Saturday, 27 July 2013

Looking good! Thoughts on typography by Jenny Harper

Anyone who knows me well knows that how things look is very important to me. I love art, and crafts, and spent a significant portion of my professional working life designing books and magazines. I learnt a lot about typography from real masters of the art when I worked at William Collins, as an editor. In those days, everything was set in hot metal type and we got hand-inked pull proofs to check. Making changes was incredibly expensive and authors were charged for any changes that were not down to printer error. In fact, we had to mark the proofs using three colours of pen: red for author's corrs, green for printer's corrs and blue for editor's corrs. Costs were allocated accordingly.

I know, I know, I sound as though I came out of the Ark! I was still working at Collins in the mid 1970s when the first computer-set dictionary was achieved, and I remember the excitement in the office when it happened. Proofs changed though – soon we were getting stinky ozalids rather than the elegant pull proofs.

Roll on another decade and I was found myself sitting next to a computer specialist at the University of Edinburgh as he tried to lay out a small brochure for me, using a piece of software called PageMaker on a tiny-screened computer called a Mac Classic. 'It'll never catch on,' I said as I squinted at the screen and tried to follow what he was doing. (Soon afterwards I got a Classic of my own. I still have it.) From being an editor, I found myself also becoming something of a designer, because soon I was designing and laying out books and magazines for a large variety of clients. The early lessons in typography began to stand me in very good stead and I became very interested in what typeface to use when, and why one typeface might be better than another for certain purposes.

I was understandably interested, therefore, in a recent piece in The Week entitled 'How typeface influences the way we read and think – and why everyone hates Comic Sans MS' This fascinating article started by pointing out that the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson – one of the most expensive and fascinating experiments in history – was made using a typeface called Comic Sans MS. In the opinion of the writer, gravitas was thus seriously undermined and the reaction was not one of awe, it was simply to laugh.

Serious stuff, then. But can our views really be so deeply affected simply by how words look on a page? Again, the article continues by outlining an experiment where a serious article was presented in a number of different typefaces, from the aforesaid Comic Sans to Baskerville. The results, from analysis of the 40,000 responses, was that if you want people to take your work seriously, you should use Baskerville. Not Georgia, or Times New Roman, which are very similar, but Baskerville.

Why is Comic Sans seen as funny? It looks like a childish scribble, for a start, but to get technical, it's apparently something to do with 'the management of visual weight'. There's a lot of science behind typopgraphy. Why do serifs (those little trailing edges on fonts like Times but not on Arial) arguably make a font easier to read in large quantities? Why is italic more difficult to read – and capitals almost impossible in quantity?

Fascinating stuff and I could bore you with it for hours. But I won't. Instead, I'd like to ask you a question: Are you ever put off by the size of the typeface or the type style when you pick up a book and open it?

I am. Sometimes I put a book right back on the shelf if the type is too small, even though I feel I'd like to read it. Something in my head tell me this is going to be too intense, maybe a bit boring. I could be very wrong, but that's the message I get.

Remember all those Joanna Trollopes published in the 90s? They used a typeface called Melior, which was in common use for a certain kind of book. It got to the stage that if I picked up a book in that type I put it straight back down because I felt I knew exactly what I'd be getting and I'd already had it.

So, that brings me to another, related, subject. When we buy an e-book (certainly on Kindle), we can read it either in serif or sans serif, bigger or smaller, with more spacing or less spacing – but other than that, we have very little control over how it appears. How does this make us perceive the book? In one way we have ceded less power to the typographer, who could in former times have influenced our reaction quite considerably. In another way, we have lost all power ourselves.

And, in reading most books in one format, one typeface, will everything we read in time become simply one homogeneous, misshapen lump in our minds? We remember the look, feel, and heft of a printed book. We remember whether the paper was rough or smooth, yellow or white. We remember it was fat, or slight. We remember the cover. If we try hard enough, we probably remember the typeface too.

Are these losses important, at the end of the day, or are they offset by convenience?

Over to you!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013


'But there aren't any dogs in your stories!' a friend wailed at me. 'Or any cats for that matter.' Well, that wasn't entirely true because I did once have a short story published where a missing dog was instrumental in repairing a relationship between step-father and step-daughter. But the romance I wrote about how a cat got girl to meet boy and live happily ever after got me a rap over the knuckles from my, then, agent -'An absolute no-no, Linda. Never write another'. And I haven't. Certainly no animals - pet or wild - appear in any of my novels. Anna Sewell, of course, changed how we think about animals for all time when she wrote Black Beauty from the horse's point of view. Elizabeth Taylor probably eclipsed the horse for some, but the book - and the film - has stood the test of time.
And then there was Argos - not, not the cheapo retail outlet! - the dog of Odysseus who was the only one to recognise his owner after a twenty year absence. Poor Argos then died, but has remained a symbol of fidelity and love. I am, most definitely, a cat person, although I don't own one. That said,a neighbour's Bengal seems to think it lives here most of the time.
I can't think of a single book I've read in recent times where a pet of any sort has been crucial to the story. Is it because there are none? Or few.... There is, of course The Hound of Baservilles, but hey, that's crime not romance....and who would want a dog like that around? I've never owned a dog. I know there are those who think I must be a sad person but I simply don't want the tie that comes with dog-ownership - neighbours are happy to feed cats when one goes away but most draw the line at daily dog-walking. I do have a grand-dog, Guinness - my son's dog - so if ever I get the urge to write a dog into a novel I have some handy hands-on research. Write about what you know, is a good maxim, so perhaps because I know so little about animals - and pets - is the reason they don't feature in my fiction. Do you write animals - wild or domesticated - into your fiction? I'd love to know.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Coincidence? Really?

By Jennifer Young

Picture the scene. My husband and I, on a rare Friday evening out, are in the bar of a hotel. We haven’t been here for years. “Ah,” he reflects over his glass of wine, “I used to come in here every Friday after work.” He names his colleagues – let’s call then Ben and Jerry. We enjoy our meal and as we go out through the bar, there are Ben and Jerry, sitting in the corner.

We’re still laughing about it in the morning when we’re out for a family breakfast at the local farm shop. One of us mentions my sister who, as far as I know, doesn’t even know this place exists: within minutes, in she walks. And so we joke about who we’re going to meet next that day and of course, as we stop off for weekend treats at the local shopping centre, who should we bump into but another family who live a good fifty miles away, buried in the depths of rural Perthshire.

I wonder just how much of that you believe. Have I strained your credibility? Can you believe one of these meetings, or two, or three? Can you believe them over the space of a week but not a day, or do you struggle with the fact that only one of these meetings took place where we might reasonably have expected? Are you shaking your head thinking: oh, come on…you surely don’t expect me to believe that?

Did you believe A Tale of Two Cities?
Personally I’m highly critical of coincidence within a framework of fiction. I regularly shake my head over it. But I do believe in it. In real life it’s serendipitous, comes out of nowhere and when we met Ben and Jerry in that same place after all those years I didn’t shake my head and think it too much of a coincidence. (I never quite believed A Tale of Two Cities, for example.)

In fiction it’s different. I find myself irritated by too big a coincidence, especially when it’s so clearly a mighty contrivance, a crank of the handle that seems the only way to shift a creaking plot. I can think of very many. And yet I’m sure other people’s lives are full of coincidences of the highest drama.

TV presenter Richard Madeley, for example, described an incident in his family history when his grandfather, travelling to the First World War, met a group of Canadians in the same direction – and they included his two older brothers, with whom he’d lost touch after they emigrated. If I’d read that in a novel I wouldn’t have believed it. So perhaps being true isn’t enough – whatever you write has to be credible.

Back to Ben and Jerry, my sister and brother-in-law, our friends from Perthshire. I’ll tell you now that the tale as I told it wasn’t a hundred per cent true. But I’m interested to know which element, if any, stretched your credibility too far and what might have made you nod and find it satisfying. Tell me – and then I’ll let you know the whole truth.