Friday 30 July 2010

Punctuation (Doing the Dash)

In my previous blog posts on punctuation, we've looked at:

* the full stop
* the comma
* the semi-colon
* the colon

Today we're going to do the dash. Do you think you know exactly what doing the dash is?

Think again.

Are you talking about doing the 100 meter dash? Cutting a sartorial dash? Dashing for the door? No?

Then perhaps you’re thinking of the dash in punctuation? That little mark of separation that takes the place of commas or parenthesis?

Oh, right. That is the dash you’re talking about? I’m glad I got that cleared up!

So…tell me, are you talking about the en-dash? Or the em-dash? What do you mean you didn’t know there was more than one type of dash? Well then, now you know. But do you know the difference between the two?


• can be confused with a hyphen, which is used when compound adjectives modify a noun, as in “award-winning novel”. The word "award" modifies "winning" and together they modify "novel".

• usually half the width of an em-dash.

• indicates relationships, such as "the Johannesburg-Cape Town flight."

• indicates numbers, such as "I am twenty-one years old” (the en-dash, please note, does not indicate the difference between lies and truth) or number ranges, such as “6-20 people are expected to attend the book launch” (read as six to twenty people).

• does not usually have spaces before or after the letters, although there are exceptions.(Compare “The Johannesburg Book Fair runs from 7 August–9 August” with “The Cape Town Book Fair runs from 30 July – 2 August”. The latter sentence is less confusing.)

THE EM-DASH (—) or (--):

• indicates a pause or a momentary redirection of thought:

Louise Erdrich, in her novel Tracks, uses the dash when she writes, “I have no idea which prayer I spoke that night, I cannot recall the words. I cannot remember my lips moving, whether there were notions in my head. If my knees hurt, if I hungered, if I felt anything — that’s lost.” (Pg 94)

• is used to set off or highlight a clause when the use of commas does not give the clause sufficient weight:

In Music & Silence, Rose Tremain writes “Christian imagines the faces of his councillors, like fat pink potatoes balanced on their starched white plates of ruffs. These men — those of them who will bestir themselves to come to the meeting — will listen to the speech, but no hint of worry or anguish will be visible on their faces.” (Pg 166)

If the information you are feeding the reader is clearly incidental to the main sentence, it may be better to use parenthesis.

• also indicates an interruption:

"I was just going to try you again—” I tell him.
"This is Detective Rafferty,” Beezer says. (From Pg 37 of The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry.)

• or an unfinished statement:

“Do you really want to eat —.” It was too late. He’d already swallowed the last cupcake.

• show breaks in thought and shifts in tone:

“Do I have to ask you again how to —” Mom suddenly stopped talking and looked out the window.
“To do what?” I prompted.
“To — Oh, I forget!” and her hand rubbed awkwardly at her forehead, as it had too often in the last weeks.

• the house style will dictate whether you put spaces before and after your em-dashes.

Remember that doing the dash is not without its problems:

• The dash is too informal for academic or business writing

• CAUTION: Overdoing the dash can result in reader exhaustion!
# As the dash is more dramatic than commas or parenthesis, over use lessens its impact.
# Too many dashes could suggest undisciplined thinking or an inability to omit unnecessary details.
#Over-use of dashes could prevent you from developing your main thought or idea.
# By inserting numerous asides between two dashes, you could be hedging, that is, not taking a firm stance about a single thought.

The dash certainly spices up a manuscript when it’s efficiently used. All it takes is a little bit of practice and soon you’ll be doing the dash, both seduced by its versatility and tempted by its impact.

“The Art of Punctuation” by Noah Lukeman
“Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Punctuate” by George Davidson
“Collins Wordpower: Punctuation” by Graham King
“The Original University of Chicago Press Manual of Style”
Free Image from Clip Art

Tuesday 20 July 2010

The Handbag Project continued

When I last posted about The Handbag Project for rape survivors (brought to my attention by blogger friend Damaria Senne), I was in the throes of revisions and put my contribution on hold. You can read more about this inspiring project at The Jes Foord Foundation. Now my revisions are finished and I've rejoined the real world, I've made up my handbag. Here it is:

My bag includes facecloth, handcream, liquid soap, panties, chocolate, tea  tree mints, tea tree handwipes, an earring and necklace set, a fridge magnet with a cute teddy saying "someone special", a lipstick, tissues, a letter of support and sanitary towels. Where I could I chose the colour pink, because in colour therapy pink is the colour of love (including self-love) and compassion; it works on the heart chakra, bringing in peace and emotional healing, all of which will be much needed by a rape survivor.

As I live in Johannesburg and the Foundation is based in Durban, I wrote and asked for an address to courier my handbag too.  The good news is that they are currently working with 5FM radio station to establish a branch in Johannesburg which will have a depot where handbags can be dropped off. Once I have more details, I'll let you know.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Lessons Learned along Revision Road

Every road has a pothole or two; none is ever completely smooth. How boring the journey would be without challenges along the way!

The revision road is no different.

In the revisions letter from Wild Rose Press, the editor identified three main areas in my manuscript needing improvement:

• Point of View (POV) changes
• Insufficient motivation
• Writing too passive

These, then, were the challenges facing me as I began my journey along revision road. I am resting awhile, before starting on a different route of the same road (the revisions for my mainstream manuscript) and can now look fondly back on those once daunting challenges.

What did I learn from them?

Point of View: I’m not comfortable in 3rd person POV. I prefer 1st person. That preference was clear as, at times, I changed POV too rapidly within the same scene. This wasn’t as bad as expected. What did surprise me, however, was the subtlety of some of the POV slips.

Lesson Learned: When in the heroine’s POV, avoid the hero’s thoughts. How can the heroine know what the hero is thinking? Check pronoun and noun usage to ensure that the POV stays consistent and does not signal a change where no change of POV was intended.

Insufficient Motivation: What drives your characters to act the way they do? Has something happened in their past? Is it a personality trait? Or is it an external challenge? What deep feelings drive them? Without adequate reason for a character to act in a certain way, the story becomes unrealistic. My characters had their motivations for acting in certain ways; I never showed those motivations in a way that created logical intention or realistic actions.

Lesson Learned: Keep motivations simple. Rather have fewer, well-developed, motivations then half-thought-out complex motivations. In addition, keep motivations consistent with the character’s personality and actions.

Passive Writing: This was a pothole so large I nearly never crawled out of it! By far the hardest part of the revision road was learning to recognise when I used passive writing, which slows down pace and adds wordiness. One consolation is that, with each dredge through the manuscript, it’s easier to recognise the patterns which snarl and snare the active voice.

Lesson Learned: If you think you’ve cut down enough words, look again. And again. There will always be somewhere else in the text where you can say in one excellent word what you said in three ordinary words. Get rid of the writing flab (including unnecessary adjectives, adverbs and all forms of the passive verb “to be”). Keep writing tight. Remember active writing is writing with attitude.

Perhaps my journey for this manuscript has ended. Perhaps I am merely in a rest camp and more obstacles await if I must begin another round of revisions. There is no certain outcome at the end of this road but, even if I haven’t done enough to bring this manuscript up to publishable standards, what I have learned from these revisions can only help me improve the next one and the next.

There are, though, two certainties I take with me: I feel more like a “real writer” now, than I ever have before. And no journey, no challenges, are ever wasted.

Thursday 1 July 2010

The End of Revision Road


The two most beautiful words in the English language. Revised romance ms completed and emailed off to the editor at Wild Rose Press. Nothing more I can do on that ms until I hear back from her.

Am strangely exhausted - happy, but exhausted! - so shall give myself the weekend off before starting on the revision letter from Weronika Janczuk for my mainstream novel.  In every ending, as the wise ones say, there lies a new beginning. The revision road, it seems, is no different.

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