This is a writing advice column. If you don’t want my unsolicited writing advice, do not, I implore you, read on. Fair warning. 😉
I belong to one or two Facebook groups, and recently, in one that is writing focused, another author and I discussed em dashes, which I do not like and she does, and all the kids are using them, and Jane Austin used them in Emma, so there. And she’s written a bucket of novels, so she is not a new writer.
“Yes,” I wanted to say but didn’t, “and I bet you have written them all in the last three to five years.” That is a new writer. Sorry.
And there is a group I belong to (a different group then the first one) called 20 to 50K that is all about writing as many books as you can as quickly as possible because that is how you (20 books) make a lot of money (50K) fast.
And that second group is great because it has a lot of good information given by generous people who have realized that lots of people want something very particular to read that scratches their particular itch (and I do recommend the group, and am not commenting on the fiction the members are writing, but rather their good advice on selling the fiction). The members have realized that if people want more, they don’t care about the quality of the product. If they loved “Beauty and the Beast,” and they want more monster love, with sex, and you give it to them, they don’t really care about plot holes or grammar. Just get the monster and the person both naked as quickly as possible, and do a boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back-thing as quickly as you can, and on repeat, for them, as much as possible. Publish it yourself, and to hell with people like me. In fact, get AI to write it, or some guy in another country, seems to be Africa or India, slap your name on it, and mic drop!
This is very difficult for me. All of us eat at McDonald’s sometimes, even if very rarely. As I have written previously, I am a person who has spent the better part of her life studying what makes writing not just entertaining, but good, like To Kill a Mockingbird good, which is different from Emma good, but can be the same as Good Omens good, or even When You Are Engulfed in Flames good. Emma, well, it’s not Austin’s best, IMHO, and even Austin is, really, a glorified and now dead romance novelist, as are the Bronte sisters. And while I adored Jane Eyre as a teen, I never liked Wuthering Heights, could not finish it actually, though I tried over and over, and that was back when I was finishing everything. And from there I never read another, because for me, ultimately, romance is boring and full of tropes. Austin has some good books for that genre, I prefer Persuasion, but she also quickly gets wrapped in her own tropes and bores me, and while I would love to take the time to read Tale of Two Cities again, which is in the same century as Austin, I’m not going to pick up Persuasion again in this lifetime. And Emma? Apologies ladies. Apologies.
And I believe that if you have written a novel in a year, you are some kind of miracle. If you have written over ten, and not used AI or that person across the ocean, you have stamina beyond my ken. (If you used AI or that person across the ocean, I make no bones about scraping you off the bottom of my shoe, having accidentally stepped in you.) I celebrate your hard work, and your dedication to your writing, and your making money at it, and all the wonderful things.
I now I wonder if I can, as in my previous post, promise you, that the number of books that will be written that change all conventional rules (or just the ones that particular author doesn’t like or understand) and do well out of it will be small. Because if all the newly minted folks start mass-producing the same genre of book over and over, written to a niche, but rabid, group of readers, and they fill them with clumsy em dashes because they think they make their work look more important, or Austin used them, or whatever, then em dashes instead of commas are going to become a thing, whether I like it or not.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. But the rest of us could end up stuck with it as convention because that is how language works.
You have to be especially educated about the rules to break them and do it well, in an effective way. Yes. But you just have to be part of a huge onslaught of people doing the same thing to change the rules, and run them right the heck out of town.
Can I be annoyingly prescriptive here for a moment? I want to tell you that you have one job: to tell a good story.
All that other stuff that may seem super important to you is fluff to your audience, and could stop them from loving your story. It will stop me. If I drive down a road full of potholes, and I have any other alternative, I will not drive down it again. If I drive behind shopping center that has a long straight run of asphalt that the owner of the shopping center has dropped speed bumps all over to force me to slow down, I am going to curse myself and not do it more than once.
When you have a thought to convey, and you feel the need to interrupt it and stick in an extra bit of information, you can use em dashes to emphasize it, but commas work for that, and are less intrusive to the reader’s eye.
When you have a thought to convey- and you feel the need to interrupt it and stick in an extra bit of information- you can use em dashes to emphasize it- but commas work for that- and are less intrusive to the reader’s eye.
Em dashes are doing this:
How many times do you think an author who is putting words together in a clever, meaningful, or irresistible way is going to need to drop in a giant pointing finger?
I am a well-trained reader and a decent and slightly clever author, so my advice to you is that you should endeavor to find a way to write your sentences so that you’re not constantly interrupting them to stick in information, whether you do it with commas or em dashes. Jane Austin is always trying to pump up her scenes and get her readers very invested in the little romances and petty slights of people who are often rich or privileged enough to sit around doing needlework all day. These are boring people with nothing going on. She is throwing anything she can at it to inflate the lack of drama, and for all we know she genuinely felt the drama. Maybe to her it was tremendously exciting. Maybe she was hot and bored and stuck in a stiff dress that did not lend itself to walking or having fun and this was how she made it through. Maybe every word she wrote was “stop and look” worthy to her. Still, dash away, dash away, dash away all, I’m not interested.
As I get to know the world that is writing and publishing today I find myself sometimes feeling a bit like Inspector Morse. He likes poetry and the classics and classical music and all those around him do not and make fun of him for it. He is a principled dinosaur.
My daughter says my arms are short and calls me a T-rex. Maybe I am a principled dinosaur too.
And my best advice is to also think about the life your story will have without you- when someone is reading your book- and you are not in the room with that person to answer a question or explain. Will the life your book has- without you in that new home- be a good and celebrated one- or a sad and relegated one- or somewhere on the spectrum in between? I would truly like to see us all reach our writing dreams- and- therefore- my advice is because I care- and not because I am competitive with you or want to stop you- or fence you in. And I have to- again- give you the same piece of advice- you have to tread a line between what you want from your book- and what your reader will want.
Same paragraphs as last time-with all dashes. What do you think of the dinosaur’s advice?
One Reply to “AN ADVICE COLUMN ON WRITING, FROM THE EDITOR IN ME TO THE AUTHOR IN YOU: Ahem… Ah- em. No. Just no.”
These philosophical writing questions are what makes the world go round. After much contemplation, I’ve resolved that if I wouldn’t want to waste my time reading it, I’m certainly. not going to spend my time writing it, money or no money.
To make money, often a writer has to have a side job to survive, but at least then you can write what you please. As for those pesky em dashes, they did work well for me when writing fluff magazine articles but in fiction there are better choices. Thanks for the chat, Dianne. Write on.