Just a quick one: For folks who are having trouble with writer’s block (either in their professional or creative work), I’ve put together this little week-long clinic. Totally free, no strings attached. My gift to you. Check it out:
Read the novelette Tribble-inventor David Gerrold called “a very disturbing story”—for FREE!
Promotion ends tonight, so grab your copy now, and spread the word.
The story starts like this
Tate didn’t like how the kid was acting. The teenaged male in the second-hand cruiser’s back seat—who could produce no ID, but had given the moderately improbable name of “Jamal Kartazian”—was far too compliant. As a rule, kids like this—scrawny white boys with lumpy dreadlocks and grimy hoodies—were a spewing font of the Three Bs: bravado, back-peddling, and begging.
But not this kid. Jamal Kartazian was cool and collected; he almost seemed satisfied to find himself locked in the back of a cop car. And, in contrast to every other kid Tate had ever busted in his short two-act career as first a cop and then a rent-a-cop, this kid was actually asking to be “hauled back to the station.”
. . . and goes downhill from there: “The Lure of Lake 19” by David Erik Nelson
People freak out about commas. Please don’t. Yes, commas are hella confusing (the Chicago Manual of Style dedicates 59 distinct sub-sections to them, and even then there is ambiguity and opinion and wiggle room leftover), but knowing these four little things will almost entirely solve your comma problems.
1. The “Oxford”/”serial” Comma
This is technically the “list” comma: When you give a list, you put commas between individual items. E.g.,:
Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy, and enlightenment.
N.B. that the last comma (which I’ve put in red) is disputed; that lil fella is an “Oxford comma”. Some folks say it’s unnecessary (including, at least at one time, the AP Style Guide), preferring:
Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy and enlightenment.
But this can lead to hilarious ambiguity, such as this oft-quoted (and probably apocryphal) book dedication sorely in need of an Oxford comma:
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God
—or this actual and verified sentence published in the Times of London a few years back:
FYI, serial commas apply to lists of adjectives, too:
You mean that fat, red, flabby car? It’s mine. Why?
2. The “if, then” Comma
“If . . ., then . . .” statements need commas:
If you don’t cut it the fuck out, then I’m going to freak the fuck out.
Where this one tricks people is that we often omit the then in an “if, then” statement—nonetheless, we still need the comma:
If you don’t cut it the fuck out, I’m going to freak the fuck out.
3. “That/which” commas
Rule of Thumb: “that” is almost never preceded by a comma, while a standalone “which” is almost always preceded by a comma:
You know that dog I hired? Turns out he has no idea how to use Excel, which is super annoying.
(So what is a non-standalone “which”? “Which” used in a phrase like “that which” or “in which”—in those cases, you don’t stick a comma before the “which,” because that would muck up the phrase.)
4. Commas by Ear
There are a ton of other commas (“parenthetical commas,” “conjunction commas,” “direct address commas,” etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam)—fortunately, there’s an easy way to figure out where to put them without learning a ton of new rules. Here’s the trick:
Commas indicate places where you take a brief pause when saying something.
So, there’s a really easy way to get your commas right most of the time:
Read it aloud; if there’s a place where you naturally take a half-pause or shift volume, then stick a comma there. If you don’t pause, then strike the comma—unless it’s one of the three situations listed above.
For example, say:
Dave <pause> why did you say that?
That pause is the direct address comma:
Dave, why did you say that?
Did you know that Nate <pause> the terrible drunk in my carpool <pause> is marrying my sister?
That’s the parenthetical comma:
Did you know that Nate, the terrible drunk in my carpool, is marrying my sister?
This fourth rule is the golden rule, since most of the first three types of commas are also marked in speech by a pause or volume/tone shift—but sometimes those commas can be subtle to the ear, which is why it’s worth knowing the first three rules. Rule #4 will keep you covered 90% of the time, while Rules #1–3 will help you catch the tricky 10%
We’re done here. Go forth, my children, and sin no more.
(Want more details? Start with the Purdue Owl on Commas, and then move on to the Chicago Manual of Style, if need be.)
In “The Traveling Salesman Solution” a wheelchair-bound veteran of the “War on Terror”—now working in the IT department of a Big Ten university—starts investigating suspicious marathon results, and ends up face-to-face with an absolutely chilling mathematical conundrum.
My latest novella—”Where There is Nothing, There is God”—is a Finalist for the this year’s Asimov’s Award. Asimov’s has posted all of the finalists for free download; nab ’em and read up! (HOT TIP: Karl Bunker’s “They Have All One Breath” is an especially worthy read.)
FYI: This novella is a standalone, and there are two other standalone stories set in this universe (both have appeared in Asimov’s, and one won the 2013 Asimov’s Award). Check ’em out:
Just a quick note: I’m on the faculty of the Michigan Writing Workshop this year, doing fantasy and science fiction critiques (I still have a few open slots, they tell me). Lots of interesting speakers this year (I’m especially hoping to drop in on D.E. Johnson’s thriller/mystery/crime writing sessions; I dug his book The Detroit Electric Scheme).
My latest Time Portal novella— “Where There Is Nothing, There Is God” —is in the current issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, on news stands now! (Most Barnes & Noble locations stock it, as do many indie bookshops).
Our blockbuster December 2016 novella, “Where There Is Nothing, There Is God” by David Erik Nelson, is a rollicking Time Portal tale. It’s filled with a cast of unsavory characters who operate as though Cotton Mather’s favorite TV show was Breaking Bad. In this vastly entertaining story, it’s hard to know whom to root for so just make sure your inertia dampening system is on and enjoy the ride!
The other two stories in the series— “The New Guys Always Work Overtime” and “There Was No Sound of Thunder” —can be purchased for Kindle (click those links), or you can get that first story in many DRM-free formats for free(!!!) when you sign up for my newsletter using this link:
Pseudopod has an excellent track record—both in terms of delivering the goods and doing right by their contributors—and impressive longevity (10 years of weekly operation publishing fiction for free is hard going; I know from experience). Their goal is to raise funds to increase what they pay artists and ensure their longevity. These are Good Things™
Kick in a few bucks; the 21st Century is nuts, and perhaps the nutsiest thing is the jaw-dropping array of free arts & letters we each enjoy every day—but it can only be free on the daily if we all kick in now and again. This is one of those moments.
Add bonus: there are some really nifty backer premiums, including this rad-as-hell mug and their first ever anthology, For Mortal Things Unsung—which features both reprints of pieces they
bought for the podcast (including mine), as well as new work A.C. Wise, Jim Bihyeh, and others.