I remembered being just sixteen, and kissing red-cheeked, fair-haired Callie Anders, who lived there, and whose family would soon move to the Shetlands, and I would never kiss her or see her again.
This sentence just doesn’t seem right to me. There are too many sub-clauses, the clauses don’t seem to relate to each other properly, and there are far too many uses of ‘and’ for my taste.
Read the sentence again for me. If you’re a writer, read it as a writer: be critical, and ask yourself if you’d be happy leaving it as it stands in your novel. If you’re a reader, read it as a reader: do your eyes glide through it, or do they stumble? If you’re an editor, read it as an editor, and then ignore all the subsequent errors in this post because, let’s face it, the easiest thing in the world is for an author to get lost in an extremely long and extremely complicated run-on sentence that, by the time you get to the end of it, seems to have lost all sense or earthly reason (but at least I didn’t use a semi-colon).
I think it’s the last part of the sentence: ‘and I would never kiss her or see her again.’ My brain is screaming that it should be something along the lines of: ‘so I would never kiss her or see her again.’ I don’t know. I’m writing this on a train. Maybe it should be something else.
The point is, there’s another problem with this sentence: it was written by a best-selling author, in a best-selling novel. And it wasn’t Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, or E. L. James. It was Neil Gaiman.
Now, I like Neil Gaiman. I like his writing. I like his imagination. I loved Coraline: I thought it was simple and beautiful. I loved The Graveyard Book for the same reasons. I think I’ll like the book this sentence is from (The Ocean at the End of the Lane).
But I just can’t get over this sentence. I’ve stopped reading the book just to write this post about it.
Here’s my issue: if this was a self-published book by an unknown author, there’s every possibility I might have stopped reading it by now. The prose, on severe reflection, is a little too stylised, a little too self-satisfied, a little too overconfident. Gaiman drops half-sentences all over the place, uses the word ‘randomly’ twice in the second paragraph (and not in a poetic way), and generally writes with half an eye on the rules without being overly worried about actually following them.
In an unknown author this could come across as cocky and overconfident. In Gaiman … well, we accept it, don’t we? It’s intentional, surely. It’s his style. The unevenness of the prose reflects the unevenness of the character’s emotional state.
Except … is it?
Look, I’ve gone on for long enough. It’s a busy day, and your break’s nearly over, or the train has arrived at your station, or you’re tired of reading this. My point is: how much do we overlook in a book because of the name on the front? Usually it’s a reassurance, a contract between reader and writer: we expect the person whose name is on the cover to have written something that is affecting, moving, funny, sad, exciting, or terrifying, and we expect it to be written well because, hey, they’re published and I’m not.
But I wonder how much difference there really is between those published authors and the struggling unsung writers populating the various corners of the internet? Maybe not as much as we think.
So here’s my challenge: next time you read a work by an unpublished author, or a self-published author, convince yourself it was written by Neil Gaiman. Or J. K. Rowling. Or Stephen King. Or whoever your favourite popular author is.
See if it makes a difference.