The great ellipsis battle of 2016

I don’t think a single piece of punctuation has caused me so much trouble as the ellipsis. It’s not that I don’t understand it (though since discovering the internet, I have probably developed an annoying tendency to overuse it); it’s formatting the bloody thing that is proving to be a ginormous pain in the butt.

Okay, so what can you use an ellipsis for?

Well, in formal writing, the ellipsis is used to show that words or phrases have been missed out of a quotation:

Original

George was a fine man. He was a strong man, a pillar of his community and a stalwart of the local fire service. At weekends he enjoyed golf, scuba diving and wearing his wife’s clothes.

Ellipsised

George was a fine man … At weekends he enjoyed golf, scuba diving and wearing his wife’s clothes.

Simple enough, but note that the sentences remaining must carry the same meaning and they also have to make grammatical sense.

This isn’t very common in creative writing; here ellipses are more often used to show dialogue trailing off.

But George, those are my …

Or a pause for thought.

George, how would you like it if I just started wearing your … your underpants!

Or to denote uncertainty or a distraction.

George, the vicar is here to see … For the love of God! George!

All pretty straightforward, unlike George’s life choices. So what’s the problem. Well, for an autistickler like me, it’s how to format them. On the internet, there are loads of opinions to choose from. The common choice is to use three dots separated by spaces. A bit like this:

George, have you seen my . . . ?

This doesn’t look too bad on the page, but it all depends on the the justification. Most eBooks need to stretch the text around to justify it properly, and that can lead to big unsightly spaces between the dots.

George, have you seen my     .      .     .    ?

Not good, but not a big deal, I thought. I’ll just define my own ellipse character that uses a thin space between the dots. Not a complete fix, but it’s better than nothing.

One small snag though: To make sure that the dots are not broken across lines, I need a non-breaking thin space. While there is a unicode definition for a non-breaking thin space (character U+202F, I think), it doesn’t appear to be standard across all fonts. So when your readers change the ebook reader font to something other than Times Roman, those carefully crafted spaces between the dots all disappear.

All modern fonts define their own ellipse character (some better than others), so in the end, I decided to stick with that. That only left the problem of the spaces on either side of the ellipse. Again, the justification of the text often leads to this sort of nonsense.

George, the vicar is here to see     …    For the love of God! George!

So it was time for a bit more research.

As it turns out, there seems to have been a little bit of a change of thinking in how ellipses are formatted, and I think it’s due to writers having to cope with flowing text on web pages. I’ve read a couple of books recently that dump the first space before the ellipsis and leave the second one. In this regard, the ellipsis behaves like any other bit of punctuation: it sits flush against the word to its left, and has a space after it.

George, the vicar is here to see…    For the love of God! George!

Without the space before the ellipsis, the dodgy justification is not so pronounced. And the best part is that I don’t have to remember to hit the non-breaking space in front of it.

Alan Moore gives some helpful advice to writers…

In my opinion, both Watchmen and V for Vendetta are outstanding pieces of work, so any advice this chap gives is well worth listening to.

The article from Digital Spy makes a huge deal of his advice to self-publish, but for me, the standout piece of advice was to keep writing: rework until you are completely happy with what you’ve done, and when you get down to it, you’re the only person who will know for sure when it’s right.

But on the topic of the publishing industry, he had this to say:

As far as publishing goes, my first tip is publishing today is a complete mess. I know brilliant authors who cannot get published… Most of the book publishers don’t want to take a chance on publishing fiction when they can publish an autobiography of The Stig or something like that… The best way these days is publish yourself, it’s become easier and easier.

I certainly agree that publishing is easy; the problem is selling what you’ve published.

Watch the video, and if you’re in one of those ‘what the hell’s it all for’ kind of a rut then watch it again.

Slash and Burn … Part II

You hit a point during novel reduction when you honestly believe that your work is parred to the bone; there is not a single word you can take out that won’t crack the foundations of your masterpiece and leave a pile of literary rubble on the bedroom floor.

So it’s time to take a break, and while you’re having a break, you have time to read someone else’s book. Doesn’t have to be a fresh one; in fact, it’s better if it’s one that you’ve read before. This time though, you’re going to read it with an editor’s eye: look for bits you can reduce or trim away completely. This is not to say that the author would agree with you; this is entirely your opinion.

So what are you looking for? Well, exactly the same excesses you’re looking for in your own work:

  • The odd walk or journey that doesn’t lead anywhere or tell you anything new about the characters.
  • Repeating information: something that is said, and then said again, in a slightly different way, a few lines later.
  • Long, flowery chapter intros that set a nice poetic scene, but will probably get skipped over by the reader. (You’ll know them when you see them, because you jump the last ten lines or so.)
  • Long flowery chapter endings that you feel resentful for having read. (You’ll know them because you’ll think, ‘What the hell was that all about?’ as soon as you’ve finished it.
  • Sentences that seem to run on for years and years.
  • Whole chapters that you think you could do without.
  • Characters that bring a little colour to the story, but not much else.

Be brutal; in fact, be over-brutal. You’re not really criticising your favourite author; you’re getting yourself in the right frame of mind to criticise your own work … again.

Then, after another few days, go for it again. You’ll find that you weren’t quite as ‘finished’ as you first thought.