Thursday, February 20, 2014

Smash Semicolon, Bash Semicolon...

In my pursuit of finishing my personal behemoth, I’m getting close to the copyedit phase. As I near this unfamiliar territory, I have to face one of my greatest fears: THE SEMICOLON!!

Learning proper grammar and punctuation was never a keen interest. As I continue to write, my attitude changes, but the availability of time for research does not seem to coordinate.


Yet, I have read a lot in my years and I am aware that the semicolon is a red-headed step-child of the genre fiction world. I was surprised to see it prominently in The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander (a recent read), though this was published fifty years ago.

Perhaps this is new to you? Then, let me share in brief: There are different styles of punctuation and grammar for different types of writing. Journalism adheres to AP style, genre fiction—like Fantasy and Science Fiction—mostly go with The Chicago Manual of Style, though each publishing house can have their own variations.

Laugh and stare if you will, but no matter how fascinating your elf defense attorney is in uncovering improperly handled evidence by vampiric officers, you’ll lose your reader if some paragraphs are indented and others are not. This stuff is little, tiny, like grains of freaking sand. But your manuscript is going to be full of it, and even a strong man is going to struggle to lift a couple buckets full of sand. You can’t ignore this stuff and neither can I. You need the prose to be invisible, because the reader needs to be immersed. If they are thrown off for some oddly placed comma, inconsistent capitalization, a three page long paragraph, or italics that have overtaken your content with their slanted cry to arms, then you may lose your reader. It would be like seeing a wristwatch on Frodo as he enters the volcano to toss in the ring. And no one wants that.

If this kind of consistency doesn’t sound like much, just wait... Make sure you either have the budget for a good copyeditor or have a lot of time on your hands.

As mentioned, The Chicago Manual of Style is a veritable bible to the genre fiction world, while Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style still appears to be relevant and useful. (I’ve recently bought both, we’ll see what I can glean.)

What is fascinating to me, is that these little things—minuscule and practically invisible—may prove to be the hardest part of this manuscript. I can only hope that I learn and retain, so that future works will not be such a struggle amidst the crush to complete.

All is not drear in my progress, I set out (with newfound knowledge) to deliver my manuscript from the sins of the semicolon. I thought it would be a simple endeavor, I’ve rarely used them and only recently became properly acquainted with them. So after the second Ctrl+F took me to the next paragraph, and the third to the one beneath, I slowly had to admit: I had quite a few.

How tragic, how terrible, naive little Clifton had become enamored with the semicolon and the sly little punk had infiltrated my manuscript with some terrible abandon. What was hoped to be a quick fix, became hours of work.

But I did finish. And what did I find? I found that experience breeds understanding (at least a little). Replacing with em dashes, periods, commas, and sentence restructures, I found there was a solution to each problem, and I found myself agreeing with some fellow writing webizens. They found their own resulting work to be crisper, cleaner and less convoluted. We’re writing fiction here, it’s not supposed to be technical writing for good reason and the scheduled execution of the semicolon seemed unlikely to get a call from the governor.

Now that this one little step is clear, and as I pare down the bulk of my manuscript, what I have to look forward to next is trying to figure out the proper genre-specific capitalization of honorifics and titles. Sound simple?


Have you considered if it should be:
-Sir [or] sir
-the Lieutenant [or] the lieutenant
-the General [or] the general

Because I’ve seen claims of both: Sir should be capitalized in direct address, and it should not. High station, such as “general” or “marshal”, should be capitalized, but not a lower rank, and so on...

Skimming a couple titles by respected publishers gave me nothing. (What? I don’t own an e-reader.) I’m only partly through The Elements of Style, but it appears the subject is not fully addressed. So, I am left with searching the bible—and The Chicago Manual of Style is a 1000 pages thick.

I sure hope their table of contents is well organized...

So, intrepid reader, are you in copyedit? Is your prose ready for that final polish? Tell me where you’re at and what has been your struggle.

-See some revised thoughts about the poor little semi-colon: here
-And my own little primer for when to capitalize for title and rank is coming soon...

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