A reader of my story blog, Death Sucks, was kind enough to offer some constructive criticism after he read the first episode.
That kind of input is great because it makes me think about whether or not what I'm doing is the right thing to achieve the effect I want.
Two of his notes were regarding the placement of commas. While this may strike some as picayune, I think where commas go is hugely important to how a reader feels and understands the narrative. Some commas go where they go by rule. Others are more malleable, and go where you want a pause or emphasis.
Here's the first sentence he pointed out.
I'd never been aware of my heart beating but, now that it had quit its constant lub-dubbing, I missed it.
The reader wondered if it shouldn't instead be:
I'd never been aware of my heart beating, but now, that it had quit its constant lub-dubbing, I missed it.
For me, commas created beats, or pauses, within a sentence. They give rhythm to the language, and can impact meaning as well. Here's the original version with pause substituted for the commas. Try reading it aloud.
I'd never been aware of my heart beating but pause now that it had quit its constant lub-dubbing pause I missed it.
Now for the alternative he proposed, out loud if you will.
I'd never been aware of my heart beating pause but now pause that it had quit its constant lub-dubbing pause I missed it.
Read out loud I think you'll agree that the added comma breaks the flow and sense of the sentence.
Here's the second sentence he questioned, original form:
I pushed up with a front paw and, even though I felt as weak as a kitten, it broke through easily.
The reader's alternative was:
I pushed up with a front paw, and even though I felt as weak as a kitten, it broke through easily.
Once more, with pauses, and I hope you'll read them aloud:
I pushed up with a front paw and pause even though I felt as weak as a kitten pause it broke through easily.
I pushed up with a front paw pause and even though I felt as weak as a kitten pause it broke through easily.
I'm sticking with the original version because, to my ear, it more clearly separates the clause relating to his feeling.
But wait, there's more. Here's another way to assess comma placement. Look at what happens if you cut out the clause and its attendant commas. Does the sentence still make sense? If you take out the commas and everything in between in my original sentence, you get:
I pushed up with a front paw and it broke through easily.
Makes perfect sense. Now for the alternative, sans clause and commas:
I pushed up with a front paw it broke through easily.
Oops. Let's see what happens with the first alternative placement he questioned. The original sans commas and clause:
I'd never been aware of my heart beating but I missed it.
The other way, same story:
I'd never been aware of my heart beating I missed it.
As an editor, some manuscripts call for constant insertion, deletion, or shifting of the commas. Others call for virtually none. The latter authors are "hearing" the words on the page.
The rule of 3
In comedy, when something is repeated for comedic effect, it works best with 3 repetitions. Two doesn't work at all and, while a fourth repetition can get a laugh, it's definitely weaker. Watch for it next time you see a stand-up comedian work.
I applied that rule in a sentence that this reader questioned, a sentence that I intended to have a humorous effect. It comes after Patch, the vampire kitty-cat, has been changed into a vampire and his heart has stopped beating. He narrates:
I thought, "Well, that's it." And then I thought, "Wait a minute, I'm still thinking."
My reader wrote this:
I think the initial words 'I thought' are redundant or possibly change one of the words 'thought'
The repetition of "thought" "thought" and "thinking" applies the rule of 3 and, in my view, to make "thinking" work as a punch line. For me, the repetitions of "thought" aren't redundant but absolutely necessary to set up the rhythm that makes the third occurrence have an ironic and comedic effect.
He also said this about those sentences:
I wondered over the use of actual dialogue when showing a 'thought'.
Yeah, I'm well aware of the convention of expressing thoughts with italics. And I'm a believer in not using the word "thought" in this way if an action beat can provide the clue.
But in this instance I wanted you to "hear" Patch saying this, as if he were talking to himself, even though he was thinking it. Drawing upon the convention of using quotes to let the reader know that they should perceive the words as "out loud," I tried to lead you to a sense of the spoken versus the internal. And, while I could have done without the words "thought" by just using italics, I would have lost the joke.
Again, it was good of this reader to offer critical thoughts. The more the better, say I.
For what it's worth.
Free edit in exchange for posting permission. You send a sample that you have questions about and of which you'd like an edit. I won't post it without your permission.
© 2005 Ray Rhamey