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.

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.

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

What Readers Don’t Like, and Maybe Why

Readers of this blog must know by now that I can’t resist questioning anything that looks like a writing rule. I’ve read, and quibbled with, all kinds of “thou shalt nots,” from plot structure to specific words. The rationale is usually that these things alienate readers and make them stop reading a story, or prevent them from starting.

But here’s an idea: how about asking readers what they don’t like? That was the topic in a recent post on writer Pete Springer’s blog entitled My Pet Peeves as a Reader. All writers are also readers (or should be). A lot of writers read that post and commented. (By the way, the post also includes a lively discussion about sunflower seeds.)

As I read them, the top three peeves in Pete’s post and the comments are:

  • Rushed or otherwise unsatisfying endings
  • Wordiness, meaning either too much description or too many fancy/obscure words
  • Typos and errors

I wondered why these were the most often mentioned. Would this list be any different if the commenters weren’t mostly writers? I certainly don’t have any statistical data about this. The following are just my personal off-the-cuff thoughts.

  • Most people watch filmed stories of one sort or another; books have to compete with their instantaneous visual effects. Slowness is bad.
  • It takes more mental effort to read a book, i.e., to create a mind-movie, than to absorb a pre-made story, so books have to make that effort worthwhile with an ending that satisfies.
  • Writers spend a lot of time and effort finding typos and errors in their own works, so are likely to notice them in others’ writings. If there are enough of them to be irritating, that’s often a DNF.
  • So many books! Everyone’s TBR pile (physical or virtual) is bursting at the seams. This overabundance has lessened the differences between casual readers and professional ones (agents and editors), whose default approach to a piece of writing is rejection. “Give me a reason to keep reading this.” Such an outlook leads to a low tolerance for things like cliches, repetitiousness, and typos. Writers are especially apt to notice these imperfections because they are hyper-aware of them in their own writing.

Despite all this, the primary audience of many indie authors is other writers. Which is both a good thing and a bit ironic.

Writers, do you consider what your fellow writers might think of your work in progress? Do you modify your writing accordingly?

Featured image from Pexels

willow and other trees beside river

Thoughts on Cosmic Horror in Fiction

I recently re-listened to a program about H.P. Lovecraft. It prompted me to think about the element in his writing for which he is best known: cosmic horror as embodied by Cthulhu (who has become quite popular recently; you can even buy a cute Cthulhu stuffy).

But cosmic horror, also known as Lovecraftian horror–what is that? Keep in mind that HPL was an atheist and rationalist. He most definitely had no time for magic or godlike supernatural powers.

H.P. Lovecraft in 1934.
Lucius B. Truesdell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

HPL was inspired by the vastness of the known universe, and especially the not-known universe. The word vigintillion (meaning the number 1 followed by 63 zeroes) appears in a few of his stories. He was thrilled by the idea of the utter unknown, and how little humans (even educated, refined, white men of New England) matter in the grand scheme of things. The utter indifference of the cosmos to humanity is Lovecraft’s horror.

The beginning of his story “The Call of Cthulhu” pretty much sums up the idea:

double quotation mark open

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I can relate to this. At one time, I hoped to write a piece of fiction that could be called Lovecraftian, but I have never done so. Yes, my novel The Friendship of Mortals is based on Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” but it’s not cosmic horror in any sense. Come to that, the original story isn’t either. It precedes HPL’s exploration of that realm. Herbert West is an atypical Lovecraft character in that he has a smidge of personality, which was what inspired me to build a novel around him.

The reason none of my fiction can be called Lovecraftian is because it’s character-driven. It contains supernatural elements and even a bit of horror, but it’s really about what happens within and between the characters. To be honest, at times the supernatural stuff (revivified corpses, mysterious forces, and artifacts of power) is difficult to incorporate into the stories in a plausible way. True Lovecraftian fiction might be described as situationally-driven. The point of the story is a slow, gradual, apprehension of the situation by the character. Understanding is followed rapidly by terror.

In HPL’s stories, the point-of-view characters (they can’t really be called ‘protagonists’) are merely human vehicles to deliver the manifestations of inhuman, indifferent, monstrous entities to the reader. In no way are those stories about the characters. Yes, they have names, professions, family backgrounds and all that. But they are not struggling with relationships, bosses, addictions, or mental breakdowns (not until later, anyway). Their sole focus is whatever manifestation of cosmic horror HPL wants to show the reader. Even though I’ve read “The Call of Cthulhu” many times, I don’t remember the main character’s name. And that doesn’t even matter.

So what elements are needed in a story of Lovecraftian horror?

  • A main character with an orderly, unremarkable life without extremes or hazards, but who is alert and articulate. This person is a happy solitary, a single academic or similar. Not someone with a lot of people in their immediate surroundings. First person or close third person p.o.v.
  • A richly imagined setting. It could be almost anywhere, but should be realistic, to make its eventual wrongness seem, well, wrong.
  • A subtle and gradually increasing sense of wrongness in the surroundings.
  • An eventual sense of isolation of the narrator or p.o.v. character, brought about by the discovery of the cosmic horror.
  • A creeping sense of existential peril as a result of recognizing the cosmic horror.
  • The precise nature of the horror is never fully revealed (even when there are tentacles).
  • Destruction or madness of the p.o.v. character as the result of interaction with the cosmic horror. Note: there is no doubt that the character was sane at the beginning. This is not “unreliable narrator” territory.

A perfect example of this type of story is “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. It’s a novella originally published in 1907, and so precedes Lovecraft’s stories by a couple of decades. In fact, HPL cites it in his study Supernatural Horror in Literature as one of the finest pieces of writing in that genre. “The Willows” has all the elements I have listed. The characters are two ordinary guys on a canoe trip down the Danube River. The narrator is unnamed, and his companion is referred to only as “the Swede.” The only conflict between them is about the significance of phenomena observed in their camp on a tiny island in the river, overgrown with willow bushes. The narrator believes he is more sensitive to subtle influences than the oblivious Swede. Gradually, he becomes aware this is not so. Trust me, the story is subtly terrifying, even without a tentacle in sight.

Before I put away my pen and computer for good, I still hope to write a truly Lovecraftian story. One day I’ll re-read this post and take a shot at doing just that.

(If they let me.)

Photo by Vladislav Vasnetsov on Pexels.com

Featured image from Pexels