J O N U N I V ER S I TY
J O N M C R A E
T E N E S N V N C T E N E B E R I S
J O N U N I V E R S I T Y
First Edition, 2012
Jon McRae. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International license.
That means pass it on, copy it, print it, make it into an audiobook or a
slideshow or a diorama. None of these things for profit. If you have a
commercial project in mind, contact the author about licensing.
C O N T EN TS
O R I E N T A T I O N 1
1 0 1 , B A S I C T E C H N I Q U E 3
2 0 1 , A D V A N C E D T E C H N I Q U E 1 7
3 0 1 , T H E O R Y 3 1
4 0 1 , P R A C T I C E 4 4
1 S T A P P E N D I X , I N S P I R A T I O N 5 6
2 N D A P P E N D I X , P U B L I S H I N G 6 1
3 R D A P P E N D I X , P E T P E E V E S 6 3
4 T H A P P E N D I X , R E A D I N G L I S T 6 4
C O M M E N C E M E N T 6 6
O RI EN T A TI O N
The advice contained in these courses is one part mine, nine parts the advice of my peers and my lessers and my
betters. In art very little is true or false. I deal in what is useful or useless. Put each piece of advice to the test for
yourself. Keep what works, discard the rest. The proof is in the pudding.
For those of you who prefer a set of credentials to knowledge that speaks for itself I will provide a brief bio. I write.
You may read a few of my stories at jonmcrae.net. I am a published author, just like Umberto Eco or the Olsen
Twins. I read, I critique, I travel. If I were stranded on a desert island the five books Id bring are the collected
works of Shakespeare, The Koran, Blood Meridian, a Chinese / English dictionary, and a blank book to write in. A
blank book with many, many pages. If I didnt have a pen Id twist my hair into a nib and use my fluids for ink.
The sum advice I have to pass on is divisible into four courses: Basic Technique, Advanced Technique, Theory,
and Practice. These courses are supplemented by four appendices on the topics of inspiration and publishing, with
a small section outlining literary pet peeves and a list of recommended reading.
Before we begin, let us establish a few compass points so that we may properly orient ourselves throughout the
1. The best fiction convinces us its real. Coleridge said poetic faith is the willing
suspension of disbelief. In plain terms that means the reader forgets hes a reader.
Whether he reads to escape, to understand, or to explore is his business. Our business as
writers of fiction is to help him experience, if only for a while, something that does not
exist outside his imagination or ours. If we write well he will finish our story and say,
Oh wait, that didnt actually just happen, it was only a story. If we write poorly, he will
realize this before hes finished and his suspended disbelief will reengage. The story
from then on will only ever be a story to him. He might even quit reading. For lack of
any convenient technical term I call this a hiccup. It is a seed of doubt that may grow to
corrupt your readers entire poetic faith. It is in your base killing your dudes. It is your
2. There are no good or bad writers. Only writers at different stages of development. Each
of us starts off writing poorly. Some of us choose to develop from there, others choose
not to. Some dont even recognize improvement as an option in the first place.
3. The term body of work is no coincidence. A body has lovely parts like eyes and curves,
but it also has less attractive parts like armpits and an asshole. You will write armpits.
You will write an asshole. Admit it. Come to terms with it and move on. Otherwise
youll end up paralysed, either by your fear of failure or because you will mistake poor
early attempts for failed attempts. It is not a failure to write an asshole. Imagine a body
without the ugly parts. It would just be a face and breasts and legs floating disconnected
in the air. What good is that? Lovely parts unbound by mundane and ugly parts have no
meaning and so become alien, untrustworthy, ugly themselves. No part is unnecessary.
No part is unimportant, because it takes every part together to complete a body. Give
each part, each story or novel or poem, the care and attention it deserves. Make it as
good as you can at this stage in your development. The next one will be better.
4. Let me be clear about my position on rules versus exceptions. It is essential to learn the
rules. It is wise most of the time to follow the rules. It is on occasion a legitimate and
powerful gesture to break the rules. Any idiot could lie and claim to be Spartacus. Its
doing it at just the right time, in just the right way, for just the right reason, that makes it
an act and a measure of greatness.
1 0 1 , B AS I C T E CH N I Q U E
This is by no means an exhaustive study of technique. It is merely a review of certain techniques I find particularly
useful, which are commonly misunderstood or ignored, or which have revolutionized my process and Im excited
to share. A number of these techniques span several levels of skill, so expect to revisit them accordingly
throughout the courses. For now its just the basics.
P U N C T U A T I O N , I
First a brief refresher of the problem marks, followed by an explanation of why I consider them the problem
marks. Spoiler alert: its most of them.
The semicolon. A semicolon joins ideas related enough to share a sentence but not
congruous enough to be joined by a comma. This includes long or complex articles in a
The colon. A colon introduces a list or an apposite. :
Parentheses. These delimit thoughts outside the narrative flow but pertinent to it. (Like
The em dash. This badboy can function as parenthesesby inserting a related thought
or detailor, chameleon that it is, it can function as a colonby offering a dramatic
introduction or apposition.
The ellipsis. An ellipsis indicates that some part of a quotation has been omitted.
The semicolon. Where do I begin? First, it is widely overused. Not only that, but it is easy to overuse. I rarely see
discerning use of the semicolon. If you give it an inch, it will take a mile. Use of semicolons is an easy way to make
your writing look intelligent or informed.
Second, given that the semicolons function is more or less halfway between the comma and the period, its use is
largely arbitrary. I say go big or go home. Separate your clauses with a comma or a period. A period lends stark
outline to either clause. A comma provides a solid bridge from one clause to the next. A semicolon weakens the
position of both clauses. Next time you read an article or a story imagine each semicolon replaced by a period or a
comma + conjunction. Do the sentences lose anything? Does the narrative have less impact? In almost every case I
find the writing stronger for having clear cut punctuation.
Third, one of my biggest pet peeves and a sure sign of amateur writing: semicolons are often misused in place of
colons. I dont know where this habit started but it has become rampant in online articles and occasionally even in
published stories and novels, which must have been printed while the editors were all on vacation. I have to tell you
something; I love you. Look at that. I found it in the dictionary next to the entry for ugly. The worst part is that the
semicolons function is so wishy-washy that its use in this case is perfectly acceptable. You could replace most
periods and commas in any piece of writing with semicolons and they might all be acceptably used. All the more
reason not to give it an inch. If and when you decide to use a semicolon, at least be sure each part of the sentence it
divides is an independent clause. That means each clause must qualify as a sentence by itself. Lines like I love the
way her hair smells; the way her eyes sparkle fail the test, because the second clause amounts only to a subject. There
is no predicate to make it a proper sentence.
The colon. Not a problem mark so much as one often forgotten or misunderstood. As indicated above the colon
rather than the semicolon is the appropriate mark to introduce a list or an apposite. I admire three things in a
person: honesty, consistency, and grit. Simple enough, nest pas? In the case of apposition you may just as easily use a
colon as an em dash. A colon or dash in this case is like an arrow pointing at some important statement which
follows the logic of the introductory clause. There was only one flaw in his plan: he forgot to lock the door.
On to parentheses. These arent a problem in a technical sense so much as they are in a stylistic sense. They can be
used to humorous effect, much like footnotes, by breaking the fourth wall. The problem arises when theyre used
in all seriousness. Your job as a writer is to compose the narrative in a consistent, believable format. The use of
parentheses is tantamount to admitting you are not very good at that job. Parentheses effectively say, Oh wait, I
forgot something. Heres this other point Im not skilled enough to weave into the narrative. That, of course,
amounts to a hiccup. It reminds the reader hes being narrated to, and not very well at that. In the case of a
subordinate clause or other aside within a sentence, prefer commas to parentheses. Given the size of the city, its
colossal towers and sprawling streets, it could take weeks to find where theyd hidden the disk. In the case of an
independent sentence, try it first without parentheses to be absolutely sure theyre necessary. Odds are theyre
The em dash. I have very few problems with the em dash. In fact, I like it. I prefer it in places I might otherwise use
a colon or parentheses. My only advice is to be wary of overuse. Especially in the case of dramatic introduction.
The em dash is a great visual cue, almost cinematic in effect. This makes it all the more tempting to abuse. Too
many dramatic introductions make your work read like a movie trailer or some sensationalist investigative report
show. He thought he could get away with ithe was wrong. Shed entered a race against timeand she was already too
Ellipsis. The most abused of all the marks and by far my least favourite. Use an ellipsis when youre writing an
essay and need to trim unrelated material from a quotation. To be, or not to beay, theres the rub. Like that. Do
not, as many lazy or ignorant writers do, use an ellipsis to indicate a pause. It is the job of a comma to indicate a
brief pause, like this. It is the job of a period to indicate a longer pause. A full stop, as it were. In the case of a
dramatic pause, use an em dash. If the pause is in dialogue and long or otherwise significant, consider it an
opportunity for narrative flourish. Describe a characters body language in the pause to give the reader a sense of
her mood. Or describe the scenery to indicate a characters preoccupation or wandering attention. For example:
I thought you were dead! she said.
Me tooI guess Im just lucky.
I thought you were dead! she said.
Me too. He opened his collar to show her the stitches along his neck. I guess Im just lucky.
You might say, But plenty of published authors use ellipses to indicate pause or to emphasizecertain words.
Does that make it okay? I dont know. Plenty of pop stars lip sync in concert. Does that mean you should?
D I A L O G U E , I
Consider this an extension of punctuation. How to punctuate and attribute dialogue. In an attributed line of
dialoguethat is, one with a he said or she said tagthe attribution is considered part of the same sentence. It is
accordingly separated by a comma. Examples:
He said, Hi.
Hi, he said.
In the first example the period is enclosed by the quotation marks. In the second example the comma is likewise
enclosed. This is standard. Leading with attribution as in the first example is almost always more awkward than
following with attribution, but it is occasionally useful. Also in the case of leading with attribution, the comma is
interchangeable with a colon. He said: This is also acceptable.
In cases where a brief line of narrative intervenes between lines of dialogue, there are two ways to punctuate. The
first involves attribution. The second does not. In the first case, construct everything as you would without the
narration and just tag the narration to the end of the attribution. In the second case, the dialogue is not attributed
and the narrative is a separate sentence.
I dont know, Jenny said, biting her lip. It just seems, you know, wrong.
I dont know. Jenny bit her lip. It just seems, you know, wrong.
When using a characters name in attribution there is no hard and fast rule about whether to lead or follow with
the tag. Name said or said Name. The rule I follow is sound. Which sounds better? One method will suit and
enhance the rhythm of the sentence. The other method will detract from it. Each case is different.
I take the same approach to determine where in a long line of dialogue to intercede with attribution. Almost every
time the best place is in the first natural pause in the characters delivery. Compare the following variations:
Hi, he said. Ive been meaning to call you.
Hi, Ive been meaning to call you, he said.
The first is stronger not only because the narrative accommodates the characters delivery, but because it
establishes the identity of the speaker sooner rather than later. Especially in a scene where multiple characters are
speaking, it is a courtesy to your reader to make it clear who says what. At least at the beginning of an exchange.
Once a dialogue-heavy scene has established its rhythm it isnt always necessary to tag each line. In a scene with
only two speakers you may outright drop the attribution once either party is clearly identified.
As for terms for speech, it is best in almost every case to use said. Even when the line is a question, the question
mark is indication enough. Tags like he asked, he inquired, he posited, are unnecessary. If the character is not in fact
speaking it is suitable to use he screamed or she whispered or he laughed or she spat or whatever might apply.
However, if your dialogue is written well enough, even these arent often necessary. An exclamation point may be
enough to inform the reader how the line is delivered. Tags like he argued, she lectured, he indicated, she theorized
are not worth your time. Instead, construct the dialogue so that the reader will hear the characters delivery. If you
can do this, you will require attribution only to distinguish between speakers.
Yes, he agreed.
I hate you! he said angrily.
My name is Robert, lied George.
Although at first the attribution in these lines seems appropriate, when you think twice it is in fact redundant.
Trust your writing. Trust your writing an...