Coming @ You

Random thoughts on punctuation and other typography

 

atman

(image: p.116 of ascii64 The @ Book, by Patrick Sneyd)

 

‘<dd>Common: at sign; at; strudel. Rare: ear; vortex; whorl; [whirlpool];
cyclone; snail; ape; cat; rose; cabbage; <commercial at><dd>

New Hacker’s Dictionary

 

It’s Saturday afternoon and a young ill-informed child is trying to send an email. ‘The thing, the thing – where’s the funny circle thing?’ she squeaks at the laptop. We work out that she means the ‘at’ sign (sometimes called the ‘commercial at’ or even ‘atmark’), and I show her the keystroke. Gently I ask, ‘do you want to hear a funny story about that circle thing?’ and so begins another brief but beautiful father–daughter bonding experience.

 

Name Games

The ‘at’ sign has no agreed English name, which is odd considering it’s used in every email and millions of tweets and online discussions every day. This seems to be an English-speaking oversight, as many countries have come up with evocative names for the @, based on the logogram’s splendid curves. In Denmark and Sweden it is ‘snabel-a’, meaning elephant’s trunk. Germans call it ‘klammeraffe’, which roughly translates as ‘clinging spider monkey’; in Italy it’s ‘chiocciola’ – snail – and in Czech and Slovak it’s called ‘zavináč’, or rollmop. Only the Inuit avoid the animal/food allusions, playing it safe with ‘aajusaq’: ‘something that looks like “a”‘.

 

There are various theories about the origins of the symbol, the most likely being that it’s shorthand for the Latin word ad, meaning ‘at, toward, by, about’. Medieval monastic scribes often made abbreviations of common words as they had to hand letter hundreds of religious manuscripts – shortening words (such as
& for and) therefore saved time, space, ink, papyrus and other materials. This medieval @ probably looked like a lower case ‘d’: , and you can still see the basis of that shape in its modern form. Another theory is the sign was invented by accountants, and is a ligature between the first letter of the words ‘at’ and ‘each’, so that @ is actually an ‘a’ encircled by a lower case ‘e’.

 

According to history professor Giorgio Stabile from La Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, the first credible and documented appearance of the symbol dates from 4 May 1536, when Italian merchant Francesco Lapi noted in writing the arrival of treasures delivered by Spanish conquistadors from their conquest of Peru. He used the symbol to refer to amphorae (from ‘amphora’, a vessel for wine) as a unit of measurement:

 

 stabile-at crop
Francesco Lapi’s early use of the @ sign
(image: http://bit.ly/1zKdTS0)

 

Lapi’s example is the first known use of the symbol as a character in its own right and with a distinct meaning. Over time the @ evolved to become a shorthand for ‘at’, and finally appeared on standard typewriters in the 1880s as a pricing shorthand. In 1894 it was defined for the first time in the American Dictionary of Printing & Bookmaking as the ‘commercial “a”’, meaning ‘each at’: i.e. ‘6 apples @ 50p each’. The first use of the symbol as a delimiter can be dated to 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson sent the first email.

 

‘Tomlinson performed a powerful act of design that not only changed the @ sign’s
significance, but enabled it to become an important part of our identity
in relationship and communication with others.’

— Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Department
of Architecture and Design, MoMA

Notable @Ⓐchievements

The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design added the @ sign to its collection in March 2010 (even though they couldn’t physically acquire an actual @), in what they described as a momentous, elating acquisition. The symbol earned its place due to its ‘elegance, economy and intellectual transparency’ and for its services to communications. In a similar display of reverence, the Chinese State Language Commission reported that a Chinese couple attempted to name their son @ in 2007, pronouncing it ‘ai ta’ which apparently sounds like ‘love him’ in Mandarin. Unlike MoMA, the Commission’s decision on this idea is not documented. In May 2004 the @ sign was added to the official Morse code character set: ‘• — — •’, formed by running together the dots and dashes that make up the letters ‘A’ and ‘C’. Significantly, this was the first addition of a new character to Morse code since the end of the First World War.

 

 
superman edit
 
(original image: p.111 of ascii64 The @ Book, by Patrick Sneyd)

 

Some people (not me, oh no) are irritated that the sign doesn’t have an agreed English name considering its long history and current ubiquity. There have been vague online campaigns to assign a proper tag: asperand, ampersat or apetail have each been mooted, but none caught on. John Lloyd, the British TV producer of QI, used that BBC quiz show to raise support for the name ‘astatine’ for the sign, as this radioactive element has the chemical symbol At; art historian Frances Marks suggested ‘van Gogh’s ear’. Sadly both of these figurative and creative suggestions again came to nothing.

 

 

(I’m not sure what the message of this clip is, but I’m sure it illustrates my point) 
 

Rise of the Machines

blade-runner-poster-godmachine

(image: http://bit.ly/1qqjlEB)
 

As an 11-year-old boy in 1982 and the proud owner of a Casio J-100 digital watch – the cutting-edge of inoperable wrist-based LCD technology at that time – Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was a revelation to me. Here was an A-Z of life in November 2019, a date that was (and indeed still is) theoretically within my own lifetime. An intensive 15 minutes tabulation on my Casio calculator confirmed that I would be an improbable 31 38 23 47 when this terrifying dystopia rolled into view, and – ignoring the dystopian aspect, it being a concept I was unfamiliar with at that time – old enough to own one of the cool spaceship/flying car things seen in the movie’s bleak vision of Los Angeles (even if that vision was based on Teeside’s Wilton ICI Chemical Plant). The possibilities were beyond exciting, despite the future resembling a dark and wet evening in Middlesbrough.

 

Today, with 2019 just around the corner it’s time to take stock and weigh up some dispiriting odds. It would seem that my car is not going to fly me to the shops any time soon. Also, bio-mechanical owls (pictured above), ruthless humanoid AI warrior replicants, mile-high mega buildings and off-world colonies where I can ‘begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure’ are not on the menu either. My 11-year-old self is disappointed. But looking to the positive side, how would the 1982 me react to the actual modern technology of my everyday life?

 

The younger, slack-jawed and bug-eyed (now surgically corrected) version of myself would be irrefutably agog to know that a lot of my grown-up working day is spent battling soulless, implacable AIlite circuit boards that are intent on turning fine-tuned meaning into a nonsense soup. Here’s the enigmatic formula for how this works, a coda cracked by me while operating on the editorial front line: (1) a publisher accepts an author’s manuscript. (2) Words are edited so that the story makes sense and is attractive to readers, and the manuscript is reborn as a book. (3) Editors and proof-readers then scour the freshly made pages, removing errors, typos and other imperfections. (4) The gilded lily is then printed and goes on sale to much aplomb. Finally, (5) those sculpted camera-ready printed pages are fed into a computer that is meant to turn the publication into an eBook – an ethereal digital facsimile of an actual thing – but which randomly, horrifically, adds spelling mistakes, weird characters, bad word/line breaks, extra spaces and all sorts of other digital atrocities. This corrupted, typo-littered eBook then goes on sale. After all, it’s already been edited and proofed several times – right?

 

Both the old and young versions of myself are righteously offended by this turn of events, and the editorial spirit is forged in the white-hot furnace of indignation…

 

Optical Character Recognition

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) works by scanning an image of a word on a printed page, which it then recognises as a word and renders digitally, thus making it searchable. All straightforward in theory, but the havoc wreaked by clumsy OC recognition can drive readers mad, and occasionally an egregious substitution causes authors acute embarrassment. If you’re a fantasy author, do you really want a dragon to ‘bum its victim with fiery breath’ or a depressed man ‘smiling through his teats’ in your story? Imagine R.R. Martin’s surprise when a poor PDF conversion merged every page’s running head into every page of his body copy:

 

ffc-ebook3 edit

(image: http://bit.ly/1z04Bkr)

 

OCR (not to be confused with RoboCop’s evil OCP megacorporation, although the mistake is understandable) has a particular problem with rendering ‘ar’ as ‘an’, especially with older, ‘noisy’ printed pages, which led to some unexpected erotic liaisons for romance writers:

 

‘When she spotted me, she flung her anus high in the air and kept them up until she reached me. “Matisse. Oh boy!” she said. She grabbed my anus and positioned my body in the direction of the east gallery and we started walking.’ (from Matisse on the Loose, by Georgia Bragg)

 

…and…

 

‘Mrs Nevile, in exquisite emotion, threw her anus around the neck of Caroline, pressed Her with fervour to her breast.’ (from Edward: Various Views of Life & Manners, by John Moore)

 

OCR Accuracy

Research based on the Large Scale Historic Newspaper Digitisation Program (2007–2008) found that the accuracy of commercial OCR software varied from 81 to 99 percent. Six years after this research was carried out, OCR (now reborn as the Occasionally Correct Reader) is still struggling to make sense. I have proofed more than 150 titles for Aurum Press and other publishers in the last three years, and only four of them had no conversion errors. With the others, some of the mistakes were typos found in the original text but the majority were introduced by the OCR software – a typical example being ‘tlie’ instead of ‘the’.

 

Some publishers seem to think that digitising their back catalogue and uploading the result is a quick way to squeeze a profit from long-expired titles. Proof-reading is skipped as the book has already had extensive editorial treatment in preparation for its original publication. This of course underestimates the half-arsed job that OCR often performs, as highlighted in this blog post. As eBooks continue their rise in popularity (there are currently around 2.5 million on Amazon, and more than 30 million available on Google Books), it’s important to not trust the machines with content. If Blade Runner, RoboCop and Terminator 4: Salvation (alarmingly set in an imminent and extremely bleak 2018) can teach us anything about modern tech-anxiety, it’s that we absolutely can’t trust the machines. The message is clear: always get eBooks proof-read by a carbon-based bipedal editor to find the irritating quirks of OCR scanning. These errors look awful, wind readers and critics up, insult the author and damage a publishing brand.

 

Refusing to budget for this editorial search & destroy mission also puts people like me out of work, which is even worse.

 

 

 

Editing on the Front Line

pen sword

Mightier than the sword? (image: http://bit.ly/1xExFxe)

 

‘When the world blows up and the final edition has gone to press the proof-readers will quietly gather up all commas, semicolons, hyphens, asterisks, brackets, parenthesis, periods, exclamation marks, etc. and put them in a little box over the editorial chair.’

— Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1961

 

There are some writers who think that editors are pedantic, nit-picking keyboard warriors intent on ruining perfectly serviceable copy with arcane and smartarse observations. Indeed I do my very best to conform to this cliché every day of my working life. It’s a serviceable persona, and it disguises my true identity. Because if you stop for a minute to consider the language of editing, page layout and typography you’ll realise that the seemingly nerdy wordy editor inhabits a violent cosmos where editorial judgements count and only the ruthless survive.

 

The Language of Armageddon

The terminology of type and page design describes a perilous place. In it, characters are grotesque, distressed, struck through, knocked-out, slashed and bulleted. They splat and bleed… sometimes fully. Speech marks, smart or dumb, frequently end up as tombstones. Copy can be tracked, stripped, spliced, cut, spiked and bound with ligatures, occasionally leaving widows and orphans to contemplate each other across a too-wide gutter. Punctuation can gasp and scream, and participles can dangle; an initial cap can be hung, dropped or be part of a stickup – possibly marked with a double dagger. One of the few editorial acts of violence you apparently can’t inflict on bad copy is to cut its face off and set it on fire, possibly to the irritation of some commissioning editors.

 

Armed with a dictionary and, inevitably, a half-finished style guide supplied by his mottled overlords (a good copy editor always does it with style), the resourceful freelance wordsmith must traverse this harsh landscape, scouring enemy lines, searching for meaning, seeking out and eradicating the mistakes of others. It can be a lonely job, requiring iron self-discipline in the face of six billion YouTube distractions.

 

‘WTF Are You Talking About?’

Some might be wondering why I’m writing this. Why do writers, marketeers, web designers and authors need an editor? Simply, it’s because we can get the best out of your written word. Typos and grammatical errors can be stripped, your clarity and structure enhanced and your tone perfected. We check for continuity of language and that your copy makes sense. We turn your American-English into British-English, and vice versa depending on your intended readership. We check your use of chronology, spellings, trademarks, accents, geography, purported facts, statistics and translations so that you don’t look silly:

 

Older adults typo

Feeling better already (image: http://bit.ly/1nMXvy4)

 

Greeting card typo

Marketing slogan for a greetings card company (image: http://bit.ly/1uKFmpj)

 

Every document needs an edit and every writer needs an editor. Death by a 1000 cuts is the least of your worries. Editors – ruthless, brave but tactful. We go there so you don’t have to.

 

Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms
have the right to use the editorial “we.”‘

– Mark Twain

Write a Better Book Blurb

blurb edit

The word ‘blurb’ was coined in 1907 by Gelett Burgess

(image: http://1.usa.gov/1lR3pZA)

 

 

‘Blurb 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial.
2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher… On the “jacket”
of the “latest” fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives
and adverbs, attesting that this book is the “sensation of the year.”‘

Burgess Unabridged, by Gelett Burgess (1914)

 

 

After your cover – that good looking, intriguing example of art and design that demands new readers pay attention to your book – the words on the back cover are critical to selling your story. They work hard to advertise your creative efforts while simultaneously offering a glimpse of the world of mystery and excitement that lies within the pages. Your selection of and economy with words in this limited space must create a compelling need to find out more.

 

For this and other reasons, writing a blurb is hard. If you’ve been up to your eyeballs in syllables – the nuts and bolts of your story – for weeks on end, the ability to jump out and conjure up a seductive and compelling bird’s-eye view of your book and its tale can be tricky. Those 250-odd words need to capture your story’s soul: its characters, their challenges and the underlying themes, and entice that potential reader into taking a chance on a your book because they want to know more. How do you write that?

 

Five Ideas to Get You Started

Pick five books that you have enjoyed and know well, and then read their back-cover blurbs. How do these words capture the nature and essence of that familiar story and stimulate your sense of interest and recollection? Look at the use of questions, superlatives, adverbs and adjectives and how they are pitched up to hook you in. Also regard the economy of words and punctuation, how few are needed to paint a compelling picture. Note any opening language, style or tone that you like, or anything that nicely illustrates a sense of time, place and circumstances:

 

 

the-slap
 
At a suburban barbecue one afternoon, a man slaps
an unruly three-year-old boy. The boy is not his son.
 
 
 
 
Thomas-Harris-The-Silence-of-the-Lambs
 
           AT LARGE
A psychotic serial killer who
flays the bodies of his victims
         LOCKED AWAY
A homicidal genius in an asylum
for the criminally insane
       THE GO-BETWEEN
A young FBI trainee who must
deal with one to stop the other
 
 
 
 
Extremely Loud
 
In a vase in a closet, a couple of years after his father
died in 9/11, nine-year-old Oskar discovers a key…
 
 
 
 

Ludmila

Determined to save her family from starvation
in the face of marauding 
Gnez troops, Ludmila
Derev appears 
on a website for Russian brides.

 

 

Middlesex
 
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably
smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again,
as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey,
Michigan, in August of 1974.

 

 

Next visit a library or bookshop and pick up titles at random based on their cover, then look for gilded examples of beautiful blurb hooks and come-hither language. Failing that go to amazon and look for new books in any genre of your choice. Wait until a cover catches your eye and then read the blurb in the ‘book description’ field – this is normally the same text that appears on the actual cover. Do any phrases, questions or style of writing grab you? What puts you off a story by reading its blurb? Go looking for interesting books in your particular genre and note the language, descriptions and phrases that raise an interest. How does the competition write their back-cover copy?

 

Putting It into Words

Hopefully inspired you can now have a go at your own blurb. The bare bones of it can be made from telling a potential reader that an {appealing character} in {interesting situation} has {something going on} with {something at stake}. See how your story plays out when you feed it into this simple blurb generator, then look at your choice of language. Be colourful, descriptive, intriguing – even playful with your opening sentence.

 

Look out for text that’s lifeless or flat. For example, the ‘discovery of disturbing paintings after New York man goes missing’ could be kicked up a notch: ‘In a New York slum, a tenant has mysteriously disappeared – leaving behind a huge collection of sick but brilliant paintings.’ (The Brutal Art, by Jesse Kellerman). Don’t be reticent: ramp up the drama and tension in your word choices – anything that creates atmosphere, empathy and a touch of excitement is to be encouraged.

 

 

‘Brevity is the soul of wit’

Polonius (Hamlet, Act 2/scene 2)

 

 

Now cut your blurb down to 250 words as a rough guide to total length – some back covers have more space than others, so length can vary. Slightly. Be aware that if you are publishing through Smashwords your book description field allows just 400 characters, including spaces – not much at all, so check the limitation offered by your preferred publishing platform. And do practice paring your blurb down from 250 words, even if you think you don’t need these reduced offerings – 400 characters is a good length to describe your book on facebook and in communities and forums, so have it available to cut and paste. Twitter users can also have a go at condensing their story down to the 140-character limit if feeling bold.

 

Once honed and whittled, check that you haven’t miss-, over- or undersold your story, implied something that doesn’t actually happen or in any other way ridiculously and unforgivably misrepresented your work:

 

wizard-of-oz-killer-synopsis

Rick Polito‘s TV listings take the pith
 

 

Getting Feedback

Next give your hand-crafted blurb to someone who doesn’t know what your story is about (do you still have friends like that?) and to people who do – friends and family, online support from writing communities, people you work with, neighbours, Facebook associates… Ask a straightforward question for an honest opinion – “would they buy your story based on your sales pitch?” Get as much feedback as you can tolerate, correcting issues that are raised a few times and any other problems that bother you and your test readers.

 

 

‘Note words and quotes and phrases with instant appeal,
atmosphere, an air of mystery, a sense of 
character,
a sense of place and put them all together 
in a coherent
and exciting way. So whoever picks up the 
book and
reads the blurb thinks: “I must read this book.”‘

Sarah Kettle, Penguin copywriter

 

 

Once happy with your streamlined blurb keep all your efforts – the 400-character précis, the 140-character twitter tweet and the finished blurb itself. You will need these for your website, blog, online sales page, Facebook and forum posts… and anywhere else you promote your writing.

 

Lastly you need some outstanding reviews – preferably written by someone famous or credible in your genre or in the writing or newspaper business – that screams praise for your vivid story telling talents and poise with prose. If possible get two or three of these quotations to backup everything that’s promised or suggested in your blurb, with the best one centred above your blurb copy and the rest running under it. If readily available, truly supportive of your writing and written by JD Salinger, JK Rowling and/or NR Mandela, you could do away with the blurb altogether and use them instead to promote and sell your book.

 

As with the rest of your manuscript make sure typos and errors are spotted and fixed, as these don’t look good when laid bare on the back cover. Spend time on your blurb, as getting it really wrong could get you laughed at or at least cost you sales. And if none of the above helps you can get in touch with me to see if I can fix your problem.