Style and Grammar – Rethinking Black and White

Rather than starting this blog post as I always do—with a groveling apology for my long absence (I’m sorry! Really and truly, I’m sorry!)I’m just going to dive right into it.

This blog post is inspired, at least in part, by a friend I’ve been “helping” with editing her manuscript. “Helping” is in quotation marks because frankly, I’m not quite sure how helpful I’ve been.
You see, I’m a grammar Nazi. Everyone tosses that phrase around, and I think it’s lost some of its impact. Let me be clear. I am a grammar fascist.  A grammar dictator. A grammar tyrant!

Taken from the Oatmeal. This comic is genius:
Here’s my necessary disclaimer: my grammar isn’t always perfect. I still am learning new rules by the day. Certainly when I’m typing casually (like in this blog post), I slip up, either because I’m not paying attention or because I don’t care. This is a blog, people. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.
I also have to switch back-and-forth between two schools of grammar. At work, I use AP style, which is the style guidelines used by the newspaper industry here in the U.S. In the book publishing industry, most people use The Chicago Manual of Style. The differences are subtle, but they exist just the same. I know significantly more about the rules of AP style than I do Chicago Manual, and sometimes I screw them up. 
Disclaimer aside, I think my grammar in general is better than your Average Joe’s. I used to tutor kids for the writing portion of the SATs (for my non-American readers, that’s one of the two main standardized tests American kids have to take to get into university), so there was a point in my life when I could give you encyclopedic definitions of dangling modifiers and parallelism issues. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten dumber in my old age.
I like to say that for me, correcting grammar is like a nervous tic. It takes every ounce of my willpower not to say something about a missing hyphen or inconsistent use of the Oxford comma. I’ve been known to rant about the death of the double-spaced sentence. I got in trouble at my last internship for editing a senior-level executive’s email without being asked (what? The grammar was wrong!).
The truth is, incorrect grammar really takes me out of a story. My reader brain shuts down at the first sight of a comma splice, and my snobby writer brain takes over. Do I think everyone reacts the same way? No – just take a look at Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley. It has a 4.5 rating and 17,695 votes on Goodreads, and enough run-on sentences to make my eyes bleed.
So I’ve started to wonder … When I rip into someone’s grammar, am I helping them or am I killing their voice? How much leeway should we give writers to break grammar conventions? After all, writing is about creative expression, not what some might consider arbitrary rules. I mean, I know I sometimes purposely break the rules for effect, particularly with sentence fragments. Here’s an example from my rewrite:
The only person she had left was Denya. Denya, who couldn’t be bothered to show up at the funeral of the woman she’d watched over since birth. <–Second sentence is a fragment.
I’m having the same inner debate about style. Writing style obviously has much more flexibility than grammar (with grammar there is clear right and wrong. Not so with style), and is also much more transient. If you compare the style of a book published during the early 20th century to a book published today, they will be vastly different.
I am perhaps shockingly conventional when it comes to writing style. I try to follow modern style, which means I hate on adverbs and adjectives and flowery prose. Use similes and metaphors sparingly, the style gurus of today tell us. Don’t use rarefied words.
My literary agent definitely subscribes to modern style rules. In his latest edits, he told me to kill the word “apoplexy” because it was too unusual and pulled the reader out of the story. Same deal for “maw” (that one made me sad. I love that word). I was also told to avoid using the word like, and to stop using so many damn metaphors (the damn was from me. Harry’s much too polite to curse). For example…
What I originally wrote:
Her face, paleas milk, glistened with tears, still wet. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—too cool, like all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
Bad Sally, bad. Here’s how I was asked to change it:
Her pale faced glistened with tears. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
You tell me which one is better. Personally, I think Harry’s right. He usually is.
When I review other writers’ work, I critique with the same lens that my literary agent uses on mine. I’d like to think I can still appreciate that every (good) writer has his or her own voice, and that naturally results in differences of style. But I think that writers can go too far in terms of bucking convention. I’m all for experimentation, and when it works, it works. When it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.
I also don’t think today’s style rules are totally arbitrary – it’s not like fashion where pink is in on Tuesday, and Wednesday it’s all about plaid. Adverbs are lazy. I’m not an adverb fascist – I still think they have a place in writing, and I probably use too many of them – but I do think that excessive use can distract from the story, or come across as more telling than showing. I feel the same way about similes (though I am also guilty of simile abuse). I think everyone’s writing can be made better by simplifying.
But…maybe I’m narrow-minded. Maybe by trying to enforce the style rules I’ve been taught I’m suppressing expression and creativity. I have never been a fan of flowery prose (although I think mine is somewhat flowery? Am I crazy?), and maybe I’m incapable of objectively editing a style or genre that’s so drastically different from my own.
Long story short, I’ve started to second-guess my objectivity. I think I might be a writing bully.

Planning, Planning

So I had my first official “meeting” with my literary agent Harry today (it was a phone call and not an in-person meeting, as he is based in Canada), and wow, do I have a lot of work to do. 
Remember that plot outline I was working on a few weeks ago? Yeah, probably going to be tossed. My assignment for the next two weeks is to flesh out the landscape of my world (which means I have to draw a map! Eep), put together sketches (of the written variety) of all the major characters and write the plot outline for THE ENTIRE SERIES.
Yes, that’s right. I’m planning out every single aspect of Sam, Tristan and Braeden’s world. In two weeks, I’ll know who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast…
Oh wait, I just quoted the Old Testament. It’s a surprisingly appropriate quote.
Writing, especially writing fantasy, is a little bit like playing God. You have to create an entire world from scratch, its creatures and its people. It’s kind of fun to rule your own little universe but man, is it hard. 
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not really a planner. I wrote the first 15 chapters of Paladin without planning ANYTHING — not the characters, not the plot, not even the romance. It’s probably why the first part of my book is less focused than the rest.
I got stuck at chapter 15, and so at the advice of Eileen Gormley, co-author of The Pleasures of Winter (it’s like the 50 Shades of Ireland, but much better written) and otherwise known as Ctyolene on Wattpad, I wrote the synopsis for the rest of the story. 
I didn’t stick to the synopsis exactly–plot elements changed or happened in a different order, or new plot elements cropped up (the rupture in Braeden’s tattoo and that first kiss were completely unplanned, for example). But having it there as a guide was tremendously helpful in keeping me on track and avoiding plot holes…and probably most importantly, in avoiding writer’s block.
Speaking of plot holes, they’re a big part of why Harry says I need to plan out the entire series now. If you don’t know how the whole story is going to unfold, you might find yourself with plot issues in later books that are insurmountable. It’s also hard to use important literary devices like foreshadowing when you yourself don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s one thing when your first book is just published on Wattpad — it’s easy enough to go back and make edits. But once your first book is published in the traditional sense, making changes later is impossible.
The approach he suggested is interesting: rather than write three plot outlines for three separate books, I’m writing one long plot outline, treating it like one contiguous story. I can figure out where it makes sense to break the story into separate books afterward. 
So, depending on how much story there is to tell (I don’t know yet; I haven’t started planning), Paladin could be a 3-book series or it could be 10 (although I sincerely doubt it!). 
To that end, Harry also said not to worry about word count. As an amateur writer, pretty much everything I’ve read says that for your first novel, keep it under 100,000 words. To put it into perspective, Paladin, as it currently stands on Wattpad, is 110,000 words. 
One of my concerns has been how to add to the story the missing elements (more on that later) without also adding a significant amount of text. Well, since my agent has thrown that out the window, for the time being, I’m free to write as long and as much as I’d like. As he pointed out, some of the Harry Potter books are over 700 pages (175,000+ words). I would argue that I’m no J.K. Rowling, but I’m eager to be able to write Paladin without constraints.
And I do expect Paladin to be much, much longer. Harry told me he likes the core plot of the story (the Sam/Braeden/Tristan story arc), but it’s too narrowly focused on them. What about the politics of my world? I mention a king in passing — he’s a king in a feudal system, which means he must have some degree of real power. Why does he not have any role in the story or how events unfold? What is the dynamic between him and the High Commander? Here, Harry pointed out I’m missing out on a great opportunity to create more tension and add richness to my plot. There needs to be more going on in the world than just the conflict between the Uriel and the Paladins.
So yeah. I have to design a political system now.  Good thing I’ve got a degree in political science (unfortunate that I don’t remember a thing I learned in college beyond how to do a cartwheel…I got an A in Circus).
Harry’s other major criticism is that while Sam, Braeden and Tristan are well-developed characters, the rest of my characters are not. The story needs to stay their story, but that doesn’t mean other characters can’t have larger roles. Once again, we’ll use Harry Potter as our example — the books are focused on Harry, Hermione and Ron, but there are many, many other fully developed and memorable characters, like Dumbledore, Snape, Sirius Black, etc.
One suggestion Harry made that I latched onto immediately was regarding my little thief boy, Charlie, from Chapter 19.  He said he really connected with Charlie, but then Charlie was gone a chapter later. What if Charlie were to join Sam, Tristan and Braeden’s entourage for the rest of their journey? I love that idea.
There are a few other potential characters we discussed having a more significant role that will have a pretty significant impact on how the story unfolds, but I’m not sure how much of that conversation I want to divulge. I want you to be surprised when you read the new version of Paladin.
I will promise you this (and my agent agrees): whatever changes I make, the parts you like about Paladin will still be there. I’m adding to the plot, not taking away. Some minor things might have to change from a logic standpoint (let’s be real–how practical is it that Braeden uses knives to chop off demons’ heads? A knife is six inches long–it would take forever!), but I want to keep the heart of my story the same.
On a semi-off topic note, thank you to everyone who has been recommending Paladin to friends. After months of falling out of the top 10, Paladin has returned to the #1 spot in Fantasy and Adventure, and that’s entirely because of you. I feel like I don’t say this to you guys enough: I love you!

Paladin Exclusive: Revised Chapter 1

Many of my readers know that I really disliked the first chapter of Paladin. After all, I started writing Paladin 15 months ago, and my writing style has since changed and–hopefully–improved. I’m not a big fan of the prologue and first chapter that are up on Wattpad right now. To me, there’s one especially glaring issue–Millie and Sir Daniel are the stars of Chapter 1, but they don’t have a part in the rest of the story. Why should they be the characters who open the book?

Since I needed to provide Chapter 1 for the book contest I entered (more on that in a post later this week), I tried to rewrite it. I rewrote Chapter 1–just Chapter 1–six times. And each one was worse than the last.

The version below is the chapter I ended up submitting (attempt #7). Now, I expect some of you aren’t going to like it–it’s definitely very different from the first chapter I have on Wattpad now. But it does successfully get rid of Millie and Sir Daniel, who really are not at all integral to the story.

This is not the full first chapter–I kept some stuff from the original that I’m not showing here, since you all have already read it. Basically the only things that are going away are the prologue and the bit with Sir Daniel and Millie. Everything else is unchanged.

So, enjoy this Paladin exclusive! Also, if you haven’t already, visit/like my Facebook author page.

Chapter 1

She fidgeted, waiting for her name to be announced. The name she gave them, not the name she was given.

“Sam of Haywood!”

When she didn’t move, someone shoved her to the front. She’d have to remember she was Sam now, not Samantha. It would take some getting used to.

“William of Gwent!”

Sam craned her neck, trying to catch a proper glimpse of her opponent. He was a big lad, with a girth that bordered on fat. His eyes were small and mean, and betrayed no sign of intelligence.

Sam stepped out into the arena, and a few of the boys guffawed. They elbowed William in the ribs and she heard one say, “This one’ll be easy.”

She scowled. Let them laugh. William of Gwent might be twice her size, but she would still defeat him. He lumbered across the grassy field with all the grace of a drunken elephant.

Five swords–not practice swords, but real metal blades of varying lengths and styles–had been laid out in the middle of the field for Sam and William to choose from. Sam tested the balance of each sword until she settled on one she liked, a wide blade with a cat’s head pommel. William chose the greatsword, a hefty, two-handed weapon that weighed nigh on two stone. She smirked. It was a powerful sword–if you knew how to use it.

The officiating Paladin called out from behind the low wooden barrier, “Swords at the ready!” Sam and William raised their blades to the on-guard position. “You know the rules by now. First to draw blood will be declared the winner. If you lose, you’re out. Go home. Better luck next year. Are we clear?”

Sam nodded. The rules were harsh but fair; outside of the training yard, there were no second chances. Demons didn’t care if you were having an off day or if you allowed yourself to be distracted; they would kill you regardless. Sam had encountered a demon once in her eighteen years, and she had nearly died for it. The Trials, in comparison, were lenient.

“Alright, lads,” said the Paladin. Sam would have to get used to that, too; no one would ever again call her Lady. “You may begin!”

Sam studied her opponent. He had a brutish strength–she could tell by the ease with which he carried the greatsword–but his form was poor. She would wait him out, let him attack her first, and then find the holes in his armor.

“Oi, pretty boy!” William heckled. Sam raised an eyebrow at the insult. That was a new one for her. He hawked a wad of spit onto the ground. “Let’s get this over with, pretty boy.”

“You flatter me, with all your talk of prettiness,” she said. She wasn’t pretty, never had been, but she made for a convincing boy. “I’m starting to think you like me.” His face went purple with rage, and Sam choked back a laugh. Sparring with words was almost as much fun as sparring with swords, and she’d had little opportunity to practice.

Incensed, William charged her, swinging his greatsword wildly. Sam sidestepped, and he sailed past her, plunging headfirst into the wooden barricade. He fell backwards onto his backside, and the arena burst into laughter.

Good gods, this was going to be easier than she had thought. “Paladin, does it count as my win if he’s bleeding of his own accord?”

 “I’m tempted to say yes,” the Paladin said through clenched teeth. “But no, finish it properly.”

William rose unsteadily to his feet, using his greatsword as an anchor. His face, red and round as it was, looked remarkably like a tomato. She felt a little sorry for him.

Not sorry enough to let him win. Sam wanted more than anything to be a Paladin. Their name was synonymous with bravery, and there were no better fighters. “My turn,” she said, feinting to the left, then circling under his sword.

Barely, William managed to parry her. He slashed at her torso, connecting with air as Sam danced out of the way. She rapped him on the knuckles with the flat of her blade, and the greatsword fell out of his grasp. Fighting a smile, she pressed her sword point into the underside of his chin.

“Win for Sam of Haywood!”

Sam trudged back to where the rest of the trainee candidates stood waiting, while a shamefaced William exited himself from the premises. It was too early to celebrate–there must have been fifty boys remaining, and they were just the Eastern swordsmen. The Trials were also being held throughout the West, North and South of Thule; each regional Trial was separated by class of weapon.  Only a hundred new trainees would be accepted in total–less if the level of talent was found lacking.

Her new name was called half a dozen times more. Sam sliced and slashed–and on occasion–blocked her way to victory after victory. The guffaws that had greeted her first few bouts disappeared like a hazy memory.

They would never guess now that the loose tunic and ill-fitting breeches hid a girlish figure. The nose she hated, her father’s nose, saved her face from overt femininity. Lady Samantha was buried beneath three yards of binding fabric and the unflattering trainee topknot. But her best disguise was this: no man would admit, even to himself, that a woman had defeated him.­­­

Sam had visions of what would happen if, gods forbid, she was found out. “Off with her head!” seemed a bit farfetched; her head was worth far more attached. The Duke of Haywood would pay whatever sum to keep her alive–grooming another heir would take too much effort. No, more likely she would be returned to her father, the duke, and they would let him deal with her. He would consign her to a lifetime of needlepoint and embroidery and a marriage she didn’t want. Sam preferred the guillotine.

She was getting ahead of herself. She wasn’t a Paladin, not even a trainee, not yet. She could lose her next fight and go home to Haywood on the morrow.

“Sam of Haywood!”

Her name called again. Sam pushed to her feet, pacing to stave off the stiffness of aching muscles. She wasn’t accustomed to fighting for so many hours on end, and would suffer for it by nightfall. It would be a pleasant suffering, a physical reminder of her accomplishments.

Her new opponent, a tall, lanky boy, had a long reach and chose a longsword to lengthen it. He was a solid swordsman; his grip and stance seemed natural. She’d watched some of his fights, too. He wasn’t flashy, but he was more than passable. Sam was better.

The Paladin repeated the rules of the duel for the thousandth time, and then: “You may begin!”

Sam lashed out first, swiping at his shoulder. He blocked and parried, and then swung again. The reach of his sword was too long, and she had to duck underneath it. She regained her footing and slid her sword along the inside of his blade, narrowing the distance between them. Up close, like this, Sam’s shorter sword held the advantage.

A glint of gold caught the corner of her eye, and her head, involuntarily, turned toward it.

There he stood, just beyond the wooden barrier, like a ghost from the past. Paladin Tristan Lyons. He could ruin everything.

Sam faltered, and her opponent’s sword caught the sleeve of her shirt.

“Halt!” yelled the officiating Paladin.

Shite. Sam pushed back her sleeve. “The skin’s unbroken, Paladin. No blood.” Her heart beat like a humming bird’s. She’d almost lost. How could she have let herself get distracted? Gods, and in front of him, no less. Whether he recognized her or not, he’d think her a bumbling idiot.

“Swords at the ready!” Sam raised her sword. “Begin!”

She shifted on the balls of her feet, ready. Her opponent’s blade moved by the tiniest fraction, and Sam attacked, hitting the outer edge. She swung again, and again, battering his sword. She faked to the right then thrust to the left, scouring his side. More than the fabric ripped; red dribbled from a shallow gash.

“Win for Sam of Haywood!”

She’d won, thank the gods. Had Tristan Lyons seen it? She shaded her eyes with her hand, scanning the small crowd behind the barrier for a crop of golden hair.

He was gone, as if never there.