Sunday, November 19, 2017

Can I have it All?

Today the question is, would you rather be rich or famous for all time.
Short answer: Why can't I have it all?
I was talking with a publisher recently, and he said, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re really doing well.” Although I was flattered, I was also puzzled. What did that mean, exactly? Yes, I have a good base of readers, but if I had to depend on the sales of my six books for a living, you could visit me in my trailer in Podunk, Tennessee, where I assume living expenses would be a lot less than in the Bay Area. I know a lot of reasonably well-known authors—those with a few awards, a couple of appearances on best-seller lists—who write good books, but are never going to be able to pay the rent on their sales.
Like a lot of authors, I’m puzzled about what it takes, once you’ve written a good book, to become one of those authors whose books get snapped up by millions of people the minute they are published. Several of my loyal readers have told me they like my books better than (insert name of any number of wildly successful writers). So how come I’m not rich and famous? And back to the question: which would I rather be; rich, or famous?

Did William Shakespeare, arguably the most famous writer of all time,  make money commensurate with the admiration that endures for him? (Since nobody knows much about him, it’s hard to say). Did Charles Dickens make money in his time? He paid the bills. How about Jane Austen? Or Anthony Trollope? Or moving to the last century, how about Virginia Woolf? Earnest Hemingway? William Styron? E.L. Doctorow? Toni Morrison? All those authors are household names. Did they make the kind of money James Patterson does?
These days, books of literary genius are often successful monetarily as well. The opposite, not so much. Nobody thinks James Patterson’s books are going to be read in 100 years as masterpieces. I’ll bet he sobs about that every time he checks his bank account. Does the wildly popular Louise Penny make buckets of money? How about Sue Grafton? Michael Connelly? Craig Johnson? Don Winslow? The answer is probably yes, they do pretty well.
Will any of those be read 100 years from now with appreciation for their fine writing? Maybe. Craig Johnson puts together a damned fine sentence. Louise Penny writes beautifully. John LeCarre is likely. But do they write any better than any number of mid-list (meaning “the rest of us”) authors? That’s where the question comes in.
The answer is: who knows what will stand the test of time in the crime writing field? So given that answer, I want to make money on my books now. Let time be the arbiter of whether they last. I’ll be long-gone, and won’t know the answer anyway. So if anybody knows how to be one of those authors who is doing not just “well,” but making money hand over fist, I’m all ears.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Rules Are Made to be Broken

Grammar – everyone’s gotta do it. How important is grammar and what resources do you use to make sure you’re on top of it. And when do you break grammar rules?

by Paul D. Marks

Grammar is important, obviously. Look at some books and how poorly they’re written. The whole point of grammar is to be able to write sentences that others will understand. That said, sometimes we can break the rules and people will still get the point we’re trying to make. After all, we’re not writing term papers, we’re writing fiction. And we’re not writing fiction in the 19th century, so we write more casually, break more rules. That said, we still need to be able to communicate.

I have a friend who wants to be a writer more than anything in the world. And she constantly shows me her work. But it’s so hard to get through it, partly because of grammar issues, that I end up giving up and not finishing it. You have to have more than a desire to write. Writing is both a craft and an art and you have to get the craft down. And part of the craft is knowing grammar.

Grammar provides the backbone or the foundation for your writing. You have to know it before you can start breaking the rules. And if you break the rules, you have to know what rules you’re breaking and why, for what effect.

You can, indeed, break the rules to create a certain “voice” or style of writing. Or in dialogue to have people talk like real people. I often break the rules of pacing, style, cadence and repetition for emphasis, to create that voice. To that end, I often write in sentence fragments. But I have to go back over everything to make sure I’m not overdoing it or doing it to the point of distraction. One of my favorite writers is James Ellroy, probably most famous for his LA Quartet which includes the book LA Confidential, that many of us know from the movie if not the book itself. As the LA Quartet series of books progressed, Ellroy’s style become more abbreviated. More staccato. At first I liked it. But by the time of White Jazz, the last book in the series, it had gotten to be a little much. And in some books that came after the series it was unbearable, at least for me. So I skipped a couple of his books. Though with his latest, Perfidia, he seems back on track. My point is, you can have too much of a good thing.

The main thing is that you want to have clarity of thought. You want people to be able to understand what you’re saying. To get it. You also want your story to read smoothly, even if it’s written in a staccato style. It shouldn’t be so overwhelming that people stumble through it.

One place where grammar rules don’t necessarily apply is in dialogue, because people don’t necessarily talk in complete, grammatically correct sentences. But dialogue is one of the places where I think people mess up. I see some very well-known writers whose characters often don’t use contractions. But most people do. And when I come across that kind of dialogue it just sounds so formal and takes me out of the story. It makes the characters sound stiff and as if they’re not native English speakers. And this always throws me out of the moment.

So sometimes it’s better to be more nimble than correct. Better not to miss the forest for the trees. In this case the trees are correct grammar but they block our view of the forest as a whole. And maybe it’s best to remember what Mark Twain said about this: “Great books are weighted and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar.”

But then there’s Dan Brown, whose writing is atrocious and whose sales are through the roof. So who knows? Throw caution to the wind and the Chicago Manual in the fire.

So, what do I use to make sure I’m on top of it: These days my go-to source is the internet. Various sources of grammar can be found there in abundance. But I still have hard copies of Strunk and White, the Chicago Manual of Style and others. And I do go to them on occasion. There’s also classics like The Transitive Vampire, Eats, Shoots & Leaves and so many others, too many to name.

What are your thoughts and recommendations on this?


And now for the usual BSP:

Please check out the interview Laura Brennan, writer, producer and consultant, did with me for her podcast, where we talk about everything from Raymond Chandler and John Fante to the time I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. Find it here:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rant ahead: proceed at your own risk

"How important is grammar and when do you break grammar rules?"

Less important than story, character and pacing but a smidge more important that spelling and punctuation? At a guess. An editor can fix unintended grammar gaffs, but if a story is boring or all the characters are thin, you won't have an editor willing to take you on.

The word I want to home in on in that last paragraph is "unintended". If you're aiming at some particular English dialect - Standard US or 18th century Cockney . . . whatever - you don't want to miss.

Quite often, though, when people talk about "grammar", "correctness" and "rules", they're trying to impose some random hierarchy of prestige on the big glorious ragbag of the world's Englishes.

Yes, formal standard English from your home country has its place. It's a good idea to use it in a querying letter to agents and if your publisher's contract doesn't use it, you might be in trouble. If you dispense with all rules of grammar completely and just ramble on repeating a jumble of your favourite words in vaguely connected phrases, you'll never get anywhere.  Sorry, bad example. Where was I?

But the local formal standard is only one of the options. All the dialects, regional, racial and social, all the other standards around the world . . . What riches! What treasure! What bugs me about sticklers for grammar is how often they think (unthinkingly, surely) that their particular variety of English is maximally correct, expressive and elegant and all the others are lazy, degenerate and hard to understand.


Here then are my top three peeves about people with peeves about grammar. (I also don't suffer people who don't suffer fools gladly gladly.)

3. They're faking!

People who pretend not understand dialects are sometimes lying. When I was growing up, I heard many, many times that if I said "I int got none" I was really saying "I've got some" because two negatives make a positive. Nonsense. Wrong. I wasn't and they knew I wasn't. They understood the meaning perfectly well. They were faking. And for some bizarre reason, it was a matter of pride to pretend not to understand, as if dodgy comprehension skills were cool. "I ain't done nothing", "I haven't seen any" "We don't need no education" (naughty Pink Floyd) and "Je ne sais pas" have all got two negative bits in them. And they're still negative. To turn them positive you need to change both bits.

2. They don't get that all languages are orderly systems!

I've heard otherwise quite thoughtful people say, straight-faced, that the grammar of some dialect or other is just wrong. A mistake. Doesn't make sense. "My hair needs washed" is good Scottish English but that didn't stop this happening:

English Friend: "My hair needs washing" makes more sense. It needs you washing it. See?
Me: Okay. If we're allowed to add two words to explain why we're right . . . it needs to be washed.
EF: But then you could say "I'm washed my hair right now."
Me: No, I couldn't.
EF: Ha! Why not?
Me: Same reason you couldn't say "Last night, I washing my hair".
EF: Of course, I couldn't.
Me: And no one's allowed to say "mes cheveux ont besoin d'etres laves"?
EF: French people are.
Me: But doesn't it make more sense the way you say it?
EEF: Oh shut up.

1. They think they're the end-point of history. This is the one that really gets on my wick. Here's the argument in a nutshell:

8th Century English: the original and best.

     Hwæt! Ic swefna cystsecgan wylle,
hwæt me gemætteto midre nihte,
syðþan reordberendreste wunedon!
þuhte me þæt ic gesawesyllicre treow
14th century English: very different, still beautiful.

 A prentys whilom dwelled in oure citee,
 And of a craft of vitailliers was hee.
 Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe,
 Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe,
 With lokkes blake, ykembd ful fetisly.

18th century English: more change but no need to worry

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

[grammar stickler happens to be born and learns to speak]

21st Century English: English is doomed and the sky is falling!

I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol
Foes that want ta make sure my casket's closed
Rap critics that say he's "Money Cash Hoes"
I'm from the hood, stupid? what type of facts are those?
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You'd celebrate the minute you was having dough

In conclusion: language changes. We'll be fine.

Rant over.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

RULES: Follow 'em, break 'em...or make 'em? by Cathy Ace

How important is grammar and when do you break grammar rules?

Oh my goodness me, grammar. Thanks to the Welsh education system, I took years and years of English Language classes, as well as English Literature classes. 

I loved literature classes; we’d read books, plays and poetry – at home, then, often, again aloud in the classroom – then discuss and critique the works. These were the classes where I fell in love with the words of Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Jane Austen, among others. They allowed me to indulge my joy of reading, and were something I looked forward to every week. It's also worth noting that those writers changed the expected structure, language, grammar, and punctuation of their time to suit their purposes...maybe I was drawn to rule-breakers (and rule-makers) from an early age!

In language classes we plodded through rules. I hate rules. Probably the best lesson of all was the one where our teacher wrote “GHOTI” on the blackboard (yes, I’m that old!) and explained to us how it should be pronounced the same way as “FISH”. (FYI: “GH” as in “cough”; “O” as in “women”; “TI” as in “motion”.) It’s an old ‘un, but a good ‘un…and – to us – it was as fresh as the proverbial daisy, at the time. 

I was being taught at a time when it was no longer fashionable to teach “parts of the language” so the complexities of the language were, never, therefore, defined or named for me in my English Language classes. That joy came in Latin classes, where the poor teacher had to teach us basic grammatical terminology as it pertained to English before we could understand its applications in Latin. I should mention I failed my Latin O level exam (the exam you take at 16 years of age in Wales), and pretty miserably at that. I suspect “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant” was only ever going to get me so far!

Thus, I have to admit I don’t know the correct terminology, let alone the rules, for most parts of the language, and also realize the punctuation I learned back in the 1960s is now somewhat dated. How do I cope? I write and punctuate from the heart, and consider the comments made about those aspects of my writing by my editor/s…then decide if it’s worth arguing the toss, or not. When I read, poor grammar and punctuation can burst my bubble of immersion in the book…the only rule I follow, therefore, is – “Does this work for me/my character?” rather than “Is this grammatically perfect?” I don’t want my grammar or punctuation to break the spell – so I hope my readers can cope with that, and enjoy the story.

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries.  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The sound of commas by RM Greenaway


A few thoughts on punctuation, rather than grammar -- mostly the comma.

To me, writers can punctuate however they want, as long as the story moves along and is clear.

There does seem to be a trend in the books I've been picking up lately, though, where the meaning isn't as clear as it could be, and that's because so many useful commas are being left out. That's the case with the novel I'm reading now, in fact. And it's not just a typo here and there. It's throughout, and it's annoying.

I've seen this lack of commas in many books -- and in my own too, after a copy editor has gone through and deleted them -- so I wonder if it's some new standard followed by the industry. If so, why? Why take out perfectly good commas that seem to fall naturally into place and guide the reader along?

As an example of the kind of structure I'm talking about, I made up this sentence: "He saw that she was eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich and wished he had one as well."
Wouldn't you pause after "sandwich"? Wouldn't that sound more natural?

Whatever the rules or style books say, it seems to me that cadence should dictate where a pause comes in.

Tonight I went and watched some live stand-up comedians on stage. They were very funny, but where would they be without cadence? Booed off the stage, that's where.

In the big picture, who cares where the commas go or don't go? Well, a writer should care, when it comes to his or her own work, and I do. I care deeply about my commas. In the beginning I didn't have the nerve to disagree with those particular edits made to my books, but I'm learning to take a stand. Those are my commas, after all, stuck there for a reason.

I'll keep an open mind to this new style of punctuating -- maybe in the end I won't be given the option -- but I don't think I'll ever be convinced it's the way to go.

What's your view on this new trend, if that's what it is?

Monday, November 13, 2017

All Hail the Oxford Comma

Q: Grammar – everyone’s gotta do it. How important is grammar and what resources do you use to make sure you’re on top of it? When do you break the rules?

 - from Susan

I was in a writing group once in which one writer had a terrific story idea, a historical setting that was engaging, and a cast of characters we loved. But she was afflicted with the worst case of run on sentence structure I’ve ever seen. And worse, she couldn’t see that, seemed not to know what a run on sentence was or why it bothered the rest of us so much, slapping us out of the narrative she was trying to create. After all, we knew what she meant, right? Eventually she hired a private editor, but he had no more luck and what could have been a successful mystery novel died on the vine. No agent got past the first couple of pages.

So, how important is grammar? Very. Grammar helps us understand what the writer is trying to say, helps frame the thoughts and make sense of the actions being described.  As a staunch proponent of the Oxford comma, I am amazed that contemporary editors and authors are so willing to ignore the perfect case made in Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I stumble over misplaced commas, the lack of them in introductory clauses, the excessive ones sort of thrown in for good measure here and there. (I do that myself sometimes in first drafts and have to be vigilant in exterminating them later.) Some grammar mistakes are so egregious that I’m shocked they made it past an editor, if there even was an editor.

The core of grammar’s importance isn’t perfection. It isn’t being prissy or superior. It’s making sense, communicating precisely what we intend to say. Which is why it’s okay to break the rules on occasion. (Notice I just did?) We use incorrect grammar for emphasis, to break up the monotony of sentence structure, and to add rhythm and style to our writing. We use it in dialogue to help create and reinforce an individual’s character.

Grammar is a writer’s friend. I think it’s more than a practical tool. I believe it’s a paintbrush, a musical instrument, a magic box that can bring a story alive for readers.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss 

Better Punctuation in 30 Minutes a Day, by Ceil Cleveland