The last writer to arrive at the workshop, a 50-something medical professional, is an attractive woman with large earnest eyes. Under her arm, she carries an 800-page manuscript (I’m estimating a 250,000 to 300,000 word count) that she’s planning to pitch at an upcoming writers’ conference.
At the end of the Q&A period at the end of the workshop, the woman asks a question about her manuscript: “Does this font work for the Chinese?”
As it turns out, in her sprawling landscape of a novel, her characters speak French, German, Italian, Hebrew, and Chinese. Oh, and English. And the way she’s chosen to reveal this in her manuscript is to have a different font for each language. And it’s not a Chinese scene and then a Hebrew scene; it’s a quote of Chinese, in the Chinese font, followed by “he said” (or whatever) in the English font.
I’ve been told by publishing professionals that a first-time novelist is going to have a hard time selling a manuscript over 100,000 words. And I’ve run into writers who insist that their manuscript can’t be cut. I don’t know of any of them who broke in with that book. There are exceptions, I’m sure.
But various fonts?
Well, it was necessary to the narrative, she replied. She didn’t want to know if it was a good idea to use all those fonts, only if the Chinese was OK. When the workshop leader said it was a little hard to read, she said that it was the best she could find, suggesting that the correct answer was to have been, “Yes, it’s a lovely font.”
Writers, if your story seems to demand a different font for various speakers, figure out a way to write the information into the text. The writer I’m speaking of has piled up the odds against herself so profoundly that this writers’ conference is going to go down as a learning experience rather than an opportunity to sell her book.
But note to self: How often I’ve been in the position of that writer. Taking on a large and difficult task, figuring out how to do it without getting help or advice, and then committing myself to my jerry-rigged approach — at the expense of my larger goal — even when I get an opportunity to get the help I needed. It’s hard to turn back from that dead end and find the way that goes all the way through. It seems so much more efficient to keep hacking against that brick wall, because this path looked like the only one open.
Note to self: Stop, listen, and consider advice, even if it seems uncomprehending and stupid, because it might save me some trouble.