Thursday, August 16, 2012

What's Your Expert Source?


By Randy Rawls

         Recently, while corresponding with a fellow writer, I ran slam-bam into a question that has plagued me for years. Oh, I made up my answers and stuck by them in all my writing and the edits and critiques I've done, but the question didn't go away, just took a long snooze.

        Basically, the question that continues to nag me is: What is your expert source for those little things not defined for fiction writing?

        Yeah, there are tons of experts on writing bestsellers. When I go to Amazon and search on how-to for writing fiction, the hits are 2,141. If I use writing fiction, there are 32,888 results. Each of these authors wrote the best book they could write, giving their honest opinions on how to ply our trade. One caught my eye because of its title. My answers should be there, it seemed. I scanned its table of contents. Did not appear to address my questions.

        So, what are these issues that trouble me so—or not?

        Em dashes. What is the proper way to display an em dash in fiction? My preference is the em dash (—) with no space on either side. For example: She wore her favorite blouse—the one Dave gave her—to the party. But is that correct? Why not a space before and one after? In fact, what is the size of an em dash? Microsoft Word's default gives us the equivalent of an en dash when you type two dashes. Is that okay, or should you create an actual em dash? I do, but who's to say I know what's right?

        Ellipsis. There's one to get a good discussion going. Microsoft Word, by default, takes three periods and compresses them into one space, and some writers use this. Others use space, dot, dot, dot, space. Some use no space, dot, dot, dot, no space. Me, I use space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space. There are probably other variations in use. Which is correct? And what's the authority to prove it?

        Quote marks ending dialogue within dialogue. You know, the single quote mark, double quote mark bit. I use them together, such as: Tom said, "She screamed, 'Get out of my sight.'" But, one can argue there should be a space between. Tom said, "She screamed, 'Get out of my sight.' " I suppose you could even make an argument for two periods at the end. Tom said, "She screamed, 'Get out of my sight.'." Nah, that's just too strange looking. But, who's to say?

        However, my point is I use em dashes, ellipses, and quotes within quotes in all my stories. Do I use them correctly? Beats me and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no REAL expert to ask or any REAL authority to read.

        How do you do use them—and why? Do you know an absolute authority?

p.s. I dare not bring up colons, semi-colons, parentheses, serial commas, exclamation points, etc. There are so, so many. J


Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Since I'm that fellow writer on the quotation within a quotation, I'd love to hear how other writers do this. Especially since my opinion and Randy's differ.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I would tend to do whatever my editor/publisher wants me to do, and it seems that can vary a great deal. After completely retraining myself to put one space after a period instead of two when typing in Times New Roman for a book publisher, I just had an editor for a short story anthology replace all my single spaces with doubles. It boggles the mind.

If self-publishing, I'm not sure it's a big issue since it seems formatting (for e-books especially) is a moving target. I would make sure it looks good, is easy to read, and translates as well in eMobi as it does in ePub.

Randy Rawls said...

Okay, folks, Sylvia exposed herself. (Hmmm, should I repharse that? Nah.) The UN-news in what she said is that she disagrees with me. Never surprises me with an lady disagrees with me.

Randy Rawls said...

Sure wish I could type. I meant: Never surprises me WHEN a Lady disagrees with me. Guess I really should let Earl do my messaging.

Randy said...

You kinda proved my point. Even editors and publishers have no common standard.
Of course, as you said, if a person is self-publishing, they can do whatever they please--as long as readers tolerate it.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree with your quotes and quotes within a quote, Randy. No spaces in between. And spaces between the dots for an ellipsis although no spaces between words with em-dashes. But someone's always changing the rules. Commas are my nemisis and I sprinkle whenever I think they're needed, :)

Ray Girard said...

Complete solutions appear in The Chicago Manual of Style

Earl Staggs said...

Randy, I have questions like yours and really should dig into the Chicago Manual of Style as well as the AP one. But they don't agree on everything. What to do? I'll probably do what I've always done: give it my best shot and when an editor buys my work and says do it differently, I will.

As for you letting me do your messaging, I'll be happy to do anything you want me to. Except disagree with Sylvia. Sorry. You're on your own with that, pardner.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I so whatever the style-sheet for the publisher says, if they don't say, I do what I want. Then the editor might change it.

Personally, I like ellipses in dialogue as when someone is interrupted or their voice trails off and dashed in narrative when I want more space than a comma.

My critique groups hates both.

One of my publishers likes it my way, my editor at the other publisher's like it the other way.

You gotta do what works.

Kaye George said...

I go with whatever I can find in CMS, unless a publisher wants to do it their way. The publishers I've had so far, mostly, have rules that make sense, even if they're not consistent across the board. For self-publishing, I'm the Emperor. And I don't agree with all of yours either, but you're the Emperor of Your domain.

Morgan Mandel said...

When in doubt, I take the easy way out and Google. It usually leads me to a link with an answer. However, when it comes to my book manuscripts, they all go to my editor for such decisions.

If you need one, I recommend all the editors at The Blood-Red Pencil, at

Morgan Mandel

Kathleen Kaska said...

I'm a space, dot, space, dot, space, dotter, but my published takes out the spaces and squeezes the dots together. Whatever she wants is fine with me.