Monday, November 9, 2020

Straight from the Mouth of Historical Novelist Joan Schweighardt

Open Letter to a Grammar Blunder Hunter (or, Speak for Yourself)

Dear “Book Blogger” Who Once Said Poor Grammar Hurt My Writing:

Most of the novels reviewers and bloggers are likely to be asked to critique will be written in third person. This means that someone outside the parameters of the story—presumably the author—is telling the story. A third-person narration in a novel might go something like this:

Frank came out of the hardware store and realized his car was gone. He’d seen some boys on his way in, but his only thought at the time was that it was Monday morning and those kids should have been in school. Now he wondered if they were the ones who stole his car. “Crap!” he cried. “Them kids musta done it! They musta!”

The reader knows two things right off the bat. One, Frank believes his car was stolen by some boys. And two, Frank’s grammar leaves something to be desired. Very few book reviewers or bloggers would make the mistake of attributing Frank’s bad grammar to the author because that grammar is in quotations. It is dialogue. The author is building character by showing us how Frank talks. 

The confusion for some book reviewers and bloggers begins when the novel is narrated not by the author but by someone who is actually in the story, which is to say, one of the characters. This is called first-person narration. What if Frank was telling his own story? Frank’s first-person narration might go something like this:

I went into the hardware store that morning to buy a new showerhead, because the wife was bellyaching the old one didn’t put out enough water. And I come out and find my car’s gone! I seen those darn kids off to the right just before I went into the store. Had to be them. Had to be.

You can see the attraction for the author to have Frank tell the story in his own words. The fact that he refers to his spouse as “the wife” speaks volumes in itself. And if we need further proof that Frank is imperfect, we have his “I seen them.” And there is a switch from past tense (I went) to present (I come) right in the middle of the paragraph too. This writing reeks of bad grammar, right?

Actually, no; Frank has poor grammar, true, and on top of that, he is flippant in the way he talks about his wife. But it would be a mistake for someone reviewing the book in which this paragraph appears to attribute the sin of bad grammar to the author as well. The author has simply given Frank permission to speak for himself. 

Here’s one more example of first-person narration to consider:

Well, when Tom and me got to the edge of the hilltop we looked away down into the village and could see three or four lights twinkling, where there was sick folks, maybe; and the stars over us was sparkling ever so fine.

Yes, there are grammatical errors here too, but that is only because Mark Twain is allowing his character Huck Finn to tell his own story. Huck lacks an education. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is necessarily full of grammatical blunders. The tradeoff is that by having Huck speak for himself, the author gets to “show” us exactly who Huck is, rather than describing Huck’s quirks for us. We’re right there with Huck, as close as a reader can get. 

Overzealous blunder hunters need only ask themselves who is narrating the book they plan to review or comment on. If it’s one of the characters, they can put down their red pens and relax and go with the flow—or read something else.  


An author who frequently lets her characters speak for themselves

Joan Schweighardt is the author of River Aria (which is both a standalone novel and the third book in a trilogy), as well as other novels, nonfiction titles, and children’s books. She is also a freelance writer and ghostwriter. Visit her at her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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