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Offers of help

October 15, 2009
Posted at 11:55 am

Today a reader offered to help me with an aspect of my writing that he saw as not conforming with the rules of punctuation. My response to him got me to thinking about this, because a lot of people write to me and offer help.

That can be a sticky situation for an author like me, and I thought I'd explain that in a blog entry, so that people will understand where I am on this "you need help" issue, and why I might respond the way I do. Believe it or not, it's kind of complicated.

First of all, I'm aware that I'm not perfect. I like to think of it like God's not quite finished with me yet.

Second, I realize that flaws in writing can cause a reader to get distracted. I also know that such distractions do not contribute to the cause. I've dumped a LOT of stories I pulled up to try out, when it was just too much work to read them.

So why is it complicated when somebody offers to help me?

There are (in my opinion) three kinds of people out there when it comes to language. They are:

1. Structured: These people like the rules of spelling and punctuation. They want an ordered not-very-flexible lexicon, where the rules as they understand them, are followed at all times.

2. Pragmatic: These folks think of language in terms like this: "Did you understand what I just said? OK, good." They aren't worried about rules. They're more interested in communication on an emotional level. An example of that is the title of number three in the next paragraph. It is a word that the dictionary I use says doesn't exist, but I bet you understand what I mean by it.

3. Consumeristic: These people are looking for something specific in their reading. If they get it, they're happy. If not, they move on.

Now, all that said, it is important to understand how I think about language.

First of all, I'm aware that people disagree. Dictionaries disagree. Experts disagree.

For another thing, language is fluid. Words change. Use of punctuation changes over time. What is "accepted" changes too. This drives the structured people crazy, but it's undeniable that it has happened for centuries. If you don't believe me, just read some Shakespeare. We used to talk like that all the time.

Third, and most important, I'm a philosopher. What that means is I like to argue about things. "Argue" in that frame of reference does NOT mean I think you're wrong. Some people call it "discussion" or "negotiation" but to me it's just the best way I form concepts of what I want to believe. I like to think things through. "Because it's a rule!" doesn't cut a lot of mustard with me. I want to understand why the rule is there, and decide whether the rule is a good one or not. There are laws on the books all over the place that are stupid laws. There is a law, for example, still on the books in Kansas City, that says no automobiles are allowed on Main Street. That street is reserved strictly for horses.

The structured person would say "Why do you want to argue. The rule is clear." But remember, language is fluid, whether you want it to be or not.

I had an argument (discussion) with Plan B about this just the other day. He informed me that my use of single quotes in a sentence was incorrect, because none of the style manuals allow for it in the way I used it. What I had done was use single quotes in an attempt to make a word 'pop' out at the reader, like I just did nine words ago. He said double quotes were required by the style manual.

The problem is that double quotes "can" be used to suggest the opposite of what's inside them. See what I mean? In that last sentence, what did I mean? Did I mean they can be, but aren't always? Did I just mean to emphasize the word "can?"

From 'my' point of view, the important thing is that the reader doesn't have to stop and figure out what I meant in a sentence. That part of me takes the pragmatic viewpoint towards language. I do the same thing with a thing called an "ellipsis" which is three periods in a row, like this ...

The ellipsis can be used in several ways, based on punctuation rules. One of them is to indicate the passage of time ... or ... in other words ... a pause. A comma can be used in the same way. Some people might take issue with me using an ellipsis, instead of a comma, but both are technically within the bounds of "correctness," which is probably another word that doesn't actually exist, but which you understood perfectly. Right?

Now Plan B is just plain fucking brilliant when it comes to style and rules. But HE also knows that language is like taffy, and stretches. He can give you examples of when a rule got broken often enough that the new use of whatever it was BECAME a new rule.

So he basically said "This is how it should be, but if you want to be a rebel and change things, and enough other authors do the same thing, then the rule will probably change." That's a paraphrase, by the way, and not a direct quote, despite the fact that I used those quote marks.<G>

OK, so why am I boring you to tears with all this?

Because if YOU write to me and offer to teach me something to improve my writing, I may argue with you about it. Remember - I'm a philosopher - argument does NOT mean I think you're wrong. Unfortunately, some people don't get that. I'll show you an example. What follows is a response I got when I tried to argue (discuss) a point with someone who wrote to tell me what I was doing wrong about something:

Lubrican, (It is foolish that someone of your apparently advanced age has to hide behind a silly nickname.)

You had an opportunity to learn something and sloughed it aside, foisting the responsibility for your poor judgment on your editors' inability to agree on a very simple matter of capitalization. Your editors do not make those choices--you do. My analysis of spelling conventions regarding parent names is valid. Your choice to select the inappropriate spelling favored by your younger editor is inexcusable, in my view. It is your choice, however. The foolish choices many so-called writers make in submissions to ASSTR are endless. Add to those the purely sloppy or ignorant mistakes they make, and much of what is posted is unreadable. Join the club.

Your thinly disguised reference to me as a pedantic, nitpicking nerd who delights in finding every error in others' writing is misplaced. The list of errors in your Wilson story is extensive. I ignored all of them except for the reference to the girl's mother as "mom" in direct discourse. That is wrong; but I thought that a story that was as good as yours (although a very, very long way from perfect) deserved to have that glaring error corrected.

Instead of learning something from the argument that I tried to present clearly, for your benefit, you decided to avoid the issue and turned to a description of your struggles with the inept editors you employ regarding spaces following the end of sentences. This issue has nothing whatever to do with capitalization of parent's nicknames or any other matter of grammar, punctuation, spelling or syntax. It is a typing convention that has gone out of favor, probably because students no longer take typing in high school. Students are as good at typing as they are going to be by the time they are in third grade; any rules or style issues having been ignored much earlier.

So, what could you have done in place of initially telling me that the choice was too tough for you; or in your second writing, telling me that my advice was unwelcome and possibly feeding my pathetic need to feel superior by pointing out insignificant errors in the writing you do for fun? You could have simply deleted my first comment, which I presented in quite a gentle manner, and forgotten about it. That would have saved you the bother of your first and second messages. Or after your first reply to my comment, you could have chosen to refrain from additional comment and ignored further discussion in your second message. You chose, instead, to make me very sorry that I bothered giving you some useful advice; advice that you seem to have suggested that you will ignore.

This is quite a good example of no good deed going unpunished. Thank you so much, fuckwit!

Ron (A silly nickname. My real name is Jammawhamma.)

I believe it might be safe to categorize this guy as "the structured type" I mentioned above.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to say here that both Peaches and Plan B agreed with the man. Peaches was actually annoyed with me because I didn't understand her take on the issue and misquoted her. In my defense (I know I'm whining here, OK?) His first email to me was very short and to the point. He didn't say anything about how he liked my work, but found the misuse of capital letters distracting. He just told me how to use the capital letters correctly. I wrote back with my "language is fluid and people disagree" argument, but he was having none of that, as you can see from his response.

The point is that we had what has been immortalized by Stother Martin in "Cool Hand Luke" as "a failure to communicate."

And, as an author, I don't want to fail to communicate.

So, please understand that, if you write to me and correct me on something, that's fine. I LIKE that. It teaches me things, whether that shows or not. And, after I'm finished arguing about it, philosophically speaking, I might even accept your help and advice.

But I might not. Specifically, I might not go back through 179 stories and try to find and correct every example of whatever it is you informed me about.

And if I don't, just remember that language is fluid ... and experts sometimes disagree.

Thanks for reading.
Bob (AKA Fuckwit Lubrican)