Squids 101

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Emdashes

Before I go on to the Squid 101 here, a word of thanks to the kind people who submitted entries in the flap-copy contest; it was very interesting and useful to see what you writers judged attractive for other writers (apparently having someone say what NOT to do is as useful as what TO do, as half of you mentioned the "what not to do" thing).

And I have FINISHED THE BOOK TEXT, pending an approvals question. I've discovered that the great danger of self-publishing, at least for me, is that there's been nobody and no deadline to take the manuscript out of my endlessly questioning, pushing, correcting hands. So it feels good to finally declare, "Enough, I'm done" and move on. I'm really pleased with a lot of the new material, and I hope you will be too.

Anyway: emdashes.

The emdash has all the functions of the comma, semicolon, AND colon: It can be used to create pauses, introduce a list, or join two independent or dependent clauses. It is regarded as less formal than all of those marks, however, and they are all preferable in more formal writing. In narrative writing, I think of it as simultaneously more dramatic and more invisible than those marks; it is long enough to create a real pause, but because there generally aren’t any spaces around it, it also creates a continuous flow of text. It can thus be used for scenes where you want a flow of clauses unbroken by real stops, especially in stream-of-consciousness writing or action scenes:
The squid reached out—the oxygen tank dangling from the tip of its tentacle—I stretched the whole length of my body towards it—but then the shark jerked on my foot and pulled me away.
Compare that to:
The squid reached out, the oxygen tank dangling from the tip of its tentacle; I stretched the whole length of my body towards it, but then the shark jerked on my foot and pulled me away.
This second example is probably more correct, but because it allows the reader to slow down, it’s rather less dramatic. On the other hand, the first example is probably too dramatic, so it would be wise to strive for a nice balance between the two:
The squid reached out, the oxygen tank dangling from the tip of its tentacle. I stretched the whole length of my body towards it—but then the shark jerked on my foot and pulled me away.
What's nice about this one is that the emdash creates a brief little pause at the moment of highest suspense, like being at the top of a hill on a roller coaster: Will our narrator get the oxygen tank in time? And then the dash's length drags that moment out until the shark answers the question for us. A semicolon would have been incorrect there, and a comma or colon wouldn't have had the same sense of suspension, I don't think. I love dashes for just this drama and flexibility, though if you share my addiction to them, we need to remember that like all highly dramatic marks, they should be used sparingly.

The emdash is also used to set off interruptions, either within a sentence or at the end of it. (Parentheses could be used in this next example just as easily, but because they create a little commentary world unto themselves, closed off from the rest of the sentence, they seem like a bigger pause than emdashes to me.)
The dead squid—the only trustworthy kind, as far as Joan was concerned—lay limply on the dock.

I assure you, Officer, I have never eaten—HEY! Did you get a look at that squid?
My authors know that if Character X is speaking and Character Y interrupts him, I will almost always request that they end Character X’s speech with an emdash to signify X’s getting cut off abruptly.
Looking deeply into Selina’s larger left eye, Phil took her front tentacle in his and murmured, “My most beautiful Miss Bonnellii, will you do me the honor of becoming—”
“I WON!” screeched Ethel from across the restaurant.
Note: In typesetting, there are actually three kinds of dash marks:
  • hyphens, like so: - , which join two words into one closed compound
  • endashes, which were created in hand-typesetting using two hyphens (the length of an “n”), and which are used to join open compounds (like “the North Dakota–Minnesota border”; “North Dakota” is an open compound because it’s one word with a space in it) or to replace the word “to” (as in “1996–2000,” or “our California–Florida trip”)
  • and emdashes, which equal three hyphens (the length of an “m”), and are discussed above.
Writers are generally not expected to know about endashes. If you use hyphens and emdashes correctly, that’s good enough for most editors, and we’ll trust the endashes will be taken care of in copyediting.

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Colons


The colon. It can join two independent clauses as a semicolon does; it can link an independent and a related dependent clause as a comma or emdash do; or it can be used to introduce a list in which the items are separated by commas or semicolons. It is our house style (following the Chicago Manual, I believe) that complete sentences that follow a colon are to begin with a capped letter. Fragments or lists after the colon should begin with a lowercase letter.
The squid stared at me in surprise: It had evidently never seen a scuba diver shoot ink back at it before.

The squid opened its luminescent eyes: vast orbs glowing like Chinese lanterns.

Contact lenses for squids are available in the following colors: chartreuse, periwinkle, lilac, rose, and burnt sienna.
I hear the pause after a colon as longer than the pause after a semicolon because there should be two spaces after the mark as opposed to one (and the greater the space accorded to anything in a story, the greater the weight it has), and because the cap at the start of a new sentence carries its own weight.

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Semicolons

(This series explained in a previous post here; some nice official rules on semis here.)


Semicolons are stronger and heavier than commas, and as such, they create a slightly longer or more significant pause. The semicolon joins two independent clauses, usually on the same topic or thought. I frequently use them to join two independent clauses that are already joined by a conjunction, when I want the longer pause of a semi plus the aural smoothness of a conjunction; I have always thought this was technically wrong, but the rule list linked above assured me that this is acceptable so long as there is a comma in the first independent clause. (And considering the length of the sentences I write, there usually is!) These examples are apparently both correct:
Serendipitously, the squid surfed into sight at that second; startled, it squirted away.

Serendipitously, the squid surfed into sight at that second; but Sir Septimus screamed, and it squirted away.
If you are making a list in which the list items themselves contain commas, then the list items should be divided by semicolons as follows:
The squid ate five sardines; six mussels, which he found rather hard to open; seven anemones, sans clownfish; and a Boston cream pie.
Perhaps because they're used in so much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature, I often think of semicolons as a little bit formal or fussy; they're the maiden aunt of punctuation, as opposed to the boldness of a dash or the unobtrusiveness of a comma. But like many maiden aunts, they are wonderfully useful at keeping many unruly things in line, be they ideas, clauses, or commas. Indeed, because they're so good at neatly delineating multiple similar items within a sentence, I also feel like semicolons signal complexity; when used correctly, their presence in your prose says that you know how to present and manage all these items competing for the reader's attention -- that you have things under control.

Finally, Semikolon is an excellent German paper-goods company, should you be a stationery hound like I am.

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Commas

The following material is taken from my book, which is in its last editing stages, glory hallelujah. I'll probably post the rest of my goofy guide to punctuation over time.

Another ENEMY to sentence rhythm: the wrong punctuation. I am obsessed with punctuation because I am a very aural editor, and punctuation is (or should be) the writer's primary means of registering the tones and pauses in a dramatic scene. Pauses have drama, and too many pauses can make too much drama, but too few might make a reader miss some crucial information as the flow of words can overwhelm the facts within. Altogether, I agree with this wonderful quotation from Isaac Babel: “No steel can pierce the heart of man as icily as a full stop placed at the right moment.”

This, then, is the highly idiosyncratic Cheryl Klein Guide to Punctuation -- by no means a definitive guide to punctuation -- with the various marks analyzed in ascending order of their pause length and therefore drama. (The examples all involve squids for the lone reason that “squid” is a funny word.) If you would like a more serious guide to punctuation with clear and official rules of use, I suggest checking out http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/marks/marks.htm.


The lowly hardworking comma. It creates the briefest pause, used to establish a quick hitch in the flow of speech for either organizational or dramatic purposes. While every house or copyeditor has its own rules on how to use commas, I generally try to abide by the taste of the author and the point of the writing in question. For instance, technically, both of these sentences are correct:
I, personally, prefer the elegance of the glass squid to the asymmetry of the cock-eyed squid.

I personally prefer the elegance of the glass squid to the asymmetry of the cock-eyed squid.
The point of a sentence like this is not just to convey information about squid preferences, but to show the personality of the speaker. A very sententious, arrogant, or dramatic speaker might want those pauses around “personally” to emphasize that these are his personal tastes, and as such, you know, they’re not that important—at the same time implying that, because they’re his tastes, you might want to pay attention. A less sententious speaker might not want those pauses so the sentence flows faster and reads more smoothly (indeed, a speaker not wanting to draw attention to himself might delete the adverb altogether). Thus, depending on how much the writer and editor wanted to emphasize the speaker’s self-importance, those commas might be left in or taken away.

Because commas create pauses, a good rule of thumb is: The faster the action should move in a sentence or a scene, the fewer commas-of-choice you should have. Consider these two sentences:
The squid, furious, lashed out with six tentacles, grasping Martha about the neck.

The furious squid lashed out with six tentacles and grasped Martha about the neck.
Removing the commas-of-choice around the appositive "furious" and moving it back to become a preceding adjective makes the opening of the sentence move much more quickly, as the reader doesn't have to pause for the appositive. The additional value of "grasping" with comma vs. "and grasped" without is debatable, as I think long sentences without some pause actually get harder to read; but that may be because I'm just so much an aural reader that I want breathing spaces even in printed prose.

Of course, you can also use pauses to drag things out. In The Hunger Games example [that I quote in the book before this excerpt], the parallelism and many commas of “I will stare her down, I will not cry out, I will die, in my own small way, undefeated” hold the reader in suspense for the moment the knife will touch Katniss and cause her death, putting us on that same knife-edge.

Commas are also used to separate and organize items in a list:
The squid, ravenous, ate five sardines, six mussels, seven anemones, and a Boston cream pie.
That comma before the “and” here is known as the serial comma. Again, style varies from house to house and author to author, but I like having a comma before the “and” for maximum clarity. The writer and grammarian Martha Brockenbrough once tweeted this possibly apocryphal example of a book dedication: ‘To my parents, God and Ayn Rand.’” One hopes very much that a serial comma would have proved useful.

Squids 101: What I Like to See in an Artist's Portfolio

I went to an SCBWI portfolio viewing at the Society of Illustrators this afternoon. All of the portfolios there were very organized and professional, but for the benefit of illustrators who may not have had much guidance in putting a portfolio together, here are some things I like to see in them:
  • Your best work. Don't put substandard pieces in your portfolio just to fill out the book.
  • All the styles and/or media you feel proficient in. If you're comfortable doing black-and-white line art as well as watercolor and acrylic, feel free to put all three in, though I then suggest organizing the portfolio by medium so I can look at your style and skill in each one. Some illustrators create a separate portfolio for each style/medium, which is good to see if we're having a one-on-one critique, but less practical for general portfolio viewings like today's.
  • Illustrations involving human beings, particularly children, but also covering a decent range of ages, races, genders, settings, and especially expressions. I don't mean that you have to have twenty portraits in your portfolio where the first is an old black woman rejoicing, the next a two-year-old Asian boy crying, the third George Clooney beaming: Just be sure that your illustrations include more than smiling white people.
  • N.B.I.: It's the smiling there that can really annoy me -- when I look at a picture of 10 kids on a school bus, say, and all of them have the exact same vacant beaming expression, then you're not creating individual characters so much as a group stare, which might feel warm but will also feel flat. I'm looking for the individuality that comes out of your characters -- a sense of how real and alive those people are, no matter what medium or style you use.
  • N.B.II.: If you are at all inclined towards caricature or portraiture, it's nice and fun to include a portrait or illustration of some easily recognizable famous figure as rendered by you. (Andy Rash and Sean Qualls are experts at this.) This allows me to get a quick handle on your style by seeing how it compares to the real person. Moreover, the biographical picture book is alive and well, so it's good to know you can recreate real people with accuracy and verve.
  • Illustrations involving animals, either anthropomorphized or real -- whatever your style is best suited for. I would suggest that you have at least two or three of the following common picture-book animals somewhere in your portfolio: a dog, a cat, a dinosaur, a cow, a pig, a chicken, a duck, a horse, a rabbit, a wolf, an elephant, a mouse, a tiger.
  • While we're talking common subjects, it could be useful and fun to have pieces showing your unique take on any of the following: a ballet class; firefighters or fire trucks (or other cars and trucks); a farm; dinosaurs (again); a goodnight scene. These subjects may be familiar, but they never go away completely, and we'll always be looking for new takes on these old stories. (This is not a requirement by any means.)
  • A few (3-4) pieces with the same subject, ideally a few consecutive spreads from the same story (extra points for having the text on the page). This could be an original story or a familiar text -- Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales are good choices for their familiarity (though I must say that most first-time illustrators will probably not be able to get either a Mother Goose book or a fairy tale retelling published in an overcrowded market). This allows me to see how you handle the same characters in different perspectives, positions, and situations; what parts of the written narrative you choose to highlight in your picture; how you transition from one scene/emotional atmosphere to another; and how you choose to advance the story through your illustrations.
  • Better still: A sketch dummy of your current project, with perhaps one piece of final art. It is probably not wise to make full final art of a book until it's sold, as the editor and art director will likely have some suggestions for you, but I love seeing sketch dummies, as they show how you sustain a story over 32 pages and how you handle your characters and their emotions.
  • N.B.: It's fairly common to see a couple of consecutive letters from an ABC in a portfolio, and while it's always interesting, it ends up being more of a stylistic demonstration than a narrative one. If you're going to spend the pages in a portfolio, narrative progression is generally more compelling, revealing, and useful.
  • If you have an interest in doing book jackets for novels, make some mockups of new jackets for already published books. I'll throw out three covers that could be fascinating to revisit: Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay. (Not that there's anything wrong with those original covers -- just that they provide a wide range of subject matter and characters for you to reillustrate.)
  • A few pieces showing the thing you're most passionate about or you most enjoy illustrating (if they weren't already incorporated in the above). That will likely be the thing you're best at illustrating as well, and it's great to know you're fantastic at and love to create sea scenes, for example, in case a manuscript set on the beach comes across my desk.
  • Samples, postcard-size or larger, including your name, phone number, e-mail address, snail-mail address, and website, and at least one piece of your very best work, as chosen by a couple of honest friends. A good sample makes me think, in order, (1) "Ooh, I love this piece!" (2) "Ooh, I want to see more!" and (3) "Ooh, I'll check out her website right now!" Any sample smaller than a postcard means it's difficult to see the art properly and start the process at (1), which is why I request that specifically.
  • N.B.: If you have not yet published a book and you do not have a website, please make one. I have heard illustrators say that it's difficult to maintain a website on top of everything else they have to do for their careers, and I sympathize; but there is no better way (besides this portfolio) to show me the whole range of what you're capable of, and sometimes a website is even better, as I can share it more quickly with colleagues and access it 24/7. Even a blogspot account (a la Dan Santat) is useful in showing the range of your work and the new stuff you're working on.
When I look at a portfolio, what I'm really trying to see is the illustrative equivalent of a writer's voice: the kinds of things you like to draw; your skill at rendering real life (even if said life involves dragons or fairies); the qualities of your unique style; how that style transforms real life; its emotional range; how that style might be applied to the manuscripts I have on my desk or future manuscripts that might come my way. So it is important to note that the bullet points above are all suggestions and not prescriptions: If you don't like drawing animals and you're not good at them, then by golly don't include them in your portfolio. Show me who you are illustratively, what you're good at and what you have a passion for, and the best projects will come out of those things.

For further advice on picture-book publishing, I recommend Marla Frazee's website (click on "Studio") and, always, the list of SCBWI Publications. And any editors, designers, or artists who happen to read this, please feel free to offer your own suggestions as well.

Notes from a Weekend + One More Squid 101

  • The SCBWI Writers' Intensive on Friday was, in a word: intense. In two hours, nine writers and I critiqued their nine 500-word manuscript excerpts in twelve-minute bursts, boom-boom-boom round the table. I enjoyed it, even though I was exhausted afterward, and I worried that perhaps things went too quickly for the writers to record or process the criticism . . . but I do hope the writers who attended got something out of it as well.
  • One problem that came up a lot in these excerpts: in a novel, a first paragraph that, in trying to set up the situation, ended up explaining it, thereby destroying much of the suspense or surprise (and therefore the reader's pleasure) in what was to come. To test this on your own ms., cover up your first paragraph and start reading with your second: Is that where the action starts? Is it perhaps a more involving, less portentous beginning? (This is also worth trying on the chapter level.)
  • I arrived late to the kids' book drinks night at Bar Nine, but whoo! Writers, artists, editors, agents, even a Newbery winner in there . . . Cheers to Betsy and Alvina for staging a fine event.
  • Instruction for all illustrators everywhere, but especially ones who display their work at next year's SCBWI art show/reception: GET A WEBSITE. If I like your piece, I will want to see more of what you can do, and the easiest way for that to happen is if you have a website I can visit and see your style beyond what you showed at the show. Thank you.
  • If you like reading about writers' processes, the ever-fabulous Jennifer Crusie is reworking her novel You Again and will be talking about it on her blog.
  • Todd Alcott compares-and-contrasts two of my favorite films, It Happened One Night and The Sure Thing (the young John Cusack -- be still my heart), and brilliantly deconstructs Green Eggs and Ham.
  • Or heck, I'll take the old John Cusack too.
  • Last night I saw City Center Encores! production of Follies, with the incredible lead cast of Victoria Clark, Donna Murphy, Michael McGrath (Patsy from Spamalot), and Victor Garber -- yes, the beloved badass (there is no other word for him) Jack Bristow. It's one of Sondheim's concept shows, far less story than songs and style -- but what songs and style! "Broadway Baby," "Losing My Mind," "I'm Still Here," and some wonderful 1930s Berlinesque pastiche, terrifically staged, sung, and choreographed.
  • And today I saw "Children of Men." It starts with the nightmare proposition that, in the year 2027, no children have been born on the planet for 18 years. Flu pandemics have come and gone; mushroom clouds have swallowed New York. Britain is the only stable nation left, and it's a police state that seems primarily dedicated to locking up illegal aliens. Theo Faron (the marvelous Clive Owen) is drawn into a plot to smuggle one of these aliens out of the country for a world-changing reason: She's pregnant. The war-torn world shown in the picture is depressing and scary as all hell -- and happening somewhere on the planet right now, I know -- but Theo's journey from walking-deadness to hope and purpose is beautifully realized, and even when it's showing death and destruction, the cinematography and direction are so gorgeous, so powerful, so incredibly accomplished, I didn't want to look away. (If Emmanuel Lubezki doesn't win Best Cinematography, I will throw things at my television.) (The Academy quakes in fear.) I'm not sure what the film is saying in the end, nor do I want to think through the plot too closely, but for pure visceral world-building, style, and storytelling, only "The Departed" came close to it in 2006.
  • Oh, and a homophone I forgot:

discreet: (adj) judicious in one's conduct or speech, esp. with regard to respecting privacy or maintaining silence about something of a delicate nature; prudent; circumspect; showing prudence and circumspection; decorous; modestly unobtrusive; unostentatious

If you'd like to tell a secret / I would recommend a squid; / They will listen to your story / And close tighter than a lid. / They're discreet, restrained, remarkable, / All ego and no id; / For confidence in confidantes, / Always trust the squid.

discrete: (adj) apart or detached from others; separate, distinct

Then I spied five discrete sucker marks on the knife, and I knew: Jack the Squidder had struck again.

SQUIDS 101: Commonly Confused Homophones

I often see these common homophones confused online and in printed matter, and I thought a quick and handy guide might be of use to readers. All definitions are taken or adapted from Dictionary.com; all examples, as will become clear very quickly, are my own.

complement: (n) something that completes or makes perfect; (v) to complete; form a complement to.
The squid's hot-pink tentacles were the perfect complement to her sterling-silver skin.
compliment: (n) an expression of praise, commendation, or admiration; (v) to pay a compliment to.
Squids are a highly sycophantic species; they can spend a flood of ink in compliments.

eminent: (adj) high in station, rank, or repute; prominent; distinguished; conspicuous, signal, or noteworthy; lofty; high; prominent; projecting; protruding
The Great Sand Squid of the Kalahari is the most eminent example of the rarely seen desert variety (suborder Oegopsina, family Psanditeuthidae).
imminent: (adj) likely to occur at any moment; impending
If you feel a squid attack is imminent, remember: Do not use nunchucks.

faze: (v) to cause to be disturbed or disconcerted; daunt.
The squid was unfazed by my display of underwater kung fu.
phase: (n) a stage in a process of change or development; (v) to plan or carry out systematically by phases.
Common Phrases: phase in; phase out
Many young squids go through a Goth phase; only rarely is it cause for concern.

foreword: (n) a short introductory statement in a published work, as a book, esp. when written by someone other than the author
Dr. Mollusc wrote the foreword to Madam Calamari's classic study Squids and Sensibility.
forward: many definitions, most commonly (adj/adv) onward, (adj) ready, prompt, or eager, and (v) to advance.
The squid was very forward in his approaches, and I rebuked him for his uncouth manners.

mantel: (n) An ornamental facing around or a protruding shelf over a fireplace
Where most humans would mount their prizes over the mantel, squids apparently preferred to employ them as lawn ornaments.
mantle: (n) something that covers, envelops, or conceals; a loose, sleeveless cloak or cape; a single or paired outgrowth of the body wall that lines the inner surface of the valves of the shell in mollusks and brachiopods; (v) to cover with or as if with a mantle; to flush, blush
The squid's mantle mantled chartreuse in recognition of the compliment.

peak: (n) the pointed top of anything; the highest or most important point or level; (v) to attain a peak; to become weak, thin, and sickly
Stan Stanford and the Squids' latest record, "The Cephalopod Shuffle," peaked at number 127 on the charts.
peek: (n) a quick or furtive look or glance; (v) to look or glance quickly or furtively, esp. through a small opening or from a concealed location.
Common Phrases: take a peek, sneak peek (NOT "sneak peak")
Two squids in love peek / At a sweet tentacle's touch; / Six hearts beat as one.
peke: (n abbrev, short for "Pekingese"): A small yappy dog of Chinese origin.
The squid considered today's specials: peke, bichon, pug, or chihuahua?
pique: (n) a feeling of irritation or resentment, as from a wound to pride or self-esteem. (v) to wound, to excite, to arouse an emotion or provoke to action.
Common Phrases: a fit of pique; to pique one's interest (NOT "to peak one's interest")
My poking piqued the peke on the peak to peek at the hungry squid below.

pore over: (v) to read, study, gaze at, ponder, or meditate upon something with steady attention or application
Squids and Sensibility is widely regarded as the Moby-Dick of the mollusc world, and I pored over it for hours.
pour over: (v) to issue, move, or proceed in great quantity or number: to flow forward or stream
The squids poured over the coral reef in a Teutonic display of Teuthida power.

principal: (n) One who holds a position of presiding rank, especially the head of an elementary school or high school; a main participant in a situation; the main body of an estate or financial holding as distinguished from the interest or revenue from it. (adj) First, highest, or foremost in importance, rank, worth, or degree.
My principal objections to the plan were 1) the height, 2) the giant squid, and 3) Barry Manilow.
principle: (n) a rule or standard; an essential quality
The first principle of Squid School is -- you do not talk about Squid School.

stationary: (adj) not moving; having a fixed position
The fire squid remained stationary -- but for how long?
stationery: (n) writing paper and materials
As I picked up the stationery, my heart beat like a rare Euprymna scolopes, for there, in the corner, gleamed a tiny silver squid.