Even more delayed gratification

John G. Hartness

Hey y’all,

I’m on the road at World Horror Con down in the ATL this week and due to slow-ass hotel wifi, Literate Liquors won’t be uploaded until next week. But be sure to tune in early next week, when I’ll do a special guest post featuring Matthew Saunders talking about his new release – Daughters of Shadows & Blood Book I: Yasmin. Matthew and I recorded a very cool pickup truck confessional episode where he talks about researching the real Dracula, deciding on self-publishing, and expanding the world of a horror classic. The book is out now, so go check it out!

Now I gotta go downstairs and get my registration taken care of. Word to your mama and them.

That’s Absurd! – Bringing Humor into the Story

admin

Good morning, y’all!  Today we’re bringing you a post from our guest, Josh Vogt.  Writer. Freelancer. Unashamed geek. Josh splits his time between dreaming up new worlds and forms of magic and providing marketing/sales copy for clients.  And now he’s decided to share his time with us!  Welcome, Josh!

***

Enter the Janitor - CoverWhen I first got the idea for an urban fantasy novel titled Enter the Janitor years back, it didn’t take me long to realize it needed to have some strong humor elements woven throughout. I mean, how can you not crack jokes when your magic-wielding characters use mops instead of staffs and squeegees instead of wands? When they drive around town in janitor, maid, and plumbing service vans, visiting homes and public properties to scrub actual toilets, fending off dust devils and garbage golems while complaining about the lack of coffee breaks?

I could’ve tried writing the story from a serious perspective, demanding readers accept this reality in an utterly logical fashion. But what’s the fun in that? Instead, I found the best approach was to embrace the absurdity of it all. To revel in the idea of a “supernatural sanitation” company that operates according to corporate processes while also constantly saving the world from its own messes.

Once I decided to take a more humorous approach, it actually freed up the story. I could name a water elemental “Carl” and stick him in a spray bottle. I could implement a “foul-filter” that literally keeps all employees from cursing (so they don’t soil the company image). And did you ever consider what recycling had to do with reincarnation?

There was suddenly room for handymen who could break down reality. Plungers that could tear apart concrete. A place called “The Sewers” gained more dire meaning.

But the funny part is (sorry), once I opened up to humor, the story meshed with the characters far better. They could call out their circumstances as ridiculous. They could question the nature of their powers and wonder why it was reliant on mops (or the fact that witches traditionally rode on brooms).

And then they could wonder at their place in the world—and why no one questioned it. Because when you think about it, how often do you see cleaning vans zooming around town? How often are janitors right in your very building? Why are maids always providing home services? And why don’t you never wonder at their presence?

It does make an odd sort of sense.

Which, perhaps, is the most absurd part of it all.

Antici…pation!

Tamsin Silver

I’m sitting here with ANTICIPATION right…now, as I type this. It’s a killer, no? Your brain bounces from how great the news will feel if it’s what you want to hear to how upset you might be if you do not get the answer you desire.

At this moment I’m waiting to hear about something important to me so I’ve become THAT person. The one who keeps checking their email over and over…worrying but not worrying…talking yourself out of the corner that says, “If this doesn’t work out, you’re a crappy writer.” Artists…be they writers, actors, singers, dancers, painters…you name it…we ALL get this way when it concerns validation of our art.

Let’s use an Olympic Athlete as an example. I know that part of them says, “Even if I get 4th place, I know that’s a big deal! That’s 4th in the whole WORLD! That’s a crazy amazing thing to accomplish!” The other part of their head is saying, “But if you don’t end up on that podium, where you worked so hard to be, where you land doesn’t count, it’s a fail.” It’s even possible they will feel like there is no justification to continue on with the sport. The idea of sleeping in, not working out every day for hours, and eating what they want probably sounds really good and they may consider that new road. Why? Because they, for a moment, are blind to why the hard work and the emotional drain was worth it if they didn’t land where they aimed.

As writers, we submit our work for others to judge and decide if we are good enough for publication. When we are turned down we are upset, understandably. I’ve had my work turned down a lot. I’ve shed tears over it multiple times. But here’s the thing we have to do. WE MUST GET BACK UP ON THE HORSE (so to speak)! You may be thinking, “Easy for you to say, you’ve written books that are out there, self-published though they may be.” It’s actually NOT easy for me to stay positive when word comes back on something in a way that’s not favorable and this week could be that week. Will I will be upset? Very.

So I have a rule. In fact, this rule applied to me when I was an actress as well and I want to encourage you to try and put it, or something like it, into play for yourself. What is it? Well…I allow myself one day to be sad/upset. I take that day and become Negative Nelly and mope about the rejection. I let myself say all the bad things spinning around in my head…but the next day I tell myself to let it go (no, don’t you dare sing the song!). We cannot create our art if we dwell on the negative. We just can’t. So when I didn’t get a role I wanted, I’d be upset, cry (cause that’s okay too), call my mom and/or best friend, then I slept it off like a bad drunken night. Sure, you might wake up a bit hung over from the sorrow and inner turmoil, the residual of the pain hanging on like a bad lover you’ve kicked to the curb, but you have to get your butt out of that bed and push forward.

Interestingly enough, I distinctly remember sitting on the steps of a building on Winthrop University’s campus my first semester there (as a junior) and all three shows for the fall semester were cast that one day. I’d gotten nothing. THREE shows had no place for me. I was wondering what the hell I was doing thinking I was a theater major, that’s for sure. But the next semester they did Brigadoon and the role I’d wanted so badly the first time I auditioned for this show (where I ended up in the chorus) back home in Michigan years previous in summer theater, was handed to me this time with pride. I won two awards for that performance of Meg Brockie and a picture of me performing it hung in the halls at the school for awhile. It was MY TIME. And it was worth the wait.

Anyway, back to writing…

I said to my cousin the other day, “I know I don’t need this to validate that I’m on the right track with this book, so why do I feel that way?” She said, “Think about how much you’ve already learned since submitting it and how much you’re going to learn in July. Even if it doesn’t get picked up, the book is going to be way better.” (Some quick clarification…In July I go to New Mexico to do research for a novel I’m going to write based on the story I’m waiting to hear on.) Then this morning, an actress friend of mine and I were catching up while walking the dogs and my anticipation stress came up. It was great to hear that she understood how I felt and we discussed the expectations we as artists, not just as writers, we put on ourselves. Each project we submit holds an immediate, heavy importance. It feels like it is the world, but it’s not. Why? Because there’s always something around the corner. I’m a firm believer that if something doesn’t work out, that it wasn’t meant to at this time. And though I do not see the reason, I know that I will in time. I apply this during the most horrible of things as well, like my parent’s divorce when I was only nineteen or twenty years old. I kept telling myself that there was a reason. All these years later I can tell you that I would need a whole other blog post to list all of the amazing things that came about as a direct result of that divorce (and my father’s re-marriage). :)

So if you, and I, get another rejection, we must remember this idea. It’s very important we get back on the horse, sit at the easel, get in front of the computer, step into another audition, show up for our next class…whatever it is that feeds us artistically, we need to go back to doing it. When? RIGHT AWAY! A rejection is not the end of the world. You may be auditioning for bloody Broadway (and if you are, good for you!)  and saying to yourself, “My career NEEDS this! If this doesn’t work out, I’m so screwed!” Thing is, there may be a really good reason that it doesn’t work out. For all you know, that show could flop or that publisher could go bankrupt or an opportunity could pop up that is tailor made for you that you’d have to turn down if you’d gotten the previous thing that had “rejected” you.

You may ask why I say to get back in the swing of things right away (be it writing or auditioning or whatever). Well, I’m going to tell you story to support why. The other night, my mother told me something I never knew (and gave me permission to put it on this blog post). She was writing back when I was in high school. If you remember correctly, that meant mailing large packages of paper with manuscripts and letters with postage costs. She was writing Contemporary Romance and an editor from a large house (I believe it was Silhouette Publishing) told her that the story didn’t fit the exact parameters of a romance, that it was more Women’s Literature (or Contemporary Lit). However, the editor loved the writing so much that she sent three books in the mail to my mom as examples of what “romance recipe” (that’s what I call it) they were looking for and told my mother that she didn’t need to do a query for them again, just send in the first three chapters of anything else she wrote in the genre. CAN YOU IMAGINE THIS? I’m still wrapping my head around it! Thing is though, my mother was dealing with the divorce, moving out, working, plus the stress that went with it all. She told herself she’d be able to get back to writing in a few months. But she never did. In fact, she didn’t write again for about twenty years. That breaks my heart. Don’t break your own, get back at it immediately.

That said…

As you (and I) sit with anticipation, waiting to hear back from that producer, director, agent, publisher, or whatever…remember, not everyone gets off their butt each day and tries to do what we do. So many don’t have the guts to put themselves out there and take the chance on being rejected. That alone makes you and I stronger than we know/admit. Some will say to let that rejection roll off you like water off a duck’s back. I say, if you can do that, great, but it’s okay to be human too. If you need a day to be upset, then be upset. Then let that crap go! Shove it out the window and do what you love IMMEDIATELY. Submit that work to someone else, audition for another show/company, or grab your art tools and create something new. When it’s your time, and it will be eventually if you keep at it (all those in my mother’s writing group back then became published), you’ll know you held on for that moment and it was worth it.

In closing I want to mention a woman I admire: Leanna Renee Hieber. This woman paints with words, folks. She got an amazing deal on a series and then the publisher closed its doors and she was left high and dry. She could have quit, but she didn’t. And now she not only has a new series out but her publisher also is launching/has launched her original series. She’s the real girl on fire, folks! She went through a lot of trials and tribulations, but she didn’t let that stop her…and we shouldn’t either.

“Every day is a creative act: a step closer to becoming who you want to be.” -Tom Hiddleston

So create each and every day that you can…become who you want to be…and rejection or no, keep at it, because someday that no will be a yes and that victory will taste so sweet.

 

That’s it for me this time around… write hard, bathe in imagination, and let’s all push past that negative voice, for they have nothing vital to say!

 

Modifiers of the Verb Part 3: Verb Phrases

Emily Leverett

So far we’ve covered adverbs and prepositional phrases as modifiers of the verb. Both are very common—so common that we hardly think about using them in our writing (see?).

Today, I’m going to talk a bit about another kind of modifier: the verb phrase. (Remember, a phrase is a word or group of words that function as a unit in the sentence!)

A verb phrase is a verb form together with its modifiers and complements.[1] This includes the predicate of the sentence: the portion of the sentence containing the main verb. In the previous sentence, the predicate is includes the predicate of the sentence; it’s everything but This, which is the subject.

Infinitive Phrases

The first and most common verb phrase used as an adverb is the infinitive phrase. This is the base form of the verb plus “to.” So to go, to think, to run, etc. They often tell us why something occurs. Some examples:

  • Sue bought flowers to give to her mother.
  • James is studying to get good grades for med school.
  • The monster stomped the city to be a jerk.
  • She sharpened the stakes to kill vampires.

As you can see, infinitive phrases are often found at the end of the sentence. That is, they follow the main verb and are a part of the predicate. Note, also, that none of these infinitive phrases contain only the infinitive verb form. They have modifiers and compliments: the adverbial “to her mother;” the direct objects “good grades” and “vampires,” and the subject compliment “a jerk.”

They all tell us why the action occurred. In fact, many times, these adverbials appear in the prepositional phrase “in order to [blank].”

  • She bought flowers in order to give them to her mother.
  • James is studying in order to get good grades for med school.
  • The monster stomped the city in order to be a jerk.
  • She sharpened the stakes in order to kill vampires.

To be fair, that third one sounds weird, and we wouldn’t phrase it that way, but you get the point. (We’d probably say “the monster stomped the city because he was a jerk.” That “because…” phrase is a modifier, too. A dependent clause, which I’ll talk about next time in Part 4).

Participles

Rather than using infinitives, sometime we choose participles (usually present participles—“ing” words) to modify our verbs.

  • Very few authors make a fortune selling books.
  • The wolf came bolting out of its den.

These function the same way as the infinitives do, though in a slightly different form.

 

Before I end this, a side note on Split Infinitives. Oh the woe that these cause! The turmoil! The bickering! They are almost as contentious as the oxford comma, that Melissa discussed last week.

What is a split infinitive, you ask?

A split infinitive occurs when the “to” is separated from the base form of the verb by one or more other words, usually adverbs.

The admonition NOT to split infinitives comes from the fact that the “to [verb]” functions as a single unit, with the “to” signaling the grammatical form of the verb. That said, I’ve got nothing against split infinitives. In fact, sometimes they are the most correct form, especially in terms of meaning.

Consider the following example:

  • I am NOT going to go to the party.

Okay, pretty straight forward there, right? I am not attending. Now let’s split the infinitive and see what happens:

  • I am going to NOT go to the party.

Did the meaning change? I’m still not going. But now, by shifting the negative into the infinitive–splitting it–the phrase highlights, ever so slightly, the intention to NOT go. It carries a connotation of deliberation, of significant and purposed choice.

Another example, a favorite borrowed from Sarah Adams:

  • Mother to child: When you whine, it makes me want to NOT give you things.

Again, the desire is to withhold, to deliberately keep things from the whiner. (Hey, I agree.)

Finally, the most famous split infinitive of all time: to boldly go.

It just wouldn’t be the same to go boldly.

 

 

[1] Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, Understanding English Grammar 9th edition. New York: Pearson, 2012, 117.

Where’s The Starting Line?

Misty MasseyMisty Massey

TWWW finalAs you’ve probably heard by now, I (along with Emily Leverett and Margaret McGraw) am editing The Weird Wild West, an anthology of speculative fiction from a frontier point-of-view.  Lately we’ve been reading all the submissions and choosing the best ones for inclusion in the book.  It’s been a real learning experience for me, and I’m going to spend the next few Mondays talking about things I’ve learned (and in many cases, relearned) from doing this job.  Today we’re going to start with starting.

Many years ago, I submitted a short story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  At the time, it was a highly-regarded publication which paid actual money for accepted work, and I wanted in.  I crafted a story I thought would fit perfectly with what she usually published, slapped the stamp on my SASE (those were the day!) and sent it off.  A few weeks later, my SASE showed back up in my mailbox with a rejection letter tucked inside.  The letter said that my story took too long getting started, and that in future I should always remember to start my story “at the moment things begin to go wrong for the main character.”

Those words have remained in my head ever since.  If conflict is what drives a story and makes us care, then why waste time and energy at the beginning on information that doesn’t serve the conflict?  Yet many, many, MANY writers spend page after page on set-up instead of diving right into the story.  For example, there’s the writer who needs his reader to be able to envision every physical aspect of where the story takes place.  So we have a page and a half at the beginning that does nothing but describe the terrain.

“It was hot out in the canyons, so hot that even the mirages were seeing mirages of their own.  The sky was a painful blue, as clear and empty as if it had forgotten what clouds were at all, and high above one lone eagle cried its piercing cry as it searched in vain for prey.  Jake wished he could stop riding through the dust that threatened to clog his throat and choke him to death, but he had to deliver the cattle he’d been hired to drive.  He just reminded himself that there was cold beer in town and he’d be there soon.
At last, just past nightfall, having delivered the herd safely to Mr Brown the rancher, Jake walked into town.  Marcilla welcomed him with open arms and a mug of beer.  As soon as he had finished every drop, he collapsed on her bed and didn’t leave it for two days.”

See the problem?  Nothing actually happened.  Jake was working, Jake finished his job, Jake rested.  No real conflict.  The story doesn’t actually begin until he gets out of Marcilla’s bed two days later and discovers that the whole town has been zombified or abducted by aliens or something.

Another problem writers have is with info dumping right from the start.  We all do research so we can make our stories as real and believable as possible, but most of that information doesn’t need to be shared on the page, and none of it needs to be dumped on the reader.  If your opening sounds less like a story and more like a Wikipedia entry, you have a problem.

“Jake shaded his eyes against the heat shimmer rising from the parched ground.  He’d looked it up once, what that shimmer meant.  The variation between hot air at the surface of the ground and denser cool air above it created a variation in the refractiveness of the air, which produced a blurred shimmering effect, making it appear as if the sky was reflected by the road’s surface. The mind interpreted this as a pool of water on the road, since water also reflects the sky. The illusion would fade as he got closer, he knew, but it still made him wish for a cold beer in town.

It’s nice that you know why the heat shimmers the way it does, but it doesn’t really matter to your story, and it certainly doesn’t make any sense that Jake, a lowly cattle driver, would have bothered to research any of that.  If you intend to have Jake fall prey to some evil mirage, that’s great – get on with that instead of explaining the science.

Moving on…we have the “introduce every character” beginning.  This is when the writer feels that all the players should have their moment on stage prior to the action starting.

“Jake Flanagan had been a cattle-driving cowboy since leaving home at the tender age of thirteen.  He shoved his hat back and ran his fingers through his dust-coated hair, watching Mr Brown, the rancher, approach.  Mr Brown was in his fifties, a former New Yorker who’d make a killing on the stock market and had come out west to be a rancher, and was doing a fine job of it.  Mr Brown shook his hand.  “Well done, Jake, as always.  Head on up to the house and see Marcilla for your pay packet.”
Jake thanked him and did as he said.  Marcilla was waiting.  She was a beautiful dark-haired woman, daughter of the white town sheriff and his Mexican wife, and she worked for Mr Brown as his bookkeeper, an odd job for a woman.  She smiled when he entered the office.  “Oh Jake, you’re back!” she cried, flinging herself into his arms.  “Want a beer?”

Again, nothing’s really happening.  A guy worked, got paid, saw his girlfriend.  That’s not a story, that’s every day.  There’s no conflict.  We know who everyone is, but that doesn’t matter much.

So let’s play with one that would work.  Remember, what we want is to begin where things are going wrong.  Ready?

“Jake shaded his eyes against the brutal sun, trying to ignore Marcilla off in the distance.  “It’s a mirage”, he muttered, as if to convince himself that it was only the heat.  Every morning for the last week, he’d waked to find another cow dead, its body drained of blood, and the shimmering image of Marcilla beckoning him to come to her.  He still had one more night on this godforsaken trail, and he wondered if this would be the night that her tastes turned to something more than cow’s blood.”

Right away we know he’s a cattle driver, he has a girlfriend, the weather’s really hot and there’s something awful happening.  As a reader, I want to stick around and see if Jake survives the night.

Here’s your homework, then.  Take a look at whatever you’re working on right now.  Read the first couple of pages.  What’s happening?  Nothing?  Keep going.  When you reach the point that things are going wrong for your main character, stop.  That’s where your story really begins.  All the stuff before it can be broken up and scattered into the story in other places (or maybe even removed entirely, if it’s an info dump situation.)

Good luck!

Using Real People and Places in Fiction

Gail Z. Martin

Until I began writing my Deadly Curiosities urban fantasy series, I made up all the settings for my books. That’s easy to do in Epic Fantasy, dealing with fictional kingdoms and rulers. But location matters in urban fantasy, and Deadly Curiosities is set in Charleston, South Carolina, a fantastic place with plenty of haunted history.

Likewise, the new Iron and Blood steampunk series my husband, Larry N. Martin, and I are co-writing is set in an alternative history Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So we’ve gotten very interested in the issues around how to use real people and places in fiction.

There’s a reason for the disclaimer in the front of books that reminds readers that the book is a work of fiction and that resemblances to people living and dead are unintentional. Not only does it provide some legal cover, but it helps to separate factual stories from fictitious ones.

Still, we’ve all read books or seen movies where the main character meets famous people or takes part in famous events, or just has dinner at a famous landmark. How does that work?

Here’s my basic rule. If the action is going to be negative, make up the person or business.

Corollary: The longer a person has been dead and the more famous he/she was, the less you have to worry about it.

Deadly Curiosities by Gail Z. Martin

Deadly Curiosities

So, if you wanted to allege that Alexander the Great was actually a drug smuggler, odds are his family and estate wouldn’t come after you. On the other hand, if you allege the same thing about a recently-departed public figure, especially one who passed away in living memory, you’re probably on shaky ground.

Likewise, if your character has a fun and happy day out at Disney World or Six Flags, and it’s not the setting for your book, you might be ok to mention it in passing. (I’m not a lawyer, check with someone who passed bar exams before doing any of this.) On the other hand, if your story revolves around a serial killer in a theme park, save yourself a lot of grief and legal expenses and create a fictional setting.

Bottom line: If the context for mentioning the person or business might damage his/her reputation or branding, make up a fictional replacement. If it’s a walk-on role, like your character shaking hands with President Nixon, you’re probably off the hook. And if the site is publicly owned, like the Grand Canyon, you’ve probably got more wiggle room than if the location is privately owned. Likewise, if you’re having a monster swing from the top of a real place like the Empire State Building, that’s different than alleging that the property managers were involved in some kind of wrongdoing or illegal activity.

Believability matters. Readers are less likely to believe that a famous building as a supernatural rift in the basement allowing aliens from another dimension to enter our world than they might be to believe allegations that the building’s owners had links to a drug cartel. One is impossible, and the other is only improbable.

People and businesses spend substantial money and effort on their branding, so they are understandably touchy about anything that might damage their public reputation. Unless you’ve got the deep pockets of a movie producer to work out a deal to use a real location for a sketchy or potentially unflattering setting, skip the drama and make up a place tailor-made to your needs.

That’s why in Deadly Curiosities, I mention walking past famous locations like the Charleston City Market, but locations where the big supernatural battles happen are fictitious. Likewise, I’ve made up restaurants and other locations that I want to be able to use as ongoing parts of the story’s setting. I don’t want to have to change names every time a locale changes hands, or worry about what the new owners might think. It’s easier and safer to make it up, and then the location can be a permanent part of my world.

In Iron and Blood, we use a lot of real buildings and locations. Some are already famous or infamous. Others were well-known back in the late 1890s, but are long gone. Some are still standing, and are historic landmarks. Others have changed names and usage, but still exist.

Iron and Blood by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin

Iron and Blood by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin

If there already was a documented serial killing at a location that doesn’t exist anymore, using that location in your story probably isn’t going to cause problems. So if there was a murder at a real hotel which has since been torn down and replaced with a parking lot, using the murder site is probably okay, because it’s not going to hurt the property’s existing owners. However, alleging that the location’s owners were complicit in the killings is not okay. The building is gone, but the people or their descendants might still be around and could be damaged by those claims.

Using real people is trickier, because they can have descendants. The farther removed you are in time, the less likely people are to take it personally. Hence Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Can you say that a historic figure was something unsavory if there is a body of published documentation and the weight of history holds it to be fact? Probably, because fact is generally a defense against claims of defamation. (Again, I’m not a lawyer, so you should check with someone qualified for your own situation.) For example, mentioning Ulysses S. Grant’s drinking problem is probably safe, since it was well-documented by historians.

When in doubt, make up a person or place to fit your needs. It’s always easier to invent a character or location than it is to respond to a lawsuit, especially once your book is on shelves.

Just Comma Crazy!

Melissa Gilbert

Comma Crazy? Comma down, now. Let’s talk.

I once had a student tell me that he used commas like seasoning—sprinkle them throughout the paper to add flavor. Well, that’s not exactly how commas work. In my humble opinion, commas are of the most difficult punctation marks to master, and the reason they are difficult is because you have to know a lot about how sentences are put together to know where and when to use them.

With that in mind, fiction writing is less hard and fast than academic writing, so sometimes writers omit commas as long as the intended meaning is unmistakable.

However, it is always good to know your comma rules. So, let’s take a look at how commas are often used in sentences. Why? Because they can save the world! Or, at least Grandma.

Unknown

Note: This does not cover commas in other uses, such as addresses, dates, etc.

Rule #1: Items in a Series

When you list three or more items in a series, you should separate the items with commas.

Example: I like reading, writing, and dancing.

That’s a very simplistic example, but in many narratives, the sentences are far more complex, so let’s look at another example.

Example: Elizabeth walked into the smoke-filled bar, scanned the crowd for the mysterious man who waited for her arrival, and finally saw him perched on a stool at the back of the room.

Now, there is one little problem with commas in a series.  The Oxford Comma. I personally like and use the Oxford comma, but some people don’t like it.  The Oxford comma is the last comma in the series (the one that comes right before the conjunction.) That’s up to personal preference, or if you are writing using a specific style, it’s up to the rules of the style guide.

Here’s one good argument for the Oxford comma:

Unknown-1

What do you think? Do you Oxford or not?


Rule #2: Introductory Stuff

Rule #2 is the rule that many people miss. It’s one of the most common errors in writing.

When you start a sentence with an introductory word, phrase, or clause, you should follow the introductory material with a comma to avoid misreading the sentence.

Consider this sentence: When he returned the car was in the driveway.

Without a comma, you may read “When he returned the car” as a unit before realizing that “the car” is part of the next unit. See? Confusion!

(Side note: a clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb that works as a unit. A phrase is group of words that works as a unit but does not have a subject and verb.) 

Here are a few examples.

Example (introductory word): Unfortunately, commas are difficult for many people.

Example (introductory phrase): In the meantime, study comma rules and practice.

Example (introductory clause): When you practice comma use, it will become easier.

Now, there is one additional component to this rule. That component involves combining clauses (creating a complex sentence).

There are two types of clauses: independent and dependent. An independent clause has a subject and a verb, and it can stand alone as a sentence.  A dependent clause (or subordinate clause) has a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand alone as a sentence. It usually starts with a subordinating conjunction or relative pronoun.

Here are some examples.

Independent Clause: The woman sang.

Dependent Clause: When the woman sang.

When you are combining clauses, if the dependent clause is first, it falls under rule #2. However, if the independent clause is first, you don’t need a comma.

Here are some examples.

Example 1:

Dependent clause + , + independent clause

When the woman sang, the people cheered.

Example 2:

Independent clause + dependent clause

The people cheered when the woman sang.


Rule #3: Compound Sentences

Another way to join clauses is to use a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) between two independent clauses. If you do that, you need to add a comma. It is called a compound sentence.

Example:

Independent clause + , + coordinating conjunction independent clause

The woman sang, and the people cheered.

However, if you use a coordinating conjunction, but you don’t have two independent clauses, you don’t need the comma.

Consider the difference between these two sentences.

The agent requested the manuscript, but she did not give me a deadline to send it.

The agent requested the manuscript but did not give me a deadline to send it.

In the first sentence, the agent requested the manuscript and she did not give me a deadline to send it could both be sentences on their own. They have a subject, verb, and make a complete thought; thus, they are independent clauses.

In the second sentence, did not give me a deadline to send it could not stand alone as a sentence (lacks a subject), so it is not a clause at all. Therefore, since you do not have two independent clauses, you do not need the comma with the coordinating conjunction in the second example.


Rule #4: Essential and Non-Essential Stuff

When you are writing a sentence and include information that is not necessary to the sentence, you should enclose that information by using a comma before and after the extra information.

Example:  Mary and Sue, who are dressed very nicely today, are meeting for lunch.

In this sentence, who are dressed very nicely today is not essential information. It could be taken out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

However, consider this sentence: The people who read my books are awesome.

In this sentence, who read my books is essential because if it is taken out, the sentence will not have the same meaning. Thus, the information should not be enclosed by commas.

Easy clues to using this rule correctly are the words that and which.

The word that is an indicator that the information that follows it is essential in the sentence, so if you use that, you probably don’t need a comma.

Likewise, the word which is an indicator that the information is non-essential, so you will almost always use a comma before the word which. 

Example #1: The song that I heard on the radio was beautiful.

Example #2: My favorite song, which I heard on the radio today, is “Pink” by Aerosmith.

Another aspect to this rule is when you use a person’s name in the sentence. If you are speaking to the person, you should enclose their name using commas, but if you are speaking about the person, no commas are needed.

Example #1: Have you heard, Anna, that the band is touring the country? (Speaking to Anna)

Example #2: Have you heard that Anna is touring the country with the band? (Speaking about Anna)


Rule #5: Adjectives

This is one of the rules that many people just simply ignore, but it is an important rule.

When you have more than one adjective describing a noun, you sometimes use commas and sometimes not.

Coordinate adjectives: These are adjectives that have the same “weight” in describing the noun. Each adjective is at the same level of impact on the noun. These are separated with commas.

Example: The torrential, destructive rain poured from the sky.

In this sentence, torrential and destructive both have equal weight in describing the rain. Thus, they should be separated with a comma.

An easy “trick” to see if you’ve got it right is to see if the sentence passes two tests.

Test 1: can you put the word “and” between the adjectives? (The torrential and destructive rain poured from the sky.)  If it sounds good, you need a comma.

Test 2: can you switch the order of the words? (The destructive, torrential rain poured from the sky.)  If it sounds good, you need a comma.

Cumulative Adjectives: These adjectives “pile up” to describe a noun and generally need to be kept in the same order.  You should not use commas between cumulative adjectives.

Example: The bright blue door was a great addition to the house.

This sentence would not pass the two tests previously mentioned. It wouldn’t sound right to say bright and blue door or blue bright door, so we know that they are cumulative not coordinate adjectives.


One final thought about commas: don’t use a comma between two independent clauses. That creates and error called a comma splice. Just don’t do it!  I know, I know…it happens, but I think a semicolon is just a whole lot nicer between two independent clauses! The semicolon is just so elegant. I told you I like punctuation!

 

Note: this post is adapted from my original post here