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A Comma Here, A Comma There

 

 

 

Let’s talk about commas, shall we? Not all uses of commas, mind you, because that would take way more time than either of us has and way more space than one wee blog post. Let’s talk about one use only today. It’s one that confuses lots of the writers I work with – and lots of writers whose books I read.

 

My brother, Frank is a good driver.

My brother Frank is a good driver.

My brother, Frank, is a good driver.

Look at those three sentences. Each one uses the same words. The only variable is the comma. Let’s examine each one in turn.

Number one is wrong. Period. If you do that, stop it. Just stop. You’ve left things unfinished. You began something with that comma and then dropped the ball, fumbled the hand-off, stumbled out of the blocks, whiffed your at-bat, and probably five or six other sports-related phrases I could throw out.

The second sentence shows that the particular brother you mean, Frank, out of your two or more brothers, is a good driver. You might mean that your other brother, George, is a bad driver. And maybe your third brother, Henry, is too young to drive. But Frank, that one particular brother, is a good driver.

Sentence number three indicates that your ONE brother whose name is Frank is a good driver.

If you want to think of it as an equivalency, go ahead because that’ll work, too. Your brother (your only brother) is equivalent to the name Frank, so you set that additional information off with a comma. Your one-brother-of-several Frank is NOT equivalent to the word brother, because you have other brothers as well, so you don’t set his name off with commas.

My stove, that annoying appliance I’m chained to, provides meals for my family.

In this case, the stove is the equivalent of “the annoying appliance I’m chained to,” so – you guessed it – that latter phrase is set off with commas.

 

My husband, Walter, is the love of my life.

My husband Albert is the love of my life. (My other husband, the one I’m committing bigamy with, isn’t.)

Try these.

Vinnie’s cousin Cleo thought her brother, Michael, hung the stars. (Vinnie has more than one cousin; Cleo has only one brother.)

That dog Sparkles is a huge nuisance .(Well, of course, there’s more than one dog in existence.)

My dog, Sparkles, is a huge nuisance. This time there’s only one dog.

I’ve used simple sentences in these illustrations, but the principle will remain the same, no matter how complex the sentence.

Just one minor thing but so important

Okay, let’s talk for a moment about the comma. Not all about its many uses in punctuating sentences – gracious, that would take all night. Let’s just pick one aspect of commas and look at it a bit.

Lately, I’ve edited a couple of pieces in which the writers didn’t quite understand the way an address–the sort where one character addresses another, not a street address 🙂 — inside a sentence is punctuated. So I fixed a lot of sentences like these. I hasten to add that none of these sentences appear in the manuscripts I edited. I invented these “brilliant” bits all by myself.

“Waldo what do you think you’re doing?”

“Come over here Mike, and give me a hand.”

“I don’t know, Sally if I’d open that door.”

Each of these is incorrect. The mistake is easily fixed, though. Add a comma before and after the name of the person being addressed.

“Waldo, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Come over here, Mike, and give me a hand.”

“I don’t know, Sally, if I’d open that door.”

However, English being the tricksome beast that it is, don’t get tripped up by multiples.

“William, you and Thomas wash the dishes while Kimberly feeds the cat and dog.” Correct? Incorrect? All those names! Well, who is the speaker speaking to? She (I visualise this as a mother; I suppose because I am one and gave millions of orders like these.) is speaking only to William, so his is the only name set off with a comma.

“William, wash the dishes while you, Thomas, dry them. I want you to feed the cat and dog, Kimberly.” Perfectly dreadful sentences, honestly, but the commas are correct.

 

 

I wouldn’t really spend a blog post talking about this if I hadn’t seen errors recently. It’s not hard. If one character speaks to another one, add commas and stir. Smile

The Cover is Only Cosmetic–Honest It Is

I was reading comments on a forum the other day. Someone asked about hiring an editor to edit his book and was that really necessary. And if it was necessary, where could he find a good, inexpensive editor? The comments rapidly shifted from making the contents of the book as highly polished and professional as possible to “hire a good cover artist,” “a great cover will sell your book,” and “you need an eye-popping cover!”

Okay, an excellent cover is a plus. A lousy cover will turn off most potential buyers. I know that. No argument.  But guess what will turn off all your buyers? Lousy content. Sloppy writing. Cardboard characters who don’t act like any human beings who ever lived. Stilted dialogue. Bad spelling. Typographical errors. Wack-a-doodle punctuation.

Go to Amazon. Read a few book reviews. Any reviews. Any genre. Any writer. How many will say, “This book was full of bad grammar and spelling mistakes. 1 star!” Short answer: Lots. How many will say, “What a great cover! I didn’t even mind that the writer couldn’t tell a semi-colon from a hole in the ground!” Go ahead. Find one.

It’s true that I’m a freelance copy-editor. I don’t make much money at it. I’m not looking to make much money at it. I’m more interested, honestly, in helping indie writers improve their writing than in being able to light fires with hundred dollar bills. Or even one dollar bills.

But, seriously, sometimes I wonder if some indies are ever going to “get” it. It’s not the flash. It’s not the paint job. It’s the content. It’s the actual work that matters. The words. The sentences.

You can paint up a jalopy. You can re-chrome everything. You can tart that sucker up till it shines like a second sun even on a cloudy day.  But if it doesn’t have an engine, it won’t run.

A book is exactly the same. You can slap a brilliant cover on sloppy work and it’s still sloppy work. And your readers will recognize that it’s sloppy work and will “reward” you accordingly.

Indie writers, I love ‘em, but sometimes . . .

I love indie (also known as self-published) writers. I really do. My Kindle (which I also love) is chock-full of outstanding indie fiction, indie memoir, and indie writing advice. I am in several indie writing communities.

But, I have to tell you that every time someone raises – usually under a flag of neutrality, but sometimes with his freak flag flying and daring you to tell him that some rule actually matters – *takes a breath* Where was I? Oh, yes. Sorry. Whenever someone raises the subject of rules and do we really have to follow them, I just want to reach right through the internet and knock some sense into people.

I could end this now. YES, rules matter. They are there for a reason. DO NOT break them until you are quite sure you completely understand them. Grammar rules. Punctuation rules. Sentence structure rules. Point of View rules. Plotting rules. Sure, most of these can be bent and some can be broken if you’ve got good enough a reason. But if you go breaking them without knowing right down to your bones what you’re doing, you will write a mess.

Point of View is one of those tricky little beasts. I’m not going to write a whole book about point of view. There are are excellent books on that subject. Here are two just off the top of my head:

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

Write Great Fiction – Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

You can find others.

Let me just say now that skipping around merrily from one character to another giving the reader the thoughts of each of them all in the same scene on the same page will eventually wear out our patience. And, no, just because Johnny is kissing Sally at the same time Sally is kissing Johnny we still don’t need to be inside both their minds at the same time.

One last thing. NO! George R.R. Martin is not breaking the rules of POV characters when he uses ONE, count ‘em ONE, POV voice for each separate chapter of his epic Song of Fire and Ice books. Because, ladies and gentlemen, that is the rule: One POV per chapter. It’s been further sliced to one POV per scene but classically and traditionally One POV Per Chapter is totally correct.

Why in the name of all that’s writerly would someone use Martin as an example of someone who is breaking the rules?

My own preference – not always adhered to – is to write in first person. Yes, it’s limiting. I like that. I like showing the reader only what the narrator sees and hears and knows. Because, guess what, the narrator can be wrong. She can trust the wrong person. She can misinterpret what she sees. And she takes the reader right along with her. Then I write third-person chapters (NOT just paragraphs and not usually scenes, usually whole chapters) that take place away from the first-person narrator, showing events of which she has no knowledge.  After all, Joan Hess and Elisabeth Peters use this technique all the time. Not that I’m in their league, you understand. It’s just an effective technique.

I’ve said it before and will no doubt say it again.

Indie writers have got to be BETTER than traditionally published writers. We have to write cleaner, fresher, prose; we have to make fewer typographical errors; we have to create stronger plots and more lifelike characters. We have to be twice as good to be thought half as good.

As long as we settle for almost as good – heck, as long as we settle for the faint praise of “just as good” – we are doomed to live on the edges, kicked to the curb, and ignored.

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