Don’t Use a Semi-Colon. Period.

I can’t find it in me to use semi-colons. I know they’re useful, in theory. But since when has effective writing been about theory?

With my thirteenth book about to appear, I can honestly say I have rarely felt the need for that little key just to the right of the L. 

Yes, I see you at the back, waving your arm in the air and bursting to tell me that General Practice Cases at a Glance is full of them. But I didn’t put them there. Or, as the copy-editor would have expressed it, “I know; I did not, however, put them there.” They crept in, aided and abetted by someone who knows more than I do about proper punctuation.

Here’s what the University of Oxford Style Guide says:

Oxford

Each could stand alone as a grammatically complete sentence? Then take off those trainer wheels and let it.

A fellow author and I were discussing punctuation recently.  We’d already exhausted the usual writerly topics such as our word count for the day, and which wine bar was nearest. I think I rashly mentioned semi-colons. Her own editor, like many others, has a fondness for these little squiggles. So, when I admitted to my friend that I try to avoid them at all costs, she asked, “What do you use instead? Colons?”

I nearly dropped my glass of Merlot. I use full stops. Period.

FreeImages.com/Ryan Gageler

I reckon that, over the years, avoiding semi-colons has saved me huge amounts of ink. The claim may be a bit infantile, rather like the school friend who once calculated that bikini briefs saved her several minutes a week, as compared with wearing full knickers. But she made us laugh.

Why use a punctuation mark that can’t decide if it’s a comma or a full stop? It’s a tasteless hybrid. Unlike mules and hybrid vehicles, however, this one breeds. Give a couple of them house room in your manuscript and you’ll soon have them on every page.

Militant semi-colon enthusiasts can get carried away, so I’m reaching for my flak jacket to say I’ve got very few uses for semi-colons. Here’s one.

winking semicolon

Project Semicolon is another.  It’s based on the premise that a semi-colon is used when an author could have ended a sentence but chose not to. As Project Semicolon says, “You are the author and the sentence is your life.”

It’s a global non-profit movement for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury. You may well have seen semi-colon tattoos, which echo the theme.

There are many moving testimonies on the Project Semicolon blog. Just don’t get too hung up about the grammar.

***

At long last, Hampstead Fever breaks out on Thursday. And the cover’s pretty.

Hampstead Fever MINI FINAL EBOOK COVER MINI

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How Did Father’s Day Go?

Geoff hasn’t seen much of his son for two years. The ex-wife took Davey to live on the other side of the world, and they only got back recently.

FreeImages.com/Timo Balk

In the run-up to this Father’s Day, Geoff gets out the last card he had from Davey, a crumpled affair from two years back. Clearly made at school, it says

Dear Dad, Happy Father’s Day

Or, more exactly, Hapy Fathers Day.

The colours have long faded but he can still see it’s signed Love, Davey.

“I’ve got your room ready, Davey,” Geoff says brightly on the phone during the week.

There’s a pause on the line before Davey says, “I’m Dave now.”

“Right. Dave.”

“Let’s just make it a day visit,” says the ex-wife. “Easier all round. It’s been a while, after all.”

She’s probably right, concedes Geoff. Davey – sorry, Dave – has been away a long time with his mother and a man who isn’t his father.

So Dave is deposited at Geoff’s on Father’s Day.

Holding his son close is the same as ever. The best thing in the world, bar none. Of course, Dave has grown. He’s seven years old, wears a Cricket Australia T-shirt, and needs a haircut. But he’s surely the same inside.

“What would you like to do today?” Geoff asks Dave. He asked the very same question on the phone a few days ago, and got nothing useful.

By way of response, Dave pulls something flat out of his bag. That’s when Geoff realizes he’ll be playing second fiddle to an iPad mini.

Geoff is about to lay down the law, but the kid has only just got here. Cut him some slack, he tells himself.

Sure enough, Dave puts the iPad away for lunch.

The boy is quieter than he was, and has a wariness about him. To be expected, of course. He’s older and hasn’t seen his father for months.

FreeImages.com/Filip Geleta

After a massive pizza, Dave returns to his iPad.

“What are you doing there?” Geoff hopes he’s not being groomed or downloading porn.

Killer Diller,” replies Dave.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a game?”

Geoff glances at the screen, where aliens are running about. He curses Sonya for allowing Dave to bring the damn thing, but it could be worse.

“Right. Well, don’t play Killer Diller all day. We could go to the park. I’ve got a new football.”

“I’ve got my iPad,” Dave reminds him.

“Well,” says Geoff. “Maybe a bit later we can have a kick-about.” 

“Cool?” says Dave without looking up.

“Want some juice?” Geoff has stocked his fridge with Dave’s favourite tropical juice drink, the kind that strips tooth enamel faster than battery acid.

FreeImages.com/Ricardo Migliani

“Got any Seven-Up?”

“I don’t think so.” That’s another dental disaster, but the occasional can won’t hurt. “Do you have Seven-Up every day?”

“Nah.”

Eventually Geoff prises Dave off his game with the promise that they’ll stop for some Seven-Up on the way back from the park.

It’s sunny in the park, and Dave becomes almost animated, but that, Geoff reasons, is probably because he’s letting him get all the goals. Dave is barely trying.

FreeImages.com/Klaus Post

The day passes so slowly that Geoff can hear it creaking. Dave doesn’t want to talk or play with Lego so he goes back to Killer Diller. Is this what it is to be a dad in today’s world?

At 6 p.m. Dave’s mother comes to collect him.

“Did you give Daddy his card?” she asks.

Dave gets out a mass-produced envelope and hands it over without expression.

Geoff hugs him.

***

Geoff and his son are just two of the characters from my forthcoming novel Hampstead Fever, out on June 30.

Hampstead Fever FINAL EBOOK COVER

 

What Not to Say to an Author

It’s wonderful being an author. While there’s rarely much money in it, you get to do what you love. It’s probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

There’s also the sheer joy of opening a box full of copies of your shiny brand-new book. That, as novelist Helena Halme points out, never gets any less exciting.

Helena Halme's latest book

And it’s a thrill meeting readers and getting feedback, especially when you find out your words have made a real difference.

But there are people who say the most inane things to authors. So, with the help of one or two fellow writers, I’ve compiled a roundup of things that really grate:

1 “Are you published?  Will I have heard of you?”

Well, yes, the author generally is published. Otherwise they’d probably not call themselves an author. As for hearing of that person, it depends. I know several people who never heard of Kahlil Gibran, yet his book The Prophet sold tens of millions of copies.

FreeImages.com/Mana Media

2 “Why don’t you get your book made into a film?”

If it were that easy, I think we’d all be knocking on Hollywood’s door. It’s not, which is why, until we get the call, we’re selling our books at around £7.99 a pop (or less; usually much less for the ebook). Not quite a direct route to the Walk of Fame.

3 “I do a bit of writing myself.”

I mustn’t scoff, because occasionally someone like David Lodge says this. More often, though, the follow-up is “I wrote a letter to my local paper once” or “I’ve written a 100,000 word novel from the point of view of a slug. Could you read it for me and help me get it published?”

FreeImages.com/Jurga R

4 “I’d write a book too if I had the time.”

The implication is that their life is far busier than the author’s, and that no talent is required.

5 “When I retire, I’m going to write a novel.”

Usually uttered by someone who’s never even written a shopping list. See 4.

6 “As you’re at home all day, could you just babysit/pick up a parcel for me/come out shopping with me?”

Because writing books is some romantic thing that just happens when you click your heels and make a wish. It’s not like it’s a proper job, right?

FreeImages.com/Kia Abell

7 “Where’s my free signed copy?”

Because, obviously, authors are happy to work for free.

Many thanks to my fellow writers, especially Vivien Hampshire and Georgina Penney, both from the Romantic Novelists’ Association.  If you ever meet one of us, you know what not to say.

‘Who’d Have Thought It?’

My posts normally have less ambiguous titles, but today’s contribution is from my fellow author and journalist Christine Webber whose forthcoming novel is called exactly that, and, as you’ll see, the name is just right. Over to Christine.

After 30 years of being conventionally published, Who’d Have Thought It? is my first independent venture. The novel sees my return to fiction after 29 years (doesn’t time fly!) of penning self-help books.
A lot of the knowledge I’ve acquired as a health writer, and as a psychotherapist, has crept into these pages. I’ve had tremendous fun fictionalising situations that I see all around me.
But my main reason for writing this book is that I find mid-life much busier and more unsettled than I had anticipated. Most people I speak to – who are also of ‘a certain age’ – say the same thing.  That sentiment underpins the story of Who’d Have Thought It?  
Here’s a brief extract from a chapter well into the novel, when my main character, Annie, has been persuaded by her best friend Janey to try internet dating.

FreeImages.com/Doru Lupeanu

She pushed open the door of the all-day bar and saw him immediately. As he had promised, he was sitting near the mock fire in the middle of the room. He had highly-polished shoes, a blazer and a cravat. A cravat! Dear God, she thought, I didn’t know you could still buy those.  

His eyes lit up when he saw her. He jumped up and lurched forwards, apparently eager to plant a kiss on her cheek. Quickly, she held out a hand to be shaken.

‘I think,’ he said. ‘Not that I’m used to this kind thing, but the form is that, on a first meeting, each participant gets his or her own refreshment.’

‘Fine by me,’ she smiled.

As she waited for the noisy coffee machine to steam her milk to a high enough temperature, Annie was able to view Roger in a mirror above the bar. He was about sixty. Dapper. A little tubby. Not overly tall. Perfectly respectable-looking – but her heart was not in this outing, and she wondered how soon she might decently leave without seeming rude.

‘Ah, not a drinker, then,’ he said with evident disappointment as she returned, carrying her cappuccino.

‘Bit early for me,’ she murmured. 

FreeImages.com/Carien van Hest

He raised his eyebrows. ‘Ah well, once you retire, there seems no reason not to drink whenever you want to. And the excellent thing here is that mid-afternoon, you get a deal – steak and kidney pie and a pint. Had my grub earlier. Very fine!’

She stirred her coffee, stifling an urge to giggle.

‘And they do two-for-one meals on Monday, which is really top value. You couldn’t get a better meal anywhere. And, if I say so myself, I do travel a lot, so I know what I’m talking about.’ He paused to take a deep gulp of his ale.

‘Last month, for example, I accompanied a young lady to the continent for a long weekend. Very luckily, I got a cut-price deal on the overnight ferry crossing. And if you make sure you’re one of the first on board, you can get good reclining seats so you don’t need a cabin. Of course, with the ferries taking care of two nights, you only need to shell out for one night in a hotel. And I found a pretty decent B and B …’

‘And are you still seeing that “young lady”?’ Annie asked innocently.

He took a swig of beer. ‘No! She rang me after we returned to say she’d gone back to her husband. I was bloody annoyed because I had rather pushed the boat out on her account.’

‘That would be the ferry boat, would it?’ Annie murmured, gazing at her rapidly disappearing coffee. ‘Yes, I suppose some women can be awfully ungrateful.’

‘You can say that again,’ he remarked before he launched into a story about another young lady who had let him down.

Surreptitiously, she glanced at her watch. Janey had said she might ring to see if she was coping. 

Fortunately, a couple of minutes later, her friend obliged.

 ‘So sorry,’ she explained to Roger, ‘I have to get this…’ Then ignoring Janey’s whispered question about how things were going, she spoke loudly into the phone: ‘Darling … Oh no! No, of course. I’ll come right away…’

‘Trouble?’ Roger’s brown eyes – which had, up until now, twinkled with a benign expression – gazed somewhat angrily at her.

‘I’m afraid so. My daughter’s having a crisis at the moment. And I have to go. That’s what mums are for.’ She stood up. ‘I would thank you for the coffee, but since I bought my own I won’t bother. Good bye.’

He harrumphed: ‘Well, I must say … Still, maybe another time.’

She was halfway to the door. ‘Probably not,’ she said over her shoulder.

Who'd Have Thought It?

Who’d Have Thought It? is out on June 10 in paperback and as an ebook.