Hello, and welcome to Fifty Shades of Shit, in which we attempt to learn how to write a better book than international bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey.
Right. Let’s see if we can get off the first page, shall we?
Kate is my roommate and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper.
Oh dear. Probably not going to happen in this post.
There’s a lot I wanted to talk about with regard to this book. It has a lot of problems. It’s flabby, expository, badly edited and full of bad characterisation and horrible, horrible dialogue.
However, the problems are even more fundamental than that. The author doesn’t even appear to be able to write a fucking sentence.
LESSON ONE – LEARN TO WRITE A FUCKING SENTENCE.
I’m not much of a grammarian. I may as well just admit right now that I’d be hard pushed to tell a gerund from my own left tit, alright? I really am that ignorant. My ignorance was compounded by fear when I went to University and learned that Structuralism was a thing. My reaction was so extreme that I concluded that I was probably allergic to Derrida and had to stay in bed whenever there was a class. Just to be on the safe side, you understand.
Look, grammar is scary – I know that. It’s also essential if you want to write clear, graceful prose, the kind of prose that says ‘The person who wrote this has opposable thumbs and a head’. Forget anything fancier right now. You are not James Joyce. You’re nowhere near Nabokov. Let’s just shoot for legible.
You might ask at this point “Why should I take grammar advice from a woman who just openly admitted to confusing a non-finite verb form with one of her own jiggly bits?”
Well, this is a perfectly valid question. Take a look at the following paragraph from Wikipedia.
Adjectival participles are participles that are derived from verbs and are used like adjectives. They contrast with verbal participles, which are considered to be forms of verbs rather than adjectives. In English for instance, adjectival participles may appear with modifiers typical of adjectives but not of verbs.
Did that make sense to you? If it did, I cannot even begin to count the ways in which I envy you. When I look at that paragraph my eyes slide away before I’ve even reached the end of the first sentence. My brain has apparently turned to brie and I have a strange urge to sit on the floor, put my fingers to my lips and make ‘brr brr brr’ noises.
If, on the other hand, you felt similarly cheesebrained and panicky, then this is for you. It’s alright. You’re not incompetent. You’re not an idiot. You’re perfectly normal. Whatsmore, you can improve your grammar without looking at a single terrifying paragraph.*
It’s really very simple. You read. You write. You read your writing out loud or get people to read it to you. Get used to words. Get used to constructions. Think back to when you were a very small child, learning to speak your native language. When you said ‘Me want bottle’, did your mother sit you down and say ‘Right, rookie mistake – you’re missing an indefinite article and you’re using the wrong pronoun.’? Of course she didn’t. She probably corrected you by saying “’I want a bottle’ – and a ‘please’ would help.”
This is how we all learn, by immersing ourselves in language. You can become your own inbuilt grammar checker.
Take the second sentence from the paragraph at the top of this post and read it aloud.
Therefore she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper.
It sounds wrong, doesn’t it? It’s clunky. It’s graceless. It’s got ‘for the student newspaper’ hanging out the back of it like a burst haemorrhoid. This is a sentence with piles.
Let’s apply Preparation H and see what this sentence is trying to tell us.
Therefore she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of.
1. Kate has arranged an interview with a tycoon.
2. Ana has never heard of this tycoon.
3. Kate is too ill to go to the interview and has asked Ana to go instead.
That’s quite a bit of information to get into one sentence. The question you then need to ask yourself is ‘Is this information relevant?’
Go through points 1 to 3. Which one would you ditch as redundant? Which point is lying around scratching itself instead of conveying any kind of useful information?
If you ditch point 1 you’re left with two girls and no clue. Kate’s sneezing her face off and you join Ana in not knowing who the pink dancing hell Kate’s too sick to interview.
Ditch point 2 and you lose the impression that Ana would be hard pushed to count her own legs.
Ditch point 3 and you ditch the whole point of the sentence anyway.
Obviously Point 2 has to go the the way of the hanging haemorrhoid student newspaper. Bye bye, Point 2. Don’t be sad. I’m sure we will find many other ways to demonstrate that Ana has difficulty with anything above and beyond basic motor functions. (We will. And how.)
So now we are left with this.
Kate is my roommate and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do with some mega-industrialist tycoon.
While it’s not exactly beautiful, it’s still a damn sight less ugly than it was when we started. You would be surprised at what a difference you can make simply by trimming the fat from your sentences.
But what about the stuff we cut? Well, if it’s really important, stick it in another sentence.
Kate is my roommate and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do with some mega-industrialist tycoon. The interview is for the student newspaper. I know nothing about her interview subject.
There you go. Technically tidy but reads like shit.
Let’s try again.
Kate is my roommate and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do with some mega-industrialist tycoon. She’s been chasing up the interview for the student newspaper and wants me to go instead, but I don’t even know who this guy is or what he does.
There. Bit better, isn’t it? Still looks like shit but you can’t exactly sculpt Michaelangelo’s Pieta out of poo, can you? The trouble is that my little duct-tape repair job above has highlighted another fundamental problem with Fifty Shades of Grey.
In the immortal words of Rolf Harris – can you guess what it is yet? (I’ll give you a clue. Its name begins with A.)
* This is not to say you should abandon all attempts to learn the technical nitty gritty of grammar. Learning foreign languages is useful. It also makes your holidays more enjoyable as you don’t spend half of them ASKING PEOPLE THE WAY TO THE BEACH IN A SLOW, LOUD VOICE.
If you’re not in the mood to bust out the Berlitz then head over to Reasoning With Vampires, one young woman’s extraordinary attempt to parse the entire Twilight series. It’s very funny and surprisingly informative. By the time she’s finished with Eclipse even I might have figured out that a gerund is the thing without a nipple.