Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Peeve of the Writerly Author

Hello, readers.

See. It's really me. I may not be famous enough
to get a verified Twitter account, but I do exist.
I just wanted to pop in here with a quick post to 1) let you know that I am still alive and 2) offer a bit of insight that may come in handy in the future as you continue to read this blog. I feel like number one has been accomplished, because I’m here and saying that I’m Brad and I don’t imagine anyone would want to impersonate me so there you go.

If you’ve come around here much, you’ll know that I am a self-published, indie author. I honestly don’t know what I would say if a publisher approached me with a traditional deal, but it’s not something I’m spending a great deal of time pursuing. I like the freedom of writing whatever story or tackling whatever project I feel God leading me toward, or whatever I’m passionate about. I looked around a bit for an literary agent when Emaline’s Gift was in the rewriting/editing stage and discovered that many, many Christian agents wouldn’t even look at a fantasy novel. One got back to me to tell me that they liked my work but I didn’t have much shot of getting published if I wasn’t already famous for something else (have you noticed how Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly are suddenly bestselling authors?) because traditional publishers were taking fewer risks than ever. Even if I found my way into a contract, would a Christian publishing imprint permit a book like The Savvy Demon’s Guide to Godly Living? I’m very skeptical—and yet I felt the Holy Spirit planted the idea for that book and sustained me through its writing. It was an act of obedience, of following Christ, to write and publish that book—and the Lord has used that work for His glory.

I believe this pie chart will help to illustrate  my point.
(Of course, one of the definite downsides to indie publishing is the dreaded burden of marketing, without a budget and with cobbled-together know-how perhaps of dubious value. Of course, the author feels called to writing, not marketing, and it can be difficult and discouraging to take time away from the next book to promote the ones that came before. Which all goes to say that, while I definitely feel God’s strong influence in each of my books, and while He has graciously used each to impact at least some readers, the number of people who will ever hold one of my books in their hands [or on their Kindles] is never likely to be very large.)

Anyway, as an indie writer myself, I’ve taken to reading quite a bit of indie fiction, and I delight in using this blog as a way to spotlight authors my readers may not have ever heard of. I do this most often through author interviews, which I feel have developed into pretty good chats that often (hopefully!) contain some fairly insightful—even challenging and provocative—questions, and give you a good idea as to whether this author is someone you’d enjoy reading or not (regardless of whether I cared for the book, which is all a review could do). I have enjoyed this greatly and I’ve read some truly wonderful indie books, including Adam Bolander’s fantasy The Slayer and the Sphinx, William Woodall’s coming of age tale Cry for the Moon, and Alana Terry’s harrowing The Beloved Daughter, which was one of the best books I read in 2013, indie or otherwise (and just added a Grace Award to the bevy of accolades it has deservedly won). I really feel like indie books are coming into their own, as indie film and music already have, and that the more we see the big publishing houses back away from taking risks, the more we’ll find work that is truly unique, excellent, and worth reading in indie published books.

I thought about posting an image about so-called "Grammar Nazis" here,
but way too many of them actually called those heroes among us
"Grammar Nazi's," and I just...well, I just couldn't.
But the lack of marketing support and knowledge or wide distribution options aren't the only differences between indie books and those traditionally published. Mainstream books by major authors certainly make it to the market with errors, but the editing help offered by the publisher usually reduces the number of typos and grammatical mistakes significantly. Editors are also available to indie authors, of course, but they are usually quite expensive (it is perfectly possible for someone to be an incredibly gifted storyteller but not have the funds to commission a professional cover, hire editors, etc.), and I can personally attest to the variance in quality. For one of my books in particular, I proofread it personally countless times, hired a professional editor to do the same, found countless mistakes they missed in my final edit, then had an astute and generous beta reader provide me with a lengthy list of necessary corrections that had still persisted to the near-final draft (and, actually, she is an author named Annie Douglass Lima and I almost listed her fantasy Prince of Alasia as an indie book well worth reading, but held my hand simply because I didn’t want the list dominated by one genre, but I’ll mention it here!). I didn’t feel like hiring an editor in that case turned out any more of a professional product than my books for which I’ve done all the proofreading by myself. And proofreading is something I believe the author can do by themselves, if they are extremely diligent and prepared to learn the rules of the English language—and if they’re able to be consistent in a number of grammatical gray areas. It simply takes a lot more than a reread or two.

But proofreading and weeding out spelling and grammatical errors is actually the least expensive type of editing. Traditionally published authors also have the benefit of those who evaluate the story for consistency and tone and pacing and continuity (you might be stunned how easy it can be for many authors to lose a bit of the forest for the trees). I have one author friend in particular who sometimes likes to talk out issues he’s
I feel like this level of discourse really
benefits the reader in the end.
having with his current story with me. I greatly enjoy these brainstorming sessions, working together to help guide his story away from cliché and toward more satisfying twists that are consistent with the characters and the world (even if I may not be much more than a sounding board, since I don’t know how many of my suggestions really make it to the page, but that’s okay, too—they’re his books!). Another perspective—that of an outsider who knows something about storycraft—is priceless, but doesn’t come cheap. A skilled editor can also provide valuable insight into the writing process itself: Do the metaphors rely too much on cliché (“Jon felt like a million bucks.”)? Is the tone consistent and appropriate for the story? Does the prose ever get in the way of the story?

This lengthy intro (just in case you needed more proof that this is really me writing this blog, and that I am indeed alive and well) has now struck at the root of what has probably become my biggest pet peeve as a reader (beyond releasing an error-filled book, for which I believe there is really no excuse): words that get in the way of the story. The phrase I have been bandying about is that this sort of prose is “too writerly,” and it is driving me crazy.

Let me warn you that this is a bit of a contentious topic amongst my writer colleagues. See, there can be a certain compulsion as an author—not universal, perhaps, but I don’t think it’s exactly rare either—to make decisions about word choice and sentence structure that one would only really find in a certain type of book.
I have never and would never read the books, but
the Amazon reviews I've read for 50 Shades of Grey are
quite amusing. Apparently, the writing is quite bad.
These type of sentences will not be found in nature. Sometimes they consist of big, unusual words when smaller, more conventional ones would do just fine (or better). Sometimes there are so many descriptors and adverbs (oh good heavens, watch if with all the adverbs!) that the paragraph rambles on endlessly, stealing any momentum from the scene. Sometimes metaphors or word pictures are so convoluted or unlikely that a critical reader can only come to the conclusion that the sentence is something akin to fancy-sounding gibberish. Does this stem from the author’s desire to appear intelligent, or to attempt to elevate their prose above others in the genre?

Please note that I’m certainly not without sin. Hopefully, my annoyance with this sort of writing as a reader will lead me to cut down on it as a writer. I’m not trying to say that an author has no license to use words that the reader needs to look up. I think us voracious readers tend to have much larger vocabularies, on average, than most non-readers because of all we have learned through context or, if need be, grabbing a dictionary. And I’m not saying that the writer ought to not take care with word choice. In my opinion, Vonnegut’s prose is so wonderful and poetic that it immediately elevates the work, regardless of its topic, and I’d love to write like him.

I am simply offering my opinion that I like to read stories, not listen to writers be writers. In fact, I rather think on whole I’d like to be a storyteller rather than a writer, if I had to choose (a storyteller that generally uses proper grammar and punctuation and all, mind you). And that’s why I consider “being writerly” to get in the way of the story. When I feel like the writer is trying to impress someone, I can’t focus on the story. When I feel that they’re using a fancy word instead of a simple one simply for the sake of variety, in takes me
For my part, I'd rather be swept away to a different world than
to be grounded by an onslaught of words.
right out of the scene they’ve set. For me, the best writing is subtle and unobtrusive, fading into the background, so the stories and the characters, the emotions and the plot take center stage.

I’ll give you an example. Lots of examples would be helpful, I’m sure, but I feel like I would be too tempted to dig out some of the books I’ve read that contain lots of offending passages and quote from those and I don’t feel like that would be fair to the authors. But I’m not sure I could come up with great examples on my own. It’s more like I know it when I see it. So I’ll give you an example that is not a very good one but is at least marginally connected to the topic.

When I read a book, dialogue attributors tend to fade in the background and not get in the way of the story when the author uses common ones: said, asked, replied, etc.

“Where are we going?” John said.

John said attributes the dialogue to John. That’s its function and it does it well. The dialogue itself is generally the most important thing here, a point which is reinforced by the fact that, when a limited number of people are conversing, we can actually drop attributors that are unnecessary. If the reader knows who is saying each line, we’re good. If the characters are actively doing something at the moment, we can mix it up a bit by focusing on the action and using that as an implied attribution:

John stood and brushed himself off. “Where are we going?”

But too much of that can be excessive, especially if the action is fairly inconsequential. So what is the author left with, especially if more than two people are present for the conversation? Said, said, said. Now, as a reader, this doesn’t bother me in the least. The dialogue attributors do precisely what they are intended to do: they attribute dialogue to the speaker. The words themselves get out of the way of the story.

Tragically, this panicky author flopped his
head down on S-A-I-D.
However, for us authors, looking at all those saids can make us panic. Look at all that repetition! What a bad writer we are! We must fix it! So we do our best to mix it up. Now, instead of John merely saying, he declares, he mentions, he states, he announces, he reports. In other words, Johnny stops being a person who simply says what’s on his mind—as you and I tend to do—and starts to be a character whom a writer is forcing to declare when he really just wants to say. And for me? It takes me right out of the story because the author’s attempt to artificially add variety feels clunky and woefully conspicuous. Being writerly is getting in the way of being a storyteller.

(Now, are there times when it is perfectly appropriate for John to mention something or report to someone? Sure. But, in these instances, the context will support the word choice, and a good writer’s instincts will choose mentioned over said during the writing or rewriting process, as opposed to putting it where it doesn’t belong later because they have a problem with the repetitive saids. The context will support these exceptions because said and mentioned are not synonyms. They have slightly different meanings and each connotes something different for the reader. In high school, one of my English teachers shared the belief that there was no such thing as a true synonym—that there is always a best word for any given sentence, because even words with very similar definitions carry with them different connotations—and I rather believe this is true.)

But, in my opinion, dialogue attributors can get worse. A book that has a fair amount of dialogue will run through all of said’s linguistic siblings, cousins, and extended family before long. What to do when even they get repetitive? Why not throw any verb—especially those involving the mouth—into dialogue attribution to see if it sticks? I’ve seen:

“Where are we going?” John gritted.

“When will we get there?” John huffed.

“Who else is coming?” John bristled.

“Whatever shall I wear?” John queried.

“Why is this blog post making such a big deal out of this stuff?” John gesticulated.

Now, some of these are worse than others. Still, I would contend that most of us average human beings tend to ask much more often than we query (although if you want to query querulously at the quarry, I certainly won’t stop you). And there may well be those reading this blog who shrug and wonder what the big deal is. That’s fine. This is about one of my personal literary pet peeves and you may have no beef with it.

But, please, for the sake of argument, would you mind doing something for me? Permit me to present the following line of dialogue:

The monkey bear and marsupial boldly followed the manatee past Red Bird’s monstrous lair.

Would you mind saying that for me? Oh, sure, you might get some weird looks, but that doesn’t bother me in the least. Just say it. Said it? Great. Now, grit it for me, would you? Are you gritting it (do you remember what I said about writing gibberish?)? Maybe try huffing it (it’s not paint or rubber cement or anything so we should be good)? Incidentally, I wouldn’t mind seeing some YouTube videos of you guys gritting or bristling that line. Just leave some links in the comments, okay?

"Tell me, John. How long have you been gesticulating?"
Due to my pet peeves as a reader, I have trained myself to show restraint as a writer. To be honest, John would be merely saying quite a bit in my books. If you don’t gloss over it like I do, it may bother you. But, hey, I tend to say quite a bit myself. In some books, John’s hardly saying anything, instead spending his time bellowing, whispering, declaring, gritting, moaning, and sighing. Sounds like John needs a doctor, and possibly a psychiatrist.

I’m reminded of the Hemingway quote in which he responded to a disagreement with William Faulkner:

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Some writers look at Hemingway’s position and think the point is that they are being told to dumb down their writing, or to never use a single word your entire readership doesn’t know, but I don’t think that’s it at all. I do, of course, think any perception that a writer that uses big, fancy words might be inherently more talented than a writer who writes in a more accessible manner is absolute poppycock. Big emotions mean much more than big words. Ultimately, however, it’s my position that the tone and verbiage of any book should probably be dictated by the story. My problem comes in when I get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that an author is going back to make changes that result in a disparate tone, practical gibberish, or are trying to write in a style or using words that they are not comfortable with or do not fit the story.

I’m reading a book right now in which the author takes a very long time to get through a simple scene because she feels the need to use dozens of words where a few would communicate the story well enough. Not much has happened in the book so far, but we’ve got paragraphs upon paragraphs going on about what little has transpired, with the protagonist endlessly overanalyzing everything. It’s very slow going. A quote from the play and film Amadeus keeps popping into my head. Struggling to come up with some criticism for a Mozart composition, members of the royal court conclude that his work had “too many notes.” Mozart of course insists that he uses precisely the number of notes he requires, and yet I often feel this way when I feel an author has lost sight for of the story itself in favor of being writerly: that there are simply too many words.

But we’re not here to second guess the decisions of other authors. We’re simply here because I wanted to share this particular authorial pet peeve because I can pretty much assure you that the criticism of being “too writerly” will surely surface in my interviews and mini-reviews in the future. If you don’t think the sort of prose I’ve described is a big deal, or if you like it, that’s fine. Pet peeves don’t have to be universal, by any means. Tell me why you like this sort of thing (feel free to type or, if you can, grit your comment). Or share your own pet peeves as a reader. They don’t have to be rational (I’ve heard some readers swear off either first or third person, which seems pretty darn arbitrary to me...and would make you miss out on some great books!), and that’s fine because we all have different tastes and preferences and there’s no such thing as the perfect book that will please every single reader. Heck, Jesus was perfect and a storyteller and had plenty of enemies and continues to attract critics.

But enough from me. What really grates your cheese?