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Dear Melissa, You keep mentioning an "m dash" . . .

Answer: Yeah. I sorta love my dashes.  It's a sickness, but it's part of a larger grammar geeking thing that I can't help.

There are three big uses for dashes. 

The easiest one is to use in broken dialogue.  In real life, we do this thing where we pause mid-speak to do something physical. Watch people around you when they talk.  It's instinct.  Storytellers do it to draw out tension. People do it in a halting way or a I'm-not-really-uncomfortable or a variety of body language things.

"Our queen worries"--Devlin weighed his words carefully as he emptied the cup of elixir--"I  may need to be away from your side to deal with business matters."

By breaking it, there's a sense of hesitancy, of acknowledging his presence.  It allows me to convey tone. In real life that pauses is a blink. It's an extra few heartbeats to collect thoughts.  

It's also dialogue appropriate to show interruptions. It shows a word cut off.  The trick there is to make sure there's enough of a word to let the reader know what was being said.

So I used to get these students who said "I want them to PAUSE so I inserted a comma."  As an English teacher, this was an early term lesson.  Commas aren't just inserted to make a reader pause. When we read, we DO pause at a comma, but it's not a bilateral function.  We don't randomly shove commas in to make a reader pause.

All commas MUST have a reason for being. 

Let me repeat that bc it's important: All commas MUST have a reason for being. 

However, if you want an extra beat of pause, you may use an em dash.

She extended her left hand to the yawning mouth of a brass gargoyle knocker. Lovely sharp pain drew a sigh from her as the gargoyle closed its mouth over her fingers. The bite was over before she saw it happen, but she was found to be acceptable.  Only those Irial had permitted access were allowed to disturb him. She was on the list--even at this hour.

So I want the reader to pause a blink. It's the end of a paragraph (one with the usual sentence type mix).  I close with a simple sentence and with an em dash as an extra emphasis. 

This is a big topic. I'm obsessed with who's telling, to whom, & why.  Honestly, I think this is the big thing that enabled me to go from trying to write to ACTUALLY writing.  I don't do solitary pov. I don't do first. *

First person: Simply put, itan "I" book. Typically 1st is one character telling. Lots of great books are written this way. Writer after writer tells me it's easier. Every time I try, I get blank pages. Lots of blank pages . . . which means I found myself saying "Man, I so can't write a book. Wow, I suck."

I read lots of 1st person solitary protag books. LOTS. Luv them. . . but I find 1st person completely baffling as a writer.  Why?
  • I don't want my voice tangled up w my characters.  If I write in someone else's voice, won't they get some of MY phrases? 
  • If I do this, I need to be able to do full out immersion in a persona in a way I can't find comfortable
  • Holy fragments, Batman! I hate sentence fragments. I can deal w them in blogs, chats, email, and with my novels in dialogue & thought sections, but writing a a book with lots of them would mean I'd need sedated. 
  • Seriously, the way we think? Much much more fragment-y than what works in prose (CUE: Faulkner Sound & Fury for what true first person would read like).  I can't write that way.
  • I have exactly ZERO desire to write a big ol' series with the same protag for years. Doing a repeat of a FEW of the same protags in a few WL books is about as much of one character as I can stand.  I get bored too often.
Multiple first: A few characters telling what they know in some sort of alternating structure <-- This is the hardest sort in my opinion. It means you need to have totally unique voices, diction, speech patterns for multiple characters.  I read a fair number attempting this. I rarely find one that doesn't fail for me. 

It highlights the issue of writing first for me.  I read books by the same author that are supposed to be totally distinct characters, but there are key phrases that echo.  If a WRITER does this, I don't think anything of it. It's writer quirk.  If you ask me to believe that these two totally different people are "telling me a story" but they use these same phrases . . . Ummm, no. I disengage. 

Does third still do that? It does, but my ability to suspend disbelief and buy a voice is less jarred when the CHARACTER'S voice is conveyed via dialogue. 3rd allows that distance that lets me say "a-ha! different character" bc the quirk-phrases that writers have are easier to contain in dialogue than in whole text first person.

Third person:  Not the "I" but the "he" or the "she." 

Third limited: The character who is telling can only tell what s/he knows.

Multiple third limited: A few characters telling what they know in some sort of alternating structure <-- This is what I write.  My books all have multiple narrators telling the tale. So far, I've had 3 (Keenan, Ash, & Don) in WL; 3 (Iri, Leslie, & Niall) in INK; 4 (Ash, Sorcha, Don, & Seth) in FRAGILE; and 3 (Dev, Ani, & Rae) in SHADOWS. 

For me, a story happens when tw o(or more) characters' lives intersect. Ideally, they want different things, have different goals, etc. So when I write, I am trying to find ways to allow different outlooks to coexist--and clash. The clash is key.  I like the challenge of trying to satisfy conflicting objectives.


Limited multiple pov isn't the same as what most people mean by "head hopping."  Head hopping is when you, the author, are able to know everyone'sthoughts so you are in the Deity Position (ie have omniscience AND, in theory, omnipotence).  With multiple 3rd limited, you are structuring the story in "sections."  I typically do this by chapter.  The challenge, of course, is balancing who tells in what order.  Do you switch btw chapters? How often?

It depends.

To determine which character gets pov, I ask "what is this scene about?" If it's about an event that clearly has the most impact to ONE character's trajectory, that's your pov character.  If it could be arc-shifting for a couple of them, you make a choice: who can I get the most mileage out of here? Who will suffer/rejoice.struggle the most? If it's equally poss for 2, I write it twice to see which is better OR I say "A-ha! Keenan hasn't been central for 3 chapters. He will suffer here, so he tells."

Ok, I'm thinking that's enough for now . . . to all of you emailing, PMing, etc.  I'm hoping that these are assauging the writing tips questions you ask.  I do honestly think that this stuff is exciting, but I know I have writer friends who (I suspect) ply me with alcohol to get me to shut up when I start going on about the beauty of dashes & commas & OMG I do love a good colon connected compound sentence.  . . so, umm, please feel perfectly welcome to ignore these posts if you lack the dash love tendency : ) 

* Which, yanno, means I rather desperately WANT to do solitary 1st person pov eventually.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 2nd, 2010 08:45 pm (UTC)
I love em dashes, too!

I know exactly what you mean about the first person POV. It's much harder to develop a distinct voice. I think it's also difficult to capture the voice of the opposite sex when you write in first person. But I know you can do it. Didn't you say you wrote something from Irial's POV in first person? Or maybe I misunderstood?
Feb. 3rd, 2010 12:54 am (UTC)
Writing a small bit in 1st for my own purposes is one thing, but a whole BOOK??? I'm not sure I can do it.
Feb. 2nd, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
All commas MUST have a reason for being. Yes!

I will use first person POV to help me establish a character's voice, speech patterns, and perspective, but I use third person POV in my books. I'm guessing this is because I read it the most so it sounds right in my head. Plus I've discovered if I start a story in first person at some point I unconsciously switch to third person.
Feb. 3rd, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
I agree that what we read is what tends to sound right. A year ago I had the impression that 1st person was just a trendy, overly-stylistic choice OR that it was for lazy writers. Since then I've read some really fantastic 1st person books that completely changed my mind. Now I realize that the next story I plan to start working on will work so much better in 1st person.
Feb. 2nd, 2010 09:55 pm (UTC)
These writing posts are extremely useful! I especially appreciated the tip about inserting dashes to denote pauses; until now, I've been guilty of the crime of your beginning English students *g* Everyone told me the commas didn't fit, but I could never find a good alternative.
Do you have any recs of authors who do first convincingly? The quirk phrases are a problem for me, both in reading and writing, so reading some authors who overcome this would be interesting and instructive.
P.S.: It'll be interesting, as your upcoming books are released to see where these snippetts come from *g*
Feb. 2nd, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
I think you do a better job of explaining this stuff through a blog, than my teacher in person.

Just fyi. :)
Feb. 3rd, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
*smile* Thank you.

(Bet you can't tell that I miss teaching a lot, can you?)
Feb. 2nd, 2010 11:12 pm (UTC)
AWESOME post - thank you! As you can see, I too am a big fan of the em dash, while also enjoying the occasional semicolon and colon. Reading this made me happy, and also - hopefully - a better writer. : )
Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:51 am (UTC)
Love this! I'm the opposite and keep trying to write in the third person but two paragraphs later it's all me, myself and I :)

Feb. 3rd, 2010 09:03 am (UTC)
thank you so much for the insights!!!

I tried third person writing and first person, and in my case it depends on the story I want to tell. 1st person limits you to ONE POV, but it also gives you the opportunity to let the reader into the head of your protagonist. I enjoy both kinds of writing a lot, if they are well done.

What kind of makes me pause and interrupts the flow of a story - IMO - is when there is a mix in one book. The main book is 1st person narrative and then there is some 3rd person POV thrown in. I keep having problems 'getting into the story' then. It's fine for me to read a 3rd person prologue and the rest of the story is 1st person, but a mix is... well, not 'unreadable' :D - just hard to follow, sometimes.

I like to use the dash! My first language is German and our rules for applying commas different. We generally use more commas ;) ... but the dash is still the same :D
The multi-lingual solution!
Feb. 3rd, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
I love the dash but I use it more like this... the three little dots. Not sure you can actually use that when writing a book, can you?
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )