Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Settling the Serial Comma

Oh dear.  All this fuss about one little piece of punctuation, one little mark.  Not even a mark.  Maybe half a mark.  It’s slightly more than a period.  It’s a runny period.  It’s a period that has its period and doesn’t know it, so there’s – stuff – dripping out from under it.  We all know how some people get a little nuts during that time.  I guess that means a comma is female, a drippy comma some people want nothing to do with.  Poor comma.  No wonder she’s angry.  You’d be angry too if so many people wanted to get rid of you.  I’ve asked those people why they don’t like you, but all they say is “because we don’t need her.”  That’s hardly an explanation.
Seriously though, I’m tired of articles by people who, as far as I know, have very little credibility when it comes to language usage and training other than to have written their opinions on a website.  Yes, yes, I do that too, but I also had over three dozen years of training and practice before I got to this point.  I have over 160 college credits and three state-stamped pieces of paper that certify I know what the hell I’m talking about.  And what do the “serial killers” have?  Well, other than attitude and persistence, I’m not really sure.  What they also don’t have is patience, and I’ll prove it.
We don't need the comical cartoons that attempt to support the comma.  You know, the ones such as “the strippers, JFK and Stalin” or "Let's eat Grandma," which is about a different comma.  There was a successful book about someone who “eats, shoots, and leaves.”  I’m not really sure if that one applies because I haven’t read the book.  Why?  I don’t need to read the book.  After 25 years of teaching English and grammar, I have solid credibility.  I learned the rules.  In fairness, I also know that language is fluid and rules change when necessary.  Things change.  What “is” today may not “be” tomorrow.  Of course, like mutations that allow a fish to walk on sand, changes don’t happen that quickly.  They happen, no doubt there, but they might take a few hundred years.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever rolled your eyes when someone said “aks” instead of “ask.”  Now put your hands down because it actually was a word a few hundred years ago.  The full word – or words – were “ascian” and “acsian.”  Or, “AHK-see-AHN” and “AHS-key-AHN.”  They were Middle English words used in different areas of the Empire.  Ascian was used in a more industrial northern area, while acsian was used in the southern farming areas.
When immigrants came to America, the farmers who said “aks” naturally went to the southern, farming states while those who said “ask” were in the more industrial northern states.  Some have made the observation that “aks” is often used in urban areas and often by African-Americans as well as Caucasians living in mixed populations.  Through the inhuman conveyor that was slavery, African-American learned the use of “aks” from the southern farmers, the plantation owners who were also saying “aks” because it was a regionalism of language, just as people of certain areas say “soda” while others say “pop.”
Eventually, ascian was shortened to asc, and then ask.  Acsian became acs, or aks, but nobody who says it will spell it that way.  It’s something that was passed down through generations of people, mostly slaves, who did or could not read.  They learned language by using and hearing it, and that’s completely understandable.  I know language changes and evolves, and I know there may be a day when there is a good reason to drop the serial or Oxford comma.  That day, however, is not coming any time soon.
When I have asked those who trash the serial comma to explain why, their only answer is that “it isn’t needed” or “it’s a waste of time.”  To them I would say, “Your appendix is no longer needed.  Would you like me to remove it for you?”  Their answers to both questions are predictable for two reasons.  First, nobody wants an unnecessary amputation.  Second, because the only people in my limited contact who have called for dropping the comma are younger people.  It wasn’t until I was recently thinking about them while showering that I realized their problem.  Wait, I don’t mean I think about young people while showering.  What I mean is a younger guy called me out on this just after mowing the lawn and before showering, so I was thinking about him.  I mean, I don’t think about young men while showering.  It just happened to be a male who said – never mind.
anti_oxford_comma_speaker_system-r6fe35c7f613c4a72b64053cc4703d223_vs8xj_8byvr_324My point is that it is younger people, the 20-somethings who think they know everything just because they know that they know everything, they want to kill the comma.  Unless highly educated, nobody under 35 is against the comma, and with good reason.  Those young whippersnappers just have not read enough and, more importantly, have not written enough to realize the importance of the comma.  If you have not immersed yourself into photography, you won’t know each nuance of the various apertures and shutter speeds.  Not until you either take thousands of pictures and see the results.  That’s called experience feedback, to which the youngsters are allergic.  They’re too accustomed to hearing “good job” instead of “well, here’s where you can improve.”  “Improve?!” they exclaim.  “But I’m perfect!  I have a thousand grade-school soccer trophies to prove it!”  Yeah, go with that.
What the anti-comma crowd does not yet or refuses to understand is how many reasons there are for the serial comma.  As stated, not enough (I didn’t say “all”) of them have read or written much of anything longer than a blog post, and it was probably only half the length of this one.  They want to claim to know everything without learning or doing anything.  They want to say the easier thing must be better or correct just because it’s easier.
There is another crowd against the serial comma, but their reason is not time or effort.  Their reason is money.  Magazines and newspapers hate the serial comma as well as two spaces after periods because, in print, space is money.  Taking up less space in a story means more space for advertisements, which means more money.  Perhaps many serial killers have grown up reading magazines that skipped the comma, and that's part of the confusion.  Could be a contributing factor, right?  Oh well.
It seems the only thing left to do is write my views and hope the serial killers can pull away from Facebook, Big Brother, or their smart phones long enough to read this.  All of this.  And they won’t read all of this.  The proof will be in the comments left by serial killers.  They’ll out themselves by proving they didn’t even read the whole thing and thus learned nothing.  You’ll see.
In addition to not knowing why the serial comma is necessary, the youngsters also don’t realize there actually are situations in which you would NOT use the serial comma.  So if we never use the serial comma, it would cause too much confusion as to whether it was or was not a situation that actually called for it.  To the serial killers, that means thinking.  They don’t want thinking or reasoning.  They just want one method for everything, but that’s not good.  That’s like using either scissors or a buzz saw for all situations, keep one and toss out the other.  Maybe they’ll choose the buzz saw for their next haircut.
Oxford comma
So, let’s get started.
The easy example for not using the serial comma is when two items are commonly linked, such as “macaroni and cheese.”  It seems like two items, but they have been used together consistently enough that they identify one thing.  There is a distinct difference between a pile of macaroni next to a few slices of cheese as compared to the familiar blue box from Kraft that contains the ingredients for golden gooey melted heaven, an unnatural cheese-like substance poured over elbow pasta.  Because of the recognized link, any reference does not get the comma.  Thus I would write:
For lunch I had juice, a burger, and macaroni and cheese.
Notice that we also use “and” twice because one of them is embedded in the item.  One could argue, however, what if I really had a pile of rigatoni separate from but next to a few slices of Muenster or Swiss?  If so, I would instead write:
For lunch I had beer, a burger, macaroni, and cheese.
Let’s go back to the gooey cheesy/pasta heaven for a second.  To that, the serial killers might say, “Hey.  Context clues!  We know you’re probably having the Kraft version of macaroni and cheese, so you don’t need the comma.  I know what you probably mean.”  Probably?  But what if I’m not?  Is probably good enough?  Will everyone who carries a gun probably shoot someone?  Of course not.
Language removes the probable and possible through its preciseness because very often that’s all we have.  You weren’t there when I had lunch.  Therefore, you can’t be certain.  That’s why I must use or not use the comma, to make sure you know without question what I had for lunch.  That’s why, if I am talking to a room full of people and one person’s zipper is down, I won’t simply say, “Hey, your zipper is down.”  I will say, “Nathan, your zipper is down.”  Otherwise, everyone will grab their crotches.  That is why language needs preciseness.  Without it, wrong (yet funny) things will happen.
Of course a macaroni and cheese example won’t hurt anyone.  However, there are places and times when it might hurt someone, such as directions for operating heavy or medical equipment.  You can’t tell me that it can’t happen, but I can tell you that can happen.  Therefore, the serial comma is needed.  Now, how about the serial semicolon?
I visited Chicago, Illinois; Ventura, California; and Lafayette, Louisiana.
For those who might not know, when a comma within at least one part of a series, we use semicolons where the commas would have been.  Above, they appear after the states because a comma is needed between the cities and states.  Should someone feel steadfast enough to eliminate the serial comma, then what happens to that sentence?
I visited Chicago, Illinois; Ventura, California and Lafayette, Louisiana.
Now it seems that Ventura, California, and Lafayette are cities in Louisiana.  Or, it could be that Ventura and Louisiana are cities while there’s also a place called “California and Lafayette.”  Maybe it’s a college, like William and Mary.  Or maybe it’s just a big pile of shit that we will have to clean up once the youngsters have butchered our language.
In fairness, serial killers just don’t know.  Whether they were not taught or refused to learn, I can’t say.  However, it is clear they just don’t know why the serial comma is needed.  Based on most of what they write, they don’t even understand when to use a comma with a conjunction.  They don’t know the difference between a compound sentence, but that's a post for another day.
More important than not knowing a few rules about commas is the fact that serial killers have not yet grasped the most important aspect of writing – communication.  We do not write for “us.”  Writing is selfless.  Writing is for others.  We write to transfer our thoughts to others who do not know or have not seen what we have seen.  The youngsters are selfishly focusing on their own needs – mainly the need to do as little as possible – instead of the needs of those to whom they are writing.  Serial killers are writing to broadcast their own thoughts instead of writing so others can accurately understand those thoughts.  They only care about “Good job.”  They don’t understand the value of “Thanks, I appreciate how you explained that.  However, this could be better if you…”
Just as they seek to do away with the serial comma for their own convenience, the serial killers don’t have the patience to do more, learn more, understand more, and eventually gain more.  They only know “me” and “now.”  Until they can recognize not just the undeniable loss of a series without the comma, a difference that exists not in their own head but in the reader’s head, they likely cannot recognize the need for the comma.  In a way, expecting serial killers to knowingly and willingly use the serial comma is like asking someone to enjoy a food they are convinced they dislike without having tried.
For those who want to ditch the serial/Oxford comma, here is your chance.  Show me one instance, one example, just one sentence in which not having a serial comma is better.  Show me a sentence in which taking away the comma improves the sentence.  Until you can do that, then I stick by my claim that your motivation is nothing more than selfish laziness and your motivation is fueled by the belief that doing less equals having more.  Perhaps you can change my mind, but – when it comes to writing – it will take more work than you've done before.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Writing Advice

The only thing writers do more than write is give advice about writing.  Now that I am in a position to consider myself a published author, I thought I should look back at the writing advice I have given, been given, or overheard during the past few years while on the road to "sorta" publishing.  Yes, the “sorta” is accurate.  Although I am “published,” or will be soon with a small press, I have not yet reached my goal of being in print and in bookstores where anyone I know can walk by, see my name on a book, and say “I think I went to school with that idiot.”
Once everyone knows an idiot has been published, they are more likely to pay attention to the advice said idiot might offer and less likely to call you an idiot - to your face.  I don’t like to give advice, partly because I have noticed that advice is more freely given by unpublished writers.  That doesn’t make sense to me because I would think they would be published if they really knew what they were talking about.  However, to compare it to baseball, there are plenty of coaches giving advice on hitting even though they can’t hit.
With writing, it’s as if once an author is published, they stop giving advice because it might decrease their chances of being published again.  Their own club might become less exclusive.  Conversely, perhaps the unpublished writers are coughing out advice like phlegm in order to convince others they have actually been or could be published, they just haven’t gotten around to it yet.  Maybe if everyone would just shut up, we would have more time to write and get published instead of telling or avoiding telling others how to have your book on the same shelf as an idiot.
Another thing that bothers me about the whole advice thing is when a writer gives a general “blurb” of advice without actually explaining what you’re supposed to do.  For example, I recently wrote a post about writers who always remind us to “show, don’t tell” but without actually explaining what that means.  Luckily for you, I explained it.  You’re welcome.  Also luckily for you, I have found other examples of writing advice that were given to me without explanation, but I’ve managed to figure those out too.  I’ll follow those with a few of my own pieces of unwanted advice.

 1.  Join a writers’ groupscreen-shot-2011-04-01-at-9-20-12-pm
For now, let's put aside any confusion about where the apostrophe belongs in “writers’ group.”  One would assume it goes after the “s,” but sometimes I see it in front.  Let it go and focus on the “group” half of the term.  Why should you join a writer’s group?  Two reasons.  First, to learn if you really write as well as you think you do.  Second, to learn that you don’t really need to join a writer’s' group.  Let me explain.
The first writers's's group I joined was run by a woman who referred to herself as a published author.  Constantly.  Not five minutes would go by without her holding up one of her books or incorporating either an anecdote or one of her titles or characters into the conversation.  Every time someone asked a question, she would answer by talking about herself without much towards the question posed.  She needed someone to remind her that telling us what she did is not the same as telling us what we should or should not do.  If I need help picking a good color to paint my bathroom, it doesn’t help to tell me that you painted yours blue, not unless everything about our houses and bathrooms is identical.
She gave us writing assignments, and we shared our work.  I have to admit, I was intimidated for a bit.  I wasn’t sure how my work would compare to or be received by others.  Then I realized it didn’t really matter because, regardless of what you wrote, the only thing anyone else would say was “great job.”  It was pretty useless.  Nothing was even close to constructive.  She gave an assignment that we were supposed to complete, email to her, and wait for feedback.  We wrote, we emailed, but we never got the feedback.
The classes were supposed to be once every two weeks.  Fortunately, after about three classes I stopped getting emails about the next class.  I don’t know if it was intentional or accidental, but I do know that I was not upset about it.  I heard something about her taking a trip to the Caribbean, and then I think the group disbanded.  Or they're still in the library gathering dust, much like the encyclopedias.
Shortly after that experience, I joined the South Jersey Writers’ Group.  This is not a one-woman show.  It is organized with officers, subgroups, an annual anthology, and a lot of encouragement from the members.  At my first meeting, which was in a Howard Johnson’s banquet room, they went around the room as members announced what they had done since the previous meeting.  Members stood and rattled off things such as first drafts completed, recent chapters finished, submissions accepted, and rejection letters received.
The rejection letters was the best thing I had ever heard because, while most people offered condolences, I took it as inspiration.  I took it as, “Hey, loser (that being me) at least those people are trying.  How hard are you trying?”  I wasn’t trying at all.  A writers’ group can be a great kick in the ass, and I lucked out.
Finally, the best thing about this writers’ group is that twice a month there are off-shoot meetings at places like a small, neighborhood coffee shop in which nine or ten people bring laptops or notebooks.  They sit around a couple of tables, write, and ask questions or offer suggestions to each other.  Some just quietly write, some – like me – constantly ask questions such as, “What’s a sports team that everyone hates?” when I need something to include in a story or blog post.

2.  Read Publishers Weekly magazine8d4a43656c7b0e4e4abdf2d42fc64321ac2e7e
Seems simple enough except – why? I have read this advice many times, but nobody ever included why or exactly what is in the weekly magazine.  There are several different components to the magazine, but the most important is a list of coming book releases.  It’s broken down by literary fiction, mystery-thriller, science fiction-fantasy, poetry, romance, children’s books, and probably a few others.  For each new book it includes the author, publisher, and a blurb about the book.  Now, pay attention, because here’s the guts of the advice that nobody ever mentions.
Last year I wrote a thriller that I plan to query soon.  How do I know which publishers to send it to?  I can look through PW, find which publishers seem to favor thrillers, and pitch it to them.  If I’m writing a query letter to agents, I can look through PW to find one or two titles to which I can compare my book.  I’ve been told those comparisons are important in queries, but I’ve never been told how to find them.  I’m not about to read every book by every idiot on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, but flipping through PW only takes about five minutes a week.  By the way, you don't have to be published to call it PW.

3.  Write what you knowDylan at the Typewriter
That by itself is dangerous because it seems to suggest that if you’re a secretary as well as a writer, write about a secretary.  If you love baseball, as a strange number of writers do, write about baseball.  I don’t think that’s what the advice is supposed to mean, so I’ll give you my take.
My novel Connecting Flightto be published by Start Publishing, is set in a small, boring, suburban town.  I live in a small, boring, suburban town.  To make it easier on myself, I based the geography of the story on my actual street.  The houses, the layout, even the characters are all modeled after my actual neighbors.*  While other writers might make charts and graphs of houses and colors and streets and people – I’m just writing what I see out the window.  Why?  Because one of the many vital aspects of writing is consistency.  If the bathroom in your main character’s house has green towels in chapter 4 but yellow towels in chapter 6, your readers will know.
When you make everything up from nothing, you have a greater chance of breaking consistency.  When you go easy on yourself and “write what you know,” then you won’t have to worry about getting something wrong.  However, if your writing features details about the color of towels, then you’re not writing well.  I’ll explain that another day.
Also, when I write characters, I imagine the story as a movie.  I also imagine the actors I would choose to portray the characters.  I choose them based on a particular movie I have seen.  As I am writing, I no longer have to worry about remembering how I might have described each character.  I only need to remember which actor I had chosen for the role.
* If my neighbors ever happen to read the story and see who dies, who I turned into a serial killer, and how many are assaulted in ways I'd rather not discuss, they'll probably run me out of town on a rail.  BTW - that doesn't mean "on a train."  It's much more painful.  Look it up.

4.  Good writers are also good readersbonell-typewriter
It might seem obvious, but I need to be specific about my reasons.  The first has to do with writing styles.  I get annoyed by certain writing patterns, especially involving dialogue, such as when someone writes something like this:
“I am mad about something,” he said angrily.
I don’t like writers who constantly follow a line of dialogue with an attribution and an adverb.  In the Twilight series, Stephanie Meyer does this so much she must have the pattern inscribed on her laptop screen.  Here is a great/bad example of her:
“No,” he said opposingly.
First, I don’t think “opposingly” is a word.  Second, I’m pretty sure the “No” was enough to convey the idea that the speaker was in opposition to the other person.  The more you read other writers, the more you will pick up on what works or doesn’t work for you.  That will help you tune and improve your own writing style.  In The Shining by Stephen King, he referred to a metal bar as rattling “vibratorily.”  That was not just annoying to read but also ironic considering he is quoted as having said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Another reason to read more is because it gets you in the mood for writing, and that is very important.  When I read, I am reminded that what I have written might be just as good as what I’m reading.  It's just that nobody knows yet.  It is very encouraging to believe that even though I’m not nearly as accomplished as that particular author, perhaps at least I can write just as well.  I just have to work harder at what to do after having finished revising and editing.
There are other subtle but important things you can learn while reading, such as how to carefully place red herrings and ways to describe someone’s facial features in order to express what they are silently thinking.  These things make you want to get back to your computer and return to your current project.
One more –
5.  Know your writing goals??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
I have one real goal, which I've already explained - to be traditionally published and available in a real bookstore, either independent or nationally known.  In order to achieve that goal, I need to be fully aware of what it takes to get there.  That means multiple revisions, searching the right agents, building a solid query, and forging past rejections.  It also means baby steps along the way, such as “e-zines,” small presses, anthologies, and possibly self publishing.  It also means patience, work, and a willingness to accept negative feedback.  It also means sticking with those goals, which I don’t always do.
I love writing film reviews.  I love watching movies, but I usually hate reading other people’s reviews because too many reviewers don’t include much about the story.  They simply write what they loved and hated or how perfect the casting was, but they don’t describe the story – and the story IS the movie.  It takes work to explain enough of a story without explaining too much.  My reviews are intricate enough to color in the details and bring you into the beginning of the film.  My goal is to get you to a door but leave you outside with enough of an idea to tease you into possibly entering.  Then you can decide if you wish to open it or move on to the next door.
Yet as much as I won’t hesitate to spill 1,000 words on a film review, the by-product is that those 1,000 words could have been spent on another chapter in my next novel or short story.  Too many writers, definitely including me, get distracted by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  We need to focus on the primary goal.  Maybe later, after goals are reached, we can goof around on Facebook.
I also get distracted from my goals when I write over 2,000 words in a blog post about writing advice, but it's okay.  It's my gift to you.  This could have been 80% of another chapter in my current work in progress, but I didn’t take my own advice in #5. 
That’s because I’m trying to help – like all those other writers who haven’t really accomplished anything yet.