Finite nights and infinite verbs

It’s my last night in Fremantle. The end of my three week residency. This evening, I had dinner with friends and then keyed myself back inside, stepping through the thick prison wall, into the inner sanctum of the Children’s Literature Centre. One more sleep before I can cuddle up in my own bed once again.

Today I worked with a small group of big thinkers on aspects of writing with a particular emphasis on editing. Amongst other things, I gave the participants a list of ‘common errors’ as outlined by the American novelist John Gardner in his 1983 publication The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. One chapter in Gardner’s book is entitled ‘Common Errors’. It’s a chapter I’ve studied more times than I can count. Over the years I’ve picked it apart slowly and painfully, applying the ideas to my writing and learning how to analyse flaws in my prose.

Unfortunately today, halfway through explaining ‘excessive use of passive voice’ I drew a blank, unable to conjure enough appropriate examples to illustrate the point. After converting ‘I have been bitten by a rabbit’ (passive) to ‘The rabbit bit me’ (active), my weary brain stopped providing me with convenient phrases to demonstrate exactly why overuse of the passive voice is tedious. A big FAIL to me on both the grammar and teaching front. Sigh.

Here’s a condensed version of John Gardner’s list of common errors:

Inappropriate or excessive use of passive voice
Inappropriate use of introductory phrases using infinite verbs
Shifts in diction and distracting diction
Lack of sentence variety
Lack of sentence focus
Faulty rhythm
Accidental rhyme
Needless explanation
Careless shift in psychic distance

There’s a lot more of John Gardner’s very sound advice on good writing contained inside the pages of The Art of Fiction. I review his chapter on ‘Common Errors’ periodically to refresh my understanding of my own, and other writers’ work.

But sometimes, when I’m fumbling for the right grammatical terms to explain to myself why something isn’t working, I like to remember the first time I sought the advice of my brother on grammar. He is a whizz at Latin, Greek, Aramaic and Syriac and his understanding of the grammatical structures of European languages is fantastic. He laughed at my anxiety about whether my writing was grammatically correct.

‘Only dead languages have inviolable grammatical rules,’ he said. ‘English is a living language and when a language is alive, it grows and changes. Rules that applied two hundred years ago don’t necessarily apply now. If it sounds good, makes sense, and your meaning is clear to your reader then there’s no point in being obsessive about grammar.’

Tonight, my last night in Western Australia, probably isn’t the right time to be rattling on about grammar and the finer points of good writing. I’m almost incoherent with tiredness. It’s after midnight here in the west and after 2.00 am in Melbourne. That means that later today, I will be home. In approximately 18 hours, I will be able to write “I’m home!” and at last it will be in present tense. Yay!

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Every adult was once a child and the child inside them never disappears.”

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