Monday, 22 January 2018

Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon...

This week I have technical insight and self-reflection to impart. I know. I'm spoiling you. Last week I could ponder neither of these areas with confidence. Yet just five days into the editing of Book #2, I have all kinds of life-lessons to share - for free! You're welcome.

In terms of the editing process, my plan of action was - and still is - to tackle the superficial stuff first. I have a completed manuscript that is very rough. I've mentioned before that the key objective when writing it was to get words on the page. That was all I was concerned with until last week. I wanted to get it done regardless of quality. Now the time's come to shape it into something marvellous. So last week I started to read it from the beginning in order to tidy up the obvious stuff. Things like typos, missed capitals and bad grammar. The basic things that can be neatened up easily before I move on to bigger areas like character voice and narrative arc.

Errors stand out better on paper so I printed it out, took Chapter One and a red pen to Costa, and got cracking. This is where the technical insight comes in. I had only read a couple of pages before I had the realisation. It's something I remember spotting when I saw the first draft of Carry the Beautiful too. Ready? OK, here goes... 

I use commas like there's no tomorrow

Seriously, I really do. They're everywhere. It seemed all I did as I read the pages was cross out comma after comma after comma. I throw them around all over the show - sometimes correctly, but often extraneously. If I had a limited supply, I'd have used them up years ago.

I think I am a bit rubbish with the actual technicalities of commas. I have no recollection of being taught them at school. I distinctly remember speech marks and apostrophes but not commas. Also, when I was a teacher I only had to teach their use in list sentences. And that was towards the end of the year for the more able pupils. Teachers in later year groups did the rest. As a result, I'm hazy on it. I think I know what an Oxford comma is but not whether it's a good idea. I have seen commas used after words like 'because', 'so' and 'but' but other times they are not. Is it just author preference or is one way correct? I also think they come before anyone's name is mentioned. Hello, Nicky. Like that. But I only think it. I don't know it.

These pesky little
beggars get everywhere.
Like all literary technicalities, I have gained my understanding of them from reading. When you read lots and see commas 'in the field', the knowledge seeps in without you realising. But as authors' use of punctuation is flexible depending on the context and effect they are aiming for, it's not necessarily the best place to learn the rules. And do I even need to learn the rules if I am allowed to break them anyway?

It's all a big jumble. However, there is some clarity in my mind. I think I have worked out where the issue has come from. (This is where the self-reflection comes in.) It occurred to me that when I am writing as someone else, I am imagining the character act out the words I write. That means I am thinking about the pauses and delivery of each sentence. I picture the film version of my story in order to make it real for me as I go along. My overuse of commas is merely the frustrated director inside me, trying to give the actors all the cues they need to perform the lines in the way I want. That's where my comma-fest is rooted. Deep down I want to be Sofia Coppola. 

Actually, I have even more insight than that. It's not Sophia Coppola I want to be. I finished that last paragraph by googling 'female directors' to find someone I could use to make the point. (It could have been Bigalow, Jenkins or DuVernay. All marvellous. All emulatable.) But it isn't them I'm channelling. I know exactly who I'm trying to be when I write a line. It's Victoria Wood. Yep, the legend that is her. As anyone who memorised the Kitty monologues at high school knows - and it's definitely NOT just me* - there's a lyrical quality to her sentences. They meander away, hitting a variety of notes before the laugh comes. They are full of pauses and beats. They are written to be performed.

*Not only did I memorise it, I borrowed the book of scripts from the school library, photocopied the ones I wanted to learn and
stuck them in a file. Three house moves and plenty of decluttering later, I have just found it at the back of my loft. 👏

So to end this week's ramblings, I'll leave you with one of my favourite Victoria Wood lines of all time. In 1985 Patricia Routledge played Kitty on Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV. Read it, then watch it be performed. This line comes up on the clip at 2.15 but you could do a lot worse than watch the whole thing. 

 'Fortunately, I've just had my TV mended. Well I say mended, a shifty young man in plimsolls waggled my aerial and wolfed my Gipsy Creams, but that's the comprehensive system for you.'
                                              Victoria Wood

There are commas and there are pauses. The sentence does not shy away from layering up the imagery before landing the laugh. It's wordy and wavering. (It's also slightly different than the final version that made it to TV.) I just need to remember that in spite of any inflated ego I might have, I am not actually Victoria Wood. Nor am I a writer/director. I am composing sentences to be read inside someone's head, NOT performed aloud. I need to chill the frig out with my willy-nilly attitude towards punctuation.

So now I have to drag myself away from You Tubing Victoria Wood all day and get back to the editing. By this time next week, I'll have discarded several thousand more commas under a sea of red pen. The good news is, it's because my subconscious thinks it's Orson Welles. Definitely not because I'm shite at punctuation.

Have a lovely week, folks.


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