Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Abuse of Typography

Is it just me or is this getting worse? Some of this stuff makes me wonder when the writer is going to be graduating from high school.

Dear Writer:

Calling your characters "Wharrior" and "Frehnzy" doesn't make your story cool. Neither does a reference to a "childe" or a "songe" unless your story is set in a period when that spelling was used. "Sylvyr" and its permutations don't impress me either. Spell things correctly. If you want to be different, use foreign names, or for SF and fantasy you can make something up from scratch. The universe should charge a nickel -- per letter, multiplied by the number of copies of the book/story printed -- for every extraneous "H" and "E" and for every "Y" pasted on where another vowel should be.

Apostrophes, linguistically, indicate a glottal stop. If that's not what you want, don't use them. Anne McCaffery gets a pass because her dragon riders actually shortened their names when they got their dragons, so her apostrophes indicated legitimate contractions. If your word isn't a contraction and doesn't have a glottal stop, leave the apostrophes out. Names like "Jo'nathan" or "T'revor" don't look cool. Making up a name doesn't help -- if you pronounce "Lerin'elia" the same way you'd pronounce "Lerinelia," leave out the apostrophe. And seriously, there are so many writers nowadays who think throwing in a pointless apostrophe is just too cool that even if you do mean to indicate a glottal stop in the middle there, most people will assume you're a teenager trying to sound cool anyway.

Capitalizing a blah noun won't make it any less blah. If your character is carrying the Cup, the Candle and the Flask into the Hall where the Warrior will perform the Ceremony, you need to go back and rethink a few things. If something is that special, it'll probably have a name. Think of one and then use it. If it's not, then it doesn't require a capital, so don't use one.

Caveat: if you're using a chunk of a longer proper name, you can capitalize that. So for example, I'm from the United States of America, and calling it "the States" is legitimate because "States" is part of a proper noun. Having your hero wield "the Sword," though, just makes me eyeroll unless you told me earlier that it's actually "the Barliman Sword of Truth" or whatever.

Putting an English word into italics doesn't make it sound foreign. If your character speaks a foreign language -- either a realspace language or one you've made up for your SF or fantasy book -- then either use that language with italics or translate it into English without italics. English in italics just makes it look like you're going through the text with a hilighter, marking the cool parts for us so we know they're cool. It doesn't work.

Yes, I've been reading. This has been bugging me more and more recently, and I just ran across Nathan Bransford's post on readers' pet peeves. My comment got kind of long [cough] so I brought it back here.

I'm expecting to see a Syl'vyr Childe named Cuhr'se wander through the Door with an engraved Knife any time now. [headdesk]



Charles Gramlich said...

This something I've not given a lot of thought too. But I think I'm not reading the same set of books you are.

Angie said...

It seems to be most common in SF/fantasy/paranormal books, and in romances which have those as subgenres. Hard SF doesn't usually do it, unless someone's getting really squirrely with their alien languages. I don't remember Burroughs (or John Norman, for that matter) doing it either, but it's been a while.

It's really frustrating because most of these stories could be very good if the writer would just get over the cutesy stuff and actually develop their worlds and their languages with some depth, rather than trying to do it all with a coat of paint. Especially when that paint is metallic gold with neon-orange trim. :/

The book I'm reading right now (inappropriate initial caps, italicized English) is just so-so and I probably won't get the next one in the series. But I read the first two in a different series (extraneous Hs, inappropriate initial caps) recently and liked them a lot -- obviously, or I wouldn't have bought the second one. This series has some other flaws too, but the basic stories and the bare bones of the worldbuilding and character development are sound. I want to get a box of red pens and go over this writer's manuscripts, because with some help she could really rock. Unfortunately she's very popular right now, so she has no incentive whatsoever to start spelling things like a grown-up. I'll probably get more books in this series, but I'll be sighing and eyerolling all the way through. [wry smile]


Stewart Sternberg said...

I agree with this post. As a reader of fantasy, I do get tired of made up names that have a heavy-handed feel to them or which are virtually unpronounceable. You know, like G'retjallearf!!!! Of course, as a writer of Lovecraftian mythos, I suppose I stand on shaky ground. For instance, how many people can confidently pronounce Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth.

Angie said...

Stewart -- LOL! Good point. I can, but only because some Cthulu fans actually said them aloud in my presence, many years ago.


Steve Malley said...

One must *never* pronounce the anems of Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth. Merely typing them may be dangerous enough...


Angie said...

Steve -- typing them just makes the Dark Forces e-mail you really disgusting GIFs. Annoying, but easy enough to catch with your spam filter. ;D


Bernita said...

~ shifting uneasily~ it alright if some people refer to my exorcist heroine as "the Freak?"

Angie said...

Bernita -- sure, because in that context they're using it as a proper name, or a substitute for one. It's something they're calling an actual person, and the "the" makes it sound like a unique descriptor. So "the Freak" sounds like a the speaker's name for someone, or at least a title, whereas calling her "a Freak" would've been just standard name-calling and my mental red pen would've slashed through the initial cap.

The books I'm eyerolling over are the ones where there it seriously looks like the writer is trying to make some object sound Special and Unique by giving it a capitalized common noun. Like, there are many chalices but this is "the Chalice." I'll actually let a writer get away with this once, although I think it's sloppy unless handled just right. But when there's a whole list of them -- the Chalice, the Blade, the Stone, the Door -- it starts looking lazy or sloppy or both.

Why give something an actual name, something unique and descriptive and creative, which fits into your setting and its history and culture, when you can achieve the same effect [cough] by just capitalizing its first letter? Why bother describing something thoroughly, or showing the reader its history and significance by how it's used and how the characters relate to it and talk about it, when you can save all that babbling and just capitalize the item's first letter?

Like most other writing rules, this one can be broken if you know what you're doing. I don't mind so much if characters (or even the narrative) refers to an item as "the Fountain" so long as the writer also does some work to show me what's special about the fountain, why it's significant, why I'm supposed to think it's significant and unique and important and cool. But when the initial-cap is used as a lazy writer's way of getting out of actually developing their world, then it's just a cop-out. Especially in fantasy, which is where this device is seen most often and where worldbuilding is a key factor in a story's success or failure. It's the laziness which annoys me.

And if you're talking about your own protag, I think you've already done a good job showing us that some of the people who know her do think of her as a freak, so you're clearly not letting that designator do your character development work for you.


Anonymous said...

I just have to say, Angie, that rant made my night. I laughed and nodded and laughed and nodded some more. Just when I thought my night was going to be all research and bookmarking then bed, I a) found YOU!, and b) read this.

Thank you, darling. *hug*

Angie said...

Sarah -- hey you! [hugz back]

Here, want some of my read pens...? [wry smile] Seriously, though, I just hate seeing writers who could be excellent if they'd just push a little more, do some work, learn a few more things. :/