Time Passing and Dreyer’s English

I started this blog over six years ago to chronicle the experience of learning to write.  I knew it would be a journey, even though I believed myself to be a good writer already. (Ha!) I thought at the time it would be a process somewhat like getting a power boat up on a plane:  Plowing slowly through understanding structure and technique, reading the classics in my genre, learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Finally rising to the plane, where my writing would zip along.

To some degree, that is the way it’s been, although the plowing process has been longer than I expected. And continues ad infinitum, I think.

Along the way, I joined critique groups that have helped me immensely, though I often feel that my critique earns me a red-lettered ‘stodgy’ across my forehead.  Yes, my formal training took place a long time ago. Yes, I use Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk & White. But calling out an incorrect lie/lay or take/bring sometimes gets flared nostrils and a roomful of sighs. And we’re not even talking about the singular use of ‘they’ or the vanishing comma.

Pertinent to grammar and style, I just ran into what I think may be this generation’s style guide:  Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer. It’s an erudite, clear guide to the way English should be written with an emphasis on clear communication, rather than hard and fast rules. Also, funny and fun to read. He begins by exhorting we writers to go a week without writing Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers like very, rather, really … you get the drift. We should all go many more weeks than one with very (oops) few of these.

Another thing I like about the book is Dreyer has been at this work for two decades. I think that gives him acute judgement about which changes in style are transient and which are here to stay. All in all, a fine book.  Who knows? I may be able to rub out that ‘stodgy’.

Parsimony

I just took Gabe Tovar out of my third novel, Fail Deadly.  Damn!  I liked Gabe, but the poor guy was compromised by Russian mafia types, and he did add complexity.  Maybe he’s relieved, but I’m sorry to lose him. However, his loss didn’t hurt as much as Raisa Jarvinen, whom I had to take out a couple of months ago. She was an FBI agent, a specialist in languages.  She allowed me to exercise my interest in etymology, languages in general, and the Finno-Ugric branch of Indo European. See, Estonian is closer to Finnish and Hungarian than the Slavic languages that surround it as a result of the Uralic tribes … hmmm. Maybe it’s good for my readers’ sanity that I took her out.  

What I’m learning is that parsimony is valuable in writing, just as it is in science.  I don’t mean the penny-pinching skinflint kind; I mean the Aristotle-Duns Scotus-William of Ockham’s razor kind.  The kind that says Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, loosely translated for the novelist as Don’t put in stuff that doesn’t move the story forward.

When I was about to publish Fatal Score, I asked for a review from Brian Lutterman, a Minnesota author whose work I admire.  He graciously accepted and wrote a lovely review.  Then he asked if I wanted an honest appraisal of the less-than-nice stuff. I did, and he explained that, while the plot was interesting and the writing good enough to merit his fine review, but I had too many characters. Parsimony, again.

Eep … The novel I’m finishing, Fail Deadly, had more characters than Fatal Score.  The plot is about as complex, which, following Ockham loosely means there’s less space for characters. 

Sic transit Gloria personae, Gabe and Raisa.  You’ll be back in other books, I hope.