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.

Writing Resources: 750 Words

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Social media alerted me last week to a new (to me) website for motivating writers, 750words. (It’s actually been around a long time, I almost can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.)

In essence, it’s really simple–log in and get a fresh blank page daily to write at least 750 words, or about three pages of material. It tracks how long you write, how long it takes you to reach 750, how many breaks you take, and your typing speed. All useful metrics, if you’re into that sort of thing.

And because gamification is a great way to motivate people in general, and especially people like me who grew up with video games, you get rewarded with badges for meeting goals. Who doesn’t love badges?

What’s really selling me on this site, though, is its analytic stats based on the writing you produce itself. While I’m using this (so far) as a way to motivate myself for rewriting #spookyromancenovel, it’s clear from both the website description/FAQ and many of the testimonials that people use this as a daily journal, and based on the language, it tracks how you feel.

Which is really, really cool, from a mental-health perspective. And still helpful for writing fiction! Since I started using the site, I’ve rewritten one chapter a day (which is far more productive than I’d been previously, not gonna lie) and that means my daily analysis is looking at the tone of my chapter for me. I can see what its algorithms think and say, “Is that what I was going for?”

Plus, it generates a frequency-based word cloud, which will be helpful down the road, during the line-editing stage. I already have an extensive list of words to reduce or eliminate in general, but having specific darlings to kill for each chapter? I think it’s going to be amazing to be able to target them so specifically.

So, I love it, and can definitely recommend it based on these strengths.

What’s the catch? …it’s not free. New accounts get a 30-day trial period (that’s where I am) but after that, to become a member you pay $5/month.

Some people are going to look at that and say, Five bucks a month for all this cool stuff! Sign me up!

Others will think, Sixty bucks a year just to motivate me to get off my ass and write! Not worth it!

And still others might want to use this site, but not able to afford it. I’ve been there, I’ve lived so close to the bone at times that even $5 wasn’t a reasonable monthly expense. I can now, but I definitely remember what it felt like, and that makes me wonder if I really need this.

So I recommend it with that caveat in mind. Use the free trial, if you’re interested, and decide for yourself if the site is helpful enough for you to want to pay for its services. I’m in love with it now, on day four, but in a month will I still be using it consistently? Will I have broken my streak already, will I burn out?

I’ll check back in at the end of June and let you know.

6 More Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Living Space

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Time to dig into wherever your characters call home! Whether or not it’s an actual setting in your story, knowing where your character sleeps at night can tell you a lot about them and provide important background for how they live.

As always, I’m using “they” to refer to a singular character of any gender.

  1. Do they live alone? With a significant other? A roommate or two or three? Are they living with family? And whatever the answer, are they satisfied with their circumstances, or would they rather live with (or without) someone else? Why?
  2. Where is their home? City, suburbs, country? How far is it from their job, the grocery, other important destinations? If there’s a commute, how do they travel, and how inconvenient is it for them?
  3. What is the physical building like? Old or new? Run-down or well-maintained? How big is it, and how much of that space is theirs? What interesting physical details make it different from other buildings in the neighborhood (if there are any?)
  4. Are they living where they want to be living? If not, why, and what are they doing to change that?
  5. How are they paying for their living space? Do they own or rent? Is someone else responsible for the bill? Are they living above or below their means?
  6. (For any given room in the place that’s actually used as a setting) How comfortable is this room? Why would they want to spend time there? What could be better? How clean is it kept?

It can be difficult to invent a whole structure out of thin air, or furnish a room without relying on places you, the author, have visited or lived in yourself. This is a great time to search online for reference images–I got the one here from Pixabay with the key words “apartment building;” originally I’d intended to use a more traditional high-rise, but I just love the coziness of small British towns, ever since I visited Nottingham.

And that’s another point to consider–if you’re writing in a real-world setting, the country definitely matters, both socially and structurally. You’re not going to find many American-style front-lawn neighborhoods anywhere in Europe, for example. So if you’re using an actual location as a setting, whether it’s direct or just inspiration, looking at images of that country/city will give you an idea where to start when answering these questions.

Good luck, and having fun building your characters their homes!

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.


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

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.

 

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.

Let’s Talk About Tropes #9: Exercise

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It’s no secret that in addition to writing romance, I read a lot of it. I’ve seen so many different types of heroes–white or black or brown skin, every hair color, every eye color, tall or not-so-tall. But do you know what they all seem to have in common?

Muscles.

Even when the book cover doesn’t look something like the guy in the picture above, he’s described as well-muscled. Sometimes lean but still defined; sometimes outright bulky; always noticeable.

I’m even sort of guilty of it in the What We Need series! Paul’s no gym rat, even before his life went haywire, but with the drastically reduced quality of his diet, I expected most of his body fat would be gone, revealing the lean muscle underneath. I never describe him as bulky–in fact, I have other characters call him things like beanpole and skyscraper and scarecrow, so you know he’s rail-thin, but I still let Nina admire his muscles.

Because who’s a man without visible musculature?

Well…a lot of guys, actually! I’ve been attracted to plenty of men IRL who don’t spend hours at the gym, who don’t have the ridiculous V leading to their groin, who can’t bench press a city bus.

I know the romance genre, the authors are often going for more-attractive-than-real, for the kind of swelteringly hot dudes we see in movies, for the guy you think maybe you could never get yourself, but at least you get to read about him. And I don’t want you to think I’m trashing books with those heroes, or the authors who write them.

But I don’t actually see most of those heroes doing anything to account for their crazy-hot bodies. Sometimes, sure, there’s a passing reference to him hitting the gym or going for a run. Or he’s got a job that does it for him, like construction workers. Or he’s a sports star, and the training’s built into the story. Which is fine.

Everyone else, though?

So let’s make this general, now. If you’re going to write yourself a super-fit character, male, female, or NB, make sure there’s a good reason they are that way!

  1. Why does this person exercise enough to have a hot bod? Healthy and unhealthy attitudes toward hardcore fitness abound, from things as simple as “I like working out and feeling good about my body” to “I have acute insecurity about other aspects of my life and work to perfect my body as compensation or control.”
  2. What do they actually do for those muscles? Weight training is obvious but not the only answer, not if you don’t make the person super-swole. Swimming is a fantastic whole-body exercise. Dedicated martial artists can get pretty buff. Or maybe it’s less traditional, like rock climbing. The gym is not the only place to get fit.
  3. What would someone dedicated to the activity you choose actually look like? Distance runners might have defined legs but less going on up top, if they don’t supplement running with something else. Yoga practitioners could be quite sculpted, but not necessarily huge and buff. Honest-to-god gym rats might be huge, but move differently due to less flexibility.
  4. When does this rigorous exercise fit into their day? What else aren’t they doing because of it?
  5. Does this exercise come along with a specific diet plan? Can this person eat a whole pizza by themselves reasonably, and would they want to? Or is their kitchen full of protein powder bottles and pre-chopped fruit for smoothies?
  6. Is this person a fitness-conversion fanatic, constantly trying to get the people around them to work out with them, or just in general? Do they offer advice? Do they offer unsolicited advice? Some gym rats are toxic and obnoxious about it–plenty aren’t. Which one is your character?
  7. How is this person’s mood affected when they miss a workout? Do they have to skip more than one before it hits, or is it more immediate? How does that manifest in their behavior?

Not every character (not every romance hero!) has to be a fitness guru, but if they are, that lifestyle should be on display in the story beyond someone else admiring their physique. I hope these questions help you think about how to make fitness a more integral part of the characters who require it!