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Category : The Writing Craft
Welcome back to my series on editing for authors. Last week, I started to talk about the role of a style sheet in the editing process, specifically the story and character-related elements. This week, we’re looking at the craft and style-related elements of a style sheet, as well as how to use a style sheet to focus your editing.
As I said last week, style sheets are largely descriptive rather than prescriptive– in other words, your style sheet is based on the writing voice/habits that are already in evidence in your manuscript. When you’ve finished a draft of a manuscript and are ready to start editing, you want to look at your manuscript and determine which conventions you’ve used most often and which ones you want to define your voice, and build your style sheet accordingly, adding entries addressing usage, punctuation, spelling, style, and formatting questions that will arise as you edit your manuscript.
For example, if you hyphenated a word the first three or four times you used it (“birth-mother”), you would probably make the hyphenated version an entry on your style sheet, the idea being that you will use that entry as a reference by which to determine that you will alter any subsequent uses of that word where you didn’t hyphenate it. If, however, you hyphenated it the first time but then used it seven more times in the first three chapters without hyphenating it, you’d probably want to let the majority dictate your style-sheet entry, and use the non-hyphenated version as the rule to be followed on your style sheet, since, again, the goal of a style sheet is to define the elements of your style that are already in evidence in your writing and your voice so that you can ensure that they are reflected in your whole manuscript, since precious few of us write with perfect consistency throughout a 75,000-word manuscript. Use this
A writing friend sent me this question: “Are you a writer because of your distinctive ideas, the volume of material you produce, or because of a call or skill or gift?”
None of the above. I’m a writer because I write. It’s my venue for sharing truth and beauty and all that is important to me. It’s how I express myself. My friend Rebecca is a singer because she puts herself into her songwriting and musical performance. My buddy Brad is a doctor because that’s how he connects to the world and shares himself and his abilities. Maybe that constitutes a calling — it’s certainly a gift. But I’ve always seen books and words as a reflection of who I am. Some of us have to write, the way others have to sing or run or paint or speak or run or lead. With me, words tend to pour out.
The thing that doesn’t get talked about very much is the fact that not everybody can be a writer, and few of us can ever be great writers. I’m all for writing conferences, because I often get to meet and encourage diamonds in the rough. And I’m a big supporter of mentor/protégé relationships because they allow an experienced person to share with an inexperienced person. But I’ve come to believe there’s a limit to the talent that can be shared. I believe I can make a writer better, but I’m not convinced I can ever make a writer great — some people just have the gift. Some people can paint, some people can sing, some people can dance – we can write.
Occasionally I come across a writer whose talent is enormous, and it usually leaves me in awe. I love that. At a conference this past weekend, I had a chance to host a salon with one of my favorite writers, Tom Robbins — an author whom many believe
To better understand the value of a style sheet, let’s consider first the earmarks of a well-edited manuscript. Compared to an unedited manuscript (or one that has merely been proofed for typos), the following is usually true of an edited manuscript:
- The voice has been refined
- Plot clarity has been improved
- Story universe is more clearly defined
- Pacing is more consistent
- Syntax is tighter/cleaner
- Word choice is more effective
Some of these qualities are dependent on the author’s experience/writing skill– it generally takes a more practiced ear to pick up on and critique things like sentence structure, weak word choice, or inconsistent pacing. Others, however, are virtually entirely dependent on good record-keeping and a disciplined adherence to the established norms– plot and character details are vivid at first because the author wrote them that way, but they stay sharp and clear in the reader’s mind because the author kept track of and stuck to the initial rules he made for that universe/character. An author’s voice is most effective when it is consistent and clear throughout rather than weakened by distractingly inconsistent usage, punctuation, spelling, or grammar. That’s where a style sheet comes in.
What is a style sheet?
Think of a style sheet as a reference tool written especially for and tailored specifically to your manuscript. Remember the APA or MLA reference books/handouts your teachers in high school or college gave you and expected you to use when writing your papers? If a teacher wanted your paper in APA style, you consulted your APA style manual to determine whether or not to use an oxford comma, how to format a quotation, which spelling of “cancelled” to use, etc. A style sheet (and don’t be
Call me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I learned from her that I’d like to share with you.
- Jump right into the action and then insert background info.
Notice how the story starts immediately, “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” Collins doesn’t first spend a chapter on Katniss’ back story or what the Hunger Games are. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.
Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.
What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien begins with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)
- Show, don’t tell.
Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:
Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.
Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture: The name of where they live (a name as soulless as “Airstrip One”), the local economy, and the hardship of their lives.
Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you
Continuing my series on being your own editor, I’m talking today about the importance of the right perspective when editing your own work, specifically the role that time plays in your editorial success.
Writing is an up-close-and-personal business. You live and breath your story while you’re writing it, spending hours with your characters while thinking about and planning your story, talking about it with friends and family or your writing group, and then when it’s time to write, your creation appears on the page literally seconds after you conceive it– writing is, in essence, a largely improvised art form. Even if you know the general direction your story is going to take, even if you plan out all the names and scenes in advance, the truth is that when the time comes to put words on paper, you’re making it up as you go along. The words that come into your head are the ones you put down on paper; that’s the only way anything ever gets written. If I sat here and waited to write my blog post until I knew every word I was going to say in exactly the order I was going to say it from beginning to end, I would die before I started a single sentence– that’s not how writing works, and many writers’ favorite thing about writing is the instantly measurable nature of it– “I wrote 1000 words today!” But while that stream-of-consciousness creation is great for getting words on the page, it’s not so good for editing.
Editing is a process in which the majority of your decisions are made on a comparative basis— this line isn’t as clear as the rest of the paragraph; this scene’s pacing is slow compared to the rest of the chapter; this character/plotline is less developed than this other one, etc. To be an effective editor, you have to train yourself to take one or
Welcome back to my Tuesday blog on craft! I’m starting a new series this week in response to several questions that have come in from authors over the past couple of months on the subject of editing your own work. If you’ve spent any amount of time on this blog in the past (or read any resource on getting published, or attended pretty much any class on writing), you know the importance of submitting a clean manuscript to an agent or editor. “One chance to make a first impression,” “These people work with words for a living,” “We’re looking for a reason to say no–” you’ve heard all the warnings, and you would never submit pages without having thoroughly proofread them, right? The problem many authors have is that they equate “proofreading” with “editing,” and while proofreading is certainly an important part of the editing process, your manuscript usually needs a lot more than just a proofreading to be ready to submit for consideration by an agent or an editor.
“But I’m a writer, not an editor!” Obviously, writing and editing are not identical tasks, and the skill sets needed to perform each one well differ enough that some authors have a really hard time putting on that “editor hat” beyond a basic proofread for punctuation and spelling typos. Some people don’t have a great eye for editing, while others flat-out just don’t like the process, and many don’t trust themselves to see their own story realistically after being so close to it throughout the writing process. I understand that it can be hard to switch gears from neck-deep-in-the-middle-of-the-action author mode to cool-and-detached objective editor mode, but as many excuses as there are for not being an editor of your own work, there are a lot more arguments in favor of developing your editorial skills.
“Can’t I just pay someone to do that?” Sure, there are plenty of great editing
Welcome to what will probably be the conclusion of my “Craft for a Conference” series (unless someone asks a question about an aspect of conference materials that I haven’t addressed already). Through my last four posts on conference craft, I repeated one mantra: that the purpose of any material you take to a conference (including spoken pitches) should be to gain the interest of the person you’re talking to as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd (in a positive way) as much as you can. When I meet with authors at conferences, the thing I see missing from pitches/conference materials more than anything else is that memorability factor– I read a lot of good hooks, some nice one-sheets, but at the end of a day where I’ve taken 20 appointments plus heard pitches at lunch and dinner, I’m often hard-pressed to recall ONE story idea without looking at my notes.
Now, obviously, there’s an element of information fatigue at play there; even a great, memorable story can get lost in the annals of memory if I heard ten forgettable pitches after it, and that’s what my notes are for. But when I read those notes, I want to go, “OH yeah, this one!” because I recognize the unique elements that stood out for me when you pitched it. I want you to have made it easy for me to remember it by pulling out everything that is most unique and most characteristic of that story in your one-sheet or your pitch. The fact that this doesn’t happen more often tells me not that authors aren’t writing memorable stories, but that they don’t always know how to make themselves/their pitches or materials memorable, that they don’t know what elements of their book stand out from the crowd and how to highlight those.
With that in mind, here are some places to start in your quest
Welcome back to my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference. Today, I’m discussing the value of bringing a writing sample with you to a conference and how to make sure it represents you effectively.
Like I said the first week of the series, there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule as to what you should bring to your editor and agent meetings at a conference. Some editors are happy to glance through a full proposal, some agents love to see a one-sheet on your project, and some people don’t want to look at anything on paper, preferring to hear you talk about your project and ask you questions instead. NONE of us wants to leave with a big stack of papers, and word is starting to get around that it’s increasingly difficult to get us to leave with any printed materials you bring us, so the practice of authors carrying around their sample chapters or first 50 pages or, heaven forbid, their full manuscript, has become much less common at conferences.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad fewer authors are trying to send me home with ten extra pounds of paper, but I have been disappointed, on many occasions, when meeting with an author who’s done a good job of hooking me with their story or concept through their one-sheet or pitch, to ask if the author has a writing sample with him and be met with a blank, slightly panicked stare and the stammered apology, “I– I didn’t know– I’ve heard you don’t want– I don’t have–” by which they mean, “No, I don’t have a writing sample, either because I didn’t expect to get this far, or because I’ve been told not to bring a big stack of paper to a meeting like this, or because I thought you would only be interested in hearing about my platform, and now I’m having a heart attack
One of the plights of a novelist or writer is wanting to perfect your work so completely that you can’t move forward. I’ve known numerous authors who’ve never completed a novel because they continue to rework the first three chapters until they literally take the life from it. Though editing is necessary to create a story that moves forward with every page and every paragraph, over-editing can be destructive by adding too much unneeded description or pages of dialogue that becomes chitchat. Cutting too much causes a novel to become bare bones as it loses reality, emotion, and depth. So what can you do? This is the question I was asked by a reader who follows my Writing Fiction blog.
Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed! I’ve written my beginning over and over again. I have even gotten to 15,000 words but keep getting frustrated. How do you move on without going back and constantly editing? I am a perfectionist but that seems to be hindering me in my writing. Any tips?
Over-editing can hinder a writer’s progress and allow someone with talent to fail finishing a book. A novelist’s voice is important. Readers come to know the tone and rhythm of your writing and connect with it. When you strip the bones raw or pile on needless fat, you’ve changed your style and voice and readers can disconnect.
Editing is needed to make the book the best it can be, but being too close to it, you will reach a point where you lose judgment and end up doing more damage than good. Time spent tweaking stops you from moving forward. You can become stagnant and get nowhere.
Yes, all books need an editor whether traditional or self-published. You want your book the best it can be, but consider it a first draft and know that if the book is to be traditionally published,
Continuing my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference, I’m talking more today about the synopsis and how to make sure it’s doing its job for your proposal. We’ll look briefly at format and then look at ways to avoid several common synopsis mistakes.
A synopsis is similar to a proposal in that there isn’t one “correct” way to format it. While there are elements that every synopsis should have in common, rarely are you going to be “disqualified” from consideration just because your synopsis isn’t formatted exactly the way that agent or editor prefers. That said, there are still a few fairly standard conventions you should be aware of:
-Synopses are often single-spaced. This may seem strange, since your sample chapters/manuscript should be double-spaced, but remember, an agent or editor is reading your synopsis to get a complete picture of your story from beginning to end– having all the info contained to a single page (as you should 9 times out of 10 be able to do for any book shorter than 100,000 words– see more below) helps us think of the book as a whole because we literally “see” it all in the same place.
-Names are often written in all-caps the first time they appear in a synopsis. Again, this is a way for the reader to visually track when a new player enters the story, and tells them to pay attention, they need to know who this person is.
–Synopses are always written in third-person present tense. Tense discrepancies in a synopsis (such as switching back and forth from past to present) interrupt our experience of the story.
Common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them
I mentioned last week the mistake of being too vague in your synopsis (writing that “tragedy strikes,” rather than “Helen dies of the fever”), but here are a few more repeat offenders from the “synopses