Craft, Novel, Writing

How is it Friday already?

Time passes quickly when you have a migraine—not. I missed out on half of Wednesday and Thursday, so it doesn’t seem like this should be the end of the week. I wrote exactly one paragraph on Wednesday, but I managed over a thousand words yesterday. I’m trying for the record on slowest written first draft ever.

structureBy word count, I’ve worked past the midpoint now, so that’s something. Actually, I’m about to go back and pick up a dropped thread and weave it through to the midpoint, so when I do that, I think I’ll be adding at least two thousand words more.

Structure is not my strong point, so I’m not always sure where I am storywise. All my attempts at rigidly pre-structuring fail. I have to write the story as it comes to me and shape it up later. Sort of like moving all your stuff in the new house and then deciding where things fit best. I have to actually see the furniture in place before I know what arrangement works.

But I do have guidelines on novel structure, which I consider from time to time as I write. One is a six-point “frame” from Anne Greenwood Brown at Writer Unboxed. Another is Nigel Watt’s 8-point Story Arc shared by Ali Hale at Daily Writing Tips.

These structure guides will come more into play during editing, but even then, I’ll probably modify them to best fit my story. They are only guides, after all.

Your turn: Do you have a favorite novel structure guide?

Advice, Craft, Fiction, Writing

Note to self: You ain’t writing literature!

This past week, I reached the dark woods, otherwise known as the dreaded middle of a novel in progress. I stumbled a bit. Suddenly, I hated my book. The writing seemed pedestrian. The language was too simple, the syntax too straightforward. This won’t do, I thought, I should start over and write like a real writer. And then …

I noticed, in my stats, that some visitor to my blog clicked on a category tag Literary Criticism. Really? I wrote a post on literary criticism? Of course, I clicked to see what I said, and I was glad I did. I wrote that post in 2009 while editing The Brevity of Roses. I came to a good conclusion then, and it’s still good now, so I’m sharing it with you.  Enjoy.

Blue Toes and Good Writing

Blue-toed tree frog.

I apologize up front because I might step on some toes today. Just know that mine are black and blue too. I am in editing mode—again—and I’ve recently discovered John Gardner’s book On Becoming A Novelist. I shared a passage from that last week and will share another below. Gardner has been stomping all over my writing toes.

I confess I’ve been a “literary” wannabe. In editing my work, particularly the passages that haven’t changed since the first version, I find a tendency to overwrite, to use ten-dollar words or syntax that only complicates the reading, not deepens the meaning. Or, when writing in a poetic character’s point of view, to let myself get carried away with imagery. Possibly the line drawn between good writing and overwriting is quite fine. Or else, I just leapt right over it.

John Gardner

Gardner writes:
“… as a rule, the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”

Anne Tyler

If you’ve been around this blog for long, you know that one of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. I’ve always thought of her writing as beautiful, but when I examine it, I see that rarely does she call attention to her word choices or phrasing. By this, I mean, not often do I stop reading to admire her clever writing. I admire her talent at story telling, her fleshed out characters, her ability to draw me into her fictive dream, which means she’s an excellent (Pulitzer Prize winning) writer, but she’s not a show-off.

I’ve read books in which it seems, as Gardner says, “the writer cares more for his language than for other elements of fiction.” I don’t enjoy those books as much and little of them stays with me. If those writers attempted to create a fictive dream, I’m too aware of their writing to fall into it. Obviously, there are people who read such books, literary critics generally love them, and creative writing classes teach them. I believed that I should aspire to become one of those “important” writers. But I’ve changed my mind.

I just want to tell the best stories I know how with beautiful, but understated, language to people who want, for a while, to dream of a different life, or place, or time.

Craft, Tips, Writing

How do you punctuate after a terminal ellipsis?

We tackled this question with the em dash in the last post, so this time let’s turn our attention to the terminal ellipsis. Like many writers, I use an ellipsis at the end of a line of dialogue to indicate the character’s voice trails off. Since this leaves the sentence unfinished, it seemed logical to me not to use any end punctuation. Like this: “I love you, but …”

As I read, I noted the terminal ellipsis used with and without punctuation. I’ve only recently begun to use punctuation with such an ellipsis, but I’m waffling. It just seems odd to punctuate an unfinished sentence.

The book that sparked my previous post also sparked this one. I thought I’d finally learned the rules about using punctuation after an ellipsis, but I saw something in that book, I’d never run across in reading. The author used a dialogue tag after the ellipsis, so she used a comma. Like this example:  “I love you, but …,” she said.

That looked odd to me, so I immediately started searching some of my work to see if I had omitted the comma in such instances. I discovered that apparently, I’ve never used a dialogue tag after a terminal ellipsis. Of course, I pulled books off my shelves and continued my search.

One of the writers I checked used a dialogue tag without a comma. Another didn’t use dialogue tags but did sometimes continue the sentence with an action after the trailing off speech, and in those instances, she did use a comma after the ellipsis.

What about the use of other punctuation with a terminal ellipsis? Some writers use the ellipsis to indicate trailing off speech with no punctuation. Some do use punctuation. One of the writers I checked, Anne Tyler, uses punctuation only sometimes—and I’m annoyed that I can’t figure out her rule for that!

To muddy the waters more, even writers who do use punctuation after the ellipsis don’t all agree on its placement—before or after the ellipsis. When I researched this in the past, I read a rule that said if the completed sentence would have been a statement, place a period before the ellipsis. If it would have been a question or an exclamation, place the appropriate punctuation mark after the ellipsis. (I don’t remember that they explained this difference.)

In my recent search, I found two authors who used punctuation with a terminal ellipsis when they used no dialogue tag. Anne Tyler, who used it only sometimes, placed the period before, but the question mark or exclamation point after the ellipsis. Joyce Carol Oates, who punctuated always, placed all marks before the ellipsis.

I know we should all be conservative in our use of the ellipsis, but when we do use it at the end of a line of dialogue, it seems the rule is up for grabs. We have:

“I love you, but …”

“I love you, but. …”

“I love you, but …,” she said.

“I love you, but …” she said.

“You love me, but …?”

“You love me, but … ?”

“You love me, but? …”

Okay, folks, surely you have an opinion on this one, so please share. Do you use an ellipsis to indicate trailing off in dialogue? Do you use punctuation with that? If so, where do you place that punctuation?

UPDATEIn the comment to this post, someone posted a link to Grammar Girl’s advice on punctuation with an ellipsis. She quoted The Chicago Manual of Style, but the ellipsis use she cited was mostly to indicate words left out of quoted material. When I googled for the CMOS take on the trailing off ellipsis in dialogue, I found this in their online Q&A: If you use the ellipsis merely to indicate a voice or thought trailing off, you would not use the period with it: “I’m not sure . . .” [http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Punctuation/faq0066.html]

Craft, Punctuation, Tips, Writing

How do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

A particular use of punctuation jumped out at me as I read a recently published book.

In general, I observe punctuation rules, so I’d like to know if the one used in this book follows an old rule, a new rule, or a house style. I question whether it’s a house style though–unless those change depending on the author—because I have books published by the same house in which this particular style is not used.

EM DASH — This author, as many of us do, used an em dash to indicate interrupted speech. But what struck me was a difference in the punctuation used after that dash. For instance, I would write such a sentence this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

But if those lines appeared in this book, the first would have been punctuated this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—.”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

You’ll notice the period after the em dash. I’ve since pulled novels off my shelves searching for sentences with interrupted speech. I haven’t found one yet that duplicates this author/editor’s construction.

Am I behind the times or have I, and countless other authors, been doing it wrong all along?

Your turn: Please tell me, how do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

(See my next post on using punctuation with the terminal ellipsis.)

 

Craft, Fiction, Short story, Writing

My muse ain’t lazy

If I’ve learned one thing about myself as a writer, it’s that I’m impatient. I want to write faster, I want to edit faster, I want to get feedback faster, I want … well, you get the idea. So I get impatient with my Muse when she doesn’t seem to be cooperating with my “I want” schedule. I tend to forget she could be working behind the scenes.

Frequently, usually when I’m driving or in the shower, a single line or a great story title comes to me. When I’m lucky enough to get those written down before I forget, I file them in my Opening lines and Titles folder. Sometimes, when I need a jumpstart for a story, I browse through that file to see if something jumps out at me. It’s nifty when I realize an opening and a story title fit together.

Such was the case for the short story I finished a couple of days ago. I had matched the two many months ago, and even made a couple notes, but never actually started the story. I thought about it once or twice through the months, and then forgot it again. But it came to mind when I wanted to write another story last month.

As is my habit, I opened the file, read the first sentence, then closed my eyes and waited for the scene to play out. Before long, I’d typed the first three paragraphs, but nothing more came, so I closed the file, expecting to get back to it later that day. Then I got distracted with the process of the new cover design for Brevity, and didn’t return to the story for three weeks.

A mental flash of the main character in the story is what reminded me to get back to work on it. I saw an angry woman, an indignant woman—a woman scorned. I sat down at the keyboard and she took over. Within a few hours, I’d written the draft and did a first edit. Fun stuff. I mean, this rejected woman cleverly redeems her self-respect—what’s not to love about that?

The ease with which the words flowed, once again, demonstrated that my industrious Muse had worked on the story while I was off doing who knows what. My advice? When your Muse tosses you a line or title, pay attention. Something’s probably in the works.