Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: A Dash of Style

We all love books about writing, right? Right? Okay, yes, I've probably read too many. But my obsession knows no bounds - it's like Christopher Columbus, endlessly circumnavigating the globe: what New Worlds/Writing Books shall be discovered?

This, of course, brings me to my week of Noah Lukeman. No, I didn't invite him over for dinner and a marathon session of Clue (he's in the wrong country), but I did read two of his books. I'd been hearing about The First Five Pages for a long time, and so finally broke down and read it - adding in another of his books, A Dash of Style, for good measure. And the thinking really was like that, with Dash added as an afterthought (I'd only just heard about it).

Yet, in reading, I was much more fascinated by the afterthought, as it were.

Don't get me wrong, The First Five Pages is not a bad book. It's quite solid, really. It's about approaching writing (or revision) while keeping in mind what agents and editors want to see - or, often, what they don't want to see. What are the things that will mark you as not ready yet? It's a nice little book, particularly for young writers, I think (and that's young in terms of craft, not in years, it should be said). It's about understanding the hard technical needs of professional level writing, with lots of insights about how to tackle a manuscript, particularly in revision (though they'd likely work well enough in moving forward, too, and writing new drafts). And though much of the basic writing advice is out there in other books, I'm guessing this book was important when it came out, as its approach was new and professioanlly oriented. In other words, how are you stabbing yourself in the foot and soliciting rejections? I think the difference now is that a lot of this information is out there in other venues - blogging agents and editors have helped fill the void in regard to professional expectations.

So I'd recommend it, with the caveat that experienced writers, particularly ones who are plugged into the writing blogosphere, have probably seen much of this before.

A Dash of Style, however, is a unique little book, and one that quite fascinates me. This book, I think, is one for my fellow sentence junkies. Are you a sentence junky? Are you just looking to tell a good story and have the words do the job, or are you in love with the rhythm and flow of sentences? Fiddling, cutting, adding, stretching, warping, patching, caressing, kissing... oops, sorry there. Getting carried away.

But, yes, this book is for sentence junkies. It's about punctuation. No, wait, it's okay. Really. Sit down. Please. Okay. Okay? Right. It's about punctuation, but this isn't a grammar book. It's not here to tell you what is right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It's not about proper usage. It's about style.

It's about the control of language. Words are the building blocks we use, but punctuation marks are the tools we use to shape them -- separating, connecting, speeding, slowing, pausing, heightening, obscuring, lighting, sharing -- and without these marks we'd be constructing little more than crude huts. How elegant a home are you hoping to build? You better have the tools, and you better know how to use them.

A Dash of Style is about just this, about how punctuation contributes to style, to the rhythm and flow of writing, to its clarity and depth. Its goal is not to help you decide what's correct, but rather what works. It's about the shape of writing, about how sentences begin and end and flow together. This isn't a book for grammarians, but for writers, laced with examples from great writing. How are voices and stories shaped, down there in the trenches, down there in each line?

It's a unique little book. At least, I haven't seen any other books out there on the creative application of punctuation, on punctuation as an element of style. It is a book about writing at its most basic and often ignored level - about the sentence itself. If you like thinking about what it is you do with words, and how you do it... this book is probably for you. Sentence junkies of the world unite: via the colon, of course -- or a dash, if you so prefer (and please don't mind my parenthetical interjections).


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm Team Em-Dash, but perhaps I will change sides after reading.


That's the sound of my TBR list getting heavier. :)

Unknown said...

A Dash of Style has gone on my to-buy list. I punctuate quite well (I think) but I love the sound of the examples from well-known writers. I must be a sentence junkie, mustn't I?

Matthew MacNish said...

I will admit I have plugged The First Five Pages before, but I will agree, it does seem more geared toward beginners, and one draw back is that it focuses on a negative approach. As in what not to do - often with an overabundance of painfully obvious examples - intended to make things crystal clear I'm sure.

I have not read A Dash of Style but it sounds like a much more exciting read, in an academic sense, of course. Intrinsic. Intuitive. In-your-face? Looking forward to checking it out.

Thanks for the insights Bryan!

Bryan Russell said...

I should note that in some editions it looks like they changed the title to The Art of Punctuation, which is less interesting but possibly better for search engine accessibility.

And it's good to find some fellow sentence junkies! And I should also mention that Lukeman's own writing is sharper, I think, in the newer book.

Lenny Lee said...

hi mr bryan! i dont much think i would like the first book even tho im pretty much a beginner. i like the sound of that second one cause i use lots of that stuff in my stories especially these ---!!!!!

Carl Grimsman said...

Fellow sentence junkie here, AND I'm in the market for a few good writing books. So, thanks!

*tips hat to Ink*

Bryan Russell said...

Hey, I aim to please.

Mira said...


This is the type of thing I need! I have trouble with my sentence structure. I don't mind things for beginners, since I am one, so I'll check out both books.


Mira said...

Oh, and I don't actually believe you're in a 12 step program for this Bryan.

Denial is the first sign.

We're going to organize an intervention.

Bryan Russell said...

Let me go check my reading schedule... yup, I think I have a free space somewhere between King's On Writing and Lamott's Bird by Bird. Better book quick, though, because Vandermeer's Booklife is really pushing for time and Joyce Carole Oates' The Faith of a Writer is going all passive-aggressive on me.

Mira said...

Eeek. You're reading my personal arch-nemesis, Stephen King's book On Writing?

Bryan, you're in much more danger than I thought.

I'll be sending help, stat. In the meantime, put the book down slowly. Sllooowwllyyy.

Bryan Russell said...

Actually, I'm not reading it right now. But I've read it before. Twice.


Claudie A. said...

I asked for A Dash of Style last Christmas and it was, funnily enough, the book from which I expected less (I had another on PoV).

Let me tell you, I was sorely mistaken. I heartily agree with everything you've said. This tiny book was a wonder, and I've enjoyed doing some of the exercises within.

After reading it, I felt like a whole new writing world had been opened to me. Punctuation was not something I had paid attention to before. Now I watch every comma and every period.

Mira said...

Bryan - You read On Writing Twice? NO!!!!

My god, will that book never stop tormenting me? Not Bryan, my dear sweet innocent, Bryan!

Don't worry, dear sweet innocent Bryan, help is on the way. It won't be easy, but you'll be much happier once we've cleansed that book from your system. I'm afraid it will require a stringent detoxification reqime lasting for several weeks. A regime you'll need to go through twice, of course.

But afterwards, you feel pure and clean, and free, Bryan. You'll feel free at last.