Against the Stet
Was reading over a novel I’m about to submit, and kind of just mentally ticking off the things I was going to be writing ‘stet’ by after the copy editor and proofreader have had a go at it (assuming a lot here, I know, but hope springs, all that), so figured it’d maybe just be easier to go ahead and rig up a document-type affair beforehand. Or at least a list — things I always do, things to watch for, things to let slide:
- Semicolons. This started with one line in BIRD IS GONE, if I’m remembering correctly, but it was a way of using semicolons I’d been using just in emails and around for a while by then. And I don’t even have the grammar-vocabulary to explain it, really, so, just a couple of examples:
- I looked at him, didn’t know him; wouldn’t*.
- I was a doll, now; less.
- I’d got to put my own sugar in it too, to keep me awake in Mass, my father would say, leaning down; a secret.
Make sense, maybe? It’s just that one word after the semicolon, which I guess is functioning as its own little independent clause — emphasis on the ‘little,’ yeah. Not sure it’s wholly proper, but it feels so natural that I don’t care if the rules support it or not, really.
- I stack prepositions. Maybe it’s a Texas thing? Anyway, saying this any other way than this just feels so wrong: Ducking out into the parking garage. It seems to me that “out” is trailing off the verb “ducking,” and “into” is leading into the parking garage. But yeah, two prepositions for a single doorway? Evidently. And, I guess, some might put a comma between the two prepositions there, to make clear that this isn’t a mistake. But that just fries everything, I think.
- If you ever see me spell ‘grey’ with the ‘a,’ like ‘gray,’ then just assume that I’ve gone off some deep end or another, and don’t worry about me anymore. Of all the Britishisms I came out of grad school with, just from reading all that stuff so much, ‘grey’ is the one that’s stuck. I’ve lost the single quotation marks, I put my commas inside the (dialogue) quotation marks, I spell ‘burned’ without the ‘t,’ etc, but will fight and cry for ‘grey.’
- The same with ‘okay.’ Nothing turns me off so much as the Oklahoma-way of spelling it. Even in that EATS, SHOOTS, & LEAVES book, which is about style and grammar, there it is: “OK.” So, if this is the house-style, then please understand that I’ll be changing houses. Really.
- I don’t believe in exoticizing foreign words in my prose by italicizing them. The only exception is the Latin names for plants or animals, I suppose. And, though I do think italicizing book titles and ship names in prose just junks it up, I’ll bend that far to convention, anyway.
- Colons. And no, I can think of no ‘clean’ way to say this — ‘Watch my colon use?’ ‘I’m romantically involved with colons?’ You see the problem here. Anyway, given free rein, I’ll make every third sentence hinge on a colon. Which isn’t very clean. Please call me on this. But sometimes, too, they work, I think. Like this: I pursed my lips, looked away: he was right.
- “But still.” In FAST RED ROAD I started using this, and haven’t stopped since. Just its own sentence. Technically, I think, it works in third person narration as direct interior — a way of slamming into the character’s head for a line or two. Like the response shot in camera work, maybe, though I think when I started doing it I may have been all enamored of Vonnegut’s “So it goes,” and wanted my own. Anyway, don’t let me use them as a crutch, but get used to them, too.
- “Anyway.” See (directly) above. I’ll use this one to death, just in my weak-willed efforts to stop using “but” and “though” and “nevertheless” and “however” and “yet” and “athough” and etc, each of which have, in their respective times, been my “anyway.”
- About a third of the time, when using a leading dialogue tag, I’ll go without the comma: He opened a channel, said “False alarm,â€? then just stared at me. As near as I can tell, that comma that’s supposed to go after “said” there, it’s vestigial, which, to me, means it’s optional. When the rhythm of the sentence can be broken by the pause that comma would introduce, then the comma goes.
- “Though” or “too” in the middle of the sentence, and where the comma goes. Sometimes “though” and “too” get a comma on each side, sometime just on the right side. Which would look inconsistent, I know, like careless prose. But believe me, every single one of them is double- and triple-checked. As for “too,” I have the suspicion that there are two different kinds, really — the “as well”-kind (We’re coming too) — and the other kind, which I can’t explain: I pretended he was watching me do it, too, and taking notes. You can see how one needs the comma and the other doesn’t, right? Please? As for “though,” man, I don’t know. Here’s some of the ways/kinds, anyway:
- On the surface, though, he was blind to it.
- “He’s still suspended though,â€? I said.
- This close though, there was something else.
- The way you do that, though, is you figure out how he does stuff.
And yeah, sometimes what makes the comma somewhat optional is the speed of the scene the “though” is in. And yeah, there are all kinds of rules that are supposed to help here. Except they don’t. All of which is to say, sure, do what you will with “too” and “though” and my commas. I need the second-guessing, probably. But I can’t guarantee I’ll change any of them. As for those four examples, yes, I agree: each sentence works just as well without the “though.” As standalones, anyway. In their respective paragraphs, however, let’s at least pretend that we need that directional or polarity change that the “though” can introduce.
- Uppercasing “coke” is ridiculous, and I refuse to do it. “Dr. Pepper,” sure. “Root beer?’ No. Same with “coke.”
- For whatever-reason, I use “even” and “still” a few words late in my sentences, as if English isn’t natural to me — as I’m being loyal to a different speech rhythm or something, and only subsituting English vocabulary in. Examples:
- Which was in the passenger seat of my car, still, instead of logged into Evidence.
- Hiding behind a badge, maybe, or in numbers, or up here even, in America, where movies get solved, go over.
- Davidson stepped forward, like he was actually going to meet us, give himself to Madrone, introduce us to his parents even, and Madrone smiled, lowered his arm, and I cringed inside . . .
I try not to do this, so call me on it whenever. But it usually just feels so right.
- Sometimes I’ll drop a comma after an introductory prepositional phrase (After a while), and sometimes I won’t. Wish I had some grand reason, but, just, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I think it has something to do with whether the last word in the phrase can be uncharitably read as an adjective for the next word, usually the subject of the sentence. I know in journalism there’s some rule about “if the prepositional phrase is under this many words, no comma,” but it’s not that simple for me. Call me on these if you will, but please don’t ask me to make them all consistent with each other.
- Nearly all of my dialogue will start with a new paragraph. Some writers — good writers — can get away with starting the dialogue in the middle of a paragraph. I can’t; sorry.
- I tend to muck up my prose with misplaced probablies and alreadies, so call me on each of these, please.
- I know so little about hyphens you’d laugh to think about it. They just seem so arbitrary to me. That X ray x-ray thing? It loses me every last time. Same with plurals and words that end in ‘s.’ And, if I think about it, I can usually get whose/who’s straight, and lay/lie, but you might double-check.
- I overuse em-dashes in narration, ellipses in dialogue: watch me. I should be using syntax instead of punctuation.
And this is just what I thought of in the last ten minutes. Which is to say I will be back, here, to shoehorn more and more into this list, until it’s just wholly unwieldy. The idea being, of course, that the list’ll be so obviously comprehensive** that copy editors and proofreaders will bow before it. Which isn’t to say they haven’t saved me from myself six thousand times already . . .
*all examples here cribbed from SEVEN SPANISH ANGELS
**Also, no, I don’t intend this to be a sieve which filters all the bad off prose, makes it good. That’d be like me calling my own stuff good, yeah? Out loud, I mean, in print