by Hugh Gilmore
Last week I had final fisticuffs with the inhabitants of my forthcoming book, just before I had the maître d’ throw them out. The first problem involved length. I insisted that the book come in at about 250 pages, since I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read a memoir by an unknown person that would run any longer than that.
However, certain unsavory elements tried to muscle the book into a 500-page behemoth. A doorstop! I solved that problem by waiting for them to fall asleep and then issuing an order for every other word to be excised. I’m telling you: It takes nerve to run a book. There are many unruly elements who want the glory to themselves.
Next problem. Believe me, this is a pip. My word-processing program is MS Word 2008 for Mac, Version 12.2.5, copyright 2007. Not very up-to-date, but, like a good old vehicle, I rack up about 200,000 words a year on it, and I’m generally happy. Except … except. Ahem, I’m trying to control myself here … the program has no way of setting a curly quotes default option.
This bad boy gives you nothing but straight quotes, both singles and doubles. Here’s a demo: I want curly double quotes like this: “ ”, but I get this: ” “; I want single quotes like this: ‘ ’, but I get ‘ ‘. I also want apostrophes that look like this: ‘, but get ‘. Two years ago I published a novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour,” with all straights and no curlys. I had to withdraw the book and revise the punctuation marks and republish it (at my own expense).
How about that? Isn’t that interesting? No? Oh. Well, I’m going to prey on your sympathies again anyway and tell you that when I when I wrote the last five – or was it seven – drafts of this new book, “My Three Suicides,” I slavishly followed the only protocol that Mac for Word 2008 allows: If you want curly double starting quotes: hit OPTION and [ (left bracket) simultaneously. For curly double end-quotes: OPTION/SHIFT and [. Reverse for right bracket, etc., ad nauseam.
So I religiously (if you ignore the swear words) followed protocol for thousands of punctuating commands related to those two problems – quotation marks, and apostrophes – all through the book.
Yes, yes, I know: Why didn’t I just buy a newer program? I’ll tell you why. Gremlins. They’re everywhere. And I am not about to write an entire book and then upgrade the system I use before I have finished every last keystroke of my book. I’d go crazy with paranoia thinking that everything looks good but secretly every place where I’ve typed an upper-case P, for example, there will be a §. As in “§lease pass §eter the §eter §an peanut butter, §aul.” No, no, no. I can’t risk it.
So, came the day I knew I’d be sending the manuscript to the publisher, (this, after at least 10 re-reads by myself and my editor wife), I used the Find/Replace feature to hunt down every apostrophe and quotation mark, single or double, right-hand or left-hand, in the 290-page book. One-by-one. Found six. Corrected them. Please, if you read my book, don’t tell me, not to my face, if you find a wrong one. Email will do fine.
As for the final enemy I faced, I must say it is an enemy every writer faces: compound words. To hyphenate, or not to hyphenate, that is the thorn in the side. Or, if you like: That is the thorn-in-the-side question. Should you write “bluebird,” or “blue bird”? A crow is a black bird, but it is not a blackbird. Should you write, Bumblebee, or bumble-bee? Melville originally titled his great whale Moby-Dick. Whitman listed his publishing imprint for “Leaves of Grass” as Brook-lyn. Will merry-go-round someday become merrygoround? Or mother-in-law change to motherinlaw?
The practical answer to this dilemma is go to a dictionary and ever after memorize that particular spelling of that particular word/word-phrase. But which dictionary? I guess, ideally, you’d use the same dictionary your editor prefers. Lots of businesses in the word trades issue handbooks meant to guide writers, in order to standardize practice within that industry. But the rest of us orbiting free-floaters need a confident place to land.
I, personally, go to One-Look.com, a website that lists, as of this writing, 1061 dictionaries, glossaries, lexicons, and so on. If looking for a simple word like bumblebee, for example, I found 36 dictionaries that spelled it bumblebee and ten that chose bumble-bee. The first group were all prestigious dictionaries (Oxford, Cambridge, Webster’s, American Heritage, e.g.). Common usage by respected authorities wins the day. Then memorize. But not forever because custom is always changing and in another twenty years a double word may be hyphenated, or a hyphenated word merged to make a single word. The language must be given room to breathe and grow and suit our needs, not the other way around.
So, with the three described nuisances removed from my manuscript, I heaved it over the transom and began hoping for the best. Paranoia and I shall meet some other time and place, but with luck, not in the vicinity of “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.”
Hugh Gilmore invites the reading public to come to the launching/reading/signing of his newest book on Friday, Feb. 27, at the Bombay Room of the Chestnut Hill Hotel, from 7 to 8 p.m., inexact time. Reception somewhere to follow. Sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Book Festival.