Written by John Scalzi
I write novels. And with just about every novel I write, I try to do something new or different that I haven’t done before, in order to challenge myself as a writer, and to keep developing my skills. In The Android’s Dream, of example, I wrote in the third person for the first time; in Zoe’s Tale, I had a main character—a sixteen year old girl—whose life experience was substantially different from my own; with The Human Division, I wrote a novel comprised of thirteen stand-alone “episodes.”
And now? With Lock In? What new thing have I done to stretch myself as a writer and teller of tales? Well, I’ll tell you; it’s something I’m really proud of, actually:
I’ve written a novel entirely free of semicolons.
And at the moment, I’m sure at least some of you are all, like, yeah, okay, so what? But you don’t understand. I don’t just like semicolons; I love them like kids love cake. And I don’t just use semicolons; I slather them all over my writing. I will write sentences with not just one, not just two but three and even four semicolons in them, pausing only for an instant after I’ve written them to change them into two or three sentences, if only to keep whatever poor copyeditor who is assigned to my writing from spinning up into a totally justified rage and traveling to my house to murder me in my sleep (I also occasionally write run-on sentences). I am a semicolon abuser; God help me, I adore them so.
Which is a problem; you see, people write with semicolons, but people rarely speak with them. I started noticing that semicolons were beginning to creep into my dialogue; that was not a good thing. If they were creeping into my dialogue, it suggested that I was overusing them even when, technically, they would actually be useful and desirable. It meant that semicolons were becoming a stylistic tic; a crutch, if you will, that I was allowing to dictate how my writing was getting done, rather than being just another tool in the toolbox.
There’s another thing; semicolons create a certain sense of pace in one’s writing. There are few sentences with semicolons that could be described as “punchy”; indeed the presence of semicolon suggests rather the opposite. Sentences with semicolons are languid, or unhurried, or even draggy; they take their time to get to their point. Often that is the point; a writer who knows his or her craft knows there are times when a point will be better made by going a circuitous route. But when every sentence starts taking the long way home, even without you intending it, that’s a problem.
Lock In is, among other things, a murder mystery. It’s fast. It’s blunt. It’s abrupt in places. It’s not a novel for semicolons.
So I cut them out. I intentionally wrote sentences that didn’t need them. And when I got lazy and wrote semicolonized sentences, I tossed them and rewrote, right there, right then. It was difficult for the first couple of chapters. Then I caught the rhythm and it was off to the races. Now the only place you’ll find semicolons in Lock In are in the acknowledgements.
And yes. It seems a little silly, when you look at it in isolation. But again, the point was for me, as a writer, to break myself of a habit that shaped my prose; to make myself aware of what I was doing with my writing, and how. I still use semicolons; I still love them. But now I’m using them because I intend to, and don’t use them when I don’t.
It’s a small thing. It makes a difference.
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