Fancy Formatting (Writing the Novel “Shelburne”)

A Strange Temptation

Why do we do these things?

For my novel, The Man Who Thought He Was Hitler, I used a pseudonym, Jo Hawk.

now re-issuing as Shelburne

Original Jo Hawk Cover

When I published the novel as an eBook, I changed it to Shelburne by Robert Blanchett. My next idea was to consolidate my titles and publish a new version in paperback as Shelburne: a psychological quest.

It should have been a straightforward thing to do. Why didn’t I just keep it simple?

A key element in Shelburne is the yellowing, typewritten manuscript Philip receives in stages. It seemed a good idea to try in the paperback copy of the novel (in an eBook many of the changes would not show up in any case) to mimic the appearance of the papers in the story. It would be easy enough, I thought. 

Here is the beginning of the first instalment of the typewritten manuscript in Shelburne:-

Preface to the Interview

(Though obviously not for inclusion in my dissertation!)

I don’t know where this is but I am writing in my favourite place on earth.

I have just re-read that sentence and it seems a strange thing to write, but the sea in the bay below is emerald, the sun has risen above the cliffs to my right and the air is balmy.

If the sun rises in that direction, this must be a north-facing coastline and I think that we are still in Brittany. I can’t be sure, because I was asleep for a long time in the car and we walked the last mile along overgrown paths to this granite cottage on the rocks. Leon says the paths were part of an escape route used by the Resistance to smuggle agents and captured airmen back to England in the war. Submarines, their black hulls poking above the still surface of the water, would come into this beautiful, secluded bay. The rescued were happy to get away, while their rescuers knew that terrible dangers were still ahead. Leon was disturbed just telling me this because the intervening years since the War seem such a little while to him. To me, it is history, yet being here with Leon, Dan and Morvan makes it real for the moment.

I’m writing this in the tiny garden sitting at a trestle table. The house is basic but sweet. It is being renovated to use as a holiday cottage. I’m so excited that I can begin at last.

Formatting the passages

Step 1  was simple: I aligned the text to the left and used the font Courier New. I think that in the book that font looks sufficiently close to a typewriter typeface to make the point for the reader. 

Step 2 was a bit too subtle ever to have convinced the reader that I had made the changes intentionally.

It had suddenly occurred to me that back in the 1960s typists would indent the beginning of every paragraph, including the first, and use double line spacing to separate paragraphs. Underlining would have been used to represent stress and to signify headlines and titles where today we would use italics.

Step 3 was when things really got out of hand. I started  getting creative, inventing typos and crossing some through. Then I crossed a bridge too far, underlining the gaps between some words.

The idea, of course, was to make it all look just as messy as work always looked in the days before word processing took over the universe. Unfortunately, I had forgotten just how messy that could be.

When I started revising the complete novel, I found that I had succeeded in altering the appearance of those chapters to such an extent that they had become exhausting for the modern reader to decipher. There was no escape, I needed to go back over all the pages that I had only just finished changing in Shelburne.

Undoing the Formatting Changes

I left the underlining and left-justification. I removed the double line spacing between paragraphs, the crossing through of typos and the underlinings running under the spaces between words. It was now easier on the eye and hence easier to read.

By that point, all I had left of my fancy formatting was the font. Despite the change in the font, it all looked too neat, to the extent that the reader might not have any feel for a typescript. I was feeling frustrated. What to try next?

When I was 16, I ran a successful printing business with my brother. We used a composing stick and justified each line of metal type using a selection of spaces. These spaces were called ems, ens, thicks and thins. By adjusting the gaps between words with the differing widths of these blocks and slivers of metal, we could get each line to fit snugly in the composing stick. I tried to see if I could use a similar technique with the word processor, not to make the lines in the typewritten chapters in Shelburne justified this time, but to make them slightly ragged.

First I justified the passages once again. Then I went through the chapters altering one line at a time, removing spaces between words before inserting two or more spaces at various other  points.

It was an incredibly slow and painstaking process, but the idea was to make the reader aware at an almost unconscious level that the lines in those sections were slightly uneven.

Did It work? Sometimes I think I failed and it was a waste of time, at others it feels as if I achieved my goal. In the end it will be for you, the reader, to decide.

I am checking the proof for a last time and soon Shelburne will be on sale as a paperback. Buy a copy and tell me what you think.

Robert Blanchett

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