Monday, October 21, 2013


(NOTE: Oh, a little monkey playing on his one key/Gives them all the cue/To do the Monkey Doodle Doo/Let me take you by the hand/Over to the jungle band/If you’re too old for dancing/Get yourself a monkey gland/And then let’s/Go, my little dearie, there’s the Darwin theory/Telling me and you/To do the Monkey Doodle Doo)

Crime. Looks ominous, right? With its connotations of dark skullduggeries, nefarious plots, underhanded schemes, foul play, and shrouded identities, crime appeals to the inner child still smarting from the spanking it took for bad behavior in the late eighties. To be a criminal is to be free from the adult world where laws circumscribe the days. A criminal can do whatever she or he wants, and when.
Laws are for citizens; crime is for the daring, the swashbuckler, the pirate, the elusive and always romantic highwayman demanding, “Stand and deliver.” Ask any career criminal, especially those smart enough not to get caught, what is the sweetest crime and they will say it’s the one committed with knowledge of the law being broken. That’s where the true charge lies, more so than the money or property acquired.
The writer, like a citizen obeying traffic lights, depends on the laws of grammar to travel from one reader to the next. Grammar gives shape to language and encourages understanding. A declarative sentence must have a subject, verb, and predicate. Never join independent clauses with a comma. Statements must always be in the positive form. The list grows as a writer learns more about their craft and can be overwhelming when trying to express an idea or action that calls for breaking the laws. Should they be good and follow Strunk and White? Go ahead, you writer, be a criminal.
After years of publishing with Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Raymond Chandler jumped to Houghton Mifflin in search of greater sales. He had been well edited at Knopf, but the people at Houghton did not understand Chandler’s approach to storytelling. His characters had to sound real and reflect the American English he heard on the streets, in the bars, and riding with on duty police officers in Los Angeles. After submitting the manuscript for The Long Good-bye to his new publisher, it was returned to him scarred by an editor’s blue pencil. Some of the corrections he accepted, and for others he had this to say: “When I split an infinitive, I mean it to be split, damn it.”
Grammar had been pounded into him during his years as a public schoolboy in England, but he was adamant that the story came first. Anything less would harm the reader’s trust in what he was doing and why.
An attendee at a writer’s conference complained on her assessment, “The instructor you stuck me with kept talking about grammar. That crap is a waste of time.” Only a tyro would say something that dumb. A professional writer thinks about grammar every time they sit down to a blank screen or empty page. When the temptation arises to leave the laws behind, it is done with full knowledge of the transgression, making the result as sweet as the most daring crime. Good writing is subversive, criminal, and much more fun to write and read.

Cool autumn comes in and a writer’s fancy turns to The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). Your local independent bookstore has copies available for reading after an afternoon of raking leaves and putting up preserves. You deserve the relaxation provided by this thin volume of thick thoughts. Summer was too hot for doing much anyway, except drinking adult beverages. Perky salespeople at your local independent bookstore will accept either cash or credit, and offer a receipt in return for next year’s taxes. The Dog promises and delivers what you need to know now. Log on to for the store nearest you.

NEXT: You Call That a Collar?

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