As writers, we are entertainers. We write books for people who want a diversion from the daily grind. No matter what the subject or genre is, we write escapes, windows into other lives, other places, other realities. When we offer the book to the public, we hope the reader will stay with us to the end, hope they find the same life in the narrative that we thought we were imparting when we wrote it.
This can only happen if we are honest. When I first started out, I wrote poetry, lyrics for a heavy metal band. I was young, sincere, and convinced I had to impart a message with every word. I didn’t know until twenty years later when I came across my old notebook—my poems weren’t honest. I wasn’t honest with myself, and when I looked back at my work, I could see the falseness clearly. My words were contrived, formed too artfully. They shouted, “Look at me! I’m young and full of angst, but I’m talented and artsy!”
When I began writing stories for my children, I still wrote crap, but it was honest crap. I no longer had anyone to impress—children are never impressed by parents who write. They are also quite honest about where a story fails to impress them, and why. I began to write fairy tales that were honest, but not written by an educated author.
With that as my training ground, learning how to make my writing enjoyable became a goal. It was there that I discovered that, besides writing honestly, an author needs to be consistent with punctuation. I had no idea I was uneducated—after all, I had done well in school. Even so, I had to re-learn the fundamentals of American English grammar because my first real editor pointed out that I hadn’t retained much of what I was taught in elementary school.
As Ursula K. LeGuin said in her wonderful book, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, “If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.”
My rule is to embrace what I fear, so I embraced grammar. I’m not perfect, but I make an effort.
I have always been a reader, enjoying books in every genre and style. While the books I love are scattered all across the spectrum, they have one thing in common—they are all written by authors with an understanding of the basic rules of punctuation. Sure, they break other rules of grammar with style and abandon, but they do pay attention to punctuation.
This is because punctuation is the traffic signal telling the reader to go, slow, pause, yield, go again, or stop. Punctuation at most of the right places allows the reader to forget they are reading and encourages them to suspend their disbelief.
Writers begin as readers. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King gives us permission to read for six hours a day, should we so desire. Reading is how we come to understand writing and the art of story. (He also admonishes us to learn the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.)
In my quest to understand the art of story I have come across some pretty awful books. I don’t consider “hard to read because it is written in an old-fashioned style” awful. However, I do consider “hard to read because the author wasted my time” awful.
Contrived prose is not poetic. Hokey and forced situations are not exciting. Perfectly beautiful people bore me. Long passages about clothing and furnishings bore me.
Write me an honest story about “real” people with real problems, one that comes from your deepest soul. Set it in outer space, or the Amazon Jungle—I don’t care. I read all genres and all settings. I will forgive imperfect grammar and punctuation for a great story that rings of truth and touches my heart.
Let me sink into your story. Let me forget the world—let me become so into the book I forget to cook dinner.
Credits and Attributions:
Quote: Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, ©1999 Ursula K. LeGuin, First Mariner Books Edition 2015, page 11.