Never Write a Novel With an En-dash in the Title

Lessons from a literary debut.

Never write a novel with an en-dash in the title. You’ll finally learn the alt code, after months of searching “en-dash” in another tab and copying the result every time you type your own novel’s name, but the real issue is that you’re going to be filling out a lot of forms, on Kirkus and Indiebound and Amazon, and half the forms will automatically convert your en-dash into a hyphen, and you’ll wonder if everyone who reads your title on one of those websites with one of those forms will assume you don’t know how to appropriately punctuate a date range.

You probably shouldn’t have a title with two sets of colons, either. You hadn’t planned to have to type The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989–2000 into all of those forms, because you always visualized it the way it would look on your novel’s cover. Only one colon, and a hard return. (Some of the forms let you submit the post-hard-return half of your title as a subtitle, and you wonder if splitting the title in some instances but not others will mess up your SEO.)

Mention the title as soon as you can, though, and give a link. Editors can swap your link for one that includes their publication’s Amazon affiliate code, you’re all for everyone making money, but the link has to be there. Nobody’s going to run their finger over the title of your novel, all nine words and two colons, and tap Copy. New Tab. Paste.

Readers will wonder what your book is about and you will have to figure out a way to tell them. Most books are about how to live; that’s why you wrote this one, anyway, to ask yourself the question of how to live and see if you can answer it by imagining characters living in a variety of ways. But you can’t say that. Saying your book is about how to live is even more pretentious than putting an en-dash and two colons in the title.

You could say it is a Millennial novel, which is true, but that will make some people presume that it’s all about tech and selfies and not buying paper napkins. Douglas Coupland but pink. You could also say it is a contemporary Little Women, which is what you say most often, because that is the other reason why you wrote it. “I wanted that type of story to exist,” you say again and again, “in our own time period.”

Some people will automatically assume you’re writing “domestic fiction,” while you think of it as “a look into the different paths young women choose for themselves as they move from childhood to adulthood.” There used to be stacks of those types of novels, Wilder and Lovelace and Montgomery and Alcott side-by-side in boxed sets, and then women stopped writing them—until Ferrante, whose Neapolitan Novels become popular while you are in the middle of your first draft. You avoid even looking at them until you’re done with your revisions, and then you read all four in two weeks.

You’ll do an interview in which your first volume is compared to Ferrante’s, and you will wonder how to feel about that. More specifically, you’ll wonder if you should feel bad for feeling so happy. This is exactly what you want, which means it feels shameful. To be worth the comparison. Or worse—to have your novel’s merits inflated, which would mean your happiness would be about something that isn’t even true.

After all, not all of the reviewers were so complimentary. Kirkus will give your writing a respectable amount of praise but will also ask why everyone in your novel is “so polite.” Like Wilder and Lovelace and Montgomery and Alcott and (assumedly) Ferrante, you set your novel where you grew up: in the rural Midwest, where politeness is as stifling as humidity. You will learn there is at least one part of your novel that readers and reviewers may not understand. You wonder if that means you have written it poorly.

At this point you should mention that Foreword Clarion Reviews gave your novel five stars. “The Biographies of Ordinary People contains artful writing and delicately drawn characters who navigate through the universal tragedies and triumphs of everyday life. This first volume is deeply satisfying.” You can breathe in and out on those two words, like a meditation. Deeply satisfying.

You should never lead with the fact that you’re self-published. You can get really far without mentioning it at all. When you’re sending out ARCs or setting up readings at bookstores, just give them the title and the link and your five-star review. Or write that you’re published via Pronoun, and let them click the link and learn that Pronoun is a publishing service for independent authors. (Which, by the way, you will recommend thoroughly.)

You can, however, use the self-publishing factor as a marketing tool—plus the fact that you funded the draft of your novel through Patreon. Plenty of people want to know how to write a novel and plenty of people want to know how to earn money by writing a novel, and you’ve done both. This means you can frame your novel as a success before it is even published.

Whether your novel will be a success is still to be determined—though you can guess already that it might not, five-star reviews and Ferrante comparisons aside. It is successful because you did it. It is financially successful because you have not yet spent more, to publish and promote the novel, than you earned from the Patreon project. You can say all of these things but you know there is another marker of success out there—well, multiple markers, because you know that the trad publishing world counts a “successful” literary fiction novel as one that sells 3,000–5,000 copies, and you also know that there’s the type of success that derives from momentum; from being good and having everyone talk about you at the same time.

You do not think you will have that kind of momentum, for the same reasons you weren’t ever popular in high school.

You will eventually type “how does novel win Pulitzer” into Google and learn that anyone can submit their novel to be considered for the Pulitzer Prize, they don’t care if you’re self-published or not, all you need is $50 and enough faith in your own work. You do not think you will win the Pulitzer, but you know that you won’t win unless you enter. Plus, it’ll ensure your novel is read by at least one more person who cares about literary fiction from both a narrative and structural standpoint, and that’s worth the entry fee.

You can imagine winning, but you can’t imagine winning, to turn the phrase. You didn’t even know that what you had written was technically called a bildungsroman until after you had written it, and the one time you tried to say “bildungsroman” during a podcast interview you realized you didn’t know how to pronounce it. You thought you were writing a novel about how to live. Or how to become the person you want to be despite your circumstances, which is the other thing novels are always about, this is why we have so many books about teens fighting evil empires and adults fighting either fidelity or infidelity, depending on the author’s point of view vis-à-vis marriage.

(You do know how to pronounce vis-à-vis.)

But the thing is that you were always this person regardless of your circumstances, you were writing novels on the back sides of printer paper since you were five. You were going to end up here eventually, scrap paper turning into Lisa Frank notebooks and then the glowing light of the word processor, writing and failing and literally processing until you get to today, your literary fiction debut and a book launch this evening at a local bookstore.

So you can say authoritatively—pun intended—that your book is not autobiography, because someone will ask that tonight at the Q&A.

You shouldn’t have paid $75.24 to print promotional cards asking people to preorder your book, because you barely handed any of them out. You shouldn’t have bought the $250 pack of ISBNs from Bowker because Pronoun gives you an ISBN for free. (You should mention at some point that you also write for Pronoun’s blog The Verbs, but they asked after you published your book with them, so it isn’t a conflict of interest when you recommended Pronoun earlier because you would have recommended them anyway.)

There are things you’ll do differently when you publish The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004–2016 next year, you’ve made lists, but you’re stuck with your structure and your setting and your characters who might be too polite, and your presumptuous goal to write a two-volume series about how to live, and your title with its en-dash and two colons.

Which is fine, because these are exactly the books you’ve always wanted. You can lose yourself in them—which is a strange phrase to use regarding something you’ve written that was at least 20 percent based on your own childhood, but it’s true. To forget oneself completely is an extraordinary thing. You barely need to add—but you will—that pausing whatever track the mind is currently autoplaying to be fully present and/or fully absorbed is one of the reoccurring themes of how to live. It is also deeply satisfying.

That’s the lesson you’ll end with, the one you didn’t expect: that you can write something that is both from you and separate from you. You’ve written enough sentences that some of them still surprise you. You’ve heard enough reader response to be impressed by both the similarity and the variety. In a few hours you will go to a bookstore and eat cake and answer a few questions and read a few pages and then—you hope—everyone else will read the book on their own.