MM: Semicolons, Part 2

In my last MM, I talked about using semicolons as “softer periods” to join two sentences into one. That’s the main use of this mark of punctuation, but there’s another instance in which you’ll see it: the complex list. This use of the semicolon is unrelated to its main function.

Here’s a simple list:

Fred went to the store and bought milk, eggs, and cat food.

It’s pretty easy to figure out the items in this list, as they’re separated from one another with commas:

A = “milk”
B = “eggs”
C = “cat food”

But what if A, B, and C are longer and more complex? What if you get lists within your lists?

Joe Doe is survived by his wife, Nancy Smith, his sister Samantha, his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James, his daughter, Jane, six grandchildren, Sally, Janine, Robert, John, Peter, and Frank, and one great-grandchild.

A complex list is a list in which at least one individual item contains a comma. For instance, in the above sentence, C = “his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James.” The commas that separate C from B and D blend together with the commas inside C. That makes the above sentence pretty hard on a reader: she can’t tell immediately where C begins and ends. Instead, she has to read slowly, grouping the names into categories as she goes. The point of punctuation is to make things easier for your reader. In the above sentence, punctuation is not going its job.

Semicolons clarify complex lists by replacing the commas between items. Here’s what the above sentence looks like when punctuated correctly:

Joe Doe is survived by his wife, Nancy Smith; his sister Samantha; his three sons, Paul, Edward, and James; this daughter, Jane; six grandchildren, Sally, Janine, Robert, John, Peter, and Frank; and one great-grandchild.

Having even one item with one internal comma is enough to trigger complex-list punctuation, but if you don’t have at least three items, you don’t have a list:

Fred went to the store and bought milk and a bunch of pet supplies, including cat food and bird seed.

“Milk” and “pet supplies” aren’t a list, and “cat food” and “bird seed” aren’t a list, either. Only when you get three or more items to you have to start thinking about list-punctuation issues.

MM: Semicolons, Part 1

My last MM (mechanics moment) focused on colons. Now we’re moving on to semicolons, perhaps the most often misused mark of punctuation in English.

Colons and semicolons look similar, so people tend to get them confused. That’s unfortunate, as they work in very different ways: whereas colons separate general and more specific segments of a sentence, semicolons separate two independent clauses within a single sentence.

An “independent clause” is a statement that could stand alone as a complete a sentence. How can you tell you have one? Easy: you have a subject and a verb. “I walked” is an independent clause, even though it’s short.

So, why would you want to put two independent clauses in one sentence? In general, you’d do it to show that the two clauses are closely related in terms of logic. Maybe they’re cause and effect. Maybe they’re fact and reinforcement. Maybe they’re point and counterpoint. Here are some examples:

  1. Joe lay in bed, thinking about how bad his day was going to be. It was Monday, so all the new reports would be landing on his desk; moreover, the boss had scheduled a staff meeting.
  2. Joe’s boss was prone to logorrhea; however, that day he was strangely silent.
  3. Maybe he had laryngitis; maybe someone’d finally cut out his tongue.

Notice that none of the above situations have that general-to-specific structure we saw with colons.

Often a semicolon is followed by what my ninth-grade teacher called a “flow word” — “however,” “for instance,” “moreover,” “for example,” etc. Flow words help your reader immediately understand how the two halves of the sentence relate to one another. That’s a kindness, but it’s not required, and in some kinds of writing it would probably sound stilted.

What is required is that you have an independent clause on both sides of the semicolon. This rule is non-negotiable. Semicolons allow you to combine two complete sentences into one. They replace a period, not a comma. This mistake is the one I see over and over again: a semicolon with a fragment on one side or the other. I think some people think of the semicolon as a “stronger comma.” It’s not. It’s a “softer period.”

You wouldn’t use a semicolon to introduce a quote or a list (you’d use a colon):

Joe lay in bed, thinking about how bad his day was going to be: a dozen new reports, an interminable staff meeting, sixty-three paper jams, and Sally’s overpowering perfume.

You also can’t use multiple semicolons in one sentence, except in the case of complex lists. See Semicolons, Part 2, for a discussion of that very different use of the semicolon.

Review: Pushed Too Far, by Ann Voss Peterson

Pushed Too Far (2012)
By Ann Voss Peterson
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

Pushed Too Far focuses on Val Ryker, the first female police chief of a small Wisconsin town. As the book opens, Ryker is faced with a cop’s nightmare: sudden strong evidence of wrongful conviction in the case that made her reputation. Ryker has to figure out what really happened in that two-year-old case and, even more importantly, what’s going on right under her nose. Oh, and the guy she helped put behind bars? Maybe he’s innocent, maybe he’s not. But one thing’s for sure: he’s feeling mighty vengeful.

Ann Voss Peterson’s new thriller is terrific: intricately yet tightly plotted, economically written, gritty and scary without being grotesque.

Setting is a big strength, here — the small-town Wisconsin location is fully realized and convincing. Character development is also a strength. Ryker is likable and very human. She feels like a real person, as do the book’s other central characters. I loved that about the book. The thriller is, in general, a pretty plot-driven genre, and Peterson gives us plenty of plot. But character gets equal weight in this novel. The results are wonderful. I read it in a single sitting.

Pushed Too Far has a striking, professional cover and is perfectly formatted. The prose is restrained and error-free. Indie publishing at its best: indistinguishable in quality from a traditionally published book, yet much more affordable. And total authorial control over the book’s form seems to have allowed for innovation, too, with the table of contents, acknowledgments, and other “front matter” appearing at the end, a choice that maximizes Kindle sample length. Smart!

This review will be cross-posted on Amazon.

Review: Cydni Hazard, Empathic Detective: The Pond Haunters, by L. S. Hullinger

Cydni Hazard, Empathic Detective: First Real Case, The Pond Haunters (2012)
By L. S. Hullinger
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

L. S. Hullinger’s middle-grade paranormal mystery is a great read. The book features Cydni Hazard, a 12-year-old empath who likes to solve the mysteries associated with some of the empathic connections she makes to the dead. Cydni’s mother died when she was very young, but her aunt, Ettie, is a major female figure in her life. This book, which I hope is the first in a series, takes place in Ettie’s home town of Blue Star, Texas, where Cydni stays for a week while her father is at a convention. Cydni finds out a local pond is supposedly haunted and sets out to figure out what’s going on.

Hullinger’s presentation of Cydni’s gift is interesting. For one thing, the gift is difficult to control — even difficult to recognize, at times. Cydni usually can’t see the ghosts who touch her empathically, and even when she makes an empathic connection to a living person, she often doesn’t recognize it’s happening until someone points out that she’s behaving weirdly (craving green Kool-Aid, for instance, when she normally can’t stand the stuff). In the process of investigating, Cydni often gets approached by cats that have helpful messages for her (the cat is her spirit-guide animal), but it’s not like she can have back-and-forth conversations with them — they’re still just animals. She also journals, writing down clues as she discovers them. The overall effect is that Cyndi has a paranormal advantage, yes, but it’s hardly a superpower. She still has to approach real people with questions and put the pieces together on her own.

This normality is something I really like about the book — I think Cydni’s gift is spooky enough to be interesting to child readers, but Cydni herself is normal enough to provide a good role model. She’s also a very nice kid — responsible, honest, and polite. Yet she’s not weirdly perfect — she’s capable of  embarrassment, annoyance, and so forth. She feels very real. So does her Aunt Ettie, who’s a professional psychic. Nice touches, such as Ettie’s tendency to answer questions with three possibilities labeled “A, B, and C,” give the secondary characters individuality. Also, the plot hangs together well, progressing through a series of interactions and investigations to a solution I really hadn’t foreseen ahead of time.

The book’s overall presentation doesn’t quite live up to its excellent story: there are some punctuation and other writing-mechanics errors, though they aren’t marked enough to impede comprehension. The paragraph indenting is so deep that when I open the book on my phone, I only get a word or two on the first line of each paragraph. Lastly, the cover needs replacing. For comparison, see the covers of traditionally published books in the middle-grade-paranormal-mystery genre: The Whispering Road, The Crowfield Curse,  The Red Pyramid, etc. If indie books are going to compete with traditionally published books, most will need professional editing, proofreading, and cover design. It’s not like traditionally published authors do that stuff by themselves, and neither can we.

Hullinger might also consider reordering the title, if this is going to be a series. Something like The Pond Haunters (A Cydni Hazard Mystery) or The Pond Haunters (An Empathic Detective Mystery) might better follow titling conventions in the genre. As is, the unique part of the title is buried at the end.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Make Your Offer: A New eBook Sales Site

At UK-based Make Your Offer, indie authors can sell their ebooks in multiple formats. What’s new, here? At MYO, the author stipulates a sale price and then either permits or does not permit lower bids from interested readers. For instance, you might list your book for sale at $2.99, receive a bid from a reader of $1.99, then counter-offer at $2.29, whereupon the reader accepts and you make the sale. You can either set things up to run automatically by inputting a minimum acceptable price, or you can entertain any offer. You can also offer books for free.

Books enrolled in Amazon’s KDP Select program can still be listed on MYO for promotional purposes, though readers will not be able to purchase the book through MYO.

From what I can tell, authors will generally keep a markedly higher percentage of the book’s selling price than the percentages offer by Amazon:

14. The Distributor will pay the Owner the full selling price of the Work for all copies sold through the MakeYourOffer Internet website, always subject to the following:

(i) The deduction of the payment processing fee at cost from the payment processing agent;

(ii) The deduction of a sales fee of five [5] per cent. of the total full selling price of the work. (http://make-your-offer.com/book_upload_terms.php, accessed 5/4/12)

Sounds to me like an exciting innovation in indie ebook sales. Cool.

**Edited 5/6/12: MYO’s administrator posted more specifics about royalty structure in the comments to this post. Looks like a 61% royalty is as low as it gets, at this time — quite a bit better than Amazon’s lowest threshold of 35% — and it could get quite a bit higher than 70% for more expensive books.