Can anyone imagine the following scenarios for me?
1. One morning, you wake up and decide to be a doctor. You find a white coat and jack a stethoscope from someone. Striding into the hospital, you make it into the doctors-only parts. Once there, you barge into an operating room, shoulder aside the surgeon, and say, “Okay. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and here I am! Now, someone just give me the scalpel and tell me what I need to do!”
2. One morning, you wake up and decide to build a house. You go out to a hardware store and buy a whole bunch of lumber, some nails and a hammer. The guy helping you out at the store says, “Have you ever done this before?”
“No,” you happily reply, “but how hard it can be? It’s a hammer and nail. It doesn’t get any more basic than this, does it?”
Of course you wouldn’t think of doing either of the above. I mean, you might still in the back of your mind want to be a doctor, but the rational part of you knows that you’ve got to go through a decade of school beforehand. Yet, simply because we’re raised speaking and writing English, there are those people who seem to think that this makes them eminently qualified to write a novel.
It doesn’t. Just because you went through school, wrote some essays while you were there, and use the language every day, does not mean that you’re going to be able to sit down and pen the world’s next bestseller.
I attribute a lot of this to the American I-can-have-whatever-I-want mentality. But I also attribute it to the fact that in mainstream American public education, we are not taught English grammar. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about English grammatical cases. On the other hand, I can tell you that there are six grammatical cases in Russian, three genders, and some really rather strange spelling rules. People who learn English as a foreign language, they learn English by its grammar, because English has really screwy grammar. When Americans learn a foreign language, they learn it by their grammar. I can whip out either my Russian or Arabic first year texts, and while they do start with basic vocab and alphabet, the grammar starts sneaking in very early.
I freely admit that there are a lot of English grammar rules that I don’t know very well. At least, I don’t know them to the extent that I could sit down and comfortably diagram a sentence, or explain why something is grammatical or not grammatical. I like to think that over the years, I’ve started to get a feel for what looks like it’s right and what doesn’t. It’s not spot-on, but it’s served me fairly well. (I’m still working on getting dangling participles under control).
If you want to be a writer, words are your tools. They are your scalpel, your hammer and nails. You cannot write a book without them. And just like with my first two examples, if you don’t know how to use them well, the end result is really not something that anyone wants to look at. Sure, you could get lucky and not kill the patient, or put up enough support beams that the house doesn’t fall down, at least not right away. But the finished product is still not going to be all that it could be.
If there are gaping gaps in your grammatical knowledge, go out and buy a workbook at your local bookstore. This has been something that I’ve considered doing for a while, if only so that I can codify my knowledge. If you’re still in high school, pay damn close attention to your English classes. They don’t teach particularly awesome grammar, but you can still learn a thing or two from them.
Read books, too. Yes, there is bad writing out there on the market for you to read. But there is also beautiful writing, sentences that are flawless and constructions that add an extra dimension to the story. This is only something that has come to me recently. I recently got a shipment of books from Amazon; one of them is a fantasy novel, the other is a literary novel. Now, I enjoy both genres for radically different reasons and I certainly don’t feel that either is emblematic of their respective genres, but I only have to read a couple of pages of each to tell the difference in the writing styles. The fantasy one continues to read clunky, yet even when the literary one has sentences that drag on for an entire page (or more), the construction is still so flawless that I’m not left dragging behind wondering what the fk just happened. I feel that when you’re able to tell a well-written paragraph from a poorly-written one, that you’re starting to get more of an instinctive handle on grammar.
Forget your characterization.
Forget your plot.
Until and unless you have a firm grasp on your basic tools, nothing else is going to matter.
EDITED TO ADD:
I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t write until you know some grammar; what I really meant is that until you have a firm command of the English language, the other aspects of your writing aren’t as important.
To go back to my fairly overused analogy, when you start at med school, your first use of a scalpel is on a cadaver. You can muck that thing up pretty badly, because the person is dead and you’re just learning. Only after you learn how to use the scalpel on a dead person do you move to ones that you could actually kill.
Write to learn how to do it right, then worry about writing the next bestseller.