Confession of a Punctuation Pedant

I have something to tell you. It may make you laugh, it may confuse you, and you might disagree with it, but it’s a part of my personality and I don’t know if I am ever going to get over it.

I have a pathological hatred of em-dashes.

Before I go on, I must give the obligatory disclaimers. Yes, I do acknowledge that there are cases in which the em-dash is proper punctuation. Yes, some of the best writers in the world use the em-dash. Yes, I myself have used the em-dash on multiple occasions, though I feel dirty every time I do and strive mightily to avoid it. There are even some cases were the em-dash is *urp* the best punctuation to use. *swallows gastroesophageal reflux*

My aversion to the em-dash can be traced back to an incident when I was in sixth grade. I had written a paper for my English class, and though I don’t remember what it was about, I do remember sending it to my mom for proofreading. I was pretty excited, because I figured that I’d done a good job and she would tell me so. I had always been told that I was a good writer, so I had come to accept that as a fact, as if anything I wrote was automatically brilliant. I mean, I was a good writer, right? How could a good writer write something that wasn’t good?

Instead, my mom broke from the ego-stroking that I was used to and gave me a nice, large helping of real criticism. One of the things that she mentioned was that I should cut down on my use of dashes. Dashes, she said, were a mark of lazy writing.

I’m not sure exactly why I’ve taken that so much to heart, but I think it probably has to do with my further experiences. As my academic career dragged on, full of high-school-level literary analysis and tame research papers with thin bibliographies, I started really noticing the em-dash, and especially noticing that it seemed to crop up far more often in less-polished works. Eventually, it got to the point where I would twitch upon seeing one without even reading the surrounding text. Today, I average fewer than one em-dash per page, at the most. My senior thesis contains only three em-dashes, excluding those which appear in block quotes; that comes to a total of fewer than one em-dash per ten pages. My novel draft currently contains a grand total of zero em-dashes.

Ultimately, I think this falls into the category of my bizarre idiosyncrasies, along with my general avoidance of bitter flavors and inexplicable love for numbers that are divisible by three. My brain has latched onto it, and it will always be in there, popping up to excise the em-dash from my writing like a line of computer code seared into my synapses.

This has more of an effect on my everyday life than those other two, though. I can generally steer clear of bitter things by not drinking coffee or eating Brussels sprouts, and the love of multiples of three doesn’t come with a corresponding hatred of other numbers. The only numbers I really don’t like are weird, even things, like 14 and 46, and even then it’s not as if I actively cringe at them. They’re just… kind of meh, that’s all.

Em-dashes, on the other hand, are a double-whammy of real-life inconvenience: they cause inexplicable twitching, and they are everywhere. I have to keep myself from going off at them when I’m called on to proofread things, because if I just went by my own instincts, I’d endeavor to replace every single fucking em-dash in the goddamn world with something better. Heck, I would even rewrite the wording of those cases where the em-dash is the only correct punctuation, just to get rid of the damn em-dash. It’s kind of a problem.

Do any fellow grammar-people have a strange personal Berserk Button like this? It would be quite nice to know that I’m not alone.

Keeping My Mind on Writing

I want to be a writer.

Technically, I suppose I already am a writer. It’s what I spend most of my time doing, and I daresay I’m rather good at it. What I should have said is, I want to be a professional author. My dream job is to make a living writing books and blogging on the side. When I imagine my ideal life, I picture myself living in a nice high-rise apartment just big enough for me and my cat(s), earning money via royalties, with my books on sale in Borders and Barnes & Nobles everywhere.

Of course, writing a novel is a tricky process. Right now, I’m almost done with the fourth draft of the first chapter of the first novel of a planned trilogy (it started out as a single book, but then the idea exploded outward and, well, I liked it better that way). My personal process is a bit odd, because while my inspiration is sporadic, my brain does not enjoy shifting between mindsets. I often end up writing a scene, but then getting stuck at a transition with a nice momentary bout of writer’s block and not wanting to stop writing because my brain is still in “writing mode.”

That is pretty much where this blog came from.

In the past, this mostly led into “side projects” that I would write in Google Docs and pretty much abandon because I had nowhere else to put them. Now that I have this platform, though, a lot of them are going to come out. Generally, they come in a few categories, the most common of which are below in no particular order.

  • Random Research Project: I latch onto a detail of something I have read, watched, or heard recently, and run with it until I know everything about it. This is the kind of thing where I see a scrap of Ancient Greek or Classical Latin and absolutely must translate it. This kind of side project often happens in “breaks” where I actually get out of writing mode, and serves as the vehicle back in. It can also happen as a product of research for any piece of writing, if I end up finding something to be abnormally interested in along the way.
  • Bout of “Literary” Criticism: I have a tendency to be rather sensitive to poor writing and an insatiable urge to correct perceived inaccuracies. With those traits combined with my love of writing, it’s no surprise that I end up writing extended critiques of bad media. Note that although I say “literary” criticism, it isn’t necessarily literature that gets criticized: film, visual arts, and music are fair game too. Random Research Projects may end up integrated into these on occasion, e.g. if critiquing poor science involves an explanation of why x scientific inaccuracy is so wrong.
  • Short Story: I have a great many random ideas floating around my head at any given time, so when I take a break from writing my novel, one easy road to go down is writing one of my other concepts as a short story. Sometimes it grows a bit too much, and I end up with a linked series of short stories, or something that might grow into a future novel; however, many of these do end up as legitimate short works. A related field is…
  • Spitefics: I am a huge fan of the sporkings of Das Mervin and co. As a result, I occasionally write “spitefics” about the things she’s reviewed, drawing either from my own ideas or from her critique.

In the interest of adding content to this blog, I may end up posting some of these side projects here. Spitefics are more likely to be posted on Mervin’s spitefic comm, but the rest are certainly fair game, particularly the Random Research Projects and Bouts of Criticism. Bouts of Criticism even has a few projects that might become ongoing series: in particular, I’ve been working on some sporkings of creepypastas, and an extended chapter-by-chapter critique of Stephenie Meyer’s The Host (in which I have been careful to not simply repeat Mervin’s points from her still-unfinished recap).

I may also post updates on my novel’s progress. This would include pieces about my writing process, discussions of the setting, and perhaps even introductions to some of the main characters. Samples may come eventually, but they’re far off; I want to make sure that everything is nice and polished before it hits publication, whether traditional or on the Internet.

If you have any suggestions for topics I might want to consider in these little side projects, I’d love to hear them!

I Swear My Thought Processes Make Sense

A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a friend over Skype. In the background, I heard a faint “caw.”

“Are there crows on your end?” I asked.

“Yep,” said my friend. The conversation paused, and for a moment there was nothing but ambient road noise coming through my headphones. Then he chimed in with, “They’re mocking me.”

My brain immediately went through roughly the following process:

  • Birds are mocking my friend
  • My friend’s sister once made a Facebook post about how he looks like Nicolas Cage
  • Nicolas Cage is the origin of “my hair is a bird, your argument is invalid”
  • The birds must be making fun of his hair.

This makes a lot more sense than the way it went down in my brain. The actual thought process went down both the “birds” and “Nicolas Cage” routes at once, and I only figured out the role of that one Facebook post in retrospect. Half the time I can’t even identify what triggers the specific leap in logic that my brain takes and decides to run with as if it’s the baton in an Olympic relay race.

I clumsily mumbled something along the lines of, “They must be making fun of your hair.” That felt awkward, so I immediately topped it off with a disproportionate amount of explanation, desperately trying to trace my bizarre thought process. In the end, I think we both came out feeling awkward and confused, and I only say “I think” because I can’t fully speak for my friend. He sounded confused, but I might have been projecting.

In any case, we quickly changed the topic to D&D.