Monday, February 24, 2014


(NOTE: I can still hear what you said to me:/You had some kind of job on the railway/And had nothing to do with the sea./You said a lot, Johnny,/All one big lie, Johnny./You cheated me blind, Johnny,/From the minute we met./I hate you so, Johnny,/When you stand there grinning, Johnny./Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat.)

Nostalgia wrecks history with an accumulative force equal to a constant diet of grilled lard and white sugar sandwiches. History is a record of the past, while nostalgia looks backward through a film of fairy dust. A lava lamp on display in an apartment is a sure sign whoever lives inside believes the sixties were the best time, I mean, man, the music, clothes (bring back the paisley print!), recreational drugs, and the movies. A historian’s view is different: Vietnam, CIA-sponsored assassinations, USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia, riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Richard Milhous Nixon.
History and nostalgia rarely reach an accord, one cursing the other as depressing or shallow. Neither should be left alone in the same room for any amount of time, yet both can be put to work and take us back to the halcyon days before the personal computer and word processing programs. Writers had only a single point size and typeface for their manuscripts. For designers and editors, life was much easier back then and many want to return, even those not born yet.
Fiction writers have few options since readers want the story told straightforward, no messing around. Still, lusty abuse of punctuation marks appears in manuscripts. When a line of dialogue ends in multiple exclamation marks or question marks between exclamation marks, the problem is with the words not having enough weight. What is being said needs attention and the addition of multiple screamers (!) in combination with queries (?) only shows the weaknesses of the text. Read any contemporary novelist with a highlighter in hand, mark any appearances of the screamer, and count them up. Not often, right? Follow their lead.
Nonfiction writers as a rule throw any pack of legibility rules out the window as they craft a manuscript. For reasons known only to them, the MicroSoft Word ruler of Document Elements and SmartArt must be used in order to get their ideas across. Throw in italic and bold in an assortment of typefaces and sizes, and what comes out is the digital equivalent of a ransom note. Making everything important makes nothing important. The reader will be immediately lost on account of so much crying out for attention.
Say an agent or editor decides to pick up the manuscript, regardless of its condition. Most of the word processing gewgaws refuse to translate into design programs and someone, likely low-paid, will have to strip out the formatting nonsense. They will not like you or the book, and will tell their friends and colleagues about the mangled condition of the manuscript. Since books are sold primarily by word of mouth, you want to avoid hearing these words. Headings can be marked (1 Heading) and down the line, and boxes marked >box< at the start and at the end. Keeping it simple gives the reader room to enter.
In John Ryder’s The Case for Legibility (NY: Moretus Press, 1979), he says, “The prognosis is not good. Discipline is needed to save the eyesight of the human race.” Think about this the next time the temptation arises to clutter a page with every doodad available. A writer’s job is to communicate ideas directly to the reader, not confuse and lose them to styles, shadings, drop caps, and eccentric typefaces. Looking at a page of text set in one typeface and size may seem boring at first, but their job is to give voice to the story, not to be the story. The best typography is always invisible, so get over your problems about their not being enough variety on the page. The life and energy of a book is always in the text.
Warm-blooded creatures that we are, the winter months drive us inside to huddle by the steam radiator the landlord refuses to fix. Finally getting down to hands and knees to scrub the grout growing between the octagonal tiles in the bathroom can only generate so much body heat. What you should be doing after shopping for supplies to last until the sun shines again is cracking the covers of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95), the well-known and much praised book about writing and publishing and the neat stuff in between. Boot up your computer and zip to for the address of your nearest independent bookstore. The umbrella stand is waiting for you, along with helpful clerks to cheer your selection. Right about now is time.
NEXT: Another Flea Means More Ointment

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