A “why bother” moment

…and I’m looking forward to a productive year of writing. I have stories to tell, and I need to get on with it.

I had a short spell of despair recently. A friend sent me a murder mystery by an author she really likes. My friend spoke enthusiastically about the author, and the series, and I looked forward to the read.

I enjoyed the story well enough. It was well plotted, with interesting characters and well-drawn settings. But the author had a problem. With sentences. Sentences that were incomplete. Often six or seven in a single paragraph. Each containing a descriptive phrase. But none, in itself, a complete sentence.

You understand that I’m not objecting to incomplete sentences within quotation marks, for the same reason that I generally don’t object to poor grammar within quotation marks. The way a character speaks isn’t subject to the same kind of editorial criticism as is the authorial voice. People often speak in broken or incomplete sentences, and I’m fine with that; in fact, it’s an indispensible skill in writing dialogue to know when and how to use the incomplete sentence.

It’s also a skill to know when to use it in the authorial voice. I feel the authorial voice should be grammatically correct, and orthographically correct, as well. The author’s style should not impinge on the story. The incomplete sentence can be used to great effect when the author wants to emphasize some important point which might otherwise be overlooked.

“He saw a pair of feet sticking out of the alley, just visible at the edge of the pale circle of streetlight. On one foot was a shoe. A red shoe with a black heel.”

In this (totally imaginary) novel our “he” has met a character who has such shoes. The partial sentence give us something of the shock of the finder’s realization that he knows this person, that moment of “What?”

However, if the page is sprinkled, or larded, with partial sentences, the idea that there is anything especially emphatic about them disappears, and they simply become a stylistic quirk of the writer. I have a low tolerance for incomplete sentences outside of quotation marks. They irritate me. But what do I know? This book was a New York Times bestseller!

Hence my despair. I work hard at writing correct and readable sentences. I’m always trying to improve my mastery of the craft of writing. It matters to me, but clearly it doesn’t matter to the majority of readers. I’ve seen books lauded as masterpieces – or at least selling millions of copies – when it’s clear to me within one chapter that the writer hasn’t learned, or maybe just isn’t using, some basic rules. So why do I bother?

Maybe, I thought, I should be writing without any particular care for how I construct my sentences or paragraphs, or whether I get the absolutely right word. Maybe I, too, shouldn’t care about the writing, but only about the story. Maybe then I would stop getting rejections and start being the next big thing.

That lasted about fifteen minutes. Then I came to my senses and realized that I would never be able to do that. I care about style, about sentence structure and word use, and about getting a subject and predicate into every sentence I write. If nobody else does, then that’s too bad. I’m still going to care, and I’m still gong to write as though I care, even if The Swan Harp never becomes a bestseller, or is published at all.

This year, come hell or high water, I will finish that third book. It will be grammatically correct, and written in complete sentences, no matter what current bestsellers are doing. That’s a promise.

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3 Responses to A “why bother” moment

  1. Bravo! So happy to hear you say this! And I remember your full sentence bias for the authorial voice. When you gave part of Keeper a critical read and edit, you went after me (I think rightly) in a couple of places for doing partial sentences.

  2. Tweeted. Introduced you as a dominatrix of language. XO.

  3. htroup says:

    One thing I have noticed is that there seems to be a point where an established author can decline to be edited. Generally, that seems to be a bad thing. If you look, for example, at the boxed set of Harry Potter, you see three thin, tightly plotted books, and three thick, rather more wordy books. I think that the editors didn’t get to do as much work on the later books, and as a result, they’re actually not as good.

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