I think there probably are not any rules for writing novels anymore. Or if there are, it's all right to break them. Especially if you have a reason. (Oops, sentence fragment there, but I'm doing it for effect.)

As I edit my own book, I've decided to eliminate the commas from strings of adjectives (a grammatical no-no, according to my English teacher Miss Higginbotham).

Sorry, Miss Higg, but I've decided that this:

Amid the smoky dusty choke-a-thon, all I could see was my closest friend from basic training, still belted into his seat, hanging upside down like meat on a butcher’s hook, one lifeless surprised uncomprehending eye still open, staring at infinity, one eye gone, nothing left but a bloody pulped socket.

. . . is better than this:

Amid the smoky, dusty choke-a-thon, all I could see was my closest friend from basic training, still belted into his seat, hanging upside down like meat on a butcher’s hook, one lifeless, surprised, uncomprehending eye still open, staring at infinity, one eye gone, nothing left but a bloody, pulped socket.

Why?

It's already a long sentence with a lot of commas, so anything I can do to speed it up is helpful. Also, my point of view is first person, and Johnny, my narrator, is a 20-year-old Army private in Iraq, where chaos reigns. Would a stunned, grieving kid worry about fastidiously putting commas in a sentence when his world is shattering? Doubtful. I would argue, too, that the lack of classical punctuation pushes everything forward without pause — no rest! — slamming the words together, which is kind of the way things go in the war.

Now, should I push it further? Say the sentence is:

The war steamrolled on, crushing soldiers, civilians, men, women, children, hajjis, dogs, cats, goats, anything that was alive.

I could see doing it like this:

The war steamrolled on, crushing soldiers civilians men women children hajjis dogs cats goats anything that was alive.

I like the look of it, but is it gimmick or is it metaphor?

I don't know . . . I'm thinking . . . if I go with version two, I might have nightmares. Miss Higg was relentless and scary in her defense of "proper" English.
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Published on October 17, 2011 18:01 • 387 views • Tags: writing-editing-punctuation

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Jim Braly
Your brain keeps writing long after you've quit for the day.
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