Tuesday, August 7, 2012

It Feels Like Christmas: The Gift of Good Grammar

After staring idly at my bookshelf, I discovered an old copy of Keys for Writers, which I needed for a class back in college.  While most of the book was geared toward writing research papers and such, there were also grammar and punctuation sections that made the geeky part of me jump for joy.  I sat down with the intention of flipping through the book quickly, only to look up after finishing and find that two hours had passed.

I'm pretty sure I love grammar more than is socially acceptable.  (Really, most "cool" people would never admit to loving grammar, but I've never claimed to be "cool.")  It had been a long time since I'd last reviewed a lot of the trickier rules, and I was thrilled to come across a few rules I'd either forgotten or never known.  Believe it or not, this is the type of thing that I find exciting and inspiring and, well, absolutely delightful.  It's like going to the Home Depot and picking up a new tip for my Dremel, or finding a new brush or paint color at the art supply store, only in this case, my new tools all came free.

Be it English or Spanish or Latin or even XHTML, language has always fascinated me.  Sure, I love storytelling; that goes without saying.  Storytelling has always been and will always be my passion.  But in the world of genre fiction, sometimes it seems like the language itself is treated as an afterthought or simply a means to get to an end.  I haven't met too many other writers in my genre who love not only the storytelling but also the intricacies of the language.

Now, I'm not a fan of flowery, showy, or pretentious prose.  Nothing is worse than a writer who seems to revel in the sound of their own words.  That, to me, is the writing equivalent of people who talk just to hear themselves talk.  But I do love to read the works of authors who achieve an effective flow to their words without tripping readers up with grammatical errors.  I also love challenging myself to avoid errors in my own writing, even if they are the type that most people don't care about.

In the m/m genre, I often hear people recommend novels by saying that if you look past the technical issues, a great story lies beneath.  For me, the two must go together.  Bad use of grammar, punctuation, or spelling pulls me out of a story and prevents me from fully enjoying it.  We live in a time when anyone can get anything published, and a lack of technical skills is a red flag, alerting me that I'm holding a piece that doesn't meet professional standards.  If genre writers want to be taken as seriously as literary fiction writers, and if self-published authors want to be taken as seriously as traditionally published authors, mastery of the basics goes a long way.

The technical stuff, after all, is the easy part.  There are books and style guides and online instruction manuals that spell out exactly how to do it all.  It's right or wrong, black or white.  The hard part is the subjective: crafting a story, deciding which risks to take, deciding which expectations to meet and which to ignore, and then owning those decisions.  I prefer to let readers get mad at me over the controversial things I allow my characters to do, rather than something as silly as poor use of grammar.

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