Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Maybe it's some self-conceived notion of professionalism mixed with a genuine sympathy for the first-novel potential author (being one myself), but I like to think that I'm never "in the mood to reject." Today I so barely walked the line on that, thankful that almost everything coming through was an auto-reject (too long, author doesn't know grammar, wrong genre for agent). I was wondering why that was until I went home and discovered I had a 100 degree fever. Mystery solved. I'm only up now because I'm between does of Tylenol.

In lieu of answering questions, which will have to wait, I will say that one of the most confounding things to happen to me at work is to read a partial from a high school English teacher who doesn't know proper grammar. I'm not talking about where commas go - those rules are actually fairly complicated. I'm talking about knowing to start each new speaker's dialogue with a new paragraph, and then using an indent to do so.

I was once in a fiction workshop with a woman who was and had been an English teacher for 20 years. Her story consisted of several long paragraphs in which many different speakers did many different incoherent things. Briefly I wondered if I should bother correcting her, as there was no way she couldn't actually not know the rules herself. I know English teachers. One of my roommates is an English teacher. Instead I politely inquired as to why she had decided to write her story that way, to which she replied something along the lines of, "Well, I really feel that it makes the piece work."

I hate this person. And that's not the fever speaking.


Anonymous said...

"I'm talking about knowing to start each new speaker's dialogue with a new paragraph, and then using an indent to do so."

To be fair, that's not a rule of grammer. It's a convention of page layout. True, she should have followed the convention in a submission!

Hope you get over the illness soon,

(who doesn't think the rules are all that complicated, really :-) )

Bernita said...

And I don't have a fever.

Unknown said...


It's all fine and well to experiment with the language. There are about a million ways to do that within the confines of a capital letter and a period, without doing all this pretentious asshole stuff where you space out the words, "I feel sad," dead center in the middle of two otherwise white pages in the middle of the frickin' book. Or write poems in the shape of a circle. Or have prose that moves diagonally across the page.

You are all the products of weak sperm, and need to be euthanized.

Yes, Jonathan Safran Foer, I'm talking to you.

Anonymous said...

I participated in a critique group with someone who, when you pointed out a flaw in her story, would tell you precisely why it worked better that way.

I would say things like, "I would have put the thing down and never looked at it again if I weren't meeting you at this critique group," and she'd reply, "But it becomes obvious why I did that when you read the last chapter."

That's nice, but I'm never going to *get* to the last chapter. I left the critique group because why critique what someone deliberately made not to work? And doesn't want to fix?

I don't hate this woman, but I was getting to that point. I feel your pain.

Tyhitia Green said...

I agree with you on the English teachers. They do not want to be corrected. One of my beta readers is an English teacher. My old English teacher from high school, but she's great though! I have no complaints--yet! :X

Anonymous said...

I once made the mistake of gently trying to suggest to a writer that she learn proper comma placement.

Her response was that it would impair the rhythm of the writing, since she was using the punctuation as musical notation.

I (figuratively speaking) backed away slowly...

Take care; I hope you're feeling better soon.

Katie Alender said...

I agree -- some of the most disturbing grammar and spelling errors I've encountered have come from teachers. Somehow theirs always seem worse, somehow, like they THINK they're following the rules and would be happy to pass that particular technique on to the next generation.

Unknown said...

How in the world do you attract these people?

The rules of good grammar and formatting do not apply because the man is trying to keep you down, or because someone is trying to stifle your artistic vision, they apply because it makes what you're trying to say readable to the general public.

No one cares if you use good grammar all the time. They just would like to be able to read your crap, and ignoring established standards like indented paragraphs and starting new ones for dialogue just makes you look like (to steal a word from Miss Snark) a nitwit.

Anonymous said...

Isn't your post today, as well as the one immediately previous, the seed of a really, really good short story? (Not, of course, one that the zines would publish. . .)

Denever said...

I once disagreed about a point of grammar with someone who had taught English for a couple of years more than 15 years earlier.

She offered no support for her stance, and it made no difference to her when I cited Webster's Dictionary of English Usage in support of my position. She was convinced she knew more simply because of her brief stint as a teacher.

Know-nothing teachers - they're menaces!

Anonymous said...

When standards are lowered, dumbing down is the result. Teachers are no exception.

Don said...

The convention is one which is not universal and may be a bit recent. I've been re-reading Graham Greene lately and noticed that he doesn't start a new paragraph in at least some of his early novels (ca 1930).

Not that this is any excuse for the English teacher. My junior-high English teacher was very clear about starting new paragraphs with each speaker (and I flash back to Edison School whenever I'm writing dialogue as a consequence).

Anonymous said...

Ohhh yes, the writers for whom punctuation is a Very Personal Element of Expression. Strangely, they seem to be concentrated on the lousy end of the bell curve. You rarely run into a writer who's excellent but just has to do strange things with colons to fully express herself. It's always the ones who write 1,700-page-long incestuous romances about the bacteria living in their tongue fur.

Please don't read any more of this stuff while you're ill. You're weak enough from the fever as it is. (Get well soon!)

Anonymous said...

Ah, you've brought up the issue of critique groups/partners!!
I've belonged to a couple of the groups, and inevitably there is someone who is totally defensive of their work. They miss the whole point of critique, which is to get FEEDBACK on how your writing is playing to readers. It also ended up with that person dominating the session, and therefore taking time away from the other members' critiques.
In both instances, when I explained the process in the hopes they would get it, it brought out more defensiveness. The other members were willing to put up with it, or uncomfortable with kicking the writer out if they didn't change.
I left both groups. I'm now happy with a couple of beta readers who help me hone my manuscripts.
Just in general, this is an old story. I hear it whenever critique groups come up. Inevitably, the defensive writer remains unpublished. The critique group must satisfy their need for getting their writing read.

Anonymous said...

It scares the bejeezus out of me when I see teachers or teachers-in-training who have terrible grammar. What the heck are our kids learning from them? I was in a critique group with a grad student who'd be teaching English to middle schoolers in six months, and she had the most horrendous grammar I've ever seen. Her most egregious error was constantly putting two full sentences together, connected solely by a comma. I attempted to bring this topic up to her gently a number of times, but the grammar never improved. It's a touchy subject with people. But, oh, how it irks me.

Deb said...

This is why my local RWA chapter, when we crit, has three Most Sacred rules:

1) the author cannot explain or rebut any comment given by a critiquer. They can ask questions, but if they edge into rebuttal, they are gently but firmly Slapped by the chapter president.

2) no author may read the same piece twice. This includes rewrites after they've learned to write.

3) only two authors may read and receive crit per session, and they are timed by the Moderator. Nobody can overrun into another's reading/crit time without the Sacred Slap as mentioned above.

Is good rule, no?


Ali said...

It's scary, sometimes, to read things teachers have written. I've edited teacher written essays and some of these folks make me shake my head. Granted, my major is English, but some of the errors are so fundamental...

I feel your pain.

Anonymous said...

One person's defensiveness is another's brainstorming.

Stacia said...

Anonymous 2, you're exactly right. Teachers aren't taught how to teach facts anymore; they're taught "how people learn" and how to increase their students' self-esteem.

Makes me ill to think of the sad state society will be in in thirty years.

Sounds to me like the "That makes the piece work" teacher either didn't want to admit she didn't know the rules, or considered herself a Genius of Experimental Fiction.

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit it. There's no such thing as proper study of English now, as if you're supposed to "get it" by osmosis! When my daughter was in fifth grade, I made the mistake of asking when they were going to learn to diagram sentences, so they might understand construction.

I was firmly put in my place as to how that was no longer "effective." Just as I taught my child to read via phonics in a Whole English world, I taught her to diagram sentences. It's time-consuming and there were tears and the inevitable "why do I have to do this?" but she knows an adverb from an adjective, clauses and punctuation.

I know eventually schools will come back to the basics, but in the meanwhile there are a lot of children who don't know grammar. There are a lot of teachers who don't know their grammar, either.

One interesting observation is that in the teaching of foreign language, emphasis is still placed on grammar/construction, and a lot children finally begin to understand their own language when they study another.

EGP said...

tessa -

I totally agree with your observation about foreign languages! I studied Latin and French in high school and Spanish subsequently and I can say that first year Latin taught me more about English grammar than all my years of English class combined.

That said, I was a bit surprised at the amount of vehemence here in denouncing teachers. It sort of reminds me of the generalities that are bandied about in various places regarding authors and their shortcomings.

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry if you felt I generalized about teachers. That is definitely not what I meant to do. My daughter has had some wonderful teachers.

My issue is with a system that allows theories to be put into practice, and children to graduate without basic skills. A few years with one theory, poor performance on standardized tests and it's on to another theory. The children who have been used as guinea pigs for these theories are challenged for life. When they get to college, they're ready for remedial English. It's bizarre.

I was a product of "new math" (anyone remember that?), and to this day I hate doing anything mathmatically related. I knew that in order to prevent the same sort of challenge in English we had to basically teach her ourselves.

Teachers in general are overworked and underpaid, and unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much changing there. Administrators, however, have no such problems.

Anonymous said...

In my son's high school, it's his Latin teacher, not an English teacher that's running SAT prep sessions.

You're so right about the placement of commas being complicated. There's often more than one acceptable way to use or not use a comma. British and American tendencies can be different, for example.

If you can find it, somewhere among last year's New Yorkers is a complete dismantlement of Eats, Shoot and Leaves. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Kanani said...

Let's put it this way. If you're going to play with form, style OR grammar, you'd better be a damned good writer, and your story better have legs.

Convention is something that changes. It also helps you get through the front door.

Convention today?
The dead body on the first page, indentations for dialogue, use of quotation marks for dialogue rather than a dash.

Not that you can't play with convention, nor should one not try. But like I said, the reader better be so engrossed with the action in the scene that the deviation from convention ceases to bother them.

Kanani said...

"Well, I really feel that it makes the piece work."

Well, here's a good example of why you want to join a critique group.
Because when you're writing your piece, you're doing it alone and the only guide you have is whether or not it sounds logical to you.
But all pieces have to be 'road tested' first, that is, you need to find out whether or not the image you're trying to convey is resonating correctly to the reader.

I'm not saying that novels are written by consensus. But, writers who undergo scrutiny and then are able to use some of the advice given (the good stuff, anyway) often find new solutions to things they thought were problems.

Anonymous said...

There is a book by José Saramago called Blindness. It's quite good once you get used to the fact that it's written exactly as you describe--entire conversations taking place within a single paragraph, with NO quotation marks. (It was originally written in Portugese, so possibly the translator chose not to adapt the structure to English standards.)

I never would have believed it could work if Saramago hadn't won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The key, I think, is to read just such a book to see how it works. I recommend it.

Anonymous said...

English, schminglish, someone smart said the way to make money as a writer is to write books for people who move their lips when reading.

Geminipen said...

LOL! One of my critiquers told me to "read the text out loud and see how it sounded." Maybe she had a point (I have TONS to learn about quality fiction writing). Nonetheless, as a teacher (keep your distance please!), I know that not all books make great read-alouds. Winnie the Pooh is an awful one. Yet look at its popularity.

As to the original topic, I am reading a book with my students now entitled Good Night, Mr. Tom in which the character's actions and dialogue are intermingled in one cohesive paragraph. Yet my students love it. It doesn't interfere with the story whatsoever.

Heck, what do I know?

Geminipen said...

Hee, hee! Look at what the teacher did...

I meant that the characters' actions and dialogue were intermingled in a paragraph. Look what one apostrophe placement does.

Okay, you all win.

Kanani said...

Reading your text aloud is excellent advice.
Your prose should flow, and often when you read anything aloud, you'll find where it stumbles, or see thing that aren't exactly clear.

It also allows you to ensure that the voice is correct. Does it need more attitude? Does it fit the character?

Language is an aural experience. If your stuff reads clunky aloud, then it will read the same. Poetry is always read aloud.

And yes, I've read every page of my novel so far aloud. In our critique group, we're asked to read our piece. It helps immensely.

Anonymous said...

Have you given up on us?

Lisa Hunter said...

Perhaps the teachers are reading Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and other literary writers who experiment with form.

Non-fiction and genre fiction have to follow the rules, but I think poetry and literary fiction have some wiggle room.