Being a Better Writer: The “Perfect” Book Is an Awful Read

Hello again writers! Welcome back, and welcome to Topic List #21! That’s right, we’re on a new list, with new concepts and ideas to explore! Writers, there is still time to make a request for additional topics to add to it over at the topic call post, but only for a few days more!

Anyway, how was your weekend, writers? Feeling recharged and reinvigorated? I am, and it was desperately needed. Not only was I able to get some relaxation and decompression in, but I also woke up today to some fantastic news: Axtara – Banking and Finance has cracked 50 reviews on Amazon.

Like I’ve said, she keeps sailing. I don’t doubt that before long Axtara will be neck-and-neck with Colony. Though the leader of the UNSEC Space Trilogy isn’t taking it lying down, especially as over the weekend we saw our first tease from Chapter 1 of Starforge. To applause, no less. It was clear to me from the number of hits that a lot of you were interested in that.

Banking dragon versus a Sci-Fi tale of empires old and new. Will Axtara tighten the race? Or will Colony pull ahead? I don’t know, but I’m thrilled either way as both take strong strides in bringing me toward that 10,000 copies sold milestone.

Anyway, that’s the news, writers. Keeping it short and sweet today so that I can dive into the first topic on our new list. Which is … a contentious one, to be sure. I already am aware that by the title alone there will be many who will be lighting their torches and gathering their pitchforks, ready to defend an incorrect philosophy that they themselves will likely never test.

Today, we’re going to talk about the “perfect” book. And why you’d never want to read it.

Hit the jump, folks. Let’s talk about writing.

To begin, I want to extend to you a hypothetical: Imagine that you have found, to your utter shock, a book that is grammatically perfect. In every way.

I mean perfect. Not a single sentence ends in a preposition. No comma is missing or misplaced by the rules of the English language. Not one clause is out of place.

Perhaps you acquired it from a genie, by wishing for a book that was grammatically flawless (and that genie was kind enough to pick a particular decade of grammatical rules that wasn’t from several hundred years ago). This book is perfect.

You rush home, clutching it excitedly, ready to read. You settle down, open up the first page, basking in perfection, of every rule of the English language being followed to its absolute peak. It’s all you’ve ever wanted. You begin to read.

Five minutes later, you shake your head, dusting out the cobwebs. What were you doing again? Right. Reading. You get back to it.

Five minutes after that, you check your phone and realize that you’ve not turned a page in a while. One chapter in, you find yourself checking your phone, and upon looking back realize you’ve been rereading the same page over and over. By the end of chapter one, there’s no doubt in your mind: This is the blandest writing you’ve ever encountered. You shake your head and press on. After all, this is the perfect book. Not a thing is out of place.

So why is it dragging so badly? You decide something must be wrong with you, as after all, this is the perfect book. You push onward.

Later, you wake up, a puddle of drool on your chin, and angerly rush back to your supplier. It cannot be a perfect book, you argue as you toss it down on the counter. You fell asleep. The characters were bland, the dialog and narration flat an uninspired. It was like reading a textbook! Scenes of peril were a bore! The description flat and pointless.

“But of course,” the genie replies with a smirk. “What did you think a grammatically perfect book would be like? It all must conform to your wish, after all.”

See, the genie says this with a smile, confident that no matter what magical court you bring him to, you’re not getting your wish refunded. After all, you asked for a book that was “grammatically perfect,” and they have delivered. It’s not their fault that such a book would, by its very nature, be unable to have any style, any sense of individual voice, or variation among its pages.

You would have gotten exactly what you wished for … and all that entailed. Because one of the surest truths of writing fiction is that the basic rules must be bent or broken in order to accurately reproduce the world we live in.

Not every person speaks perfect English, grammatically correct, all the time. Furthermore, the inability of dialogue to reflect this would break not only most books, but have the net result of making every character sound incredibly similar to every other character in tone, style, and diction.

What I’m getting at today is similar to a prior discussion we’ve had before on Being a Better Writer concerning commas in dialogue, and how a single breaking of a simple rule that some hold to be ironclad opens up a world of understanding to the reader about a character. The full post is here, but I’ll post an excerpt below:

The man in the berth opens his mouth and says—

Option A) “No, thanks.”

Option B) “No thanks.”

So, which option is correct?

Well, now things get tricky. If you were answering a question on a test in an education system, for example, or if you’re simply more attuned to basic grammar rules, you’re probably going to go with Option A, the “No, thanks.” After all, that is the grammatically correct choice.

But if you’re well-read, a writer, or thinking about all the other descriptors given of this individual that’s speaking, you’re most likely going to go with Option B. The “No thanks” that comes without a comma or a pause.

Here’s the real kicker: Based on the context given, from the state of the individual speaking to the body language and everything else, I’d say that Option B is the better choice. Or rather, the more correct choice.

“But hold up!” I can hear some of you saying. “That’s the one that’s grammatically incorrect! You can’t call that the correct choice! You’re an author! How can you pick the obviously incorrect version over the one that’s grammatically correct!?”

Easily. By noting this one simple observation: People break rules of grammar all the time when speaking. And while we as authors will often (but not always) clean out the “ums” and “uhs” (again, not always), as authors we also strive to represent a character accurately. Which means capturing their voice, their cadence. Their style of speaking.

Even if that style of speaking isn’t correct.

The point of that post is clearly captured in that example: While always having the comma is “grammatically correct,” not having the comma instead tells us something about the character, the scene, the setting, or maybe all three.

To extrapolate on this, let us use our own example of why proper, correct grammar would be detrimental to an in-progress story:

Another explosion wracked the building. The hallway shook beneath Cadivh’s feet. A glowing light from ahead marked the location of an escape pod. A pod that could only hold one person.

“Atzal,” Cadivh said as he came to a stop in front of the pod. Another explosion echoed from nearby. The hallway shook again. “Only one of us may use the pod. It must be you.”

Atzal shook his head. “No, I won’t leave you behind!” Another explosion sounded nearby. Dust fell from the ceiling.

“You must,” Cadivh said with urgency in his voice. “Go now. This station will not last much longer!”

Does something about that seem … off? Not just in the dialogue, but in the sentences themselves? Don’t they seem … stilted, perhaps, for something that is supposed to be an urgent calamity?

That’s because they are. The dialogue and the sentences there are all being proper with their grammatical rules. And the result is … well, yuck.

This is what happens when you refuse to bend or break the rules. In a real life-or-death explosion with stakes, much of what we just wrote above would be blending. The narration would be flavored by the viewpoint of the character who was describing it. We’ve spoken before on the site about using short, jerky sentences to make our narrative reflect the horror and fear of a protagonist, or using run-ons to make the chaos of a battle or a melee come to life.

All of that is breaking the rules of proper grammar. But because it does so, in a targeted, directed manner, it is used to heighten the reader’s sense of being in the moment. Because they’re seeing the protagonist’s fear, or tension, in how they’re reacting to the environment around them.

This applies even moreso if we’re writing in third-person limited, a narrative perspective where our text should be flavored with respect to the character whose viewpoint we are following. That means, yes, adopting what rules they may break when they speak or talk in dialogue to the narration itself, so that it accurately reflects who they are. Have you ever read a book that switched between third-person viewpoints but you could tell who each viewpoint was following even sometimes before the text dropped a name?

That’s because the characters “style” was infused into the narration. It wasn’t “proper or correct.” But it made for a book where you felt like you were in that character’s shoes.

Take that away, and every character’s narration will take on one voice. Same with their dialogue. Sure, you might be able to mitigate the latter somewhat by including slang words unique to each character, but that’s about all you’ll be able to do because each character will be confined by the most proper form of the language you’re writing in (I’ll note here that just because we’re speaking of “English” doesn’t mean that this same detail won’t apply in other languages).

Now at this point some who are still opposed to this idea might be looking to “attack” this post by saying “He’s telling everyone not to bother to learn proper English! Kill the heathen!” But I’m not. As I’ve stated many times before on Being a Better Writer, you have to learn the rules first, then figure out how to break them. If you start from a position of chaos, all you’ll have is chaos, but a position of understanding that then purposefully moves into chaos? That’s how you get a wordsmith like Dr. Seuss, who took great delight in playing with the chaos at the edges of the English language to produce his beloved works of literature. Of which few, if any, ever are “grammatically correct.”

But Seuss was able to pull it off because he understood what rules of language he was bending or breaking—or more accurately dancing around with a gleeful laugh as he twisted the rules into knots. Point being, he knew what he was doing. So should we. All our characters, our narration, should build on the common point of “I was taught proper grammar, but have since adopted my own syntax.”

It is important—very important—to learn the proper rules. Make no mistake about that. I am no arguing for chaos for the sake of chaos.

Learn the structure. But then learn how to bend it, shape it. Learn how to use it to deepen your audiences’ connection to the scene, to the characters.

Don’t write a perfect book. Write an imperfect one, one that represents the imperfections of life, from characters to story.

Now, I have one last thing to say. Many of you are likely wondering “But what about the editing?”

Knowing that your book isn’t grammatically perfect—nor should it be—is not the same as making it grammatically consistent. In addition, there will be times where you want to keep a rule and times where you’ll want to break it, such as the common practice of using run-on sentences during a moment of great chaos an intensity to convey that very feeling of everything being overwhelming. We don’t want to do that during the whole of the book. Just in the scenes where it is important to.

This makes not only your choice in writing important, but also your choice of editing and editors. A poor editor will find such a scene and immediately demand that it be “fixed” while a good editor will recognize the bending of the rule for what it is and look to find any changes that can be made to reinforce that concept.

Yes, you read that correctly. A good editor is one who recognized why something is wrong and then deliberately helps keep it that way in order to improve the story while still checking to see if it can be smoothed. Because a good editor understands the greater picture and purpose, beyond simply conceits of ‘put a comma here because English demands it.’ So keep that in mind not only as you write, but as you edit. The number one objective in writing and editing is to create a story that your audience can read, understand, and be thrilled by.

So good luck. Now get writing!

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