Characters: the Legalities Rant #amwriting

Reality is stranger than anything I could write. This is why I write fiction—I put reality into more palatable chunks so I can digest it better.

Drawing on the real world to help design the unreal is where good world building comes  into play. However, we shouldn’t use the real names and exact situations of people we are acquainted with in our work. Don’t thinly disguise them with a different name—they can sue us.

Consider the late Betty MacDonald, whose first published book was picked up by J.B. Lippincott. The Egg and I is a fictionalized account of Betty’s life as a chicken farmer. It was set in Chimacum, a small community in rural Washington State. The book was a success, selling well over a million copies and spinning off several movie adaptations.

It also spun off several lawsuits for defamation of character. Although the book was a critical and popular success at publication, in the 1970s it fell into disfavor because of the clichéd treatment and lack of understanding of the culture of our local Native people. The book did give rise to a perception of Washington State as a place full of eccentrics.

We are different, but every part of the country has its oddballs.

From Wikipedia:

Post-publication lawsuits

Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian “Crowbar.” The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins’ (who was also one of the presiding judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as “Pa Kettle.” On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.[3]

Some ideas will come to us from real life, but if we are writing fiction, we must never detail people too closely. If you become a success, some people may see that as their ticket to a little extra money at your expense. This, despite the disclaimer we put on the copyright page:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

We can and will, however, draw impressions from them.

A common “coffee shop” game is a good way to develop characters for your stories and won’t get you sued. When you go to a coffee shop that you don’t normally frequent, sit and watch your fellow patrons. Observe their behavior, their speech habits and unconscious mannerisms. It’s easy to imagine who they might be and build a whole fantasy about them.

That character sketch is the kernel that can be the start of a short story or even a novel–and all of it is fiction.

You don’t actually know a thing about them other than they like a Double Tall Vanilla Soy Latte with cinnamon sprinkles. The idiosyncrasies you see in strangers will give rise to a character you can use without risking your financial security and your reputation.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Egg and I,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Egg_and_I&oldid=878829393 (accessed February 20, 2019).

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The Jones Kerfuffle (and why we need a theme) #amwriting

I had intended to do a dissertation on the “Jones Kerfuffle” today, but the importance of theme also reared its head. So, here are the highlights of the Jones debate and the facts as presented by Merriam-Webster Online. (Theme follows Jones because we’re doing this alphabetically.)

  • You can visit the Jones family
  • You can go to the Jones’ house or the Jones’s
  • You can buy a boat from Bob Jones.
  • You can try keeping up with the Joneses, but the Smiths will out do you every time.

Merriam-Webster Online says:

The plurals of last names are just like the plurals of most nouns. They typically get formed by adding -s. Except, that is, if the name already ends in s or z. Then the plural is formed by adding -es.

the Smith clan → the Smiths

Jill and Sam Clarence → the Clarences

Mr. and Mrs. Jones → the Joneses

the Fernandez family → the Fernandezes

But what about adding an apostrophe s to names ending in s? Like Jones?

Merriam-Webster Online also uses “Jones” as their example:

For names that end in an s or z sound, though, you can either add -‘s or just an apostrophe. Going with -‘s is the more common choice:

The car that belongs to Jones → Jones’s car or Jones’ car.

You can borrow Bob Jones’s lawnmower. Yes, I did add an s after the apostrophe because casual is how I roll. You can borrow Bob Jones’ lawnmower if you wish to be technically correct and formal about it. Whichever you choose, be consistent.

Now, with that out of the way let’s talk about snow and theme.

Where I live, we’re just digging out of three weeks’ worth of a hard winter. We had a huge amount of snow fall in the Pacific Northwest, over 25 inches (we rarely get more than 8). For the space of nearly three weeks, it seemed as if the snowpocalypse had happened. Our back garden was hit quite hard—some of our older more well-established plants may have to be removed.

People were taken by surprise here, and some of their stories made good Facebook posts. The lack of road noise and occasional loss of the internet was quite conducive to my getting some writing done.

During those dark, quiet days, I managed to revamp a story that I had been unable to sell. I submitted it to an anthology, and the editor liked it. In that experience I discovered why I couldn’t find a home for it: there was no underlying theme to unify it.

I loved the characters and the setting, but somehow the original story fell flat. The first rejection had said it was too dark, too sad. So, I tried to brighten it up.

The next rejection said only that it didn’t have enough romance. As it was a story of a man dealing with his ex-wife, I thought they had missed the point.

But actually, they hadn’t—I had. What I didn’t see was there was no particular theme giving the story direction. It was merely a tale of love lost.

When I pulled it out and dusted it off for this attempt, I had to reshape it to fit a themed anthology. That is when I realized there was a glaring opportunity for romance, just not with the two people I thought the story was about.

When I had that epiphany and applied the theme, it became a story of emancipation from the past.

Once I had that awakening, I fell in love with that story all over again. The story that emerged was the one that my subconscious muse must have wanted all along. It just  hadn’t communicated that to me.

My subconscious muse is like that—stubborn, refusing to speak, expecting me to just know what it’s thinking.

Theme is a subtle aspect of any written work. It is rarely stated in a bald fashion, but even if it isn’t obvious, theme is a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

We write so many short stories, and some find good homes in anthologies and other publications, and others don’t. When the story is good enough but “lacking something” indefinable, even the members of our writing group may not see why a particular story isn’t working.

I have been sharply reminded to take a good look at how strong the underlying theme is when a story doesn’t work. Theme is the foundation the story rests on.


Credits and Attributions:

Why is it “Socrates’ Deathbed” but “Dickens’s Novels”? A guide to names in their plural and possessive forms by Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary copyright © 2015 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated

George Henry Durrie, Hunter in Winter Wood, Public Domain

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#FineArtFriday: Portrait of Christian Krohg by Oda Krohg

Today’s image is a portrait of Norwegian artist, Christian Krohg as painted by his wife, Oda Krohg.

What I love about this painting:

We see Christian in his bohemian glory. His lush beard is combed just so; his shoes are shined, and he looks every inch a gentleman of the town, yet he doesn’t look like a dandy. A parade with a brass band is happening in the background, a fanfare for the man himself.

The background details are there in impressionistic strokes, but Christian himself stands out sharply, a man who could never fade into the background. He is good-humored, passionate, a warrior for the underclass–Christian Krohg commands attention.

About the artist, via Wikipedia:

Oda Krohgnée Othilia Pauline Christine Lasson (11 June 1860 – 19 October 1935) was a Norwegian painter, and the wife of her teacher and colleague Christian Krohg. She was the second daughter of public attorney Christian Lasson and Alexandra von Munthe af Morgenstierne. Her maternal grandmother was a Russian princess. She grew up in a liberal-conservative household, along with eight sisters and two brothers. Her brother Per Lasson became a noted composer and her sister Caroline Bokken Lasson a singer and writer.

In 1881 she married the businessman Jørgen Engelhardt (1852–1921), with whom she had two children. She split from Engelhardt in 1883, and divorced him in 1888. In 1885 she became a student of Erik Werenskiold and Christian Krohg, the latter she would marry in October 1888. In 1885, their daughter Nana was born, and in 1889, their son Per, who also would be a notable painter.

Oda was noted for both her talent and her passion for life. She was a champion of social justice and devout bohemian. Her life with Christian was filled with drama, with both having many affairs, but they always returned to each other. The two were reunited in 1909 and remained together until his death in 1925.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg av Oda Lasson Krohg OB.01508.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg_av_Oda_Lasson_Krohg_OB.01508.jpg&oldid=336341196 (accessed February 15, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Oda Krohg,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oda_Krohg&oldid=871328815(accessed February 15, 2019).

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The Apostrophe #amwriting

Today we’re looking at the sometimes confusing apostrophe. It has many uses, but I will only delve into the most common ways we use it in creative writing today.

In creative writing, the apostrophe is a small morsel of punctuation that, on the surface, seems simple. However, certain common applications can be confusing, so as we get to those I will try to be as concise and clear as possible.

First up, we all know that we use the apostrophe to denote possession:

  • This is George’s cat. (George owns this cat.)
  • This is Jorgensen’s cat. (A person who is going by the surname of Jorgensen owns the cat.)

Where this gets a little tricky is in the possessive form of a surname when it refers to the whole family. In this case, you insert a grammatical article (the) and make the name plural, and then add the apostrophe:

  • This is the Jorgensens’ cat. (The Jorgensen family owns the cat.)

If the Jorgensen family have a sign made for their front porch, they would have it made to read “The Jorgensens’ Home” (not “The Jorgensen’s Home,” as that would imply that only one Jorgensen lives there, and his legal name is “The Jorgensen.”)

When two or more people (or other entities such as businesses) are described as separately owning something, each name should be in the possessive form:

  • “Ralph’s and Janet’s cars are the same model.”

However, if Ralph and Janet share possession, include an apostrophe and an s after the last name only:

  • “Ralph and Janet’s car is a Prius.”

In some cases, we need to use plurals of abbreviations. In a military thriller, you might need to say, “They disarmed several IEDs.” (We would not use an apostrophe: IED’s.)

Writing a year numerically has been an area of confusion for me. This is because I rarely have had to write years in this way until recently and the use of an apostrophe for this is now considered outdated. However, this is how they should be written:

  • The tavern culture of the 1600s was flourishing. (1600’s would not be considered incorrect, just old fashioned.)
  • Dresses in the 1960s were shorter than in previous years.

An apostrophe should follow a number only if it is possessive.

  • It was 1985’s worst storm. (Some editors feel this is awkward, but I let it stand when I see it in a manuscript.)

Numbers are frequently written numerically when writing books for middle grade and YA readers, as these stories often center around schools and sports.

A single digit, such as 7, is made plural with the addition of an s: 7s

Insert an apostrophe to denote possession when you must use a number to stand in for a person in an article, such as when an athlete is identified by a uniform number:

  • Number 8’s tackle won the day.

Contractions can be confusing. Two words made into one word are joined by an apostrophe:

  • Do not = don’t
  • We are = we’re
  • You are = you’re
  • They are = they’re

And so on. A list of contractions to watch for can be found at the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia: Wikipedia: List of English contractions

Conjunctions also can be tricky.  Simply add an s, such as in the phrase “There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it” or “A list of dos and don’ts follows.” We do keep the contractive apostrophe in don’t and simply add an s to make it plural.

Sometimes a single letter looks awkward when we just use an s to indicate plurality.

“How many h’s do you spell shh with?” (hs would look very odd.)

When pluralizing capital letters, we don’t use an apostrophe: Mike earned three Ds in English this year but still passed the class.

In a narrative, the two most common missions apostrophes have are to denote possession or indicate a contraction.

  • Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or, less commonly, “who has.”
  • Whose is the possessive of “who” or, somewhat controversially, “which.”
  • Their(s) is the possessive of “they.” (They’re proud to own it, it’s theirs, and it’s not there.)
  • Its is the possessive of “it,” and “it’s” is a contraction of it is.

Note that for both they and it, there is no apostrophe in the possessive form.

  • The texture of the wall —it’s rough. ( contraction: it is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its surface. (possession: the wall’s surface.)

In most English words an apostrophe indicates possession but can also indicate a contraction. The difficulty arises in the fact that both it and they are frequently part of contracted words.

In the effort to standardize English usage, early linguists made a choice to eliminate the apostrophe in the possessive form. They did this in the (futile) hope of ending confusion.

  • It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  • Its denotes possession: It owns it.
  • Their: they own it
  • They’re: they are

As with so many things that “seemed like a good idea at the time,” its and it’s will always cause problems for new and beginning writers. Inadvertent misuse happens even for old hands like me when I’m zipping along laying down the first draft of a manuscript, especially during NaNoWriMo.

We have to be vigilant and ensure we have looked for proper usage of its and it’s during revisions. Even the big traditional publishing houses admit sneaky errors like those like to go unnoticed until after publication.

In closing, the most common uses of the apostrophe aren’t too difficult once we learn the rules. Remember, apostrophes are integral parts of the traffic control system, signals that keep your words moving along at the right rate. Using them the way they are intended (and which readers expect) keeps the reader from throwing your book away.

I always suggest you set some time aside for writing new words every day, even if only for fifteen minutes. When we force ourselves to think about and use the basic rules of grammar regularly, we retain what we have learned.

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How contrasts drive the story #amwriting

The Buddha offered a morsel of wisdom that authors should consider, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien understood this quite clearly.

Written in a style that was popular one-hundred years ago, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a large reading commitment, one fewer and fewer readers are willing to undertake. Yet, compared to Robert Jordan or Tad Williams’ epic fantasy series, it is short, totaling only 455,175 words over the course of three books.

The story is sprawling, showing a world of plenty, ignorant of the disaster lurking at the edge of their border. Tolkien shows the peace and prosperity that Frodo enjoys and then forces him down a road not of his choosing. He takes the hobbit through personal changes, forces him to question everything. In the final confrontation with Sauron’s evil influence, Tolkien forces Frodo to face the fact he isn’t quite strong enough to destroy the ring. Frodo can’t give it up—he is willing to risk everything to retain possession of it when Gollum amputates his finger and takes the ring.

Frodo and Sam hunting down a case of genuine Canadian beer and spending spring break in Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t make much of a story, although it could have made an awesome straight-to-DVD movie.

Frodo’s story is about good and evil, and the hardships endured in the effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron. Why would ordinary middle-class people, comfortable in their rut, go to so much trouble if Sauron’s evil was no threat?

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tad Williams epic fantasy Osten Ard series, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fiction. Both feature an epic quest where through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is fundamental to the fables and sagas humans have been telling since before discovering fire. Contrast is why Tolkien’s saga set in Middle Earth is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built. It’s also why Tad Williams’ work in The Dragonbone Chair, first published in 1988, changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. The works of these authors inspired a generation of writers: George R.R. Martin and  Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

My favorite books convey the beauty of life by contrasting joy, companionship, and love with drama, heartache, and violence. No matter the setting, Paris or Middle Earth, these fundamental human experiences are personal to each reader. They have experienced pain and loss, joy and love. When the author does it right, the reader empathizes, feels the emotions written into the story as if they were the protagonist.

Hunger is a fundamental agony that can linger for years. People can survive on very little, and unfortunately, many do. To have only enough food to keep you alive, but never enough to allow you to grow and thrive forms a person in a singular way. Acquiring food becomes your first priority. Having a surplus of food becomes a reason to celebrate. To go without adequate food for any length of time changes you, makes you more determined than ever to never go hungry again.

Thirst is a more immediate pain than hunger. The human animal can survive for up to three weeks without food, but only three to four days without water. Rarely, one can survive up to a week. When one has gone without water for any length of time, even brackish water must taste sweet. And when one is without food, even food they would never normally eat will fill their belly.

War happens because of famine and deprivation. Wars are fought over water. We forget this when we have plenty to eat and never worry if we will have water or not as long as we can pay the bills.

Need drives the human story, which is why we love tales of heroism and great achievements. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—contrast provides the story with texture, turning a bland wall of words into something worth reading.  First comes the calm, and then the storm, and then the aftermath. Feast is followed by famine, thirst followed by a flood. War, famine, and flood are followed by a time of peace and plenty. This is our history, and our future, and is how good tales are played out.

Employing contrast gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. When an author makes good use of contrasts to draw the reader in, readers will think about the story and those characters long after it has ended.

I say this regularly, but I must repeat it: education about the craft of writing has many facets. We must learn the basics of grammar, and we must learn how to build a story. We learn the architecture of story by reading novels and short stories written by the masters, both famous and infamous.

We can’t limit our reading to the classics. Those books may be the basis for the way fiction is written today, but the prose and style don’t resonate with the majority of modern readers.

I have a piece of homework for you. You can copy and use the following list of questions as part of your assignment.

We may not love the novels on the NY Times bestseller list, and we may find them hard going, but stay with it. Go to the library or to the bookstore and see what they have from that list that you would be willing to examine. Your local second hand bookstore might have quite a few recent bestsellers in their stock of general fiction. Buy or borrow it and give it a postmortem. Why does—or doesn’t—the piece resonate with you? Why would a book that you dislike be so successful?

As I said at the beginning, the plot is driven by the events and emotions that give it texture. How did they unfold? Did the book have a  distinct plot arc? Did it have:

  • A strong opening to hook you?

  • Was there originality in the way the characters and situations were presented?

  • Did you like the protagonist and other main characters? Why or why not?

  • Were you able to suspend your disbelief?

  • Did the narrative contain enough contrasts to keep things interesting?

  • By the end of the book, did the characters grow and change within their personal arc? How were they changed?

  • What sort of transitions did the author employ that made you want to turn the page? How can you use that kind of transition in your own work?

  • Did you get a satisfying ending? If not, how could it have been made better?

Reading and dissecting the works of successful authors is a necessary component of any education in the craft of writing. Answering these questions will make you think about your own work, and how you deploy the contrasting events that change the lives of your characters.


Credits and Attributions:

Struggle for Survival by Christian Krohg, 1889, oil on canvas.  Now hanging in the National Gallery of Norway.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg-Kampen for tilværelsen 1889.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilv%C3%A6relsen_1889.jpg&oldid=301415583 (accessed February 10, 2019)

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#FineArtFriday: Rallé: Madonna Without a Child (revisited)

Madonna Without a Child; oil on board by Ralle CC-3.0-SSA

Madonna Without a Child; oil on board by Ralle CC-3.0-SSA

Today I am going back to my first #FineArtFriday post, Madonna Without a Child by Rallé. It was with this original post that I first realized that I could study art and art history, even though I am a middle-aged housewife living in a small town two hours away from the nearest art museum. I can go to the internet and through the wonders of Wikimedia Commons, I have thousands of images of the greatest masterpieces at my viewing pleasure.

I can zoom in to examine the smallest details. I can look up information about the picture itself from both Wikipedia and the worlds finest art museums. If anything is known about the artist I can find that information too.

How fortunate I am to live in a time when a thirst for knowledge can be satisfied so easily.

To all the art historians of the world whose research is out there on the internet, I say thank you. I was unable to study this subject in college, but I am neck deep in it now because of your efforts.

And now, my original post.


(Via Wikipedia) Rallé, also known as Master of the Town of Consuls (MTC), is an American artist whose work has most recently been shown in the Meisel Gallery[1][2] and the Bruce R. Lewin Fine Art[3] in New York City. His paintings have accompanied several articles in the magazine Omni, and appeared as covers of several books. Rallé’s work has also been featured in Time Life Books,[4]Esquire, Penthouse, Gulf-Commentator, Toronto Life, Graphics Annual and American Illustration 3.[5]He published an autobiography in 2003, which won the 2004 Sappi European Printer of the Year gold award.

Viewing art inspires my personal creativity as much as listening to music or reading does. The eye of the artist sees things from a different angle, is inspired by things we might at first see as mundane or inconsequential. This is also true about literature, and music.

For me as an author and would-be poet, the world is comprised of myriad different genres, styles, and interpretations of the diverse forms of art. I think this is because all art, whether created of words, paint, images, or sound is filtered through the mind of the artist, photographer, composer, or author and is interpreted by the mind of the beholder.

Inspired by what I behold, I become a creator.

The late Surrealist Artist, René Magritte, said, “The searching intelligence sharpens when it Sees the meaning in poetic images. This meaning goes with the moral certainty that we  belong to the World. And so, this actual belonging becomes a right to belong. The changing content of these poetic images tallies with the richness of our moral certainty. It does not happen at will, it does not obey any system, whether logical or illogical, rigid or fanciful.”


Quote from Literary Hub:  Poetry is a Pipe: Selected Writings of René Magritte ©  René Magritte September 29, 2016

Selected Writings of René Magritte,  Copyright © 2016 by Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner, University of Minnesota Press

Quote from Rallé (Artist) Author: Wikipedia contributors / Publisher: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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The Em Dash— #amwriting

Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.

Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.

So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t they the same thing?

Not at all. Hyphens are used to join two words to create a compound word. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash.

  • Time-saving
  • Twenty-one

Hyphens are not always necessary. If the meaning of a compound adjective is perfectly clear when written as two separate words, a hyphen is not necessary. If its meaning is understood when written as one word and common usage writes it as one word, again, a hyphen is not necessary.

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways. One kind of dash that is frequently used is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ UK usage frequently employs the en dash in the place of the em dash.

In US usage, En dashes join two numbers that are written numerically, not spelled. To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:

1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.

The dash we are discussing today is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’

An em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash can serve as a comma. It does the same task as parentheses and serves the same purpose as a colon when used in the narrative.

Misty Barnett—my dog walker—loves to tango.

Tonight’s featured dances—the foxtrot, the waltz, and the Basque Sword Dance.

Used in these situations, the em dash feels less formal than a colon. This shift in usage is all about economics. The reading public drives our written language. Their preference for books with narratives light on formality is why colons are no longer used in narrative prose.

To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:

A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.

The em dash can be more emphatic than a comma, yet not as firm a stop as the period. It sets apart any clause bracketed by them—such as this clause—which can easily be overdone.

Their main use in my work is in dialogue. Most editors will agree that current accepted practice for fiction is to not use semicolons in dialogue. Instead, we use the em dash to join short related independent clauses. Used wisely, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding. A good writer will not pepper their manuscript with them.

In the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, we use certain words and symbols as a kind of shorthand to ourselves for later, and the emdash can be one of them. When we are making revisions, we need to be alert and reword as much as we can to do without them. Used too exuberantly, they can create a mish-mash of run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

So, what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause? Be creative with your word choices, phrase things carefully, and see if one of these will work as well or better:

  • PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.
  • SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out.Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. (The AND has been left out.) As I said, the semicolon has fallen out of favor with many editors for dialogue. Also, many people don’t understand how to use them. However, I have nothing against them when they are used properly.
  • COMMA:  We purchased apples, oranges, and bananas.

Authors and editors become habituated to using emdashes without thinking. After a while, the little finger just hits that hyphen key twice whenever the mind pauses.

I have mentioned this wonderful quote before, which is from a blog post called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash.”  The post was written by the witty Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic:

“What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”

Write the way you want to, use em dashes where you think they work best, and rely on proper punctuation for the rest of your narrative.

Happy writing!


Credits and Attributions:

“The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash”  by Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic 24 May 2011 (accessed 11 March 2018).

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The Ellipsis #amwriting

Today we’re continuing my series of handy one-page reference guides for the struggling author. The information I am imparting to you is drawn from my reference manual of choice, Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. It takes the relevant parts of the Chicago Manual of Style and puts them into an understandable form.

On deck today is the ellipsis, that symbol of omitted words so beloved and so misused by the new, uninformed author. A signifier of things left unsaid, the ellipsis does many things, but is not punctuation in itself.

In my opinion, some people rely too heavily on the ellipsis in their prose. Used too freely, the narrative becomes halting…stuttering…gasping to a near stop.

However, just as adverbs and other descriptors are, the ellipsis is a tool and we must know how and when to use it to the greatest effect.

Quote from Wikipedia:

The Chicago Manual of Style suggests the use of an ellipsis for any omitted word, phrase, line, or paragraph from within but not at the end of a quoted passage. There are two commonly used methods of using ellipses: one uses three dots for any omission, while the second one makes a distinction between omissions within a sentence (using three dots: . . .) and omissions between sentences (using a period and a space followed by three dots: . …)

The ellipsis is a symbol, and as such, requires punctuation, even if it is at the end of a sentence of dialogue. Again, Wikipedia makes this clear:

More commonly, a normal full stop (period) terminates the sentence, then a separate three-dot ellipsis is used to indicate one or more subsequent elided sentences before continuing a longer quotation. Business Insider magazine suggests this style,[10] and it is also used in many academic journals. Even the Associated Press Stylebook[11] – notably hostile to punctuation that journalists may consider optional and removable to save newsprint column width – favors this approach. It is consistent in intent if not exact form with the agreement among those in favor of a fused four-dot ellipsis that the first of them is a full stop terminating the sentence and the other three are the ellipsis.

You can create one two different ways.

  1. Hit the period key three times in a row: …
  2. If you are using Word and have a number pad on your keyboard, press Alt 0133, which gives you the …

Bryan A. Garner, on page 396 of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation lists five uses and two misuses of the ellipsis.

First, we’ll talk about the uses, listed with examples on page 396.

  1. Use an ellipsis when an unfinished sentence trails off.

  2. Use an ellipsis to signal rumination, musing, or hesitant continuation of thought.

  3. Use three ellipsis dots to signal that you’ve omitted one or more words within a sentence you are quoting.

  4. Use four dots—an ellipsis and a period—when you’ve omitted one or more words at the end of a sentence. A space goes before the first ellipsis dot.

  5. Use four dots—an ellipsis and a period—when you’ve omitted material within a quoted sentence, but the quotation continues. No space goes before the first dot (the period).

On page 398, Garner lists two misuses.

  1. Don’t use the ellipsis dots without the equivalent of a letter space between each pair, and don’t allow the string of dots to be split between consecutive lines.

  2. Don’t begin a quotation with an ellipsis.

What I have discovered in my quest for enlightenment is that it is easy to misread and misinterpret rules as laid down by those who have a lot of knowledge. As I frequently say, I am always learning new things and unlearning the errors of my writing past.

Editors and publishers rely on the Chicago Manual of Style for all questions of grammar and punctuation. Indies and small presses should too, but it is a massive tome and is enormously difficult to understand, even by the most dedicated editors.

Garner’s rules are drawn from the CMoS and phrased in ways that are simple and easy to understand. If you’re serious about the craft, I urge you to do yourself a favor and invest in the Chicago Guide to Usage and Punctuation to see his explanations and examples.

Bryan A. Garner has taken the big, blue, and expensive Chicago Manual of Style and boiled it down to the things that the average writer needs to know about the grammar aspects of our craft and placed it in an affordable package.


Credits and Attributions:

“Ellipses defined”The Chicago Manual of Style Online (16th ed.). 2010.

Wikipedia contributors, “Ellipsis,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ellipsis&oldid=880964812 (accessed February 3, 2019).

Bryan A. Garner, The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, pages 396 – 399. © 2016 Bryan A. Garner, published by University of Chicago Press.

Cover illustration, The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. © 2016 Bryan A. Garner, published by University of Chicago Press. Fair use.

Cover illustration, The Chicago Manual of Style, © 2017 by University of Chicago Press. Fair use.

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#FineArtFriday: The Proposition by Judith Leyster 1631

What I love about this painting is how honest Judith Leyster is when detailing the realities of life in her time and in her city. Here, a young woman is pressured to enter into a relationship with a man she has no interest in. He clearly feels he has the right to compel her to sell her virtue, and she clearly ignores him.

Male artists of the time, Leyster’s husband, Jan Meinse Molenaer included, rarely painted genre pictures of young women other than in taverns or other low-life situations. Commissioned portraits of noble and merchant class women they painted in great abundance, but simple, modest women of good virtue? Rarely.

Leyster, on the other hand, had both the talent and because she was a woman, she had the freedom to paint whatever she wanted. As long as she managed the house and raised the children, she could paint whatever moved her.

The artistic talent of women has been so disregarded historically that, despite her signature, her art and her talent were attributed (after her death) to her husband and to Franz Hals.

About the Painting (Via Wikipedia):

“The Proposition” is a genre painting of 1631 by Judith Leyster, now in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, who title it “Man offering money to a young woman.” It depicts a woman, sewing by candlelight, as a man leans over her, touching her right shoulder with his left hand. He is offering her coins in his right hand, but she is apparently ignoring the offer and concentrating intently upon her sewing.

The man wears dark clothing, and the dark tones, as well as his shadow cast behind him and across his face from the angle of the candlelight, give him a looming appearance. In contrast, the woman is lit fully in the face by the candlelight and wears a white blouse.

It is an early work by Leyster, who was only 22 years old in 1631.

Also, From Wikipedia:

(The painting’s) most distinctive feature is how different it is to other contemporary Dutch and Flemmish “sexual proposition” paintings, many falling into the Merry company genre. The convention for the genre, a common one at the time, was for the characters to be bawdy, and clearly both interested in sex, for money. The dress would be provocative, the facial expressions suggestive, and sometimes there would be a third figure of an older woman acting as a procuress. Indeed, in The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen, an example of the genre, that is exactly the case.

In contrast, in The Proposition the woman is depicted not as a whore but as an ordinary housewife, engaged in a simple everyday domestic chore. She isn’t dressed provocatively. She does not display her bosom (but rather her blouse covers her all of the way to her neck). No ankles are visible. And she displays no interest in sex or even in the man at all. Contemporary Dutch literature stated the sort of activity in which she is engaged to be the proper behaviour for virtuous women in idle moments.[2] Kirstin Olsen observed that male art critics “so completely missed the point” that the woman is, in contrast to other works, not welcoming the man’s proposition that they mistakenly named the painting The Tempting Offer.

The foot warmer, whose glowing coals are visible beneath the hem of the woman’s skirt, was a pictorial code of the time, and represented the woman’s marital status. A foot warmer wholly under the skirt indicated a married woman who was unavailable, as it does in The Proposition. A foot warmer projecting halfway out from under the skirt with the woman’s foot visible on it indicated one who might be receptive to a male suitor. And, a foot warmer that is not under the woman at all, and empty of coals, indicated a single woman. This code can also be seen in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and Dou’s The Young Mother.

About the Artist:

Judith Jans Leyster (also Leijster) (c. July 28, 1609[1]– February 10, 1660) was a Dutch Golden Age painter. She painted genre works, portraits, and still lifes. Her entire oeuvre was attributed to Frans Hals or to her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, until 1893 when Hofstede de Groot first attributed seven paintings to her, six of which are signed with her distinctive monogram ‘JL*’. Misattribution of her works to Molenaer may have been because after her death many of her paintings were inventoried as “the wife of Molenaer”, not as Judith Leyster.

She signed her works with a monogram of her initials “JL” with a star attached: JL* This was a play on words; “Leister” meant “Lead star” in Dutch and was for Dutch mariners of the time the common name for the North Star. The Leistar was the name of her father’s brewery in Haarlem.

(Only occasionally did she sign her works with her full name.)

She specialized in portrait-like genre scenes of, typically, one to three figures, who generally exude good cheer, and are shown against a plain background. Many are children; others men with drink. Leyster was particularly innovative in her domestic genre scenes. These are quiet scenes of women at home, often with candle- or lamplight, particularly from a woman’s point of view


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Proposition (painting),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Proposition_(painting)&oldid=851982429 (accessed February 1, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Judith Leyster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Judith_Leyster&oldid=820769951(accessed February 1, 2019).

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Sound-alike words #amwriting

The large number of common homonyms, or sound-alike words, in our everyday usage are what makes English so tricky to learn as a second language. But even those of us who claim it as our native language get confused. Authors must learn how to recognize and use them properly.

Consider whether or not you want to use the word “ensure.” This word is so commonly abused that many native speakers don’t know which word to use in what context.

Three words could work, and they are quite similar to each other. Even worse, they have similar but different meanings.  This is when we go to the dictionary for a little research. All you have to do is use the dictionary that comes with your word processing program. (In Word, you type the word, right click on it, and when the menu opens, click on ‘look up.’)

Assure: promise, as in I assure you the house is clean.

Ensure: confirm, as in Ensure that you have set the burglar alarm before going on a long trip.

Insure: protect with an insurance policy, as in Insure your home for your peace of mind.

One of the worst failings for new authors is the word “it.” If problems appear in a manuscript, this word will likely be a major culprit. In my own work, I try to do a global search for every instance, and make sure the word is correctly used:

  • The texture of the wall—it’s rough. (It is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its surface. (The wall’s surface.)

Its… it’s… which is what and when to use it?

The trouble here can be found in the apostrophe. In most English words an apostrophe indicates possession, but once in a while, it indicates a contraction.

  1. It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  2. Its denotes possession: It owns it

Some words jump right out at you as a reader:

  • they’re,
  • their,
  • there.

But others are more sneaky:

  • accept
  • except

Accept and except are so frequently confused and misused in our modern dialect that, if you doubt yourself, it is best to simply look it up. If you search for these now, you will save your editor having to do this for you, and your edit will be much more productive.

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