How to Teach an Old Genre New Tricks: Creativity and the Genre Writer

Remember all those pulse-pounding dystopias and dramas with animal characters you read as a tween? No? Yeah, me neither. For ’80s and ’90s kids, growing out of Little Golden Books and “early readers” into lengthy chapter books also basically meant growing out of stories in which animals were the main characters. It’s not that exceptions didn’t exist, but the beloved big-kid books of the day were mostly peopled by . . . people. At the more serious end of the spectrum? The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney. Character facing seemingly insurmountable odds and having to churn up steely resolve? Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Characters fighting for independence in a universe gone control-freaky? A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

And you can’t leave out these classics.

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If They Give You Ruled Paper . . . *Should* You Write the Other Way? (How Atypical Style Choices Can Hurt Your Writing)

“If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.” The quote, attributable to Spanish writer Juan Ramón Jiménez Mantecón, has directly made its mark on modern publishing more than once; it inspired the title of Daniel Quinn’s If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways and it was referenced by Susie Salmon in the opening pages of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Beyond that it is sometimes, unfortunately, treated as the backbone of a stylistic approach in fiction writing.

This is not to say nonconformity doesn’t have its place—from politics to architecture to storytelling, it certainly does. But across these contexts and others the same question applies: What is the purpose of your unconventional choice?

Charlie Huston’s Dashes-to-Quotes Transition

In his early books (Caught Stealing, Already Dead, etc.), Charlie Huston used dashes instead of quotation marks to differentiate dialogue. For readers fresh off a lineage of books that follow the standard stylistic protocol, the dashes are likely to prove a distraction—at least in the beginning. Our big, curious brains call out to know why. What do these dashes mean?

By the second page of atypical dialogue, we’ve launched five or six theories, and, for a little while, it’s likely those suppositions will shift restlessly in our heads. We’ll filter information from the book hoping to disprove or substantiate various theories. Sooner or later, if no clear purpose steps forward but the stylistic deviation powers on, it will become part of the background, something our minds more or less shrug off and file under “the way things are.”

Here’s the interesting part: as Charlie Huston fans know, he eventually made the transition to quotation marks, explaining in a post on his website that he used dashes in the beginning primarily because (. . . it was a good way to convey the character Joe Pitt’s gruff simplicity? since Huston writes of the vampiric, zombified underbelly of humanity, he wanted a page-by-page method of showing that you can’t assume anything?) he was a poor typist. Dashes, it seems, were easier to type.

He goes on to explain that he was certain he’d be asked to swap them for quotation marks prior to publication, but the dashes were allowed to stand. When he later wrote a novel (Sleepless) meant to represent a document composed by one of the characters, he concluded that “it seemed odd . . . that this fictional person would use dashes instead of quotation marks.” With that novel complete, and with Huston having improved leaps and bounds as a typist, the decision to go back to using dashes would have been based on style instead of what it was based on at the start: convenience. In other words, by willfully employing a stylistic technique outside the norm, he would have been making a statement, and as he puts it, “I didn’t really have a statement to make.”

Symbolic Candy

Readers are a code-cracking people by nature. We like directing our own mental movies from a stranger’s words, and we are groomed to tear into literary symbols as though they’re candy wrappers. And if you’ll stay with me on that metaphor for a moment, imagine placing a shiny candy-sized wrapper in front of someone who is serious about sweets. Let’s call this person Sam. Imagine watching Sam open the wrapper to discover you’ve pulled some pillows-in-a-body-shape-under-the-blankets trick and, even though this was shaped like candy, there is no candy. Imagine Sam looking at you with eyes that plainly ask: Just what the &$@$!*% is this?

Now. Imagine yourself telling Sam, “It’s a wrapper. Just a . . . plain wrapper. I thought you’d like it.”

Sam doesn’t like it. C’mon. Sam also, you should be forewarned, may no longer like you. Sam is likely calm-breathing Sam’s self down from taking you to court for duress while cursing whoever introduced the two of you.

If it shines like a candy wrapper, make sure there’s candy inside.

And if it seems by juxtaposition that I’m calling Charlie Huston the sort of monster who pretends to have candy when he doesn’t, rest assured that’s not the case. Me? I like Charlie. Dashes, or quotation marks, and all. He had a practical reason for doing what he did, but take from his case and the case of Sam and the Candy that Wasn’t Candy this message: when you distract your readers with a shiny stylistic technique, it’s natural for them to assume you have a reason. So whether you have it in mind to write in all lowercase, use letters of the Arabic alphabet in place of chapter numbers, present your dialogue as bullet points, or anything else that turns tail to the norm, ask yourself what the purpose of your technique is—it will catch readers’ attention, and they will have questions.

Most widely practiced conventions of style have developed and been adopted as they have for a reason: they make things clear. They keep your writing organized and tidy without intruding into the reader’s attention, meaning the reader’s attention stays on the content: the plot, the characters, the setting, your heart-wrenching use of sunset colors in a love scene, etc.

In summary, unless you’re experimenting with post-modern literature that asks readers to examine their own expectations, when someone gives you lined paper . . . write in those lines. If you don’t, those lines will intersect with your letters at strange angles. Sheesh.

Are you unsure whether your manuscript’s style synchronizes with its intended purpose? Curious about whether your writing approach leaves the reader with any unanswered questions? An experienced literary editor can provide high-level feedback on how your written words will appeal to readers—along with agents and acquisition editors.

To find out more about having your novel evaluated, deeply edited, or polished as the last stage before submission, contact me via the web form on this site or at