Thursday, April 19, 2018

It's not right, but it's also not wrong

I swear every word of this is true

Act One: Happy Hour -17, New Leaf office.

Manuscript arcs over the transom, and lands on my desk with a rather liquidy plop. Clearly whisky was involved in the writing. Aha! The new Jeff Somers pages.

Read; savor.
Read; savor.
Laphroaig, rinse, repeat.

I sharpen my editing pencil on my fangs, and mark that Jeff has named characters Alice, Alyse, and Alison. And two people both seemed to be named Candace.

I mark the odd capitalization that Creeps in to Jeff's writings; capitalizations That really don't seem To be any Thing other than random.

I mark the occasional homonym and grammar slip.

I summon the messenger and have the ms biked back to New Jersey.

Act Two: Happy Hour -8, New Leaf Office

Revised manuscript arrives via liveried footman who mentions off-handedly that Jeff is helping Prince Harry write his wedding vows today so I won't need to reply till tomorrow.

I compare old version to new.

Changes accepted.

But wait,, TWO grammar errors remain.

He must not have seen them.

I mark again, this time in BOLD RED and catch the liveried footman before he steps into the elevator.

Act Three: Happy Hour -5, New Leaf Office

Homer Spit Somers pussyfoots into the New Leaf office with a manuscript in his back pack. He deftly spins it onto my desk, settles into a warm spot on top of my computer, casually flicks a claw in my direction to indicate this is the next revision.

I read.
I savor.
I spot those same damn grammar errors.

I reach for the phone.

Homer Spit, no fool he, dives into the nearest filing cabinet and pulls the drawer shut behind him. As I dial, I wonder idly if Homer has filed himself under F for Feline, C for Cat, or H for Hidden.


JS: Oh hi Janet, how are you?
JR: Purrfect, of course.

JS: So, I'm busy here, this Prince guy isn't who I thought he was, but never mind. What's up?
JR: You didn't fix those two grammar mistakes.

JS: They aren't mistakes.
JR: (a tad huffy) They certainly are. "Her and me" is totally completely 100% wrong wrong wrong.

JS: It's on purpose.

JR: (aghast pause) You're making mistakes on purpose? This is cranking "let's torture your agent" up to 11.

JS: The character speaking does not always sound like Miss Parsnips, your grammar teacher.

JR: Oh. But still, it's WRONG! It's Bad Grammar! (clutches copies of Mignon Fogerty books to fluttering fin.) It can't be right if it's wrong, it just can't. *weeping ensues*

JS: It is and it's not. The character says this. It's not narrative, it's dialogue. Get yourself together, before I write a scene in a bank with safety deposit boxes

JR: *heartfelt moans* no, no, please don't do that. Anything but that.
JS: My agent is weeping. My work here is done.

Homer Spit deftly opens the file cabinet, leaps out, pussyfoots down the drainpipe and into the sunset.

The End, Happy Hour .
. oh hell, break out the whisky now.

Your takeaway: Don't let Miss Parsnips, in agent or editor form, tell you that just cause it's wrong it's not right. Characters speak incorrectly all the time, just like real people do. Hold your ground, even in the face of bitter shark tears.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

Amen to that. Yes. Thank you.

I can’t wait to have an agent to torture.

Timothy Lowe said...

Two comments:

Number one - this post is a delight to read. Wow!
Number two - what a can of worms this brings up. All sorts of fun debates, like can a character 'hiss' something if it doesn't have any 's' sounds...

Glad I have the end of a draft to keep me distracted from the inevitable ruminations that follow.

AJ Blythe said...

This cracked me up.

So the takeaway is authors have the power to make agents cry too? It isn't just the vice versa? Good to know.

On topic, this is a battle I have with myself because I often write things how I hear the character saying it, but then change it because it isn't "correct". I think this is why I get feedback from my CPs in early drafts that some characters sound the same. Will go with my gut and leave well alone from now on. Thanks, dear Queen.

Dena Pawling said...

My story has one intentional "typo" in it. It's required for the story. I can't wait for MY AGENT [had to type that in caps lol] to red-line it and then later in the story go back and stet it =)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

One of my long-suffering, oft-rejected short stories (22 times) that I'm still really happy with when I reread it sometimes gets helpful personal rejections which say I might want to check it over for grammatical mistakes. I do not reply to those rejections, but I go to my Designated Writer Friends who understand and whine about CHARACTER VOICE and THROWING OFF THE TYRANNY OF GRAMMAR.

And then I feel better (ish?) and submit it again.

In more successful short story news, my story "Surveillance Fatigue" is available to read or listen to on Escape Pod!

(I thought I linked this before and that comment poofed, so I apologize if this is redundant)

MA Hudson said...

So, the character is always right?

nightsmusic said...

I absolutely needed this post this morning. This is not a stellar day for me...

I once read a contest entry where every character spoke in full sentences and there wasn't a contraction even to be found. I gently suggested in my feedback that she should read her conversations with someone else, out loud, so she would get a feel for how awkward everything read. We were all anonymous so she didn't know who suggested what, but her 'thank you' to the contest after it was over (she didn't win...) was to say she appreciated the feedback she received but didn't see anything wrong with the conversation structures as she spoke like that normally.

I often wonder if she ever broke down and loosened up because overall, the story was a good one, but it read like a dictionary.

mreditor said...

First of all, I want my cat back. We all know you still have Homer Spit there, doing chores.

Second of all, Random Capitalization: HOW DARE YOU. There is Nothing random About how I Capitalize Things.

Third of all, Candace is a fine name. You should be grateful I'm not naming my characters Jeff Somers and going all postmodern meta on you.

Fourth of all, if anyone believes I ever speak that forcefully to you they're kidding themselves. I was wearing teflon pants and hiding in the closet when I called you. Also, slightly day drunk, yes, what of it.

In closing: Pants are for the weak.

Julie Weathers said...

Oh, dear Lord in heaven have I had this discussion.

"Do you find it odd Mrs. Whimple mentioned she liked walking her dog on Fifth Street?"

He smooched the horses into a brisk walk. "Exceeding. And that stern look was not at all like her. She was trying to tell us something without telling us. Fifth Street niggles at my brain."

Helpful reader:

"That should be exceedingly."

"No, it shouldn't."

"Exceeding modifies the unspoken odd. It's exceedingly."

"In this time period, 'exceeding odd' would be perfectly acceptable and common speech."

grumble grumble.

"I told your father not to let you read that horrible Poe. I swan. It's positively warped your mind."

Helpful reader:

"Typo. That should be 'I swear.'"

"No, polite ladies didn't say, 'I swear' it was 'I swan'.

At this point, you can almost see helpful reader giving you the stink eye and thinking, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

We won't even discuss the dialects, which I use sparingly, but there are some distinct speech patterns.

I listen to Shelby Foote interviews often because I like what he has to say and because I just like to listen to him. I imagine one of my characters speaking in that voice. He wrote with a dip pen because it made him slow down and think about each word. When he sent the final draft to the editor, it was pretty much the final draft. Very little needed to be changed.

In one interview, he's talking about his friend William Faulkner who sent a manuscript to the publisher. An editor sent it back with a correction. Faulkner sent it back in the original. The editor sent it back with the correction again.

Faulkner sent it back with the note, "G-- damn it. Leave it alone."

I'm certainly not Faulkner, but I can imagine if I ever get an agent we will have a few discussions about proper grammar.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I don't mean to be a Braggy-McBraggy pants... Wait. That's not true. Yes, I do. One of the most consistent compliments I receive about my books is how well I write dialogue. When characters are speaking it should sound/read genuine and real.

Read it aloud in the tone of the scene. If the scene is carefree and joyful, read it that way. If it's full of tension and high anxiety, read it that way. And if your character is a crusty, weathered old cowboy, write (then read) his dialogue like a crusty old cowboy.

CynthiaMc said...

My mother convinced me almost from birth that the key to heaven is proper grammar. The character I am currently playing says "ain't" and "I reckon" and a lot of things that would cause my mother to spontaneously combust. I have almost succeeded in saying these things without cringing. I am also convinced that Maggie (my character) would have no trouble getting into heaven because she is pure love. Even Mom would let her in.

Julie Weathers said...

I love this post, btw.

I can see this happening so well and imagine the exchange, and the whiskey drinking.

Life is good.

Sam Mills said...

Jennifer, congrats!! I'd love to land something in any of the Escape Artists podcasts (I lean more fantasy so maybe PodCastle...). I'll check it out!

And (consistent, character-based) "incorrect" voices are the best. Done well, there's a hypnotism to following along. I keep tinkering with a story told by a creature that has learned our vocabulary but isn't so great at spinning metaphors...either it's charming or absolutely awful to read, but it sure was fun to write. XD

Donnaeve said...

My first posted comment had so many errors in it I had to delete it.

2nd attempt to make sense:

I often joke how I can never wear the t-shirt that says, "I'm silently correcting your grammar," when I say things like "I might could do that," or "Ain't it a nice day?"

I write with a lot of regional dialect - it even creeps into my own every day speech which I'm sure makes me sound uneducated at times. When THE ROAD TO BITTERSWEET was about to be released, I worried some readers who aren't familiar with certain turns of southern phrase might not get the way my characters speak, or be able to stand my protag's narrative which stays consistent with her particular speech patterns.

Sure enough, one person wrote a review about how they couldn't understand all the grammatical mistakes.


Stacy McKitrick said...

All I can say is: Man, that's some fast editing! I feel like such a slacker. :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

There is one really disturbing or at least distracting facet of this delicoius post...

I believe our queen might be the best writer among us. She is amazing.

And Jeff Oh please, you don’t own any pants. Teflon or otherwise. It was a girdle.

And who could blame Homer for “taking a position” at New Leaf. Better whisky than in Hoboken. Or so I read somewhere.

Julie Weathers said...


Sure enough, one person wrote a review about how they couldn't understand all the grammatical mistakes.

Well, bless her heart.

I have a friend who went to Nashville for a business meeting. There was a music festival going on while he was there and his host bought him a three-day bracelet so they could attend at night.

He had to leave early and the little waitress he had quite fallen in love with due to her accent and country ways, now he's from Virginia so he's no foreigner to southern accents, but anyway, this girl had enthralled him with her voice and mannerisms. He mentioned he was going to miss the last day of the festival and hated it.

"Now wouldn't you be the sweetest little ole thing if you gave that to me?"

I asked him if he gave it to her.

"Oh, yes. I folded like a cheap suit."

Some people just have no appreciation for the finer things in all things southern.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

The joy and freedom of dialogue!

Can I handle the freedom??

Susan at West of Mars said...

Yup. This is the sort of so-called mistake that I always flag when I see it while editing. I point out the proper grammar and add, "But not all characters have perfect grammar. Your call."

I have one author who uses an incorrect ...and me at least once per book. And I flag it once in every manuscript, like it's a ritual and I haven't done my job until I've spotted it.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Should I point at that: This Is Capitalization and that, THIS IS BLOCK CAPTIALS?

John Davis Frain said...

Lordy, that was a fun post.

Wife: Whatcha workin' on?
Me: A fiction novel.
Wife: Won't never sell that way.
Me: *sighing* Least it'll finally be correct.

KariV said...

Oh grammar! I adore grammar. My grammar in speech has gone out the window since I moved to west Texas (where we speak both Spanglish and Texican),however I still struggle to write intentionally wrong grammar in dialogue. This is where reading aloud really helps. When I hear it I can correct for spoken grammar instead of super proper written grammar.

Also, I've heard it said "know all the rules before you break them" - a good handle on grammar sets you up to defend intentional grammar "mistakes" rather than constantly correcting sloppy writing.

Barbara Etlin said...

I'm still cringing years later for telling my critique partner that her teenage girl character who got excellent grades wouldn't substitute an adjective for and adverb in her dialogue.

Beth Carpenter said...

A few days ago, I saw a phase I've said but never read or written.


As in "If y'all'd've just waited we could've gone together."

Notice how Texans have reduce four words to one, which helps make up for talkin' slow.

roadkills-r-us said...

Heh. My editors and I have gone through this, especially my final editor, who had never edited fiction- much less fantasy- before. But long-term, we've both learned a lot and had fun. It was a bit dicey at first.

Beth: Yep.
Julie: Yep.
CynthiaMc: That's awesome!

Joseph S. said...


I still chuckle about the reverse of efficient condensing. Here in Alabama, a friend's best friend was "Pam," pronounced with three syllables.

Craig F said...

I'm kinda surprised that no Grammar-Nazis have upheld their cause. I had a couple of unswerving ones as betas for a while.

That was the first book I wrote. A sci-fi things set only about two hundred years ago. I had sat down with a bottle of shine and detailed a language shift. They refused to even attempt to figure it out. Most everyone else thought it was decent.

Donnaeve said...

Julie Amen to that. Btw - I too, like to listen to Mr. Foote.

Beth I took out this: wouldn't've (it would not have)

Elise You're right on the money. Janet can surely write.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Huh, English grammar???

'My' English grammar still gets confused when people say "I don't know nothing", when Justin Bieber sings "My Mamma don't like you", (<- is this an Oxford comma?) or when I see your president saying "I feel really badly for him".

I have another question but maybe I'd embarrass myself...

Brenda said...

A columnist-type friend wrote that she 'drug her suitcase to the airport'. Oh the emails, phone calls, letters. Her next column was entitled ... wait for it ...

Journalist Caught Using a Drug!

Panda in Chief said...

Hahahahahaha! My characters speak grammatically incorrect sentences and made up words ALL. THE. TIME. Well, they ARE pandas, so there is that. That they can speak english at all is kind of amazing right there.

And Inappropriate Capital Letters is a convention as old as Pooh Bear, (or probably before that) who used them to Great Effect.

So there!

Steve Stubbs said...

Congratulations to you and Mr. Somers on the new book and very best wishes for its commercial success. All of us will appreciate a heads up when you have a pub date so we can order copies and spread the word.

Colin Smith said...

When I beta read for people, I try to go light on spelling/grammar critiques with dialog. Also with first-person narratives. I might flag something that doesn't sound right with the voice. For example, a character who, for no reason, goes from, "Hey, mush! Gimme back me ball!" to "Greeting, mater. I do hope you are experiencing a most splendorous day!"

Fiction writing isn't academic writing. Academic writing demands you put on a suit and tie, get your AP or Chicago Style in order, and sound like you are somewhat educated. With fiction, you can wear a suit if you want. Or you can put on shorts and a t-shirt. What matters is story. Feeling. Voice. The emphasis is on entertaining the reader, not educating them. (Of course, that doesn't excuse the fiction writer from using good grammar. A good fiction writer will know their grammar rules well enough to know when and how to break them.)

That doesn't mean fiction can't educate, and academic can't entertain. It's a question of emphasis and priority.

That's my 2 cents on that.

One of Us: The Oxford or Serial Comma only applies to lists. There other rules for comma usage (not between a subject and its verb, and the rules when to use with "but" and "and", etc.) are less contentious. See HERE for a nice summary of comma rules. :)

Colin Smith said...

P.S.: There are, ironically, some dropped words and typos in my last comment. Normally, I would delete and repost a corrected version. Judge me if you will, but not today. It is what it is. :)

AJ Blythe said...

I'm so glad I came back this morning to read the rest of the comments. The reef rocks!

Lennon Faris said...

Well this one cracked me up.

Is anyone else trying to figure out what time Janet's Happy Hour normally is? or how late she works?

I will confirm what Braggy-McBraggyPants said ;) (Melanie) that her characters sound so real I can hear people from my Appalachian past talking in her books. Hurray for breaking the rules!

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Colin, thanks a lot for that link. I've checked it out and am pleased that I seem to be doing okay-ish in terms of commas.

Yeah, I get that the Oxford comma only applies to lists, but isn't my sentence from above a list!? It doesn't contain an "and" but an "or". To me, this still looks like a list, though.

Colin Smith said...

One of Us: Actually, you are correct. In this instance it is an example of the Oxford Comma, as Grammarly explains. :)

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