A very long post today.
First a topic for folks who have joined the Journal recently and/or haven’t heard my speil on punctuation as a tool before. Then one of the personal tidbits some of you like. This one is a fairly brief bit on everyday life as a writer (or anyone else) in southeast Arizona.
Topic: On Comma Use
Recently, a major writer with whom I usually agree on most things handed out some bad information. And by bad I mean harmful.
A writer commented that she doesn’t know where to place commas. The major writer advised her to ignore what others think of her comma use and wrote, “If they are focused on commas, they really need a life.”
Yeah, um, no. I mean, is anyone really “focused” on commas?
I don’t think so.
The fact is, puncutation is just another writing tool. Knowledgeable writers use it to direct the reading of their work.
Each mark of punctuation creates a pause of a particular length. The length of that pause subliminally conveys a message to the reader.
The comma creates the briefest pause.
Think about it. You can’t read THROUGH a comma. If you think that’s bogus, try it. Find a newspaper and start reading articles.
When you encounter a comma that shouldn’t be there, you’ll stop (mentally), go back and remove the comma, then continue reading.
If you encounter one that should be there, your reading will continue (after the brief pause) uninterrupted.
The point is, the comma ALWAYS creates the pause. Whether the pause makes sense or feels right depends on its placement. But either way, you can’t just read through it.
Even when I’m wearing my copyeditor hat, I’m not “focused” on commas. I’m not actively looking for them. I’m just reading.
I occasionally add a comma when I’m copyediting, but much more often I delete one. Because when a comma is in a “wrong” place, it pops out at me. Just like it pops out at you and everyone else.
And it pops out because it interrupts the reading. In other words, it shoves me out of the story.
So again, it isn’t that the reader is looking for it. It’s that the reader can’t avoid it. The reader can’t read through it as if it weren’t there.
Will a single comma misuse send a reader packing? Probably not.
But if you use a comma erroneously once, you’ll probably do so many times. You’ll at least repeat the same erroneous use.
Like people who add a comma immediately after “but” because some moron somewhere taught them that was correct.
So if a reader stops reading your work because of commas, it isn’t because he’s “focused” on them or looking for them. It’s because the comma placement interrupted the reading. And that’s the writer’s fault, not the reader’s.
It’s the writer’s responsibility to learn the tools of the trade, and those tools include punctuation.
Can you break the “rules” after you learn them? Yes. Of course. Breaking the rules is often preferable, especially in fiction.
But the key is to break them intelligently and with purpose. The key is to break them in order to create a particular effect in the reader.
And to do that, you have to know them in the first place.
Several years ago I came up with five simple rules that, if you followed them, would make you “correct” (read “not interrupt the reading”) over 90% of the time.
My comma rules first appeared in a handout I used when I taught grunt English in college. The handout was titled “The Rules as They Should Read.” (grin) These rules later appeared in my book, Punctuation for Writers (2nd edition). This is excerpted directly from that book:
The Five Rules of Comma Use
1. Never place a comma between a subject and its verb or between a verb and its object. (Realize that a subject may have more than one verb and that a verb may have more than one object. See Chapter 7.)
2. When a subordinate clause introduces an independent clause, separate the two with a comma. (If you aren’t sure about clauses, Rule #2 is an example of itself, as is this explanation. Also, see the discussion about clauses in Chapter 7.)
3. Do not use a comma to separate the clauses when a subordinate clause follows an independent clause. (In Rule #3, “Do not use a comma” is an independent clause and the remainder is a dependent clause. This rule, again, is an example of itself.)
4. Use a comma before the appropriate coordinating conjunction to join two related sentences. (The coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Remember the acronym FANBOYS.) By the way, you very seldom need a comma after a coordinating conjunction.
5. Trite as it sounds, when you are in doubt about whether to use a comma, leave it out. Believe it or not, most comma problems arise from misuse of commas, not their omission.
There you go. Back with more on “bigger” punctuation tomorrow.
Remember the old Chinese curse, May you live in interesting times?
Today is one of those times.
I was on my way to the Hovel at about 8:40. Just outside my back door was a 5′ rattlesnake. Right where my little girl usually lies. I walked right past him as he lay maybe a foot to my right.
When I got to the gate, I heard the insistent buzzing and hissing. Looked back, and saw him, his head raised about a foot off the concrete, looking at me.
Problem was, my little girl and the other cat and the chihuahua were just inside the back door, and the back door was open about a foot.
I circled around through the other gate, went through the front door and closed the back door, then grabbed my 9mm and went back out through the front door and around the house.
The only clear shot I had that would miss the house (I rent) was from 20 feet away next to my outside desk. (The distance is important to an old Jarhead.)
I aimed for his head, and I hit him with the first four rounds, but each one missed his head. Finally got his head with the fifth, which flipped him off the concrete porch.
Please understand, I believe the worst humans are the only animals deserving of being killed. And I despise killing anything, especially out here where everything’s just trying to survive the heat. But I can’t let it go when something’s threatening my little girl.
After a time, I found a long stick, slipped it under the lifeless body of the snake, and carried it about a 1/4 mile east of my house to lay it in the shade of a creosote bush. A fitting final resting place.
Returned to the house, turned on a hose, cleaned up the blood, etc. Policed up my brass. Eventually lured the babies out of the bedroom, where they’d gone when the 9mm started coughing.
I spent some time on Facebook and with emails. Some folks are taking me up on the free book offer over on my big website.
I finally made a half-hearted move toward the novel at around noon, but decided in short order to let the rest of the day go. So no fiction today.
See “The Lost Lingo of New York City’s Soda Jerks” at https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/soda-jerk-slang. One way to add some authenticity to your stories: add a soda fountain.
See “Author Website Visitor #6 – FANtasia” at http://www.authormedia.com/author-website-visitor-6-fantasia/.
See “Thrillers in Disguise: 10 Essential Literary Novels That Master Suspense” at https://crimereads.com/thrillers-in-disguise/.
See “Building a New Writing Office” at https://www.deanwesleysmith.com/building-a-new-writing-office/. Nothing earth shattering, but maybe a few things to think about.
Fiction Words: XXXX
Nonfiction Words: 1310 (Journal)
So total words for the day: 1310
Writing of Dread (novel)
Day 1…… 3391 words. Total words to date…… 3391
Day 2…… 3827 words. Total words to date…… 7218
Day 3…… 3194 words. Total words to date…… 10412
Day 4…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX
Total fiction words for the month……… 10412
Total fiction words for the year………… 217376
Total nonfiction words for the month… 3280
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 66790
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 283896
Calendar Year 2018 Novels to Date………………………… 5
Calenday Year 2018 Novellas to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2018 Short Stories to Date……… 11
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)………………………………………… 31
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)……………………………………… 5
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………………… 193