Monday, August 11, 2008

This was in comments, but it's a great question, so let's discuss--

Ali said...

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).

Theresa, what do you think?


Ali said...

This is really helpful, thanks for taking so much time with it. Very interesting point about it being 'fixed' in the editing process regardless of the author's intent. By the way, I was referring to the narrative, written in first person (it never occurred to me to omit standard punctuation in dialogue, though I do need to revisit those ellipses).

For the sake of further discussion, an extreme example which has been published as-is would be Joe Weisman's "10th Grade," a YA book which is written with no commas at all. (An excerpt is available at Random House).

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Alicia and Ali. One of the issues I confront all the time is 'when did you study grammar in school and in what country?' I write with two Australian women, both younger by several years than I, and we get into punctuation, spelling and word usage conventions/rules all the time. Drives me batty!

Is it 'all right' or 'alright'? Is it acceptable to say 'She didn't have enough brains to ....' when we all know humans only have one brain. That one makes Julie nuts. And don't get me started on commas! ARGGGHH!!!

Even my professional colleagues use a comma before the word 'because' in most instances and I'm all the time taking it out. But I don't know if I'm right on that one. Ex: He went to the store because he was hungry. Comma? No comma? I would think not. If it was the opening phrase -- Because he was hungry, he went to the store -- I can see the comma is needed, but not when following the main sentence body, because the phrase is a continuation, an adverbial phrase. However, in the sentence I just wrote, the comma before 'because' seems to be needed. Help!!

Edittorrent said...

J, that's a good point, that different English-speaking nations have different conventions. The Brits use fewer commas, and more exclamation points (what happened to the stiff upper lip, huh?).

I think probably it's best to go with the conventions of the country of the house you're submitting to. This might mean a different revision if you're sending it to an Aussie house!

As for the dependent clause comma, the convention is that you use a comma when the clause is introductory, but not if it's a trailing clause. (Presumably when the main clause comes first, the reader isn't so easily confused. The point of the comma is to separate elements of meaning so the reader doesn't run them together and have to re-read, but I guess with a trailing clause, that's not as much a hazard.)

I sometimes find, like you, that a trailing clause reads better after a comma. Examples? Uh... usually it's when there's some natural pause, when the dependent clause is a conclusion of some kind, or when there are several elements of the sentence before that, so the comma helps comprehension.

1) She had to think twice before she pushed the button for Pepsi, because she usually preferred Coke.

(I don't know... what do you think?)

2) In another time, in another place, they might have been able to fall in love, although she realized no matter what, they'd never have managed to find happiness.
(Of course, I'd probably make that two sentences.)

What do you think?

Edittorrent said...

Ali, I do think readers allow more experimentation in first person narrative. But it has to WORK-- it shouldn't just "sound like he thinks," because I'm sure few of us think in paragraphs and punctuation. Rather a variation, to be successful, has to add something to the meaning of the passage, I'd say.

But there's no doubt first-person allows more narrative playfulness. The question is, is the reader getting what you want the reader to get?

And of course, there's the editor in between, whose priorities have to include a lot more than the writer's preferences. House style is not a minor issue, and editors are generally expected to stay close to that (and copy editors certainly will). I also think that the type of book will matter a lot. A cyberpunk sf novel, or a novel written entirely as a series of text messages, will be allowed a lot more narrative and typographical experimentation, because often the medium is really the message.

Edittorrent said...

Or would it be:
2) In another time, in another place, they might have been able to fall in love, although she realized, no matter what, they'd never have managed to find happiness.

Edittorrent said...

Oh, J, in the US, it's "all right"-- two words. I remember a teacher friend of mine made up a banner for her classroom: "All Right Is TWO Words!"

With all the mistakes students make, I thought that was a minor one to make a fuss about (I'm much more upset about "its/it's" :), but it drove her batty.