A few years ago, I attended a nonfiction-writing workshop where I was told by the instructor that to qualify as nonfiction, a work must adhere as strictly to truth as possible. But such an edict rests on the naïve assumption that truth itself is knowable. The clean, white dividing line between fiction and nonfiction is, itself, a fiction. Truth is as nebulous as fantasy.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, I spent a number of years living aboard a small sailboat, traveling through the Bahamas, crossing the Atlantic to Gibraltar, and living among a community of inspiring, colorful people who chose life afloat over terrestrial existence. I made several attempts to write my stories, and finally published my memoir twenty years later.
I began by writing individual stories, one at a time. Eventually, I had a collection of almost fifty. I placed them in mostly-chronological order and began to work them into a book with a single story arc that tied them together. Fifty stories became one big one.
For research, I dug into my past and conducted interviews with people who were “there,” some of whom I hadn’t spoken with for two decades. Opening long-closed doors was scary and exhilarating, and it revealed curious things about the nature of truth. As I asked questions, reminisced, and listened to the memories of those who shared pieces of my adventure, I found they remembered things I didn’t. I remembered things they couldn’t recall. Some of the things we both remembered, we remembered differently. “No, that was me who said that to you!” If some absolute, factual version of truth lies beneath the memories, perceptions, and other aspects of consciousness that filter reality, getting at it is a romantic fantasy. Facts are colored by memory, viewing angle, and time. Truth is an unattainable absolute. Continue reading →
In my work with writers, I come across many common technical problems with manuscripts. These usually spring from the best of intentions as the writer attempts to create the feel of the finished book within the manuscript. Though they’re trying to be helpful, it requires more of the typesetter’s time to strip out all of these stylistic additions. When it comes to manuscripts, simpler is better.
Here are ten tips for writers to consider while they create their manuscripts and ready their books for the design and production process.
1. The double space – Digital typefaces have carefully designed kerning tables that control spacing between various pairs of letters. That way a capital “A” can nest closer to a capital “W” than it would to another capital “A.” Most style manuals specify single spaces but if you want wide spacing, ask your typesetter to insert emspaces. Emspaces are single characters—wide spaces, not double-spaces. Double-spaces were a convention that attempted to get typewriters to imitate the wide spacing seen in book typography prior to the early 1960s when electronic typesetting methods took over. The first thing your typesetter will do is convert all your double spaces to single spaces but if you can break the double-space habit, you’ll save a step. Read more about sentence spacing here. (Really! Read it, especially before commenting.)
Don’t put double spaces after a period. Your typeface already knows how much space is required.
Additionally, consecutive spaces are often used by writers who don’t understand how to set tabs and indents. An indent is not equivalent to five spaces. Indentation is controlled in your word processor’s paragraph settings dialogue or by manipulating the rulers above the text (see below).
Don’t use consecutive spaces to move text around. Use tabs and justification. When it comes right down to it, don’t use double spaces at all. Continue reading →
EPub3 eBooks offer a cornucopia of technological promises, but a recent study shows that eReader device manufacturers have been slow to embrace the possibilities. Granted, the statistics are not weighted to emphasize one feature over another. You may find support for “fixed layout” to be more important than support for “font embedding.” But the ePub3 eBook format was launched in October of 2012; publishers and device manufacturers are missing the ePub3 boat. This article suggests possible reasons for the format’s lack of support and suggests alternatives.
The Readium extension for Chrome (Google’s web browser) supports 72.5% of ePub3’s features—and it runs in a web browser, not in an eReader device. Popular dedicated eReader hardware scored lower with Kobo supporting only 46% of ePub3’s features, the Kindle Fire supporting 32.3%, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook supporting only 16.7%.
Notable is that the eReaders offering the best support for ePub3 are those that leverage the capabilities of a web browser. Over 50% of eBooks are consumed on devices other than dedicated eReaders—and most of these devices already include on-board web browsers. I proposed in an earlier post that the browser may well become the preferred eBook delivery channel. That was almost a year ago and only a few major publishers have even shown up at the ePub3 dock. Continue reading →
The good folks over at Smith Book Publicity were kind enough to publish a guest post I wrote about “Writing the Cover Blurb,” that oh-so-difficult-to-write-well description that appears on the backs of book covers and on inside jacket flaps.
Book design has changed since publishing became a gigantic industry. Typesetting was once performed by trained craftsmen who apprenticed to masters before inking their own plates. Phototypesetting arrived in the 1960s and by the late 1980s, digital publishing transferred the job to a new generation of young, digital artists. Much of the old wisdom got left behind—paved over by the pixel. This article looks at a piece of design history—page layout—and places that history in a practical contemporary context.
Book Design: The Role of History
I bought my first Macintosh in 1987. I remember learning Pagemaker and stumbling over concepts like “leading.” Why not just call it line spacing? I learned about publishing technology and worked in the field, but it wasn’t until I started teaching college design classes (jobs I got because I knew the software) that I encountered the history of design and its value. My students were talking about Constructivism and the Bauhaus School and Pushpin Studios. I was all about Beziér curves, vector graphics, and the clone tool. The Graphic Design department chair looked me in the eye one day. “Get ready,” she said. “You’re teaching History of Graphic Design next quarter—and you’d better know your shit.”
You threw a grand party but nobody came. Your novel is so good but you’re not selling books. What happened? You were supposed to appear on Oprah’s show. Terry Gross isn’t calling you for an interview. You may be an ace at managing dialog and avoiding clichés in your writing, but what do you know about the publishing business? Did you do the math?
Notwithstanding the fact that Oprah’s Book Club has been off the air for years, the quandary is simple: Even if you set your seller commission at 20%, A $20 hardcover book delivers $4 to the bookstore and about $12.50 to the printer/distributor. Your cut is $3.50.
Most publishers give 50% of the cover price to the seller. Better bump your price up to $32! $16.00 goes to the seller, $12.50 goes toward printing and shipping, and you’re left with $2.50/book.
Like anyone’s going to pay $32 for a book!
Did you publish through a vanity press? Add your “publisher’s” commission to the price of every book. And they‘ll be setting the price, not you.
Now figure in other costs: graphic design, typesetting, editing—and heaven forbid you should actually get compensated for your writing and research time. How many books will you need to sell at a given price point to break even?
Dialogue presents challenges for writers. Some prefer to simply declare what was “said.” Many authors feel that “said” is both traditional and invisible:
“I’m going to write some dialogue,” said Bill.
“I look forward to reading it, ”said Helene.
But this style is not invisible. Some narrator is telling us what happened—as if the characters spoke in some other time and place and we’re hearing a play-by-play of their conversation after the fact.“Said,” is past tense. Others object to the mindless repetition of “said, said, said.” Continue reading →
Are images analogous to words? Is what makes a sentence sound “right” the same thing that makes an image “pop” or a jazz solo “burn?” The similarities are noteworthy but the differences are important. Just as the best of writers seek the guidance of an editor, smart publishers rely on book designers who understand the “grammar of design.”
Good design, like good writing, communicates clearly and effectively. It all boils down to some sort of archetypal math. The “golden rectangle,” for example, has proportions that are pleasing to everyone. Though much of design is pure opinion, some of its power is as mysterious and universal as love. But at least part of it can be described in terms of how a page provides intuitive visual clues to its elements’ hierarchy of importance, and to what the literal and symbolic meanings of those elements are.
Visual confusion and tension are fine as long as there’s some sort of payoff that makes the visual anxiety worth the angst; M.C. Escher was a master of that. In the same way, we can write playful sentences that present amusing confusion; they’re logically impossible but they sound right. Optical illusions create conflicts of perspective. Semantic illusions are similar; they’re simultaneously grammatically correct and logically absurd:
Do you walk to work or bring a lunch?
What is the difference between an orange?
On a scale of one to ten, what is your favorite color?
I'd like a large with no ice, please.
Is it faster to Chicago or by bus?
Others present annoying confusion; they’re logically correct and easy to understand, but they sound (and are) wrong.
I think York is the best town in which a person could live in.
Why couldn't they just build it gooder?
The meanings of the sentences in the second set of examples are much clearer than those of the first examples but they register as “wrong” all the same. Continue reading →
“Passive writing” refers to a specific set of grammatical circumstances where emphasis switches from subject to object.
The money was stolen by Jill.
Jill stole the money.
This is confusing if you’re writing about Jill but perfectly acceptable if you’re answering a question about what she stole (or if you’re writing an “unanticipated circumstances were encountered by our agency” speech designed to shift the reader’s focus away from your latest political travesty and onto the “circumstances”). But other styles of writing can appropriately be described as “passive.” This article refers to them as “timid.”
Timid writing is one of the most common problems I encounter while editing; it’s the bad habit of the humble writer. Especially when writers first start out, they don’t want to appear arrogant or overly assertive so they avoid absolutes in favor of merely admitting possibility.
It might rain.
It could get better.
This may be the answer.
Timid writing is characterized by wishy-washy woulda-coulda-shoulda language. Quite often, it’s not grammatically incorrect; it’s just weak. Bold writing is not arrogant; it’s confident and direct—things you should be as a writer. Try these suggestions:
Generic descriptions are telltale signs of lazy writing. Add color to your writing by replacing overused and boring words.
It's such a nice day today.
He's very bright.
My dog is really funny.
Bill is a good soccer player.
Shari is in a bad mood today.
I received some happy news in my mailbox.
Barbara was sad to see Jim leave.
These words are commonly used in speech; they’re close-at-hand when we need a description on the fly. But unless a writer is intentionally emulating informal speech, these words make watery, vacuous, and weak additions to written prose.