Monday, September 19, 2011
The Grammar Hokey Pokey
You take the comma out…
You put the comma in
And you shake your fists about…
We’re always looking for a way to stand out from the crowd. Our voice. Our stories. Our hooks. Our platforms. Those are all good ways. But…grammar? Grammar is non-negotiable. You don’t want to stand out by re-writing the rules. I mean, you wouldn’t type your query or synopsis in txt spk (lol) or ALL CAPS, would you? Louder is not better. It’s just annoying.
Bad grammar is annoying, too. Learn the rules. Improve your craft. Be a master of language. That’s a much better way to stand out.
I assume everyone will spell check and knows the difference between your and you’re (and, goodness help us, yore.) But what about the trickier things like that versus which? Or…
dun dun duhnnnnnn
That’s right. Commas. Those tiny twists of pure evil. Those little hooks that snag up our sentences and send us sprawling.
I hate ‘em, myself.
But, alas, being a writer means we need to remain objective when it comes to proper punctuation. Love them or hate them, the laws of grammar must be obeyed.
I Put The Commas In
In an effort to improve my craft, I often take online courses through Pennwriters, my writers’ organization. One particular class focused on scene and sequence but I got a bonus lesson—commas.
Commas do one of two things, my instructor said. They either set off or separate. She then went on to discuss clauses and all these other things my English teachers tried in vain to teach me. I studied, I evaluated my writing, and I saw what I’d been doing wrong: I had a tendency to place commas where they didn’t belong.
Thus, lesson learned, I opened my 106,000-word manuscript and fixed every comma gone wrong.
I Took the Commas Out
Satisfied with my new mastery of commas, I made a solemn vow to abuse commas no more and sent out a submission to a publisher. The rejection was shocking. There's quite a few simple grammar errors in your synopsis -- missing commas mostly -- and if they're in your query it makes me think they'll also be in your novel. I'm afraid that over 100'000 words it's the sort of thing that would send an Editor a bit batty.
What? Were they kidding me? I was so incensed I almost organized a cage match between that slush reader and my instructor. Instead, however, I settled for some teeth grinding and adding the publisher to my ignore list. I’d let those editors retain their questionable sanity and I’d stay far away from people who were obviously heavy comma abuse addicts. The last thing I should have done was respond with an angry retort or, worse yet, lecture on proper punctuation. Not all junkies come clean. I was too new to comma sobriety to hang out with people exhibiting at-risk behaviors.
And I Shake My Fists About
As writers, we have a duty to learn the rules of the craft. Sometimes the rules are slippery and seem to change at the whim of whoever is in charge. For example, I once got editor’s notes back on a short story only to find he added in a bunch of terrible commas. I could have fought the madness…but I was in a rather lenient mood. I just accepted the track changed and did a little *head desk* thing.
It’s his magazine, I reminded myself. He can put commas wherever he pleases. At least he didn’t blame any type of mental illness on me.
Maybe we have to bend a little and play by their rules if it comes down to having a contract or not. Regardless. We still need to learn all we can. Our reputations and our first impressions may depend on it.
I recently came across the comma topic on the QueryTracker.net Forum. One of our QTs gave a beautiful summation of comma usage. (The post is a must read. Thanks, Tabris!)
Could commas be explained so simply? And were there actually other Elements of Style nerds out there? At least I now know where all that previous publisher hate came from. They weren’t comma abuse junkies--they’re just European. (Explains their comma-awkwardness.)
Tabris also went a long way to confirm everything my Pennwriters instructor told us. It helped heal the wound left behind by that publisher’s rejection. (Hey, those things sting.)
Good luck, writers, on your own grammatical gauntlets and your word dances and your quests for good craft. Be true to the rules and obey the laws of punctuation. Do not, as William Sabin writes in THE COMMA, Excerpt from The Gregg Reference Manual, sprinkle commas down upon your writing like confectioners’ sugar upon a cake. Go forth and inflict comma trauma no more.
You do the Grammar Hokey Pokey
and revise another round—
That’s what it’s all about.
Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in a frame over her desk. Visit the Spec Fic Website at www.ashkrafton.com for updates on the release of her debut novel, Bleeding Hearts, forthcoming in early 2012 through Pink Narcissus Press.