Monday, August 20, 2007

The boring bits

One of the most illuminating and helpful things I ever read about writing novels was a comment by Patrick White, Australian Nobel Prize winner and novelist extraordinaire. Writing a novel, he said (I recall approximately), is a matter of writing one sentence after another, until they build up into a book.

Sometimes encountering the blindingly obvious can have a revelatory effect. The thought has comforted me ever since. Especially in the middle of a book, when it seems to me that actually finishing this benighted piece of prose - which I began in an idle and perhaps slightly insane fit of thoughtlessness in some previous life - is utterly unimaginable. If I keep writing those sentences, stubbornly placing one foot in front of the other, I will eventually reach the end. It stands to reason.

Hand in hand with this blindingly obvious discovery was another: that each one of those sentences has to be as right as you can get it. And this brings you into intimate contact with GRAMMAR and SPELLING. One of the most important - maybe the most important - aspects of writing is making sure that your grammar and syntax are working for you and not against you. It's the difference between a good book and a bad book, and quite possibly between a good book and a great book. Genius, as Gertrude Stein once said, is "the infinite capacity for taking pains".

There is, it must be said, nothing exciting about this aspect of writing. It is simply essential. And after 25 years of writing for a living, I am still learning. I still make mistakes. I am still a little unsure of the difference between "that" and "which", and sometimes my verbs disagree, and I have to check three times before I spell "weird" correctly.

The people who have taught me most about grammar have been my very patient editors and copy-editors, a saintly group who shall be annointed in heaven. They carefully underline my grammatical and stylistic sins in red pen. They have made me a much better writer, because I figure that the more right I get it the first time through, the less work I'll have to do afterwards. This is a very attractive thought, because on the tenth proofread, you can get very tired of your own book, and would rather read something else.

I have never done anything sensible like go out and buy The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which is the classic advisory on writing clear English, and which, despite my own delinquency, I advise all young writers to purchase. If you do not possess this book, you could do worse than peruse this advice from, How To Write Good. The first ten rules (of a very long and funny list) are:

1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
2. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They're old hat.)
3. Also, always avoid awkward, affected, and annoying alliteration, which is almost always alienating.
4. Don't use no double negatives.
5. Avoid excessive use of ampersands & abbrevs., etc.
6. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
7. No sentence fragments.
8. Be more or less specific.
9. Being a careful writer, dangling modifiers are always avoided.
10. Foreign words and phrases are not invariably à propos.

Once you understand all these precepts - and only then, really - you can get to the fun part, which is breaking the rules. An obedient writer is an oxymoron, and no really exciting writer ever sticks to a style guide. I break quite a lot of rules, especially when I'm writing poems; but if I have learned anything over the past two decades, it's that it's no use breaking a rule until you first understand what it is. If you don't, you'll just be making mistakes.

This is the hard labour part of writing. Sadly, the more you write, the more you understand that there is always more to learn. All the same, I swear on my heart that it's absolutely fascinating. Really. And when you begin to understand how English works, then you can use the language, instead of the language using you.


eowyn336 said...

That is really helpful. Because I am a young writer, I often get frustrated if I don't write some gorgeous description (like yours). Yet, I have decided to just wait and process the story so I can go deeper to learn the root of English (well, maybe not that far). This way, I can get to a point were I am mostly satisfied with my work (no writer is satisfied). Anyway, thanks.

Rhiannon said...

Thanks Alison, tips for writting are always welcome.
Learn the rules, then break them. It's the way to write and the way to live.

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful article. I think I shall be linking to it in many of the critiques I do at We have many very enthusiastic writers who just don't see the point in learning the basics. As the self-appointed "Grammar Goddess" I sometimes have my work cut out convincing them that grammar is necessary! Or even convincing them that 'grammer' is wrong ...

Thank you!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks all - though on reflection I probably left out the most important bit, which is that knowing your grammar is essential if you want other people to understand what you are writing!

Ednella said...

Hi Alison!

I just finished reading The Riddle. I love your books! You do such excellent work. I just checked, an unfortunately The Crow is not out in the US yet, so I'll have to wait a month. Such a frustrating thing, waiting is!

I love to write, too, but I mostly write poetry. I am working on two books right now, one fantasy, the other, a novel of religious defense.

I guess you could call me a grammar nut. I've noticed one of your biggest propensities to error is the ambiguous use of "it". For instance, I found one example in your post:

"One of the most important - maybe the most important - aspects of writing is making sure that your grammar and syntax are working for you and not against you. It's the difference between a good book and a bad book, and quite possibly between a good book and a great book."

The antecedent to "it" is "making sure that your grammar and syntax are working for you and not against you." A better way to say that would be to join your sentences with a dependent clause, thus:

"One of the most important - maybe the most important - aspects of writing is making sure that your grammar and syntax are working for you and not against you, which can be the difference between a good book and a bad book, and quite possibly between a good book and a great book."

That does make the sentence rather long and confusing, but that is just a simple correction.

Sorry to bore you with my droning on of grammar, etc. I'm considering becoming an English teacher, so I like to read while studying the grammar subconciously.

Your tips were wonderful! I liked the paraphrased quote at the beginning of your post. Reading it reminded me that writing a novel is not a hopelessly endless project!

Every blessing,
~Nella Sound-Out, one of your fans :)

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ednella! (That's the problem with writing something about grammar, I had to proof read very closely and you wouldn't believe the mistakes I picked up!) I'll watch those "it's"s. Though possibly it's one of those places where I like to break the rules...:)

The more English teachers passionate about grammar the better. I've had to teach my children myself, because they are never formally taught it at school.

bard s said...

Ednella,do you know that picture,is that you?(if it is that is the most ugliest thiing i'v ever seen lol)

Hilary said...

All that you've said is so true-- I'm thankful every day that one of my few skills is grammatical proficiency, although I have come to hate the word 'weird' because I always always always end up going back to fix it!
I hope to become a Wielder of the Red Pen and join the ranks of editors someday, and write a bit on my own in the meantime. I find satisfaction in taking something wrong and making it right, wrestling with and coaxing the words until they flow.
My English teacher (well, I guess he's not anymore, isn't summer break lovely?) made us purchase and read The Elements of Style, something I have a feeling I'm going to be grateful for; I'd never have done it on my own.

(I couldn't make this post in good faith without doing my bit of fangirl squealing. Get ready. Here goes...)

Oh my god, I can't even begin to express my love for your books. Often I ignore the little maps in the front of books, but I just had to follow every little minute movement of Maerad and Cadvan and know EXACTLY where they were and how to pronounce EVERY name and word of the Speech. I said each new word and phrase to myself a few times until I felt I had them right, relishing the feel of the strange syllables on my tongue. I can't tell you how many times I practiced the 'dh' sound, trying to get just the right combination of 'd' and 'th.'
I haven't been able to get my hands on The Crow yet; I only recently discovered your series and read the first two a warp speed. Thank you so much for writing them! I always feel a bit guilty after I finish a book; I imagine all the work the writer has put into it and feel the impudence of how easy it was for me to read it, put it down, and say, "on to the next one!" so I try to keep a little bit of each book I read within me long after I've read it, to guide me in both my life and my writing. I've reserved an extra large space for yours.

Jimi K said...

I just read The Naming. It was great!
Two minor distractions:
1 invisible(page xiv) has 4 syllables, not 2.
2 tithes (page 243) cannot rise, since they are, by definition, 10%.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks JimiK - any chance of your being a proof reader? :)

Xarasacht said...

Hey, Alison! :D I read your books and I was fascinated at your use of the English language. I was also, however, amazed at the geographical legitimacy of your maps; may I ask how those were made? Did somebody draw them for you, and if so, do you know how they did it? :o