Writing Homework #20: Create a Style Sheet

correcting-1870721_1280

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.

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

girl-2181709_1280

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.

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!

Editing Notes: Cutting Conscientiously

A few of my beta readers disagreed about one chapter. Beta #1 commented that it dragged on too long, and when I asked Beta #2 her opinion, she thought it was fine–it’s supposed to be a scene with drawn-out tension, not a punchy action sequence, so she didn’t feel the length was wrong.

But an author never wants to hear that something was dragging, so I investigated.

The entire chapter clocked in at 3200-ish words. That’s on the longer side of average for this book, but by no means the longest. Rather than hacking into the text from the very first sentence, I divided the chapter into sections and did a word count for each. (I also highlighted the text of each section a different color so I wouldn’t forget where I made the divisions–this is optional, but helpful.)

Section 1: “Establish the Setting and the Problem” – 800-ish words

Section 2: “Dealing with the First Problem and Discovering the Second” – 800-ish words

Section 3: “Goddamnit, We Are Going to Deal with This” – 1400-ish words

Section 4: “Everything’s Fine Now” – 200-ish words

Yeah, see that? Section 3 is approaching twice as long as Sections 1 or 2. So now, I know where the problem lies.

However. However. Since the complaint was that the section was dragging, not that things happened that didn’t need to, I didn’t cut any content. Everything that happened still happens.

So what did I cut?

  1. Unnecessary dialogue tags
  2. Prepositional phrases that expanded meaning or description, but weren’t vital
  3. Stage direction, ie, lifted up, reached out
  4. Idea repetition–if it’s in dialogue, it didn’t need to be reiterated in narration, and vice versa
  5. Compound verb phrases, when possible (wasn’t going to became wouldn’t, and so on)
  6. Excess dialogue–anything that amounted to small talk, or didn’t add to the emotions of the scene

I managed to axe almost 200 words that way, which from a 1400-word section is a much more brutal edit that I usually do; but it brought the sections more in line with each other, at 800, 800, and 1200.

I’m fine with that, because they never had to be equal, just not so disproportionate. And I do still want this to be a long, tense, scene. But not dragging.

Never dragging.

Writing Homework #4: Drabbles and Self-Editing Practice

once-upon-a-time-719174_1280

For this assignment, you don’t need to pull any books from your shelves.

You need a drabble prompt, a word-counting app, and about fifteen minutes.

(Feel free to use other sources for either, those are suggestions. I do recommend using an app, though, and not checking word counts in your normal program, because it’s helpful to see the count change in real time.)

I want you to write a drabble–that is, a 100-word scene–based on one of the prompts. Write the first thing that comes to your head, and write fast–don’t overthink it or worry about the exact word count yet. Just aim for a scene that’s short, but still has a clear beginning, end, and purpose.

Then, your goal is to cut it back to 100 words (or less.)

I started with this prompt: Meet me at midnight. Alone.

Without paying attention as I typed, I got 119 words:

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I wanted to ignore it, but I checked the new text anyway. Billy had been having a rough week.

Meet me at midnight. Alone.

I sighed and dropped my book, dragging myself out of bed. I had half an hour to get dressed and find him, because of course Billy hadn’t said where he was. I had a good idea, at least of where to start looking. The last time I’d gotten a cryptic message like this, I’d ended up at the lake, twenty minutes late.

I hoped this time around, I wasn’t going to need my shovel.

I checked my trunk before I left, though. It was still there, just in case.

So here’s the question–can I cut 19 words without giving up any story elements?

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I wanted to ignore it, but I checked the new text anyway didn’t. Billy had been was having a rough week.

Meet me at midnight. Alone.

I sighed and dropped my book, dragging myself out of bed. I had half an hour thirty minutes to get dressed and find him, because of course Billy hadn’t said where he was. I had a good idea, at least of where to start looking. The last time I’d gotten a cryptic message like this, I’d ended up at the lake, twenty minutes late.

I hoped this time around, I wasn’t going to wouldn’t need my shovel.

I checked my trunk before I left, though. It was still there, just in case.

I cut 26 words and added 5 new ones, when I shortened a phrase instead of cutting it, leaving me at 98 words.

Let’s look at the changes:

  • “checked the new text anyway” — At first I was going to cut “new” because that’s implied, but so is the fact that it’s a text, not a call, because the narrator doesn’t speak or mention Billy’s voice, then later refers to it as a “message.” The whole clause could go.
  • “had been” — It was acceptable as it stood, but changing tenses not only cuts a word, but makes the tone more immediate since Billy is still having a rough week.
  • “half an hour” — This one is debatable, since most people would say “half an hour” naturally, and I ended up two words under my goal. I could have changed it to “twenty minutes” to both cut the extra word and add more immediacy, but that would have changed a detail, which wasn’t the point of the exercise.
  • “wasn’t going to” — It reads fine, if informal, but “wouldn’t” is cleaner. Don’t complicate your verbs more than necessary.

Everything else is a straight cut of filler or redundancy. I could have even cut the final “just in case” as a trite phrase, but I like it, and it does imply something about how the narrator expects the night to unfold.

I’m deep, deep into this sort of editing on What We Need to Decide, but I know not everyone has a full-length manuscript lying around to practice on. Drabbles are quick to write, making them handy mini-editing lessons.

Give it a try, and if you’d like to share your finished drabbles, leave them in the comments–I’d love to read them!