The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

Arrrrgh! Bring-Take

No, I’m not channeling my inner pirate.  And, right off, I admit to being a closet snooty person about grammar.  However, I do understand that language is ever changing, mapping our ways and means of communication.  So, unlike political candidates these days, I’m a proud centrist with respect to grammar (and in politics, too, but I promised myself not to hyperventilate on my blog).

So, as we now say, it’s all good, right?

But.but.but good writers keep on telling me to strip nonessential words.  Make every word punch above its weight, right?  Which means meaning is important, right?  In particular, a writer needs to paint a picture of action so the reader can follow the story, right?

So here we are back at good old bring/take.

Bring-take

Here is an ad from Writer’s Digest.  The folks that advertise themselves up as the most complete writer’s resource.  The closet snooty person says, “bring things here and take things there.”  If you’re going from here to some other place, it’s take, even if one is speaking of electronic files.

So, the new quandary for the snooty grammarian is a variation of that old tree-falling-in-the-forest question:  If everyone uses bring for all movement from place to place, does the writer simply acquiesce on the grounds that his more precise use of bring-take will be lost on modern ears?

Or maybe the writer quits grousing and writes better.

 

 

 

The Agony of Grammar

I’ve been running into an issue in writing lately that has me stumped: grammar. Specifically, how precisely to follow grammatical rules in writing, particularly in dialog. On the one hand, John McWhorter (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and others) points out that the language is always in motion and often intimates that the “rules” we follow are dated. On the other hand, a shared grammar should give the most possible meaning to those words we write.

The difficulty I have is bridging the gap between real speech, which has available to it gestures and visual cues to help meaning along.  Also, because it’s thought on the fly, it includes repeats, irrelevancies and meaningless y’knows, umms, and so on, which we tolerate and edit out.

Written dialog needs to be clean and economical while sounding natural. It’s a delicate balance. I try to stay grammatical, but occasionally find my characters sounding stuffy as a result. (That’s what rewrite is for.)

Here are some I struggle with or see in my writing groups:

Bring/take: Most people seem to know the difference between transporting something toward where we are now and transporting it away. That said, common usage is collapsing to just plain “bring.” Writing needs to minimize confusion about motion. I’m sticking with the distinction.

It's LIE, dammit!

It’s LIE, dammit!

Lay/Lie: Difficult because lay is also past tense of lie. But lay is something you do to an object and lie is an action you do to yourself. (Furthercomplicated by the fact that no one is interested in getting lied or even lain.) I stick with the distinction.

Who/whom: At least in speech, few of us observe the difference. I try to rework sentences to use who, thereby getting over the speed bump of the reader trying to remember the correct application of the rule instead of following the story line.

All part of the accretion of the craft.  If you have ones that bug you, let me know.

 

 

The Grammar Question

One of the great advantages my writing groups give me is a breadth of vision about ‘normal’ grammar. I’ve learned to stay in the middle of the grammar continuum, which to me looks like this:

Stuffy <——————————————-> Stupid-boring

It’s pretty easy to stay away from the far ends. I can’t have my characters saying, “There’s just no telling to whom that e-mail was addressed.” Not in 2015. (Well, maybe a stuffy lawyer or professor.) But making a millennial sound natural doesn’t suggest writing ‘like’ several times in a phrase, either.

The difficulty comes when a word or construction is in the process of flux. Do I use my old guy grammar (suspiciously close to the stuffy end of the spectrum) or jump to the painfully colloquial end.  After all, OMG, stuff is changing all the time, Mother Tonguey’know?

This quote from a recent New York Times article causes me immediate pain: “Then he pours the beige beverage into jars and chills them before bringing the containers to work the next day at Metrodigi, an education technology start-up.” (Bold italics mine.)

The Chicago Manual of Style site says: bring; take. The distinction may seem obvious, but the error is common. The simple question is, where is the action directed? If it’s toward you, use bring {bring home the bacon}. If it’s away from you, use take {take out the trash}. You take (not bring) your car to the mechanic.”

The helpful interlocutor on the website notes, “I’m sure some people (here and elsewhere) will think concern about bring/take is pedantic. I have to admit to accidentally mixing them up and getting called out about it.”

The writing groups (20-somethings to 70-somethings) generally keep me in the middle of that continuum. Beyond that, I guess I’ll just, like, struggle along.

 

Present Tense, Past Tense and the Oral Tradition; OR “This Guy Walks Into a Bar…”

No, I’m not turning this into an adults-only blog.

Last night, I finished presenting Novel #2 to my very helpful writing group.  After the comments were finished, our grammar nazi and certified DFW (Damn Fine Writer), whose day job is being an editor, did one of those Ahems that often precede something heavy.

“Umm, why did you write it present tense?”Present tense

She continued, “You know, it being a thriller, editors are going to expect past tense.”  Across the table from me, another editor and DFW was nodding agreement.

I summoned up my response, preparing an explanation that would be both incisive and erudite, “I dunno. It just came out that way.”

I’ve been churning on this for a day.  Of course, the editors are right.  But it’s not a small task to move from present to past for an 88,000-word work, so I have employed a variety of arguments, justifications and self-serving excuses.  But I still come up with, “It just came out that way.”

So, why did it come out that way?

I have to blame the Oral Tradition.  See, I came to writing from music.  I’ve been telling stories and playing music for many years, and most of that is in present tense, so I guess I just naturally moved into the story-telling mode I was familiar with.

Present tense is pretty limiting, though.  88,000 words?

Bring/Take and the Surrender of Grammar to Chaos

This morning, the Sunday New York Times delivered a shot upside the head before I even read about Ebola or the insanity that is ISIS.NYT paper bagThe bag.  It was the bag.  There, in the upper right corner

NYT closeup“Bring it Back” from the NYT. Bring it Back? Really?  Not “Recycle it?”

Since the delivery person already brought it to me, it has no further place to be brought, does it?

Seems to me (and very few other curmudgeons, apparently) that we are in an era of grammatical entropy. Articles on the subject seem to concentrate on the reality that language evolves (Duh…), that grammar really needs to represent what people speak, and so on. Maybe it’s that the brave new 140-character thought processes we seem to be bathed in so much of the time just can’t contemplate fine distinction, but the bring/take distinction is, it seems to me, different than, e.g., the who/whom distinction. Making all mentions of movement become ‘bring’ loses an important distinction, possibly … no, probably … causing confusion. Who/whom rarely does that, because it’s usually obvious to whom we are referring in a sentence. (And then there’s the issue of ending the sentence with a preposition.) (And sentence fragments.)

Maybe I need to find the address of the presumably long-suffering NYT delivery person and add to what must be a mountain of plastic bags in his/her living room.

Of course, it’s possible that all material things are meant to be brought to that black hole where odd socks and occasionally car keys are said to reside, from which they can never be taken out (of). Now, that’s entropy.

Ten Rules For Writing

Important rules, with thanks to my friends at Writers Alliance of Gainesville:

1.  Avoid Alliteration.  Always.

2.  Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3.  Avoid clichés like the plague.

4.  Comparisons are as bad as clichés.

5.  Be more or less specific.

6.  Writers should never generalize.

Seven:  Be consistent.

8.  Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

9.  Who needs rhetorical questions?

10. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

Finally, when confronted by an upset grammar Nazi, always say softly, “Oh, there, their, they’re.”