Friday, April 26, 2013

Punc--EEK! Putting on the Breaks (Dashes, parentheses, colons and semi-colons)

Okay, another bad pun. Sorry about that.

English punctuation has a sliding scale of stopping power. From the gentle lift-off-the-accelerator of a comma to the stomp-on-the-brakes of a period (and its relatives, the question mark and exclamation point), a full range of pauses is at your command. Let’s look at each one, shall we?

We’ve spent several sessions on the comma, which can be used to indicate the briefest of pauses or simply to provide clarity. Commas give you a chance to take a quick breath and let you know when you need to watch for a minor change in direction or a lower speed limit.

One step up from the comma is the semi-colon (;). It’s a signal you should move from the accelerator to the brake, but you don’t need to panic. In fiction, use it with restraint in narrative but rarely if ever in dialogue. Most often you’ll see it used to replace a conjunction between two short independent clauses: Fernando drives a Ferrari; Sebastian drives a Red Bull. In this instance, the conjunction could be and, while, or but. The two halves of the sentence should be closely related, just as they would be if you used a conjunction. Fernando drives a Ferrari; the sky is blue just won’t work.

Next up you’ll find the paired punc, parentheses and dashes. Parentheses are so lackadaisical they must always be in pairs. Fernando drives a Ferrari (the red car), while Sebastian drives a Red Bull (the blue car). Notice the closing parenthesis at the end of the sentence. The closing punctuation, whether a comma, period, exclamation point, or question mark, goes outside the parentheses unless it belongs to the words inside. Fernando drives a Ferrari (the red car), while Sebastian drives a Red Bull (is that the blue car?). Yes, you need the question mark, close parenthesis, and the period. 

If a sentence were the Indy 500, parentheses would be caution periods. The race goes on but not a lot happens. You can safely go for a hot dog and ignore what happens inside the parentheses or during the caution. Some publishers prefer to have no parentheses in fiction.
Dashes, in the Indy 500 scenario, are pitstops. They’re loud and important. What goes on during a pitstop or within dashes can make a huge difference in the race or in the sentence. Plan your pitstops carefully and use them only when you really want to make a point: Fernando drives a Ferrari—the fastest  car on the track—while Sebastian drives a Red Bull—the most fuel-efficient car. Two things to notice here. First, when dashes occur in the middle of a sentence, you must use two of them. Don’t start the pitstop with a dash and finish with a comma. Second, a dash preempts a comma or semi-colon. See how I had to rewrite the sentence to delete the semi-colon and include a conjunction (while)?
Because the dash is so noticeable, use it with care. Make sure the information it encloses is something you want to emphasize.

Finally, the colon (:) is a red flag.  It yells, “STOP THE RACE. PAY ATTENTION. SOMETHING BIG IS GOING ON.” The colon usually prefaces “an element or series of elements amplifying or illustrating what has preceded the colon.” (CMOS 15, 6.65.) I used the colon in this way in the fourth and sixth paragraphs in this post. In UK usage it sometimes serves as an emphatic stop, but this use is generally not accepted in North America. The colon is seldom used in most modern fiction.

To sum up: to go from 60 mph to a standstill, use a comma, then a semi-colon, parentheses, dashes, colon, and period. 

Enjoy the race!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Oh, the agony! The what?

I don't know about you, but I've just about had it with commas. Let's talk about something else for a change. I know! Ever wonder about question marks and exclamation points? 

These two punctuation marks are pretty easy to understand. Just don't ask me to explain why one is a "mark" and the other is a "point."

Use question marks at the end of questions, and exclamation points at the end of exclamatory sentences. So far, so good. Want a few examples? You got it.

What was he doing? Was she wrong? These are clearly questions, so you need the question mark. But let's rewrite the sentences a bit. She wondered what he was doing. She asked if she was wrong. Although these sound like a question, they aren't. They are indirect questions and do not need question marks.  What was he doing? she wondered.  Yes, you're seeing right. That's a question mark in the middle of a sentence, and it's correct. Notice there is no comma.

A one-word question doesn't need a question mark: My dad said I couldn't go. I asked him why. You could also say I asked him why not and still not need a question mark.

Exclamation points are even easier. Use them to express an emphatic or strong emotion, like anger or surprise. Danger, Will Robinson! Oh, you startled me!  Sometimes a sentence that is a question in form, like Why do computers hate me? is really an exclamation, and should be punctuated so. Why do computers hate me! 

In order to be effective, exclamation points should be used with restraint. How many times a day are you really scared or really surprised? Let your text convey the emotion. Can you use both a question mark and an exclamation point!? No. Choose which mark will best express your intent, and go with that one. And never ever use multiple exclamation points!!!

I once edited a non-fiction book by a local author. Great guy and a fascinating read, but boy, did he he love exclamation points!!!!!!! I kept taking them out and taking them out, and he joked he'd lose three pages of manuscript before I was done. When I went to his release party, I gave him the hundreds of exclamation points I'd cut from his work, contained in a little drawstring bag. He tells me he uses it as a paper weight.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Punc--EEK! Comma Chameleon

Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon
Okay, my age is showing. Please don’t laugh at me. The point is, commas can do a chameleon job on a sentence.  For example:

The driver who won the race was awarded a trophy.
The driver, who won the race, was awarded a trophy.

Although both of these sentences are punctuated correctly, they mean very different things.

In the first sentence, with no commas, any driver who won got a trophy. In grammatical terms, “who won the race” is restrictive. It restricts who gets the trophy.

In the second sentence, the driver, who just happened to win the race, got a trophy. In grammatical terms, “who won the race” is nonrestrictive. The driver got a trophy, and oh by the way, also won the race.

Maybe it will make more sense in context:
1. The driver who won the race was awarded a trophy. The driver who came in second got a bottle of champagne. The other drivers were awarded a dashboard plaque.
2. The driver, who won the race, was awarded a trophy. The pit crew was treated to a party. The team owner received a large check.

In example 1, “who won the race” specifies which driver. Only the winner gets a trophy. The paragraph concerns the rewards given to the participants in the race. In example 2, which concerns the rewards given to the members of a racing team, “who won the race” is just a bit of extra information and could be eliminated without changing the meaning.

Remember the example from a couple weeks ago? “I’d like you to meet my brother Dave.” The same rule applies. What this sentence means is, “I’d like to introduce you to my brother named Dave. My brother named Tom isn’t here.” Dave and Tom are restrictive because they specify which brother. (Not that either of my brothers has ever been able to restrict me. Hah.)

Got a headache yet? Don’t get too hung about the definition of restrictive vs. nonrestrictive. Just remember this--if the information in the phrase or clause could be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence, you need to put commas around it. If the information specifies a particular person or thing, do not use commas.

Incidentally, another way to determine whether or not to use commas is to try putting dashes or parentheses around the words. If you could do so without changing the meaning, use commas. Be aware, however, that dashes are very emphatic, and parentheses are generally frowned on in fiction.

Note to my readers in southern New Hampshire: I’ll be speaking at noon about “Place as a Character” at the Southern NH Outdoor Recreation Show tomorrow, April 13, 2013. For more information, go to

Monday, April 8, 2013

Last week Shellie Saunders introduced her new novel, Broken Vessels. This week she releases the lovely trailer for it. Click on the image below to watch.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Punc--EEK! Commas Pt. 2

“Officer, I’m sorry I was speeding.”
“I’m sorry I was speeding, Officer.”
“I was speeding, Officer, and I’m sorry.”

Hands up if you’ve used one or more of the above. Me, me, and me. I drive like Danica Patrick, but I’m not as pretty. And I don’t crash as often.

Since we’re talking about commas, take a note of them in those first three sentences. See how they separate “Officer” from the rest of the sentence? That’s a rule for you to follow: Commas set off words of direct address. I’m sure you’ve seen books in which the comma is omitted before the name: “I’m sorry I was speeding Officer, and I’m sorry.” According to UK usage, you can do that. Publishers in North America frown on the omission, however.

I have to admit this is a pet peeve of mine, drilled into me by Sister Lucille in second grade. I can still hear one of the less gifted readers in that class. “See Spot run comma pause Jane period drop your voice. Run comma pause Spot comma pause run period drop your voice.” Poor guy. But the rest of us sure got clued in to using commas around words of address.

If you need a comma or two for setting off names, you can shift them from their erroneous positions after conjunctions. But she wasn’t speeding. And she didn’t get a ticket. So she got to the track on time. This rule highlights another pet peeve of mine: Do not use commas after conjunctions, even if the conjunction starts a sentence.

But, I hear you complain, you said to put a comma where you would take a pause if you were reading aloud. (And what about that comma after the first word of this paragraph? We’ll get to that.) A lot of writers use a comma to indicate the emphasis put on a conjunction. I like to drive fast. But, I hate to get a ticket. Yes, you can imitate spoken words this way, but that doesn’t make it correct. If you want to emphasize the conjunction, use a dash: But—I hate to get a ticket. Better yet, rewrite to avoid the problem altogether by making the rest of the sentence stronger. I like to drive fast, but getting a ticket is the pits. Or Even though I like to drive fast, getting a ticket sucks.

About that But, I wrote in the preceding paragraph. In this instance the comma is one of two setting off the interjection I hear you complain. The sentence would be complete and make sense without the interjection, right? It’s not essential to the sentence, so you need to set it off with commas. The interjection can be an independent clause (one that could stand alone as a complete sentence) a dependent clause (I bet you can figure that out), or a single word or short phrase (But, hey, you said…) Commas set off interjections.

Wow, three rules in one week! You’re on your way to comma mastery. For really fun discussions, see Lynne Truss’ wonderful book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Really detailed but not so much fun discussions can be found in CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style).
Next time: Comma comma comma chameleon.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Introducing Shellie M. Saunders

Please welcome Shellie M. Saunders, author of the newly released self-published novel, Broken Vessels. I had the privilege and joy of editing the book, and I was moved by this heart-warming novel of loss, redemption, and family strength. I’m glad you’re here, Shellie, and congratulations.

Shellie has 15 years’ experience in writing and publishing  everything from children’s stories to marketing materials. She has degrees in Print Journalism and Written Communications. She lives in Detroit with her husband and daughter.

Here is the blurb for Broken Vessels:
By all outward appearances, 27-year-old Trinity Porter has everything figured out. In reality, she has spent years hiding behind a fa├žade, and now it's starting to crumble. With her world turned upside down, she questions her faith and must make a decision. Will Trinity get out of God’s way or continue to do things her way?

Tell us about writing Broken Vessels. How did you get started?
Thanks, Nikki! Although much of my writing has been nonfiction, I’ve wanted a career as a novelist since college. I started Broken Vessels years ago after getting the idea for a scene that later became part of Chapter 2. I sat down and wrote it. Then I had no idea what to do with it, so I put it away and went on with life. Over the course of about a year, I wrote down plot ideas. When I was ready, I began working on character development, revisited that first scene and looked at it against my notebook to determine if anything could be integrated into the story. From there I started to write and let the characters tell me where they wanted to go.

Did you do a lot of research or did it come out of life experience?
It’s funny you ask, because the answer is both. I have a vivid imagination and a background in technical writing, which complements my analytical nature. Much of what I wrote--like the setting--started with life experience. Broken Vessels is set in Detroit, and I’m from metro Detroit. I integrated jewels and staples of the area to promote familiarity and nostalgia to those who know Detroit and to reveal a refreshing side of the city to those who know it only from the media. Once I got started writing, the technical writer in me came out and I got into the research. I had to blend historical factors, explore Biblical messages and create believable scenes. I enjoy merging imagination with research because it helps create realistic scenes. I want readers to say, “I’ve been there” about a place they’ve never been.

You certainly succeeded in that. I had a very clear picture of your settings. What was the hardest part of writing or publishing the novel?
Finishing. Even when I completed the manuscript, it wasn’t done because I am a perfectionist. The manuscript went through two rounds of editing, where you helped me to tighten up the flow. Then it went through several rounds of proofreading because I wanted to ensure that any spelling errors and inconsistencies were fixed. It was worth the extra attention to detail, because I now have a better product.

It’s a truism that no writer can edit her own work, but it’s always a thrill to see it shine after the red pencil does its job. Are you a pantser or a plotter? A little of both?
Without a doubt, I was born a pantser. In school I used to write a paper first then do the outline, so it is no surprise that style carried over to writing a book. With Broken Vessels, I had no idea how the book would end. As the story evolved, I was inspired to write about finding faith despite tribulation. I let the characters to take me on a journey without realizing that I would actually grow with them—especially Trinity, whom I admire for her strength, sense of humor and deep-seated desire to follow her moral compass. In the future, I will probably do things more traditionally and use an outline, but there won’t be a great departure from allowing my imagination to drive the writing process.

Umm, a word of experience. My characters look at my outline, laugh hysterically, and do whatever they want. It’s like herding butterflies. I know you work full time in business writing. Do you have a routine for your fiction writing? What distracts you? How do you deal with dry spells? (I don’t like to call them blocks.)
Because of my work schedule and the fact that my husband and I are raising a toddler, I end up writing on nights and weekends. Whenever I do get a little down time, I’m writing. My husband jokes that my laptop is an appendage. Ironically, what tends to distract me is my laptop because I end up floating over to Facebook or e-mail. I’ve figured out one solution, though. Starting a Facebook Fanpage (Shellie M. Saunders) has let me write and be on Facebook at the same time. How’s that for a little ingenuity?

When I get a dry spell, I find that it’s best to step away and regroup. That may mean working out, taking a walk, listening to music or calling an old friend. And you never know if something you see or someone you talk to will spark your creativity. When I have to take a writing break, I try to keep a pocket-sized notebook nearby so I can jot down any inspiration.

I have notebooks everywhere, but my tidy husband keeps putting them “away.” Do you remember the first book you ever read?  The first story you wrote?
The first book I remember was A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, but the first story I remember reading was Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. by Judy Blume. I think I was nine when I read it, and though I was several years younger than Margaret (the protagonist) I connected with her. The first story I remember writing was called “He Can’t Hurt Me Anymore.” It was a ninth grade English project about a girl dealing with the death of her abusive father. The story was a distinct deviation from my own upbringing, but it let me test my ability to create a character whose experiences and family were very different from my own.

What about the book are you most pleased with/proud of?
The aspect that pleases me most about Broken Vessels is that it addresses topics that are usually off limits for stories with a Bible-based message. Broken Vessels reflects real people, using realistic language and scenarios, so I think it offers something that everyone can relate to.

What are you working on now? Is it related to Broken Vessels?
I have two projects that I will soon be putting to paper. One is a sequel to Broken Vessels and the other puts a modern day spin on a scandalous Bible story.

Thanks for being here, Shellie. It's been a lot of fun, and I wish you all the best with Broken Vessels.

Where can we find you? 
Twitter: @ShellieWrites