Last week, in my critique group, someone had the audacity to slip a colon into his pages for the week. Can you believe it? A colon? Wow.
It is said that an author is allowed one semi-colon in the course of writing a commercial length novel in today’s publishing world. The colon seems to have no place at all. The colon is used for business letters, immediately before a list of product features or reasons to buy something.
The Merriam Webster’s Secretarial Handbook has succinct descriptions of both, and how they are best used. And if it’s Merriam Webster, it must be so, right?
There is no need for either colon or semi-colon mark in a story, even in a novel-length work. This takes me immediately into the wonderful world of how-did-that-come-to-be? And what-if? From there, my imagination takes a leap, and I see the following scene:
Matt slumped back to his copy writer’s desk, his beloved manuscript in hand. It was a story he’d worked on for years, click-clacking away in the wee hours on his Imperial typewriter; a good story with drama, character, and a great story arc.
It had taken another two months to work up the courage to take this offering to his editor, Tom Eliot. Eliot took another few weeks to agree to read the manuscript, “on condition,” said the venerable editor, “that if I don’t like the thing, you’ll never bother me with another.” Eliot had been published multiple times, and with every publication of his work came another onslaught of would-be writers looking for suggestions, criticisms, even publication. Matt understood how the great man was plagued by others and agreed to his boss’s condition. Mr. Eliot took the manuscript home.
A few weeks later, Eliot called Matt into his office. Matt eyed the kindly editor with hope in his heart and a tentative smile hovering about his mouth. Surely Mr. Eliot had seen that he, Matt, was a young man with big talent. The great war had stolen Matt’s right leg, but left him with a spirit that was strong, a mind as sharp as any in the great Faber and Faber publishing house, and a hunger for publication with his own name behind the words.
“Madison,” said Eliot, “I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m going to immediately cut off your desire to write. This is the kindest thing to do.”
Matt’s jaw dropped. He’d worked so hard and long on this project! In the trenches of those rat-infested holes in Europe’s main land, he’d scribbled the plight of the world. When the other soldiers were writing to girlfriends and mothers, Matt had kept a journal of worldly observations. Why would Mr. Eliot want him to stop writing?
“Your prose is decent enough, son, but your total lack of talent with the semi-colon is repugnant. A semi-colon is not a period, though to be sure, the semi will end a thought. It is not a comma, or the indication that one should take a breath on the thought that preceded it. A semi is a precious mark that bridges two separate thoughts that are yet, somehow related. The semi allows your reader to know what you think, and that there’s more. If I had a nickel for every young whippersnapper who peppered his prose with improper semi-colons, I’d be a rich man indeed.”
“But the story, sir?” said Matt, hope fading even as he voiced his question.
“Blasé at best,” said the older man. “Reminds me of Canterbury Tales; bunch of people sitting around with nothing in common but their need to tell a story. And you end on such a happy note! This needs a hopeless ending.”
“If I rewrite the ending, sir?”
“Ending, schmending. The world wants happy these days. It’s the twenties after all. War is over; time to prosper. So your “book” would probably sell, but I’m not the editor to go through and correct your use of colons and semi-colons. One rule for you and every new writer I speak to will be, ONE SEMI-COLON PER NOVEL, from now on.”
Matt went home, devastated by the great T.S. Eliot’s words. Shortly he died. Some say gangrene crept up the sawed-off-leg. Others who knew him better said Matt succumbed to a broken heart. Personally, I think he was murdered for the poor use of semi-colons.
And in 1922, a year after Matt’s death, T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land.
DAISY NOTE: Hi Reading Friends. Just wanted to let you know I’ve added a new page to this website. Looking Forward To Seeing You is listed under the Press Kit & Public Relations tab. It tells where I’ll be doing book signings and giving speeches. Hope to meet you face-to-face soon. Have a great reading or writing day–with or without semi-colons.