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Cormac McCarthy's style is worthy of a topic all its own. I've read all his books. Hasn't written a bad one, though some owe more or less of a debt to Faulkner. Anyway, to the point: he doesn't use any "quotes", apostrophes, bold, or italics in his prose. His decision to do so certainly has the effect of making the words on the page seem more streamlined and useful.

Can writers do without it? And, is copying from his style guide too derivative?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

The main thing you need to keep in mind is your readers. I know a couple of people personally who chose not to read one or more of McCarthy's books for this very reason (their loss). Most readers are going to expect to see quotation marks at the very least, and they may feel disoriented or become easily confused by the dialog without them. McCarthy got around this in "The Road" by minimizing the dialog. He is also very good at pulling readers in with a very good story. This works for him because he has such talent as a storyteller.

I would recommend that if you are going to try this, you should make sure that your story is very, very good. Try running it by a couple of beta readers to get their feedback. Make sure that they are able to follow the story and keep track of the dialog between characters. If they are, then you'll be much more likely to get away with this.

Ultimately, though, this is a matter of personal preference. You can choose to do this, but be aware that you are likely to be compared to McCarthy as a result. If you are compared to him because your story flows just as well or is just as engrossing, then that is a good thing. If you are compared just because readers see you as a derivative copycat, that isn't a good thing!

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I think when you use the word 'copying' in your question, you've already got your answer. It's his style, and I agree, it works for him. But that doesn't mean it would work for you!

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Perhaps: "Adapting" or "Implementing" ;; (copying) – cbroughton Nov 11 '11 at 14:57

"Streamlined and useful"? Which means punctuation is useless clutter? Ask the legendary guy whose life was saved by Czarina Maria Fyodorovna's misplaced comma. ("Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia" vs "Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.")

Having never read any of McCarthy's work, I can say that such lack of punctuation and formatting would make me claw my eyes out. Or throw the book across the room. Or go through an entire box of red pens fixing the text.

If you want to make your medium part of your message (your content), write poetry or graphic novels. Books which experiment in form are.... interesting, but not terribly re-readable. Gael Baudino wrote a whole trilogy where she kept switching not merely narrator and POV, but the entire narrative style: parts were standard narration, then parts were being told by a marketing guy as he was getting mugged, then parts were a stone-cutting manual which was increasingly crossed out and being used as a religious text.... seriously, it just got weirder and weirder. That's not storytelling; it's word-jazz.

To answer the title of your question, I'd call it not just a bug, but a stack-ran-into-heap reboot-the-machine complete-kernel-panic bluescreen-of-death error. Wipe the drive and start over.

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I would write the message as either pardon is impossible. send this man to siberia, or I'd use pardon this man. it's impossible to think of sending him to siberia. Either way, the wording is clear. In your example, it isn't. Just look at the word structure: are you sending pardon to siberia in the first example, or impossible in the second? No, of course not. His thesis, or conceit, is that if the sentence structure is strong, all the extra do-dads aren't necessary. It seems you've made his point and mine without meaning to. ;^) – user2841 Nov 8 '11 at 19:29
Why bother? Hunter S. Thompson sat down and typed out The Great Gatsby in its entirety for the sole purpose of trying to understand F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing style, and to see how it felt to write a classic. He did this with other authors, too, purely to get better at his craft; not emulating, but understanding. I imagine writing without punctuation falls under the same category. If you removed all the punctuation from your writing, and really thought about saying what you needed to in a way that didn't need it, you'd gain quite a good skill at achieving clarity. – Craig Sefton Nov 8 '11 at 22:30
To me that's like writing a novel without the letter E. You get very skilled at figuring out synonyms and circumlocutions, but again... why? Why deliberately take the tool out of your toolbox? It's Red Shorts Syndrome. If you see a guy win a race wearing red shorts, do you go out and buy a pair of red shorts and assume you'll win your next race? Or do you look up his training regimen and adapt it to your own running style? Mimicking someone else's style ultimately teaches you how to be a good mimic. If you want to be a good writer, you have to work on your own style. – Lauren Ipsum Nov 9 '11 at 1:38
@bwkaplan: If the Czarina was writing in Russian, there wouldn't have been a copula anyway. – Robusto Nov 9 '11 at 2:16
@LaurenIpsum, couldn't agree more with your last sentence. – user2841 Nov 9 '11 at 12:40

While I'll tolerate it with McCarthy because it gives a certain feel to his book that's appropriate, I'm not as forgiving with other authors. The novel Rules of Civility by Amor Towles uses an em dash in front of each line of dialog. Distracted me throughout and bugged me. Not a bad book, but I won't go out of my way to recommend it just because it annoyed me. There seemed no purpose in deviating from more standard styles, it felt pretentious.

So I'd think long and hard about what it does, or doesn't do, for your novel. Will it distract the reader?

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Do not read Spanish books. All which I've read so far use dashes to mark dialogues. – John Smithers Nov 8 '11 at 20:01
The em-dash thing is standard in several European languages. Was the book translated? Or was she deliberately aping that style? – JSBձոգչ Nov 9 '11 at 18:59

McCarthy did it because his writing is strong enough to allow him to get away with it. James Joyce did it too.

My fellow students in fourth grade also wrote with little or no punctuation. As far as I know not one of my classmates ever had a novel published. (Yeah, maybe they never wrote one...)

There are many writers who can't sell a novel with impeccable punctuation, grammar, and word choice. Why tempt the gods?

After your first published novel see if you can get your publisher to try one without punctuation..

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Depends on your goal for your writing. If you ever want to sell your work commercially, you better stick to conventional formatting. You won't be able to get away with breaking the rules unless you are as famous a writer as McCarthy.

Or you could self-publish.

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Can writers do without it? Yes, since Cormac McCarthy has demonstrated that. The real question is: "Should writers do without it?". The answer to that will be one of opinion, depending on the person answering.

Is copying from his style guide too derivative? No. Writing is a skill and a craft that is learned, and writers will use advice that they find useful. Use what works for you, discard what doesn't.

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