Confessions of a Serial (Comma) Killer

by Zoë Sharp

Sorry if I’ve been a bit quiet this last week or so, but I’ve been somewhat out of circulation, if you know what I mean. Been doing a bit of time – hard time, as it turned out, for crimes against the English language.

I’ve spent the last ten days in the custody of the Punctuation Police.

They didn’t so much ask me to help with their enquiries as kick my door down at 2:00am, yank me out of my placid complacency and bundle me, hands tied, into the back of an unmarked car. Then it was a short rough ride to the station, where I believe they may have thrown me down the stairs on the way to the cells, but I can’t be sure about that. Sleep deprivation does strange things to your short-term memory.

All I know is, I’ve acquired some strange psychological bruises that I can’t seem to account for, and a general feeling of having been thoroughly battered.

They read me my rights, of course. Told me that whatever verbs of utterance I dared to omit would be reinserted with a sharp red pen, and undoubtedly used against me in a court of law. They told me they suspected I was a serial comma killer and would be sentenced accordingly. They told me I was wildly inconsistent in every statement I’d made, that I had been caught for the heinous crime of wielding grammar in a manner likely to cause offence to gentlefolk, everywhere.

In mitigation, I asked for numerous flagrant misuses of restrictive which and non-restrictive that to be taken into account.

But after ten days of relentless interrogation, of having to recount my every move, justify why I took every shortcut, why I broke every rule, I came pretty close to breaking myself. I came within a hairsbreadth of saying, "OK! Enough! I give in. Put whatever you like in front of me and I’ll sign off on it." And when they sensed the weakness, I heard them sniggering at me from beyond the circle of the bright lights, in that superior way they have when they know that might is right, and right is on their side.

That’s the thing about the SemiColon Constabulary – they know all the tricks so much better than you do, and they’ll use them to rip the guts out of you. (Or should that be to rip out half your guts?) Then they fashion a noose, stand back and let you hang yourself.

And the worst thing is, by the time they’ve finished, you daren’t even leave a note.

All joking aside, as you can probably gather from the bitter, bitter tone, I’ve just been going through copyedits. And what fun it’s been. Not.

Don’t get me wrong – I like being edited. Factual goofs are factual goofs, whichever way you look at them, and I’m incredibly grateful to anyone who points them out before the book gets into print. It stops us all looking stupid. But what is proper punctuation? Why is it there at all? And when do the rules of the game become more important than the game itself? (Although, as these are largely rhetorical questions, I do realise that strictly speaking they shouldn’t be accompanied by a question mark.)

I know full well that I flout the rules on this score. No, that’s not true. It’s just that I use punctuation for what seems to me to be its oldest, truest purpose. To tell the reader when to pause, when to draw breath. If it’s a fast action scene with no pauses then don’t expect any commas either.

Writing my series in first person, I hear the rhythm of the words and phrases going through my main character’s head, and that’s how I write them down, unencumbered by the tight little corset of formal language and the equally stifling conventions of literary construction.

Charlie Fox might once have been a well brought up young lady, born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, but that selfsame spoon disappeared very promptly when she joined the British Army. Somebody probably pinched it. And if a spell among the rough and ready lads in Special Forces taught her to swear with the best of them, getting thrown out in disgrace taught her a whole new language altogether.

So her view of the world is cynical and weary, tinged with sorrow, fringed by her own humanity and the knowledge of how paper-thin is the veneer between civility and savagery, especially inside her own heart. She knows and accepts what she is, but that doesn’t mean she has to be ecstatic about it. Step over the line she’s drawn in the sand and she will kill you in a heartbeat, even if she’ll hate herself for it in the morning.

All these things are reflected not just in the way she talks, but the way she thinks, and thus in the entire narrative style of the books. Pared down, economical, a hint of the melancholy at times, but with a wry bleak humour that’s probably her saving grace. Attempt to formalise her patterns of speech or thought, and you deny not only who she is, but what experience has made her.

Now she’s living and working in New York – where the new book THIRD STRIKE opens – and this presents all kinds of new narrative challenges. I make the point in this one that she still finds it funny every time she walks into an elevator and sees that the name on the maker’s plate at the back is Schindler, but she recognises that her amusement is not shared by anybody who doesn’t think of an elevator as a lift …

So she’d no sooner say, "with whom" unless she was trying deliberately to annoy the person she was talking to (or even the person with whom she was speaking), than she would say or think "gotten" in any other context than with "ill-" in front of it and "gains" behind. Try to force too many Americanisms into her head and you change the fundamental identity of the character still further. Small wonder that I find myself ever so slightly miffed. And as for Charlie – well, she’d be fighting mad and heading for timber.

My question is, where do you all stand? Have you, also, been roughed up in the cells by the Punctuation Police, or do you silently applaud every time they put on the black cap and pass sentence on one of the guilty? What’s the silliest correction someone has tried to make to a piece of your writing? Is there anything up with which you will not put, to be punctilious about it. Please, tell me, if only to make me feel less thoroughly bracketed around the ears …

And as they lead me to the grammar gallows and offer me a final cigarette, I can only hope that someone will take pity on me and provide a last-minute reprieve. That I will be stetted, at the end.

Copyedits_01_2So this week’s Word of the Week, therefore, is stet, meaning to restore after marking for deletion. From the Latin, third person singular present subjunctive of stare to stand; written on copyedits or proof sheets with dots under the words to be retained.

I’ve got to know this little word very well over the last ten days, having written it no less than one thousand two hundred and fifty-one times …

The pic shows the remains of several pencil erasers and the shavings from much sharpening of my official red pencil, which was considerably longer at the start of the copyedits than it was by the end.

I think I may have to get a rubber stamp made up …

27 thoughts on “Confessions of a Serial (Comma) Killer

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ugh, nightmare! But copyeditors vary wildly, don’t you find? On THE HARROWING I was so freaked out by the process, which I’d never been through before, that I obsessed over every little change. But for THE PRICE, I thought my copyeditor was a genius – not only did she gracefully put up with my often not full sentences but she caught errors I would NEVER have caught myself. She pointed out inconsistencies in time, and even caught that I referred to one character as a mezzo-soprano and then had a photo of her in costume as a character which is definitely a soprano role. I was in awe.

    Maybe you can gently request a different copyeditor for your next?

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Yes, I hold my hand up, the copyeditor did spot quite a few errors. I’d messed up my timeline, which nobody else had spotted, and I’m incredibly grateful that it’s been caught before the book went to print. Fortunately, taking out one reference to my group of characters spending two days in New York sorted that one out.

    She also queried the route my characters had taken to get from Boston to Houston, because I hadn’t made it clear they wanted to avoid the centre of NYC itself and the most direct route takes you right through the middle of the city.

    All that was brilliant. Detailed, careful, painstaking work – just what I was hoping a copyeditor would do.

    But it was the attempt to totally restructure my writing style and fill in all those words I wanted left unsaid that got to me. If I say a car had ‘cruise and air con’ do you really need to modify that to read ‘cruise control and air conditioning’? And do you really need to extend the mention of a ‘top-end hi-fi’ to say ‘top-end hi-fi stereo equipment’?

    And I still feel you can’t cookie-cutter rigid rules of grammar into a work of fiction. The pace of the narrative demands a more elastic approach to punctuation, and that’s where my views differed most from the copyeditor. I thought ‘variety’. She thought ‘inconsistent’.

  3. Rae

    I love this post 😉 As a reader and grammar grinch, not to say a punctuation pain-in-the-a**, I’m pretty much on your side of the fence, Zoe.

    Dialog and first-person narrative, in my opinion, require a whole different style of writing and punctuation than do any other POVs. First person narrative IS dialog, really, so you need to ‘grammarize’ and punctuate it as you would conversation. It’s still going to be a bit more stilted than live conversation – there won’t be as many ‘likes’, ‘uhs’, and “yaknows’, but it needs to ring true in the reader’s head.

    There’s a really good writer out there who’s also just a sweetheart, whose books I simply cannot read because the dialog is so bad it reads like a grammar tutorial: “If you do not stop running away from me, I will not consider any other action than to shoot you.” This poor person seems never to have heard of contractions. Ack.

  4. JT Ellison

    I’ve got Karen Carpenter in my head, singing “We’ve only just begun…” (yes, shoot me now.)

    I am the first to admit that I make mistakes in my manuscripts. Mistakes that are definitely CE worthy. Where I get into trouble is when the CE wants to change my style. I understand their desire to change phraseology, though I STET them — we alls talk funny down here in the South, and that must be reflected if the books are going to have any uniqueness. But altering the basic style of the writer creates huge problems. People don’t talk in grammatically correct, diagrammed sentences.

    My favorite CE change was on “He treats me like a whore.” The CE wanted it to read “He treats me as if I were a whore.” Kinda kills the bitterness, you know?

    I wonder if any of the houses break their CEs into groups — lit fic, crime fic, women’s fic… to avoid some of these frustrations for the writers. The conventions, what’s acceptable, are drastically different from genre to genre. Maybe the CEs should be too.

    Word of advice for newbies. If you really like a copyeditor, request them for your next manuscript.

    Long live STET ALL!

  5. Louise Ure

    Ah, a post close to my heart, Zoë. I had a copy editor tell me once that “it looks like you’ve never met a comma you didn’t like.” Alas, too true.

    But my favorite CE catch? From The Fault Tree: “On page 54 the cowlick is at the back of his head. By page 278 it has migrated to his forehead.”

  6. pari noskin taichert

    Zoe,Boy do I know what you’re talking about.

    Congratulations for simply surviving the process, yet again.

    My favorite yuck was when a copyeditor added adverbs after every “said” — as in “He said, angrily.” “She said,giddily.”

    While she was quite accurate, those were the emotions the speakers had, if she could figure them out w/o the adverbs then so could my readers.

    I went back and removed every one of them.

  7. spyscribbler

    I once had one who wanted to make my character talk in complete sentences. Argh!

    And I have a thing with commas. I’m definitely not in the “there are 42 rules for the comma” camp. I write fiction. I don’t care about rules. I have two personal rules. First, the comma/not-comma must keep the rhythm of the story, the voice, and the style. Second, the comma/not-comma must serve the story, the voice, and the communication with the reader.

    I’m cool with someone messing with my commas. The process makes me more aware of the choice, and I often change my mind.

    Just give me a reason other than “my professor said …” or “this book states …”

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rae

    Bless you! Although, having just written something in third person from different viewpoints, I did find the style of construction altered just a fraction in the different sections, according to which character I was following. Not to extreme, but just a slight shift of emphasis here and there.

    And I believe I may have come across that same author you mention – I’m not being coy, I just can’t remember their name. No contractions anywhere, even in speech. Weird.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    “He treats me as if I were a whore.” Wonderful. Why is it I hear a Noel Coward kind of voice speaking that line?

    I’m right with you, there. I, too freely admit that copyeditors DO spot some howlers, which is why you can’t just write ‘stet all’ across the front of the typescript in big letters and send it back. In this case, I’d managed to get traffic running the wrong way along Third Ave in NYC and I thought ‘Oh, good catch!’ when she spotted it.

    But only wanting to allow ’email’ – or ‘E-mail’ – to be used as a noun is simply outdated.

    Hence the 1251 stets …

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Surely that should be “It looks AS IF you’ve never met a comma you didn’t like?”

    And yes, I’d left a few belters in there. My favourite ‘oops’ moment?

    How about a query on clarity on the line: ‘Her eyes skated round the room and eventually dropped into my cup, which was threequarters empty.’ When I finished laughing I did indeed change ‘eyes’ to ‘gaze’.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Now that sounds like really messing with your style!

    My problem was almost the opposite. I had my wrists firmly slapped for my blatant misuse of verbs of utterance. So, ‘he dismissed’ was changed to ‘he said in a dismissive tone of voice’. I hadn’t realised how many times I do that, and it’s like having a particular phrase you use a lot in conversation, or waving your hands about when you talk. As soon as someone points it out to you, you become horribly, embarrassingly aware of it, and it makes you dry up completely.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Spy’

    I ended up having to mutter chunks of the book out loud to try and work out, DO I want a pause there or not? No pause, no comma. Don’t care what the rulebook says. Only trouble was, by the time I’d finished I’d practically lost my voice.

    I, too, put punctuation in purely to serve the story, and not because that sentence just so happens to be contain a past pluperfect subjunctive clause with a triple-salko and extra fries.

  13. Catherine


    As a reader, I’m aware of what the ‘correct’ grammar could be, (well mostly I am)…however as I’m reading I’m also processing the voice of the character, or the circumstances they’re in as a framework of my understanding. Sometimes overly correct grammar does jar my reading experience.

    Quite frankly and perhaps a little rudely, if Charlie Fox ever started sounding like a BBC newsreader of the 1950’s (which is often the voice I translate formal grammatically correct speech into in my head) I would think she was taking the piss.

    If this happened for an entire book I’d think that some head injury had occurred off page.

    Looking forward to reading Strike Three.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    LOL! Yes, Charlie does tend to speak plainly on occasions. In fact, she probably swears more than I do. But in the new book she’s faced with the prospect of bodyguarding her own parents, whose style of speech is rather more formal. Except when her surgeon father gets really, really annoyed … but I better not say too much more about that.

    And, damn, Strike Three would have been a much better title, but we went for THIRD STRIKE and the cover’s done now ;-]

  15. J.D. Rhoades

    Oh,lord, don’t get me started on copyeditors. When you write a lot of dialogue in Southern U.S. dialect and you get a copyeditor who doesn’t get that, the whole process can be an exercise in teeth gritting and high blood pressure.

    Likewise when you use a lot of military allusions and slang and the CE tries to correct you on it without having the slightest idea what he or she is talking about. I e-mailed the CE a picture of a soldier sitting with a .50 cal Barrett sniper rifle on his lap because he/she doubted one could hold a weapon that heavy on one’s lap. And yes, U.S. military types do refer to Saudi Arabia as just plain “Saudi.” I know becuase I live around them and their families.

    I’m just glad I never had a CE like Pari’s who tried to add in adverbs. Jesus.

    Fortunately, the CE I had for BREAKING COVER was an absolute gem. Good thoughtful suggestions, a sharp eye for repeated and overused words (a particular weakness for me) and she left my Suthurnisms alone.

  16. Catherine

    ack sorry Zoe about the title change…that’s what happens when I can’t sleep and end up reading Murderati and then commenting at 4am…slippage…dogs are up so it’s a semi-civilized 6am now

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Fortunately, my blood pressure naturally tends to be on the low side, so experiences like this bring it up to about normal!

    Love the bit about the Barrett. Even the bullpup model, which was shorter but heavier, is only 27lbs. Hardly more than an average-size dog. What’s the problem with having one of those on your lap?

    And I’d refer to Saudi Arabia as Saudi as well. What I did find interesting was the objection to referring to ‘the U.S.’ by its initials unless it was ‘the U.S. something-or-other’. A Brit would just call it the U.S. rather than ‘the United States’. Very worthwhile knowing that an American wouldn’t, though!

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Catherine – don’t worry. People often get book titles wrong. I’m far more offended when they put an extraneous ‘e’ on the end of Sharp. And even my old publisher used to do that occasionally … ;-]

  19. Dana King

    I’ve not been published yet, but I think I dread the copy editing process more than anything, should we get to that point.

    Two things provide hope. One is the EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES, for its wonderful explanations of how punctuation came about, and the purposes it serves, arbitrary (if well-intentioned) rules notwithstanding.

    The other is one of my favorite Raymond Chandler quotes, from a letter to the editor of Atlantic Monthly: By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Best of luck with your own work!

    As I’ve said, I LIKE being edited. I want to make the finished book as good as it can possibly be, and I fully recognise – by the time I’ve finished writing it – that I’m too close to have any real judgement in the matter.

    I’m enormously flattered by the fact that someone takes the time and trouble to read my work so carefully that they CAN point out such errors and inconsistencies. Ambiguity, clumsy construction, all that. Bring it on.

    My early books had very little done to them and, in retrospect, I wish they’d been more thoroughly pulled apart at the editing stage. I feel it would have done them a lot of good.

    On the other hand, back then I would probably not have had the same level of stroppiness required to dig my heels in over grammar and punctuation. I would have caved, and the whole tone of the books would have altered. As it is, the published version of book four – FIRST DROP – for example, is really the first draft.

    By the time I wrote book six -SECOND SHOT – I had changed to my current agent, who has her own in-house editor, and this is where the story now gets picked apart on the minute level before it ever gets near a publisher.

    If I’ve left plot-holes in the narrative road, I’ll be the first to be out there with a shovel, filling ’em in. Characters not quite cutting it? I’ll rework them with pleasure.

    But trying to alter the basic style of the writing is another thing. My voice is my own.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Santa

    I love the analogy, but there are a lot of people out there who would faint if you ordered red wine with fish. I seem to remember that choosing the wrong wine in the dining car in the train scene was what aroused Sean Connery’s suspicions of Robert Shaw’s character in ‘From Russia With Love’, wasn’t it?

    And I fully agree that first you learn the rules, then you throw ’em away. Wonderful.

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Dana – forgot to say how much I agreed with the Chandler quote ;-]

    My favourite from EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES was the story about Lynn Truss being in a taxi on her way to some event for the publication of the book. The driver asked her where she was going, so she told him.

    He then asked what the book was about and she explained that it was all concerned with punctuation.

    There was a pause before he said, “Better get you there on time, then!”

  23. Kathryn Lilley

    I have two grammar-policewomen in my writing groups, so my draft has already been thoroughly roughed-up, punctuation-wise, by the time it gets to New York. While I hate getting the prim corrections in my groups, I love not getting subjected to much of the same from copyeditors.

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kathryn

    Very useful to have such eagle-eyed test readers! Just out of interest, do you ever feel these two grammar-policewomen are trying to use correct punctuation at the expense of your storytelling pace or style?


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