- by Vonna Harper
Last week I agreed to look at a manuscript written by a non-published writer. I have to admit I went into the project with mixed feelings. Hearing her talk about her work had impressed me. She’d done an incredible amount of research for her medical thriller and is a smart, educated woman. Still, I remember offering to do the same for a lawyer friend with the dream of chucking law and becoming a writer. His book was a mess, unredeemable. And the sad thing was, he didn’t see the fatal flaws.
So I sat down with this woman’s manuscript. The first chapter confused me because she jumped between POV. She also threw in a little reaction before action. Wincing, I started the next chapter. Before long, tension seeped out of me, and I kept adding, “great characterization” to my comments. I also threw in a number of, “this plot flat out moves”. The medical elements were, I believe, spot on. At least they seemed authentic to me. She has something there. This has potential. Also, her reason for approaching me was exciting. An agent had read a partial and now wanted to see the whole thing.
But there were problems, problems I worked to spell out in my comments and corrections. The POV issue cropped up a few more times, nothing serious. Neither did I get too uptight over her love of adverbs and passive verbs. Those tricks and tips, like not repeatedly throwing ‘that’ on the page are things I learned along the writing way and was happy to pass on.
However, again and again I corrected spelling and punctuation. I deleted misplaced commas and placed them where they belonged. I changed ‘principle’ to ‘principal’ and ‘whole’ to ‘hole’. I pointed out sentence fragments and hopefully demonstrated the proper use of the possessive.
Those gaps in her education confuse me. She has a college degree with a major in journalism and works in the medical field. How did she get to where she is with such a tenuous hold on the written word? When I pointed those things out to her, she wasn’t concerned. “My sister corrects my punctuation and stuff,” she explained.
Punctuation and stuff are vital to me, and to my fellow published writers. Words are the tools of our trade. Language mastery is the core of everything we do. We wouldn’t be where we are if we’d dismissed the bones, the underpinnings.
I grew up aware and appreciative of those underpinnings. Starting in early elementary school when my mother taught me in a one room building, I was given that essential grounding. I read, I wrote, I diagramed sentences. I took pride in a well-functioning paragraph. Under my mother’s guidance, I came to see words as a kind of music. Handled well, they have power. Words can manipulate a reader’s reactions but only by someone who knows what he or she is doing. In some respects I see working with words as an art form. They excite and challenge me.
That wouldn’t have happened if my mother, my teacher hadn’t believed that learning to read and write came before anything else within that small classroom. Without the ability to read, she conveyed, a person is a cripple.
Mother, thank you for that essential base.