Writing Homework #20: Create a Style Sheet

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With my rewrite for #spookyromancenovel entering the home stretch, I’ve been thinking increasingly about the future line-editing stage and what I can do to make it easier on myself.

Looming large in my list of regrets from previous novels is the fact that I never made a style sheet.

From Romance Refined: “A manuscript style sheet is a critical tool for authors, editors, and proofreaders to use for ensuring consistency within a single manuscript or across a series. Traditionally, a copy editor creates a style sheet as they edit, and they pass that style sheet to the proofreader so they can adhere to the same conventions.

I’ve nudged at the edges of this topic before, but never covered it completely, so here goes.

In a traditional author-publisher setup, the style sheet, as described above, isn’t something you’d generate yourself, since you’re not your own editor. However, for independent authors who, whether by choice or necessity, do some or all of their own editing, this is going to save you time and stress throughout the editing process. And, of course, even most traditionally published authors spend a lot of time polishing their manuscripts before sending them in, so it’s not a bad idea to work up a personal one to ensure your submission is as clean and shiny as you can make it.

So what goes on a style sheet? Anything that will help you provide consistency in tone and appearance throughout your work.

That’s vague, but some of it will depend on your writing style and the project itself. I can give you some good places to start, however, based on my own experience:

  1. Any word or phrase where you choose your preferred usage. I covered this in my post on multiple accepted spellings. If you have to decide between two or more options, make a note of which you choose, so you’re not like me, looking it up again later, or worse, doing a Ctrl+F in your first book’s file to hunt down what you decided when you need to refer to it again in book three.
  2. Any word or phrase you’re deliberately avoiding. Not to be conflated or confused with filter words; let me explain. The best example I have from my own reading is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Universe series. In it, she never uses the word “thing” to refer to an object, situation, or concept–“Thing” is reserved for use in the Viking/Icelandic sense of a governmental meeting. The base culture of her alternate-history fantasy is French, and simply doesn’t have that word as we use it in modern English. If that seems like a pretty big ask for an author, it is; “thing” shows up on overused-word lists all the time. But your “do not use” word list doesn’t have to include anything so fundamental or pervasive–in fact, you might not start out with any prohibited words at all.
  3. Anything that defines character voice. For this, an example from my own works. In the What We Need series, Paul starts his sentences with “Well,” a lot. In the early drafts of What We Need to Survive, that wasn’t specific to him; during edits, I eliminated it from other characters to clean up the dialogue overall while giving him a more pronounced vocal style. I kept this up until book three, when, through long exposure, Nina has unconsciously picked up this tic and uses it occasionally.
  4. How you handle ellipses. Three periods with no spaces? With spaces between? Are there spaces before and after, or not? I’ve read various articles debating the truly “correct” form for ellipses, but I’ve seen several ways of handling them across published works, so there’s still probably an element of choice, at least if you’re an indie author. Note down whatever you decide on.
  5. Any special punctuation or formatting guidelines stylistically unique to your project. I’ve seen books that italicize internal monologue (common) but plenty that don’t, leaving it in plain text like so: “She thought, I don’t want to be here right now.” I’ve seen books that use alternate characters in place of quotation marks when the characters are using telepathy to communicate, like so: *This is stupid,* she thought at him. (Granted, that was ages ago when I was a kid, but I remember it, because it was so strange.) A much more modern issue–how do you format conversations via text? I just read a book that uses actual text bubble images, to make it look authentic, but in plenty of other works I’ve seen it handled exactly like dialogue, only the tags or context around it mentions it’s a text message; I’ve seen texted conversation formatted in bold, both with and without quotation marks; I’ve seen italics as well, though less commonly, since (as above) many authors use that for internal dialogue and don’t want to confuse the reader by making italics perform double duty.

What all of these examples boil down to is essentially this: if you have to make a decision about how you want something to be handled in your manuscript, then it probably needs to go on your style sheet so that a) you remember what you chose down the line, whether you’re coming back to the project after a break, or writing a long-running series; and b) during the editing process you can make certain your style is consistent.

As you continue to write, you might find yourself splitting your style sheet into a master sheet and a project-specific sheet would be helpful. You’re not that likely to want to change how you handle ellipses, but anything character-specific won’t transfer between projects that don’t have the same characters. This leads me to my last piece of advice: label and DATE your style sheets so that you know what they are and when you created them. Your style might evolve over time; you might decide there’s a better way to do something in your next book. That’s fine. But you wouldn’t want to refer to an outdated style sheet for a new project, in that case, and with the amount of note files and draft versions and other associated digital junk that can accumulate around even a single book project, a style sheet is something you wouldn’t want to go missing or use incorrectly, when its entire purpose is to make your writing better.

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Writing Homework #19: Tear Apart a Chapter

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I’m struggling right now with rewriting my current project. It’s a more focused process than the word-vomit stage of the first draft, but not the highly targeted, technical work of line editing. It’s something in between, with elements of both, and my brain, so used to critical analysis of the works of others, just won’t apply it to my own writing at the moment.

So I thought of a way to use my strengths to solve my (hopefully temporary) weakness.

I’m not going to rewrite my writing–I’m going to practice on someone else!

For this exercise, take a book you don’t like. Don’t have any sitting around, because you keep your shelves clean? Pick something up cheap at a used book sale. For this, I’d recommend something physical you can mark up–but if that’s not an option, you could download something free from sites like Project Gutenberg.

Read a chapter or two or three, as much or as little as you need to get a sense of the style without getting too bogged down with the plot.

Pick one of those chapters (or half of one, if they’re very long) and go to town with your weapon of choice, be it the classic red pen, or a highlighter, whatever you like. (Or make your notes digitally on the ebook; if you’re not a fan of that, write them longhand on a separate sheet of paper.)

Kill those darlings. Nitpick. Question everything. Cut words. Change ones you don’t like. Make notes on what’s vague or unexplained.

All done?

Now fix it. Rewrite that chapter or scene to suit your style.

Open up a new document or turn to a fresh page in your writing journal, and rewrite what you just tore apart. Since this is an exercise, and just for you, feel absolutely free to make any changes without worrying about if they’d make sense later in the book (if it’s one you’ve already read, anyway.)

Change a character’s name or gender or race or orientation–don’t we all love head-canoning those bland characters into something new? How does it change the story, or does it? Write it all down.

Is the setting present enough for you? Does it need to be fleshed out, or changed entirely? Switch the scene to a different location. A different season. A different country. Set it on the moon, if you like–just make your changes consistent and believable throughout the whole scene. Change everything you need to change to make it feel natural, like it was always meant to happen there.

Does the author use more adverbs than you prefer? Cut them. Make the verbs stronger. Do they not use enough for your taste? Throw some in where they can make an impact.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea–and a great deal of the specific work will depend on the text you choose, and how you write your own work.

But I’ve always found it’s much easier to be critical (in the classic sense, not the derogatory one) of another’s work, rather than my own. Looking at your own work the same way requires practice, and I’ve just given you a way to get that practice, so get to it!


Need to catch up on your assignments?

Editing Notes: The Problem with “It”

Let me state, right up front, that I’m not suggesting banning “it” from all writing. There’s a reason it (the word) has its (the possessive) place in the English language. There is need for a non-personal pronoun to take the place of a longer word or phrase.

We clear? Okay.

Too often, however, “it” becomes a crutch, a convenience. How many sentences in your collective first drafts begin with “It is” or “It was” or “It seemed?”

It was sunny.

Okay, what was sunny? What thing or concept is “it” replacing here? The weather.

The weather was sunny.

Better, but still a boring sentence. If you judge this point in your narrative a good time for telling rather than showing, because you’re keeping the pace tight, you can stop here. If not, let’s take a crack at this again.

The sunlight shocked my eyes as I stepped out of the dim, dusty antique shop.

…or, you know, whatever your character was doing or experiencing that made the sun worth mentioning in the first place.

So there’s your first case of “it” problem: telling. There are times when a simple declarative statement like the original is the best choice, stylistically or in terms of pacing. But when you’re rewriting, look for instances of “it” that offer you a chance to enrich your setting or characters with description.

Problem #2: transposition.

It was hard to believe in herself.

Starting a sentence like this with “it” both renders it passive and puts the meaning of the pronoun after the pronoun itself. While this is a common and understandable construction–most readers wouldn’t quibble over it–leading with the meaning is usually stronger.

Believing in herself was hard.

Bringing the meat of the sentence forward, ahead of the verb, is the simplest solution, but again, this is a straightforward line edit; there’s further you could go.

Whenever Poppy told herself she had the strength to go on, she had to fight the constriction of her chest denying her a full breath of air.

This is another case of telling vs. showing, of course, and so another opportunity to turn an “it” into story-enriching action or detail.

Problem #3: straight-up filler.

She looked up, hoping it was a waitress finally getting around to taking her drink order.

“It” in this case refers to a shadow falling over “she”–I stole this line from my current WIP, #rockstarnovel.

So “it” is clearly referring back to something, which means it’s doing its job. But it’s also not necessary with an easy change.

She looked up, hoping a waitress had finally gotten around to taking her drink order.

Let the waitress be a person instead of a prop–give her a verb!

You could also say “a waitress was finally getting around” instead; while the tense of the overall story is past, the action the waitress takes is present tense within the narrative. That’s just a question of style–I think past perfect emphasizes the MC’s annoyance at waiting to be served.


There are more ways the insidious “it” can work itself into our writing in lazy, unnecessary ways–I’m not trying to provide an exhaustive list, and the problems any given writer encounters will depend on their style.

But in the rewriting phase, ask yourself this question whenever you see “it”: would this sentence be served better by using action or description in its place?

And when you’re down to nuts and bolts in line editing, ask yourself: can I remove or replace “it” in order to improve the sentence’s flow or make the meaning more clear?

 

Editing Notes: Another Rewriting Option

In my efforts to rewrite #rockstarnovel, I’ve stumbled across a new method that I might like better than side-by-side drafting–using different font colors!

Either make a copy of the original all at once, or paste in chapters as you go, then select all the text and change it to red.

This is the original draft. Red means it’s “wrong” until I’ve assessed it. Does it need changes? Time to read it and find out.

This is a section I’ve rewritten. It’s pretty now. It’s how I want it (at least for the moment) so I can consider it “done”. It may still have typos or need small fixes—this isn’t the line-editing stage—but the story content is solid.

It’s okay if you highlight long sections of your original draft and switch them from red to black without making changes. Maybe you worked hard on it the first time and you got it right. Maybe you’ve got significant changes coming elsewhere, but this bit still works.

Starting with red and black is the basic idea, but if you need more colors to signify different issues, you’ve got them. Here I’m using blue to mean “note to self,” basically. Reminders about what changing this, here, will mean for something down the line—I could even jump ahead to that point where I know a new change will be and leave myself a note, which will stand out nicely in the sea of red.

And speaking of red, leaving something in red isn’t a bad thing. If you’re not sure what changes you need yet, how you want to word something, whatever, it can stay red. Come back to it later!

Now that I’ve tried it for the first few chapter of #rockstarnovel, it seems like an obvious system, a great visual shorthand for what I’ve worked on and what I haven’t. And I’m not constantly switching between two documents, because the original text is all there for me to see in the rewrite–at least until I fix it and delete whatever I don’t need, which is fine, because it’s still in the first draft document.

Will it work for everyone? No. Colorblind writers won’t get anything from this method, and I’m sure plenty of other people prefer more complex or robust rewriting systems–this is a quick, bare-bones approach. But for fast drafters (or writers who would like to be) and people who hate to print out their drafts for revising and editing, this could be the solution you’re looking for.

Editing Notes: The Power of the Spoken Word, Part II

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As part of the editing process for What We Need to Survive back in late 2015, I wrote about how I read my novel to myself out loud to find errors my proofreaders had missed.

It worked amazingly well, but I won’t lie–it was a tiring process.

Recently, a better option came to my attention. TTSReader, a free text-to-speech app. Instead of reading it myself, I get to listen to a pleasantly robotic female voice read my novel to me.

In the first three chapters alone, I found two typos, three missing words, and six instances of word repetition that were more obvious out loud than on the page.

And I got to knit while I was listening, setting the project down whenever I needed to pause and make a correction.

I will say, the app accepts files in both text and PDF format, but when I used a PDF it created all sorts of unforced errors–for example, words smashed together or compressed around punctuation marks, like “said.She” which reads as “said dot she.” Very strange to hear. I had much better luck pasting text from my manuscript in directly, when only my own errors would come through.

Even after only a few hours using it, I much prefer letting the app’s electronic brain read to me than relying on my own. When I read my manuscripts to myself, I did catch errors, but it was still me reading my own writing–I had some idea what to expect. The app does not, which makes it superior, and of course, I also don’t have to wear out my voice this way.

Save Every Word You Write

Watercolors 1

When I got into art journaling last year, I found myself hungry for new media. I had some craft acrylics leftover from old projects, I had plenty of paper and fabric and yarn, but I wanted more. Lots of the journals I saw and admired used watercolors.

I had some old tubes from a set I bought on a family vacation. I don’t know how I always ended up with new art supplies on vacations, but I did. I hadn’t touched them since high school, so at least twenty years ago, and I didn’t doubt they were damaged, but I still had them. Rather than buying a new set, I decided to rescue them.

Watercolors 2

Some of the colors were fine, like the cadmium yellow and red, squeezed out of their tubes as easily as if they were brand new. Some, like the burnt sienna and black, were stubborn and gooey–I had to slit their tubes open with a blade and scoop them out.

The worst, the white and crimson, had completely dried out–I peeled the slit tubes away from them like wrapping paper.

But I can still use them. Add a little water, and presto, it’s still paint.

Where am I going with this?

Save everything you write.

Every plot bunny. Every imagined scene without a story attached to it. Every line of dialogue or descriptive phrase cut from a piece during editing. Save all of it.

Your words don’t lose their power with age anymore than my watercolors did.

Every time I sit down to edit a first draft, I make a new file called “Deleted Scenes.” Anything that gets cut ends up there. Does any of it make it back in later? Not usually, but a joke from one of those deleted scenes in What We Need to Survive is now in a different scene in the forthcoming What We Need to Rebuild, where it works much better.

The joke didn’t get cut because it was unnecessary, or even because it was bad–it got cut because the whole scene needed to go, and there wasn’t a place for the joke anywhere else in the book. Turns out, two books later, it found a home.

Save everything you write. You don’t know when you might need it again.

Editing Notes: Multiple Accepted Spellings

Some words, I simply don’t know how to spell. I have to look up “maneuver” every time, I don’t know why I can’t remember that.

Some words I swear I know how to spell until the spellchecker in whatever program I’m kicks it back. OpenOffice Writer doesn’t recognize “consciousness.” Dude, OOW, that’s the correct spelling.

But then, during the editing and proofreading stages, I run into prickly words and phrases. Does “upside-down” need the hyphen, or not? Is it “duffle bag” or “duffel bag”?

Right now, as I’m typing this post, WordPress thinks both spellings of that particular type of bag are incorrect. Turns out, they’re both accepted–it was easy to find both spellings in real-world environments, ie, I checked retail sites to see how their products were spelled.

So if they’re both technically correct (the best kind of correct), which one do you use?

Let me introduce you to Google Ngram Viewer.

You type in the words/phrases you want to compare, separated by commas, and the program checks the incidences of the word from the selected corpus of books and graphs them by frequency over time.

duffel

In my luggage example, “duffel” is more common since 1940, but in recent years it’s suffering a decline while “duffle” rises. The former is still more common overall, but it seems there’s a shift going on.

In this case, I’ve chosen in my current manuscript to use “duffel” both because it’s the prevalent spelling and because I like the way it looks better. When both are acceptable, that’s a good enough reason, but I like to have prevalent usage on my side when possible.

So what about upside-down? My gut (ie, my childhood school experience) says the hyphen stays, but what form is actually prevalent?

upside-down

I am outmatched–the unhyphenated version wins.

I hope you enjoy another tool for your inner editor to play with!