I have a question about comments and voice. One woman in my critique group keeps inserting commas in places in my manuscript where I would probably ordinarily use one, but my narrator/protagonist wouldn't. I wish I could find an example, but take my word for it that they aren't as blatant as the examples you gave. (Omit either of the commas in the two previous sentences and you'll get the idea).
To my mind, the missing commas are part of this young man's voice. I guess my question is, am I making a mistake by counting on an agent/editor to recognize that? (This doesn't mean he or she will necessarily like the voice, but there's a difference between not liking a voice and thinking "oh, look, this person can't write!") Should I make an extra effort, Alicia, when writing a query letter, to insert plenty of commas, to prove that I'm quite capable of using them properly?
Ali, good question!
I would suggest that in narrative, the standard rules of grammar should almost always apply if you're using standard sentence construction. In dialogue, maybe there's more flexibility. Theoretically, dialogue doesn't have to follow the rules of grammar, because spoken English is much more informal. However, punctuation itself is more a function of written English. You've pinpointed the danger, that the agent or editor will assume that you don't know grammar and punctuation if you generally don't use it properly in the narrative and dialogue. (Remember that the reader, not to mention the editor's boss, has no access to your query letter, and so can't judge your punctuationability by anything but the story itself.)
NEVER "insert plenty of commas" -- because using too many commas is just as much a marker of the amateur than using too few. Get to to know the rules. Use punctuation properly in the narration (non-dialogue) of your story, and of course in the query letter-- you should do that no matter what. :)
I have to point out, your voice should not depend on punctuation, and neither should the character's voice. A very occasional non-standard punctuation marker can probably help dialogue, but as Theresa said recently about ellipses, if that's absolutely essential to voice, the words themselves are lacking-- aren't perhaps chosen well-- and the sentence construction and paragraph construction should carry the rhythm, not the punctuation.
As I say about every non-standard feature-- less is more. (Except, apparently, with me and dashes. :) The more correctly you punctuate everything, the more likely the reader is to understand that the very occasional breaking of the rules is done for effect. If you frequently break the rules, the reader (and editor/agent) are likely to assume that you don't know the rules, and you don't want that.
So try first with standard punctuation, and do everything you can to make it "sound" right without breaking the rules. Then, if ONLY by breaking the comma rules (and I have to say, I break out in hives when I see one comma and not the other when they're supposed to be in pairs, but I'm clearly too sensitive :) can you achieve the "sound" you want... well, you know what I'd probably do. The copy I'd submit to begin with would be pristine, every comma in its proper place. Then, if/when the story is bought and paid for, the copy I'd turn in for editing might have the non-standard aspects (absolutely as few as I can stand), and I'd explain my reasoning to the editor. IF the editor says, "Sorry, no way, gotta do it right," I'd let it go. You're not the only one whose "voice" is involved here, to be frank. The last thing any reputable publisher (or editor) wants is to get a reputation for slack editing, and that is actually a likely result of publishing books which omit a lot of commas. The reader will not have access to your reasoning, remember. So think all the way through-- what is the effect on the reader? What will the reader understand of this? Don't be condescending here-- only the most sophisticated of readers probably are truly conversant with the rules, so only they would be even capable of noticing when you break the rules and have any real access to the effect you want to create. Does that effect-- if they get it, and get what you want them to get (that is, not another effect you didn't intend), compensate for the annoyance that sophisticated readers feel when punctuation is incorrect?
I don't know. I do know, however, that most publishing houses have a stylebook that editors are expected to follow in most cases. So the copy editor will probably "fix" any non-standardness anyway... very little non-standard is going to get past TWO good editors, alas or rather fortunately.
Anyway, I'd suggest that you wait till you've got the check before you get too innovative. That's what I'd do. Hey, that's what I -have- done. (And had it all changed to standard in the copy edit. Oh, well. I like to think my voice is plenty strong enough anyway. :)
I am altogether too fond of a new technique used by some writers to indicate staccato thought-- periods after each word in a short sentence or fragment. Not to get too political, this not being a political blog, but the first time I saw it was on a tote bag with a picture of He Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned Here and underneath: Worst. President. Ever.
Those periods really helped emphasize the decisiveness of that. Now I think once a book is enough for that-- anymore would diminish the impact-- but it's a good example of how non-standard punctuation can be used (but only when everything else is standard so the non stands out). Doubt if this helps, but you might analyze the totality of the situation here. For example, if you're dealing with a house that actually employs real editors and copy editors and has a house stylebook, that's a very different situation than a house where they pretty much publish your copy without any editing (there are plenty of those out there). I'd also suggest that readers, especially the sophisticated ones who know the rules and are going to be sensitive enough to feel the effect of nonstandard punctuation, are going to be much more open to this in first-person narration and in dialogue, and in prose which is experimental in other ways throughout (cf. Ulysses).
If you have an editing question you'd like us to address, feel free to send it to rasley at gmail dot com. We like reader questions because they save us from having to think up post topics on our own. ;)
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