This month my writers group commented on a substantive revision of a short story they’d seen earlier. I composed much of the revision on my little laptop, an Aeus two-in-one. I like that device a lot, but sometimes the keyboard is so sensitive that if I barely touch the trac-pad, the device bounces the cursor up into who-knows-where, or highlights whole bunches of text and then deletes them when I start to type my next word. It’s maddening and it affects how I approach the machine. I make many more mistakes on that keyboard.
This meant that while the story version my friends had was pretty clean, it had some weird punctuation typos. In at least two places, periods were missing, although the first letter of the next sentence was capitalized, and clearly I thought I’d put a period there. In one passage, both the closing comma and the closing quotation marks were gone, leading to a confusing bit of dialogue. And at the end of one section, just before a point of view shift, a character’s thought ends in mid-word, and there is no double-dash (em-dash) to show that.
The thing was, though, the absence of the em-dash was intentional.
I grew up calling the single-space horizontal mark, like the one I just used in single-space, a hyphen. It separates two words that are connected in some way, like single-space, or director-producer. The words have a relationship but aren’t quite close enough to be a compound word. In the Olden Times, before word processing, people used the hyphen to show that the word at the end of the line was going to continue on the next line. Don’t worry, boys and girls, that was long ago and you don’t really have to understand it.
I called two hyphens in a row a dash. A dash can be used like a comma, a semicolon or a colon to separate a clause from other clauses. Usually –not always –it creates a different tone, an emphasis or a sense of breathlessness or intentional choppiness in the text. It can also be used to show that a sentence has been cut short before coming to a natural ending. It can be used in dialogue to show characters interrupting–
–not even listening t–
It’s called an em-dash, by the way, because it is the same length as a lower-case M. A hyphen is called an en-dash because it is the length of a lower-case N.
When a writer has chosen to tell a story in close third person, and something happens to that character to abruptly stop their POV (unconsciousness? death? ascension?) an em-dash is one way to show that the termination is abrupt and probably not voluntary. Say, for instance, the character is trapped and about to be shunted magically into another realm. You could abruptly end that character’s thoughts in mid-sentence–
–with an em-dash.
Or you could chose not to.
Who in their right mind would chose not to? Well, that would be me.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and trying my hand at more short fiction. I’m reading more short fiction, and I’m sending out a lot of short fiction, and getting it back with nice rejection letters. Here’s what I’ve learned from this, I think: 1) my prose is decent; 2) my characterization is pretty good; 3) I can craft a story; and 4) my stories are conventional. #4 is probably close to a kiss of death. On the other hand, my brain just doesn’t function well in an experimental manner. I enjoy reading experimental prose, but I can’t craft it. To make my work stand out, I have to do something different with my conventional stories, and one option seems to be, tell a conventional story with a slightly less conventional voice.
The story in question starts with an evil minion. She’s virtually a stereotype (intentionally) except that she doesn’t believe she’s a minion. She sees herself as an Evil Overlordess. (I had to do that. Just to see what it looks like.) The disconnect between the things she thinks and the things that happen is supposed to be horrifying and funny at the same time.
I wanted to play with the conventional storytelling language, and write a sentence that is truly chopped off mid-thought, you know, the way David Mitchell, who wrote Black Swan Green, Slade House, and Cloud Atlas, does. This is not to imply that I think I’m anywhere near the category of David Mitchell, only that he does things like this and makes them work.
It sounds like I strained my brain and struggled, and the wildest, most innovative, non-conventional thing I could think to do in my story was leave out one punctuation mark. It sounds that way because it is that way.
My friends had been primed to see this as a typo, not a choice, but it was, and is, a choice. We’ll see what happens. I doubt very much that any editor is going to reject the story saying, “We would have purchased this, but it was missing an em-dash, so…”
And by the way, no one’s having any trouble rejecting it. It’s had two rejections so far, one encouraging, with no em-dash comments, so I guess I’ll keep playing, keep taking baby-steps, and see where, if anywhere, they lead me. And I’ll leave out the em-dash–at least for now.