I’ve been AWOL recently because I’ve been busy writing! I’m trying to slide Book 3 of my mystery trilogy into a channel where it will start floating right along (I suspect you get that metaphor), and I’ve been keyboarding the longhand draft of my “Horse Show Book” (great titles, huh?) that I just completed last week. My hope is that the closing scenes of this psychological suspense/mystery will work as well when I type them as they seemed when I (literally) penned them. We’ll see.
Apropos of that milestone, I had the following conversation with a non-writer friend the other day. I wonder if only writers will “get” this:
Friend: When are you going to publish your Horse Show Book?
Me: Oh, it will be a good while.
Friend: But you said you’d finished it!
I am unable to resist posting this. Sorry. Ignore at will.
And oh, yeah, “lie/lay/lain” is CORRECT here.
If you are interested, you should be able to find the group “Society for the Preservation of Irregular Verbs” in your social media. Looks like fun!
Thanks for more important advice from one of my favorite bloggers, Anne R. Allen. I think I’m at a “chaos point” myself right now, but at least I do have that last scene in mind–like Anne recommends!
We all have a writing craft issue or two…or three or four or five, no matter where we are in our careers. Yes, even professional authors who have written ten or more novels. I’m wrestling with some myself with my forthcoming Camilla book, Catfishing in America, which is still, alas, only half way there. It’s at that stage that Melodie Campbell called the “Chaos Point” in her wonderful post for us “My Novel is a Mess.”
Thing is—creating compelling narrative takes more than great characters, sparkling dialogue and exciting action. All those elements have to come together in one story.
I suspect I’m not the only one for whom this list is useful! Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing it!
Grammar Police do exist.
They’re called agents.
I present as evidence a memory of my then-agent saying that when she saw a comma after “and” or “but” in a query or manuscript, she quit reading.
I consider her automatic rejection a bit extreme, but she highlights an important fact: agents are always in need of a reason to move on to the next query. If something as simple as a misplaced comma can earn instant rejection, why not work on getting such small triggers fixed?
I’ve created a list of what I consider five basic comma rules; I argue that if your questionable comma doesn’t fit one of these categories, you’re better off leaving it out. Many times a sentence’s meaning is perfectly clear without commas even if technically you should use them. Commas, correctly placed, control rhythm and emphasis in sentences, and where you use one can be a judgment call.
However, there are a few places where commas tend to crop up when they really shouldn’t. In these instances, they can interrupt rhythm rather than improve it and in some cases, they actually muddle meaning.
Here are three “no comma zones” you should be aware of.
1. Around essential modifiers when the essential element is a name.
Understanding essential vs. non-essential modifiers can be daunting. Here, I’ll review the protocol, but check out this link for additional guidance and more good examples.
A non-essential modifier provides additional information that really is just that—additional. It isn’t needed for the sentence to make sense.
The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.
Take out “which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive,” and the sentence works just fine.
Non-essential modifiers take TWO commas, one before and one after. Think of the commas as “cuts” you could use to lift out the non-essential stuff. But consider:
The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.
Without the modifier, we have:
The car is the one you should buy.
Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the work the sentence is meant to do.
Essential modifiers DO NOT TAKE COMMAS. Using them around these elements violates the “no comma zone.” And that is even true—especially true—when the essential element is a name.
You may have been taught that “appositives” always take commas. They certainly can. Except when they are essential elements. To see how you can decide, look at this:
Author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.
The commas mean you can lift the name out. Try it.
Author writes a lot of thrillers.
If you have so many commas you really want to use them up, you can write instead,
The author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.
Personally, I would use commas in this instance only if we were talking about some book of which Steven King is the author, not if we are talking about him in general as an author. Compare “The author Steven King writes a lot of thrillers.” In my view, that’s perfectly fine, even though “Steven King” is technically an appositive.
2. Between a subject and its verb
The cat with the calico coat, is my sister’s.
You wouldn’t do this? I’ve been in enough writing groups to know that a surprising number of people do. Understandable confusion arises when the “subject” is followed by some kind of interrupting modifier, which would be set off with commas:
The cat with the calico cat, however, is my sister’s.
In addition, looong subjects that may have their own internal commas can make it hard to detect the subject’s verb.
For example, in the sentence I just wrote, the “subject” extends from “looong subjects” all the way to “commas”; “can make” is the relevant verb. So sticking a “pause” between “commas” and “can” would violate this rule. Think of it as a “pause” that unnecessarily breaks up the sentence’s natural flow.
3. After introductory “And” or “But.”
If you are a disciple of Word’s grammar checker, you may never commit the supposed sin of starting a sentence with “And” or “But.” But doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation. What’s NOT acceptable would be
But, doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation.
The only possible reason to use a comma in this construction is to emphasize the “But.” In fact, commas in general throw emphasis onto the word directly before them. Such a strategy, though, should be a conscious decision. You couldn’t credibly claim you want to emphasize every “but” or “and” you write.
The Bottom Line:
While many excellent blog posts have been published about comma usage, in my view, these three cases of “no comma zones” have gotten short shrift. But each can act as a trigger for that agent or editor with a full inbox. Why not keep them reading long enough to discover your great work?
Mathina Calliope, at Jane Friedman’s site, does a terrific job of explaining essential/restrictive versus nonessential/nonrestrictive commas, with lot of examples. I know from many observations that writers struggle with this distinction. It’s one of what I argue are “the only comma rules you’ll ever need,” but it’s the hardest to explain in a short space. So head over and check out her discussion.
Over at Writers in the Storm, guest blogger Tasha Seegmiller writes not to offer a “downer,” but instead, “to help people align their expectations of writing a little better.”
This column reminded me how I’m constantly surprised by some of the questions aspiring writers ask on self-help Facebook sites. Yesterday, is grammar important? Today, should an author get a web site? This column offers some advice I think everyone hoping to publish needs.
Me included. Realizing that writing is a business—never a comfortable home territory for me—but also that it really has to be something you just can’t help doing: These are the reminders I need.
A while back, in answer to a post on the pros and cons of self- versus traditional publishing, I wrote “What It Was Like for Me,” an account of my own experiences being traditionally published. Even though my encounter with the realities of publishing happened quite a long time ago, I still found that Seegmiller’s take resonated. It was ever so, and I didn’t know enough then to negotiate this strange and daunting space.
Follow good blogs and wonderful people like @JaneFriedman. As Seegmiller says, educate yourself. So you’ll be more ready than I was.