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 editor@powerproofgirl.com.


Trusting Your Readers to “Get It”: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Too Much Description

Reading is a participation pastime, which is sometimes difficult for writers to remember. Rather than witnessing a visually inflexible world—as with movies, TV, etc.—readers are called on to use their own imagination and understanding of the world to fill in the gaps. This means that, in a sense, releasing your finished book represents an act of confidence in readers as a general institution, thinking, “I’ve done my part; the rest is up to them.” Easier thought than done.

One of the more challenging things for writers to keep in mind is that readers are capable of understanding the point of an exchange, scene, or sequence with just a few well-placed clues. Particularly when a scene is loaded with action or some your loveliest description, it’s hard to admit that readers can get the point with less—and that whether or not less is always more, more is definitely less when your reader got it several details ago and is now getting irked at your verbosity.

But if your job isn’t to lead readers by the hand through all the technicalities, what is important to say? How do you determine when to say when with your own description?

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This Is Not for You: A Defense of Second-Person Narration

My name is Hannah, and although I didn’t begin this post writing “your name is Hannah,” I freely admit to (at least sometimes) liking second-person narration. While it may be a little too dramatic to call second person the dark alley of literary writing, it is a place where most modern-day writers of good repute don’t want to be found wandering—and not just for fear of running into whatever sketchy patrons may be lingering there.

Second person has many detractors for many legitimate reasons. Some acquisition editors of literary magazines mention receiving such an onslaught of present-tense second-person short stories that it becomes a “one more and my head is gonna blow” sort of scenario. I’ve heard the argument that use of this POV comes across as trying to strong-arm the reader into the action of the story instead of relying on subtler fundamental storytelling tactics to accomplish the same thing.

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The Non-Jungle Book: Recapturing Your Story from a Plot Gone Wild

So, the outline of what began as a simple-enough story has become less a sturdy structure and more of a jungle, complete with tangled vines. All you remember doing is adding a reflective scene or two to lend your structure some satisfying symmetry; frosting your characters with a little more philosophy, a little more humor; taking mental notes as you listened to the news, read a great book, watched your favorite movie again, observed a breathtaking sunset, etc., each time thinking I’ll use this in my writing, and my writing will be richer for it.

And now here you are. A less-intrepid Mowgli in your own damned story.

Mowgli chilling with wolves

Rescuing a comprehensible story that flows well from an outline gone jungly is possible. Here are some tips:

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Keurig Cups and Characters on Aisle 12: Avoiding the Interchangeable Character Trap

You could call it the Modern Family curse (feel free to insert the title of your once-loved but run-too-long sitcom of preference). The watching world (WW) once adored it, with its sharp timing and its character-driven comedy and its Ed O’Neill. Now? The WW sorta kinda puts up with it, because nostalgia, the way you do with that one friend from school who always drinks too much pinot and argues politics. To have enjoyed such a hot streak in its early days, Modern Family certainly has succumbed to the pratfalls of far too many American-sweetheart sitcoms—not just staying on the air too long, but, in its scramble for fresh material, shuffling through entertaining-ish circumstances, whether those circumstances fit and arise from their characters or not.

The trap of writing interchangeable characters lies spookily in wait of novel, short story, TV, screen, play, and essentially all other writers. Falling into it leads to alienating fans of your earlier work who can no longer really care about the watery remains of characters they once connected to. Not to mention, the tendency to fuzzily sketch character outlines from the word go can prevent you from ever delivering the awesome story in your head to the right audience.

Fortunately, shucking that bad habit is largely a matter of focusing on that place where people definitely aren’t interchangeable: real life.

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The Lobster at McDonald’s Is Okay but I Wouldn’t Call It Wicked: Capturing the Local in a Globalized Age

Stepping inside a New England Target only days after we’d moved from the South, my eight-year-old daughter did a double-take, saying, “We’re not still in North Carolina are we?” That uncanny sensation she was hit with—in her case from seeing the same old color scheme, mascot, and layout of our friendly neighborhood superstore thirteen-plus hours from home—is an ever-growing one, and it presents a challenge to fiction writers. In the age of globalized employment, shopping, and pastimes, how is a writer to create a satisfying sense of the local?

Making the Problem the Solution

First of all, keep in mind that modern readers are not strangers to the idea of the mass-marketed skyline. Realistic writing set in the present needs to acknowledge what’s the same from place to place; good writing makes “the problem” part of the solution by using a one-size-fits-all context to contrast area- or culture-specific content.

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The Objectivity Challenge

Have you ever stumbled upon an old piece of your writing while cleaning out the plastic storage bin under your bed and thought Holy hell, this is really, really, really . . .? Any number of adjectives could come next; the important thing is that when you unexpectedly smack into your writing–stories, English papers, journals–after years, you’re able to be surprised by the quality of your work, and you just might discover that the normally uphill-both-ways task of objectively judging what you’ve written is suddenly simple. You can read your words after a good chunk of time and think Is there anything I didn’t describe as “effervescent” or Almost every paragraph I write goes long sentence-long sentence-long sentence-short sentence or (hopefully) Man, I’ve learned a lot since then or, if you’re just a badass, have been for years, Wow, that’s good.

The question is how to reap that same objectivity when you don’t want to bury your latest story under six feet of paperwork for Future You to exhume and critique.

As you grow as a writer, you’ll naturally become better and better able to evaluate your work on the fly. Once you have a few years of experience weeding your writing of tangents, flowery descriptions that sound nice but don’t really fit your streets-of-Detroit family saga, and the tendency to characterize every guy who wears his hair in a bun as villainous because of that one a-hole bunhead you dated, well, it’s a little easier to spot and eliminate those issues as you go. Still, assessing the good and the bad (and the ugly, the shameful, the repetitive, the stunningly worded, the aptly metaphored, etc.) of your work as a whole can be tough. Tough but possible.

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