Writing a book?

Liz-S-Writing-Workshop-101Over the past couple of months on several Internet sites for writers, I’ve read many questions and queries plus suggestions and comments regarding the use of correct grammar and speech.

The academically minded among us, plus the vast majority of editors still cling desperately to the fervent belief that a book sans correct grammar will inevitably never make it. While that may be true for books of a historical, biographical or academic natureΒ  – for example, text books, when it comes to fiction the real key is whether or not the writer can actually tell a story, not if he or she adheres to the accepted rules of English.

When your characters speak, by insisting that they speak correctly you will do yourself no favours. In fact these days it almost guarantees that your book will be lucky to sell more than a dozen copies. In essence, the story and the way your characters converse in common parlance is the key, not the use of perfect English as rigidly laid down by close-minded professors within the English departments of universities worldwide, or even the majority of editors come to that.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the comments in favour of correct grammar are contributed by people from countries whose native language is not English. It’s not their fault. They are merely echoing what they were taught by their teachers.

Think about today’s best selling writers. Do they stick rigidly to the rules of grammar? Most don’t. Gone are the days when the likes of Emile Bronte, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe etal wrote to entertain the educated elite minority. And yet they are still held up as the ideal in literature. Why?

Today’s writers must write for the majority. In fact you must know your target readers better than they do themselves. I write specifically for the US market for two reasons.

1. The greater majority are brought up on soap opera and film, not so-called classic literature.

2. Because they are more switched on than any other people, I also only publish my books in Kindle form.

Trust me when I tell you that they are my readers, not my own countrymen (the English) and academics. They will be yours as well if you are brave enough to break away from the so-called rules.

Writing this article is one example of using correct English. But if I had written my books in the same way, I would not now be enjoying my regular monthly royalty income from them.

If you feel strongly one way or another about the subject of correct English and grammar, don’t just read this article and tut-tut under your breath. I don’t bite. Be brave. Write your comments below.

 

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33 thoughts on “Writing a book?

  1. It’s true there’s a big difference between fiction and nonfiction, but in terms of grammatical rules I’d say that they still generally apply EXCEPT where we want to establish a “voice” or dialect for characters or author. Very few characters will ever speak with perfect formal grammar, and their speaking preferences can be mirrored in their thinking. But unless the author is telling the tale with a distinct voice as the author (As in…. “Back in the lazy days of my boyhood summers….” ) I can’t see why sloppiness would be usually acceptable elsewhere. Of course action sequences, special exceptions, and dialogue/thought seeking to convey emotion/confusion all have their place… but I think it’s important they carve that place out consciously and stay there.

    – MJM

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    • AT last! Someone, other than myself, brave enough to have an opinion on the subject. Thank you Michael. I started seriously writing back in 1995. But it wasn’t until 2010 before my first science fiction book appeared as a paperback and in various electronic forms. I class that fifteen year period as my apprenticeship. It was a steep learning curve.

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  2. Great authors have always written to their audiences, and matched voice to character without sticking to correct grammar. Charles Dickens may have written peerless English as the narrator of his books, (for example Pip in Great Expectations) but his characters speak in a way that is suitable for them. For example, Magwitch says: As I giv’ you to understand just now, I’m famous for it. It was the money left me, and the gains of the first few year wot I sent home to Mr. Jaggersβ€”all for youβ€”when he first come arter you, agreeable to my letter.”

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  3. Pingback: Writing a book? | George Cramer

  4. I write for the young, tweens and teens, although adults also enjoy my books, and over here in Ireland they are brought up on a diet of american teen soap tv humour. If you want success, you have to cater for that, and I’m not talking Macdonalds and fries!

    I might add that much of this ‘vampire romance’ and ‘paranormal romance’ which is so popular right now is not well written, at least not the ones I’ve read, which unfortunately put me off reading more, yet nevertheless, they are selling like hot cakes, which just goes to prove that the quality doesn’t have to be top, if you are writing to supply demand. Sadly.

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    • Unfortunately Ali, what you say is very true. Getting people to pick out your book(s) from among the millions currently out there is not easy. However, fortunately the authors of the badly written ones soon fall by the wayside. πŸ˜‰

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  5. Nice post and I think you have a point. That said, you know, I would like to think I’ve produced a well written book. It’s unlikely because my grammar isn’t perfect but then, I can’t find many people that actually agree on what the form is. Plus, I can’t afford more than a series of beta readers and a copy edit. I guess I’m half way between the two. My style is colloquial and full of slang but it’s written for me (if anyone else enjoys it, that’s grand). So if I notice when the same words or phrases are repeated again and again until they become like white noise (are you listening E L James) I assume my readers will. There’s a difference, though, between assuming intelligence and assuming that they’ll have an eye for grammatical detail. Sure intelligent people spot errors but others don’t… Like you, I think it’s more important to get continuity, plot etc correct first.

    My copy editor thinks that so long as a writer is consistent in what they do, anything goes. It’s only with this thing about Independent Fiction being rubbish (in certain quarters) that suddenly we’ve all had to obey The Rules very carefully.

    So, basically, I try to get the rules as right as I can in my writing but when my characters speak, they speak the way they do and if that means they drop aitches or decline things incorrectly so be it. It’s who they are.

    Cheers

    MTM

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    • Thanks for commenting MT.
      It takes most of us years to develop a style/voice, call it what you will.
      If I was to offer one piece of advice to aspiring writers, its this – if you want to end up totally confused, by all means attend all of the writing courses/workshops/seminars and online discussion groups under the sun. But just remember this, doing so won’t make you a writer.
      Like most things we do in life, the only way to really hone your craft is to follow the golden rule – practice makes perfect.

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  6. As a freelance editor of fiction who works in the main for indie authors I feel the need to defend my profession. Grammar in fiction doesn’t have to be perfect, and certainly in dialogue pretty much anything goes, but I’ve read books recently in which the grammar is so appalling it becomes difficult to understand what is going on. I’m not referring to manuscripts I’ve edited; I’m talking about books that have been self published and are supposed to be a joy to read. There’s nothing joyful about struggling to make sense of each and every paragraph. Someone above mentioned consistency, and I agree with that comment. If a British author wants to write in American English, I don’t have a problem with that as long as they are consistent. As a reader I have rejected a book without finishing it because I get so fed up with the curious hybrid of British and American English that seems so popular these days.
    No doubt people are going to think me overly fussy, but I can’t agree with ‘giving the people what they want’ being an excuse for writers becoming slovenly. Discerning readers, of which there are many, will not enjoy a badly written or badly edited book.

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    • Thank you for commenting Alison.
      I note you said the following,”grammar in fiction doesn’t have to be perfect”. This is the premiss of my article.
      The vast majority within establishment publishing would vehemently disagree with us both.
      As to your wanting to defend your ‘profession’, where is the defense? All I see in your comment, which I agree with by the way, is one person’s personal point of view.
      As for “If a British author wants to write in American English, I don’t have a problem with that as long as they are consistent”, be careful. Countries have gone to war over far less… πŸ˜€

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      • I think that demonstrating that not all editors stick to a strict set of grammar rules come what may is defence enough. I do worry that authors are under the impression an editor is going to rip their manuscript to pieces if so much as one comma is in the wrong place. If any authors reading are working with such an editor, sack ’em!
        I’ll share you post throughout my social networks, and will be interested to read other people’s opinions. Great subject for a Saturday debate. πŸ™‚

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  7. In my book my main character is a young boy. Children rarely follow proper rules of the English language, nor should they, necessarily, unless for a paper in school. One of the comments I had from my editor, however, was to do with a ‘localism’, as I call it. I used the phrase “Did you grade?” in my book, which is very common here in the Maritimes on the east coast of Canada, but in Ontario the ‘proper’ “Did you pass?” is used, so I went with her suggestion. My decision was based purely on population, and how many more folks there are in that part of Canada vs. here in my little piece of paradise. In short, I guess I agree wholeheartedly, Jack. Well written.

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    • Thank you Lockard, I’m glad you enjoyed it. You talk about your local use of the word ‘grade’. When I was a child of ten in New Zealand, I often wondered why everyone both child and adult, when referring to someone else, always used the word ‘Joker’. It wasn’t until I asked one of the other kids that I learned it was the local equivalent word for ‘Bloke’. πŸ™‚

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  8. I cannot think of a single American, or British writer for whom I have even the slightest respect who does not attempt to have his/her characters speak authentically. That is, however, not to suggest that when writing back story etc. such a writer doesn’t for the most part follow the rules of standard English.
    While I agree with much of what you have written, especially with regard to the fact that creative writing cannot be taught beyond a kind of technical proficiency, I am troubled by what I view as your suggestion a writer should cater to the tastes of the majority of readers, most of whom have little understanding of what constitutes great writing, and even if they did, would prefer reading a typical beach book or Harlequin romance.
    Sales for such a writer may lag compared to those of another who chooses to cater to such an undiscerning public. Still, with few exceptions, the works of those writers who are read scores of years after they themselves have passed, have never been as popular as those whose work has long ago and thankfully been forgotten.
    Joseph Cavano

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    • Thanks for your comment Joseph.
      “I am troubled by what I view as your suggestion a writer should cater to the tastes of the majority of readers”. Where did that come from? If you go back and check the article again you will find that what I actually said when referring to my main audience was:-
      “The greater majority are brought up on soap opera and film, not so-called classic literature”.
      I made no mention whatsoever about catering to their tastes. I merely made a cultural observation.
      If you haven’t checked out my books yet Joseph, you will find I write science fiction. The main market for science fiction is the USA, not here in the UK.

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  9. Thanks, Jack,
    My comments are based on a conclusion I drew from what you have written. For example:
    “Today’s writer’s must write for the majority… and the greater majority are brought up on soap opera and film, not so called classic literature.”

    It seems logical to me to infer that if a writer must write for a majority that is “brought up on soap opera and film,” such a writer is, in fact, catering to a very pedestrian taste. I would have been willing to make a leap of faith and assume that in writing as you did, you meant merely to affirm that one must write for one’s audience( not that I’d choose that audience). Still, your reference to “so-called classic literature.” struck me as a pejorative and perhaps an indication you have little interest in what many of us consider classic literature, no italics necessary.

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  10. Once again, like a lot of people these days, you place your own interpretation on what was actually said, assuming it was directed at you personally. Did I ever suggest that you view the nineteenth century as the pinnacle? No.
    At the risk of repeating myself, what I actually said in the article was – gone are the days when the likes of Emile Bronte, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe etal wrote to entertain the educated elite minority. And yet they are still held up as the ideal in literature. Why?
    I don’t see any reference to you personally Joseph, do you? May I suggest that you refrain from speed reading and making false assumptions in the future?
    Have a great time in Tanzania. πŸ™‚

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  11. Thank you for the write up. I believe a good fiction gets across to readers when everyday speech is incorporated in the narrative. This should be captured at times with precision which will show that the author is not devoid of the mastery of the language he/she is using.

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