Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Grammar vs Style

So, today I received feedback for my book from the Writer’s Digest 25th Annual Self-Published Book Awards and first, I didn’t even know I was going to receive feedback; second, it was really well thought out and actionable feedback. It did, however, have one point I contended, which I would like to share with you all.

Here is the portion of the feedback I am contending:

"... the most consistent error is found with quotation marks and attribution. When a speaker’s words end and they’re not followed by attribution (he or she said is the most common), there should be a period, not a comma. A new sentence, rather than a clause, should follow. While examples can be found throughout the book, look to page 5 for examples. Every paragraph on the page has at least one example of this issue. To explain further, the sentence that begins with “Sir Timberbrand folded” should have a period after “smile” before he speaks. In the next paragraph, “Order” should have a period, and then “Allaha” should begin a new sentence. While this punctuation rule may seem inconsequential, readers expect familiar road signs, and with a book this lengthy, it can make it very difficult for readers who would otherwise be fully engaged to get through it."
(Prior to this, the judge said that my book could do with a thorough edit, and I agree with that remark.)

Here is the particular passage the judge is referring to:

Sir Timerbrand folded Allaha’s writ of passage and returned it to her with a smile, “We may not have seen each other since we were children, but I insist you call me Alec. You look well, Ally.”

“No one has called me that since I joined the Order,” Allaha tucked the writ into one of her saddlebags. Her tone was sombre, and soft spoken. It was difficult to tell what she thought of the reunion, though it did not seem to bother Alec.
(The three paragraphs prior were character descriptions, thus the initial speaker had not been previously established.)

Now, I am going to quote my reply to this, as I believe any good editor/author relationship is about give and take - as any good critic is. Sometimes, as an author, you have to accept the risk that something will throw a reader off in favor of something else - such as a further plot point or even simply a stylistic preference. (Recently, I had to determine the correct plural of "roof" - what I discovered was that "rooves" was grammatically correct but antiquated compared to "roofs", however, I used "rooves"because I thought the sound flowed better.) This is still a risk, and an editor may advise against it, but as the author, it's your story, and your choice.

Back to the matter at hand, I contended the point of quotation attribution on the grounds that it was grammatically correct but uncommon, making it a stylistic choice - or even a stylistic risk. Grammar Book and Purdue Owl Style Guides make no distinction between whether or not a quotation is followed by an attribution, and the latter of these is a guide utilized by institutes of higher education as writing resource. I could even argue that, during conversations between three or more characters, even if I did not utilize the words "he/she/they said/replied/asked", a break mentioning the character is still an attribution. By not constantly using typical attribution methods in scenes of lengthy dialogue, I am varying my sentence structure and keeping the story flowing.

However, as an avid reader myself, I do understand this is not the established format. When I first started this book, I wrote quotations as the judge recommends. It was actually someone else who suggested using commas instead of periods, and my second reason to continue to propose commas as a stylistic choice has to due with the reasoning he gave. This was my reply to the judge on why else I used commas rather than periods:
To further defend my perspective, it was also suggested by my reviewer to start new paragraphs for actions taken by new characters. That is, to consider body language, facial expressions, etc, as dialogue. I feel this distinction has created much better flow in my characters' interactions, and as these non-verbal cues often accompany spoken word - indicating tone, temperament, or emphasis - that a comma is more appropriate, as the "dialogue" has not been "completed" due to the interruption of non-verbal cues.
I don't know whether or not my judge will get my feedback, but I thought I'd see how others felt about the issue. So here are some questions I have for anyone interested in debating:

  • Do you agree with commas being utilized this way to be a stylistic choice? 
  • Do you feel that it's more important to follow established rules that make readers more comfortable?
  • If you don't agree with commas being a stylistic choice, do you still follow/understand my argument for this usage?
  • Do you feel that it's more important to challenge the established format when you feel you have a change worth trying, or to remain consistent so that your audience knows what to expect?
  • Do you think I'm just a crazy person getting wrapped up in a trivial writing detail with little impact on the actual story being written?

 I look forward to any discussions below!

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