CRAFT: The Wrong-Nuts Are At It Again! Asides are FINE!


The Illiterati–those indefatigable promulgators of wrongheaded notions about writing–are at it again. Do you suppose they make this crud up to fill their “writing advice” newsletters, or is it a test to see how fast misinformation spreads? If the latter, it always spreads quickly. There is endless enthusiasm among these advice-givers to “pass along a tip” that is actually quite inane. I’m already seeing this newsletter forwarded around to Yahoo! groups, and I am certain that the next wave of critiques I see on some public forum will emphasize the following WRONG WRONG WRONG “point.”

In a writing newsletter, in an article titled “Author Intrusion #1 – Brackets” credited to Marg McAlister, she claims that parenthetical asides violate point of view. (Implying that this is ALWAYS or at least MOST OFTEN the case.) Wrong! I don’t know who told her this, but that instructor was mistaken. The article says, in part:

“Author[ial] intrusion” […] happen[s] when the author uses BRACKETS to explain something in more detail.” [She means parentheses, but perhaps this is an Australian or British usage, like “biscuits” for cookies.] The problem with using brackets is that the author almost always starts TELLING the reader about the action, rather than letting them experience it for themselves.

Example: Maria reached for her coffee and sipped slowly, savouring the new blend. (She missed her chocolate biscuits, though. The minute she was down to her goal weight, they’d be back on the menu.)

The author thinks we should know Maria misses her chocolate biscuits, but for some reason thinks that this doesn’t belong in her stream of thoughts.


No, dear. If we are in a close-up psychic distance, as we usually are in most commercial fiction published today, this is IN Maria’s thoughtstream. It’s merely phrased as an aside. This does not violate POV, nor is it “not in her thoughts.”

The pitfall of authorial intrusion is most dangerous when you’re in an omniscient POV, with the camera pulled way back. Most fiction today is written in a far more personal “close psychic distance,” meaning that when we see sentences like “She needed him to back off,” we know that this is inside her mind. Fiction can be a tour of a character’s (or the author’s!) mind. Just know what you’re doing, and you’ll be fine.

Who can say *what* they’re teaching them in school these days, but this “RULE” is bullcorn. Don’t fall for it. It’ll probably become another of “Da Roolz” that people pass around endlessly, right alongside “Anything with a ‘had’ in it is in passive voice, and passive voice SHOULD NEVER BE USED.” (That rule breaks itself, anyway, in the second clause, and it’s a damned lie that ‘had’ has anything to do with passive voice–typically, it has to do with past perfect tense. You would be better served to watch for “be,” although that doesn’t always signal passive voice, either.)

Now. Let us all take a deep breath. In postmodern thought, parenthetical asides are not welcome very often in fiction. You see them in humor (especially Benchleyesque stuff like Dave Barry’s columns), but you don’t see them as often in fiction. It’s merely one of those postmodern trends. Most of the time, you can put in the info without an aside, and then you won’t get complaints. However, asides do NOT necessarily violate viewpoint.

Here’s an aside that DOES. It’s something you might have seen in Victorian times.

Jo lifted the bouquet to her chin. (Little did she know that she would soon collapse from an allergic reaction. She had no idea, Dear Reader, that the bouquet was full of goldenrod!)

That sort of passage probably engendered this crazy notion about asides being evil. However, don’t dismiss the idea of a parenthetical aside on the basis that “it is authorial intrusion,” because it d*mn well ain’t. Not always, anyway.

And as far as “had”: The rule is that when you are going into a mini-flashback or reminiscence about something in story past, you use “had” to go in and perhaps to bring us out, but not in the entire paragraph. That’s not passive voice. It’s the past perfect verb tense. Please do not fear it.

It reminded Marge of that time in Mexico when she had found a turquoise necklace for half price. She’d seen it on a rough table in the _Mercado_ between two pieces of cracked pottery and snatched it up out from under another tourist. The other tourist turned out to be her minister’s wife. She ended up apologizing and letting the other woman have the jewel. But she hadn’t been too happy about that.

No passive voice there. The past perfect takes us into the mini-flashback and lets us know that this action is in story past.

That said, I don’t see why you would ever need to have such a paragraph in a story *unless* it transmits story information. In other words, if the minister’s wife is going to show up again and give Marge the necklace, and then the necklace will prove to be filled with illegal Viagra capsules, and Marge gets into a legal fix because of it, then the passage is setting up a situation. Or if the minister’s wife is going to be a problem later, and this foreshadows it, that’s probably OK. But otherwise, don’t insert a bit of chat like this just for the hell of it.

That’s what that example from the article strikes me as–chat just for the hell of it. Unless there’s some reason to talk about the new blend of coffee beans, or to remind readers that Maria is on a diet and isn’t eating the cookies today (perhaps preventing her from being poisoned like the ones who DID eat them), then don’t put chat like this into your stories. It’s easy to recognize it when you go back through to revise. You can get away with a little of it to inform readers of character quirks or set up stuff, but not pages and pages of it. THAT is the reason for taking out such a passage, not because it’s an aside.

But you KNEW that.

I’m not attacking the article writer. I simply want to dispel a rumor before it gets widespread. I don’t want this “RULE” to be ingrained in the minds of new agents and contest judges such that they mark you down for any stylistic tendencies toward parentheticals. If you want to laugh your head off, go read some of Robin McKinley’s older blog entries, which are practically made of footnotes (another “verboten” thing in postmodern fiction style) and parentheticals. Classic techniques for humor.

NOW!!! If I’m wrong, please, Sherwood or Pamela or some other grammar maven come and correct me. I can be shamed into recanting if y’all believe that every parenthetical aside is actually authorial intrusion. Feel free to start a discussion in the comments. I want to be as famous as William what’s-his-name who is currently fandom’s favorite doody-head! (But I don’t wanna have to call anybody a pantytwisthead or whatnot. Although that does strike me as a fantastic new playground epithet!)

I need a Schoolmarm icon.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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