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!


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Writing Homework #18: Go Somewhere You’ve Never Been Before

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As a companion to my last assignment, I want you to go somewhere you’ve never been before and write about it.

This doesn’t have to be a beautiful Italian city on the sea, though if you have the opportunity, I’d certainly vote for that. It can be somewhere much more accessible. Do you have a usual coffee shop you go to? Yeah? Go to a different one next time. Sit down at a table in the corner. Observe the other customers. Notice what’s different about the menu, about the staff, about the lighting and the atmosphere. If you ordered your usual drink, does it taste noticeably different here, better or worse?

Not into coffee shops? Sure, I get you. How well do you know your local library? Or the branch one or two towns over? Or what about trying a different grocery store? How is it laid out differently? What did you have trouble finding? What type of music was playing in the background?

Have you been meaning to check out a new restaurant, or visit a different park? It’s all on the table for this, as long as you’ve never been there before. Go. Look. Pay attention. And then write it all down, while you’re there if that’s possible/polite, or as soon as possible afterward. Big impressions, small details. Smells and sounds, especially.

I’d advise going alone, if you can, so you can concentrate on your personal experience rather than a shared or social one, but that can be flexible too. If you take someone along, have them tell you what they observed. What parts of the place did you both notice, and were your reactions different? What did your companion see that you didn’t?

If you can’t tell from this, I’ve been struggling with setting, recently. On rereading my novel draft, some places in it are vivid and well-realized, while others–usually generic city stuff–are bland and uninspiring. For any given project, you won’t necessarily be able to physically go everywhere your characters do, especially if you have fantastical settings. But you can approximate a lot, and by widening your experience of the world we have, you can better formulate a world for your characters.

Happy living, everybody, and happy writing.


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Writing Homework #17: Do Something New

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I’ve never been scuba diving, for a number of reasons. I’m a decent swimmer and I love being in the water, but diving safely requires some training and a lot of expensive equipment (even renting isn’t cheap.)

Also, it helps to live somewhere with a body of water worth diving in. Which I don’t.

If I were doing research for a book that involved characters scuba diving, I’d have to fall back on doing lots of research online; watching videos and reading articles and all that jazz. And I’m glad I have access to that–the Internet is a freaking miracle goldmine filled with rainbows.

But if I could, I’d rather experience it myself. Nothing can fully replicate the knowledge I’d gain and the observations I’d make if I really went diving.

With that in mind, here’s this month’s assignment.

Do something you’ve never done before, then write about it.

This is vague, I know, but it’s meant to be. I can’t know what you already know how to do, or places you’ve already been.

Use this as a spur to visit the zoo and participate in a feeding–I’ve never done that either, even though at the Detroit Zoo you can feed the giraffes!

Or teach yourself a new craft and document the process. Describe what came easily and what you had the most trouble with.

Go to your local coffee shop and order a drink you’ve never had before. Write about how it tastes.

Call one of your Congresspeople, if you never have, and tell the nice staffer who answers whatever you feel about a pressing political issue. Or go to a local town hall meeting. Write about how you felt getting involved; write about what other people said at the meeting and the impression you got of them.

Whatever it is that you choose to do, notice the details of as many senses as possible. Smell might be more obvious at the zoo or a garden than that town hall meeting, but what if it isn’t? The meeting room could smell like coffee, or carpet cleaner, or too many bodies packed into a small space.

When you write, focus on the personal. What did you see or hear that another person might not have noticed, or wouldn’t think to mention if they were telling you about it? How did the environment affect you as an individual? What made your experience unique?

So, if you can go scuba diving, do it for my sake, who can’t, and tell me all about it. Everyone else, take a little time to have a small adventure (even a tiny one) and write about what you did.

 

Writing Homework #16: Housecleaning

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Is your writing folder as messy as mine, overflowing with WIPs, notes for ideas, multiple drafts, and non-writing materials?

I’ve got promotional images for my published novels stashed in five different subfolders, even though there are only three books.

So here’s the homework assignment for May: clean it up.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying get RID of anything. You can if you find files that are truly useless, or, say, if you combine all your plot bunnies into a single file, sure, delete the individual ones. But DO NOT get rid of any actual writing.

Organize it.

The system you choose is up to you. Some people go by year, if they’ve been writing a long time–last time I organized (years ago) I tried it this way, shoving all my writing prompt responses from my time at /r/WritingPrompts into folders dated for each month, because I was attempting the 365-day response challenge, so that made the most sense. I made a folder for the previous year and shoved everything else I had into it, because that’s when I wrote it, and I wasn’t working on any of it anymore.

But as I started working on larger projects over longer periods of time, I began the switch to project-based organization. I have a mega-folder for the What We Need series, named “Seeking Shelter” because that was first (potential, discarded) title for What We Need to Survive. Inside, each book has its own subfolder, and within those, I have divisions for early drafts and rewrites, the final drafts for publication in all formats necessary, the cover and other graphic files I commissioned, plus random other junk that accumulated around the books through their publishing process–author questionnaires and interview transcripts, my author bio, ARC files for reviewers, excerpts, and so on.

I can find what I’m looking for with some digging, but honestly it’s a mess that’s grown over the past three years. You know who doesn’t clean up their room for three years straight? Hoarders.

So, I’ll be taking a look at my bloated Writing folder and seeing what I can do to tackle the clutter. I invite you to do the same, to impose a little order on what could very well be the messiest corner of your hard drive. I know mine is!


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Writing Homework #15 — Studying Pacing

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Pacing in writing can be a tricky beast to wrangle. It’s often hard to know how your story flows by the end of the first draft, and even if you do, there’s probably a lot about the pacing that needs work. A solid rhythm might not even take shape until multiple rewrites are done.

And it’s a difficult thing to sum up in a quick homework assignment, but I’ve got an idea.

Pick a book from your shelf that has never bored you. It doesn’t have to be your absolute favorite book ever, or one you know by heart, but it does have to be one you’re reasonably familiar with, and most importantly, IT’S NEVER BORING.

Pick a chapter from the middle. Not the end, where it’s likely to be more action (for most genres, anyway) or the beginning, where it’s likely to lean into world- or character-building. Pick a chapter from the part of a story that so often sags, the part that gives so many writers, myself included, terrible fits of frustration–the middle.

Reread it. While you are, make notes about any obvious hooks–bits of foreshadowing for the end, payoffs of earlier foreshadowing, subplot resolutions or new subplot introductions, new characters, new settings. Depending on the exact chapter of the exact book, not all of these will be present–but if the middle’s not boring, something is happening. What? What is happening to keep you so engaged?

If you have the time and inclination, re-reread the same chapter, but break it down page by page. What is most of each page devoted to? Action, conversation, description, exposition? Is there a balance between two or more of them? Does the balance shift as the chapter goes on?

And in your future reading, use these questions to study books that are boring you, to see what it is that’s failing. Too much exposition at once usually an obvious flaw, for example, but it could be something more subtle–are the characters talking, and it should be helping the plot move, but it’s really just filler? Is there too little action, or is there too much, and it whizzes by so fast you don’t feel like you absorbed any of it?

If you study stories with good balance first, ones that keep you engaged, it will be easier to identify flaws both in less intriguing books, and in your own work as you rewrite and edit.


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Writing Homework #14 – Freewriting

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Don’t think–just write. Ray Bradbury

My writing hasn’t been going as well as I’d like lately, and part of it is not knowing how to begin. I need to rework the beginning of my novel draft, which includes adding a new first chapter (or two) before the original draft picks up the story…and I’m just not liking how it’s going.

I’ve got myself a block, and when that happens, I like trying new techniques to get past it. Hence, freewriting.

If this isn’t something you already do, you may want to try it. Not just to unblock yourself, like I am–many writers like to start a session with a few minutes of freewriting, to limber up their fingers and unknot their brains.

How do you do it? Set a timer, open a document, and just write. Sounds simple, yeah?

It’s not. “Just write” means don’t edit. Don’t fix typos. Don’t stop to think about what you’re writing or where it’s headed or if it’s at all related to the story you’re trying to tell in your “real” work–just write.

Will anything you get down in those five or ten or twenty minutes be usable? Bits and pieces, at best, sometimes. But it isn’t the content of your freewriting that’s meant to be useful–it’s the act of it. The cathartic release of your emotions, if you use the exercise like a journal to clear out your head. The warming-up of your hands and brain to the task of working on your project, if you use the exercise as an opening to your regular writing session. The disabling of your internal editor, who is forbidden to care how badly you mangle the words and sentences that tumble from your fingertips.

If any of that sounds like something you need for yourself, here’s your assignment: try five minutes of freewriting, now, or whenever you sit down to write next. Turn on the timer and turn off your self-criticism.

If you feel better afterward, use that, and work on your real writing. If you don’t yet, try another five or ten minutes to see if that gets some of the kinks out. And if it doesn’t? If you’re just frustrated at the end? Maybe freewriting isn’t for you, but now you know.