Comma Crisis (Averted)

OK, folks, here’s the story. I got involved with this writing group. On my first critique, within about fifteen minutes of having met me, one of the other members of the group pointed out the five places where I should have used a semi colon instead of a comma, as well as advising that I remove an apostrophe.

I succinctly explained why the apostrophe was correct. Then I acknowledged that in each place I could have used a semi colon. Sometimes when I am inwardly appalled, I get super polite. I think this comes from a combination of having grown up in the South and having worked in bookstores for many years. When you lose your shit in front of an irritating customer, it means that the customer has won.

And so I turned the question back at the group. I explained that, while technically there should be semi colons here, I was writing a litany. I was using commas for effect. The sentence was the last one in the section and said “We didn’t need A. We needed X, we needed Y, we needed Z.” (Rest assured, the sentence was a bit more interesting than that.) This is not a scientific article, it is a work of creative prose. Sound is important, and semi colons would have been clunky there.

I used to use semi colons in my poems until one of my poetry buddies (and my dear companion from my copyediting class back in the day—one of our favorite memories ever was sitting in the bar after class arguing about the serial comma) gently suggested that I didn’t need to be quite so rigorous in my creative work.

I’m trying to look at the issue as an editor. If I were editing creative work, would I let it go by? At first I thought no. But then I thought about the memoir I am editing. My author has sentence fragments that I don’t change. She is also writing for rhythm and voice. Putting a subject in the fragment would slow the rhythm down. And so, I will keep my commas.

And to my non-editor writer friends, I assure you I misuse commas all the fuck over the place when I am writing. And I quit the group. What are your writing dilemmas today?

 

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26 responses to “Comma Crisis (Averted)

  1. Your a damn smart editor, Indy.

    I wrote about the boy (who happens to be my daughter) who cried wolf today. It was fine. I mean, I got the story down but the prose just sucks. I don’t know if it’s my dilemma or my challenge but there’s a revision in there somewhere.

  2. This is EXACTLY why I’m writing-group-averse these days. Talking and defending the use of commas and semicolons and sentence fragments has zero place in a writing group. This is work left to the writer and his/her editors, later, after the real storytelling has been done.

    What a waste of time. Good for you for quitting. You’ll be publishing your book and I’ll they’ll still be arguing, probably incorrectly, about the proper use of semicolons.

    • Heh. One of the members seemed as if he would be a great reader of my work. But other than that…well, if I ever meet you in person, I’ll do my best dramatic retelling of one of the stories.

      • Not that I’d know, but seriously, I think you should go back and steal that guy. Helpful critique is not so easy to find that we can afford to leave a good’un behind.
        Actually, I was in a sucky writers group. I left it, started my own, and invited the very few excellent members to come along.
        We now have a great little group that works. Really works. The writing, and writers, get better.

  3. “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

    Then again, he was a heteronormative bitter old fuck.

  4. I went to a workshop once where my ‘critique partner’ told me she didn’t read stories in the genre I used, so she only skimmed the first page. Her only comment beyond that is that I’d underlined the title of a newspaper when I was supposed to italicize (or vice versa, I’ve blocked it).

    Luckily, the instructor called her on it and gave me another partner, but holy cow do I understand why you left.

    My dilemma today is that I’m still not sure when my story is set. My MC comes off as kind of a Chicago-based Rat Packer, and I’m not entirely sure if he fits in the more modern setting he’s moving through. I can fix him and his distinctive voice, or I can fix almost everything else in the story . . . or let it ride and hope he isn’t an anachronism. Sigh . . .

      • Also, I once turned in a poem to a group of prose writers. Most of them said “I can’t critique this, I’m not a poet,” and I just wanted to shake them and scream “You all are halfway through an MFA in CREATIVE WRITING, just try.”

      • Exactly, Indy. I once turned in a lyric essay and one person handed it back to me with the words, “This is beyond my pay scale.” I wanted to f-ing throttle him and say, “You’ve written 3 novels! You write for a travel magazine. And this is your 2nd masters degree program!! Try!!”

  5. I suppose this is the thing I’ve never gotten about writing groups (I was only ever in one in a creative writing class in college) is when people get caught up on the punctuation (barring it making the piece unreadable) instead of trying to help you figure out how to improve the meat of the story. It’s like worrying about the plate the food is on and not caring that the meat hasn’t been cooked yet. So silly. Good call on your part to not go back but I wonder if you could contact the one man who had some insight and set up something just with him?
    As for editing myself, the few times I’ve been a beta reader, well, I’m a hard-ass. I comment on everything from plot misses, to character logic, to word-choices, all of it. I really enjoy doing it, but I think it’s hard on the poor soul who asked because I have trouble just giving a light touch. My logic is that if I’m the last person to see it, it could be the difference between an agent liking it or noticing the same thing I do. Not that my insights are right, but at least it gives them an idea of issues I had so they can then look and see if it rings true or not. Unfortunately, I can’t do it as much as I’d like because it’s so time-consuming for me as I’m rather all or nothing. If I’m reading critically, it’s all-in and I just don’t have that kind of time (fortunately for the poor souls, methinks) when I’m working on my own MS.
    As for Vonnegut…GAH!! Unreadable?? But, but, but…(deep breath) I will leave it that I have a different view on Mr. Vonnegut than you and dear Doctor Cougar. But that’s the beauty of books and why the idea of Walmart and Target taking over the book buying industry frightens the hell out of me. We don’t all love the same things and it’s the beauty of all of it that makes the world go round. Did I mention I don’t just like him, I LOVE him?? Yes, I said it, I absolutely adore Kurt Vonnegut.

    • You just have to warn them. “Give it to me to edit at your own risk.” Then it’s fair game.

      Did I trash Vonnegut? I don’t care for his books, but I’m way to savvy to mention that in public. Oh, wait…

  6. I admit my inadequacy. I am un-Vonnegutable. I kowtow before you O Lyra, O Harryipants, O Teri (not you Indy. that would be a step too far)

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