When you stop and think about it, writing is like recombinant DNA: Throw a bunch of mouse DNA into a blender, add a dash of bat DNA, a pinch of cat DNA, and push blend. What comes out could be a better mouse of a cat that can fly.
Writing takes twenty-six letters, if you use the Western alphabet, and a handful of silly marks to let a writer craft something on paper that has a semblance of brilliance. Twenty-six letters. Scatter them across a page. Shake them in a bag with flour. Put them on keys in a nearly incomprehensible order. What gives with the QWERTY keyboard anyway? Or, sharpen a cupful of pencils and lay out a stack of legal pads. It doesn't take much more than that to get started.
Oh, wait, you say. What about those silly marks? What about the rules that "govern" them? Well, that is a dilemma. We seem to have more exceptions to the rules than rules themselves. Periods and question marks are fairly easy. They mark the end of a complete sentence or a sentence fragment ("hair ball," cry grammarians), or they mark a question. Either way, they are found at the end of a sentence. Do you use a question mark when you ask a rhetorical question. A colon can function as a kind of period: As a writer, I like colons. I try to use no more than one per chapter: Sometimes I use more.
Semi-colons defy logic. I mean, who said they can't be used in dialogue? So, if I want to create a series of similar items, do I use a comma or semi-colon? If I have a sentence, which contains multiple clauses, do I use the semi-colon? Like in Johnny and Mack walked to the store to buy candy; Lydia met them there, because she wanted them to treat her; and Suzie ran into them with her car. Okay, that makes absolutely no sense, but you get my gist. What if this was in dialogue? I couldn't use the semi-colon, or could I? I could break this into three sentences, or I could remember that the Delete key is my friend.
It's the lowly comma that gives writers more angina than anything else. To comma or not to comma, that is the question. Whether it is nobler to use them correctly or be creative...
I mentor a first-time writer. We've had interesting discussions about that lowly comma. He doesn't favor commas here: "Look, Michael, we have to fix this." Nope, If he had his way, there's be no commas in that sentence. Serial commas, as in a, b, and c are alien beings. So are commas before constructions like, "I'm going, too." I think he'd take the comma off his keyboard, if he could.
Just when we were making a ton of progress, along comes a Pulitzer Prize winner that doesn't use quotation marks to set off dialogue. I think you can count the number of quotation marks on both hands. A block of text can have a dozen changes in speaker, some demarked by dialogue tags, like he said. Or not. Some changes in dialogue are set off by action following what I thought was a quote. Once I figured out how to read the book, I couldn't put it down. Of course my mentee had to pick it up one day. He said, "Hey, he doesn't use quote marks. Why do I have to?" My response: because you haven't won a Pulitzer. When you do, you can dismiss grammar.
I'm thinking about running a test: scatter all the letters of the alphabet onto a piece of paper, had a handful of commas, a period or two, rinse, stir and dry. I wonder what I would end up with. What do you think? Is this worth an experiment, or should I spend an hour looking at kitten videos on Facebook?
Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I'm really excited that the trade paper edition of Uncharted Territory was released this week. Please follow me on my website, on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.