Monday, May 21, 2012

Attack contractions?--not so fast! (Part One)

As I've mentioned once or twice on this blog, over the past nine months or so, along with several other writing projects, I've been working on a series of historical fictions set in Nantucket, Massachusetts.  I've been sending them out for a few months now, and in response to one of these stories I received what might be the most impressive, conscientious rejection email ever.  Though the editor only got the story a day or two before, she wrote a three paragraph response outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the piece--a far cry from the customary anonymous form email that typically arrives several months after you submit.  One hesitation of hers was that she felt the narrator's voice, both interior and exterior, was a bit too contemporary.  (The narrator is a twelve year old living in 1823.)  She pointed to a couple examples: the phrase "they blew it," for instance, and the fact that the narrator compares another character's eyes to the color of chocolate (which would not have been a common food product in 1823).  Beyond that, the editor did not really elaborate on why, for her, the boy's voice felt too contemporary.

I read over the story, of course, and while I caught a couple other phrases that perhaps warranted editing or deleting, mostly I noticed that I did not hold back in using contractions when this boy--and his even younger friend--spoke.  I suspect that perhaps it is these contractions that struck the editor as "contemporary."  And this didn't really surprise me.  When I composed the story, as well as the others, I consciously avoided trying to ape a 19th century style of speaking.  Some--perhaps even many--writers of historical fiction would disagree with me about this, but I feel that if I try too hard to make my characters sound dated, the reader won't see the character but the speech.  Besides, you can't have all your characters talking formally.  A writer needs a way to indicate that a character is younger or less refined or simply more jaunty than another character.  Using contractions--and slang--is a means to do this.

That said, considering the editor's reaction, I starting culling back on the number of contractions my narrator used.  I didn't eliminate them.  To do that would make my character sound more adult and more educated than in fact he is.  It would be a violation of his personality.  It would also, I fear, make him seem stiff and mannequin-like, make him less a person than a collection of strained mannerisms.  But I did certainly cut a number of contractions along with reworking certain problematic turns of phrase.  To be honest, I didn't feel like I had a choice.  If the narrator is simply not believable as an early 19th person then that will persist to be problem with other editors and perhaps result in the story never seeing the light of published day.  I then proceeded to review all five of my Nantucket historical fictions with the same concern in mind.  I began editing out contractions, especially in the stories with the earliest dates.  The last story is set in 1920, so I saw no reason to remove the contractions at all.  Leaving them all in, I figure, is one way--an implicit way--to signal to the reader the passage of time, along with explicit (and relevant) references to the Great War, to the defunct Nantucket Railroad, and to the Volstead Act.

I think this latest round of editing has strengthened the stories, but it also made me think seriously about this issue of contractions.  Is it really true that Americans in the 19th century used no contractions?  Or did they use some but not as many as we do?  So far I'd been proceeding only on instinct and general impression.  It was time--before these stories got set in stone--to do some actual researching.  What did I discover about contractions in the nineteenth century speech?  Tune in tomorrow to find out!


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