Part 4: Style
We might as well call this, “Other Stuff I Think About That Didn’t Fit Anywhere Else.” It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, but here goes…
No matter where you are in the publishing food chain–Big New York House, small independent, or self-pub, everyone seems to agree that editing isn’t what it was several decades ago. If you’re really fortunate, you’ll have an involved, talented editor who suggests improvements in your story, and an expert proofreader. Of course, if you have those things, you’re probably not reading these essays anyway. It’s much more likely that you’re expected to provide these services on your own, or close to it. Some people do an incredible job, but quite a few do not, and unfortunately, the ability to think up a fantastic story does not necessarily include the skills required to tell it well or present it professionally. Here are a few common mechanics issues I’ve seen:
The further you get from high school grammar, the harder it is to remember those pesky rules. I struggle to punctuate sentences going by how I think they should sound if read aloud, and end up with bewildering messes that would give my old English teachers fits. The informality of email, social media, and texting also leaves us out of practice. It’s probably a good idea, therefore, to give yourself a refresher course. You should also see if your publisher has a style sheet for guidance. If not, The Chicago Manual of Style is an invaluable help–and you can even find the basics in handy chart form.
Because we don’t speak the way we should write, this is a common problem. Subject- verb agreement, using the wrong verb tense (or mixing tenses up), writing plurals or possessives incorrectly…all of these creep into our writing if we are not vigilant. Strunk and White’s venerable The Elements of Style is a succinct guide to avoiding these mistakes. Written by Cornell English professor William Strunk, and later revised by his one-time pupil, E. B. White (yes, of Charlotte’s Web fame), this book is both easy and entertaining to read, so don’t worry about dozing off the way you did during school grammar lessons.
The ability to spell is, I am convinced, a talent all its own. You have it, or you don’t and, just like musical aptitude, not having it is no reflection on your intelligence. That being said, you gotta get it right. Fortunately, word processing programs can check for spelling errors, and tell you how you should have done it in the first place. They have their limitations, however: they’ll sail blithely over incorrect words spelled correctly, such as “to” substituted for “too.”
It all comes down, therefore, to proofreading. Make a few passes on your own, being careful to give yourself a few hours’ break in between, as it’s amazing how much you’ll miss simply because you know what you meant to write. Then, hand out your manuscript to some willing friends or family members. They’ll be able to find even more errors, as well as sections in which you’re not as clear as you might be.* As stand-ins for your eventual thousands of readers, their services will prove invaluable: reward them accordingly. Can’t find anyone willing or able? Then I really would suggest biting the bullet and hiring a professional freelance editor. Changes in the publishing industry, as well as the difficulty of making a living from writing alone, mean that there are many skilled people out there. Check the Editorial Freelancers Association website for a searchable directory.**
Finally. I know, I know, it’s tedious. It’s mind-numbingly tedious. To some, this focus on details may even seem “unartistic.” It’s crucial, however, both to telling your story effectively, and establishing your reputation as a competent, professional writer. Look at your manuscript as a bit like a Seurat painting (the ones using pointillism). Those dots of paint weren’t dabbed on randomly. Instead, each is painstakingly placed, with a view towards the greater effect. When it comes to your book, every keystroke counts.
If you’re publishing on your own, either electronically or in print, or if you’re using a small publisher who leaves formatting up to you, make every effort to produce a book that looks just like it came from one of the Big Houses. I have absolutely no experience in electronic formatting, but from what I’ve heard, it can be challenging. Again, if you find yourself having difficulties, don’t hesitate either to hire someone, or to upgrade your self-publishing package. In the case of small publishers, remember: readability isn’t enough. Pay attention to margins, paragraph divisions, typeface, etc. Read up on desktop publishing and layout. Making the effort now could mean a difference in sales later.
A Case of Identity
So, what are you writing, really?
There are plenty of articles and online discussion about the proper use of the word “pastiche.” Technically, a pastiche is a work written in the style of another author, as an homage to him or her. A parody would be the same–except it’s written to poke fun at the original artist, either to make a point, or just for laughs. So, to write a true Sherlock Holmes pastiche, you’re going to need to write as Watson.
“But what if I don’t sound like Watson?” you ask. Take heart. Perhaps you just need a little practice. If you really want to mimic the Watson voice, reading the canon over and over again may be enough to get you going–particularly if you read it just before you begin a writing session. Still, not all of us are good imitators, and people who love the Watson voice are remarkably sensitive to its quality or lack thereof. If this is true in your case then, rather than try and fail (and get called out on it in reviews), it’s probably best to tell your story from another point of view altogether. Perhaps you can use a variant of the third person, or write as another character, either from the canon or original. Remember, if you write as Watson, you have to take on his qualities and look at things through his eyes; it’s more than simply sounding like a Victorian writer. Sometimes, it’s actually useful to look at Holmes–or a case–from another perspective entirely.
Of course, once you do this you’re no longer writing a pastiche, really, although lots of us tend to just throw that word around, trading accuracy for convenience. No, what you’d be writing then might better be called Sherlockian or Holmesian fiction. But is it fan fiction?
Well, yes and no. Every fiction work featuring Sherlock Holmes as a character which was not written by Sir Arthur himself is, technically, fan fiction–fiction written by fans. Still, having read tons of non-commercial Holmes stories on sites like Fanfiction.net or Archive of Our Own (AO3), I have to say that there is, in many (but not all) of them, a difference in tone and subject that may make it difficult for someone who is used to writing for a fic audience to take the same work and simply print it, as is, for the larger market, even when that person is very skilled. I’ve thought a great deal about what this difference is, and come up with one possible answer.
It may have something to do with the “genres.” Stories on fan fiction sites typically belong to genres, which are listed at the beginning, to let the reader know what type of story they’re looking at. Some genres–eg., “Mystery,” “Romance,” “Drama,”–are self-explanatory. Others are peculiar to the fan fiction world. If a story is designated as “Angst,” for example, you can expect a lot of emotional discussions, emotional brooding, emotional release, and just…every kind of unhappiness imaginable. Another popular one, “Hurt/Comfort,” features a main character being injured, ill, or upset, then being comforted by another character. If such a story contains “whumpage,” you can expect that the character on the hurt side is going to be taking a beating, over and over again. In fact, even in a very traditional “casefic” (a story focused on one case), the serial nature of fan fiction may mean that the author throws in all sorts of subplots, setbacks, and whumpage to a degree that one wouldn’t expect in a commercial novel.
And that’s the difference, I think–expectations. People go to fan fiction for good stories about characters they love, but they also read fics because they want to explore certain scenarios. Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, for example, tends to contain a lot of hurt/comfort stories in which Watson is hurt, and Holmes takes care of him–a way for the writer to explore the feelings and actions we’re given a glimpse of in “The Three Garridebs.”*** For a similar reason, there are many tales which feature, as a main part of the plot, Holmes brooding over his relationship with Watson (generally feeling guilty because he’s treated him poorly), or Watson being angry because…well, he believes that Holmes has treated him poorly. Depending on the skill of the writer, these stories can be either rich, complex tours de force, or just a nice distraction. The thing is, however, I don’t think the larger Sherlockian audience (the kind to whom one is trying to sell books) is looking for this–at least, not to such an amplified degree. In order for a fan fiction to transition well to the regular market, it’s probably necessary to adjust the Holmes, Watson, or other canon characters in one’s headcanon to more traditional versions. For example, it’s all right to explore Holmes’ and Watson’s relationship–in fact, it tends to add depth to the story–but it’s better to do it more subtly than happens in most fics, without many protracted brooding scenes or tears. “Whumpage,” too, should be more realistic. There are quite a few stories in which the amount of physical and mental punishment dealt out would have killed the target character by the third chapter. In the fic world, everyone plays along. Your typical pastiche reader, however, will probably be more skeptical. In a similar vein, I’m also not so sure that vignettes and writing exercises, like “drabbles” and “221Bs” translate well, as is, to a commercial book. People don’t always seem to understand what they’re for. It’s best to incorporate these into the story, with the caveat that they should be relevant to the larger plot.
When it comes to publishing your fan fiction for profit, then, a rewrite will, most likely, be in order. Look for out-of-character moments, repetition, loose plot threads, anachronisms, plausibility questions, etc. Do the historical research your story calls for, if you haven’t already. And let me finally add that I love fan fiction. Ok, I adore it with every fiber of my being, and there are authors posting right now whose level of writing talent I covet. Still, if you’re considering publishing your work off-line, it’s probably advisable to ask for a critique from a reader (or three) who is not familiar with fan fiction. Use their comments to help re-create your work into a book with appeal that spans age, gender, and experience.
I would, incidentally, very much like to know your opinions on this. Do you see any difference between online fan fiction, and what is generally published? I have to ask that, if you do comment, don’t name fic writers, and definitely do not do so if you’re planning to comment on their work in a negative way. Those posts will not be approved. Unless you want to use your personal experiences, the discussion should probably remain general. Still, in a world where, every once in awhile, a writer can emerge from the land of fanfic and do quite well for herself, wouldn’t it be nice to see a Sherlockian author do the same!†
So. Here endeth the series. Thanks for your indulgence. It’s been on my mind for several months, and I hope you’ve found it interesting, perhaps even useful. Even if you think it’s all rubbish, keep writing–that’s the important thing. And, as always, let me know what you have to say in the comments.
Husband: “This sentence is too long. Isn’t there such a thing as a period?”
Me: Grit teeth. Fix it.
**In general, if a person cares enough to join a professional organization, it’s a good sign.
***Or for Holmes to mess it all up in a humorous way. It’s not all dark and depressing in fanfic land.
†Preferably without “shades” of anything.