Thursday, 18 February 2016

Stop! Grammar Time! (Or "I Felt Alright While Editing")

I'm finishing off a horror story collection at the same time as revamping my three existing novels. Yep, that's pretty nuts. On the plus side, you can do a single task across all your works, which really hammers home any stylistic lessons. Today I have worked on the words "felt", "all right" and "alright". (I feel like Sesame Street). I'll get to them in a minute, but just wanted to say that these messages on Twitter from the esteemed Julie Cohen made me very happy today!


Right, time to get my hands dirty with words.

Felt
“Do not bloody tell! If you ever need to use the word ‘felt’ you are frankly fucked. Make it happen, do not tell us how it happened or I swear, bad things with felt wings will swoop down and smother you in adverbs.”  
JJ Marsh

We're talking about this kind of thing:

"Johnny McToughburger looked at the nasty letter. He felt very angry. Then he thought about Susie Smoothcheeks and what she meant to him. Then he suddenly felt sad. Then he cried, big fat man tears."

I doubt I'll win any prizes with that prose. It doesn't give the reader anything to do. It tells them what Johnny feels in bland prose. In fiction you avoid telling because the ambiguity is the gap that the characters live in. (Caveat: there are no absolutes in writing. Occasionally there could be a reason to write like that, for a particular effect, or from a particular viewpoint. Or maybe for comedy. But never do it just because you can't think of another way to write it, or - worse - because you can't see what effect it will have on the reader.)

Instead we imply rather than state, and dropping the word "felt" is often a start.

"Johnny McToughburger read the letter again (slowly, because of all the long words). She said WHAT? He crumpled it up, but that wasn't enough, so he ripped it into shreds then rolled it into a ball again and threw it at the portrait of Susie which hung above the fireplace like a gloating cat. There was no way ... no damn way ... the kid was his! He knew it! He slammed his fist into the wall. She was such a... The painting was watching, as it always did. Ten years. Ten years of looking at that face. She always found the weak spot. He wiped his eyes with a palm, grabbed the car keys, and left. She was only five minutes away."
 
Much better. Detail, and never stating outright the emotion, but easy enough for the reader to work it out. Hell, I want to read the rest of that book now!
 
So I searched for every occurrence of the word "felt" in my books. Around 350 uses. And I checked each one. Deleted many of them, rephrasing where necessary, especially when the context implied the emotion anyway. Sometimes it was extraneous anyway, in phrases such as "He felt that he was getting drunk" - much more elegant to simply say "He was getting drunk". Only use extra words if they add something.

(An aside: there is a danger when removing a word and rephrasing a sentence, especially to show emotion - it is easy to then fall into different sins like cliche or melodrama. Fixing a problem doesn't always mean the alternative is any better.)

However, sometimes I left the word "felt" in there. It can be legit, e.g. when talking about a physical sensation of something being touched. Other examples that seemed okay:

The hat felt like part of him.
Once she came to that conclusion she felt safer.
His watch said 19:01. He was sure she would be here soon. But it felt like forever.

No emotional drama being short-changed there. And by removing the bad uses of "felt", the others work better and don't stand out.

All right / Alright
Nearly all grammar guides say we should use “all right”, not “alright”; that the latter is a mis-spelling which has yet to be adopted as acceptable, even though it is increasingly common and is not going away (quick Google search just now: 187 million results for "all right", 123 million results for "alright"; interesting statistics, but not conclusive). That's the thing with language, it changes all the time. Two words exist separately; they start to develop a relationship, illustrated by the commitment of a hyphen; then they lose the hyphen and merge into one protoplasmic amoeba of a new word (electronic mail; e-mail; email). You can't stop the process, even with a flamethrower.

So I did a search across my books for alright. And noticed that I hadn't used the two terms synonymously, so it wasn't as simple as replacing one with the other. As others have pointed out, there is a distinction which I use: all right literally means “all correct”, whereas alright can mean “okay” in colloquial speech. Let me demonstrate.

“The profits have been checked and they are all right” (factual judgement that there are no errors in the results) means something different from “The profits have been checked and they are alright” (value judgement that the profit is acceptable to the speaker).

Language is never simple, eh? So if it is formal, I'll probably use all right; if colloquial (e.g. reported speech), I can use alright when appropriate.

Yes, I spent hours on this, consulting my style books, articles, and digging through examples. Writers do that kind of thing. And now I have obfuscated a previously simple rule. Oopsie.

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