"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, February 13, 2012

How John Swartzwelder helped me get my groove back.

This week I started reading the book The Time Machine Did It by John Swartzwelder. In a weird way he's one of my heroes since he has written the most Simpsons episodes of any other writer. If you're a fan, you can pick out a Swartzwelder episode from the jokes about hobos and old-timey Americana, as well as the crazy non-sequiturs. If you're not a fan, just know that he's funny.

But I've had a strange reaction to reading this novel.

Allow me to sidebar.

Today is the Origins blogfest. I found out about it from the blog of sci-fi writer Alex J. Cavanaugh. To participate, I'm supposed to write about what makes me want to be a writer or where it all began. The timing is serendipitous because just this week I've been questioning my goals and aspirations and wondering if I even have the time, let alone the fortuity to become successful as a writer. My blog posts have been sporadic at best (my last one was even a bit of a downer), and working on my novel has come to a veritable stand still.

But my wife is a swell cheerleader, and with her coaching and the writing of John Swartzwelder, I got some of my mojo back. Here's why:

Swartzwelder is a notoriously private writer, and I'm assuming that's at least part of the reason he has self-published all of his novels, as you might deduce from close scrutiny of the Spartan covers of his work. But what I get from his book is that he is not the most brilliant writer in the world. Brilliantly hilarious, yes. By all means. It's awesome when you laugh out loud while reading a book, and Swartzwelder offers that in abundance. But sustained reading of his fiction is almost more difficult than suspending your disbelief during a Mission Impossible movie.
Brad Bird, another Simpsons alum, is the real hero here.

Swartzwelder's pacing is so fast you wonder if you're reading the same book you started five minutes ago. His main character, Frank Burly, is Homer Simpson as a private eye: bumbling, lucky, indestructible. And Swartzwelder's command of English grammar is slothful at best. I get that he's writing the comic novel, not "literature," and I've already said it's just boffo. But it's distracting and disturbing when one of your writing heroes doesn't put the period inside the quotation marks.

Which brings me to this: I don't mean to boast, but if I know more about the English language than John Swartzwelder, then I have some kind of a chance. But not if I don't get a-writin'. That's it.

If this hasn't adequately satisfied your lust for an Origin Story, you should check out the About Me tab above (or click "About Me"--either one--I mean, either "About Me" phrase right here--now there's three choices for you, or four if you count the original suggestion to check out the About Me tab above). (Sorry, five.)

If you're serious and care just that much, you could read the torrid tale that really tells all, from Kindergarten to college, from the drawn-out history posted on my author's website at brentwescott.com.


  1. Ah, the period inside the quotation marks, the bane of my existence. I do it most of the times, but sometimes it doesn't feel comfortable or doesn't look right. I go by my own rule of thumb. If it's a patch of dialogue, then inside it goes, but if it's a single word that I'm enclosing in quotes for whatever reason, then I'll usually leave it on the outside. That's probably not right, but it's my little "rule". (As opposed to my little "rule.")

    With other punctuation it becomes trickier, especially the question mark. Seems to me that if the dialogue quoted is a question than it should go inside. However, if the dialogue is quoted within a sentence that is itself a question then I think the question mark should be on the outside:

    Who said, "These are the times that try men's souls."?

    I don't know, but Gary Coleman was the one who said, "Whatcha' talkin' bout Willis?"

  2. If I recall correctly, (and let me tell you, that doesn't happen all that much,) I clicked somewhere around here and read your first chapter. I thought the writing was brilliant and very nicely done.

    As far as punctuating quotation marks, I found that last November, by the end of NaNo, I'd written so much dialogue that I started reflexively adding quotations to the end of sentences that were clearly not dialogue. Sometimes the fingers move without consent of the brain."

  3. Oddly enough, I've been encountering a similar problem too. I just started reading Kafka's The Trial for the first time, and I noticed that - in addition to paragraphs that run on for pages - he'll often transition in dialogue from one character to another in the same paragraph! I've always been taught that you start a new paragraph whenever a new charter is speaking, which is why novels are filled with passages like:

    "But you didn't even touch your fish.", Martha observed.

    "I hate you."

    "What did I do!?"

    He stared sullenly out the rain-soaked window and sighed. "I always wanted to be a painter."

    Not so in Kafka, only one dense paragraph after another. It's a little annoying. I wonder if it's just the edition I have, or whether it was like that in the original. If not, why would anyone print it that way? If not, why wouldn't they change to the familiar, easier-to-read, format in the translation process?

    Similarly, with the punctuation in the book you're reading, if it's a mistake, why didn't the editor catch it and change it?

  4. I'm with you on the grammar--some people would definitely never get pubbed w/out editors to make sense of their punctuation/spelling. Anyway, all the best in your writing endeavours. I have a husband who keeps me from staying in the writing doldrums for extended periods of time--sounds like your wife does, too. Nice to find your blog.

  5. Yes...you adequately satisfied the ORIGIN quotient! :) Thank you for sharing! :)

  6. I never cease to be amazed at the lack of good proof reading before things go to be published. Although, my husband just told me that he has recently sneaked two made-up words past his editor -with pride!

  7. Hey, whatever works, right?

    Anyone who really wants to be a writer will find a way. You'll get there, one word at a time.

    Best of luck to you.

  8. I will be the first to say that I am not good with grammar. I go by sound. That is not legit, but maybe one day I'll have an editor to catch all my mistakes!

    Great story! Thank you!

  9. Going to avoid the 'drawn out' history you referred to above. Many other writers have read something and said 'I'm sure I can do a better job than this.' and that has been the seed that got them writing. You're right, if you don't do something, absolutely nothing will happen.

    Good to meet you.

  10. @ Bryan: Quick grammar correction.

    Who said, "These are the times that try men's souls"? (No period needed before the quotes.)

    And I would write the Gary Coleman quote thus: "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

    And great examples, by the way.

    About Kafka, paragraphing dialogue is really a modern convention. I mean, lots of writers did it, but lots of writers didn't. I think you could get away with crazy stylistic tendencies 100 years ago, fifty years ago, that you only can today if you're Cormac McCarthy.

  11. @ Heather: Thanks for visiting. Hope to see you around.

    @ DL: And thanks for co-hosting.

    @ laughingmom (and back at Bryan): It seems to me that Swartzwelder probably proofs his own material, self-publisher that he is. There are enough mistakes that if he trusted an editor, that editor should be fired. What I don't get is why he wouldn't hire an editor in the first place. He's clearly smart enough to know he should and rich enough to afford one. Maybe it just goes back to his private nature. Who knows?

    I also didn't mean to harp on grammar as the sole issue at work here. It's just one that stuck out at me.

  12. @ Lisa: Thanks for playing.

    @ McKenzie: One word at a time sounds so daunting. I can't do it. I give up...

    @ Ashley: Look me up when you're ready. I'm available. Seriously. :) www.wescottwritingservices.com

    So here's your first lesson, one that I try to cram down my students' throats: A comma does not mean "pause." A comma means "separation." The sound is secondary.

    @ JL: I don't know if I can do a "better job" than Swartzwelder. He's pretty successful at what he does. But if asked to edit for him, I'd be able to. :)

    Thanks for stopping by.

  13. It sounds like to me that you are getting all of your ducks in a row and will be producing some quality writing very soon. I think that looking up to a literary hero is definitely one way to solidify those goals because it gives you a path and framework to base your own heading upon. Good luck.

  14. I have seen some absolutely horrible self published books. I'm neither an editor nor a grammatical genius but I can recognize poor grammar a mile away. But I have also seen things produced by "professional" printing houses that should have never gotten past the front door, so there you go.

    You have most of the authors out there beat for style and imagination. Go for it!!

  15. We all get in a writing funk, but it sounds like you are on the rise. I agree with the others about some of the horrible grammer in some of the self pub'd books. I just stopped by from the origins blogfest. It is great that you have such a good support system with your wife. If my husband did not cheer me on, I am sure I would have given up at times.

  16. Absolutely! I think the most important thing an aspiring author can learn is to embrace the suck. I grew up wishing I could be an author, but thought writers had to weave the English language as well as Bryce Courtney. I can't write sentences as beautiful as he does... but I can write a story, and sometimes that's what a reader wants.

    You can't fail until you stop - get writing!

    Wagging Tales

  17. Get a writing! I want to read something about alien ghosts and space banshees already!

  18. @ Michael: I do still look up to Swartzwelder, despite my criticisms. Thanks.

    @ darev: I don't know how true it is, but thanks for the compliment.

    @ Melissa: Thanks for stopping in. And my wife is awesome, yes.

    @ Charmaine: Embrace the suck. I like that idea. I just have a hard time accepting it. If the words on the page don't sound just like the brilliant phrasing in my head, it's so hard to write it down.

    @ Charlie: Anything for you, man.

  19. reading is fun and can inspired for everyday living.

  20. Okay. Schwoo...you worked really hard on this post. Anyway, you've been chosen for the Hot Men of Blogs this month.



  21. Thank Shelly for getting me to come over to visit. She's a friend of mine and seems to be a big fan of yours too.
    I love what you said about how you might know more than Swartzwelder regarding writing and that gives you hope.
    I felt the same way after seeing Bruno. I figured if that movie can be sold, then my manuscript has an audience somewhere too.

  22. Thanks Shelly, I've finally gotten around to updating this space, and I've given you a shout out on today's post. Thanks.

    and Thanks, Desert, hope to see you around now that I'm back around. I didn't see Bruno, but I can imagine what you mean.

    @ Jeremy: says the poster in my seventh grade middle school library. :)