Writers’ Tricks of the Trade – Morgan St. James (LTER)

Wow. This is a LibraryThing Early Reviewer book, and I’m really reconsidering whether I’ll finish this or not. The one-star rating this wears on LT and GoodReads right now is provisional; I honestly don’t know if I’ll go open it up again. I hate the format, bouncing from Distribution of the published book backward in the process to Editing, just because of the alphabetical order of the words. I’m (ironically) not happy with the writing or the editing – I started taking screencaps of the grammatical and punctuation errors and sentences that were outright stinkers, and had nearly a dozen before page 50:

To avoid cliches, reach into your own experiences and picture things that impressed you. Put the image into words and apply it to something about the character. For example, the woman had shining blonde hair. If it was straight, did it just hang there or shimmer like a golden shawl?

Why would I choose the simile of a golden shawl for this example? Because I pictured a former business partner and friend who had hair like that. I could never look at her without thinking of a golden silk shawl. Let’s say the hair isn’t straight, but curly. Is it in tight ringlets perhaps described as coiled like the fur on a pampered poodle? Maybe this blonde hair undulates in luxurious waves reminiscent of waves kissed by the glow of the sun as they push toward shore.

That is two paragraphs’ worth of some of the worst similes I have ever seen.  I … can’t even begin to discuss how much work I would do to avoid using anything remotely like anything said above.  Phew.

Be honest in evaluating whether you have a book or story that is worth the time it will take to go through the manuscript another time or even multiple times to make it saleable?

All punctuation, such as it is, is accurate to the eBook.  Tip of the iceberg: why is it in the form of a question?  An overall terrible sentence.

…We virtually knew nothing about it.

Another bad sentence; perhaps “knew virtually” would be better, but I question the use of “virtually” at all here.  Still, it’s technically correct, unlike “literally” here:

… the words literally flew from my fingers to paper.

Although she speaks against clichés, it doesn’t stop her from mangling one:

…Move on. As the saying goes, “You can’t beat a dead horse.”

That’s not how the saying goes.  Sure you can beat a dead horse.  The point is that it’s pointless to do so.

Well, one explanation, cited in The Word Detective explains that …

– – Missing comma. I may not be able to cite the rules of punctuation and style, but I know when a comma’s missing. I also know when a comma is where it oughtn’t to be (or two are):

Take many of Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels. In Unnatural Death and Strong Poison, from the start there is only one real suspect whose guilt is more or less taken for granted by the middle of the book. And, no big surprise that person does turn out to be the murderer. But, how is the killer trapped?

Without even getting into the plotlines of the two books mentioned – I’d be here all day, easily – “Sayer’s”? Wrong. The author’s name is Dorothy L. Sayers, not Sayer.  The possessive of that name could go one of two ways: Sayers’ or Sayers’s.  The only way that is utterly incorrect is the way it appears above.  As for “And,” and “But,” – isn’t it a rule that one oughtn’t to start a sentence with a conjunction? And isn’t the other rule that you only break the rules judiciously when you know them very well and make a conscious decision to do so? Based on those commas (etc.), I question the writer’s knowledge of the rules of grammar and punctuation.

And, finally, two more very bad sentences, for different reasons:

…covering a variety of topics as far afield as dementia to barter.

When I went to the supermarket and saw the magazine on the stand, a wonderful feeling invaded my soul.

Yes, that’s nitpicking. Which can be another word for “editing”. These are evidence of poor judgment, and these are mistakes, errata which should not have made it to the finished product of any book, much less one on … writing. Still, there were a couple of small useful nuggets that let me temporarily overlook all of that.

But what set me off was this line:

The guy who didn’t finish high‐school probably won’t use “fifty dollar words” unless he pursued lots of self‐education after he left school…

First of all, there’s another one: since when did “high school” need a hyphen?

It might have been a mistake to walk away and do something else for half an hour after reading that, because it gave me time to think about it – and to become really, really pissed off by it. Because, little-known fact: I didn’t finish high school, not in the traditional way, and when I got my equivalency I went to art school – not a great breeding ground for linguistic improvement. On paper, I’m undereducated. And I can assert, based on copious empirical evidence (what’s that, about $150?) that I’m a good deal better able to use “fifty dollar words”, and use them correctly, than a good many people I know who not only finished high school but graduated college.  My vocabulary when I left school at the age of fifteen contained probably too high a percentage of “fifty dollar words” for my own good.

I didn’t leave high school because I wuz to dum. I left high school for a variety of reasons, primary among them that I had no support and was largely unchallenged. Ten minutes’ web search could turn up a long list of people a lot more intelligent and better spoken than I am who never finished high school. To assume that someone who didn’t finish high school is therefore incapable of using a strong vocabulary is perilously like assuming someone with an Hispanic accent is in the United States illegally. I see the author’s point – make a character’s voice accurate to their experience and personality – but if this is indicative of her mindset, I not only don’t have much confidence she can teach me anything in this book, I don’t ever want to read any of her novels.

So, yeah. I don’t think this book has anything to tell me which Stephen King or Anne Lamott or Lawrence Block hasn’t already told me, far more effectively, far more eloquently, and far less offensively. I think I’ll go finish Telling Lies for Fun and Profit instead, and free up a little memory space on my laptop by deleting this.

Another screenshot:

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2 Responses to Writers’ Tricks of the Trade – Morgan St. James (LTER)

  1. Wow! I came to your blog through goodreads (after Amazon deleted the link to your blog) because I am so impressed by your knowledge and your CHUTZPAH in challenging this charlatan! I see SO MANY people who have NO SKILLS going around telling all writers what they must and must not do. I also saw that this Morgan person pursued you in comments on your review! Good grief! Sometimes I just put a thank-you and sorry-you-didn’t-like on a reply to a review, but novels such as I write are so subjective. The RULES of grammar/punctuation are NOT. She didn’t go back and explain why what she put down is right . . . I guess because she couldn’t. But that is the ONLY reason to challenge a reviewer. “You said you hated my character Mikey because he was a whiner, but his name is Micky and you gave no examples. Can you elaborate? It would help me next time.” Something like that. I feel bad that she was hurt, but if what you point out is correct, then someone should fix her book. I always fix things people point out to me, in fact–I’m grateful to them.

    Would you be willing to review one of my novels–mysteries just out from Oak Tree Press–if I sent you a PDF or a book? I respect your opinion because you know what you are talking about. If you turn out not to like the books . . . well . . . I’ll take the hit. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time!

    If you’d be willing to review, just let me know at shalanna AT tx DOT rr dot com anytime and I’ll send.

  2. stewartry says:

    I’m about to email – thank you!

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