Sunday, August 31, 2014

Excerpts and the Art of Ellipsis: Dot dot dot vs. yadda yadda yadda

Now that my middle-grade debut Deadwood is out, I have industry and blog reviews. Some writers won't read their reviews, but I do. At the very least, a review shows that your book exists! Someone read it and thought enough to write about it. I'm very grateful for each one and include review excerpts on my site.

And that's where the art of ellipsis comes in. Dot dot dot. What do you include, and what do you ellide?

Some reviews rings so many happy bells I'd love to include the whole thing, but I can't -- the copyright for the review is owned by the writer, and fair use doctrine means I have to choose an excerpt. Tough decisions!

Most reviews have phrases I love and others that I'd rather not put on a book jacket, and that makes it easier to decide what to include. Easier, but less straightforward.

Excerpt Best Practices

There are Generally Accepted Excerpt Best Practices, which actually may not be generally accepted or well known. Here are the three biggies (reference Kirkus):

1) Do not add words to reviews (including change cases/tense)
2) Use ellipses to indicate when words are omitted. 
3) Do not alter the integrity of the review.

Number one seems clear. Number two also sounds clear, but that's where things get fuzzy. If misused, your ellipses push you into number three, where the review is manipulated so that it appears to mean something it does not. For example, if a reviewer writes, "This is a great book for people with terrible taste," you can't just include "This is a great book..." because you are altering the reviewer's meaning (and why wouldn't you include the whole thing? The full pull quote makes the book sound fun!)

But experienced reviewers take pains not to include phrases that can be easily misconstrued, just as many of them purposefully include pull quotes that can be easily excerpted. Other times, you get a pretty good review with not a decent pull quote to be found -- every positive is snuggling up tight with a negative turn of phrase. And that's where it's tempting to elide, slice, and dice your way into number three territory.

The Guiding Principle:
Use the reviewer's words and intent as your guide, not what you wish the reviewer would have said and meant.


As an example of what works and what doesn't, I'm including a short excerpt from my review from Foreword Magazine here, and different ways to elide it that are right, ok, questionable, and wrong.

“Danger lurks around every corner, but these two strong characters — both of them sporty and clever, with diverse backgrounds — can hold their own. Short chapters amp up the pace and hold attention, bolstering the story’s wild suspense.” Foreword Magazine
Love the whole thing! Yay. Now, what if I excerpted it like this?

"Danger lurks around every corner, but these two strong characters ... can hold their own." 

That's not incorrect, but it's a little awkward. While the writer might just be pressed for space, a reader might wonder what is missing and suspect it's something bad.

How about this?

“Danger lurks around every corner, but these two ... characters ...  can hold their own" 
Definitely awkward, misleading, and bowdlerized into vagueness. The reader might play MadLibs with the missing modifier, and it may not be flattering:  "annoyingly peppy," "Marysue-like," "Completely unbelievable."

"Short chapters amp up the ....wild suspense.” 

This one crosses the line into number three. In this case, I'm changing the whole object of the sentence! The part that's missing is crucial to the meaning. In my example, it doesn't truly change the sense, but the elided phrase could as easily be "...the reader's impatience, finally spiraling into general silliness and..." This is where the dot dot dot is the review equivalent of yadda yadda yadda in an old Seinfeld episode.

Every review is individual, and every excerpt has to be included on case-by-case basis, considering the content and character count where the excerpt is to be placed. Now if only we could use ellipses in our everyday life! I'd replace every "but" with a dot dot dot.

Your work on that project was really sound but...
You're a great girl and I've enjoyed the time we've spent together but...
Your child has been working hard to improve his behavior but...
I appreciate your insight on ellipses but....

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