Tuesday, June 23, 2009

E-Mailbag: Questions from Jami

It's been a while since we dipped into the mailbag for a question. Here are three from Jami.

1) Colons vs. Dashes: One of you made a comment about how you have conversations with your fellow editors about when to use a colon vs. a dash. Could you enlighten us? Is it that if the final phrase is an afterthought you'd use a dash, but if the first part of the sentence leads up to the second (especially in a dun dun dun kind of way) it's a colon?

The short answer is that it's never a colon.

The real answer is that if you're using a colon in genre fiction, you'd better have a brilliant reason. Colons are formal for the environment, a bit like wearing a tuxedo to a baseball game.

If you want to know the difference between a colon and a dash, it's that a colon suggests a conclusion and a dash indicates a break in the continuity of thought. Informal thoughts and cadences, much like those typically used in genre or commercial fiction, lend themselves naturally to an em-dash. Conclusory statements and "therefore" patterns don't fit as easily to the tone and style usually preferred here.

2) Ellipses: You mentioned how you shouldn't use ellipsis for cadence - so what should you use? If you're trying to indicate a pause, maybe as a character searches for the right word, would it be appropriate then? "Thank you for fixing this...problem."

You should use an ellipies to signal a trailing off. Think of the old guy in the nursing home who is talking and suddenly stares off into space as his sentence peters out in the middle. That's an ellipsis. He forgot what he was saying. He forgot he was talking at all.

Is this the character you want to present to your readers? Or do you want your characters to be dynamic, decisive, smart, active, focused people who know what they want and have the courage to pursue it? If a character goes through a book never quite sure what he's trying to say, he comes off as weak and indecisive. Skip the ellipses and strengthen your characters.

Yes, there are situations when even the most forceful character will fumble for the right way to say what he means. In that case, use syntax rather than punctuation to indicate a wandering or groping-in-the-dark mindset. Compare:

"I'm making steak for dinner."
"I'm making ... steak for dinner."
"Well, I guess I ought to think about what to make for dinner. Maybe something on the grill, something easy, but I don't know. I'm sick of chicken. What do you think? Does steak sound good? I could make steak."

Of those three choices, the first is a decisive character with a plan. The last is an indecisive character trying to formulate a plan. The one in the middle is the least effective of the three choices and looks a bit odd in comparison.

3) Dialogue Tags & Paragraphing: I've heard that many readers skim over non-dialogue paragraphs so I thought it was always best to not bury dialogue behind dialogue tags or action (so that the quote marks are right up front). How important do you think that is? Do you have suggestions for how to handle instances when there is thought or action happening along with (or possibly before the dialogue starts)?

He cut her off before she could start, "I know what you're going to say." vs.
"I know what you're going to say," he cut her off before she could start. - or-

She shot out of bed. "I am not - and never will be - one of those women!" vs.
She shot out of bed.
"I am not - and never will be - one of those women!"

This is at least in part a matter of voice. Do you want to write for skimmers or for readers? Either choice is valid. If you're writing for skimmers, you will use more dialogue, more paragraph breaks, minimal description, concise action, and shortish sentences. If you're writing for readers, you want to reward their attention with glowing descriptions, controlled world-building, and high tension levels. (Think of Dan Brown, who writes for readers with long paragraphs and lots of detail, but keeps readers turning pages as fast as they can read them.)

That said, I think sequencing and logic are bigger concerns than where the paragraph marks fall. Put first things first. In Jami's first example, we have actions that occur in a particular chronological order. But in the second option, the actions are presented in reverse chronological order. There are times when you want to tinker with the order of presentation to add impact to different bits of the sentece, but those times are rare. The general rule is to keep it linear.

Does that help?


MeganRebekah said...

I always learn so much when I read your posts. I catch myself reflecting on what I learn here as I write each evening.
Thanks for all your work!

sylvia said...

But in the second option, the actions are presented in reverse chronological order.

They are?

She shot out of bed and began shouting at him once she was out of reach, didn't she?

frohock said...

If this isn't where we can ask a question, please feel free to remove this post.

I hope you'll forgive me for posting off topic, but I have a question that has been cramping my brain for some time:

In my fantasy novel, my characters use the Psalms as a method of "magic" (for lack of better). There are places that I use the exact quote of the verses in their exact order and there are other places where I paraphrase or switch the order of the verses.
Because this is fiction and Biblical quotes (a deadly combination, I'm beginning to find) I'm not sure how to apply the standard rules.

My question is simply this:

When I am using a direct quote from the Bible should I use single quotation marks within my dialogue double quotations? Also, if my character is thinking of the Psalm or Biblical quote, should I use single or double quotation marks?

Would it look like this for dialogue: "'Blessed are the grammatically impaired'," character A said.

Or could I use this: " Blessed are the grammatically impaired," character A said.

When my character is thinking, would it look like this: " Blessed are the grammatically impaired" or could I use this: Blessed are the grammatically impaired or would I use single quotes rather than double quotes like this: ’Blessed are the grammatically impaired’?

In some fantasies, when double quotes surround italicized words, this can indicate telepathy. However, I also don't want anyone to believe that I'm trying to pass the Psalms off as my own work.


green_knight said...

"I'm making ... steak for dinner"

for me, contains a poignant pause. This could be the family's former pet calf, or there could be an undertone of 'and if you don't come home on time, I'll feed it to the dog'. The decoding depends on the situation, but this is no mere steak, it is steak loaded with meaning.

Edittorrent said...

Sylvia, I was referring to the second option in the first example.
"I know what you're going to say," he cut her off before she could start.

The cutting off happens at the start of the dialogue, not at the end.

Teresa, that's a matter of style. The main thing is to choose one option and stick with it. After you sell the manuscript, your publisher may want to switch things around a bit, but you do have some flexibility. Personally, I would go for the single quotes within double quotes option, but italics are also a valid choice.

Green Knight, I think it makes more sense to italicize a word if you intend to emphasize it. And if the context lends the word special meaning, you probably don't need any bling. Let the words carry the weight of the meaning.


frohock said...

Thank you, Theresa, that really helped.

After reading the posts on Edittorrent, I realize that no matter what I do, if I manage to sell the manuscript, there'll be more work down the road. ;-)

By the way, after reading your comments on ellipses, I went back into my manuscript and saw some places where they could be removed. I'm printing this one out and keeping it by my side while I edit.

You guys are great.

Edittorrent said...

Frohock, you're right. Minor formatting issues like quotes within quotes will be determined by the publisher's stylesheet, and the editor will make that happen. All you have to do is choose something that is simple, clear, and consistent so the editor knows what you mean. Then she'll do what the stylesheet requires.

Don't worry too much about this. We're interested in the details because we're editors, but this isn't the sort of thing writers need to spend any time on. It's all on this sheet here (which is actually about 40 sheets).

Jami G. said...

Teresa, Thank you so much for answering my questions!

I've discovered that I'm an em-dash fiend, and was trying to find a way to eliminate some of them with semicolons and colons. I think my WIP is more mainstream than pure genre and has a serious "this is the end of the world" tone, so I'm not sure if that makes a difference. It's probably more formal in word choice and diction than straight genre.

I like your answer about the use of ellipses. I think what I'll do is that I'll show the character dithering. (“Thank you for fixing this…,” his gaze scanned the room as he attempted to summarize the situation, “problem.”)

Sylvia - LOL at the character getting out of bed to get out of his reach. Not quite what's going on in the scene, but close (maybe she's putting distance between them so she's not tempted to club him? :) )

Green Knight - Yes, that's what I was trying to get across - that poignant pause. I don't like to italicize something unless the character's voice is actually emphasizing the word with their tone. In Teresa's example, the character wouldn't necessarily emphasize 'steak' with their tone of voice, but the implication of something deeper going on would get across with the pause.

Thanks for giving me way too much to think about! :)
Jami G.