Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Mark of Excellence (Part Three)

Have you ever picked up an epic plot, only to find that the publisher forgot to employ a line-by-line editor? The results are pretty disappointing. I came across this difficulty when I picked up I Will Repay from the library. I can't remember who published it, but I found a rough estimate of thirty usage, spelling, and grammar errors. Bad ones. They couldn't even decide whether to spell "Blakeney" with and 'ney' or 'ny'. I read the book, but a little of the edge was taken off for me by the obvious indifference to quality.

Contrast this with Les Miserables' Signet Classics edition. In the course of 800 pages, I found only 5 errors.

Welcome, readers, to the third (and final!) article on "The Mark of Excellence"--raising the bar in the books we read. Before I move on to the grammatical section, allow me to finish up a couple of points from last time on characterization.

The Stars of the Play

As we discussed before, excellent books show clear gender differences, moral values, and mentor roles. To finish this topic, I'd like to cover a couple of points about action.

1. Protagonists Should be Virtuous
Protagonists, also known as 'the good guys', need to be good guys. Sure, they may have some habits they need to change; often that's the whole plot of the story. But for the most part, they should be an example of shining worth. If you end the book saying "Oh, I wish he wouldn't have" then it shows that the author got a little mixed on their hero and villain. (Or heroine and villainess) Like Brother Cadfael, in Dead Man's Ransom. I really like this Benedictine monk, but I wish he hadn't looked the other way, deliberately, when two people make away with a wanted man. Most times you find this principle of excellence violated in instances of lying or physical affection.

2. Antagonists Should Commit Sanctified Crimes
This may sound a bit odd, but it goes back to that "be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil." We are children of God. Our minds and hearts need cleansing, yes, but there are still some ills of the world that we aren't born with explicit knowledge of. And if the villain does something wrong that causes us to learn more about evil than we should know, then that villain is not committing 'sanctified' crimes. You'll find this dilemma in social justice novels, romance novels, and murder mysteries most often.

One That May Surprise You...
A novel, especially a novel that deals with a serious issue of society, needs to have some humor.

Surely, you say, this is dispensable.

In a future blog post I'll tell you the following story in more detail; but suffice it to say for now that I just decided to put down a book. The story-line was deep and heartrending, with astonishing plummets into the world of evil and the dregs of criminal society. I knew something was wrong with it, so I took a break on it for a while. And just the other day, I put my finger on it. It had no humor.

And therefore, it had no hope.

Humor, whether or not the author is a Christian, or the character is a Christian, gives us a breath of assurance that someone can see the silver lining, the rainbow, the happy ending. In Christ, we Christians have a happy ending. And we should live in the hope of a happy ending, with a smile on our faces, and a joyful word on our lips. Humor is essential in an excellent book because it gives us hope for the future.

It is only a godless man, and a godless story, that has no hope.

Final Point of Excellence
You probably guessed this point from the introduction to my post. One of the highest marks of excellence for a good book is good grammar.

Not perfect. Good.

I couldn't possibly say perfect grammar because these posts don't have perfect grammar.  I spend all the time I can after they are written in editing mistakes, and I would spend more time if I could. But when something is put up for sale, it implicitly promises satisfaction to the consumer, and therefore, it is essential that the author and the editors make numerous passes to ensure that the customer is receiving a high-quality product. Grammar-spelling, complete sentences, and usage- is the building material of the finished structure. If you put door frames in crooked, the door sticks, and it inconveniences everyone who uses it. Likewise, if you don't ensure that your words are spelled correctly, the eye is caught on the defect, and can't proceed with the story.

Generally, if a book contains under six or seven noticeable errors, I'll say "Good. Not perfect. But everbody's fallible." But if you jump to thirty errors in a published and paid for novel, then the publisher obviously didn't go for quality.

Or we could be charitable, and suppose he just forgot his reading glasses. :)

In Conclusion
Obviously no book is perfect, and I'm not saying that a book isn't excellent if it doesn't fulfill the qualities I've talked about. But these are guidelines, hopefully helpful ones, that show us what can make a good plot, what makes good characters, and what makes good construction. Remember that our mental 'food' gives us nutrients and nourishment, and we want to make sure our intake is quality-controlled.

Have fun reading today, and while you're at it, find some marks of excellence in your favorites. :)

Lady Bibliophile


  1. So true about humour and hope. But I think hope is the most important thing. I just finished reading a book called "True Grit" by Charles Portis that should have been--and in many ways was--most enjoyable, but despite the laugh-out-loud passages and the wonderful Calvinist heroine, it left a sour taste in my mouth.

    The sour taste was a deficiency of hope.

    While I have read my fill of books that never seem particularly satisfying because the dangers faced by the heroes never seem real, with no real chance of defeat, I must say that in everyday life we all tend to be more like the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness--God keeps doing marvellous things for us, but we keep forgetting them and wondering whether He is trying to be mean to us. We need books that remind us of Providence.

    GK Chesterton is, in case you don't already know, the absolute best at weaving humour and hope into his stories.

  2. This has been a lovely series! I agree with you on the points you made. Thanks for sharing them,
    Blessings in Christ,
    ~Joy @ joy-live4jesus.blogspot.com

  3. Dear Lady B,
    I really enjoyed this wonderful series. I think this can not only apply to reading books but also writing books. Future authors... (: I just finished a book with some punctuation issues.There weren't qoutation marks where they should be. I'll definitely be reading this post again.

  4. Such a good point, Suzannah! I've never read Chesterton (shocking, I know!) but I would like to look him up.

    Thanks, Joy. :) I'm so glad you enjoyed this series, and I have fun visiting your corner of the web. :)

    Love and cuddles, Sister! I've had the same thing with missing quotation marks (especially in old books.) I think I need an excerpt soon. :)

    Lady B.

    1. Not read Chesterton? But you would enjoy him so very, VERY much!

      Go here to get started. It should take you about fifteen minutes to read.

      Then next time you're after a good novel, go for The Man Who Was Thursday. After you've read it, read the lecutre linked at my post if you are having any trouble with the imagery.

      In conclusion: GK Chesterton.

  5. I just tagged you on my blog! http://joy-live4jesus.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/little-fun-tagging.html

  6. Great post! You have some excellent points. I especially love the grammar part of this post. ;)

  7. Dear Sister,
    I know you'll be so proud of me. I printed out this series.


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