Conroe, author of the “Demon Accords” series, but he frequently makes temporal errors in his writing. Here’s an example from his recent novel Borough of Bones:

     Astrid had told me the night before, when we were following our usual nighttime ritual of video chatting, that her family wasn’t headed into the Zone today.

     The word today clashes against the verb wasn’t.

     The novel is told in the conventional manner of fictional past. That is, the narration speaks of the events it narrates as if they have already occurred. Thus, while characters in the novel will speak of events they’re experiencing with words such as today and now, the narrator – in this case, protagonist Ajaya Gurung – must use past-time words and past-referential words in his narrative passages. Here’s how the sentence above should have been written:

     Astrid had told me the night before, when we were following our usual nighttime ritual of video chatting, that her family wasn’t headed into the Zone the next day.

     This is a past-referential construction. A present-referential construction would only have been appropriate had Ajaya quoted Astrid, as follows:

     “My family isn’t headed into the Zone tomorrow,” she’d said.

     Note that today would have been wrong in either case, as Astrid was speaking of the day after the conversation was taking place.

     Please don’t misunderstand me. Borough of Bones, the second volume of Conroe’s “Zone War” trilogy, is excellent, singularly original and a terrific reading experience...if you can endure his lapses into temporal incoherence, and a few other errors he makes habitually. He’s fortunate to be creative enough, especially in character construction and motifs of setting, that his readers will usually forgive him. All the same, I wish he’d get the time-words right. The same applies to the works of E. William Brown, another writer whose novels I enjoy greatly.

3. “Inging.”

     My dear, my very dear colleagues in this madness of storytelling for fun and profit, my brothers in spirit, I beseech you, most sincerely and most ardently:

Watch Your Participials!

     The participial construction is really seductive. It’s so seductive that many a writer starts a profusion of sentences with it, one after the next. In doing so, he creates a pattern so noticeable, and so disturbing, that even the most tolerant reader is likely to say “Can we have a break from this, pretty please?”

     The pattern is seductive because it seems to allow the writer to write sentences that cover extensive narrative ground. That frees him from the worry that his prose is “too simple.” It’s a reasonable fear. No one who pours his heart and soul into a sensitive, highly nuanced tale of human emotions wants his test reader to ask him “Did you intend this for the pre-teen market?” While there’s a lot of money to be made in that market, we want our efforts in it to be deliberately aimed there.

     One problem with the leading-participial is that it frequently expresses an impossibility. Another is that in its seduction it leads the writer to create a pattern that the reader can’t help but note. Once again, from John Conroe’s Borough of Bones:

     Coming straight back from the studio, I didn’t even stop for takeout.

     Uh, no. That should be:

     I didn’t even stop for takeout on the way back from the studio.

     And a couple of sentences later:

     Taking my food into the living room, I asked my Virtual Assistant to put up the news.

     Once again, not quite. Try this:

     I took my food into the living room and asked my Virtual Assistant to put up the news.

     Leading-participial constructions are common throughout the novel. Most of them either express impossibilities or create a pattern that would better be avoided. By the way, you mustn’t think this particular sin is found solely in the work of indie writers. I once chided Sibella Giorello, a writer of unique and graceful mysteries whom I admire greatly, for it in her novel The Mountains Bow Down. Judith Guest, one of the most celebrated mainstream novelists of our era, has fallen into it as well.

     If you’re writing a lot of participials, your reader will notice – and not in a good way. Watch for them!

     A lot of readers think I’m a martinet, a kind of Grammar Dictator. Not at all. I understand the evolving nature of human communication and I accept it...even when I deplore it. But I do know what disturbs my reading experience. Moreover, such disturbances preceded my entry into the fiction-writing field. I strive with all my powers to avoid doing to my readers the things that have displeased me.

     So, fellow practitioners of the storyteller’s art: Have I exhausted your patience? Or have I, perhaps, told you something you wish you had always known?

     Only you can decide.


Lurking Reader said...

As a published author myself, I found the greatest training aid to writing to be extensive reading of other works. What "flows" as opposed to being "clunky?" One of the reasons I enjoy your blog is the style of writing. It "flows" so well, no matter the subject. Well done and thanks for the lessons!

Francis W. Porretto said...

Indeed, Lurk. Extensive reading educates the aspiring writer in what works and what doesn't. It also helps if he takes conscious notice of the bobbles and records them for subsequent analysis.

Many years ago, Lawrence Block was asked by a friend who wanted to try his hand at mystery writing how to go about it. Block's reply: "Read five hundred mysteries." Absolutely spot on!

SecessionIsTheAnswer said...

This is a very interesting and helpful post.

I am just starting to write, hoping to put together a couple short stories just to see if I can produce something that folks will enjoy reading. I am well aware that writing is a difficult skill set to develop and refine.

I understand most of the issues you raise, but there are several examples that you give that seem pretty nuanced, at least to me. I doubt that in my writing or even reading someone else's writing that I would recognize the errors you point out. I will have to give your post several re-reads to see if I can gain a better grasp of the errors and the corrections.

I mistakenly thought that I had a good grasp of English grammar and composition, but I do appreciate the lesson, painful as it is. There's probably a couple errors in my comment, so be kind!


Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Only a real bastard would grammar-check blog comments, Secession. I'm not that bad! Besides, I make mistakes too. PS: Go to Smashwords and download a copy of The Storyteller's Art. It's free, it has a lot of my best advice to writers in it, and you might even enjoy reading it. How can you lose?

Tracy Coyle said...

I tend to ignore grammar issues - as I ain't got none good English anyway - but the temporal jars me more than anything.

If I have to go back a paragraph or even a page (let along a sentence) to figure out how we got from where we were to here, the author has broken the flow of the story. ie: I thought we were here in the now, in this place, but all of a sudden, it's yesterday but we and we moved TO over there?

I live in the narrative...don't jar me like that.

I can tolerate a lot, but I can't tolerate being talked to as if I'm 12. There is an author that has produced a popular series and done well for himself but after the first two books I just couldn't stand it anymore. He is like 10 books into the series and Amazon keeps recommending him, but I won't touch any of his stuff anymore. Too bad - I liked the story lines.

I haven't read at the 6th grade level since I was in 2nd grade...

glasslass said...

I am a reader and live in my books, jar me out of the story too many times and I'm gone. I correct sentences as I read but I have a hard time picking up the next book. Very Popular Author that I've read for years started a book with "he stepped out of the seaplane in his suit and tie and when he realized they were under attack he stepped behind a tree and pulled off his jeans and tee shirt". Two pages in I'm jarred out big time. Went back and reread and it didn't change. Now my question is not that she wrote these few paragraphs but how did it get by the her agent, editor, proof reader, her alpha ad beta readers? Put down the book and didn't read it till a couple of years later. I've never read that series since.

evanfardreamer said...

Thank you for posting about "Inging". I have been guilty of that for a long while but never realized it; I thought my problem was too many commas but it seems that was merely a symptom.