Monday, 7 April 2008

Purging the Comma

I’m busy with yet another edit of the novel I’m submitting to agents.

I found writing the pitch and synopsis so difficult, such a test of endurance; I was astonished to receive two requests for sample chapters. My letter and synopsis had worked! I couldn’t believe it; I was high as a kite! 

But several weeks later, I had been kindly rejected by both.
Uh, oh…

So I went back to the manuscript. Some agents might not like the style, the voice, or the story. But if they do, it must be as perfect as humanly possible, which meant… I needed to address, what seemed to me, a sometimes-funky use of the comma.

The comma is the punctuation mark with which I struggle. Whenever I’m unsure about whether or not a comma is necessary, I remember an episode from childhood. I panic, becoming incapable of making a confident decision, because I have post-traumatic comma disorder (PTCD).

For a whole terrifying year, a very stern and scary teacher shrieked at me because of my use of the comma: “NEVER, EVER! USE A COMMA BEFORE THE WORD, AND.”
(I sneaked one into that quote as an act of defiance.)

Clearly he was wrong.

But still, I lack confidence in using the comma.


Eamon said...

'I love eating oysters and muscles with with worcester sauce'.

'I love eating oysters, and muscles with worcester sauce'.

These two sentences have slightly different meanings (with / without the comma). Your teacher got it very wrong!

Mary said...

He got it very wrong indeed, Eamon. His ‘methods’ left most of the class in complete confusion.

I understand the correct usage. But if I’m feeling tired or uncertain, that memory comes back.

Catherine J Gardner said...

Wow, getting requests (even if rejection follows) is amazing. I keep getting 'go away don't bother us ever again' letters, or close to. :)

Oh and I HATE commas...

Mary said...

Cate: I’m glad you hate commas, too!

I bought an interesting book today, THE LOVE CURSE OF THE RUMBAUGHS by Jack Gantos. For some reason, as I lifted it off the shelf, Lucy B popped into my mind. :)

Eamon said...

Punctuation / grammar is important but not that important!

First, write! Write what comes out naturally and what sounds good. If there are bad punctuation / grammar mistakes then you can always come back and fix that. The important thing is to get something interesting down, and not be shackled by punctuation / grammer in the first place.

Mary said...

Eamon: I absolutely agree that one should get on with the writing!

This post is about the stage where a novel has been written, edited, polished and re-polished. It is being submitted to literary agents -- with the eventual hope of publication. :)

(I love grammar and punctuation, but some of those pesky little commas seem BEASTLY by edit no. 569.4!)

Barrie said...

What a great sense of humour you have!

I say: Don't sweat the comma! It will never stand between you and an offer of representation because it just doesn't have that kind of power.

Good luck with the agent search!

Mary said...

Thanks, Barrie!

I plan to take your good advice. :)

Natalie said...

I feel your comma pain, Mary! I've heard it said that once a writer knows the rules, s/he's got permission to break them. So I think you should declare that you're a comma expert, and anything that readers may interpret as a "mistake" is just you flaunting your comma prowess. :-)

Mary said...

Such hair-swishing style, Natalie! Thank you. I LIKE IT. :)

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eamon said...


(good luck with the book by the way) let us know how you get on.

Mary said...

Thanks, Eamon. Will do. :)