The Ocular Proof


Othello demands from Iago the ocular proof, and I’ve spent the last month or so providing such, in a manner of speaking. I’ve been proofreading  and copy editing an excellent new magic book, Details of Deception, by Greg Chapman, and I’m quite enjoying the process. That must seem a strange thing to say for such a potentially tedious assignment, but the book is so intriguing, and the author such a gentleman (not always the case in the niche world of conjuring), that I was glad to take on the assignment.

I’ve written before about some of the challenges of copy editing and writing a book of magic. Stephen Minch, one of the great writers and publishers of magic literature, has given magic writers a unique style guide. Because of magic’s technical nature, the text of a book about card magic in some ways more closely resembles that of a car repair manual than that of, say, a novel; so by all means if you are about to embark on writing a magic book, your first stop should be Minch’s guide. You can download it for free here.

I’d like to just briefly mention a few other practical things that I’ve learned to watch out for in an endeavor like this. Much of this can be applied to non-magic literature as well:

  1. Obviously the text must be free of typos and grammatical mistakes, that’s a given.  But care must also be given to the font size and font type as well. It’s easy to import a section from one computer to another, or even a section typed on a cellphone, and not notice that the fonts or font sizes are not matching. Along with this, in this age of being able to italicize words with the stroke of a key, make sure that you’ve selected the entire word. It’s easy to miss an initial capital letter in a title.
  2. Illustrations need to end up in the proper order and in the proper place. After moving around paragraphs of text, the illustrations can get out of synch, both with the text and with their captions.
  3. Illustrations need to be accurate and consistent. Is the deck being held in left-hand dealing position or the right hand? Is it a mirror view or a real-life view?
  4. Are headings and subheadings in a consistent style? Is there a consistent style of section breaks following the headings?
  5. Check to see that the page numbers in the Table of Contents are accurate. Just because they were accurate in Draft 3, doesn’t mean that they are still going to be accurate in Draft 14.
  6. Check to make sure that the title pages and major chapters begin on odd-numbered pages. This is another area where the pagination could have been correct in an early draft, but got messed up afterwards, due to edits.
  7. Every magic effect must be worked out with a deck of cards in your hands. You need to make sure that you can actually follow the directions step-by-step, and you need to see that by following the directions you can bring the trick to a successful conclusion. There’s no way around this. If the author writes a passage which describes a card 17th from the top of the deck when it should be 18th from the top in order for the trick to work, there’s no way a mere scan of the text will find the mistake. Likewise, if a description reads, “the top card is now the Ace of Hearts,” you need to check that that will actually be the case. You don’t have to be able to do all the moves up to speed, but you should be able to get through them all, even if only in a novice’s manner.

I hope these few pointers will be helpful. But more, I think if you’re a card person you’re really going to like this book. I hope you find it a good read.


Would He Had Blotted A Thousand


The players often mention it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.'” –Ben Jonson

Stephen Minch, owner of The Hermetic Press, publisher of fine books about conjuring, must have blotted out hundreds of thousands of words by now. Enough, anyway, so that he can write authoritative and amusing advice to the players in his Hermetic Press Stylebook.

Minch’s 11-page Stylebook is a fascinating little read for anyone interested in magic, reading, or writing. Even if you are a writer who is not at all interested in magic,  I still urge you to take at look at this booklet. You can download it for free here. I was lead to this book by a review in Genii, The Conjurer’s Magazine, where the reviewer, Eric Mead, no slouch himself in either the writing or the magishing department, makes a very good case for the stylebook’s necessity. “Writing about magic,” Mead says, “is technical work, extremely demanding, and requires a clarity and precision with words that few seem to be able to master.”

As someone who has spent some time proofreading magic and other kinds of books, I can attest to this. The issues involved in writing about magic are sometimes magic specific: should we capitalize the names of cards? Should the names of sleights be capitalized? If a deck is face up (hyphen or no?) where is the top of the deck? And here’s one that Minch doesn’t take on: should we call the people for whom we do effects (tricks? experiments?) spectators, participants, subjects?

But since magic is a hands-on art, its description must also share similarities with other hands-on how-to books. Mead points to the following instructive example:

“Here is one sentence one might find in a magic book: ‘Pick up the deck with your right hand, and place it into left-hand dealing grip.’ Minch suggests this sentence is more effective if written, ‘With your right hand, pick up the deck, and place it into left-hand dealing grip.’ Not only does the second version avoid an ugly dangling phrase, it delivers the reader information in the most useful order.” [italics mine]

Useful really, when you think about it, for so many kinds of description. If a reader is trying to follow along, s/he doesn’t want to pick up the deck, and only then, afterward, find that the deck was picked up by the wrong hand. Order matters!

There are some issues, however, which Minch tackles, with which I disagree; he dislikes “(s)he” and “s/he,” pleading that “When someone comes up with a new non-gender specific pronoun that is as functional as “he”, I’ll consider it; but for now I think it best to follow traditional usage. Especially when you consider that ninety-eight percent of the readers of magic books are male.” This seems to me to be dead wrong on two counts: “s/he” is just as functional as “he”; and even if 100% of magic readers were male, it’s still sexist to default to the male pronoun. These kinds of things matter, too, in my opinion.

But for the most part, there is much sound advice. I have to admit, I had never thought before about why “put the deck on the table,” was poor usage. (If you don’t know why, then you, like me, especially need to read this stylebook. 🙂 )

I like proofreading. It really makes me think a lot about how writing, not the least, my own, can be improved. It’s a low-risk way to get to be a better writer. So, thanks to the people who have given me the opportunity to revise their work, and thanks to Stephen Minch of Hermetic Press for bringing clarity to his criteria for good magic writing.