Monday, November 5, 2012

November 2012 - Colons and Semicolons

"Drop ornate punctuation and work toward simplicity." -John Long WRITERS LITTLE BOOK OF WISDOM

    My research has proven that there is a definitive line between those that use semicolons and colons and those that don't. That line separates informal genre fiction writing and literary fiction writing. Yes, every genre has a literary arm in which the level of writing is high enough and the readership is such that it warrants use of colons and semicolons. However, most of the fiction in the marketplace is aimed at ordinary folks which means avoiding use of colons and semicolons because:

1) colons and semicolons are formal, mechanical pieces of punctuation better utilized in business communications and literary and scientific works. Of all the punctuation marks, the colon and semicolon are the most misunderstood and misused and the novice writer, especially, should avoid them or learn or relearn to use them properly.

2) 99% of people do not think or speak in semicolons or colons.   Thus actual dialogue, both spoken and internalizations (thoughts), will not include colons or semicolons. Of course, there will be a rare exception for the highly educated mind or a particularity of personality. However, most story people are "ordinary" people which must appeal to the majority of "ordinary" readers.

3) it was pointed out to me a few months ago by a reader that when they saw the semicolon, they were reminded of an emoticon, that the author was winking back at them. This shocked me because a writer of genre fiction knows the worst thing to have happen is a reader stopping as they read a story. Yet, the winking semicolon is a reality because of the use of semicolons in everyday e-mails.

    What does all this mean?  It means that a writer, and more importantly a storyteller,  has to first know who their reader is and then decide what guideline to use about the semicolon or colon appearing in their own work. If the decision is to write informal genre fiction, then the dash is the substitution of choice for both the colon and semicolon.  The other choice is to rewrite and use simpler sentence structures. After all, dialogue must mimic real speech, not duplicate it and to that end the "rules" of punctuation and grammar don't necessarily apply.  If they are strictly applied, the dialogue becomes stilted and unrealistic to the reader's inner ear.

   As always, adding a check for colons and semicolons is a good idea when revising so consider adding them to your revision check list.  You do have one, don't you?

Stop in next month for Widows and Orphans. 

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October 2012 - Dashes

"When you begin to think about what exactly you're trying to say, you become a writer." --Theodore A.  Rees Cheney, GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT

    If ellipses means to trail off (see September's THE SAMPLER), dashes flag "an abrupt switch or change." Sort of the yin and yang of dialogue, which includes both the spoken words or internalizations (thoughts) of characters.
    Like all punctuation marks, a dash has a "sound of silence" (a certain length of pause) that a reader "hears" as they read and which helps a reader understand what's going on.
    Let's look at common ways dashes are effective in dialogue passages and fiction:

    1) The dash sets aside, like: 

You know him–he's the guy who does the car commercials on TV–the one with three wives.

 Now compare this to:  You know him, he's the guy who does the car commercials on TV, the one with three wives. 

Or: You know him–he's the guy who does the car commercials on TV, the one with three wives. 

All are correct–but did you hear the difference in the delivery? There is a difference. A difference that results from the punctuation. (And if you didn't hear the differences?  Well take the time to start really listening to how your characters speak–and listen to how real people talk. Or even close your eyes while watching TV and listen to your favorite characters speak.)

    2) A dash can "show" stammering, hesitation, faltering by setting a string of words together like: I–I lost it. Or: 
I–I–  I lost it.

    3) The dash can show an abrupt switch of thought: He loves me–he loves me not! Compare this to: He loves me, he loves me not. Or: He loves me. He loves me not.

    4) The dash also is used to show an abrupt interruption or cutting off, especially in spoken dialogue between two characters, like:

    "You can't be serious, my boss would never—"
    "Engage in an affair? Jeez, you're so naive!"
    5) A dash often inserts vital information or adds an explanation for clarification: She killed him–shot him six times.

    Keep in mind that a dash creates emphatic separation of words. It has a special forcefulness and should be used only when a deliberate effect is needed. Likely the most dash useage will be when a character is under stress, duress, or terrified. And dashes will be more prevalent with first-person and the deepest of third person narrative then any omniscient style of POV and Viewpoint.

    When is a good time to make a pass through a manuscript for dash use or misuse? When it's time to make the last pass for punctuation. You do have a "cheat sheet" for revising your fiction, don't you? If your list of "punctuation to check for" doesn't include the dash, make it so.

Stop back on November 1 for a few words on Colons and semicolons.

Note: for some reason this didn't stay posted during October so I'm reposting it - Catherine