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Building a Book—Page Design for Swamp Monster

I’m as intrigued in book design as I am in the development of the story. I’ve been researching typography and page design for years, but only as an interest—now I’m putting it to practice.

In The Elements of Typographic StyleRobert Bringhurst illustrates that the elements which compose a page honor the content of that page. This has been my guiding principal in piecing together the pages for The Swamp Monster, Part One, my first novel (read the first chapter here!). I’m self-publishing in the real sense—the Edward Tufte sense—just to have the opportunity to experience each step of the process. I’ll even be designing my own cover, which is a disastrous move for an indie author. I’m not planning to market the book necessarily, so I’m not too concerned.

For months now, I’ve been mulling over the design for the page: page size, margins, typeface, font size, leading (aka line-height), etc. Instead of viewing examples from The Elements of Typographic Style and other sources as prescriptive, I’m attempting to glean the underlying reason for making such design decisions and then apply that to my work. So I won’t use Garamond and Caslon fonts because they have repeatedly topped the list of Best Book Type, but if I find that the historical context and letterform nuances have a meaningful connection to the story of The Swamp Monster, I’ll happily use them.

With that said, I don’t think I’ll be using either—I’ve been juggling two fonts since the beginning stages of the book and I think I’ve finally settled down with one. I initially wanted to use Cardo, a free font for scholars, for several reasons. First, the author of the font states that it was “specifically designed for the needs of classicists, Biblical scholars, medievalists, and linguists.” Although the story actually is not related to these themes in time or space (I intentionally placed the fantasy story in a non-Western, non-Medieval context), one major element of the story revolves around the subtleties of language. Cardo is a font created for expressing the beautiful nuances of multiple languages, and so fits nicely with my book. Also, I like the idea of Cardo because it’s free. In fact, the other fonts I chose to represent local dialects and the mysterious windspeak are none other than the The Fell Types, fonts derived from the seventeenth-century typefaces of Bishop John Fell. The font author has kindly offered these fonts to the public, in the true spirit of Bishop Fell, for free.

Once I set the first four chapters in Cardo, I realized that I may have to look elsewhere. I chose a 6 × 9 trim with expanded margins, while choosing a font size of 10pt. Upon printing these pages, I realized that Cardo’s features were obscured due to the small size of the font. For some reason, I felt attached to that font size, so I decided to try Arno Pro with its smalltext variant. This time, on a trim of 5.25 × 8, I set the page in Arno Pro SmText with a similar size and leading. I also took advantage of the OpenType features available in the font, applying ligatures and swash alternatives in certain circumstances. Perhaps I went a little overboard. The design stuck, for a time, but eventually wore off as I realized that the Arno letterforms weren’t what I was looking for, drawing attention to themselves at times rather than giving the spotlight to the content.

It wasn’t until I read The Underneath by Kathi Appelt that the current design sparked. This delightful and melancholy book was such an easy read—I would literally lose myself in the story without realizing that I was reading text on a page. I turned to the copyright page hoping to find some typesetting information, and found the press was considerate enough to share their secret: the ubiquitous Bembo. I returned to Cardo looking for its source typeface, finding that it originates from the same typeface that brought us Bembo. The deal was done, and I re-set the pages at 6 × 9, Cardo, at 11.5 size / 12.65 leading. I printed a chapter and read it anxiously; this classic typeface speaks the visual language that the book was waiting for. And so it is—Cardo for the body text. It’s amazing what a 1.5 point size difference can do to the page.

Here are some examples of the three iterations of my page design. The page views give you an idea of the color each font/margin configuration gives to the page (or the density of gray/black against the white). The paragraph view gives you a view of the letterforms at 200% zoom. Note: Arno Pro will look better on screen than Cardo because of autohinting, but on the printed page, Cardo does pretty well. There are some idiosyncrasies with the font, but those give it character.

Page View (textblock color)

Cardo (10), full page

Cardo (10), full page

Arno Pro, full page

Arno Pro, full page

Cardo (11.5), full page

Cardo (11.5), full page

 

Paragraph View (letterforms)

Cardo (10), paragraph

Cardo (10), paragraph

Arno Pro, paragraph

Arno Pro, paragraph

Cardo (11.5), paragraph

Cardo (11.5), paragraph

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The Story of the Swamp Monster

It all started when I was a kid, my dad hiding under the bunk bed and us kids screaming our lungs out on the top. You see, he would wait and wait and wait until we had quieted down and found a corner that we were sure was out of his reach, then with a roar he would reach that monster hand over the edge and grab our legs in a grip of iron. Screaming bloody murder! The swamp monster emerging from the depths to grab some tender flesh for an evening snack—it’s a story that is inextricably connected to my childhood.

As the children grew and our parents needed more time to nap on Sunday afternoons, I became the monster of the fen and the trampoline became the swamp. Every week, every sleepy Sunday afternoon when snow wasn’t covering the trampoline, we would pull out all the pillows and blankets from the closet and pile them in the middle of the swamp—on top of me. The three siblings would circle the swamp, singing and jumping and frolicking in utter oblivion to what lay under the layers of moldy peat and mud at their feet. Inevitably, they would tire and call for a rest, a picnic, perhaps here on this tree stump or rock, this definitely-inanimate-and-harmless thing at perfect sitting height. They would sit, eat, talk about the day, then start to lay down to rest. At the most unexpected moment, the second that things started to settle, the very instant that all seemed safe and cozy, the sitting stump would erupt in roaring pandemonium, grabbing indiscriminately at the flailing limbs of children running for their dear lives. The poor children, the fateful victims of this insatiable monster, would get eaten every time. Every Sunday. Eaten, swallowed into the pit of pillows and blankets and endless tickling. Then we would all just lay on the tramp and look up at the sky, framed by the restless cottonless cottonwoods and towering poplars, catching our breath until they decided to get eaten again. Every Sunday.

A decade later, I was playing frisbee with my niece and nephew at the park. The frisbee took its own turn and landed on the highest tower, upside-down. I jumped up there and curled up next to it, pretending to be asleep. My poor niece and nephew, never acquainted with the monster of the swamp, walked unexpectedly into the trap. Eaten, again. It became a new tradition—every time they saw me, they cried for “the game” and we would take the frisbee to the park and they would get eaten. Over time, we added other effects and twists to the game, but always with the same result. One day my dear niece, after being eaten, asked a simple question: “What kind of monster are you?” The answer came naturally, not automatically but prompted by the trees and the grass and the ground beneath the spongy playground turf.

“I’m a swamp monster.”

“But what are you guarding?”

“This? This is an ancient platter, made of silver. And these are gold pieces.”

“But why are we trying to get them?”

“Well…you’re a princess, and your brother is a prince, and the gold has been stolen from your kingdom by the swamp monster.”

“But where’s the king and queen? Why aren’t they getting the gold?”

“Well…because they’ve been kidnapped, too!”

And so the premise of a story began. What started as a game—a bunkbed game, a trampoline game, a playground game—transformed into a story. The niece and nephew no longer wanted to play the game; every time they saw me, they would cry in unison, “Swamp monster!” And we’d find a quiet corner and tell the next chapter, and the next, and the next until I had to start writing down the plot to keep things straight. Months later, and after sixteen chapters of impromptu narrative, we had a tale of a whole kingdom, of intrigue and bravery and faith. Of children coming of age and prevaling against all odds, where the main characters never had names because we knew who they were. A tale uniquely ours but somehow everyone’s.

Earlier this year, I pulled out an old notebook from a dusty corner of my room and cracked it open to find my notes. Scribbled near-illegible, the tale had sat on those pages for years before seeing the light of day. I read. By the end, I was consumed by one thought: this will be my first book. And so it is. After creating the world and language and mythology and traditions of the people of the kingdom, after giving names to the princess and prince and a whole crew of other characters, the story has come alive. It’s too long for one book; the first draft of my manuscript covers only the first few chapters of the oral story and came out to thirteen chapters over 42,000 words in length. But it’s a beginning. It’s a beginning to the story that has been living in me since my bunk bed was a swamp.

Thus begins the Story of the Swamp Monster. I’ll post the first chapters here; you can follow the book-design process here. The whole manuscript has been sent to the editors. I hope to have book-in-hand by Thanksgiving.

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