No froufrou

For some odd reason, I've been having a number of conversations about text froufrou lately. One of the posts that recently appeared on The Passive Voice is a screed about how ugly some self-published books are. The original post reads in part, "Like a lot of self-publishers, having control of lots of neat things like tinted boxes, type run-arounds, drop caps and automatic bullets apparently makes people think you need to use them all. On almost every page."

Of course he thinks you should hire a book designer--like him! Yeah, it's this guy. But (as I was discussing in a random conversation today) the problem with a lot of designers, even those who deal with text, is that they are art people and not text people, so they don't always read what they are laying out. Ever see an ad that reads something like, "THE finest automobile IN NORTH America, THE EL Carro tops quality SURVEYS" and wonder why in God's name those particular words have been emphasized? That's a hard-core art hedgehog at work. (No, editors aren't any better! The average editor heaps scorn on anyone who hasn't read Ezra Pound or is confused about the semicolon, yet can't balance their checkbook, understand why men are more likely to be color-blind than women, or set up a wireless Internet connection.)

I of course sagely advised using plain fonts for text in my guide to DIY publishing. And then I used a really obscure font in that guide that nobody else had on their computer. So close....

The issue of text froufrou also came up in that draft novel I was reading. In this case, it wasn't a design problem, it was an issue of emphasis. Like, there was a lot of emphasis in the dialog that didn't need to be there.

Am I guilty of this myself? Of course I am! When people speak, they emphasize certain words, and when you're trying hard to make your dialog sound realistic, I think it's very natural (and perhaps even beneficial in early drafts) to replicate that emphasis using italics.

But once the dialog is in place and the rhythms are locked down, you can do away with the indicators. In one of my final edits of Trang, I pulled out probably 90% of the italics--I realized that they were just getting in the way. That doesn't mean I don't still use them too much--in fact, I was able to recycle some advice I had received about Trust to the writer of the draft novel.

That advice was: Good dialog doesn't need italics.

Here's a little example to make my point:

Mrs. Bickerson: We're happy about it.

Mr. Bickerson: Some of us are happy about it.

You got that, right? You understand that Mr. Bickerson is not happy about it, and is annoyed with Mrs. Bickerson? I didn't need to write, "Some of us are happy about it" or "Some of us are happy about it" or even "-->SOME [Get it? Oh, snap! Someone's sleeping on the couch tonight!]<-- of us are happy about it." The contrast has done the trick.

Don't get me started on the "academics" who "decide" to "put" "quotation marks" "around" "every" "word," in order to "distance" "themselves" from the "concepts." (My favorite line from a book review? "This is 'annoying.'") I feel like if you can't embrace the concept, you shouldn't use the word--get yourself a thesaurus and find another one. I think the overuse of quotation marks is such a sign of lazy writing that I make a point of using the phrase "so-called" instead of putting quotes around a word that is being used ironically--I might resort to quotes eventually, but at least in an early draft I want to be aware of just how often I am using terminology that I can't stand behind. "Say what you mean and mean what you say" is a good rule of thumb on many levels.

And I had the above paragraph in parentheses, but man, those get over-used too.