Thursday 19 February 2015

No Sympathy for Widows and Orphans

I do not like widows and orphans.

To clarify: Though it has crossed my mind that abandoned children and suddenly single women might not have the finances required to buy a copy of my book, that does not make me dislike them any more than I dislike any other category of people who do not buy my book.

The widows and orphans that I truly dislike are typographical ones.

In typesetting, a widow*1 is the final line of a paragraph which finds itself deposited, alone, at the top of a fresh page. The term orphan usually refers to a single line left at the bottom of a page, the rest of the paragraph having abandoned it for the greener pastures of the following page.

A handy mnemonic for this is: "An orphan is alone at the beginning, a widow is alone at the end."

Beyond looking awkward, widows and orphans can interfere with the mechanics of a smooth read. An extremely ugly example might look something like this...

Two orphans and a widow. See how awkward that was? *2

When I was a typesetter using Quark Xpress, many years ago, I never allowed a widow or an orphan. I was taught to track or kern (virtually undetectable, if done properly) which got rid of most. Early paragraph breaks got rid of a few more. And, finally, if all else failed, I might ask the editor to alter a word or two. And, I never resorted to abandoning the squared-up pages (which we used to call the aligned baseline). I maintained these standards for more than 10 years, in publishing.

If you don't understand much of that last paragraph, suffice it to say that my co-workers and I were diligent and hard-working typesetter-geniuses, who adhered to a high standard.

It's been about 15 years since I last typeset anything substantial, but I am confident in my ability to set text and avoid typographical widows and all the various types of orphans. And with modern computers and software being so much improved, this should be an easier task.

Why then, after being professionally typeset, is my manuscript littered with orphans? Thankfully, there weren't any widows, they are especially ugly. (Still talking typography, here.)

When I first saw this, I was very upset.

One of the main reasons I chose a large publishing company and paid the professional production prices was for professional results. I wrote a strongly worded email to the production manager and almost sent it before it occurred to me to check some of the novels sitting on my bookshelf.

John Grisham (brilliant writer of multiple best-selling legal thrillers) was W/O-free. But Khaled Hosseini (brilliant writer of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns - makes me cry every time) was drowning in orphans. Will Ferguson (brilliant Canadian travel writer/humourist - makes me laugh every time) had them. I checked about 8 other books (not-so-famous authors; most, far from brilliant. I laugh and cry for all the wrong reasons) and found that most of them had orphans. I did not see any widows.

I guess this is the modern standard. And, more to the point, I guess I only notice when I'm typesetting, or when they occur in my novel.

Makes me feel old to be bothered so much by such a technical detail. It's like Canadian spelling and out dated grammatical rules I learned in grade school. It all matters, but not very much.

I guess that I shouldn't be surprised that the rules of the road have changed when the road, itself, has become an information super-highway.

None of this will impact the sale of the novel. For all my writing effort and skills, it will probably be the cover that sells every copy not purchased by my mother.

I wish I had more mothers.

*1: Note: As with everything language-related, the definition of typographical terms is constantly changing. For this article I referred to "Wikipedia: Widows and orphans."

*2: In the example excerpt of Eternal Lusty Passion, you may have been curious as to what happened to the run-away Mustang. First of all, it was a 2010 GT convertible, 315hp, V-8. It ran over a pimp, a hooker and a child before coming to rest in a ditch. But when the pimp died, the hooker became a widow and when she died, the child became an orphan. And none of them intended to buy my book. So, no harm done.

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