To Pare a Pair of Pears

E-pub authors, especially self-published, take note: When comparing our experiences with e-readers, a friend of mine remarked, “The nice thing about the Kindle is I don’t feel bad about dumping a book if I hate it in the first chapter. When I buy a paperback, I feel like I have committed to it.” (From a marketing standpoint, he has, likely as soon as he picked it up off the shelf.)

Since purchasing my Kindle, I have read a lot of very bad books. Many were free; most cost less than $2.99. I have also read many wonderful books and series, also $0.00 to $2.99. Admittedly, I am a cheapskate, but in defense of this post, this is the price range of the great majority of Amazon books that aren’t bestsellers.

I have deleted at least 25 percent of the books I have downloaded, most often for the topic of this post.

The past year or so, while deciding to write historical romance and, when convinced, choosing my era, I read many, many romance novels—more than I care to admit in more snobbish literary circles.

From this experience I learned many things: the formula and language of Regency romance, the possibilities and limits of the setting(s), the fact that happy endings (happy beginnings and middles, too, but less so) can be cringingly cloying, especially:

“I love you, [Hero].”

“And I love you, too, [Heroine].”

If there is a worse ending to a novel, I have never read it in 40 years of books. In the past year, I have seen it more than once.

The most interesting thing I have discovered, though, is this: the difference between a good and bad author—or experienced and inexperienced (not always the same)—hinges on the proper use of homophones.

By way of clarification, although I was taught all of these categories under the heading “Homonyms,” my third-grade teacher, the evil Mrs. Evans, was wrong. (Wow, that feels great to say!)

  • Homophones (discussed herein) are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings, like gilt [covered in gold] and guilt [blame].
  • Homonyms are words spelled the same with different meanings, such as fire [flame] and fire [terminate employment].
  • Homographs are spelled the same, pronounced differently, with different meanings, as in desert [abandon] and desert [land in a very dry climate].

The most often misused in Regency romance are, predictably and anecdotally, reign/rein/rain and complement/compliment.

I will leave aside those pairings and triads I find most problematic: to/too/two, past/passed, and there/their/they’re, as grammarians have been vainly fighting their battles against these mistakes for too many years past.

I will also not address the most often misused near-homonyms, accept/except and affect/effect, except to say using them incorrectly dramatically affects the readability of your work.

(You will notice below I am most often not defining the terms in this post. I am “old school,” by which I mean, “If you want to know why your usage is wrong, look it up.” More kindly than my third-grade wicked witch teacher, however, I have provided handy links.)

Simple misuse most often indicates to me that the writer does not have the vocabulary and facility with language required to write a viable book—immediate deletions from the Kindle, with prejudice. Some of these include, bare/bear, buy/bye/by, threw/through, vain/vane/vein, oar/ore/or, and pear/pare/pair.

More uncommon or longer words, though (especially in the new world of self-publishing), I sometimes give a pass—the first time. They are, in my opinion, signs of a lazy writer whose vocabulary is less advanced than mine (which is not so advanced as I like to think). The story may be brilliant, the characters well defined, the settings outstanding, but as soon as I see bouillon/bullion, cash/cache, council/counsel, or wrought/rot, the book loses some sparkle. The next instance, my enjoyment falls a bit further, and so on, until I have decided to drop it from my Kindle reading list and worse, never read the author’s work again.

To answer some of the questions that will invariably result from this discussion:

  • Am I old as the hills and set in my grammatical ways? Indubitably.
  • Aren’t I a grammar snob? Without a doubt.
  • Don’t I ever mix up words? Please avoid mentioning mnemonic/pneumonic.
  • Do my snotty attitudes about homophones matter to other authors? Probably not, but they should.

As a professional writer in many more forms than fiction, what I notice is that seemingly small errors—typos, misplaced punctuation, and yes, homophones—may not be immediately apparent to the average reader, especially one who is not a grammar snob. But each time, there is a small jarring in the cerebral cortex. “Something is not quite right,” the reader thinks (possibly unconsciously), which takes him or her out of your narrative for a brief moment. This doesn’t seem such a bad thing, especially when you have made 70 percent of $2.99 whether your reader finishes the novel or not, but after a preponderance of jarring moments, this book—and the next—is dumped from the Kindle with absolutely no gilt guilt.

* For an extensive, well-organized list of many easily confused words:


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