To Quotation Mark or Not to Quotation Mark

If you read a lot of fiction–particularly literary fiction–you’ve no doubt read stories and novels that don’t use quotation marks for dialogue. I’ve seen this described as pretentious and/or annoying but, as a writer who has forgone quotation marks on more than one occasion, I believe it can be a highly effective technique… if used in the right kind of story.

So, what’s the right kind of story for quotation-mark-free dialogue? I’ve developed a theory. A theory that began when a fellow writer questioned why in the world I was writing a novel with lots of dialogue and no quotation marks.

We had just workshopped my opening chapters and a few people had noted that one character was occasionally phrasing things in the same voice as the main character. The fellow writer suggested that my lack of quotation marks may have been the cause of my voice-drift and that, if I were to adopt the standard dialogue punctuation, I would be more focused on making sure each character spoke in their own voice.

My fellow writer was on the right track. The voice-drift was definitely related to my choice not to use quotation marks, but not in a cause-and-effect manner. Rather, they were both coming from the same narrative choices. The problem wasn’t that I was being inattentive. It was that I hadn’t yet refined (or figured out, really) the POV and narrative voice of the novel.

Before this fellow writer’s comment, I hadn’t thought about why I’d chosen to go quotation-mark-less (it had simply felt right). I think I told my fellow writer that my choice had something to do with “destabilizing the reader,” which was just me trying to b.s. my way out of a question I couldn’t answer. Nonetheless, the choice, I knew, wasn’t wrong. It just took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t wrong and what that meant for the POV and voice of my novel.

The theory I developed is this: the closer the POV is to the moment-by-moment internal workings of a character’s mind and the more a narrator is concerned with expressing the lived-truth (rather than the pure facts) of the story, the better a no-quotation-mark story works. I came to this conclusion for several reasons.

In regards to POV, the closer a story is to the inside of a character’s head, the more unfiltered it should feel. If you think about how we experience the world, what people say and how they look and the emotions we’re feeling are all jumbled together. Removing dialogue quotes can help create the sense of this unfiltered experience. Everything flows together.

As for the “lived-truth” aspect, the removal of quotation marks removes a sense of factual certainty. Dialogue and summary of dialogue combine together in a way that can’t happen with the hard-stop of quotation marks. Are the characters actually saying those exact words or is the dialogue more of an emotional interpretation of the words being spoken? A narrator who mainly wants to present what seems true to the character doesn’t care about appearing factually accurate. But the more a narrator wants to say “this exact thing happened,” the more useful quotation marks become. They feel definitive. More like a transcript than an interpretation.

In the case of my novel, I was moving toward an extremely close 3rd-person POV in present tense. The narrator basically sits inside the character’s head and is giving the reader the character’s interpretation of events rather than giving a direct description of events. At the time of the workshop, I hadn’t come close to perfecting this POV or voice. But figuring out why I felt going without quotation marks was right helped me get things a lot closer to where they needed to be.

I know this theory is incomplete (and surely flawed), but I find it useful, particularly in revision when I’m getting a better sense of what I’m trying to do. As writers, we always want to find ways to heighten the effect of a story. What we do or don’t do with quotation marks can play an important role in that.

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On Not Publishing

It’s been years since I’ve published anything. I even went two years without updating this blog. This wasn’t planned. It was a slow, barely noticeable derailment. But like all derailments, I’m left to look back and ask, how the hell did that happen?

Here’s what I can use for an excuse:

  • I’ve been working on a novel for four years
  • What short stories I have written I haven’t submitted to more than a handful of journals
  • All those journals have been highly competitive
  • I’ve been busy raising two kids
  • I’ve had twice as much paying work than I used to, requiring twice as much of my time
  • I waste too many hours on Twitter
  • I waste too many hours thinking/talking about politics
  • I have a lazy streak

All of that’s true. But none of it’s right. None of it gets to the root of why, after publishing at a good clip for a number of years, I’ve released nothing since 2015. The real reason is this:

It wasn’t a derailment at all. I simply stopped worrying about my eventual death.

That sounds somber. It’s not. The thing is, I started writing late. Or at least late for the youth-obsessed publishing world, which likes to reward writers for being great while still being young (the 5 Under 35 award comes to mind).  Since I didn’t start focusing on my fiction writing until I was 34, I felt I needed to play catch-up.  After all, there was still a chance for me to get on a 20 Under 40 list!

But then I turned 40.

And it seemed I had crossed a great and wild river. I would never be a young genius. And that was freeing. Instead of focusing so much energy on publishing, I focused it all on writing the best fiction I can possibly write. Not that I wasn’t trying to write well before. But, now, I don’t worry about when I might publish a piece; I worry about how good it will be when it’s published. And by good, I mean lasting.

I want to write something people will read in 100 years. In 200.

Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe that’s beyond my talent and skill. But it’s what I think about when I write these days. And I have been writing. I’ve been writing a lot. Maybe soon, a story of mine will appear in the world again. Maybe my novel will too. I’m excited about the work no one has seen. I think it’s some of the best I’ve ever done.

 

There Are Literally No Words for Trump

The first president I remember clearly is Ronald Reagan. And what I remember is that he was a crook and a liar and a heartless bastard.

I’m not sure who told me this. I probably overheard it from friends of my parents during routine political discussions. But no matter where I heard it, I spent many years certain that Reagan was one of the worst things to ever happen to America.

At least until the Gingrich revolution, which, of course, was going to end civilization. Although, wait, no, the buffoon George W. Bush was the real apocalyptic threat. He was evil. He was Hitler. He was going to stage a coup and claim a third term with the help of his four horseman: Cheney, Haliburton, Diebold and Rove.

No, wait, no, there’s worse. The Tea Party is ripping apart the very fabric of the universe, shredding the laws of physics so the Koch Brothers can build thrones out of the bones of the 99% and force-feed the survivors Monsanto until their souls dissolve into piles of collateralized debt obligations.

Okay, I may have gotten carried away in describing the exact nature of the criticisms. But it is true that, for as long as I can remember (and I’m middle-aged, mind you), the opposition has been a grave enemy and something to fear, and often hate.

The exact same dynamics have, of course, been at play on the right for just as long. A peek into the way many conservatives speak about Obama will reveal a shit-stream of fear and hate roiling with such frequent comparisons to Hitler that the slur has become weightless, part of the miasma.

You can even see this rush-to-demonize happening in intra-party contests. A small but vocal percentage of Bernie Sanders supporters spend countless hours online portraying Hillary Clinton as some form of corporate-powered Kaiju beating the poor with bags of Goldman Sachs money. Meanwhile, hard-line conservatives are regularly portrayed by their harder-line Tea Party opponents as traitors to cause and country.

Over the last few decades, we have become increasingly incapable of reasonably criticizing the failings of our opponents, or appropriately defining the stakes in front of us. Every opponent is the WORST human being to ever live. Every election is the difference between American ascendancy and the End Times.

That’s not to say important things haven’t been at stake or that certain leaders haven’t been less than beneficial for the country. But it is to say: we’ve wasted all our words.

Now we have no way to describe the force that is Donald Trump.

Both sides have exhausted our language in an attempt to portray the other side as evil. Now our vocabulary is bare, our metaphors exhausted, our dire warnings dead on the road. There is nothing we can say about Donald Trump that hasn’t been said about far lesser threats. And that means there’s nothing we can say that will make his supporters pause and reconsider. Why would they pause at warnings they’ve heard all of their lives about every other politician?

Trump is an existential threat to the character of our nation. He has no respect for the dignity of the office he’s running for and no interest in protecting the Constitution or following international law. And by allowing the space for white-supremacists to move freely within his movement, he is giving power to a dangerous element that threatens the well-being and lives of millions of our citizens.

He riles up fear and hate in a way that is truly comparable to Hitler. And yet that analogy is useless. It won’t convince a single Trump follower to reassess because we’ve rendered the analogy meaningless. Indeed, everything I said is meaningless to anyone who is predisposed to support Trump. It’s all been said before, and said louder, and said with more rancor and spit.

When we overuse our words, we choke out our ability to speak truth. For the first time in my life, there is a real monster rising within our political system. But we’ve already named a thousand lesser threats monstrous. What do we call Trump? How do we find words that hold any meaning? Where are the words that will stop him?

After We Stop Playing God

I’ve written three novels. And by “written” I mean I have taken three novels to the point where I was confident enough in their quality to send them out in an attempt to secure representation. But this isn’t about the process of submission. This is about relating to a novel once we are through writing it, once we’ve stopped being the godhead of the world we’ve created and start observing it from further away.

My first two novels are gathering digital dust in the “dead projects” folder on my computer. I long ago stopped sending them out. In fact, I stopped sending them out pretty quickly in the process. Neither ever went out to the quantity of places it usually takes to find representation, let alone a publisher.

Why did I stop so soon? Because the novels died for me.

When I explain this in conversation, I usually say “I decided that neither was a novel that really captured what I wanted to write.” A lot of people nod, a bit glassy-eyed, probably thinking my words are just a way to make my failure to get the books published seem less failure-y. But it wasn’t about other people’s opinions (I can handle rejection for far longer than I gave either novel). It was about what the novels meant to me. They were like sweaters I’d knitted for months only to discover that the arms were too long and the neck was too tight. I wore them around for a while because, damn it, I’d spent a lot of time on them. But there’s only so long you can be choked by your sweater before you set it aside and make a new one.

Of course, I’m now mixing metaphors. I initially described a novel as something that can live or die. Clearly, the problem with my first two novels was deeper than the way they “fit” me. Yes, it’s true, they didn’t fit well (there were parts of both I never got to work in the ways I wanted them to work). But the real problem was: they didn’t stay alive.

This happens to me all the time when I read novels. I might enjoy a novel while reading it, but after I put it down, it dies, leaving little but memories of plot points or well-written passages. That doesn’t mean the novel isn’t good or can’t live forever inside other readers, just that it stopped living for me.

I don’t want to put a book into the world that feels dead to me.

But why did those novels feel so dead? Usually, a novel stops living for me because the plot was engaging but there was nothing that pierced me deep. For more literary endeavors, the death is usually due to the opposite problem. There’s plenty of depth—exploration of big ideas that I find important and meaningful—but no real consequence, no heat that scars me.

Is it that simple for our own novels? Did my first two novels cease living for me because they failed to pierce me and/or burn me? I wish I had an answer. But I don’t. Not fully.

What I know is that writing this newest novel felt different. I was in a much deeper fog during its creation and particularly during its revision. And my own thoughts on the world changed during the course of the writing. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything during the writing of my first two novels; it’s that neither novel bothered my sense of my place in the world like this novel bothered me.

I don’t know if that means the new novel is a better novel. I’m sure a good agent/editor could improve it in ways I can’t possibly see. But I have to say: I do like its chances. If nothing else, I’m going to give it a much better shot to find its place in the world.

Coming Out of the Revision Fog

Six months ago, I spent two weeks at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. I had the joy and privilege of working with Alice McDermott. Her advice sent me into a six-month long revision of the novel that I’ve been working on for the last two years. I don’t think I’ve ever been so deeply engrossed in a revision. Other than my family and my freelance clients, I ignored everything and everyone until I finished the scrubbing every metaphor and adjusting every comma.

Now, the novel–THE SKY CONTINUES BEAUTIFUL–is making its way out into the world, seeking some love. And I’m stumbling out of the fog and getting back to all the things I’ve been ignoring. Like this blog.

In Support of Indiana

A lot of people are upset with Indiana right now, thanks to an anti-gay (or, I guess, a pro-bigotry) “religious freedom” law passed by the Indiana legislature and signed by the governor. Despite this being a political matter created by a select group of politicians, a lot of the comments I’m seeing on social media conflate “the government of Indiana” with “the people of Indiana,” damning everyone who lives in the state. As a Texan, I know what it’s like to be damned for the decisions of politicians.

If you have left-leaning Facebook friends or read comments on stories in liberal publications, you’ve likely seen more than few remarks that go “I would never set foot in Texas” or “Texans are all a bunch of idiots” or “I hope Texas secedes; I hate them.” Usually, if pushed, people will grudgingly acknowledge that maybe Austin is okay. Of course, thinking Austin is the only “okay” thing about Texas is the first sign that someone knows nothing about Texas.

I know nothing about Indiana. I’ve never been. And the only aspect of the state I can discuss with any authority is a fictional town. But I’m willing to bet Indiana’s governor did not win with 100% of the vote. And I’m willing to bet that 100% of the people who did vote for Indiana’s governor aren’t super happy about the state’s newest law.

Which is to say: I voted against Ted Cruz three times before he was elected to the U.S. senate. Once in the Republican primary (we have open primaries), once in the Republican runoff, and once again in the general election. And yet I’ve seen people imply or flat-out state that the man should make me ashamed to be Texan. Why? Because I live in a state where 56.5%  of people who bothered to vote did so for a less-than-qualified man with some seriously wrongheaded ideas?

“Well, you’re okay,” people have said to me. Great. I’m the Austin of my coastal compradres. But, let’s be clear, I’m not in Texas because I have to be. I’m not suffering through it or yearning for the blue lands of America’s love handles. Nope. I choose to be here. In fact, I absolutely love it here. I love heading down to the Pearl Brewery for a drink. I love hiking Big Bend National Park. I love camping in Marfa. I love kayaking the Colorado River. I love sitting on the beach in Port Aransas. I love taking my kids to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Fort Worth Zoo and the Dallas Museum of Art. I adore Fiesta. I have a blast at Dallas Cowboys games. And at Spurs games. I look forward to my neighbor’s crawfish boil. I’ll take any excuse to stroll past the old homes up the street, or walk along the Museum Reach. And I am proud of Gemini Ink and particularly their Writers in Communities program.

Oh, and yeah, Austin is okay too.

I could go on. Seriously, the list of things I love about my home state would exhaust you. The list of things I don’t like is a heck of a lot shorter. The eternal construction on I-35 sucks. August temperatures over 105 are not enjoyable. And a fair number of the decisions made by our state-level and national politicians do not conform to my political leanings. That’s all I can think of to put on the dislike list right now. And yet that third one is supposed to make me want to run screaming from my state? Heck, that third one is the only one that I have hope can improve!

When I see someone spitting vitriol about Texas, I have several reactions. First, I am irritated. Then I feel sad that someone would deny themselves the openness to love such a lovable place. Then I end up feeling disheartened that so many view politics as The Defining Thing About a Place. Or: The Defining Aspect of Who We Are. In the past, I’ve been guilty of making politics too central to my enjoyment (or lack of enjoyment) of life. So I know how it happens. But I try not to let it happen anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I do care deeply about homosexual and transgender rights (and many other political issues). And I do think Indiana’s law is a harmful law. But I am also convinced that the politics of Indiana is a tiny fraction of what Indiana really is. If economic pressure helps right the wrong of that law, I’m all for it. Let’s do it. Let’s just do it without labeling all Indianans as some lesser species and their state as some cesspool.

We can’t allow politics to deaden our empathy or shut us off to the rich complexities of people and places. When our desire to reform a law—or when our disagreement with a politician—causes us to send a surge of hate into the world, we’re making the world less. There’s no sense in that. Not when there’s so much out there to love. In Texas, and in Indiana too.

I Became Irrelevant

Last week, I came across a story in GQ about a man who lived alone in the hills of Maine for 27 years. This fascinated me. Not just because the story is so unusual, but because the novel I’m currently trying to get into the world is about a man living alone in the hills.

My character runs to the wilderness because he believes a plague is days away from ending humanity. The fellow in Maine had no such dark conceptualizations. Indeed, he survived through hundreds of thefts perpetrated upon the residents of a nearby town. And yet, like the main character in my novel, he went years without speaking to or being seen by another human. In the article, he speaks to the consequences of that.

“I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”

Can we only be free by living without connections? That question is an ancient one. The Buddhists instruct us to let go of our wants, that suffering is only ended by living in neither the past nor an imagined future. Is that how this man in the GQ article lived? Surely not. He was a thief, always coveting, always plotting how to survive the hard winters.

And yet there is indeed a romanticism in the idea of escaping the world and its people. Particularly nowadays when so much of what we do is observed and cataloged. While no one may know my name in the supermarket, cameras capture me, my credit card company logs me, my phone tracks me. Is that not a form of bondage? And if it is, then doesn’t the only true freedom exist outside of it?

In his heart, the character in my novel longs to to live free from the observations and expectations of others. As for the man in the GQ story, he says he doesn’t know why he retreated to the hills. Perhaps he has forgotten the reason. Or perhaps he never could articulate it to himself. But I can understand what would pull someone away from the world. Even though I am content in my warm house, submitting words to the databases of the world, I question if I am free. If any of us are.