Welcome to 2016. I have been dense-packing this website with nine posts per week since mid-2015, in support of the upcoming release of Cyan, the novel which signals my return from the graveyard of forgotten writers.
Science fiction readers tend to be closet or would-be writers themselves. With that in mind, the next eight posts in A Writing Life will be an unabashed how-to series.
Your Own Language
first post of 8
I have spent the last fifty-five years perfecting the ability to write in a dead language – grammatical English.
Before you close me out without reading further, let me assure you that I fight back against English grammar as much as anyone else who deals with it daily. The grammar books of my childhood and youth were of little use in learning to write well; the ones I saw during my years as a teacher were positively harmful. Most of what they taught needed to be unlearned to avoid becoming a mental cripple.
I have come to these two conclusions about English.
- Those who slavishly follow grammatical rules end up sounding like pretentious fools.
- Those who ignore grammatical rules end up sounding like ignorant fools.
As Kirk said to Spock, the truth lies somewhere in between.
I grew up on a farm outside a tiny town in Oklahoma. The version of English my people spoke did not follow Strunk and White, but it still had rules. You would never say to a friend, “Y’all come over after work.” Only ignorant Northerners said that when mocking us. You would say, “Come over after work,” or, “Would you like to come over after work.” In the South, you is second person singular and y’all (you all) is second person plural, a grammatical nicety far superior to the way standard English collapses singular and plural into a single word.
It wasn’t standard grammar, but it was grammar nonetheless, and if you didn’t follow the rule, you looked ignorant.
If I had planned to be a farmer, I would simply have talked like everybody around me. It is a valid dialect, capable of great expressiveness. But I had decided to go to college to become a scientist, so I had to master standard English.
Try that is a tiny town in Oklahoma in the fifties. I dare you.
Fifty-some years, two master’s theses, and many novels later, I’m still working at it. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
- There is no such thing as Standard English.
- What I took for Standard English and spent a lifetime mastering was only a snapshot of a continuously changing scene.
- The language I made my own, has largely disappeared.
- What typically passes for English today is as chaotic as a bowl of alphabet soup, but . . .
- If you choose a typical passage written in 1950, or 1900, or 1850, or 1800 it will be equally chaotic.
- Chaotic or not, readers read and understand the writing of their own era. And pay for it, if it’s interesting or exciting.
- Generally speaking, so-so writers make more money than really wonderful writers, if they are also excellent storytellers.
- You have to create your own version of English.