Buyer (Writer) Beware

Hi Folks,

Today I’m going to write about an old saying: Let the buyer beware.

Basically the saying means the buyer should perform a reasonable level of due diligence before committing to buying a product. And in the case of instruction, “buying” has a dual meaning: 1. purchasing, trading money for; and 2. believing.

You know what I mean. Many of you have heard me say before, “If any writing instructor says something to you that he can’t explain, stop listening.”

Well, the same goes for those who write books about writing. If they use broad, abstract terms that mean nothing and/or if they don’t bother to explain the concepts they’re rattling on about, um, er, DON’T BUY THE BOOK.

Now honestly, if your neighbor is not a prodigy and his formal schooling ended with a straight-D report card in his twelfth year of school and he just wrote a how-to book about how quantum physics meshes with string theory (or not), that’s fine. I don’t care.

But when someone slops together a soup sandwich of a how-to book on writing, slaps a snappy title on it and publishes it (traditionally or otherwise), I do care. A lot.

The fact that someone published a book doesn’t make the author an expert anymore than knowing how to drive a car makes you a mechanic.

 

I want so much to tell you the name of the book that spurred this blog post, but I won’t because I don’t want to publicize it even with bad publicity. But I will give you a few examples from that book, annotated with my comments.

A prospective editing client, after I had completed a free sample edit for her, emailed to say she liked what I had done but she wondered about my putting unspoken thought (she called it “interior monologue”) in first-person present tense.

Now don’t misunderstand. I don’t blame her for this. She’s just trying to learn the craft and got hold of the wrong book (one that passes along erroneous information).

She mailed me four copied pages from a how-to book she’d been reading. Here’s part of the email I sent back to her. The parts in bold are the precise examples I copied from the pages she sent me.

In the first example, which is erroneous in the first place (I’ll explain in a moment), the writer provided this:

Had I meant to kill her? he thought. (This is erroneous. If an actual person was thinking this without saying it, or even saying it aloud, the person would actually think (or think and then say), Did I mean to kill her? If he said it aloud, it would be, “Did I mean to kill her?” and if silently, it would be, Did I mean to kill her?

The author’s other example is Had he meant to kill her? Fine. That’s just fine, but it’s the narrator, not the character. It’s narrative, not unspoken thought. That’s why third-person past tense works. (More on this in a bit.)

The sole reason I say direct thought should be in first-person present tense is because when you or I or anyone else (including your characters) think, that thought is in first-person present tense.

The author of [this bit of anti-didactic tripe] actually wrote “unless you are deliberately writing with narrative distance, there is no reason to cast your interior monologue in first person.”

Think about that for a minute. What exactly is “narrative distance?” Can you define that? I can’t, so you’ll never hear me use the term. It’s one of those terms that sounds intellectual and means absolutely nothing.

As for the rest, the reason to “cast your interior monologue in first person” is because you want your characters to seem real to the reader, and real people think in first person.

The author continued with, “it’s far easier to simply cast the interior monologue into (um, should be “in”) the third person.”

Note that the author doesn’t bother to explain how exactly NARRATIVE can even be considered INTERIOR MONOLOGUE. The fact is, it can’t be because it isn’t. Narrative and interior monologue (unspoken thought) are two different things, and the author apparently doesn’t even know it.

Consider, dear readers, you’re driving down the highway when a car swerves in front of you, cutting you off. If you manage to remain silent, is your thought more likely to be Why’d that jerk do that to her (third person)? or will it be  Why’d that jerk do that to me?

If you’re on your way home from the grocery and have a memory lapse, are you more likely to think Did she buy a carton of milk? (or Had she bought a carton of milk? ) or are you more likely to think Did I buy a carton of milk?

 

Finally, in a passage on the second page, the author of the horrible, horrible how-to book on writing didn’t even recognize a comma splice when he saw it (two sentences crammed together and joined with only a comma). To make it worse, in this case the first sentence was a question:

Who was he kidding, he knew he couldn’t read anything in the state he was in.

SOMEWHAT BETTER
Who was he kidding? He knew he couldn’t read anything in the state he was in.

TONS BETTER (with a bit changed because of the state he’s in)
Who’m I kiddin’? I can’t read nothin’ in the state I’m in. Or if spoken aloud (mumbled, muttered, whatever) “Who’m I kiddin’? I can’t read nothin’ in the state I’m in.”

Again, I don’t argue this stuff to feed my ego, and if I feed the writer’s ego by telling them how wonderfully innovative it is of them to write unspoken thought in third person or write dialogue without quotation marks or avoid all capitalization I’m not doing them any favors.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up.

Note: I am also a professional copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting. It costs less than you think, and I know what I’m talking about. (grin)

 

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  3. “If any writing instructor says something to you that he can’t explain, stop listening.”

    This is very true. I’m a pantser. I took a lot of writing classes–seems like there’s a lot of cheapie ones by writers who probably aren’t making a lot of money. I started out just taking the classes, then started asking before I took the class: “Do you teach to pantsers?” I would always get back, “Sure, this is for outliners and pantsers.” That was actually code for, “I’m expecting you to outline because I don’t understand how you write without one.” Once I got into the class, the instructor would have no clue how to explain something to a pantser and would point back to the material like I was stupid for not understanding how to do it.

  4. ‘Way to kick ass! You are definitely a no-frills, down to the bones kinda guy. The kind that experiential readers like! There’s a new term for you—EXPERIENTIAL READERS. Four-D writers will need to add scratch and sniff. Naw, I think you got it all covered, come to THINK of it. (Feel free to edit my comment).

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