Goodish grammar

In my writers groups I’m always the one looking for plot holes and continuity issues. It’s not that I’m particularly observant, it’s just that my confidence in my grammar is so low that I feel like finding plot holes and continuity issues is the best that I can offer!

I’m one of the gen X’s who went through on the new way of learning English back in the early 80’s, which is to say we didn’t learn it. Our grammar lesson (yes, singular) was pretty much limited to; “there are these things called nouns, adjectives and verbs, but you don’t really need to learn them.” As lazy six year olds we all clapped with excitement (high fives had not yet made it into the behavioural norm), little did we know it would set us up for a lifetime of never quite understanding our own language.

It came back to haunt me in year 12 when, in our dry-run English exam, none of us could answer the question about “the purpose of the adverb in the following sentence…” not because we didn’t know what its purpose was, but because we didn’t know which word was the adverb! So in my last year of high-school, just before I sat my final exams, I had my first lesson in English grammar.

Since then I have studied dummies guides and old English grammar books that I’ve picked up from the second hand book shop, but I still don’t feel like I’ve got a good grip on grammar. It is all well and good to say that by listening you can learn the building blocks of language, but have you heard how people talk these days? Really it is no surprise that I have a love affair with dangling modifiers and tense slips.

The out loud edit

I’m working on a kids book at the moment, aimed at the 6-8 year old market. This area straddles the bracket between picture books and chapter books, but the books are not so long that parents can’t sit and read them to their kids. Because of this I had to make sure it sounded okay when read aloud.

I have heard that a lot of published writers go through an out loud edit, even for their adult books, and several people in my writers groups said they do the same thing for their adult stories. I had never seen it as being necessary before, and have always done all my editing and critiquing by reading in my head. But for the kids book I thought I’d better be more thorough as it might get read out loud.

Wow, what a surprise. Something my brain was happy to read, I was amazed to discover my mouth would stumble over. I didn’t realise how similar some words sound when read aloud, how twisty sentences can be when they don’t have a break in the middle. My red pen edit (the out loud edit) is by far the most prominent on the page. I slashed whole sections and simplified ruthlessly.

I think I need to do this for all my stories. As mad as I feel reading out loud when no one is listening but me, I think it does help you to see your sentences much better. The brain can be very forgiving, but the tongue doesn’t have the same level of tolerance, so I’m going to utilise that a bit more.

Fear

If there is one thing that my penchant for self-help books has taught me, it is that fear does not need to be of the heart-rate-increasing variety. Some fears do not spark your adrenalin or send your skin clammy. In fact some fear does not show itself at all. Why, because it is so ingrained that you know you will never let yourself face it, so your body does not get worried.

One that falls into this category is the fear of failure. Different people are afraid of failing at different things. For writers there are lots of failures we worry about. The story won’t come out on the page as perfectly as it looks in our heads, so we don’t write it. People won’t like the story when we finish writing it, so we don’t show it to anyone. Publishers will tell us that we have no skill and we should quit now, so we don’t submit our story. Academically we know these things probably won’t be issues, but it doesn’t stop the fear from getting in.

A lot of self-help gurus preach that you should do one thing a day that scares you. I think this is actually really good advice. It trains you to a) look for fears and be aware of them, and b) know that you can survive facing them. It is very easy for us to let our sub-conscious mind go about making our decisions so we don’t even know what we are afraid of, keeping us in a little, secure, safety-bubble.

But that won’t help you to become the best that you can be. Facing your fears is how you grow. That is how you learn what you are capable of, and it gets you to stretch beyond the familiar to the possible.

I think my fears have been holding back my submissions this year. I’ve subbed only two things, and one of those got accepted. Not a bad hit rate, but it is a terrible submission rate. So with what is left of the last two months of this year I’m going to face that fear. Let’s see what is possible.

A marathon, not a sprint

Writing is such a slow process that you can’t help but want to speed things up a bit sometimes. Earlier in my writing career I made the mistake of sending out my stories too soon. After bleeding over them to get them finished, the moment I typed ‘the end’ I was so flushed with relief and excitement that I wanted to send them out straight away. Which is what I did, over and over again.

I have a soft spot for my first novel Paragon, but when I finished it the closest I got to editing it was converting some of the hand written pages into Word files. Then I systematically sent it off to some of the biggest publishing houses in Australia. They all said no.

Eventually I realised something might be wrong with the magnum opus, so I thought an edit might be necessary. I was shocked at the number of typos, incorrect words and even transposed names that were in the manuscript. And I had sent this out!?!

After the first edit I sent it off again, and amazingly got some interest from the last remaining big publishing house that I had not already burned with my typo-laden manuscript. After some time, and a breathtakingly close call, they passed on it and Paragon went to the bottom drawer.

Since then I have learned all sorts of things about point of view slips, excess gerunds and exposition that I have now corrected in the story (thank you writers groups). But I cannot send this to any of the major publishing houses now. They said no to Paragon and generally, unless they invite you to resubmit, there is no second chance.

If Paragon had been in the shape it is in now when I first sent it off, instead of being my learning novel, it might have been my debut novel. I was trying to sprint to the end too soon.

So the lesson I have learned, rather painfully, over more than ten years, is that writing is not a sprint, it is a marathon. You have to be prepared to pace yourself and give things time, and you can only make it to the finish line if you take all the steps to get there.