“Clarity is what matters to readers.”
That’s the clarion call of one Conan The Grammarian, a.k.a. Susan Mackay Smith, who has been writing columns in the monthly newsletter from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers for about ten years.
Now, Conan is out with a handy reference guide that distills those columns into an inspiring volume titled, handily enough, Conan the Grammarian, Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers.
Remember Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? This book would sit handsomely on your shelf alongside it and all your other writing resources.
Conan sets a high bar for writing. And writers. Cool plots, Conan argues, can be enhanced by the nuances of language.
But, fear not. This is a light (near breezy) read that will leave you feeling encouraged and emboldened, not depressed or over-anxious. In fact, Conan talks a good game but, in the end, has “his” forgiving side, too.
Lawyers and journalists may get use out of the book, says Conan, “but this book is meant for novelists, who have their own requirements and, yes, rules. Which, like Jack Sparrow’s rules of piracy, are more like guidelines.”
Susan Mackay Smith is the past president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and a frequent judge of the Colorado Book Awards, has been writing a monthly Conan the Grammarian column for over ten years. Traditionally published in fantasy under the nom de plume, Mackay Wood, she is a second-generation Colorado native with a degree in history and (more important to her) a BHSAI from the Porlock Vale Riding School in Somerset, England. She lives in Boulder with the most wonderful man in the world.
A full review follows.
First, a Q & A with Conan / Susan:
Question: Okay, we’ll start you out with a softball. Do you ever have to look anything up related to the rules of grammar or usage?
Susan Mackay Smith: Certainly – everyone does. For the column in particular, I often double-check that my instincts are correct. I also check terminology, because my brain is full, and I no longer remember the terms for every little nuance of the so-called rules.
Question: Your book makes learning and understanding grammar look easy. Why do the rules of grammar have to be so hard?
Susan Mackay Smith: They aren’t hard. The terminology is arcane, but English grammar is so stripped down, compared with other languages, that to call English grammar “hard” throws up a barrier to learning. English spelling is hard, but English grammar is simple. Learn a few basics (first person personal pronouns, verb tenses, subject-verb agreements, how modifiers dangle) and the rest is easy.
Question: Do you have a grammar pet peeve? If you were benevolent dictator over all of the grammar universe, would you wave your magic wand over one specific issue and make it go away?
Susan Mackay Smith: A hard choice! Instead, let’s ask what I would make universal, and the answer becomes easier. Proper punctuation, and the aforementioned correct uses of first person personal pronouns (I, me, myself). Maybe this boils down to teaching the mechanics from an early age again … then no one would have to worry.
But two peevish misuses set my teeth on edge: it’s used for a possessive, and I’s, used at all.
Question: What is the number one biggest, most frequent grammar issue that you find that writers stumble over and/or wrestle with and/or seem to ignore the most?
Susan Mackay Smith: In the narrow realm of grammar, writers these days seem oblivious to what modifies what, how, and why. Dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers abound, leading to confused readers or to readers who end up sneering at the writer’s ridiculousness.
An example: At age six, Johnny’s mother gave birth to twins. Think about it. One sees similar errors everywhere. It’s as if writers and copy editors think, oh, the reader will figure it out. But the reader shouldn’t have to! Stopping reading for even a fraction of a second to figure it out interferes with the critical suspension of disbelief that creates enjoyable reading. Don’t we want readers to enjoy our work?
On the other hand, the biggest problem I see in fiction writing isn’t a grammar issue but one of craft: recognizing what’s not on the page. That is, what you intended to show or have the reader understand versus what you actually show, so the reader fails to grasp what you meant. Even multi-published, successful writers face this problem. Good critique groups can be vital in pointing out where something—motivation, rationale, emotion – didn’t translate from imagination to page.
Question: Conan the Grammarian is a funny book. It’s hilarious in many ways, including in its bluntness and certainty. But you also make it clear that the rules can be broken. Can you point to some good examples of rule breakers? And how to break the rules in the correct way?
Susan Mackay Smith: All good writers break the rules: e.e. cummings’s no capitals; James Joyce’s loaded run-on sentences; Shakespeare’s neologisms; Elmore Leonard’s skipping dialogue tags; Kent Haruf’s neglecting quotation marks; Dorothy Dunnett’s using foreign languages and atypical viewpoints; Carol Berg’s dropping -ly in most adverbs…
Breaking the rules correctly is quite a droll concept, but my maxim – Conan’s maxim – is that writers have to know a rule to break it effectively. Sometimes a fragmented sentence is merely strange and hard to read, but in a good writer’s hands, a fragment gives evocative emphasis to the prose.
Question: How did you come to care so much about the right and wrong way to put sentences together?
Susan Mackay Smith: Isn’t that a writer’s job? Writers should care – words and sentences are how stories get told. Words and sentences are how we humans communicate.
Question: As a longtime judge for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold contest (and other contests, I’m sure), can you tell within a page or so whether a writer has a firm grasp on grammar? And has a good writing “voice”? How?
Susan Mackay Smith: Less than a page, for the basics. That first mistake alerts me, and if more crop up, I look for those instead of focusing on the story. “That’s not fair,” some contestants may say; but life isn’t, editors and readers aren’t, and that’s reality. Contests are a teaching tool – teaching entrants how their work is perceived by readers who are strangers, readers who see only what is on the page. If what’s on the page is replete with errors, that’s no one I care to read, however great the story buried in the mistakes may turn out to be. Mistakes make for hard reading. Life’s too short.
As for voice, those who have a good one, whether their own storyteller’s voice or a good character voice, are immediately apparent, from a great first line that flows organically into the next line, then the next, consistent and real, with some spark that says, this character is a person, or this writer has a unique clarity and way with words.
Question: You’ve been writing the Conan the Grammarian column for RMFW’s newsletter for years. How did you go about the process of culling through those and shaping them in book form?
Susan Mackay Smith: I reread all the columns and sorted them into rough categories – punctuation, grammar, craft, and so on – then realized I had several that were pep talks or moral support rather than about mechanics or language. Those became the introductory and concluding sections, which provided a starting place and a goal for the rest. Then it became a process of combining or deleting duplicate columns from within the rough categories, and working for a good flow from topic to topic. It was fun (I’m a re-writer anyway).
Question: I learned a new word I did not know reading this book: swivet. Good one! There were many others as well, especially in the “Toward More Colorful Writing” chapter. How does a writer know when a choice word is the right one and not just, you know, showing off?
Susan Mackay Smith: Why not show off? But the trick is, make sure your word fits your character and/or your time period and genre, and be sure odd words or non-standard uses are clear in context. (Critique groups help here!) For example, if your scene shows your protagonist freaking out, and another character tells her, “Don’t get in such a swivet,” it will be clear in context. But if the opening line of the novel says, “Mary Sue was in a swivet that morning,” not so much.
Question: In the age of Twitter abbreviations and emoticons, where is grammar heading? What is the future of grammar? What will the nuns be concerned about if they don’t have grammar to fire up their sense of order and discipline?
Susan Mackay Smith: I’m not a psychic, nor do I play one on TV, but (easiest point first) I don’t think emoticons will ever substitute for evocative writing. Emoticons set tone in a Tweet or email, where the brevity might not allow the writer’s intent to be clear otherwise.
As for Twitter, etc., pray we never get to the stage where novels are written full of three and four letter acronyms! Tweets ignore punctuation because of character limitations, but I sincerely hope that doesn’t become standard in all writing, because punctuation serves Conan’s God of Clarity, making communication easier.
That said, limiting yourself to 140 characters can be a useful exercise in clear and concise writing, which helps any writer hone basic skills.
Question: What are you working on now? What’s next?
Susan Mackay Smith: I am finishing the revision of a YA fantasy, the first of a projected two-book set. What should be next is starting the submission process again. A couple of years ago, I had given myself a vacation from submitting, then life got in the way, as it is wont to do, so I’ve neglected the be persistent aspect of a writer’s job. Time to get back on the horse named Never Give Up.
Conan the Grammarian
Podcast interview with Susan Mackay Smith on The Rocky Mountain Writer.
Do the rules of grammar turn your knees to jelly? Do you cower at the mere mention of relative clauses, the past perfect tense, or participial modifiers?
But I’m getting better. And now I’ve got Susan Mackay Smith’s Conan the Grammarian: Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers on my side. I mean, right by my side.
Drawn from Smith’s decade of writing the ‘Conan’ column for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ monthly newsletter, this book is not only handy and useful, it’s inspiring.
Yes, grammar can be inspiring.
If you think that reading this would be the equivalent of getting your knuckles rapped by an irascible nun, think again.
Conan the Grammarian is funny, breezy, and wicked smart. (Wickedly smart?) Smith places the idea of understanding and appreciating grammar in a more powerful context. And that, quite simply, is the desire to help writers tell their stories with more sharpness, precision, and impact. Thinking about grammar is thinking about writing—and writing clearly.
Writes Smith in the introduction: “To begin at the beginning, this book examines the craft of fiction from the perspective of grammar and usage. This is not a book of Rules. Though it includes many grammatical terms, the purpose isn’t to teach terminology but to elucidate how the language works so Careful Writers can wield their tools to best advantage for their stories For what matters isn’t only the story; it’s how the story is told.”
The book is divided into six parts: On Language; In the Beginning Was the Word; Structure and Bone: Grammar; The Sinews: Punctuation; Heart and Soul: The Novelist’s Craft; and Battle Scars.
Smith writes in second person as “Conan,” an alter-ego with a stern sensibility. But Conan is nothing if not funny and entirely self-aware and “his” particular, enjoyable voice makes this volume eminently readable:
Herewith, three examples
“A euphemism is the substitution of a less negative or more general word or phrase for a blunt or embarrassing one. Conan, as readers are learning, prefers specifics for fiction, which is why euphemism comes under Bad Habits. Lots of swear words are euphemistic—drat and darn for damn; heck for hell; shoot for—you get the idea.”
The Passive Voice
“What is passive voice? Why is it uniformly castigated as Bad Writing? Why is it wrong, and why should you care?
“First, let’s discuss what passive voice is not. Someone has perpetrated a heinous canard that passive voice equates to using the verb to be, e.g., was and were. Whoever is responsible, please stop! While Conan has elsewhere explained that to be forms are state of being words and, when used instead of more muscular verbs, may impart limpness in writing, that doesn’t mean they are passive voice. Got it? Stop spreading this pernicious fallacy, or Conan will get grumpy, and that’s something nobody wants. It’s never a pretty sight.”
The Serial Comma
“Conan believes the serial comma is never wrong. You the writer aren’t the best judge of your text’s possible ambiguity, since you know what you intended to say. Make a habit of the serial comma and let the editor remove it, the lunkhead.”
Writers, Conan the Grammarian will give you a few dozen different ways to approach your revisions and self-editing, from clichés of characterization (watch those head nods) to dialogue tags to that dreaded first sentence. It’s also a handy reference guide (with a thorough index to boot).
Conan approaches grammar as a writer who cares about good writing and not as a authoritarian technocrat only interested in The Rules. In fact, Conan makes a good argument about knowing the rules first in order to break them. And, along the way, Conan shows a depth of knowledge about the history of language and the power of good writing with references to everyone form Shakespeare to Flannery O’Connor. A bibliography runs for a couple of pages; you will be very busy trying to keep up.
Finally, Conan is beautifully designed and I did not spot one typo or word out of place. You have to figure, on that basis alone, that Conan knows “his” stuff.Q &
Conan the Grammarian only costs $10. Okay, to be as precise as Conan, $9.95. A steal. Get it.
You’ll have a goldmine in your hands.