MM: Punctuating Parentheses

A writing teacher will generally tell you to use parentheses very sparingly. I agree. When overused, they 1) become an annoying tic and 2) can lead you to include stuff that you’d be better off cutting. But that’s not to say they aren’t mighty useful at times. It’s definitely worth mastering them, thereby enlarging your punctuation arsenal.

Parentheses = Invisibility Cloak

When you use a set of parentheses, you’re cordoning off its contents from the rest of the sentence. Whatever’s inside those parentheses becomes invisible to the main sentence’s syntax and punctuation. Writers run into problems when they don’t follow that rule. Here’s an example of incomplete invisibility:

Luckily, his pet crow, (which I call Poe), caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

If the stuff inside parentheses is invisible to the main sentence, you should be able to pluck the whole parenthetical aside out without having to make any changes to the sentence’s syntax or punctuation. But when you try that with the example I’ve just quoted, this is what you get:

Luckily, his pet crow,, caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

Two commas in a row can’t be right, so the punctuation surrounding the parenthetical aside must’ve been incorrect. In fact, the writer was treating the phrase “which I call Poe” as though it were part of the main sentence, not separated out by parentheses. Here’s how it should look:

Luckily, his pet crow (which I call Poe) caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

When writers make punctuation errors within parentheses, it’s also often because invisibility is not being maintained. Such an error might look like this:

Luckily, his pet crow, (which I call Poe,) caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

When you do the plucking-out test, here, you lose one comma but not the other:

Luckily, his pet crow, caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

No way should there be a comma in that spot. The error reveals that, once again, invisibility is not being maintained. The writer is punctuating in and around the parenthetical aside as though it were part of the main sentence.

Commas = Sheep Dogs

Another error I see has to do with grouping. When it comes to parenthetical asides, commas and periods are sort of like sheep dogs: they “herd” the aside into the right part of the sentence. Here’s an example of “comma-herding” gone wrong:

After Saran-wrapping the latest condiment-shelf concoction, I crammed it between the others I’d created over the past few nights: a bologna and apple jelly sandwich, (eew!) a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich, (blah!) and a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.

In the above sentence,  the “(eew!)” aside goes with “a bologna and apple jelly sandwich,” not “a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich,” but the comma has grouped the “(eew!)” with the latter. The same thing is happening with “(blah!)” — it should go with “a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich,” but the comma has grouped it with “a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.” Here’s how the sentence should look:

After Saran-wrapping the latest condiment-shelf concoction, I crammed it between the others I’d created over the past few nights: a bologna and apple jelly sandwich (eew!); a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich (blah!); and a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.

(Want to know why I’ve replaced the commas with semicolons? See my Mechanics Moment on semicolons and complex lists.)

When a parenthetical aside appears at the end of a sentence, you have to decide whether it should stand alone as its own independent clause (in which case there has to be a complete sentence within the parentheses) or be included within the main sentence. If it really is part of the sentence, the period needs to herd it into the sentence, rather than leaving it stranded. Here’s a stranded aside:

I can only see Grandpa Edgar and Kyle, and that’s because they still have work to do on this side. (helping yours truly)

It should be punctuated thus:

I can only see Grandpa Edgar and Kyle, and that’s because they still have work to do on this side (helping yours truly).

In contrast, an aside that stands as a real independent clause should be outside the main sentence’s period and should have an internal period as well:

I didn’t like pastrami or pimento cheese, so I knew I’d been influenced by some new visiting kid. (I’m a plain ole peanut-butter-and-jelly-with-Fritos-on-the-side kind of girl.)

MM: Funky Plurals

English is a compulsive eater. It grabs words from other languages and … sluuuuuurp! … swallows them right down. That means we have a number of terms that don’t operate according to the usual English pattern of marking the plural with a terminal “s.” Most such words are from Greek and Latin. Once you get a feel for how they work, they fall into place. So, okay, say it with me:

One index, two indices.

One phenomenon, two phenomena.

One datum, two data.

One medium, two media.

One criterion, two criteria.

One antenna, two antennae.

One cherub, two cherubim.

One thesis, two theses.

One colloquium, two colloquia.

And so forth. There are dozens. On the other hand, some of these words have been Anglicized to the degree that an English-style plural is at least an option. Yes, you can have “two octopi,” but you don’t have to: “two octopuses” is fine. And as I recall, a few years ago The New York Times dumped “millennia” in favor of “milleniums.” That one still jars, for me, but oh well.

Review: The Aberration, by Bard Constantine

The Aberration (2012)
By Bard Constantine
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

The Aberration reimagines our world as subject to incursions from a sort of demon realm. Defending us is an ever-shrinking group of chosen (or maybe cursed!) people. Reborn again and again, these people fight off each incursion, or “aberration.” Every aberration puts the whole world in danger. So far, the demons have failed to win, but over time, our side has taken heavy losses. The situation has become dire.

This taut, well structured, novella-length horror story provides a great reading experience. The book makes use of a tried-and-true horror plot: a small, varied, and nicely drawn group of characters are besieged by monsters in a creepy environment (a mechanized flour mill, in this case). Constantine’s third-person narration moves fluidly among various points of view — the hero’s, those of several of the other characters, and that of the police captain investigating the aftermath of the story’s main events. The monsters are well realized — I found the initial shape of the “Others” particularly shudder-inducing … brrrr — and the fight scenes are handled clearly and tightly. The Aberration is a very satisfying read, standing out as new and creative while meeting the expectations of its genre.

The book does have minor writing errors. Semicolons are misused at times, and some sentences, especially early on, have verbiage that probably should be trimmed away, given the spare, direct prose common to the genre (“The television uttered garbled idioms, hypnotic suggestions that died futilely within his unheeding ears …”). But most of the writing glitches are simple proof-reading issues (stuff like “its” vs. “it’s”); a quick run-through from a pro would catch these and lend the book the polish it deserves. Overall, the glitches didn’t impede my reading experience. The story and characters easily transcend them. And the ebook’s formatting is perfect.

I think Constantine could improve on the book’s cover. He’s used an abstracted, collage-like artwork depicting warriors, and it no doubt looks terrific on the paperback — disturbing, yet classy. But when it’s shrunk down to thumbnail size, it’s impossible to make out what you’re looking at, and seen in black and white on my Kindle screen, even enlarged, it’s pretty much a muddy blur of indecipherable shapes. The media just aren’t doing justice to it, and that might make the book less attractive to readers. And that would be a real shame — this is a book that should be read.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Review: Pure Healing, by Aja James

Pure Healing (2012)
By Aja James
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

Aja James’s Pure Healing is one hot read. This paranormal romance, hopefully the first in a series, is quite well written. And it’s hot. The pacing is quick, and the plot is clear. And it’s hot. The characters are well developed. And did I mention it’s hot? ‘Cause it is. Big time.

The story revolves around a group of blood-consuming beings known as the Pure Ones. They’re not vampires; actually, they battle vampires. They’re immortal, and each possesses a unique gift. They also have a Cardinal Rule — no intercourse except with one’s “Eternal Mate.” Getting frisky is okay, but if you go all the way, so to speak, you waste away and die a month later. Or you turn into a vampire.

Pure Healing focuses on a male named Valerius and a female named Rain. As the official healer of the Pure Ones, Rain is partially exempt from the no-intercourse rule: she’s required to take a consort for one month every ten years to recharge her spiritual batteries. Val has never served as her consort because his past makes the very idea of sex unbearable, even though he’s intensely drawn to Rain. (Val’s past is, in fact, so unpleasant that survivors of sexual violence should be aware that some of the material here could be disturbing, despite the care with which James handles it.) Rain has her own reasons for keeping her emotional distance from her consort. James weaves all these threads together into a wonderfully vexed and tortured relationship. The situation positive throbs with desire and doubt, need and denial. And did I mention it’s hot? It’s hot.

The group of Pure Ones we get to know contains a number of well defined individuals, and hopefully future books will take up their stories. I’d particularly like to see a story focusing on Sophia, the young queen of the Pure Ones. In Pure Healing, Sophia provides a brief first-person frame narrative — an engaging way of handling exposition and tying up loose threads. Her voice is terrific, and I’d love to see more of her.

I also hope future books will do more world-building: why is Sophia the queen? Why is Boston Pure-Ones Central, so to speak? Where did the Pure Ones come from? Were all vampires once Pure Ones? And who made the tortuous intercourse-only-with-one’s-eternal-mate rule? Are there deities behind all this? I’m waiting with bated breath to get a deeper understanding of the neat world James is constructing.

The copy of the book I read had significant formatting problems — no title page, no copyright claim, no page breaks between chapters, and paragraph indents that come and go. However, the author mentioned she was preparing a correctly formatted copy, so I imagine the flawed version I saw is now a thing of the past. The book’s cover is professional looking, but I wonder if the black-and-white photography and the fonts selected quite fit the romance genre, which strikes me as more full-color and serify. Well, there’s nothing wrong with standing out from your genre, so long as readers find you. It’s definitely a good-looking cover.

At any rate, this is one book readers should definitely find. I read it in one sitting — it was that involving. Highly recommended.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Lipskar and Konrath on the Agency Model

A few days ago, Digital Book World published an open letter from literary agent Simon Lipskar to the Department of Justice. In the letter, Lipskar takes issue with the government’s reasoning and data in the anti-trust case against Apple and five of the Big Six publishing houses. Lipskar’s letter is lengthy and detailed. It’s definitely worth a read.

A couple days later, J. A. Konrath took on Lipskar’s reasoning and data in a blog entry. This piece, too, is worth a careful reading. It’s pretty convincing (admittedly, I’m one of those folks who finds Konrath convincing on just about everything).

What I want to take issue with is Konrath’s desire to prove the agency model is A Bad Thing. I’m not so sure that it is — at least not for him and for me and for other indie authors.

Konrath has illustrated clearly that authors sell fewer books and make less on each sale under the agency model. But that doesn’t mean that the agency model is bad “for authors.” It means it’s bad for authors whose work is being distributed under that model. For indie authors, the agency model — and anything else that keeps traditionally published books overpriced — may be A Good Thing. Maybe even A Very Good Thing.

Here’s my thinking:

Put on your fantasy hat, and imagine that things had gone very differently when Amazon first brought out the Kindle in 2007. Imagine that the big publishing had realized a game-changing event had occurred. Imagine that the head honchos at these companies had gotten together with their top executives and explained that things were going to change, and that there wasn’t a damn thing they could do to stop it. Imagine that they had set about reforming their businesses to prepare for the coming world — a world in which publishing would become predominantly digital within ten or fifteen years.

They would’ve started cutting their workforces through attrition and early retirements. They would’ve made all their authors’ backlists available, and they would’ve offered ebooks at prices far, far below those of paper books. Maybe they would’ve invented ereaders and POD systems of their own. That is, instead of being dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age, imagine that they chose race into it, competing with one another to see who could arrive first and best.

In such a world, would indie authors be seeing the success they are now? In a world where every novel that’s ever been traditionally published, including current best-sellers, was available on Amazon for between $.99 and $4.99?

I don’t think so. Some indie authors would be successful, sure, but I don’t think the explosion of indie success we’ve witnessed would’ve happened. I think the justifiably high cost of paper books and, more importantly, the consistent over-pricing of traditionally published ebooks have opened the door to the proliferation of financially successful indie authors.

Here’s why: there are a lot of people out there who love to read but don’t have much money. I’m one of them. Once I realized that there were tons of indie books out there that were just as good as traditionally published books but cost way less, my buying habits shifted. Big time. That kind of shift, writ large, explains why indie authors are doing so well.

Konrath’s blog entry quotes an anonymous letter from a publishing-industry insider who skewers Lipskar for implicitly asserting that books are “fungible.” Here’s one place where I’ll disagree with Konrath and his anonymous letter-writer: books are indeed fungible in certain situations.

The italicized qualifier is important. This is one of those issues where it’s easy to make someone sound stupid by putting extreme words in his mouth, an argumentative technique known as building a straw man. If you say, “books are fungible,” you sound like an idiot. Obviously, books differ from one another radically; there are many books out there I would love to read, and probably quite a few more I’d abandon after the first page. Such books are not interchangeable. Furthermore, I follow several fantasy authors and series quite avidly. When Jim Butcher brings out a new Dresden novel, nothing else will substitute. I must read that book immediately, and I would pay quite a bit for the privilege of doing so. A novel in one of the series I follow is not interchangeable with something else.

That said, if you give me a mass of 1,000 books I’ve never heard of before, by authors I’ve never heard of before, the books in that mass start out, in my mind, as fungible. Each one might turn out to be one of the best things I’ve ever read; each one might also turn out to suck. Are they fungible in a real sense? No, of course not. They’re all different from one another. But as an uninformed buyer, I don’t know about those differences, yet. I won’t know about them until I read the books.

So I take the 1,000 books and I start looking at their covers, titles, reviews, and descriptions. I begin downloading Kindle samples to see what I might like. Now I have more information to work with, and I’m able to weed out a lot of books that just don’t interest me. Let’s say I’m left with fifty books that I really want to read. I’ve gathered all the info I can about these books, and they all sound terrific.

Now, if I’m in Barnes & Noble, I can’t buy fifty books. Even at mass-market-paperback prices, I couldn’t afford it, not even spread out across a whole year. But let’s say I’m shopping on Amazon, and twenty of the fifty books are reasonably priced indies. I could buy three of the fifty that are traditionally published ebooks, pay my $35. Or I could buy one traditionally published book and ten indie books. I really enjoy reading, so I go with the latter option.

That’s the kind of situation in which books are fungible — you’re browsing, you have limited funds, and you’re looking for new things. You find a bunch of things that look promising, based on limited information. Then you have to decide which you’re going to buy. In such a situation, price is an enormous factor for many readers. Once you choose your books, buy them, and read them, they won’t be fungible in your mind any longer. In your mind, they’ll become the differentiated individuals they always, in fact, were. But before you read them, the situation was much more fluid.

That’s where the agency model — and the Big 6’s broader recalcitrance on pricing — may have helped the indie movement. When readers go shopping without a particular book or author in mind, there’s a window into which a new book or author can slip. If traditionally published books cost many times more than indies, there’s more chance the book that slips in will be an indie. This is what Lipskar is talking about when he asserts that “new publishers, self-publishers and retailer-owned publishers [are] providing consumers ebooks at lower prices than the agency publishers and taking significant market share from them in the process” (accessed 5/13/12).

Lipskar doesn’t seem to think the huge pricing advantage traditional publishers are handing to indies threatens his livelihood, along with that of everyone else involved in traditional publishing. If I were him, I’d be worried. What happens when “significant market share” becomes “majority market share”?

At any rate, I ask you this: why are we fighting the agency model? Sure it’s bad for the authors who are trapped in it, but that’s not us. Maybe someone can explain to me why I’m wrong. Until then, I’m thinking anything that pushes up the cost of traditionally published books and ebooks is A Good Thing for indies. Let the Big Six keep losing their market share. We know where those readers are going.

MM: Semicolons, Part 2

In my last MM, I talked about using semicolons as “softer periods” to join two sentences into one. That’s the main use of this mark of punctuation, but there’s another instance in which you’ll see it: the complex list. This use of the semicolon is unrelated to its main function.

Here’s a simple list:

Fred went to the store and bought milk, eggs, and cat food.

It’s pretty easy to figure out the items in this list, as they’re separated from one another with commas:

A = “milk”
B = “eggs”
C = “cat food”

But what if A, B, and C are longer and more complex? What if you get lists within your lists?

Joe Doe is survived by his wife, Nancy Smith, his sister Samantha, his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James, his daughter, Jane, six grandchildren, Sally, Janine, Robert, John, Peter, and Frank, and one great-grandchild.

A complex list is a list in which at least one individual item contains a comma. For instance, in the above sentence, C = “his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James.” The commas that separate C from B and D blend together with the commas inside C. That makes the above sentence pretty hard on a reader: she can’t tell immediately where C begins and ends. Instead, she has to read slowly, grouping the names into categories as she goes. The point of punctuation is to make things easier for your reader. In the above sentence, punctuation is not going its job.

Semicolons clarify complex lists by replacing the commas between items. Here’s what the above sentence looks like when punctuated correctly:

Joe Doe is survived by his wife, Nancy Smith; his sister Samantha; his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James; this daughter, Jane; six grandchildren, Sally, Janine, Robert, John, Peter, and Frank; and one great-grandchild.

Having even one item with one internal comma is enough to trigger complex-list punctuation, but if you don’t have at least three items, you don’t have a list:

Fred went to the store and bought milk and a bunch of pet supplies, including cat food and bird seed.

“Milk” and “pet supplies” aren’t a list, and “cat food” and “bird seed” aren’t a list, either. Only when you get three or more items to you have to start thinking about list-punctuation issues.

MM: Semicolons, Part 1

My last MM (mechanics moment) focused on colons. Now we’re moving on to semicolons, perhaps the most often misused mark of punctuation in English.

Colons and semicolons look similar, so people tend to get them confused. That’s unfortunate, as they work in very different ways: whereas colons separate general and more specific segments of a sentence, semicolons separate two independent clauses within a single sentence.

An “independent clause” is a statement that could stand alone as a complete a sentence. How can you tell you have one? Easy: you have a subject and a verb. “I walked” is an independent clause, even though it’s short.

So, why would you want to put two independent clauses in one sentence? In general, you’d do it to show that the two clauses are closely related in terms of logic. Maybe they’re cause and effect. Maybe they’re fact and reinforcement. Maybe they’re point and counterpoint. Here are some examples:

  1. Joe lay in bed, thinking about how bad his day was going to be. It was Monday, so all the new reports would be landing on his desk; moreover, the boss had scheduled a staff meeting.
  2. Joe’s boss was prone to logorrhea; however, that day he was strangely silent.
  3. Maybe he had laryngitis; maybe someone’d finally cut out his tongue.

Notice that none of the above situations have that general-to-specific structure we saw with colons.

Often a semicolon is followed by what my ninth-grade teacher called a “flow word” — “however,” “for instance,” “moreover,” “for example,” etc. Flow words help your reader immediately understand how the two halves of the sentence relate to one another. That’s a kindness, but it’s not required, and in some kinds of writing it would probably sound stilted.

What is required is that you have an independent clause on both sides of the semicolon. This rule is non-negotiable. Semicolons allow you to combine two complete sentences into one. They replace a period, not a comma. This mistake is the one I see over and over again: a semicolon with a fragment on one side or the other. I think some people think of the semicolon as a “stronger comma.” It’s not. It’s a “softer period.”

You wouldn’t use a semicolon to introduce a quote or a list (you’d use a colon):

Joe lay in bed, thinking about how bad his day was going to be: a dozen new reports, an interminable staff meeting, sixty-three paper jams, and Sally’s overpowering perfume.

You also can’t use multiple semicolons in one sentence, except in the case of complex lists. See Semicolons, Part 2, for a discussion of that very different use of the semicolon.

Review: Pushed Too Far, by Ann Voss Peterson

Pushed Too Far (2012)
By Ann Voss Peterson
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

Pushed Too Far focuses on Val Ryker, the first female police chief of a small Wisconsin town. As the book opens, Ryker is faced with a cop’s nightmare: sudden strong evidence of wrongful conviction in the case that made her reputation. Ryker has to figure out what really happened in that two-year-old case and, even more importantly, what’s going on right under her nose. Oh, and the guy she helped put behind bars? Maybe he’s innocent, maybe he’s not. But one thing’s for sure: he’s feeling mighty vengeful.

Ann Voss Peterson’s new thriller is terrific: intricately yet tightly plotted, economically written, gritty and scary without being grotesque.

Setting is a big strength, here — the small-town Wisconsin location is fully realized and convincing. Character development is also a strength. Ryker is likable and very human. She feels like a real person, as do the book’s other central characters. I loved that about the book. The thriller is, in general, a pretty plot-driven genre, and Peterson gives us plenty of plot. But character gets equal weight in this novel. The results are wonderful. I read it in a single sitting.

Pushed Too Far has a striking, professional cover and is perfectly formatted. The prose is restrained and error-free. Indie publishing at its best: indistinguishable in quality from a traditionally published book, yet much more affordable. And total authorial control over the book’s form seems to have allowed for innovation, too, with the table of contents, acknowledgments, and other “front matter” appearing at the end, a choice that maximizes Kindle sample length. Smart!

This review will be cross-posted on Amazon.