Garamond Italic text

Aslant or Askew? Italics in Fiction

Recently I described some problems I had with italic characters in one of my books. And no, I don’t mean people from Italy; I’m talking about text in what is called italic type.

As the Wikipedia entry explains, italic type has been around for quite a while. It arose in imitation of calligraphic handwriting, hence its rightward slant. Italics have a certain ornamental quality, and are often used where elegance is required, as in wedding invitations.

Here is a great description from Wikipedia, of a specific type of italics:  “a more deliberate and formal handwriting [with] longer ascenders and descenders, sometimes with curved or bulbous terminals…” Love that typographical jargon!

Those longer ascenders and descenders are most evident in the letter “f,” which was the one that recently gave me grief when I was correcting a few errors in one of my books.

Image by Maat via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unreported license

That’s one problematic aspect of italics: space. Although italic text is overall more compact than regular text, certain italic letters need more space than their upright counterparts. The aforementioned “f” in particular. In the illustration above, you can see that both the curly descender and ascender project farther beyond the vertical axis of the italicized letter than the ordinary one. And look at that “z” in the featured image at the top of the post! Apparently italic Garamond is notorious for triggering warnings of insufficient gutter. I can say from experience that’s true of italic Palatino as well.

Garamond and Palatino are serif fonts. Those who use sans-serifs may not have to worry about this issue, since their version of italic forms is oblique type. This post is in a sans-serif font, so this letter “f,” although slanted, lacks the curly bits. I don’t like sans-serif fonts for novels, though.

Just the superficial research I’ve done for writing this post and selecting fonts for my books has reminded me of how interesting typography can be. Designing whole alphabets for function and beauty is an art, one that involves subtlety and attention to fine details. There are hundreds of typefaces. Wikipedia lists many of them, some with intriguing names, such as Skeleton Antique, Inconsolata, Roboto, and Ionic No. 5.

Italics are conventionally used to signal emphasis or distinction, such as words given extra stress, book and movie titles, ships’ names, and foreign words and phrases.

So what about using italics in fiction? Some writers say they are distracting and should be avoided. Others make exceptions for the conventional usages.

To the list of those usages some would add unspoken thoughts.

Ah yes, unspoken thoughts… My recent issue with italics wasn’t the first one I’ve blogged about. Since most of my writing is in first person, I am rather attached to italics for the narrator’s unvoiced thoughts. Several years ago, a discussion in my critique group provoked this blog post. It seems this use of italics is a hot topic among writers. Here is another discussion (see the comments!)

Despite all that, I think italics are a useful tool for conveying nuance in fiction. Words emphasized in dialogue and thoughts a narrator shares with the reader alone can be powerful. After circling the fabled mulberry bush a few times, I have decided on my own set of Principles of Italic Usage in Fiction.

  • Use italics in moderation and with clear intention.
  • Specific situations: emphasis, titles of works, foreign words, unspoken thoughts. The foreign words must be ones that haven’t been absorbed into everyday English. No italics for “en route” or “zeitgeist.” (And no capital “z” on that one, either.)
  • Italicize unspoken thoughts in first person narration. But keep them brief and few. And if there’s a thought tag, no italics. If italics, no thought tag. As in: I’ll live to regret this, I thought. Or: I’ll live to regret this.
  • No more than three consecutive sentences in italics. Preferably short sentences.
  • Be consistent. Use italics for the same things and in the same way throughout the work.

So writers and self-publishers: you may wish to cast a critical eye on italicized text in your works in progress and reduce it to a bare minimum. And when you’re formatting the print version of a book, watch out for italic “f’s” in the gutter.

Featured image shows Garamond Roman Italic type. Original uploader was Laug at en.wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

She Who Comes Forth book spine

Get It Right the First Time!

Since I am preparing to publish the sequel to my novel, She Who Comes Forth, I decided to correct three tiny typos in that book, which I published in 2018.

As usual, everything was fine until I tackled the print version. I made the corrections in the original Word document and used Save As to create a new PDF. Note that the Word doc was the very same one from which I made the original PDF when I first published the book. The only differences between the original PDF and the new one were my three corrections, which involved adding two commas, deleting two letters, and adding two other letters.

But something else changed, either in Word or in the copying/saving process. Or more likely in Amazon’s quality checker.

I uploaded the new PDF with the corrections to Amazon. After being notified that the upload was successful, I was invited to use the Print Previewer, which informed me of two ERRORS. First, although I had selected a trim size of 5.5″ x 8.5″ (when I first published the book in 2018), the document I uploaded was 5.50″ x 8.50″. I don’t know where those zeroes came from, but they were unacceptable. And second, the gutter size was insufficient; it must be at least 0.625 inches.

On checking my original Word doc, I found that those critical dimensions were in centimeters, not inches, but when converted, they were exactly as the Previewer specified. 13.97 cm = 5.5 inches. 21.59 cm = 8.5 inches. As for the gutter, my inside margin was set to 1.59 cm, otherwise known as 0.6259843 inches, which rounds up to 0.626 inches.

Infuriating! I sent a (polite) note to the Help people outlining all this. I received a prompt response, which said that the trim size wasn’t a problem (hurray!), but the gutter insufficiency had to be addressed.

So I did that. I created a new copy of the Word doc. As advised, I activated Word’s Gridlines to show me whether the text fit inside the acceptable areas. Then I increased the inside margin to 1.61 cm (0634 in.). This fixed some of the gutter problems, but not all. The five that remained all involved the italicized letter “f” (wouldn’t you know it!) right next to the gutter (i.e., the inside margin). A minute portion of the curly tail of the “f” projected over the gridline, which is unacceptable. (One more reason to avoid using italics!)

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

At that point, I thought about giving up. I emailed the nice person at the Help desk saying that if the latest PDF I uploaded was unacceptable because of those “f’s,” I preferred to cancel the corrections and live with the errors. Except you can’t cancel changes in KDP, only suspend them. The book’s status had changed to “Live with unpublished changes,” meaning it was available in its original state (still with the three tiny errors, of course). It could remain that way indefinitely.

Before really giving up, I decided to experiment. For that purpose, I made a copy of the original Word doc. At first, I gradually increased the inside margin to 1.65 cm. Even at that size, the “f’s” still exceeded the gridline by a tiny amount, and what’s worse, the overall size of the book increased from 381 pages to 383. If I kept increasing the inside margin, eventually the book’s spine width would grow to the point the cover would be incompatible with the text document. Which wasn’t going to happen.

Then I had an idea–what about reducing the outer margin while increasing the inner one? That would create more wiggle room for the inside margin without increasing the number of pages. The original size of the outer margin was 1.59 cm, or 0.626 inches. I decided half an inch (1.27 cm) was my absolute minimum. Any less of an outer page margin looks too skimpy. So in my experimental document, I set that as the outer margin and proceeded to increase the inner margin (gutter), hoping to correct the italic “f” problem. At 2.0 cm, the book’s size jumped to 383 pages again, so 1.9 cm was the max. And did that fix the “f” problem? I didn’t think so; the tails of those pesky italic “f” descenders were still edging over the gridline.

So I tried another approach. Since italic text was the problem, what about “de-italicizing” the bits noted as problematic by the Print Previewer? A couple of unspoken thoughts became spoken, and one paragraph that represented a vision is no longer distinguished by italics. After I made sure the changes didn’t affect the book’s overall size or cause other problems, I created yet another PDF and uploaded it to Amazon.

Success! The book is now “Live.” And the three tiny errors are no more. But what a process!

One thing I don’t like about my solution is that the print and ebook versions are now slightly different, which doesn’t seem right. (Someday I will probably make those changes in the ebook text, but right now I’m fed up with the post-pub updating business.)

In retrospect, this whole thing doesn’t seem right. Why would margin settings that passed Amazon KDP’s quality control checks in 2018 fail in 2021? The helpful help person offered no explanation. Why is an awkward workaround my only option to correct errors in my book? I would think people who buy the book would notice the errors more than the gutter issue. But then, what do I know?

On the plus side, I have learned a few things that will be helpful for future formatting:

  • It’s worthwhile to reduce instances of italics to a minimum, watching especially for “f’s” that end up in the gutter. (Haha!)
  • I’m now comfortable with changing margin settings and have a better idea of optimal sizes.
  • I won’t finalize the cover of the paperback version until I know the interior file has passed the quality checking process. That way, I won’t be limited by spine width.

All this tells me that when I prepare the text of She Who Returns for publishing, I will have to make sure there are NO errors. Because post-pub fixes are too much trouble. I will never do post-pub corrections again, at least not for print books. Yes, there will very likely still be a few little bugs, but I declare now that I will live with them. Maybe those errors will make the books valuable collectors’ copies some day, long after I’ve gone to the big remainder pile in the sky.

gargoyle grumpy

Has anyone else experienced a problem of this sort? Have you changed the text of a book to get it past Amazon’s quality checks? Do you correct errors after a book has been published? How important is it to make your book perfect and error-free?

Page from weather record book December 2021

Weather Anxiety

I am a weather nerd. I follow weather obsessively online, via forecasts, satellite and radar, a network of local observations, and meteorologists’ technical discussions. For the past several decades, I have recorded high and low temperatures, cloud types, approximate wind strength and direction, and precipitation every day. I know how weather works in my region. Until this year.

All day it has been windy. The trees are in full leaf now, and their branches toss and sway, throwing off twigs, leaves, and green unripe keys (maple seeds). Siberian irises just coming into bloom shimmy and shake, but one stem of a tall bearded variety (white with purple edges) bows down to the ground. The gardener hustles over, makes sure the stem is only bent and not broken, and administers first aid with a bamboo stake and a couple of ties.

An evening around the time of the summer solstice. There is no wind; the air is absolutely still and perfumed by a thousand rose flowers in bloom. Plants stand in their characteristic shapes, their leaves precisely angled to stems and stalks, each one with its own version of the colour green. The sun has slipped out of sight, but its light gilds the scene with perfection. The gardener stands and stares, a cluster of deadheads in one hand, secateurs in the other. As dusk softly advances, the garden becomes a place in which a mystery is about to be revealed.

I wrote these two paragraphs last May, back when local weather was what is generally termed “normal.” I think I intended them to be part of a blog post about weather from a gardener’s point of view. Then at the end of June came the “heat dome,” four days of abnormally hot temperatures. All kinds of records were shattered, 600 people died in the province of British Columbia, and a small town in the interior was pretty much destroyed by fire on a day when the local temperature topped out at nearly 50 degrees C.

Weird light at sunset. Orange light due to wildfire smoke.
Weird orange sunlight because of smoke from forest fires in the BC interior, 2018

Autumn came, a time that is usually benign and associated with harvest and plenty. Not this year in BC. After a dust-dry summer, copious rain in September and October quickly saturated soils. A succession of “atmospheric river” rainstorms arrived at the end of October and into November and brought catastrophic flooding to several communities. And I really mean catastrophic–homes destroyed, farm animals drowned, lives disrupted. Between fires and floods, thousands of people in this province were forced from their homes in 2021, some permanently.

There was a small tornado–in November, in Vancouver, BC! Nothing like the truly devastating tornados in the US in December, but both of those events were unusual and suggest that fundamental change is happening. Almost every week since June, weather in western Canada has been described as “extreme,” “record-breaking,” or “unprecedented.” Including extreme cold during the week between Christmas and the new year.

I spent an hour on Christmas day moving potted pelargoniums (tender geraniums) and the garden hose into the house, because three nights of -8 or -9 degrees C (16 to 18F) were predicted. The average low temperature at this time of year is 1C (34F). On Boxing Day, the temperature did not exceed -5C (23F), and that night my max-min thermometer recorded -10C (14F). All day, I was busy rotating hummingbird feeders in and out of the house as the liquid inside began to freeze. At first I tried a trick I saw on the internet: wrapping a string of incandescent Christmas lights around the feeder. It looked pretty, and one hummingbird even visited, after he got over his nervousness, but unfortunately the lights didn’t produce enough heat. I resorted to buying a third feeder so I always had one in the house to swap out with a freezing one outside. Sadly, I suspect some hummingbirds–females or juveniles–may have perished.

Hummingbird feeder with Christmas lights December 2021
Not the best photo, but it shows the Christmas light setup and a hummingbird visiting the feeder. Too bad the lights didn’t produce enough heat.

A short period of below normal cold isn’t unusual in the course of a winter, but it usually happens in January or February, not December. Same with the occasional summer heat wave–in July or August, not June. I can’t help thinking that this period of extreme cold right after the winter solstice somehow corresponds to the abnormal heat which arrived right after the summer solstice.

Right here, right now, the weather is out of whack. It’s tempting to attribute this to climate change, rather than to normal ups and downs. Against reason, I’m hoping this has just been a year of anomalous weather for western Canada, but three anomalies in the same year indicates something more fundamental. Governments and power companies now advise everyone to put together emergency kits in case of extensive power outages or evacuation orders. (Of course, we who live on the west coast are supposed to have such kits already, in anticipation of the Big One.)

Whatever the cause, I’m now experiencing weather anxiety, even though I haven’t been affected in any serious way (yet). When sounds of rain and wind wake me at night, I get up and doom-scroll check radars and satellites on whatever device is handy. Earplugs are now standard sleeping equipment. Normal isn’t normal any more. The past can no longer predict the future. Scanning my decades of weather observations tells me only about weather of the before times. The extremes of yesterday may be the normals of tomorrow.

Weather record books

Or maybe this is only a blip (well, three blips)? Take the Blizzard of 1996, for example. A metre and a half of snow fell on Victoria, BC over several days in late December, with a grand finale that buried cars and brought the city to a standstill for a week. It was one of those extreme, record-breaking, unprecedented weather events. But nothing like it has happened in the quarter-century since. So, climate change notwithstanding, I hope 2021 has just been a year of freakish weather in my part of the world, and we can return to blissfully boring in the near future. Recognizing, of course, that for some folks in the towns of Lytton, Merritt, Princeton, and in the Fraser Valley, the road back to normal may be long and hard, no matter what the weather.

blue flames question mark

WSW Wants Your Writing Questions!

The folks behind the Writers Supporting Writers blog (Berthold, Chuck, Lucinda, Mark, Richard, and Audrey) want your questions. About writing, publishing, inspiration, being indie, querying, rejections, sales, marketing, writing rules, etc. etc. The whole gamut of topics related to the world of writing.

Read further and post your questions HERE.

pond bench area and snow

Christmas Blogging Break

I just realized I had no post scheduled for this week because I’m focussed on getting the WIP ready to send out to beta readers. (You wonderful people know who you are! Thanks again for offering to read!)

So I’m going to take the next few weeks off from blogging to polish up the manuscript and send it out. I’ll be reading posts, just not writing any.

Happy Holidays to everyone, and I’ll be back in this space in January 2022!

No, we haven’t had snow (yet). The featured image photo is of a snow of yesteryear.

Pink winter sunrise

Colour and Texture

The garden is entering its quiet time. Drab, even. But there are a few sights worth looking at. And winter sunrises are often spectacular, probably because they arrive late enough to be observed.

Perennial bed in front garden December 2021
Mixed colours and textures in this perennial bed brought out by morning sun.
Top of birch tree in back garden with a few remaining leaves
Last few yellow leaves on the birch.
Ornamental grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) "Little Bunny"
Ornamental grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) “Little Bunny” looks good even when dormant.
Winter jasmine yellow flowers on trellis
Winter jasmine is in full bloom. (Photo from last year, but it looks just like this now.)

Early bulbs are poking their noses up and new buds are visible on shrubs and trees. Soon there will be fresh colours and textures to see and admire.

Postscript: Remember the condemned rubber plant? It has had a reprieve. One cold day I brought it back inside. Since then we have had at least one frosty night that would have done it in. My new plan is to air-layer a new plant next summer, and to cultivate that new plant in a way that will make it look better than its predecessor.

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021
Reprieved and still alive inside!
All books related to the Herbert West Series

Work in Progress Report: Betas Needed!

Update: Since I published this post, several lovely people have offered to beta-read. Many thanks to all of you! So if you’re just reading the post now, please don’t feel obligated. I continue to be grateful for the community of WP writers.

Exactly one year ago, I began writing my current work in progress. She Who Returns is a sequel to my novel She Who Comes Forth. It will add to and complete the story begun in that book, and will also be the last of the books that began with The Friendship of Mortals. It’s time for me to say goodbye to Herbert West and his friends and descendants. She Who Returns is therefore a summing-up and finale.

The protagonist and narrator is again France Leighton, who happens to be Herbert West’s granddaughter. Now she’s studying Egyptology at Miskatonic University, hoping to return to Egypt via a field school in archaeology offered by that institution. But France has a talent for rash decisions, and things are complicated by the arrival of her twin half-brothers from England. And in Arkham, weirdness is normal.

France does return to Egypt, if not quite the way she intended. Once there, she encounters old friends and new enemies, and challenging situations rooted in her previous adventures and her family’s complicated history.

At present, the text is just over 95,000 words, cut down from almost 105,000 in the first draft. I have worked through it several times to cut superfluous material and make changes to what remains. At least one more pass is in order, after which the next step is beta readers.

Here is an opportunity for you, fellow writers and readers! If a few of you have time and energy in the next few months to read the text, I would be delighted. Especially if you have read all or part of the Herbert West Series and/or She Who Comes Forth. If you want a sneak peek at this sequel, and an opportunity to improve it, here’s your chance.

As a token of appreciation, beta readers will receive copies of both books in print or ebook form, once She Who Returns is published, which will be some time in 2022.

If you are interested, please contact me by email or via the Contact form, and I will get back to you.

Reproduction shabti figurines from RBCM Egypt exhibit shop
Who are these guys? Good question!
table, teapot, plates, candle

Sip, Shuffle, and Grunt: Word Choice Dilemmas

The characters in my novels are a sociable lot. They often discuss things over meals or drinks. That gives them something to do besides talk and furnishes me (the Writer) with opportunities for actions to avoid the dreaded “talking heads.”

It also brings up a few minor conundrums that are perfect examples of Writer’s Brain at Work. As I create these scenes of conviviality, I often struggle with word choices. There aren’t enough useful words for certain actions, and a bewildering abundance for others. They have to be ordinary words, not flashy ones that would draw too much attention to minor actions.

Drinking, for example. The word used to describe taking in liquid has to fit the situation and the beverage. Whether it’s water, tea, coffee, beer, wine, or spirits, the choices are pretty much limited to the following: sip, drink, or gulp (including the variations involving “take,” as in: took a sip/drink/gulp). Context determines which word is most appropriate. Extremes are easier than ordinary situations. If someone is gulping whisky or vodka, there should be a reason. A character who has reached water after a thirsty slog through a desert isn’t likely to stop at sipping. I wish there was a verb other than “drink” for situations where “sip” is too prissy and “gulp” too vulgar. Synonyms such as “imbibe” or “quaff” are pretentious and awkward. Other words, such as slurp, swig, or guzzle, are wonderful but limited.

Then there’s the problem of how to convey something we all do while talking, a nonverbal sound that indicates mild disapproval of what has just been said. It’s sometimes rendered as “Hmph.” Verbs include the following: snort, grunt, or huff. Which to use depends on the character; for some, snorting or grunting is entirely appropriate, but I can’t bring myself to apply these words to characters who simply wouldn’t do that. “Huff” is pretty much the only choice for them, along with the aforementioned “Hmph,” or “made a disapproving sound,” which is clunky. There’s also “harrumph,” but it’s another one that’s okay for an older man but not for a nice young lady or mannerly middle-aged woman. “Sniff,” on the other hand, might just work. Whichever of them is used, I suspect it should not be treated as a dialogue tag, but as a discrete action.

Along with imbibing liquids and chewing food, characters make gestures while talking. Cutlery is useful in these situations; I’ve had characters make rhetorical gestures with forks, tap spoons to emphasize a point, or even hold knives as though wanting to use them as weapons. But sometimes a person just waves a hand, and that’s where I have a problem. Should they wave a hand, or his (her) hand? The latter, as in “Bob waved his hand,” to me always sounds like Bob has only one such appendage. Okay, so how about “Bob waved his right hand”? That implies that there’s a left to go with it, but also puts unnecessary emphasis on “right.” After going around this mulberry bush a few times, I settle on “a hand,” and berate myself for overthinking. Whose hand but his own would Bob wave, after all? (I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much mental energy I’ve expended on this non-problem.)

Characters move around all the time. There are many action verbs. But sometimes, the movement from point A to point B doesn’t call for a splashy verb, such as “leap,” “saunter,” or “shuffle.” Sometimes “walk” is just fine, as in “I walked to work in the rain.” Most days, an ordinary person wouldn’t amble, strut, or stride to work. Even the modest word that is the past tense of “go,” i.e., “went,” has a place. “On Thursday, Bob went to the hospital for surgery.” An expressive word is unnecessary here, unless the way Bob got to the hospital is the point of the sentence, not the fact that he’s going to have surgery. So why make the poor guy hobble, trot, or saunter? All right, that’s enough!

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

To sum up, whatever word is chosen for an action, it should suit the situation and the character. A modest, plain word may be le mot juste, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you ever dither over word choices? Do you ever overthink them?

Featured image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

Dreams in Fiction

Everyone dreams, although not everyone remembers doing so. Dreams, therefore, are a common experience, so it’s inevitable that they turn up in fiction. Fictional dreams are, in fact, a literary device. They have also drawn the ire of rule-makers. Writers know they should never end a story by revealing that it was all a dream, or begin one with the character waking up from one.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use dreams in fiction. They can be useful in many ways.

  • Prophetic dreams can provide foreshadowing
  • Dreams can add symbolic elements
  • Nightmares can provide a jolt of horror and an element of backstory
  • Dreams can show something about a character they aren’t aware of
  • A dream can be a vehicle for something unlikely in reality (along with hints that maybe it wasn’t really a dream)
  • Hallucinations and visions are somewhat like dreams (or nightmares)

Deep into Draft 2.5 of my work in progress, I decided to change a particular scene into a dream. That let me dodge some awkward logic problems going forward and introduce bizarre details that (I think) enhance the reading experience without straining the suspension of disbelief. This got me thinking about the use of dreams in fiction. Every one of my novels includes dreams, from brief mentions to full and detailed accounts.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Not to set down rules (Me? Rules? Never!), but it occurs to me there are a few things to keep in mind about using dreams as elements in fiction.

  • Less is more. Unless a story is about dreams or dreaming, it’s probably best not to go overboard with them.
  • Dreams aren’t logical. Fictional dreams that are too detailed and realistic are obviously contrived.
  • Feel free to make fictional dreams bizarre and illogical. In fact, drawing upon your own actual dreams may be a good idea.
  • Think oblique. Hint rather than state. Instead of having a character remember a dream from start to finish, drop in flash memories of the dream as they go through their day. Vivid vignettes instead of technicolour dramas.
cemetery, gravestones
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you put dreams into your fiction? Or maybe something you’ve written was inspired by a dream. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Featured image from Pexels