Saturday, September 17, 2016

What's a Grammar Checker?

Recently, I was questioned about my use of sentence fragments, and since I am such an insecure scribe, I began to wonder if I was using them too much, or if I should be using them at all. I specifically find myself using them for emphasis, and to break up unwieldy sentences. And according to all the information I found on the internet -- all from institutes of higher learning -- students of the English language are terrified of them. It seems that your professor will mark your paper with a big FRAG, or SF, or FIX THIS, or something equally horrific if you don't give every sentence a subject, a predicate, and a complete thought.

I thought, wait a minute now. I read 3 books a week. (I used to read as many as  5-7 but even the most avid readers slow down eventually.) I was pretty sure I'd seen a lot of sentence fragments. And since I have more than 150 books on my own shelves, I was curious to find out if I was mistaken in thinking that sentence fragments don't always get your work rejected. So I pulled out some well-known authors from my shelf to see if maybe I was crazy, thinking I'd seen a million instances of sentence fragments over the last 40 years, written by well-known writers of award-winning books. I also thought that when I read these amputated sentences, I understood every one.

These are some examples of bestsellers where the writer made use of sentence fragments for a variety of reasons.

Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys: "She wished Michael, willed him, to sleep. To relinquish shame."
Stephen King, Lisey's Story: "Suppose it was Scott's? Oh, sweet God, suppose."
Wally Lamb, I Know This Much is True: "See what, specifically? The conspiracy?"
Tawni O'Dell, Back Roads: I tried to think about disgusting things to help me hang on. Rick's fat ass waddling out of Shop Rite."
T. Greenwood, The Forever Bridge: "It was their playground. Their world."
Heather Gudenkauf, Missing Pieces: "It also meant that everyone who had stepped inside Julia's hospital room was a suspect. Including Jack."
Flannery O'Connor, Good Country People: Yesterday she didn't do anything but ramble in the bureau drawer. All she did.

There seems to be many reasons for the writers of these works to use fragment sentences. Emphasis. Explanation. To fast-forward. To add pacing. As many reasons as there are writers. As many reasons as there are stories. So I think I'm safe in using fragments to get my story out there, as long as there's good reason to chop up those "correct" sentence structures.

I never attended an institute of higher learning, and I have only a vague idea where the grammar check function is in my word processing program. Even if I did know where it is, I doubt that I would use it. (I know I wouldn't use it.) I'll just have to play it by ear, and keep on reading good books by great writers who probably don't know where their grammar check function is, either.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Who Does This Guy Think He Is?

What comes first, the plot or the character? Or does it even matter -- one way or another, we've got to fit both to the story. And either way, whether the story is based on plot or person, we've got to get our story-people right.

Huck Finn would never have made it as a street urchin in Brooklyn. Gone with the Wind probably would have lacked certain elements if Scarlet had been a mousy seamstress. The plots of successful novels need to conform to its characters, and vice versa.

It doesn't matter whether you first have a plot in mind or its characters, you have to know your people to their core. And a character sketch is the most comprehensive way to get to know them. Besides, character sketches are such fun for those of us who love to create other humans, outside of actually giving birth to them. We writers have this god-complex going on. If we didn't, we'd all be shoe salesmen or accountants. (Seriously, I'm not denigrating either of these professions, I'm really not sure what size shoe I should wear, nor can I add two plus two without wondering why it always comes up four. For my own peace of mind, I need both of these people.)

Logically, your character sketch might begin with the physical attributes of your story-people. But, again, we're not accountants. Your character sketches could begin with background, parentage, favorite color, or any other defining characteristic. Somewhere along the way, if you suddenly realize he's only five feet four inches tall, and has a mole on his back, add it to the sketch, you can always put everything in order later. Even if you never use this mole in your physical description of your character, you know that he has one, and it helps make him real in your mind.

In addition to the physical description of your character, you might want to know what he eats for breakfast, who is his best friend, what kind of music he prefers, if he drinks cheap beer or expensive wine. Does he have distinctive mannerisms such as peering into every mirror he sees, a certain way of speaking, does he tell off-color jokes, is he always hitching up his pants? Does he sing in the shower even though he can't carry a tune?

Know every detail of all your characters' lives, no matter whether you use any of these things in your story. Open up their heads and walk in, learn what their inner-worlds are like. Even before you start your novel, listen to your characters talk. After you've decided what they look like, what their likes and dislikes are, actually give them words and listen to what they say, and how they say it. Is there anger in their words, sadness, love, hate? How do they feel about the setting you're putting them in? You might think you're putting words in your characters' mouths, but you also might find that they start talking on their own to explain who they are.

This might seem like excessive work to create a character sketch for every character in a full-length novel, but once you can see your people and they've told you all about themselves, you're ready to pour them into the plot cauldron and stir it up.

So, here's the scary part: One or more of your characters doesn't conform to the plot, or the plot itself just won't seem to wrap around these rogues. The solution is to either change the plot, or -- much easier -- to re-mold the character until he fits. There will be character traits and opinions that won't need to be changed, but there will be those that will. And so, here's the happy part: There's a delete key on your keyboard and an eraser on your pencil. Because you're a writer, and the people you create can also be un-created. You can change blond hair to black, or a love of Jack Daniels to a hatred of all things alcoholic. And if you just can't find a place for that particular person in your story, you can just set him aside for the next story.

You're a writer, after all, and there's always a next story, maybe even tomorrow.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Who's Telling This Story?

This is a previously published article I did for the Brown County Writers Group's newsletter publication The Twig.

If you're writing your story in Jack London's voice, you better be Jack London. Stephen King? Nora Roberts? Annie Proulx? Sorry, those literary shoes have been filled.

Nope, you're telling this story, in a voice that is probably not yet established with a particular reader/fan base. That takes years. Agents and editors have not yet fallen to their knees and deified you for your not-Dean Koontz, not-James Patterson writing style, but for your brand new voice that is brilliant and unique. And insanely sale-able, which enables agents and editors to put meat on their tables, which makes them very happy to share their paychecks with aspiring writers.

When writers read (every day of our lives) we most often read our favorite writers whose material matches what we want to write. Unfortunately, we also tend to try to hijack our favorite writers' voices and call them our own. Sometimes we don't realize we're doing this, and sometimes we do.

Just as actors set aside who they are to become the characters they portray, so too should writers become the people we invent. We made up these characters, it's our responsibility to match how they think, what they're saying and why they're saying it, with their thoughts and actions.

Not only do your characters have to present a certain voice, every element of the story should project a certain tone. Setting, scene, circumstance, incident, and even era should reflect the overall voice of the piece. It can be understated and muted, boisterous, serious and melodramatic, sad, funny--whatever voice enhances the story in the most original way.

Fiction writers create fascinating stories about fascinating people who do something fascinating, and say something fascinating about something fascinating, from somewhere fascinating.

Well, that's the goal, at least. I've thought I've written something fascinating and find out that maybe only three people in the whole world find it fascinating, and that those people are on some seriously fascinating antidepressants.

The hard part is doing it in a voice that is exclusively your own. Your right word in the right place at the right time is not my right word in the right place at the right time. It's also not Jodi Picoult's right word, or John Grisham's. It's your voice you're selling.

To quote Raymond Carver, whose short stories earned literary acclaim and prestigious awards: "Every great or even very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications."

Every word you write, and every word you choose not to write, has to work to build a new world of your own that readers clamor to experience, a story told as only you can tell it.