WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT GRAMMAR
Everybody hates this stuff, don't they?
We all buy great books about "how to" write - I have a huge collection - but we're not interested in the nuts and bolts of the craft, the stuff that makes what we do intelligible to the reader. We all rush to the chapters that show us how to create a plot, a to-die-for hero, a heroine with the strengths, empathy, spirit that we all yearn to possess.
It's inevitable. It's the exciting stuff. Who wants to read the boring stuff about apostrophes, or where to use a comma, and when to use a full stop? Dull, dull, dull.
But grammar is the basic tool in the writer's craft box and I'm bringing this up now because I've been reading entries to Mills & Boon's New Voices competition. I can't comment because it won't let me for some reason - but I'm not here to talk about computer glitches.
I read a lot of really great stuff, but all the time I was being thrown out of the story by bad grammar. Apostrophes in the wrong place. Sentences that were miles too long. Writers who seemed unfamiliar with the purpose of the comma or the full stop.
I'll tell you right now that I'm not a great grammarian. I use language in ways that serve my story. If I want single word sentences, I'll use them. If I want a sentence without a verb, I'll do that, too - but not too often.
I don't know about your computer, but mine is always throwing up wiggly lines and sometimes I'm not sure why, so I click on the mouse and find out. Mostly it's "fragments"; the sentence without the verb. I think about it, and decide if maybe I'm overdoing it and occasionally I'll combine two sentences. Sometimes I'm surprised to discover that I can't spell a word when I thought I could and I'm grateful for the help. Sometimes it's just querying my use of an apostrophe. (It's asking me to think about it, not telling me I've got it wrong - it just sees an apostrophe and thinks uh-oh...)
Do you know the difference between "its" and "it's"?
The thing is it matters. And in a world where editors and agents struggle for every minute in their day, they no longer have the time to cope with someone who hasn't taken the trouble to master the basic skills of writing a sentence. Read your work out loud and you'll soon realise how important this is.
The good news is that anyone can learn this stuff. I did. Point proved. Not the strange words - gerunds and past participles - but the reason for using an apostrophe and how commas help make sense of a sentence.
For those of you who are a little hazy on the basics, I can heartly recommend GETTING THE POINT by Elizabeth Hawksley and Jenny Haddon (former chairwoman of the Romantic Novelists' Association). It's a light-hearted and simple guide to grammar.
I'd also recommend noticing this stuff while reading. I know, we all race through a rattling good yarn without noticing the punctuation - that's the point. It enables the reader to instantly make sense of the words on the paper. But once you've enjoyed the book, you might usefully go back and read it again to look at sentence structure. The simple grammar. The skeleton that supported the story while you were concentrating on what was happening to the hero and heroine.
And good luck if you've entered NEW VOICES.