The Born Identity–a guest commentary by Perry McDaid
Intro from Rick:
My blog post on Thoughts prompted Perry McDaid, a writer from the UK and one of the early members of Silver Pen, to contact me. (All writers reading this blog are invited to check out Silver Pen. You can access it clicking the link tab to it at the top of the blog page.)
That said, here’s Perry. I’ll follow his piece with some comments in support of his editorial viewpoint.
From Perry McDaid:
Rick’s recent article on “thoughts” kick-started my muse, which she didn’t particularly appreciate. I went on to read the articles on title-picking, which only cemented my original niggle: ‘“John thought to himself” is redundant. Who else would he be thinking to? If you insist on a tag, leave “to himself” out.’
I hope Rick will forgive me for this, and that the reader will forgive the confusing thicket of quotation marks. UK speech marks are usually singles (‘) these days, leaving the doubles (“) for quotes from someone else’s comments, articles, or literature. Rick is using the US style, which is the reverse. So, if you got lost trying to figure out what was what in the last sentence of the previous paragraph, don’t blame yourself – it’s the vagaries of US/UK writing.
That settled, I’ll explain how Rick’s point about redundant phrases didn’t quite sit with me – and there we have another example of the “redundant”: “sit… with me”.
When I was studying for my DipLCW a couple of years ago in an effort to push my writing further up the quality-scale, I was introduced to various concepts and lectures by revered writers supporting them. I’d love to go back and get a quote or two, but that would involve digging out old books and notes in the middle of a time when I’m studying for a current course – one from which this article is providing a break. But I digress.
The relevant concept is an important one for writers: A Sense of Manners.
‘Eh?’ I hear, echoed through the cybercombs (no, it’s not a word – I just invented it on the spot; a mixture of cyberspace and catacombs, presenting just the right imagery of puzzlement. I’ll sit back now, having copyrighted it by coining and wait until the OED picks it up). [RICK’S NOTE: OED is the Oxford English Dictionary.]
A sense of manners is the representation of your own cultural background and idiosyncrasies within your writing, veering away from the avalanche of homogeneity which threatens to smother us all.
There are certain phrases and spellings which grate on various critical nerves. My pet hate is the spell-checker’s habit of changing every ‘-ise’ to ‘-ize’ when either is acceptable in our dictionaries, and where I would subjectively feel that although “maximize” is the better option, a word like “sympathize” is made to look harsh by the ‘z’ and so I would opt for the “sympathise” option as a softer spelling more in keeping with the spirit of the word. However, the quality of writing should be such that it eclipses such minor irritants.
I’m Irish, and although we do not wander around, tugging our forelocks (real or imaginary) and muttering ‘to be sure, to be sure’, we do have a habit of using “redundant” phrases. Every culture does. We have a habit of saying ‘I thought to myself’, or ‘said to myself’, and the spell check has a habit of throwing it back as unacceptable. However, it is not grammatically incorrect per se, merely cumbersome… and idiosyncratic in some cases. That idiosyncrasy can be part of that all-important sense of manners which waves a metaphorical flag and shouts ‘I’m different.’
A sense of manners is your personal voice, a cultural turn of phrase and humour that sets you apart while at the same time identifying you as part of the human family in a way that homogeneous writing can never do. On the matter of titles, you are more likely to find something original within your own culture than you are by dipping into the well-travelled shipping lanes. Some phrases may be redundant, but the “letter-perfect” writers haven’t exactly done the best in the world of literature over the last fifty years.
I suppose what I’m really talking about here is the investment of soul into one’s fiction writing. We are the vanguard of language and ideas, not the heavy stick-in-the-mud artillery. Optimise (I spell it that way out of sheer spite) your writing by all means, but maintain a fierce grip on your own individual character. Communicate, don’t abdicate.
I like to think of myself as liberal-minded when it comes to writing and its “rules.” I applaud Perry for taking an even more liberal stance. I found his comments brilliant (in the US sense of highly intelligent, not in the UK sarcastic slang sense). By coincidence, a few days after I received Perry’s email, I was watching part of “The Vampire Diaries” on TV. I normally do not watch it, but it was near the end, and I wanted to watch the program following it. Anyway, Damon (the evil brother) said, “I thought to myself.” And that made me realize the rightness of Perry’s comments. This was dialog, and it’s the way some people speak. Our characters’ speech should reflect real life. I still object to the use of “he thought to himself” as a dialog tag, but I can accept “I thought to myself” if the first-person character (not the author) is using it. And, yes, I can tell the difference.
I appreciated Perry’s comments on UK spellings. I have seen a number of reviewers on Amazon.com complain about these presumed errors without realizing that they’re showing their ignorance.
Our writing indeed reflects who we are as writers. Scott Gamboe and I share this philosophy. Our purpose in this blog is not to dictate what you should or must do. We’re only trying to help you produce the best and strongest writing possible. Many readers won’t care or comment that you overuse “was” or “that” or “-ing” words. Those who do notice may not bother to comment. I hope that at least some readers presented with two forms of the same passage, one written poorly and one written well, would appreciate the difference. Just be sure that your writing truly reflects who you and your characters are and not your ignorance.
Your voice as a writer, which includes your personal biases, style, and personality will underlie that. I love Perry’s advice: COMMUNICATE, DON’T ABDICATE. He isn’t saying that the “rules” don’t apply to you, only that you must use the language to its best effect. If breaking those rules is the best way to communicate, then by all means do so. What’s important is that you know you’re going against conventions and that doing so serves the story.
Thanks again to Perry McDaid for his wise comments. I have the feeling that we’ll be hearing more from him in the future, and I look forward to his input to rein me in if I get carried away.
ADDED NOTES FROM RICK: I learned something new about UK punctuation here, although it wasn’t something Perry pointed out. I was unaware that UK usage for the em-dash (long dash) is different from US usage. UK folks do it as a hyphen with a space on each side of it (called “set open”), contrary to US usage, which is an em-dash, or long dash, with no spaces around it (called “set closed”). Some other countries follow the UK usage as well. As I was going through Perry’s email, I was going to correct his set open notation. I’ve seen this used before by both UK and US authors and therefore incorrectly assumed it was an error on both sides. This time I had the good sense to look it up, and now I know better. Note also that Perry puts his end punctuation outside the quote marks. That’s another UK convention. UK usage differences might be a good topic for a future blog.
US usage (set closed notation):
John said–no, shouted–for me to come back.” (double hyphen)
John said—no, shouted—for me to come back. (em-dash)
UK usage (set open notation):
John said – no, shouted – for me to come back.
And for the techies among you: