This is the story of my journey into doubt, and a call for your own tales of how a minor incident can shake a writer’s confidence, if only for an hour. We all take it as a given, here, that writers are who we are and writing is what we have to do.
I was re-reading my novel Throne Price, when I ran into a sentence that sent me to a grammar book with worries about my use of ‘which’. In particular, I wondered if the first ‘which’ should be ‘who’. I soon satisfied myself that ‘which’ was correct, but the more I read the sentence the more I felt the whole thing was a complete disaster. It was a short hop from there to wondering if anything as complicated as clan leaders occupying diplomatic residences called ‘hearths’, had any place in the attention-deficit modern world, and a skip and a jump farther to the precipice of depression concerning my misspent life creating the Okal Rel Universe.
Here’s the offending sentence.
In addition to Nersal, which held Black Hearth, the Ava’s Oath included steadfast Monitum, the oldest of the hybrid houses and holder of Green Hearth, and the Demish house of H’Us, which occupied Silver Hearth. (pg. 21 Throne Price, 2003)
Making ‘Nersal’ more obviously parallel to ‘house of H’Us’, cleared up the question of grammar.
The essential sentence is:
In addition to House Nersal, the Ava’s Oath included Monitum and the Demish house of H’Us.
Since ‘Nersal’ can mean a person or a clan, I should have used ‘House Nersal’ to avoid worries about whether the first ‘which’ should have been a ‘who’. ‘Which’ is the correct way to add the non-restrictive clauses about hearths. (See: University of Calgary’s Commas with Restrictive / Non-Restrictive Clauses for a quick refresher.)
I was now able to see the sentence as less than a fatal flaw undermining the novel, the series, my life, and parts of the known universe.
Recovering my mental health took a bit longer, but rather than dwell on my internal mechanisms for self-preservation in the face of doubt, I decided to reflect on why a flawed sentence can send a writer into a tail spin. In my case, I suspect it is because I’m always worried about how to make the Okal Rel Universe accessible, quickly and painlessly, without compromising the series’ integrity. When I find a long, dry sentence like the one cited here, it pushes my doubt button.
What’s the doubt button? It’s the big, invisible, red one that is always with you, close at hand, and mocks you, in a whisper, with the suspicion you’d be better off doing the dishes or watching TV than writing, because — and here you have to fill in the blank.
Do you have a Big Doubt? What, on the other hand, are you absolutely sure about? (Personally, I have never doubted the power of my story or my characters to move people once they get involved; it’s how to find the right people and get them over the hump of first contact that I feel vulnerable about.) What kind of discoveries or criticisms push your doubt button? Is it typos, or your best friend being too busy to read your latest draft?
Comments on the grammar questions raised in the article are welcome, as well. Or your own tricks for regaining your sanity when your doubt button gets pushed.