Beware the psych pit of getting near publication

by Jule Selbo

A few days ago, my publisher sent me a note and a file: “Here is the latest draft – the result of your reactions/addressing of the editor’s notes. You now have one more look-through before the ARC is finalized. Please proceed in a timely manner.”

Some writers – thinking that the publication date is coming soon-ish – might be jumping for joy!

Not me.

I take the day off. And the next day.  And maybe even the next day too.

Because I feel threatened. I feel ‘command’ and the ‘demand’ in the air and that causes, in me, a fear that the “process” has put someone else in charge.

Does that happen to other writers?

I feel resentful and pressured. And, yes – threatened. It’s all I can do to not send a bitchy response – something like “this is ‘my book’ and please don’t take away my complete ownership of it.”

I know. I know. It’s about control. Only weeks ago, I could decide to rewrite the same page twenty times if I wasn’t happy with it. I could change a character’s name if I suddenly came up with a better one. I could adjust the pacing. I could add a bit here, trim a bit there. Add weather to accelerate tension. Or let a character breathe a bit and dig into her whys and wherefores and mindset.

This “just before the ARC” step is more stressful than starting the process with my editor. (I will refer to this editor as “K” here to protect the innocent.)

K doesn’t like run-on sentences. For fun, when we first started working together, I sent K things like Hemingway’s longest sentence (from his safari/hunting book Green Hills of Africa):

“That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream.”

If you don’t feel like counting, there are 424 words, 42 commas, 5 semi-colons and one period in that sentence.

(The two pictures of Hemingway – imagine him starting the sentence and finally finishing it…)

I’m not fond of run-on sentences in general (preferring to read and write the shorter ones) but once in a while a good run-on can fit perfectly. In my opinion. But – by the time I got this “last chance to read before the ARC is finalized” alert, K and I had come to an agreement on the length of all my sentences so those had been taken care of.

K continues to worry I might use too many em dashes.

8 DAYS is the third book in the Dee Rommel series, and when working with K on 10 DAYS (the first of the series) I had to learn about em dashes. They had never really come up in my screenwriting work (my previous profession) or – for some reason in the three historical novels I’d written. So I started to think that it’s the tone/style I “adopted” for the crime/mystery series and for my main character’s style of reasoning and being.

Anyway, the em dash, I learned, is the “longest of the dashes – roughly the length of the letter m”. According to Kate Mooney in an article she wrote for The Independent, US edition, August 2019: “The em dash is emphatic, agile and still largely undefined. Sometimes it indicates an afterthought. Other times, it’s a fist pump. You might call it the bad boy, or cool girl, of punctuation. A freewheeling scofflaw. A rebel without a clause.”

Sounds sort of wonderful, I thought. “For some writers,” Mooney continued, “the em dash is a vice that their editors occasionally forgive but more often forbid. It has been duly cast as an alluring alternative to the comma, colon, semicolon, and full stop in the “distracted boyfriend” meme.”

Editor K had me look at all my dash choices – the hyphen, the em and en dashes (the en being width of the letter n and it’s use pretty clear). Of course, I already understood the use of the hyphen because I’d been taught by strict nuns in elementary school.

So I concentrated on em dash research and found the below:

“This little symbol is beloved by writers everywhere and hated by many editors. It’s the most dramatic of all punctuation marks — literally its most common usage is to signify an abrupt change in the sentence or a pregnant pause, according to the AP Stylebook.”

 “The em dash is a visually persuasive framing device; the em dash helps the writer select a dominant meaning for the sentence while deflecting other meanings that are available.”

“(Em dash) is used in place of a comma, colon or semicolon for greater emphasis. It denotes a major break or pause and should not be overused.”

 “In fiction, as in other kinds of writing, you’ll still want to use the em dash to indicate interruptions, performing a function related to — but subtly different from — parentheses. (The em dash is particularly useful in dialogue.)”

The tidbits on the em dash were interesting – but to me – not entirely helpful because some of the definitions and/or advice made me think more of “style” than “rule.”

Adam O’Fallon Price, in The Millions Literary Magazine wrote: (It) might be useful to include an official definition from the Punctuation Guide: “The em dash is perhaps the most versatile punctuation mark.  Depending on the context, the em dash can take the place of commas, parentheses, or colons—in each case to slightly different effect.”

Price liked that “slightly different” appeal of the em dash. He wrote: “It is the doppelgänger of the punctuation world, a talented mimic impersonating other punctuation, but not exactly, leaving space to shade meaning.  (It) can be especially revealing of an author’s style, even their character… (and can be) useful for both narrowing and expanding a train of thought that might lose momentum in a new sentence—in this sense, they also stand in for the semicolon, but semicolons are best used (in my fuddled cosmology of punctuation) as dividing walls between two related but independent thoughts of approximate equal value (I wholly reject, by the way, that old bullshit about eliminating semicolons).

Noreen Malone (not a fan of the em dash) wrote an article for Slate Magazine: “The Case -Please Hear Me Out – Against the Em Dash”: She subtitled it: Modern Prose doesn’t need any more interruptions – seriously.”  In the article she laments: “The problem with the dash – as you have noticed! -is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also – and this might be its worst sin – disrupts the flow of a sentence.”

Clearly, by using the em dashes, she made her point. She also observed: “America’s finest prose – in blogs, magazines, newspapers, or novels – is littered with so many dashes among the dots it’s as if the language is signaling distress in Morse Code.”

Again, Price and Malone seem to have opinions about the em dash. And perhaps druthers. But no “rule” emerges.

But, to make my editor K a little happy (my editor knows more about grammar than I for sure), I did change and/or delete some of my em dashes. This resulted, sometimes, in a longer sentence becoming two shorter sentences. Or if I added an ‘and’ as a connector (instead of the em dash) I could see where the read became less disjunctive. Sometimes I wrote in “my response to editor notes” that I’d prefer to leave it as is – and that was usually okay with K.

I know that 90% or so of typos (never all, is it, no matter how much we hope) will have been addressed in the ARC. And that once the ARC is ready, my publisher allows me to go through the manuscript one last time to try to catch any glaring (or not-glaring) fix-ables.

So, there’s still some time after this “ready for ARC” moment.

But still, anxiety roars when I get that email letting me know they expect my response “in a timely manner.”

As I wrote at the top of this essay, I know it’s about control. It’s about knowing that I’ve stepped through the pearly gate that can block publication and I’m on the other side. Whew.

But still, I get stuck on the idea that I have not stepped past St. Peter into a fluffy-cloud, everything’s-peachy-heaven. No. Beyond this pearly gate are lounging angels, archangels, gods, saints, do-gooders (or at least those who have done no harm) who are all voracious, avid readers – who may take good hard looks at my em dashes.

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. The next book in the Dee Rommel series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery was released in September 2022 and is nominated for a Clue Award and received a starred Kirkus Review. 8 DAYS, the third in the series, is scheduled for release November 2023 and Jule is now working in 7 DAYS.
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3 Responses to Beware the psych pit of getting near publication

  1. Anonymous says:

    Stick to your guns on those ms. You are the writer. Personally, I love them and use them a lot. And by the way…if we’re going to talk grammar, it’s
    Than I, Jule dear, than I! (my editor knows more about grammar than me )


  2. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    You can never–I mean never–use too many em dashes. I hope your launch goes swimmingly (with no floating corsets and other detritus)!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Good luck and keep in touch with your inner defense attorney.

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