Thursday, February 04, 2016

Syntax: can't live with it; can't live without it

I'm several chapters into a book that will feature multiple points of view. Within those points of view there exists a commonality – a voice. My voice.

It's a voice I want readers to at once trust and hear and even find authoritative. Yet it's also a voice I never want the reader to be aware of. In fact, my goal is total anonymity. There is no writer. You're not reading. Just turning pages, lost in a story you (hopefully) don't want to put down.

I'm sure I don't bat a thousand. But I spend a lot of time revising, reading aloud, listening to the text, and revising again. I'm listening for flow, pace, characterization, and tension. What I'm not listening for is grammar and syntactical correctness, if such a clunky phrase exists.

I do, though, teach grammar. (My students, God bless them, are taking a test on chapter two of The Elements of Style this week.)

And I'm something of a stickler about it, insisting that you need to know the rules well in order to break them effectively. But I also reward the papers and narratives that can use punctuation and syntax in a sophisticated way.

Here's the start of a chapter from my work-in-progress:

Majd Awaad reached out to touch his sleeping brother's arm. Wanted to wake him. Then pulled back. Halil, even at twenty-four, was still his little brother. Probably needed his sleep. In any case, Majd would see that Halil got rest.

Majd leaned his head against the headrest but didn't close his eyes. He wanted sleep. Probably needed it. But he was restless – torn emotionally about the life he was leaving and the one a Boeing 767 was hurtling him 550 miles an hour toward.

Years ago, when I was writing first-person novels, I might utilize three sentence fragments in an entire book. Here, I have four in two short paragraphs. In fact, as I revised, I pulled the subjects out of the sentences here. Pace and narrative tension over grammatical correctness.

E.B. White is one of my favorite authors (hence The Elements of Style in my classes), and I don't know another writer who wrote clearer, more precise sentences. Mr. White's Rule #6 is Do Not Break Sentences in Two.

Yet, if I may disagree, I think Rule #11 trumps all: Use Active Voice. It's a mantra to live by. Right up there with Stephen King's "The road the Hell is paved with adverbs." If you live by Rule 11, the reader won't notice you.

Probably won't even realize she's holding a book.

1 comment:

Donis Casey said...

Dorothy Parker said, "The second best thing you can do for an aspiring writers is give him a copy of Elements of Style. The best thing you can do is shoot him while he's still happy."