Thursday, January 31, 2013

It's not ranting if somebody asked you.

Okay, first, Elmore Leonard on said.  I agree.  In spades.  In the bucket of biggest available backhoe.  With exceptions.  I wouldn't turn to see if the ghost of Henry Fowler was creeping up behind my desk-chair if I wrote shouted, whispered, called back up the cliff towards where she was waiting, asked or answered for example.  But said is best and order a bigger backhoe for how much I agree about modifying it with adverbs.  Except for crisply.  I just love this, although I never wrote it myself when it was available.  (It's copyrighted now for Julian Fellowes to use in Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham's stage directions (since it's how she says everything.))

Now for my personal top three unbreakable rules.  I apologise in advance for seething.

3.  sneaky attributive adjectives bundled in to wreck orderly action sentences instead of rolling up their sleeves, going predicative and getting clauses or even sentences of their own.  For example:
  • She hit her head on the floor when she fell (orderly action sentence). 
  • She hit her permed and highlighted head on the polished hardwood floor as she fell (now wrecked with sneaky attributive adjectives). 
  • Her head looked softened by her perm and was golden with highlights but hit the floor like a rock anyway as she fell, bouncing off the hardwood and leaving a smear of blood on its polished surface.
Wait!  Don't click away and tell yourself you'll avoid non-Alan-Orloff Thursdays from now on.  I know that sentence is now a multi-vehicle pile-up of awfulness.  That's the point.  Who cares about her hair at this moment and who (except house buyers and realtors) ever care hardwood floors?  That's why permed, highlighted, hardwood and polished can't have their own clauses and that's why they shouldn't try to sneak in elsewhere.

2.  This is about description too.  No exceptions, no contextual considerations, just no.  Never - never - have a character look at themselves in a mirror early on in the first chapter and describe their looks.  Don't.  When was the last time you looked in a mirror and thought to yourself that your eyes were brown and your nose was small and straight?  Don't ever.  If someone you knew sighed in exasperation at that annoyingly wayward curl and tucked it behind her ear with a rueful grin, wouldn't you want to punch her in the neck?  Just don't. 

1. This is my tip-top of all time writing no-no (and the reason I used Fowler instead of Strunk and White earlier).  It's rude, it's wrong, it's stupid, it's generic he.  It's the daft idea that you can use he, him and his to talk about all of humanity: e.g. Man breastfeeds his young.  Strunk and White reckoned he or she is clumsy, singular they is illiterate and so generic he is the only choice left and, besides, only silly-billies will complain. 

Well, call me demanding, but I'll take my writing advice from someone who's not flummoxed by an evolving pronoun system.  See, the silliest, most ignorant thing about saying number agreement trumps gender agreement . . . is that number agreement has shifted once before and the sky didn't fall.    You used to be plural; the singular was thouYou was also more polite; thou was more intimate.  Politeness won.  You became singular/plural and thou dropped out of use. 

I can just imagine the mediaeval grammar mavens reaching for the smelling salts.  Woah!  Changes in the pronoun system! Number distinction lost!  You-ing social inferiors instead of thou-ing them!  Will English survive?  It will.  It did.  And it will again.  Anyway, we've got y'all, youse and y'guys coming along to do some of the plural grunt work again.  (I wonder if Strunk and White would have welcomed them.)

Rant over. 


Meredith Cole said...

Snorted up my coffee when I read: "She hit her permed and highlighted head on the polished hardwood floor as she fell." And then the post just got funnier, Catriona. Great writing advice--and giggles. What more could anyone ask for?

Eileen said...

Must go through WIP to look for all of those!

I used to have little fits over hopefully, but I've given up.

Catriona McPherson said...

I never understood why 'hopefully' got beaten up for trying to modify a sentence when 'sadly' nd 'frankly' get to do it all the time.

Alan Orloff said...

No matter what, I am NOT getting my hair permed. Too dangerous!

Reece said...

It's not a rant if you're right, Catriona!

Daisy Bateman said...

I love the title of this post so much I am seriously considering putting it on a t-shirt.

Catriona McPherson said...

Alan, you make me laugh! Daisy I'd edit it, pre-tshirt, to "It's not a rant if someone asked you." One more syllable and that would be iambic pentametre.