Your Tools

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.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Your Tools

  1. Pingback: Before you Write a Novel | Becoming a Writer

  2. I have to agree with this post… And also have to say that it’s part of the reason I majored in a foreign language, rather than putting a concentration in English or writing. We had ONE class on grammar that we had to take as any sort of English major and it wasn’t just that it was the only required one, it was the only class on grammar PERIOD. I took it, since I thought it would be in my best interest with career plans to become an author and all… But it was little more than a class about vocabulary and telling the differences between nouns, adverbs, and adjectives — things I’d learned from watching School House Rock as a kid. In other words, it was basically worthless [and an easy A].

    But, taking my Spanish classes, I found that learning the grammar of that language helped me relate back to English and figure out how things worked in my supposed main language.

    I also think, though, with writing it’s a lot easier to try and fail, since there’s no real danger, other than heartbreak. But, I think that’s what you’re getting at, especially in your edit. It’s just… A lot of people don’t realize that there’s all this space in between in writing like there is with becoming a doctor, and the heartbreak of rejection from agents is just a lie people tell to discourage people.

  3. IR

    I’m fortunate in that I have an college graduate with a degree in English to look over my writing and tell me I’ve made some pretty bad mistakes here and there. I will admit, what I post to the internet on my own blog isn’t perfect writing, as I general “stream of conscious” it out onto the page and let it fly. However, when I write stories (be it a short story or an epic trilogy of novels) I try to be correct on the first pass, but telling the story take precedence. On the first run through with the red pen I’ll get those nasty passive voice passages and destroy any adverbs that get in the way.

  4. Max

    I’m more than a little confused about your post. I’m American, and I distinctly remember my middle school years of diagramming sentences and learning grammar. I could be wrong, but I believe learning grammar is required in the American public school system.

    Now, you’re rightly concerned about people who believe they can write a novel with poor grammar, but at the same time, I believe it’s wrong that you’re telling people to not worry about their plot or characterization until they write well. Learning to write well and learning to evolve plot and characters should happen at the same time. Nothing here is more or less important than anything else. When you learn an art, you learn the basic stages of everything at the same time. Were you to take an art course, you’d learn basic drawing, shading, and perspective at the same time.

    Knowing a poorly written paragraph from a well written one doesn’t necessarily have to do with grammar. Grammar is flexible, and much of the grammar you see in poorly written books is perfectly correct. Literature usually has longer sentences due to added imagery, emotion, and setting. To include those things, you do need a better handle on grammar, but having a better handle on grammar doesn’t in turn mean you successfully deliver the picture you’re trying to paint. I’ve seen many books where the grammar is fine or even wonderful and the story is terrible. Also, you can break grammar rules and have great prose.

    ‘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 think there are quite a few successful authors who would disagree with this. Yes, they got lucky, but I’ve seen some first time novels that were pretty great. Why? Because while the writing perhaps lacked a certain flair, the characters and plots were outstanding. Or sometimes you’re just Stephenie Meyer, and you write poorly but you still get published because people support you instead of holding you back.

    People thinking they’re going to pen a bestseller on the first try isn’t just an American attitude. I’ve seen it come from all over online. It’s a natural thought that new writers have. I say let it exist. Let it fuel them to write that first manuscript, let them grow, let them learn, but never dampen the fire of them thinking they’re going to get published. When you’re a young writer, you need that rush of stupid enthusiasm, because as you improve, you realize how difficult it is, and it can stop you dead in your tracks. In fact, I think you need that rush of stupid enthusiasm throughout the entire process. You may very well get published on your first try. You may never get published at all. When I read over agent blogs, I rarely see the agent nit picking the grammar. I see them say the writing isn’t interesting, the opening is too slow, the characters are cardboard, and/or the plot just isn’t intriguing. I’ve seen them accept things that have clunky writing because of good plot and good characters.

    Telling people their plot and characters don’t matter until they get a better handle on grammar? Well, personally, I think it’s insane. Learning grammar is a small step compared to learning how to fully engage and entertain the reader. Look at Sookie Stackhouse, look at Blue Bloods, look at Twilight. People are reading those for the characters and the vampire plots, not the prose itself. Great books with great grammar become classics, but you don’t need it to get published.

    What works for you and what works for other writers will never be the same. I’m not sure you can sit here and fairly tell other writers what to do to achieve a better manuscript. Until you’re published, you won’t know. And even after that, that’s simply worked for you and you alone. If you’re really saying you just recently realized that sentence construction adds dimension to a story, but you’re planning on querying your own manuscript soon, isn’t this all a bit hypocritical?

    • kateness

      I agree with parts of your reply (though I certainly never diagrammed sentences in middle school; for the record, I attended 6-8th grades from 1998-2001)

      However, and this may merely be semantics, but I consider grammar and style to be two different things. As I see it, grammar is being able to put a sentence together with all the words in the right place so that it means what you want it to say. Style is being able to put a grammatical sentence together but with your own flair to it, which gives it voice.

      I’ve never read Meyer, but I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts that if I picked up Twilight and read through it, the number of actual grammatical mistakes I found would be low. Clunky writing, probably, given what I’ve heard of it, but few actual errors.

      I know what works for me won’t always work for everyone else – it’s why I always feel a bit of a moron posting up any thoughts on the actual process of writing, particularly given that I’m unpublished.

  5. Being able to diagram sentences doesn’t count for a lot IMO. I could do that in my sleep during middle school but it didn’t mean I understood what I was doing.

  6. Ma’am,

    I believe your premise is flawed. While I can’t speak for any but myself, I came into this game under the grand delusion that I might be that once-a-million oddity that wrote novel at sixteen, knocked it out of the park, and went on to a comfortable life of wealth and fame.

    As I see it you need that blindness to get into this line of (hopefully, eventually) work. Nobody with whom I’ve yet spoken has harbored that delusion much after their first manuscript, a term I use very loosely. Even so, none would have begun without the motivation it lends to those who simply don’t know better.

    The harsh fact is that none of us start out with any writing ability whatsoever. We may learn the basics of assembling thoughts on paper in school, yes, but writing other than business or technical is an art and it need he honed through years and countless thousands of words spent learning the hard way what works and what doesn’t. Aspects of the process may be a science, but in its sum the completed work must appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of the intended audience.

    Whether or not a writer can diagram a sentence is no measure of their talent. It offers no useful insight in respect to abilities. The key in writing is the ability to use style and turns of phrase to get across what may be a common idea but put into such terms as its expression becomes uniquely yours. You are a painter with words – not a photographer. Not a technical illustrator. In addition to showing you must elicit emotion in one form or another.

    Writing may well be judged against any number of standards, grammar and structure among them. However, those are conditions of a science replete with laws and standards and hard-and-fast rules. That will provide you an idea of the ‘correctness’ of a given work. It will not in any way reflect on quality, the storytelling ability of the author, or the enjoyability or the read.

    Of course you may take this at face value. I could never diagram sentences worth a damn.

    J.F. Bell

    – ps –

    I apologize if I have resurrected a dead topic. Tolerable writing blogs are so few and far between these days and worthwhile commentary seems the exception rather than the rule.

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