A simple crumb of advice can be profoundly deep. Two of the profoundest crumbs on writing I’ve ever received came from Cynthia Huntington, a magnificent poet who also happened to be a professor at my alma mater, Dartmouth College. Here’s what she says:
First of all, know the difference between “it’s” and “its”. This is confusing, because “its” is a possessive pronoun, and normally apostrophe-“s” at the end of a word means “possessive”. But not in this case – “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”. So while it’s (<--) tempting to write "the lion swished it's tail", no: "the lion swished its tail".
Once I grokked this, I noticed mix-ups everywhere. Drives me nuts! The larger point is that attention to detail matters. Mistaking “it’s” for “its”, describing something as “very unique”, or writing “a lot” as one word is just plain sloppy, it screams “I care less about words than you” to someone who knows better. And if you don’t care, why should they?
Second: When attributing dialog, always use “said”, or occasionally “ask” for questions. In other words, characters should never “murmur”, “speculate”, or – the absolute worst – “intone”. Using a verb other than “said” or “ask” is just distracting and annoying, calls attention to the writing in a bad way. Can this rule be broken? I’m not sure it even qualifies as a “rule”. But it’s like invading Afghanistan – good luck.
Using “said” for attribution is a perfect example of style over grammar. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with a character “intoning”, especially not a priest on Sunday. But stylistically it’s just awful, and style is so much more important than grammar, after all. A sentence can be grammatically miserable but somehow, through a trick of the writer’s brilliance, be transformed into a thing of beauty.
William Shatner fired off a broadside against the English language in 1966, proclaiming his quest “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, but no one really noticed. Star Trek was just a clunky TV show about phasers and warp drives, and the split infinitive – wedging “boldly” between “to” and “go” – was the least of its problems.
Only the clunky show went on to become a classic, and the proscription against split infinitives officially kicked the bucket when Star Trek: The Next Generation launched in 1987.
It’s Patrick Stewart who killed it, repeating Shatner’s words in that beautiful accent of his. His elegant, Shakespearean diction lent respectability to split infinitives, as if The Bard himself gave permission. The proscription became embarrassing reminder of our benighted past, when women couldn’t vote and gay people couldn’t marry. What’s the big deal, bro? It’s all good.
Only it’s not all good, and figuring out why gets the root of what makes the English language tick.
The official reason is pretty stupid, actually. Infinitives are two words in English – “to run”, “to hold”, but they’re a single word in Latin – “currere”, “tenere”. And so, the argument goes, infinitives are an indivisible unit of grammar. Jamming “boldly” between “to” and “go” is like cramming a nugget of raw chicken liver into a chocolate truffle.
That’s what I was told back in the eighth grade. And if I believed it, I’d be all too happy to split infinitives, but it’s not the right reason. Split infinitives aren’t bad because of Latin, they’re bad because they dilute the clarity and power of writing. “To be or not to be”, for instance, becomes “to be or to not be”. Hamlet becomes Spamlet. And the words inserted into an infinitive are almost always junk.
Take this odious sentence I came across earlier this morning, from Yahoo Finance: “Still, while falling below $30 would represent a big milestone, some investors say the stock would need to fall still further for the company to truly become a takeover target.”
Purging “truly” improves the quality of the sentence, but it’s just the beginning. “Still” is used twice when it shouldn’t be there at all, and “big” is redundant because any milestone, by definition, is “big”.
Every phrase of the article contains similar crimes, including the title. And that, to me, is what’s most offensive about split infinitives – it’s a sign of laziness, the author screaming out “I don’t care about writing”.
And yet, I can’t deny the power of “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. For some reason, this phrase – like the original Star Trek – works. Despite itself, it works. Remove or reposition “boldly” and the words lose their effectiveness. There’s no rule of grammar or style so severe that it shouldn’t be broken once and a while, and that’s what makes great writing so powerful and mysterious.
One of the best side effects of writing The Band of the Crow is that it’s forced me to start reading – not just my usual hit list of obscure pulp fiction from the 20s and 30s, but contemporary books by “legit” authors. And of all the titles I’ve read in the past year, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply really stands out from the herd. Gets the blue ribbon, in fact.
Neo-noir – that’s the best way I can describe the story. It reads like a great movie, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. And yet, adapting it for film would require a lot of finesse, because the writing is so brilliantly calibrated to the medium of prose. I could go on and on, but Reply’s brilliance comes down to three things:
1. Simple writing. George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is, for me, the Holy Bible of English writing, and Chaon faithfully adheres to the gospel. He doesn’t try to razzle-dazzle with sesquipedalian words, obscure facts or convoluted syntax. It’s a sign of supreme confidence, as if to say “My writing stands on its own.” Which it does.
2. Zero gratuity. Some of the characters in Reply have sexual relationships, but Chaon stays away from explicit details. Of my biggest gripes about contemporary books/film is the amount of garbagey shock-value sex and violence passed off as “sophisticated”, and the Guardian’s Bad Sex Awards are as close as it gets to calling the emperor naked. There’s one big exception in Reply, and I know why Chaon included it – the ever-present pressure for a “hook”. That’s contemporary writing for you: hook ’em on the first sentence, and don’t you dare stop, bucko. I understand completely – gotta write stories that people want to read, after all! – but there’s something lost, too.
3. It’s about something. Await Your Reply makes a powerful observation about personal and online identity – even a very clever person’s ability to disguise and reinvent themselves is, in the long run, pretty circumscribed. Eventually, someone somewhere will find you, as Ross Ulbricht and Eric Marques know. In fact, the real-life cases of Ulbricht and Marques – both of which came to light a few years after the publication of Await Your Reply – make the book feel all the more relevant and meaningful.
What *better* way to celebrate the arrival of Spring than with a little doom metal? If you like the following, check out allthatisheavy.com – no, they’re not paying me to plug them, they didn’t even ask me. The site really is that awesome, and their newsletter is a great way to keep up with all the latest and greatest.
Ahh, Sleep. The James Brown of doom. One of my favorite things about Sleep is their idiosyncrasy: while MTV and Rolling Stone were giving the world the hard sell on Seattle grunge, Sleep was doing something *completely* different and off-the-charts (literally), taking 70s proto-metal and twisting it into their own piquant brand of fuzzed-out mayhem.
Old school cool from Sweden. Messiah Marcolin, the vocalist, is one of my favorite singers.
This band’s from Sardinia, of all places. They seem to revel in obscurity – it’s hard/impossible to find t-shirts, CDs or (legal) digital downloads. Sell out, guys! You’ve got at least one eager customer waiting in line.
Don’t let the “u” in their name fool you – these guys are from Cali. Thus particular tune – all of Saviours’ music, actually – manages to be raw and fuzzy and epic and transcendent all at the same time.
These guys are from, drumroll, please… Northampton, Massachusetts! Hey, that’s where I live! I wear my Black Pyramid t-shirt with pride. Let me know if you ever want to hang out and slay some orcs, guys!
I cannot get enough of this band – and I have what a friend of mine called “new song hard-on” for this particular tune, which was recorded in… drumroll, please… Northampton, Massachusetts! Guys? Can we hang out? Slay some orcs? Guys?
Fellow comic book writer Jim Zub did a little interview with me on Warlord of Mars for Bleeding Cool, in which I describe John Carter as the love child of Obi-wan Kenobi and Superman, thus further lowering my chances of ever working for DC Comics and/or Disney, but oh well.
Read all about it, if you dare…