Using Italic Attribute in Fiction

Hi Folks,

This is a bit of an embarrassment for me.

I used to actively teach that the writer should use italics to indicate the characters’ unspoken thoughts.

When I was actively editing for other writers, I applied that erroneous rule. One time, I even passed up doing an edit for one writer because she adamantly refused to allow me to change characters’ unspoken thoughts from normal typeface to italics. I felt like she was paying me to not do my job, and I’ve never been bent that direction.

At any rate, I was wrong.

I sent a short story to Dean Wesley Smith one time as an assignment for one of the online workshops I took.

He wrote back that he very much enjoyed the story, but had two complaints.

“Why the italics?” he wrote. “And what’s with the ‘he thought’ tags?”

I explained to him that I use italics to indicate unspoken thought. Sentences contained within quotation marks were spoken thought (dialogue or monologue) and any text that was not either contained within quotation marks or set in italics was narrative.

His only response was, “Well, do what you want, but the italics jerk me right out of the story.”

Wow. The one big overall major concept I’ve always talked about — the one concept that underlies all other writing concepts — is that the writer must never do ANYthing to interrupt the reading of his or her own work.

And here was a writer I highly respect telling me that my use of italics pulled him out of the story.

Now Dean has well over 200 traditionally published novels and around a hundred independently published NEW novels (in other words, not including older novels on which rights have reverted and he’s now republishing as an indie publisher). Oh, and several hundred short stories.

I mean WOW.

And an epiphany hit:

Whether or not you use italics attribute (other than for emphasis) has absolutely no effect on the story itself. So it can’t help, but by disrupting the READING of the story, it can do great harm.

Now I had already decided to trust DWS. He wasn’t trying to convince me of anything. He just wrote, “[T]he italics jerk me right out of the story.” The day after he wrote that, I stopped overusing italics.

But I started rummaging through the works of other writers I respect, both older and more recent.

In every book, I found italics used only sparingly, to indicate emphasis. Never—not one time—did I find a successful long-term writer using italics to indicate unspoken thought.

Then it happened.

In Under the Dome, a novel by arguably my favorite novelist, Stephen King, he uses italics not only to indicate unspoken thought, but also over-uses it to emphasize entire sentences of dialogue when the character is speaking in an excited tone.

For example, one of his characters might put his hands around his mouth and yell, “No! Get back! Don’t go over there! It’s electrified!”

The sentence would be italics AND he would use the exclamation points (arguably correctly to indicate, you know, exclamations).

And every time I encountered the overuse of italics, it pulled me out of the story.

Readers are intelligent enough to know, almost immediately, whether a sentence that is not contained within quotation marks is narrative or the characters’ unspoken thought. You don’t have to tell them with the use of italics. And you might run them off by using it.

While I’m on the topic of things that pull readers out of a story, S. King, at least in Under the Dome, also uses bold font attribute when he writes a single letter or when the narrator or character reads a sign.

For example, “The car approached the place where the road T‘ed” or “The sign read Dairyman’s Dry Cleaners.”

Not kidding. And that use of bold attribute also pulls me out of the story. It’s just distracting and annoying.

Does it make me stop reading? Well, yes, but only momentarily. The story is good enough that I doubt anything could cause me to stop reading completely. But it does make reading the story a lot more difficult. (UPDATE: I was wrong. After encountering several more examples of bold attribute and unnecessary italics, it was distracting enough that I finally gave up on trying to read the story.)

My point here, aside from explaining why I converted from Saul to Paul regarding the use of italics, is that some otherwise excellent writers will occasionally make a booboo.

So don’t take everything you see for gospel just because a famous (to you) writer does it.

I seriously hope this helps.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

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The Journal, Monday, 3/20

Hey Folks,

In keeping with my usual bent toward recommending excellent resources, I’ve found a new interior layout and cover design print source.

Both the price and quality are excellent. That’s a hard combo to beat.

A couple days ago, someone on DWS’s site recommended Cover to Upload as a good place to have covers designed. Dean agreed.

This morning I checked out the site personally and have already emailed them with a few questions about my own work. As I learn more, I’ll keep you posted.

I had settled with the thought that I would publish my work only as ebooks from now on. This discovery turns that decision on its head.

I encourage you to check out Cover to Upload. The URL is http://covertoupload.com. Or you can always find it on my site in the left sidebar under Writers’ Resources.

* * *

Probably another nonwriting day today. Weshul see.

Actually, I had some free time to write this afternoon, but I decided to devote the time to reading instead. Well, and to writing this, as it turns out.

I have a sneaking suspicion that partly this extended delay is my way to sabotage or disrupt my own challenge, thereby making it more difficult.

Seems like in my life I’ve always performed better when I had an adversary. And enjoyed it more.

Or maybe I’m trying to set it aside completely and set myself up for another challenge. I honestly don’t know. After all, in the second novel, I’ve written only a long opening. And I can keep Heinlein’s Rule 2 (You must finish what you write) later. (grin)

Anyway, it’ll be what it’s gonna be. No worries.

Topic: A Rumination on Writing, Myself, and Other Writers

I recently bought The Bachman Books by Stephen King (part of what I’m reading both for pleasure and to Learn).

It arrived today, and I was a little disappointed.

When I bought The Bachman Books I was expecting all of them. I’m intrigued by Early Stephen King. But I’ll find all of them eventually.

Along with two other novels, The Bachman Books include The Running Man. Something he wrote in his introduction to The Bachman Books spurred this topic.

According to King’s overall introduction, he wrote The Running Man in 72 hours “and it was published with very few changes.”

And “[a]ccording to King’s 2002 memoir On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he wrote The Running Man within a single week” (Wikipedia).

Either way, helluva job.

So I did the math.

With The Running Man coming home at just over 69,700 words, he would have to write 968 words per hour straight through for 72 hours. That’s 23,234 words per day. Or roughly 2000 words per hour for 12 hours for three days.

To write it in a 7-day week, he would still have to write just under 10,000 (9957) words per day. That sounds more realistic to me.

But it doesn’t matter. The point is, when he was in the chair, he was W-R-I-T-I-N-G.

My silly little challenge of writing two novels in a month kind’a pales in comparison, doesn’t it? (grin) And people call me prolific. Tsk tsk.

Of course, Bachman (King) was young. He was a freshman in college and, according to him, The Running Man was “a book written by a young man who was angry, energetic, and infatuated with the art and the craft of writing.”

Well, two out of three aren’t bad. I’m not young, but I’m infatuated with the art and craft of writing.

And I’m angry, in a way. Mostly at myself.

I want desperately to increase my productivity. By which I mean my time in the chair. And my production while in the chair (actually writing).

And of course, that’s entirely up to me, even with life rolls, etc. Factors external to ourselves influence us only as much as we allow them to. Priorities, folks. Priorities.

I’m also a little frustrated at, if not angry with, writers who Don’t want that for themselves. How can any writer not want to be more prolific?

For the record, I’m not including those for whom the primary purpose of writing is to put on public display how much they “suffer for their art” or some such nonsense.

I don’t do suffering. There’s enough of that around without looking for it. If writing were some kind of laborious agony, I’d drop it and find something fun to do.

I literally would give anything to have hit upon Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark when I was 20, or 30, or 40, or 50. Yes, anything.

But of course, as we are reminded every day, It Is What It Is. So only one question remains:

Do I want it badly enough to actually do it?

Gawd I hope so.

Stay tuned.

Today, and (Not) Writing

Rolled out at 3:30 again, and did next to nothing all day but relax, chat with my son and grandson, etc. Nothing bad. It was fun. And fun is the key.

Back (writing) tomorrow.

Of Interest

If you want to learn to format your own book interiors for CreateSpace, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FzvtxK686c. (I haven’t checked this out yet, and after what I passed along at the beginning of this Journal entry, I probably won’t.)

At Dean’s, he announces the Strength Regular Sales Workshop at http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/strength-regular-sales-workshop-now-available/.

Fiction Words: XXXX
Nonfiction Words: 850 (Journal)
So total words for the day: 850

Writing of Novel Two

Day 1…… 978 words. Total words to date…… 978
Day 2…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for the month……… 33439
Total fiction words for the year………… 185305
Total nonfiction words for the month… 12060
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 48650

Total words for the year (fiction and nonfiction)…… 233955

Getting Ideas (and other stuff)

This content was previously posted on June 26, 2016 in the Daily Journal. I posted it here because of the valuable topic included below. Soon I might begin posting the Daily Journal here every day.

Hey Folks,

Probably today will be another non-writing day for me. Despite the fact that when I take a day away from writing fiction I feel itchy and annoyed.

I gave my word to a couple of folks who quickly took advantage of my offer to copyedit for them, so I’ll do that. But otherwise I think I’m going to shove my copyediting service into the ditch alongside the cover design and eformatting services.

Life Events take up too much of my writing time already. Reckon I’m gonna have to cut the cord on providing services.

Getting Ideas

Turns out this is a long topic. I hope it helps.

Yesterday I talked about story starters. To start a story, come up with a character, give him a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story and often isn’t) and drop him into a setting. Period.

But a character with a problem in a setting sounds suspiciously like an idea. So how do we come up with the idea in the first place?

Often the idea for the story will spring directly from the character/problem/setting combo. In fact, yesterday one writer sent me an email. In part, it read

Last fall or late summer you gave 3 or 4 character names, 3 or 4 settings, and maybe 3 or 4 problems for us to put together for an opening. … [T]hat exercise gave me the opening for the second book in my contemporary series. (Thanks MAC)

But even more often, ideas simply come at random. Then we assign a character/problem/setting and write the opening.

Example — Right now on my desk, my cherry wood humidor is on my left. An orange Bic lighter is lying diagonally on top. (That’s a story idea.)

Okay, let’s assign a character. Who are you (the character)? Why are you there? And what are you doing? And how does the setting look, sound, smell? Are you

the owner?
a detective?
a male friend of the family?
a female friend of the family?
a masked burglar?
a business associate?

Remember too, the setting can be anywhere that will hold a cherry wood humidor and a Bic lighter: a small home office, the library in a mansion, an office in a place of business, the front seat of a ’58 Nash, etc. Let your imagination run. We don’t know what’s inside the humidor either, do we?

This idea immediately lends itself to mystery, thriller, psychological suspense, romance, and other genres.

If this notion appeals to you, why not just write an opening? See what happens.

There are several ideas on my desktop, in view as I write this:

an open roll of breath mints with one end opened and folded over
a man pecking away at a laptop computer in the wee hours of the morning
three medicine bottles, set snugly beneath a 22″ monitor
a cell phone lying on the corner of the desk. An indicator light is flashing.
a pedometer lying in front of a medicine bottle
a deck of Rider Back playing cards
and so on

Where you’re sitting as you read this, look about you. What do you see that evokes a particular feeling or memory or notion? It can be anything at all. Make a list. Exercise your idea muscle. Then write an opening about one of them.

So how do we come up with ideas? The more apt question would be how do we NOT come up with ideas.

But many writers believe an “idea” is actually the whole story. How boring would that be? If I knew the story in advance, why bother to write it? That wouldn’t entertain me at all. (grin)

Remember, the story idea is not the whole story.
The story idea is just the catalyst that gets you to the keyboard.

Dean Wesley Smith taught me that. Also, he has covered his own process several times in his blog. He has an extensive collection of pulp magazines from the old days.

One of his favorite ways of coming up with story ideas is to “crash” the first half of one old story title into the second half of another old story title. When it appeals to him, he writes an opening.

In addition to just looking around, I tend to get ideas from photographs or from some minor event or from overhearing a snippet of conversation.

Ideas from Photographs

I collect cover photographs from stock photo agencies. I have around a thousand. I intend to use them all.

Every now and then when I want to write a story, I skim through those photos (my favorite agencies are Bigstock and Canstock). If a photo appeals to me, it gives me a title (usually) and a story idea (character, problem, setting) and I’m off and writing.

Plus I already have the photo that I probably will use for the cover when I’m finished. I say “probably” because the story often takes an unexpected turn or two. If the turn is big enough, I have to find a different photo for the cover.

You can also find story ideas in photos that you can’t use for covers. The photos can be from any source at all. If it spurs a memory or a thought or a character, you’re off an running. But again, don’t use any photo for a cover unless you have the license to do so.

Ideas from Events

While I was walking along a dirt road one day, a woman passed me in a minivan.

As she passed me at about forty miles per hour, her left hand was on top of the steering wheel at about the 11 o’clock position. She had twisted her head around to look over her right shoulder and was reaching back and pointing with her right hand. Her mouth was wide open as if she was yelling.

There were three children in the back seat. None were in restraints of any kind. Then a cloud of dust enveloped me and all I could still see was her brake lights as she braked just in time to make the upcoming sharp curve and avoid plunging herself and her children some three hundred feet down a steep, rocky hillside to the wide arroyo below.

How many ideas can you get from that one event?

Ideas from Conversation

Sometimes a snippet of conversation comes while I’m walking the aisles or standing in line at the checkout counter of a store.

But more often a character will pop into my head, usually with an attitude and a line of dialogue. This is most often the result of something I see or hear on TV or from someone I’m talking with.

The dialogue in my head almost always introduces the problem and the setting I need for the opening of the story. And of course, the character is the one presenting the dialogue in the first place. This happens a lot with my Brooklyn characters. (This happened today, actually, and started a new short story.)

So when you ask some presenter at a writers’ conference, “Where do you get ideas?” and they say “Everywhere,” that’s exactly what they mean.

Now, possibly I didn’t cover everything you would have liked for me to cover on this topic. If you have any questions, please ask.

Of Interest

An interview between George R. R. Martin and Stephen King. Very good, but about an hour long. You can find it here. I discovered it on Dean’s site in the comments from yesterday’s blog.

Great interview. I took voluminous notes on a Notepad document. Great stuff. I strongly recommend you set aside an hour to listen. In line with today’s topic (above), this interview is Chock Full of story ideas. It is an unintentional writing seminar. I strongly recommend you take notes as you listen.

The Day

Rolled out right at 4. Email and coffee to wake up.

5 a.m., moved outside and wrote the topic above. Then I went to check Dean’s site and found the link for the interview (see “Of Interest”. I listened to the interview, taking notes.

7:45, to the edit.

11:45, finished the edit and got it sent off. Turns out my mobile hotspot on my phone works too out in my Adobe Hovel (thanks to my wife for calling Verizon and having them reset my phone). That’s a great relief. Of course I won’t have it on most of the time. But it’s nice to have when my phone flashes to tell me something important needs my attention online.

Going to take a break now. And I’ve decided when I come back I’m going to write for awhile. (grin)

1 p.m. after a much longer break than I expected, to the writing.

Well, I got some writing done, but not a lot. The edit left me more tired than I thought. Still, I got a good start on another short story. Something completely different. (grin)

Back tomorrow.

Today’s Writing

Fiction Words: 1077
Nonfiction Words: 1400 (Journal)

So total words for the day: 2477

Writing of “Being Eddie Potrano” (short story)

Day 1…… 1077 words. Total words to date…… 1077 words
Day 2…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX words

Writing of “The Day the World Shuddered and Went Dark” (probably a novel)

Day 1…… 1272 words. Total words to date…… 1272 words
Day 2…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX words

Total fiction words for the month……… 58205
Total fiction words for the year………… 316606

Total nonfiction words for the month… 14930
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 131380

Total words for the year (fiction and nonfiction)…… 447986