Archive for March, 2019
Do you remember “pica” and/or “elite” type on typewriters? Way back when we didn’t have personal computers, and everything we wrote was either by hand or on a typewriter, we had to choose between pica type, which resulted in 10 characters per inch, or elite, at 12 characters per inch. I’ve had several typewriters in my life, especially during college. My parents gave me a typewriter with pica type when I went away to college, but after it was stolen, I bought one of my own, but got the smaller elite type. (I’ve always preferred the smaller type.)
Now we’ve graduated to computers with their humongous selection of typefaces. We can have almost any typeface we want, at any size, in bold, light, italics, extended, condensed, color or the regular black, and so on and so forth. But some ideas about writing and about manuscripts are still rooted in the old typewriter years.
I just submitted a portion of my first science fiction novel to a contest which requested the first 6500 words of each submitter’s novel. This, they said, should result in approximately the first 27 pages. But they also requested that the manuscript be written in Times New Roman. (I’ll abbreviate this as “TNR.”) Well, my manuscript was written in TNR, so that was no problem. I always write in manuscript format: 1-inch margins, 12-point font, TNR, page numbers in the upper right-hand corner, and so forth. But in my case, the first 6500 words came to only 22 pages. Why the discrepancy?
This comes from the fact that the people running the contest are using the old pica relation between words and pages. Back when manuscripts were typed using pica type, (and this is especially true of manual typewriters) the maximum number of words per page came out to only around 250. Now, though, if you prepare a manuscript in TNR, the maximum number of words per page comes out at around 320. At least in my experience. In this situation, 6500 words will require 20 to 22 pages. Exactly what I had.
The difference comes from the fact that TNR is a very condensed font. The letters tend to be set very close together, much more so than a typewriter font. (It is possible to change the spacing of letters in TNR and most other fonts, but I strongly recommend leaving it at minimum, just for consistency’s sake.) TNR is also a proportional font, where each letter is given only the space needed to print it. For example, the lower case “i” takes up much less space than “m.” Typewriters, on the other hand, use non-proportional fonts, and all letters have the same spacing. All of this adds up to the fact that on any given page of a manuscript, TNR will allow you to put more words on a page.
If you want to see what your TNR manuscript looks like as though it were typed, change the font to Courier, which is a non-proportional font, and it will result in a page that looks very much like the old pica type. You will get only about 250 words per page, the old standard.
Ergo, if you are requesting manuscripts and want them in TNR, keep in mind that the resulting submissions will have about 300 to 320 words per page. I think it’s time we switched over to the new standard of TNR at 320 words/page.
I’ve just completed reading N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn. (It was awarded the prize in 1969.) A beautifully written book, it is what I would call a very “image intense” book; it utilizes many descriptions of places, people, events, dreams, etc., to draw the reader in. Descriptions of the desert southwestern United States, and of feelings of the characters, of their lives, and their interactions. It starts with a description of the southwest, particularly New Mexico, a desert region where life is tough, and only the tough survive. Abel is the main character, and he’s torn between the old ways, the ways of his parents and grandparents, and the new life he’s thrown into, especially when he’s in the US Army, fighting in a foreign war. (Most likely the Korean War. The story takes place in the late 1940’s and into the ’50’s.) He eventually kills a man, spends time in prison, and descends into poverty and alcoholism.
But what I want to comment more about in this post is not the story line, compelling as it is, but the author’s writing style. Were this book to come before a critique group, it could be criticized on several points. This is not to denigrate Momaday’s writing style by any means, but merely to make a point. He uses many short, simple declarative sentences in the book; always a good idea. But many of his sentences begin with “and.” Many times he runs sentences together using “and” as a connective. He uses the past tense of “to be” words a lot, “was” and “were” especially, a point that most new novelists are told scrupulously to avoid. Momaday begins sentences with “there was” and “there were” quite a lot also, a particular aspect I try to avoid as much as I can in my writing. He even uses semicolons. In a novel.
So many of these grammatical constructions are frowned on by teachers of writing, especially the use of semicolons. Current thinking bans semicolons from fiction. Though the book was written in the late 1960’s, today we would look at writing like that as “breaking the rules,” and perhaps condemn any writing that uses these as the work of an amateur. “You’ve got a lot to learn,” we’d tell any newbie author who attempts to break the rules like that. “Go back and re-write.”
But there is also a rule of writing that says, “don’t break the rules unless you know exactly what you are doing.” Clearly, Momaday broke some of the most basic rules of writing, and just as clearly he knew what he was doing. But how do you know “what you are doing” in a sense that gives you license to break them? How do you know when to break the rules, and when not to? Is there a rule that you can go to that will allow you to use “was” or “were” a lot in your writing, and still make it work? Is there a rule that allows you to use run-on sentences repeatedly, and still not incur the reviewer’s wrath? How about starting a sentence with “and” or “but?” I’ve wondered about those admonitions for a long time, ever since I started writing fiction many hundreds of thousands of years ago. I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer, in spite of having studied the question for a long time. The best “rule” or “maxim” I can come up with is this: you can break the rules all you want only if the final result works. Such an admonition is piddly and perhaps just plain unrealistic, I admit, but it’s the best I can come up with.
Here are a couple more ideas to help you make it work. Read your writings over and over. Edit until blood runs from your . . . wherever. Read it out loud. Is it smooth? Does it flow well, and does it make sense? Do you find yourself drawn into the imagery in the writing, and not tripped up by the rule-breaking? Starting a sentence with “and” or “but” isn’t a bad rule to break, many do it. But run-on sentences? Horrors. Yet, it can be done. Get someone else to read your work, someone who knows what good writing is. If it works, great. If not, re-write.