Thursday, August 14, 2014

In the Details

James O. Born

We’ve gone over a lot so far in our discussions about what it takes to write a novel.  There's the big picture of whether you are a writer versus a storyteller and how to get your story across in an interesting manner, whether it is by action or dialogue.  I throw up a lot of quotes and posters I find all over the Internet and in books.  And yet the one thing you should take away from all of this is there is no one rule to follow and today's topic is no different.

Punctuation may seem like something we learned in elementary school and we revisited it every year through high school.  It should be simple, a couple of splotches here and there on the page tell the reader when to pause or stop.  As with everything in writing a novel, it is not that simple.  And I am no grammar titan.  In fact, I’m a Floridian.

But I can't over emphasize how important details like punctuation can be.  One of the first things an editor will notice when reading your manuscript is poor punctuation.  You can try and keep it simple, but frankly there are times that call for something out of the ordinary.  Maybe it's something as simple as a semi-colon or an exclamation mark.  Personally, I use things like this very sparingly.  But these are choices you have to make.

Years ago, an editor read one of my manuscripts and felt like the sentences as a whole were too short and consistent; meaning I used no variation in the construction of each sentence.  Of course, he was right.  I have many faults, but admitting a mistake is not one of them.  I made use of the Word for Windows statistics that can review any document and learned that although my earlier books averaged about fourteen words per sentence, this book averaged ten.  That takes into account one word sentences.  But as my statistical background forces me to admit, this was a significant change in sentence structure from an earlier book.  It made me reread my early books as well as several authors I admire greatly, including Michael Connelly, and study as well as enjoy the novels.  Now, without conscious thought, most of my manuscripts are between fourteen and sixteen words per sentence.  A seemingly insignificant issue, which had completely escaped me, but was obviously impacted my storytelling. 

I'm not saying that was all punctuation's fault.  I think it was just a phase I was going through making each sentence blunt and to the point.  One of the things I truly hate is what some authors and editors referred to as "over writing," putting too many descriptors or flowery language into the text.  I'm not saying that I don't like this in some situations, but in crime novels generally I do not.

So let's look at the basics quickly.  What is in our toolbox of punctuation?  (And keep in mind this is extremely difficult to write using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software).

Now let's just wait a second.  Hold your horses and think for a minute.  After the tone of conversation we've had for almost half a year, do you really think I would be so condescending as to lay out a list of actual punctuation marks? 

That’s not the way things work here.  We need to have a simple and basic respect for each other.  I have to assume that if you are reading these blogs and interested in writing a novel you already have the basics of punctuation.

The point I'm trying to make is that simple mistakes like confusing their and they’re or your and you’re will turn off an editor almost instantly.  An excellent book to get some of this clear in your head and at the same time be entertained is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by  Lynn Truss.

The book explains the title well:

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” 

Admittedly, this is not a problem I often see an unpublished manuscripts.  Generally this is one of the easier things to correct.  But I felt it worth mentioning in the grand scheme of things.

This week’s quotes are:

“No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, "Good food at it's best", you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” 
― Lynne TrussEats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

“The almost-always-ghastly exclamation point has been lately compared to canned laughter.” 
― George F. WillOne Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation


  1. That's a very cool feature, detecting the number of words to a sentence. I looked for something similar on my MAC but didn't find anything.

    Some writers may think spelling/grammar aren't important because a copy-editing drone will correct everything later. As you point out: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

  2. James O. Born8/14/2014 2:29 PM

    I agree, Patty. It's all about first impression and impact.

  3. from Jacqueline: A very timely post, Jim - and your book recommendation is spot-on. I loved Lynne Truss' book (now then, when I was at primary school, we were taught that the possessive of a word (a name, for example) ending in "s" was simply to add the apostrophe as it denoted an additional "s." I still hate to see another "s" added (as in Truss's book ...).