Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Punctuation Shock by Andy Scheer

I looked forward to reading this novel. But after the first five pages, I'm not sure I can. There's something too distracting.

That bothers me. I belong to an organization for collectors of this author's books. I met the co-author at the group's convention last fall, and I'll likely see him again in October. And I've already enjoyed three of his books.

So it's not the genre that bothers me. I've read the previous eight in the series multiple times. And book nine, the first by this co-author, struck me just fine.

Nor did I find anything troubling about the promised storyline. Well, the prologue bears strong resemblance to a novel I just edited, but how many ways can you depict an aircraft attack on a naval vessel in World War II?

In keeping with the primary author's reputation, I saw no hint of offensive language or gratuitous sex or violence. So what troubled me?

It's an editor thing. If you ever had doubts that editors are weird, cast them aside. We're weird. What tripped me up—three times—was the lack of serial commas.

Yes, those commas the Chicago Manual of Style says to insert for clarity before the “and” in a series: Tom, Dick, and Harry. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. Those commas.

I first edited for a newspaper, then a magazine—places where the Associated Press Stylebook reigned and serial commas were anathema. But I switched loyalties. Now I spend my time editing books or working to sell them to publishers. Especially when editing, I have to think and breathe Chicago style. That's what I consider normal.

It's like traveling to another country. This summer when I traveled to Guelph, Ontario, to teach at the Write! Canada conference, I expected the writing samples would have the letter U inserted in such words as color and honor, and I expected the E and the R to be transposed in theater and center. It's just they way they do things—in Canada.

When I pick up my weekly Sports Illustrated, I know what to expect: AP style in all its glory. My expectations were equally solid when I began this title from Putnam. I dismissed the first missing comma as a typo. I knew the book had been written and produced on a tight deadline. Typos happen, especially when they're the kind spell-check never catches.

I shook it off and climbed back into the storyworld. I lasted two pages. Then a missing comma again bounced me out of the story. Disorientation struck. Had the publisher adopted its own house style for punctuation? Is this a foreshadowing of CMOS 17? Is the serial comma about to go the way of the dodo and compact mass paperbacks? I certainly wasn't thinking about the storyline.

Tonight, with my expectations patched back together, I'll re-enter the book, buckle in, and try to stay there. I hope the story and the style are strong enough to keep my mind off the commas.


Linda Yezak said...

So difficult to click out of editor mode when you see even the smallest mistakes. For me, it's the overuse, abuse, and misuse of semicolons. I keep wanting to reach for my little red pen.

Jean C. Gordon said...

I'm a devotee of the serial comma at my day job as a financial writer. But my book publisher doesn't use them, so I have to make a concerted effort not to put them in,

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Definitely tricky when you've written for newspapers and adopted the non-serial comma style! But you're so right--in a book, it's much more readable to have the serial commas. Well, he can always edit those commas in, as many of us have done (grin). I've definitely re-integrated serial commas into my writing style, even on my blog. And if he's anything like me, he'll appreciate your editorial perspective on things!

Katherine Hyde said...

Andy, I'm with you--both on the serial comma and on being totally distracted by errors of this kind. And I also do layout, so I'm distracted by poor design and layout errors as well. It's amazing I can ever get through a book!