Friday, February 24, 2012

To be honest . . .

I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Your parents should have taught you that honesty is the best policy. But maybe you forgot, or maybe you just suppressed it because it was hard to implement.

But if you are going to invest months or years of your life in writing a book and seeking publication or thousands of dollars of your own money to self-publish, you really ought to be honest with yourself about why you want to do that.

There are many reasons individuals give for writing books, and all of those reasons are valid. But the book has to match the reason. When you come to me and say you’ve written a novel, I expect the manuscript you send me to be a novel, not a thinly disguised vendetta against your ex or a memoir about how a lousy surgeon or a hack lawyer did you wrong. If you tell me you’ve written a how-to book, don’t send me a political screed. (And if you tell me you’ve written a political screed, don’t send me a how-to book.)

Because I’ll find out. There will be no secrets that you can keep from a good editor. But lying to yourself and lying to your editor can put you in an awkward position: you’ve committed to publishing something entirely different from what you said it was going to be. And looked at in bright sunlight, when all is said and done it may not be a book that you want to spend time and money marketing, even though you’ve spent time and money writing it and publishing it.

If your real passion is to stand on a soapbox and tell people in the park what a horrible place this world is and how you would make it better if you had the power to do so, then you may have no passion left when I excise your soapbox declamation from your action-adventure novel (because it’s out of place there).

Before you start writing a book, decide why you want to write it.

Honesty matters.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Logical punctuation

This post is about commas, periods, and quotation marks. If you are already stifling a yawn, just move along.

In the United States, commas and periods go inside quotation marks, regardless of logic. Colons and semicolons go outside the quotation marks, regardless of logic. And question marks and exclamation points go in or out, depending on the logic. That is our convention. You learned it, or should have, in elementary school.

In the UK (and other places where British English is written), the convention is that logic rules in all cases. Thus, a comma or period may occur outside the quotation marks if it is not part of the material being quoted.

Fine. You knew that.

And you may also know that some Americans, particularly people with some background in computer programming, would very much like it if American editors and typographers would switch to the British system, as this would greatly simplify the problem of rendering computer code unambiguously. But let’s not get into that issue just now.

What I want to talk about here is the history of the divide between the U.S. and UK conventions.

There are several stories floating around—urban myths—that setting the period inside the quotes arose because compositors might otherwise lose or break those fragile, small periods, back in the days of hand composition. I can tell you, having set type by hand myself, that this is nonsense. First, most punctuation occurs in the middle of a line of type, not at the end. Second, the period is no more fragile or likelier to be dropped than a quotation mark if it should happen to occur at the end of a line. There would be no reason for a compositor to care one way or the other. Please stop spreading that story.

So what’s the true story?
The true story is that the divide is of recent origin. British typographers followed the same convention as American typographers well into the twentieth century. The switch to logical punctuation in the UK took place within the memory of people now living. I have not tracked down a definitive date, but the change did not occur until at least the 1930s and possibly a decade or more later, in any case long after the bulk of composition was done on machines, not by hand. Just as the British eventually adopted the metric system and we Americans dug in our heels, so too in this case, the right-pondians made a conscious decision to right what they felt was a logical abomination while we stayed true to the older system.

But what was the point in the first place? I’m still digging, but my guess is that the principal consideration was aesthetic. With metal types, placing a period or comma after a quotation mark creates an unsightly gap in the line and thus a pigeonhole on the page. For most of the history of printing from moveable type, that has been something to avoid if possible. With modern typesetting software, the problem can be mitigated through prudent kerning, but that’s a quite recent development.

Will we in the U.S. adopt the British system? Maybe in a few gigaseconds.

Monday, February 13, 2012


What part of “customer service” do they not understand? Enough said.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Good Goods at Yale Rep is the real goods

Yale Rep is a little like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. “You never know what you’re gonna get.” Well, that’s not entirely true. It is a repertory company, after all, and you can pretty much assume that when they do Shakespeare or Molière, you’re in for a good night of theater.

But when they do a world première from a young playwright who recently graduated from Yale School of Drama—well, let’s just say the results can be uneven. We’ve seen our share of unmemorable first plays from playwrights who haven’t lived enough to know anything about life. Oh, you can expect a great set and brilliant staging, and a cast that gives it their all. But sometimes, frankly, there’s not a lot to work with.

Tonight was not that night. Tonight was the other kind—the serendipitous discovery of a brilliant young playwright, who took a throwaway class exercise and fleshed it out into a wonderful entertainment. The playwright, mature beyond her years, is Christina Anderson, and attention must be paid.

Good Goods is an actor’s play, with juicy roles all around, the kind of characters that are caricatures of themselves and really can’t be overacted. Everyone in the cast had fun (one more than the others, but I won’t spoil the surprise for you). And so did the audience.

The set and the staging were up to the Rep’s high standards.

Go. You’ll enjoy.

And keep an eye on Ms. Anderson.