Identity Crisis

As both an editor and an author, I used to assume that if someone claimed to be a author, he had to know how to spell (or at least turn over a manuscript relatively free of typos). But I’ve learned that that is not the case at all. And while it’s handy to be able to easily pick out typos, bad syntax, and gaping plot holes, it is something of a disadvantage when the editor part of me gets in the way of the author part.

When I participated in National Novel Writing Month, both in 2013 and 2014, I had to remind myself that to write 50,000 words in 30 days, I had to set my internal editor aside. A friend of mine posted this on Facebook recently, and I can totally relate:

Month-Long Novel Agreement

As I’ve said many times, I love both the outpouring of raw story as well as the subsequent cutting, adding, tweaking, and rearranging that come with the editing process. It’s hard to say which I enjoy more, although it’s quite satisfying to read something I’ve edited and note its improvement. And it’s also wonderful to have those Aha! moments (usually in the car or shower – totally not convenient times to write) that provide just the right solution to a problem that’s been irritating me.

This last can happen in either stage. When writing this past November, I counted on these moments to get me through long periods of stagnation. This book was the sequel to my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel, and as such, I sometimes wrote something that either solved a problem in the first book or necessitated a change in that earlier storyline. I had to jot down these ideas and come back to them later; I didn’t have time to both write 50,000 words of my new novel as well as edit the old one.

But I finished NaNoWriMo 2014, set it aside to percolate while I made those necessary changes to NaNoWriMo 2013, and I even had a date written in my calendar for when I would switch gears again to start editing the sequel.

February 24th was when I was supposed to get back to the 2014 book. It’s now May 9th. I’m still on the first book. Granted, all the changes I’ve made so far have been necessary – and I even had an Aha! moment as recently as this past week. But the editor in me is tired. She wants to move on to something else. She wants to talk to the frustrated author of NaNoWriMo 2014 and hash some things out. But I can’t give equal space to both right now, and the more they argue, the less work I get done.

I presented this issue to my husband, and he gave me the answer that I knew all along (but that I needed to have reaffirmed): finish editing the first book. After all, I have to make sure I know exactly how it will end in order to have a smooth transition to the sequel.

I often hear jokes about artists and how they’re flighty and unorganized. That’s why it’s so odd for me to be a stickler when it comes to grammar, punctuation, formatting – you name it – but also creative enough to invent new worlds. For me, the two are so interconnected that they will always need to work in tandem. But I wonder if it’s freeing to not worry about spelling properly, to just hand a manuscript over to someone else to correct. Not that I write without any outside input at all – a second pair of eyes to catch typos and plot inconsistencies is always necessary. Especially because…

Writing Quote

I don’t know what numbers one through three are, but number four certainly does have a point – all the more reason for me to find out if the story in my head gets across at all, even if it’s not as eloquent or funny or moving as I originally thought. Because of my Grammar Nazism, I sometimes worry that I’m not the author I should be. Maybe I’m too careful, too precise, too self-censored (God forbid). Maybe one part of my inner writer holds back the other.

Editing my novel is necessary (it really is – auto format deleted about two-thirds of my sections breaks, and I have to put them back in), but it’s almost time to move on. Besides, I have a good incentive: CreateSpace is offering two free copies of NaNoWriMo winners’ novels again, and I don’t want to miss the deadline like I did last year. I want to give my beta readers the chance to tear another novel to shreds, to give me good reason to sink my teeth into another good edit… and to gear up for NaNoWriMo 2015. After all, these books are a part of a trilogy, and unless my muse materializes and does the dirty work for me, the author in me is going to take the driver’s seat on November first.

Where the Heck Do I Put This Comma?

The punctuation mark comma

Comma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I’ve been harping on about grammar and punctuation a lot lately, but I am of the school of thought that if you are from an English-speaking country, you should have a firm grasp of the English language and usage. It is a sad commentary on society that many foreigners go to great pains to learn English, and accents or no, they grasp the ins and outs of our language better than a great number of us. Granted, English (being the mess that it is) is one of the most difficult languages to learn, but that’s no excuse.

I concentrated on the apostrophe last week, and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but this week I’m also going to let Noah Lukeman, author of A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, chime in as well.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is for those of us who are sticklers, the die-hard punctuation freaks who are ready to defend the likes of commas and semicolons to the death. Truss also addresses style with a bit of history and humor thrown in. She has the unique perspective of a British editor, and she points out the differences and similarities between British and American punctuation. Lukeman, an American writer and literary agent, sticks to style; he assumes that we come to the page with the knowledge, and now we need to apply it. As such, I’ll let Truss go first, then allow Lukeman to round out the conversation. And since I gave the apostrophe so much time last time, I thought I’d give the same amount of space to the comma here.

Following is an example from Truss’s book about how punctuation can change the meaning of a string of words:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing. (9)

Rearrange the commas and add a colon, and you have two completely different ideas.

Unlike the apostrophe, however, there is no neat little list of all the rules of comma usage. Although there are some hard and fast rules (as in always placing a comma between city and state: Jacksonville, Florida), many “rules” can be ignored and are merely there to satisfy the desires of some writers and editors. I’m kind of a “the more the merrier” kind of gal, whereas Lynne Truss uses commas less frequently. There is a purpose for commas, though, no matter how tricky that purpose is to define and apply.

More than any other mark, [Truss writes] the comma draws our attention to the mixed origins of modern punctuation, and its consequent mingling of two quite distinct functions:

1 To illuminate the grammar of a sentence

2 To point up – rather in the manner of musical notation – such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow

[. . .] On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune. (70-1)

I identify with Truss’s musical notation explanation because I am a musician as well as a writer. When you consider it that way, it seems so sensible. Why not allow it to do its job and aid the written word? After all, when we talk, we speak with inflection, and most of us don’t run all of our words together. But if you were to read a long sentence (such as this one), full of twists and turns and various types of clauses, without the aid of inner-sentence punctuation, you would find quite a mess. You might have to puzzle over a jumble of words several times before getting the emphasis just right. Commas can help.

Truss gives another analogy for the job of the little hooky-looking thingy that we know and love (but often misuse):

[B]etween the 16th century and the present day, [the comma] became a kind of scary grammatical sheepdog. As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a “separator” (punctuation marks are traditionally either “separators” or “terminators”) that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organizing words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory “woof” to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom. Commas, if you don’t whistle at them to calm down, are unstoppably enthusiastic about this job. (79)

Yeah, I am a wee bit guilty of letting my commas become unstoppably enthusiastic. You know that pesky Oxford comma? It’s the one in series that goes just before the “and”; it’s the last comma in: “I had an omlet, hashbrowns, and mixed fruit for breakfast.” My parents and I have many unresolved fights about this one. I’m right and they’re wrong. Except that they’re right and I’m wrong because I’m younger, and nothing I read (including Strunk & White) can refute their education. Doesn’t matter that I’m the editor. Well, as it turns out, we’re all right because the Oxford comma is optional. There are cases when it assists the clarity of a sentence. You could have lemonade, chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese (without the Oxford comma), or you could have lemonade, chicken fingers, and macaroni and cheese (with). Since “macaroni and cheese” is considered one item in that series, the comma helps tell the reader where the series will end. Okay, enough about that. You’re either going to be with me or against me (or likely not care at all).

There is one rule that Truss spells out quite clearly, and with which I hope we can all agree. And if you don’t get it. . . well, then you’re on your own, I’m afraid. “The big final rule for the comma is one that you won’t find in any books by grammarians. It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person. I mean it” (96). Yes, ma’am. She gives several examples, and my favorite is, “Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual.” If you ever see me write something like that, know that I’ve been abducted, and some doppelganger imposter has taken over.

So once you’ve figured out where to place that little bugger, Lukeman is the guy sitting in the plush chair with the notepad, watching you with one eyebrow raised, ready to help you discover what your comma placement means.

While Truss likens punctuation to musical notations and commas to sheep dogs, Lukeman borrows a quote from journalist Russell Baker that I like just as much. “In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard,” Baker says (28). A proliferation of commas or a complete lack of them not only guides the reader in hearing pauses (or not) in a phrase, but it shows something about the author, as well.

Knowing that I have a little problem with overindulging in commas, I was a bit anxious when I got to the part about what that means. I suppose it’s a bit like a literary horoscope.

The writer who overuses commas [Lukeman writes] tends to also overuse adjectives and adverbs. He tends to be repetitive, won’t be subtle, and often gives too much information. He grasps for multiple word choices instead of one strong choice, and thus the choices he makes won’t be strong. His language won’t be unique[. . .] This writer will need to simplify, to take a stronger stance, and to understand that less is more. (65-6)

Gulp. Okay, I suppose I am guilty yet again, although ever since taking multiple fiction workshops with my good friend Mark Ari many years ago, I’ve gotten much better about tightening my prose and losing adjectives and especially adverbs. I guess the commas are leftover scars, and I’m doing my best to remedy their use, while maintaining my own style.

But never fear, Lukeman also addresses those who don’t like commas.

There are two types of writers who underuse commas: the first is the unsophisticated writer who has not developed an ear for sentence rhythm. He is unable to hear fine distinctions, and thinks writing is solely about conveying information. (66)

Phew! Thank goodness that’s not me. Actually, I know I am also guilty of info dumping, especially in my early writing days. It’s something that I think many beginning writers fight – or don’t fight, if they lack proper instruction and criticism – and I see it all the time.

The second [type of writer, Lukeman continues,] is the sophisticated writer who (like Gertrude Stein) has an aversion to commas and underuses them on purpose [. . .] The danger for these writers is the rare problem of overestimating the reader [. . .] There is a need for marks – especially commas – to indicate ebbs and flows, pauses and pitch, division of clauses and meaning. The writer who ignores this is the writer who writes for himself, not with the reader in mind. He will not be a commercial writer, or plot oriented, but prose oriented, interested in nuances of style – but to a fault. (66)

This, I think, is where it’s handy to remember the image of the comma as the helpful sheep dog.

So if you scrutinize your comma usage, where do you fall? Are you scared that you don’t get your point across, using too many descriptions? Or do you just let it all flow and let the reader fend for himself? As with everything, I think a little moderation is in order here. Let the reader use his imagination a little, but don’t forget to leave a few cues along the way.

Call Me the Grammar Nazi

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Opinions differ about who originally said the above maxim. Many think it was Abraham Lincoln, and there’s a slightly different version attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, I think he (or she) would throw his hands up in despair if he saw what’s happening in social media these days. And in this instance, I’m speaking particularly of grammar.

Here’s the thing: a properly spelled and punctuated status update could very well contain nothing but idiocy; however, it appears better informed than a good argument that expresses itself poorly with terrible grammar. The ones that really drive me nuts are the school teachers who post things with really bad (and obvious) spelling errors. And you’re teaching our kids? I think. No wonder everyone complains about American education.

Not only do I take speaking and writing properly as a personal responsibility, but I also consider a thing of pride. And pride goeth before a fall; yes, I know. But I don’t want to be a poor representative of my education or my upbringing. English is my first language; it’s my job to know it.

Maybe I’m taking this a little too seriously. It could be that spelling comes to me naturally or that I have a gift with tongues. I fondly remember our spelling bee games in elementary school, which not only weeded out the bad spellers but prepared those of us who were going on to the real thing. In the fifth grade, the word that stumped me was “souvenir,” and although I spelled it wrong (I think I put an “i” instead of the “e”), I asked for the correct spelling and have known it ever since.

I wonder, though, about the other kids that didn’t make it. When they misspelled whichever words got them out, were they relieved that they didn’t have to do it anymore? Did they shrug it off and never give it another thought? Or did they do what I did and learn the proper spelling?

I know there is probably a certain percent of the population who don’t care one bit but still spell correctly because they’ve unconsciously absorbed and retained the information. So where does that leave the bad spellers who really want to get the words right but can’t ever seem to quite make it? I think that this minority is shrinking and being taken over by the shruggers, the people who think that it doesn’t much matter anyway.

Those of us who call ourselves writers should know better. More than that, we should do better. Especially considering the ease with which our words make it into one form of media or another, we should set ourselves apart by making our prose as clean and intelligible as possible.

I know of some famous authors who, without the aid of excellent editors, could never spell their way out of a paper bag. And I suppose I can believe that a bestselling author does not a good speller make. After all, there was a time before writing, when traditions were kept orally, through storytelling. There must have been countless storytellers in our world’s history who never needed to know teem and team are spelled differently.

On the other hand, this should not be a cop out. We do have a system of writing now, proper sentence structures and various forms of punctuation that have developed over the centuries as it became more common for people to read, and reading material became more accessible.

From road signs to advertisements, from books to newspapers, Internet columns to menus to instruction manuals. . . and the plethora of other ways we use words to get meanings across to others, I’m here to say it does matter. And no, I’m not going to pass by a restaurant for advertising “from scratch pizza’s” (I’ll pass by for dietary reasons instead), but I’ll be embarrassed for the person that created the menus. . . and even more embarrassed for the majority of the patrons who simply don’t notice. But as someone who reads cover letters on an almost daily basis, I always mentally move a candidate down a notch when he says he hopes his writing exceeds expectations, and the first sentence greets me with a big ol’ typo.

What in the world is the solution? Education is a big part. Caring is another, and I’m not quite sure how to make people care. In a culture where idiocy is applauded and can make you famous (just visit YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean), it’s a tough fight.

But while I’m preaching and feeling pessimistic, there is someone out there who put a little bit of a humorous spin on the whole “Grammar Nazi” thing. So check it out Why It’s Hard Being a Grammar Nazi, have a laugh, and then use a dictionary the next time you’re even the tiniest bit unsure about how to spell the plural of “hero.”