As part of our ongoing “Writer-to-Writer Reviews” series, we’re thrilled to present this book review. The opinions in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Writer’s Relief. Feel free to read this week’s featured book, and share your own thoughts about it in our comments section!
This Week: Jessamine Price’s review of The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook by Brian Shawver, (University Press of New England, 2013)
It’s taboo for creative writers to talk about grammar, but that’s what novelist Brian Shawver does in The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook. In his introduction, Brian Shawver argues that creative writers need “linguistic mastery.” “Language is the water that all writers swim in,” he writes, “and you need to know your element.” In this book he gives a comprehensive guide to the technical side of storytelling.
But The Language of Fiction isn’t a standard grammar book. It reads more like a collection of essays. You won’t find rules here. Shawver looks at grammar through the lens of a creative writer. He shows how things like verb tenses and punctuation affect a story’s tone. He explains how great writers decide which rules to follow and which to break. And he discusses how our grammar choices influence readers.
Shawver focuses on practical questions that come up in fiction and literary nonfiction. For instance, there’s a chapter about options for punctuating and formatting dialogue. Another chapter discusses parentheses and dashes, with pros and cons for both.
My favorite chapters challenge the standard wisdom that we should cut every cliché and adverb. Writing teachers sometimes explain clichés as “common or unoriginal phrases.” As a result, we may grow afraid to use all standard idioms, in case they’re cliché. But Shawver shows that unoriginal, cliché-like idioms appear in the writing of well-known literary authors like J.M. Coetzee and Ann Patchett. The distinction between a cliché and an idiom isn’t obvious, and sometimes a common phrase is the best way to get your meaning across. What matters most, Shawver argues, is avoiding the unoriginal phrases that call attention to themselves with vivid language—for example, “proud as a peacock,” or “pretty as a peach.”
He similarly debunks the idea that adverbs are the Devil’s part of speech. They can convey important subtleties when no verb exists to express your meaning. And depending on the sentence you’re writing, adverbs sometimes improve the rhythm of the words. The key to good writing, according to Shawver, is to make thoughtful decisions. By focusing on creative choices rather than rules, The Language of Fiction gives us secret weapons for writing stronger.
About The Contributor
Jessamine Price is a writer and teacher with master’s degrees in history and creative writing. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, New America Media, AWOL, and an upcoming creative nonfiction anthology. Her second love after writing is coaching other writers. Find out more on her website.
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