Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bulwer-Lytton winners announced

The 2007 Bulwer-Lytton Awards. All in good fun, of course. I see sentences worse than these in real life all the time, sad to say.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The impotence of poofreading

Beverage alert
Thanks to India Amos at India, Ink. for finding this gem. You will want to wear headphones if you are in an office environment, although the downside of that is that your coworkers may think you have finally gone round the bend.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mine and thine

I’ve run into a number of situations lately where otherwise honest, competent, and intelligent adults—people who know the difference between right and wrong and who try to conduct their lives accordingly—have been ready and willing to steal something belonging to someone else.

In all of these cases, the problem was confusion over the nature of intellectual property.

I’m not going to try to give you a primer on copyright law. I’ll leave that to the lawyers. And I’m not going to get into a philosophical discourse on whether or not copyright protection benefits society. What I’m going to do here is put up some Dangerous Curves signs so you at least slow down enough to avoid skidding over a cliff.

Published versus public domain
“I found it on the Web” means that the material–article or image–is published. Someone owns it, whether or not there is a copyright notice attached to it. It may not be immediately apparent who owns it, because the site where you found it may have stolen it from someone else who stole it from someone else who…. But it isn’t yours, in any case, and you can’t use it without obtaining permission (which is not automatic) and, often, paying a fee.

The exception is when a creator explicitly states that the work is to be considered in the public domain and is free for anyone to use for either noncommercial or commercial purposes. Even then, you should look for restrictions, such as a requirement that you credit the creator.

Typically, the only way material enters the public domain—meaning anyone can use it without paying for the privilege—is by aging into it. Deciding whether something is actually in the public domain may require consultation with an attorney, even if you’re almost sure you’re right.

What about fair use?
The doctrine of fair use says there are certain circumstances when you can use someone else’s work. Unfortunately, the exact rules for fair use are only determined as the result of lawsuits. So you don’t want to claim fair use in any commercial context (meaning in any book you plan to publish and sell) without consulting an attorney, because you cannot afford to be sued.

Dos and don’ts
Do obtain permission to use other people’s work. Do get the permission in writing. Do understand exactly what you have permission to do, what rights you are buying, and what restrictions apply. (A freelance permissions editor can save you a lot of time and worry.)

Do not copy passages you find in books or on the Internet, either verbatim or with minimal text changes, whether you credit them or not, without permission. Do not copy images you find in books or on the Internet, even if they are images of very old paintings and even if you want to apply visual filters to them and incorporate them in a larger work. Do not copy or quote song lyrics—even a single line—ever, in a book or article for publication. Do not quote correspondence you receive from other individuals without their written permission.

Bottom line
If someone else published it, then someone else owns it. If you cannot determine who owns it, you cannot use it. If you are able to determine who owns it, then you have to obtain (and often pay for) permission to use it. And that permission may come with restrictions.

The above paragraph is your get out of jail free card. Print it out. Stick it on your wall. Link to it if you wish. Just don’t republish it as your own. I would not find that amusing.

Monday, July 09, 2007

News flash: widows are older than orphans

I got into an interesting discussion the other day about a nicety of composition. Publishers get to make choices when they are buying typesetting. The more criteria they specify, the more labor is required and the higher the price (no secret there). One of the criteria publishers often include in their specifications is “no widows or orphans.”

This raises a couple of questions, and in the course of the discussion, we resolved one of them. The original meaning of widow (in the typesetting context) is the last line of a paragraph carried over to the top of a page. An orphan is the opposite—the first line of a paragraph stranded at the bottom of the page. This is the general consensus among old-time compositors.

However, the Gregg Reference Manual, which has been the standard secretarial handbook for decades, got the definitions reversed. This led to Microsoft getting the definitions backwards in Microsoft Word. As a result, a lot more people have the definitions wrong way round than have them in the traditional order. (The latest edition of Gregg, locking the barn door after the horse is gone, has reversed course and made the correction.)

But the more interesting question that arose is this: When did the term orphan first enter typesetting argot? A few of us have been looking, and so far, we’ve found widow defined in references from before 1980, but we’ve found no references to orphan that old. In theory, those of us involved in this discussion are old enough to remember when we first heard the term, but we’re also old enough to imagine we heard it many years earlier than we actually heard it.

Further, looking at examples of fine printing from before 1970, pages may be devoid of widows but there seems to have been no effort to eliminate orphans, suggesting that nobody gave the notion much thought before the advent of computerized page makeup.

So here’s your challenge: If you can find a printed definition of or reference to orphans in a typographic context from before 1990, respond in the comments with the citation. There are at least three people who are wasting time on this question, and we’d all like to be doing something more productive. Earliest citation wins a lifetime half-price subscription to this blog. (That’s lifetime of the blog, just to be clear.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sometimes it quacks like a duck but isn't one

“I’ve written a book.”

That’s usually the way the email begins.

It then goes on to describe something the author is calling a novel. In this so-called novel, fictional characters “based on” people the author knows or has known or is related to play out the drama that has been tormenting the author, probably festering for years. The story chronicles thinly disguised real events or it assassinates the characters of thinly disguised real people. Or it explicates some complex theory the author cherishes. Or it shows us how we can save the world if we only just believe.

What’s missing from all of these scenarios is anything that would interest a reader. And that’s a problem, isn’t it?

When you pick up a book that is labeled as a novel, you expect to read a story. The story may be set in a real or imagined past, in a real or parallel present, in a plausible or implausible future, on Earth or elsewhere, with characters human or otherwise. But it is a story. It is in some way the product of the author’s imagination. Yes, the characters may share traits with real people the author has encountered—novelists freely steal details from the lives of people they have met, and the better they are at doing that the greater the verisimilitude of their characters. But a novel is not a biography of the people the author has known or an exposé of their lives or a lecture on how we can become better as individuals; it is a story in which characters do imagined things that, in the best instances, reveal deep truths about us all.

I understand the confusion that can arise. After all, there is such a thing as the roman à clef, in which the characters do represent real people and the novelist purports to tell us true anecdotes about them, from behind the legal scrim that this is fiction and author doesn’t have to prove the stories are true. But this only works if the (wink, wink) characters are celebrities or politicos whose faces show up in People on a regular basis. Unless your obnoxious neighbors happen also to be on the Billboard charts or the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, it’s unlikely you’re going to find a wide audience interested in a book about them—even if you regularly regale the gals at the kaffee klatch with stories.

I am not saying there is no way you can tell your story—and by that I mean the true story about your life that you want to share with the world. You can write an inspirational book, a self-help book, a how-to book. Perhaps, under extraordinary circumstances, there might be a market for a memoir (but probably not). You can write magazine articles. You can lecture to sympathetic groups. You can write a learned dissertation on your favorite subject and illustrate it with anecdotes drawn from your experience. And I’m sure there are many other ways to translate your experiences, theories, observations, and personal angst into words on paper. And if you really are a novelist, then drawing on your experiences in and observations about the world is completely normal. But if you are not a novelist and have decided to present your story in the form of a novel anyway, it’s time to revisit that decision.

If this news comes to you after you’ve struggled for four years to craft your masterpiece, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Think of the act of writing it down as your therapy, if that helps you justify the time you spent; but now it’s time to start over, using a more appropriate form. Or it’s time to conclude that you are healed through that therapy and you can let the project go, burn the manuscript, reformat your hard drive, and start living again. But don’t embarrass yourself by persisting in the delusion that calling it a novel makes it one.