quotation marks, and their abuse

Why have I raised this subject, when not so long ago I was saying in no uncertain terms that puncutation is boring, and unworthy of discussion? It’s my way of preparing you for a short but very intense rant:

There are people who pepper their prose with quotation marks and not as a way to punctuate dialog. You know what I mean, those “writers” who try to make a point more “clearly” by isolating specific words with quotation marks. As I just did. Forgive me; it was all in the service of making my point.

Using quotation marks in the way says one thing very clearly, and it’s most certainly not the thing you mean to say:

This is not exactly the right word; I know it, and so do you.

It’s is a lazy and distracting habit, and I suspect that it correlates closely to an excessive fondness of exclamation points.

While I’m on the subject, I’d like to point out that it is possible to do without quotation marks completely, even in punctuating direct dialog between characters. This is from The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s collection of interwoven short stories about his experiences in Vietnam, exactly how it appears on the page:

Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.


You know. Moral.

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said, It’s like what that old TV show — Paladin. Have gun, will travel.

Henry Dobbins thought about it.

Yeah, well, he finally said. I don’t see no moral.

There it is, man.

Fuck off.

Not that I’m promoting this practice, particularly. Just an observation; and yes, okay, a violent observation, but that is, I assure you, a coincidence. Really, it is.

I’m still thinking about non-negotiables in character development, and will have something about that tomorrow.


Jill (my agent) has just finished up the deal with Books on Tape for the unabridged edition of Fire Along the Sky, hopefully with the same reader (Kate Reading).

A well read audiobook is a thing of great beauty. Some sentences I have heard on audiotape were so perfect in tone and cadence that they have stayed with me for years. I especially like to have a really good audiobook waiting for a long drive. Some of the best I’ve listened to, books that lend themselves to this format and had excellent readers: Ordinary People (Guest), Possession (Byatt), Niccolo Rising (Dunnett), Wyoming Stories (Proulx), and in a collection of short stories by Stephen King, “Dolan’s Cadillac” read by Rob Lowe.

The wrong reader can turn a good book into a disaster. I tried to listen to one of Dennis Lehane’s mysteries on tape and found that the reader had no grasp of Angie’s personality at all; he read her like a simpering adolescent. I gave up after about fifteen minutes. There are other books I would like to listen to on tape, but they have never been recorded (Magician’s Assistant is one such example) or are impossible to find (Hearts and Bones, by Lawrence).

Right now I’m looking for the right audiobooks for two trips: when I go to teach at a conference in Gig Harbor at the end of this month, and then at the end of May, I’ll be driving down to the Bay area for a workshop. That’s a two day trip, and I can get through a big book.

more dialect in dialog

It’s a delicate business, but it can be done well. Examples from published fiction that you might find of interest below.
I’ve also included a few examples from my own work — including a passage where I commit the very sin I’ve been talking about here.

A lot of the second novel in the Wilderness series takes place in lowland Scotland in 1802. The language spoken by the characters would have been Scots — not English. I’ll spare you the discourse on the difference at the moment, but while I was writing the novel I struggled with representing Scots in writing, and I did end up using spelling, to some degree. Here’s an example:

Continue reading “more dialect in dialog”