You may be guiltless. We hope so. Only word count for the blog limits us to three topics apiece. In some future blog, you may find yourself on our next What Not to Do list. But we hope not.
Dashes— and Ellipses… Gone Wild. Yes, they can be useful little critters, but they should also be rare. Just short of the endangered punctuation list. Punctuation is never supposed to be intrusive. Its job is to gently guide traffic, like white lines on the sides of a road, visible but not distracting. These days, I often see two or three dashes on a page, and even more ellipses. Some authors are practically writing in Morse code.
True, a line of dialogue may be cut off by another speaker or an action. But not time after time after time. Overuse is abuse, and the effectiveness of lines that really need those dashes is undercut.
Sometimes a line of dialogue trails off. But dot-mad authors rarely let their characters finish a thought or a remark. “I’m showing my character’s uncertainty,” they tell me. “I’m recreating how she feels inside.” That may be the case, but there are better ways to do it. Speech tags are a good place to describe a character’s physical and emotional reactions. Dots and dashes, not so much.
“I like ellipses and dashes,” an author once told me. “They are part of my ‘voice’.” Balderdash. Author voice is about the kinds of stories you tell, the values they represent, the settings, the levels of humor or darkness or action or sweetness, that sort of thing.
Or aren’t you writing in Character Voice?
Sudden Outbursts of Italics
Most genre fiction is written in third-person past tense with one or more POV characters. The reader lives a scene through the POV character, whose thoughts and emotions are honest and true to the circumstances. This is the most character-intimate way of writing, and the most compelling. The character can lie and deceive in words and actions, but not in thoughts and emotions.
So why interrupt the intense reader-character relationship in a scene by suddenly having the character thinking or talking to himself in italics? Usually in present tense! It disrupts the flow, severs the bond, undermines the emotion, and is irritating to read. Very often, when an author lets her character break out in italics, the character winds up sounding foolish. More often, he sounds rather like the author.
Italics are fine in their place, and so is the occasional short venture into italics by a character. Swearing, denying, accusing, mocking and other brief outbursts are ripe for italics. Keep them to a few words, doggonit, keep them rare, and they’ll be effective.
Hammering Character Names
Names have power. Authors know that. They choose names carefully. Some can’t write a character until he/she is named. But names, in some circumstances, are also distancing. Even irritating, especially in romance fiction where there are usually a number of scenes with the protagonists alone together. As always when you open a scene, you will identify who is there. John and Mary. From then on, with very few exceptions, they should be “he” or “she,” and “him’ or “her.” Don’t keep identifying them.
In dialogue, don’t the characters constantly using the other’s name:
“John, are you coming with me to the concert?”
“I said would, Mary.”
“Then get ready to go. And John, take a shower.”
People don’t talk like that except in soap operas, where it’s hard for some viewers to keep track of the characters. Now and again, when appropriate for emphasis, a character can use the other’s name. But for the most part, keep the focus on the situation, the dialog, the action, and the emotion.
Readers aren’t stupid. They understand that if a character performs two or more actions, he’s nearly always performing them sequentially. It’s authors who don’t seem to understand that. For example: Hank removed his boots, peeled away his socks, then shucked off his jeans. Do you see the problem here?
Yes, it’s “then.” In this case, putting “then” before the third action in the sequence implies that Hank got rid of his boots and socks simultaneously, and after that, went for his pants. “Then” in the sense of “next” or “afterward” is a common “clutter word,” overused (and misused) by many authors. Stick with “and.” Readers know what you men.
Then again, in rare cases, two or more actions do occur simultaneously. If that’s important, you may have to specify that they did.
1. Dialogue has a special form of punctuation. Many newer writers tend to skip the all-important comma between the tag (some variant of "she said") and the quotation mark. If the tag follows the quotation, the comma goes inside the quote mark.
She said, "Please don't let the door hit you in the butt as you leave."
"Please don't let the door hit you in the butt as you leave," she said.
In American English, almost always, the end punctuation goes inside the close-quote mark. (There are exceptions, but do it this way as a rule and leave the unusual for the editor to fix.)
He replied, "Well, the heck with you!"
He replied, "Oh, well, easy come, easy go."
This is true even when you're using "air quotes," which aren't actually quoting anyone but rather adding an arch emphasis to words:
She added a bit of archness to the term with "air quotes."
Comma between the quote tag and quote,
Capital letter starting the quote,
Punctuation INSIDE the quote mark, and
New paragraph with a change in speakers.
There are exceptions to each of those, but if you do the above, you'll get it right most of the time.
I know this seems basic, but trust me-- I have seen this done wrong in many submissions. There's nothing more likely to trigger the reject button than a first chapter full of mis-punctuated dialogue and the sinking realization that it's this way through the whole book.
2. A first chapter doesn't need a cast of thousands. You know, back in ancient times, there was a rule that only two actors could appear on stage at any given time. (Sophocles was, I think, the first to realize that it was actually possible to have three actors on stage at the same time.) While we in modern times don't need to limit ourselves quite that much (we don't, after all, have to pay for each character!), but the principle is still a sound one. The reader will be confused by too many names, too many people. We also assume that most of the people who appear in the first chapter will turn up later in the book.
So consider limiting your first chapter or scene to the protagonist and the characters really essential to the opening. If you need to have local folks and servants and such, think about adding them in one by one. (The opening of Hamlet is a good example.) Use names only when necessary, and when the protagonist or point-of-view character would know that. For example, in a book where the heroine is the mayor of a small town, she might know the name of the waitress at the diner. But if the hero is just passing through, don't bother to use the name of the waitress unless he knows it-- she's "the waitress" still at that point.
If a reader is confused by the opening, she might not read any further. It's always good to keep the focus pretty narrow in the first few paragraphs, and to make the first name (if possible) mentioned that of the POV character or protagonist.
3. There are three spellings of "two." Watch especially for homophone mistakes (then/than, here/hear, etc.). These are words that sound alike but don't mean the same thing and are spelled differently. Trouble is, the alternative is an actual word, so your spellchecker will go right over it. But if I'm reading the paragraph, I will pause and go "huh?" at something like this:
He tugged his tie lose and told himself, You are such a looser.
This suggests the writer is making too extensive use of spell-check rather than actually READING the sentences for their meaning. Reading aloud actually helps with this problem. Yes, the wrong word sounds similar to the right one, but the context will help you "hear" that there's a problem.
Alicia Rasley has been a Kindle #1 bestselling author with The Year She Fell. Her articles on writing and the Regency period have been widely distributed, and many are collected on her website, www.rasley.com. She also blogs about writing and editing at www.edittorrent.blogspot.com. Currently she teaches and tutors writers at two state colleges and in workshops around North America. She lives in Indiana with her husband, a retired attorney and now also a writer. They have two sons, one training to be a military officer, the other a technical assistant for documentary films.
Lynn Kerstan, former college professor, folksinger, professional bridge player, and nun, is the award-winning author of nine Regency romances, seven historical romances, and several novellas. A dedicated traveler and lover of history, she writes romantic adventures set in early 19th-Century England, where intrepid women and elegant, dangerous men are to be found.
For many years a teacher of English literature and writing at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and the University of San Diego, Kerstan now edits manuscripts and conducts popular-fiction workshops for writers groups and conferences.
When off-duty, she lives an exemplary life in Coronado, California, where she plots her stories while riding her boogie board, walking on the beach, and watching Navy SEALs jog by.
P.S. This picture was taken about the time we were writing Gwen’s Ghost.
ABOUT GWEN’S GHOST
Eternity is a bloody bore for Valerian Caine. At age 27, a swashbuckling, amoral 18th Century rake, he was cut down in duel by a ricocheting bullet fired by a cuckolded husband. Now stewing resentfully in a bureaucratic afterlife, he leaps at the chance to regain his human form and return to his previous existence. But there’s a catch. He’ll be transported to the England of a hundred years later, where he’ll have one month to end the family feud launched by that fatal duel and ensure the happiness of the Caine and Sevaric descendants. If he succeeds, he’ll be transported back to his former life and the bullet will miss him. But standing between him and his goal is the obstinately unhappy and ascerbic Gwen Sevaric—and his surprising desire to be forever the one who makes her smile.
“A compelling, out-of-touch rake and a plain, prickly heroine come together here in a funny, involving Regency.” Library Journal
A delicious, delightful romp. A wonderful collaboration by two very gifted authors…. Magical. Their characters are fresh and fascinating. A memorable book. Guardian angels, mysterious treasures, family feuds and a love that transcends time. …entertaining from beginning to end! Literary Times
Edited by Teresa Crumpton*