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Little details mean a lot: font choice

 Does it matter what type font you use when you publish your own book?

That question is a perennial discussion topic in indie author/writerly social media.   I don’t get into discussions about it online these days because I lack the strength to drag my soapbox collection that far. It’s far less exhausting to display my opinions here in my corner of cyberspace.

So, then.  “Font doesn’t matter” is a weirdly popular sentiment, and every time I see it, makes me reach for a soapbox to hit someone with. I also mutter curses when people insist readers don’t care what font a publisher uses.  Others claim, more accurately, that a reader should be focusing through the words to the unfolding story, not noticing the letters themselves.

I can nod along with that last one right up to the moment Times New Roman gets dropped into the conversation as a recommended font for publishing a novel.

And it always does. Over and over and over I see it held up as an example of a “perfectly good enough” font, and to this I have a one-word answer:



Ditto for Cambria and whatever the other Word default is. Hard pass to all.  They are MADE of NOPE.

Look, I don’t want readers to notice my fonts, but going one step beyond the word processor default is a must for any author who wants their publication to be viewed as a professional work.

What if you’re only publishing electronically on websites for friends or fellow fans?  Then use any font that suits your fancy, sure, fine, whatever. Electronic reading platforms provide glorious flexibility. Readers or the device itself will choose preferred fonts, sizes, and even page colors, so what you use really doesn’t matter as much.

If you’re publishing in print, however — by which I mean “asking for money in exchange for words printed on dead trees” — then your book should look as polished and pretty as anything produced by a Big Industry Publisher.

And I am not exaggerating when I tell you that in the world of print design, using Times New Roman in a novel is like wearing a big sign like this around your neck:

That little example above uses Comic Sans, a font that tops every typography “Most Hated” list I’ve found on the internet.  Times New Roman ranks up there in those lists. (Using red type on a bright background is another design no-no, by the way. It destroys reading comprehension. BUT I DIGRESS.)

That’s why, when it comes to publishing a print novel, I highly recommend learning the simplest fundamentals of typography and graphic design before publishing. Even if you hire a pro to do the work, educating yourself about the basics can save you a LOT of disappointment down the line.

Just as I wouldn’t share my writing without running a spell-checker first, I won’t share it in print form without polishing its shoes and combing its hair. So to speak. It’s the least I can do before sending my baby off to its first party.

Even if an author only puts in a bare minimum effort with design essentials, the results can improve by leaps and bounds. It’s so simple I can share some basics right here.


1. It’s all about looking right. The trick to font choice is keeping that first impression low-key but positive.  It’s a subtle thing, but it makes a difference, like so many, many other little details involved in this writing gig. There are excellent websites that cover font styles and explain what ones work well for what uses. Here are a few pages that also have links to further research:…/

2, Less is more. Pick one font for main text, and one for headers & title. Word processors offer tons of options, but I don’t have to sample every choice on the smorgasbord. I didn’t even use two, in my first stab at printing. I had to pick my battles with my ancient software, and I ceded the field on that one detail. If I bother with a second edition, I would use a second font for the titles and headers. Something clean and crisp.

3. Know your field. A book should stand out from its fellows but still be recognized as a member of the club. I tracked down novels that were similar to mine in content and checked to see which typeface the publisher used. (How? Easy! I looked at the page with the cataloguing info. That’s the page on the reverse of the cover page.
Not all publishers mention what typeface was used, but a remarkable number do. I could not get the perfect font I wanted without forking over money to a font site, but I got a feel for the look I wanted and picked the closest match from Word’s included catalogue: Garamond.

Why Garamond? I’m writing science-fiction. Garamond is modern-looking like Times, so it doesn’t make people look twice, but it kerns (spaces) tighter than Times New Roman, which kept page length down without affecting readability. Also, it isn’t fussy like Georgia or Palatino. If I wanted to evoke a steampunk/antique feel, I might go with Baskerville. If I ever write a classic epic fantasy, I will  check on the font used in The Last Unicorn and my 1967 printing of Tolkien.

So. That’s it. Font selection 1-2-3.

Will anyone notice what font I used? I hope not. Does it make a positive impression? So far, so good.

The fate of the world does not depend on font choice, but why ignore any good weapon when you’re off to fight the publishing wars? (Don’t like that violent analogy? How about this one:  your book is about to be the belle of the ball. Dress it up properly for its debut.)

Okay. That’s enough rantiness for one post. /kicks soapbox back under the couch to visit with all its friends.

Until later!


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Books are pyramids

Bear with me here.

I’m not saying that books are literally solid geometric forms with five sides. I’m not proposing a radical change in book formatting.  It’s a metaphor. A simile, really, with a silent “like” lurking within the statement. If you’re in the mood for a little thought experiment, come with me ona tour through the idea of book creation as pyramid-building.

1. Story

Story is the solid base of the structure. Without a good foundation, your work fails, crumbling into the jungle soil and vanishing without a trace. You need a good story. The tricky part is defining the word “good.”  Your heart and the audience should be the sole arbiters of merit, but historically, the economics of publishing did not allow everyone to put written stories in front of an audience. Thus was the  publsihing industry born. Neal Stephenson provides a fascinating analogy for the publisher’s role in his answer to the second question in this slashdot interview.

Story is the element most often dismissed by gatekeeping editors and agents. Publishers know what sells now, and they want what they know. There’s little room for originality. New ideas and marginal topics get filtered out. Changes in “what sells” occur in faddish surges. This is the element that has been washed clean by the flood of self-publishing. Fir the first time in decades, possibly centuries, a huge variety of stories are being made directly available to an audience eager to judge them.

Story is only one element, though.  A trite, cliched, clumsy story can be a bestseller. There are four more elements that must be built and polished before a story can–or should–be called a book. They are all important, they all rely on each other, and they all work together to create a singular result. As long as the story works, it will hold up the rest.

2. Craft

Inspiration, imagination and ideas are the bedrock of the work.  Now I’m talking about the mechanics of writing, and this craft, it’s a complicated mining engine. A writer digs around in her imagination, pulls out ideas, and then crafts them  into a series of words that the mind of another person can use to rebuild the same idea. Think about the miracle that is communication, and be awestruck. We reduce concepts like eternity to four syllables, confident that our readers will divine the same meaning from the same construct. It’s a miracle, really.

Spelling, grammar, and structural guidelines are tools that make miracles happen. Know your tools. Treat them with care. Learn to use them properly before you get creative with them.  Then get creative. I drive screws using a power drill with an accessory rather than a screwdriver. That’s my choice.  I mix metaphors with abandon when writing the POV of a character who dissociates her emotions into animal form. That’s my choice too. I can also accurately use it’s and its, there, they’re and their, just as  I know how to use that power drill without putting out an eye or gashing myself bloody.

If you haven’t mastered noun-verb agreement, if you can’t place a period where a full-stop should occur, if you are shaky on tenses, then you are not ready to publish. You are ready to write, to discover, to explore your ideas in text– all this, yes, please do– but be aware of this unhappy truth: when presented to others, your work will slump like concrete made without gravel and collapse beneath its own mass of errors.  (Am I milking the building metaphor for all it’s worth? You betcha.)

3. Cover

Until we stop being a visual species, humans will make initial judgments by sight. Every book needs an associated image that says to each passing reader, “C’mon, look at me. Touch me.” Some books shout that message in bold words on fields of stark color, some flirt with bared bodices and naked torsos, some whisper it with a subtle swirl of pastels, but the message is the same: “PICK ME, PLEASE!”

If you can’t buy or create professional designs, stick to a simple cover with minimal graphics. Less can be more. Less is definitely better than Bad. Your cover doesn’t have to be dazzling. It simply has to avoid sucking. Your blurb comes under the aegis of “cover” even though it is text.  You’re not trying to explain your book with the blurb. You’re creating a brain image that tempts the reader to engage. Clickbait the heck out of it. Humans respond to specific phrases as if they were enticing images. I wrote an article about that once. More views than anything else I’ve ever written, and it’s about nothing.

4. Components

Once a reader opens the book, the cover’s work is done. The job of the book has barely begun. There’s more to the text than the content. If you distract, disgust or confuse your readers, they won’t stick around long.

Getting to know all the parts and pieces of a book beyond the body of the story takes a whole ‘nother skillset. As with the cover, either hire a good workman, or collect your own tools and practice with them. Ignore the traditional forms at your own risk. You can make stairs without banisters, but people are more likely to fall. Let me outline a few of the safety features readers expect to find in Your Book  2014 edition:

  • A font that sets the mood for your book and smooths the way for a reader’s eyes to reach past letters to meaning. Typography is worth a post in its own right. I’ll write it, I promise.
  • Appropriate front matter — include at minimum a title page and copyright statement, and if you want your book in libraries, you’d better know what cataloging information to put into that space.  Do you need a table of contents? Maybe, maybe not. Do your research.
  • Running page headers and page numbers within the story. These are the wayfinding signs and guideposts for your reader.
  • Chapter & section decorations. Too much fancy stuff distracts from the story) but little touches make your pages unique & more appealing.
  • Back matter: that’s what comes after the story ends, material that encourages further reading & engagement. (An “about the author” paragraph. Notes about the world you created. Properly paginated appendices. All that jazz. Look at traditionally published books for ideas.)

I love electronic publishing because so many safety features come standard with the vehicle. Page numbers? Pfft. They don’t exist. Running headers, tables of contents and font choices? Generated automatically. Huzzah! I can concentrate on the essentials!

That said, I love flourishes and decorations and dropped capitals when done right. They make a book more than a sterile string of words.

If you’re killing trees for your creation, treat their sacrifice with some visual honor. Using default screen fonts for print publishing is like wearing flip-flops to a friend’s wedding. Sure, she’ll understand. She knows you. She might even think it’s funny. It’s still a sign of disrespect, and she’s not the only person at the event. Sloppy front and back matter content flags your book as an amateur production.  You insult your readers by refusing to polish your presentation. If you don’t care enough to dress up, why should they care enough to come to the party?

4. Criticism

To avoid having gaping holes in your final monument, get all your work assessed and evaluated by others before publication. This last side makes the structure stable. It brings everything together.

Some forms of art are more participatory than others. Storytelling is impoverished by isolation. Book publishing is crippled by it. (In my humble opinion.) I won’t say writing without an audience lacks purpose.  Writers everywhere know the deep satisfaction of writing for an audience of one.

In most cases, however, stories improve on being heard, and writing improves on being read. Books improve on being seen and their errors corrected.  No one is an island. No artist can view their work with the same clarity as an objective observer. Get advice and feedback on all aspects of your book: story, craft, cover and components. You can do it all yourself. You can go it alone. Your work will likely be the poorer for it.

And now we’re done.

That’s a base and four sides that diminish as they rise, leaning against each other to form the sharp, clear point. I described each piece individually in an order, but it’s normal to work on several sides simultaneously, building toward the top as you go along.

As you create, you work first on one element, then on another, then the next, until you reach that final peak. And the view from the top is stupendous.


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Revisiting the Issue of Style (Writer’s Bane #167)

I want to rant about style. Yes,  I’ve done it before.  I’ll probably do it again. Count your blessings. I could be bitching about word counts. (No worries. I swore I would take a break from that one for a few months at least.)

My gripe today: the “acceptable usage” problem in genre writing. I make the distinction between literary and genre/commercial because the pressures are so very different. No one tells the James Joyces of the world  to stick to pithy adjectives and active verbs. No one tells the next William Faulkner to avoid long clauses  and complex paragraphs. Well, not no one. Editors issue rejections until one sees the brilliance in the author’s dense, convoluted, messy originality and publishes the work to critical acclaim. Some contrarian reviewers might remain unmoved, but most will rhapsodize.

It’s different in the ever-exploding genre world. The expectations for commercial writing to adhere to standard guidelines are much, much higher, and the pressure to conform is intense. The words GOOD and BAD are used without hesitation. Judgment is wielded like Death’s undiscriminating scythe everywhere a writer turns. Advice is dispensed with a generous hand. References and citations are tossed out like competing birds in a cockfight.

The overall message is: play by the rules, or you will never be taken seriously as a professional.  Follow the rules, or readers will not follow you. Think back to the last vividly-memorable first-book you read. Was the author’s second one as good? Did it change pacing, wording, style? I could fill a bookcase with books by authors whose subsequent works stopped being original and refreshing and began to conform to the norms.

Professional editors aren’t the only ones demanding that Standards Be upheld, nor experienced reviewers. Every avid reader feels their opinion is educated, many readers are also indie writers, and many indie writers wear an editor’s hat on occasion. The list of Do’s and Don’t keeps getting longer, and the community filters are too clogged to wash the dross away from the nuggets of true wisdom.

Here’s just a small sample of the standards that get waved around as fervently as any fan waves her flag at a World Cup Game.

  • Use action words. Vary sentence length, but not too much. Keep it short & pithy at all costs.
  • Keep the timeframe short too. Sense of urgency is all. Skip any scene that does not advance the plot with every word.
  • Show, don’t tell. But don’t show everything in detail.
  • Tag dialogue sparingly. Use said, rather than its synonyms. Avoid even using said, if you can.
  • Be sparing with adjectives. Avoid adverbs.
  • Identify all cliche terms and over-used phrases; excise them from your work. Beware of lazy metaphors and threadbare similes.

When did adverbs become evil? When did using “said” become a sign of bad writing, and its absence a a sign of the same flaw? When did writers become so certain that The Rules of Writing are chiseled in stylistic stone?  I’ll tell you when: it began when author-published works began to gain market share.

Advice is a big business, and preying on insecurity and inexperience is a business tactic as old as bargaining. Anyone who lays down the Immutable Truth or  paves The Guaranteed Path To Success is sure to generate site hits and gain plenty of attention. And ad revenue.

My favorite advice article headline will always be “10 Steps to Greater Originality.” Alas, that the site long ago withered into oblivion. (1994? 95?)  It still makes me giggle. Steps. To originality. As in, “Follow this exact plan, the same one that everyone else will be using, and you will be original.” If only writing catchy, stylish prose were that easy. If only. There is a magic to this art of writing, but that isn’t it.

The magic does not live in the rules. I’m tired of advice that scorns common phrases without exception. I’m sick of judges who sneer at grammar and poo-poo descriptions that have been around since the written word met the printing press.

Overused words, trite phrases, cliches, descriptive shortcuts…they have a place. They have a purpose. Stop avoiding them merely because they’re popular and some advice book says they’re bad. That which is sneer-worthy today may be the subject of graduate theses in a score of years. Look at romance novels. Look at how long it’s taken the literary world to take them seriously, in large part due to all the style conventions and compromises that were considered acceptable there, but not elsewhere.  

Storytellers are readers before they become writers. When new writers start to pour out their stories, they write what they read.  This is the birth of style. A surprising number of writers start out writing erotica. There are conventions unique to that community, ones that are rarely considered acceptable elsewhere. The first time I saw an erotica-descriptive trick used in a genre fiction novel I did a spit-take. I know where that author first gave words to the worlds of his imagination. 

That’s simply one case. There are more. Many storytelling forms have no problem with ritual, form, and phrasing. “Once upon a time,” anyone? The ideas that come up again and again are the ones that resonate with creator and consumer alike.

Yes, I know, there may be a good reason that an author should usually avoid the superfluous use of “suddenly.” (For example.) Or the overuse of usually, for that matter. I agree, but with caveats. There should be a reason to avoid breaking rules that goes deeper than “It’s a Bad Thing because reasons.”  It might not be bad in context.

Context. That’s the sticking point. Who decides the context? A reader? An editor? Nope.  Writing is all about getting the right words in the right place, and the only person who judge what that means is the creator. In the final analysis, the writer’s judgment is the only one that matters. 

Trust the advice of experts, but only so far, and no further. Be aware of the rules, but be ready to break them with merry abandon if you ever hope to create something unique and interesting.  It’s a tough to master, this trick of deciding when to comply and when to rebel, but it can be done. It takes many trials and many, many errors, but it’s the difference between trying to write, and writing. 

You only have to do this one thing, to be original and find your own style. 

Writing again

The puzzle of style

My hackles go up when people I will call Serious Reviewers base their assessment of a book’s quality on style. In the last week alone, I’ve read the phrases, “amateurish style,” “lacked style,” and “pretentious style” in multiple reviews. The market spectrum ranged from YA, through SF, to literary fiction. The market penetration ranged from indie unknown to mega-blockbuster bestseller.

I’m left with the impression that when Serious Reviewers don’t feel like building defenses for their dislike of a book, they default to assaulting style. They’re like debaters who stoop to ad hominem attacks when they run out of logical arguments? (gratuitous ad hominem example: “Oh, yeah? You can list ten factors indicating climate change? Well, your socks are stupid, so you don’t know anything.”)

 The refusal to engage on point irks me, but a more troubling issue lurks under my surface annoyance. Style is a a fluid element in communication, just as words are fluid elements of language. Styles and words fall in an out of fashion, so is it fair to state unequivocably that a style is good or bad?

No, it isn’t. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” That’s a quote. Rev up the search engine of your choice, if you want an attribution. When the foundation for all that’s wrong with a written work is that it is not the Right Style, the reviewer is basically saying, “I am disguising my legitimate emotional response behind intellectual trappings, because feels aren’t legit. I must box them up in pretty thinks.”

Did I say, “basically?” Oh, yes, I did! Evil adverb on the loose! Also, exclamation points! And Slang! And starting a sentence with a conjunction!

There. All my writing can now be dismissed on multiple style points. Lazy writer. Bad style–or not, depending on venue, audience, and reader expectations. Some people hate Hemingway. (me) Some people think his style is the cat’s pajamas. Why the heck is that a positive idiom, by the way? Fodder for a different post. Moving on. Style is to writing what clothes are to modesty. Necessary in principle, but a source of endless variation in practice and acceptance.

That’s my point. Style is in the eye of the beholder, so criticizing style is personal rather than professional. If someone likes fast sports cars, a motorcycle might be considered short two wheels, and horses would be right out, as a form of transportation. If you love horses, on the other hand, a Ferrari is no substitute for something with a whinny and a tail.

Whether a style suits its story or not is an equally problematic issue. I’ve seen plenty of mealy-worded versions of: “It was an interesting idea, but the wording was too simplistic for the subject matter.” My personal favorite pins down the far end of that spectrum: “The author used too many words.”

 How the story gets told, that’s the author’s choice. Like it or don’t, that’s valid. It’s not pertinent to the quality of the work, but it’s valid. Downgrading an assessment of a book’s intrinsic worth based on a visceral response? Not valid. Not cool. Don’t throw out the comments, “It’s a kid’s book,” or “It reads like a romance,” as if they were legitimate evaluations. They aren’t.

Cats. Pajamas. Now there’s style.