Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Finest Details - Part II

Punctuation reveals the writer: haphazard commas, for example, reveal haphazard thinking…

Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style

In the last post, I dealt with Point of View, noting the options available to an author and then discussing their limitations. The main point behind that post was to express how quickly an author can lose a critical audience by violating point of view. To be fair, readers are willing to overlook POV violations if they are limited, especially in novels. After all, writers are people too. Consistent violations of POV, however, are not minor oversights to be ignored. Instead, they become distractions and create an environment of distrust.

Throughout my years of studying the craft, I have also seen other areas (or pitfalls, if you will) where authors can lose their audience. Today’s post deals with the abuse of punctuation.

Though I’ve been writing stories for over six years, I can still remember a criticism I received early on while trying to develop my craft. The criticism concerned my excessive use of commas and came after I posted an excerpt on the WD Forums. Even now, I remember thinking: Who is this guy and what makes him so special? In a freak moment of clarity, instead of popping off with some extraordinarily witty remark, I decided to search the Internet. It was a good thing I did. As it turned out, the “guy” had previously written multiple novels and was then working as an editor who spent his days reading through slush piles. Clearly, I couldn’t ignore what he had to say on the issue, and since that time I have constantly reviewed my stories with his remarks in mind.

Looking at Noah Lukeman’s comment above, I only included the example (i.e., the comma) because it related to the criticism I received in the Forums. The first clause, however, is the key: Punctuation reveals the writer. It reveals the writer's skill of language, of poetry, and how well he can create a pleasurable experience for the reader.

As a conductor can influence the reading experience, so can punctuation influence the reading experience, bring out the best (or worst) in a text.

Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style

While there are many uses of punctuation, some of them extremely powerful, there are also many pitfalls. As noted above the excessive use of commas acts like a series of speed bumps* that slows a reader down. The same can be true regarding a paragraph of short sentences, which feels more like something a reader would expect from a Dick-and-Jane book than from a novel of eighty thousand words. Still, in the hands of a crafted novelist, the comma can provide the necessary rhythm that makes a story as relaxing and hypnotic as listening to a cool mountain stream.

Beyond rhythm, the comma can be used as a tool to enhance meaning. For example, take notice on how Tess Gerritsen uses commas in this passage from The Surgeon.

I know how it will happen. I can picture, quite vividly, the sequence of events that will lead to the discovery. By nine o’clock, those snooty ladies at the Kendall and Lord Travel Agency will be sitting at their desks, their elegantly manicured fingers tapping at computer keyboards, booking a Mediterranean cruise for Mrs. Smith, a ski vacation at Klosters for Mr. Jones. And for Mr. and Mrs. Brown, something different this year, something exotic, perhaps Chiang Mai or Madagascar, but nothing too rugged; oh no, adventure must, above all, be comfortable.

What I find interesting in this passage is how easy the reader can see the sarcasm toward people who flow through life too absorbed in their own world. And did you notice that last clause? After setting the tone with a highly charged word like snooty, Gerritsen sandwiches the phrase “above all” between two slices of comma bread, as if to further emphasize the narrator’s disdain. While some writers would have italicized the words to give them emphasis and punch, by isolating the phrase with commas Gerritsen achieved the same effect.

The point emphasized by this example is that punctuation matters. A writer that tosses in commas and ellipses and exclamation points like seasonings on a salad, without considering how they will affect the outcome, may turn what could be a delightful dish into a mouthful of Yuck. And just like Mr. Lukeman’s comparison of punctuation to music, a writer should consider thoughtfully how his work will be read, even down to the placement and use of a comma.

At least that’s how I see it.

What about you?

(* In Chapter 2 of A Dash of Style, Lukeman refers to commas as The Speed Bump)

Other News:

My short story “A Leap of Faith” found a home with The Nautilus Engine, a quarterly webzine of speculative fiction. Feel free to give it a read and let me know what you think.

Still working on polishing up a couple more stories to send out before I resume the task of revising my novel.

Until next time…