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[process] A bit more on standard manuscript format

A couple of folks made very sharp observations in the comments thread on my recent post on standard manuscript format [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. I wanted to touch on them here by way of follow-up.

C.E. Petit said:

I’d like to gently point out that — just like there is no monolithic “publishing industry” — there is no “standard manuscript format.”

He goes on to provide specific examples of formats from other sectors of publishing, and specific elements that vary between genres or publishing sectors. So, yes, a disclaimer I failed to make in my original post was that I was talking about the genres of science fiction and fantasy in specific, and somewhat more generally and with less authority, about fiction submissions.

Bruce Arthurs also pointed out:

Actually, in the case of electronic submissions, I don’t think there’s a “standard manuscript format” yet. I’ve seen submission guidelines that want manuscripts in specific fonts, specific font sizes, specific file types, etc. And they can vary widely from market to market.

This is also true. Many electronic markets have specific submission requirements, and there is not a great deal of standardization between them. I strongly prefer to attach a .rtf or .doc/.docx file to a submission, because that preserves my print-oriented standard manuscript formatting, and is also the least amount of work for me. But not everyone’s online content management system supports file attachments. And many people are rightly wary of accepting executable files (ie, Word macros) from random persons on the Internet. Hence the varying requirements of online submissions.

Which are, frankly, fairly irksome to me. Going through and replacing all my underlined (for italics, obviously) text with _these characters_ is annoying and easy to make mistakes on. Then the next market wants *asterisks* or something. For me personally, this tends to simply discourage me from submitting to those markets at all. The extra effort is a barrier to entry, and it doesn’t feel to me like a shibboleth of professionalism, as the basic print-oriented standard manuscript format does.

As always, your mileage may vary.

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[process] Point of view

Another thing that came up over the weekend at Cascade Writers was the subject of point of view. This is a topic about which the more I learn, the less I know, so I don’t feel especially qualified to comment on it in detail. However, here’s what I talked about with my critique group.

First of all, the term “point of view” is loosely used in two different ways when discussing writing craft.

One meaning is essentially equivalent to narrator, or protagonist. Note these are not necessarily the same thing. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson is the narrator but Holmes is the protagonist. In this sense, the question to be examined is at the intersection of whose story is being told, and who is doing the telling.

The other meaning of “point of view” addresses the topic of grammatical person. The overwhelming majority of fiction in the Western tradition is told in either first or third person, I believe with a tendency to favor third person narratives. For fiction purposes, we also talk about “tight”, “close”, “loose” and “omniscient” point of view. That is to say, story focus. So, for example, one might say that a text is in “loose third person”. In this sense, the question to be examined is from what linguistic and stylistic perspective the story should be told.

With respect to choice of narrator or protagonist, a sensible default rubric is to determine whose story is being told by asking which character experiences change, transition, loss or personal growth. Absent other considerations, that’s probably the character whose story you want to tell.

Note there are at least as many counterexamples to this as there are examples of it. How much does Holmes really change during any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories? Or even over the entire arc of the original canon? Likewise, in the movie version of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppinsimdb ], it is Mr. Banks who is changed and experiences profound transition, even though the film is nominally concerned with the relationship between the title character and the Banks children.

There are plenty of very good reasons to tell stories with these equivalent of over-the-shoulder basketball shots, but the simplest and clearest way to approach the story is directly.

This decision intersects quite strongly with the concept of grammatical person and story focus. First person is of course an “I” story. Third person is of course a “he” or “she” or “it” or “they” story. The focus has to do with where the narrative equivalent of the camera sits. Tight stories are told from close inside the narrator’s perspective. They literally can’t see or know anything on the page that the story action doesn’t show them. Most first person narratives are tight, for somewhat obvious reasons. A close narrative pulls back from the behind-the-eyes perspective and sits more behind the shoulder. Loose pulls back even further, following the character around from a distance. Omniscient virtually abandons the character for a wider-ranging view of the world.

Note that the looser the focus, the stronger the implied narrator. Stories written in loose or omniscient point of view can have a very strong voice as the implied narrator. Sometimes authors will explicitly acknowledge that implied narrator as a stylistic conceit, as in James Morrow’s The Last Witchfinder, where the story is narrated by a copy of Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

When you’re working in tight or close point of view, the narrative will generally notice things the character can or would notice. It will use words and concepts the character would. What a trained assassin sees on entering a room is very different from what an interior designer sees. The way they would describe the space is very different. That in turn infuses the descriptive and expository prose being used in the scene.

On the other hand, in loose or omniscient point of view, the implied narrator can take over and make all manner of observations either explicitly or implicitly, use different speech registers, and take significantly different approaches to story telling than the character would.

To return to the concept of a default rubric, absent other considerations, in Western story telling traditions we tend to write in close third person in the simple past tense, sometimes referred to as the “narrative present”.

I haven’t really touched on choices of verb tense, application of tense shifts, different types of narrator, intrusions, and many other techniques that inflect point of view. This post barely scratches the surface. Like I said, it’s a complex topic about which the more I learn, the less I understand. From my own perspective, my best work with point of view has been in my novellas “America, Such As She Is” and “The Baby Killers”. I also did some work I’m pretty pleased with in the Green books. Frankly, I’d be at a loss to analyze any of those in credible, objective detail.

That being said, for a newer writer still exploring the fundamentals of point of view, I hope these touchpoints will be helpful.

I am quite curious what the writers and editors reading this blog think about point of view. Where did I get it wrong? How would you explain the concepts? Can you intelligibly go deeper than I am able to?

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[process] Dialog tags

Another thing that came up in discussion over the weekend at Cascade Writers was dialog tags. If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s the “said Maryam” that comes at the end of a snippet of quoted dialog. So:

“This is a dialog tag,” said Maryam.

Thanks to the Turkey City Lexicon and several generations of Milford-Clarion style workshopping, we’ve all had ourselves beaten half to death over “said-bookisms“. Speaking verbs, basically. “Said” and “asked” are conditionally invisible. “Replied”, “stated” and so forth are marginal. But words such as “interjected”, “erupted” and of course that old favorite, “ejaculated”, are intrusively strange except in instances of specific stylistic applicability. So:

“This is a said-bookism”, intoned Maryam.

Writers resort to said-bookisms because the two conditionally invisible dialog tags lose their invisibility through overuse. Especially structurally invariant overuse. In other words, tennis match dialog. So:

“Hello,” said Maryam.
“Hi, there,” said João.
“How are you doing?” said Maryam.
“I am fine,” said João.
“May I press you to a candied starfish?” said Maryam.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” said João.

We don’t like that. Bad style, no biscuit.

Getting around that problem, which is fundamental to the early writings of people educated in English at least (I can’t comment on other languages) is part of the education of a writer. There are several basic techniques.

One is the judicious use of said-bookisms. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional “interjected” or “queried” or something, so long as the word also carries some story weight, and does not draw undue attention to itself. (Note that you get to use the speaking verb “ejaculated” precisely once in your entire professional career, otherwise we will all come to your home and mock you.) So:

“Hello,” said Maryam.
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine,” said João.
“May I press you to a candied starfish?” offered Maryam.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” exclaimed João.

Still pretty stilted, but not quite so irksome as before.

We can also employ variant structure to break up the flow of the text and provide a little more rhythm to the dialog. Varying the structure can also shift the emphasis on individual lines. So:

Maryam said, “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine,” João said.
Maryam offered, “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” João exclaimed.

Also pretty stilted, but again, not quite so irksome.

Now we can introduce blocking or action to indicate dialog, further easing the style crunch. So:

Maryam waved. “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine.” João smiled.
Maryam held out a small crystal dish. “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
Hands flying up in apparent panic, João replied, “No, I am fasting for cultural reasons!”

Once we have a flow of dialog established, we can start omitting speaker referents and trust the reader to follow along. So:

Maryam waved. “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?”
“I am fine.”
She held out a small crystal dish. “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
João’s hands flew up in apparent panic. “No, I am fasting for cultural reasons!”

Even better is dialog where each character’s voice is sufficiently distinctive that the tags aren’t needed except to keep the reader occasionally reminded of who’s got the ball in the serve-and-volley of the dialog. So:

Maryam waved. “Greetings.”
“Yo, dawg,” replied João.
“And how do you find yourself today?”
“Chillin’, not illin’.”
She proffered a small crystal dish. “Might I press you to a candied starfish?”.
“Hell, no! I ain’t eating that shit.”

One of the suggestions I made to my student group at the conference was to write a scene between a crusty, retired professor of classics from some major university in New York City riding in a taxi with a youthful recent Somali immigrant cab driver. After some basic blocking and character setting, you really shouldn’t have to tag that dialog at all. The differences in generations, cultural perspective and speech register should provide ample distinction.

For a bonus, write that scene twice, once from the cab driver’s perspective, and once from the professor’s perspective. What kinds of things does the cab driver notice and look for? What kinds of things does the professor notice and look for? How can you work those into dialog?

Your thoughts?

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[writing|process] Don’t give me those hand-me-down shoes; or, the virtues of manuscript formatting

One topic that comes up fairly often when I’m working with aspiring writers is the subject of standard manuscript format. New writers are often puzzled as to why this is important, while established professional writers are so accustomed to the concept that they tend to not even think about. It’s one of this things that feels kind of stupid and arbitrary, and often seems baffling to people just beginning their encounters with the magical fairyland that is publishing.

Well, it is kind of stupid and baffling. But that’s the way things work.

Here at Cascade Writers this weekend, I hit on an analogy which seemed to help explain why.

When you go for a job interview, you fix your hair and put on a nice pair of shoes. Outside of consumer facing retail or front desk work, not all that many jobs actually require good hair and nice pair of shoes in order to perform your job functions. For example, most programmers I know work in cargo shorts and sandals and t-shirts, and you’re lucky they’re wearing clothes. Yet even most of them fixed their hair and put on a nice pair of shoes when they interviewed. Likewise, I don’t really care what my plumber is wearing so long as I don’t have to think about their anatomy while they’re working.

The reason you dress like this for a job interview is fairly clear. You want the interviewer to focus on your qualifications for the job. You don’t want them wondering if you slept in the bed of a pickup truck last night. The purpose of fixing your hair and wearing nice shoes to make your personal presentation transparent within the context of the social standards of job interviewing process. You are removing distractions.

So it is with standard manuscript format. The manuscript is not the story. At best, it’s a tool for transmitting a version of the story from the writer to the reader. In this case, the editorial reader. If you follow standard manuscript format, your manuscript is functionally invisible, and all the reader sees is the story. You don’t want them wondering why the heck you used Zapf Chancery for the font, or glancing at the sweet kittens at the top of your lavender letterhead. The purpose of standard manuscript format is to make your story’s presentation transparent within the context of the professional standards of the editorial process. You are removing distractions.

And yes, if you’re a brilliant enough writer, you can submit something written in crayon on butcher paper and get it published. Just like if you’re a brilliant enough whatever, you can get a job in your field even if you show up to the interview hung over and decked out in bad skag. But why create the distraction?

Standard manuscript format brings the focus in sharply on the story. Exactly where you want it.

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[process] Believing one impossible thing before breakfast

I’m working on critiques for an upcoming workshop at which I am pro’ing. A couple of times in the course of reading these manuscripts I’ve been moved to make an observation that I’ve heard before in genre fiction circles, but honestly don’t recall the source of. Basically, this:

When writing SF/F, you get one impossible thing for free. Everything else you have to earn.

Put another way, you can’t make everything up. Generally speaking, stories have to have enough grounding in the naturalistic world for the reader to relate to them. (There are of course always brilliant exceptions to this and every other rule of writing, but they’re damned tough to pull off.) Likewise, if you’re going to ask the reader to swallow something huge and improbable, a bunch of sweet reason can help it go down.

It’s clear enough this rule isn’t literally true. Plenty of science fiction comes with FTL travel, strong AI and teleporters all at the same time, for example. But in a sense, those are all one thing. Say, the starship Enterprise.

But if you want the full starship package and vampires for the crew, you’d better make me believe in what you’re doing. Because I can buy the starship thing. That’s one of our tropes, what Gardner Dozois calls “the furniture of science fiction”. And I can buy the vampire thing if you’re writing urban fantasy or horror.

But vampires in space is a real (if interesting) stretch. I mean, what about that whole sunlight thing? (And for that matter, what happens to werewolves who go on a lunar expedition?) Vampires on a starship… Now you’ve added too many impossible things. Unless of course you’ve earned it within the story through world building or character or plot.

The other end of this phenomenon is what John Scalzi calls “The Flying Snowman“, where the impossibilities are all being accepted until the suspension of disbelief is shattered by something that goes too far over the top. I believe this is just the same principle written from the opposite direction.

So, yeah. You get one impossible thing for free. That comes on credit from me, the reader. Everything after that had better make sense, at least within the internal consistency of the story being told.

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[process] Filling the pool on the way down

Yesterday I finished the first draft of a story called “Grindstone”. 5,000 words of very melancholy steampunk. The requirement had been to write something about automatons or airships. So I did both.

When I sat down to start typing this past Monday, I opened the file and typed one sentence.

Blood always rusts the springs in my hand.

I had pulled this out of the air. It didn’t mean anything yet. It had no context. There was no title. I was just typing.

So I typed another sentence.

Other people’s blood, to be specific.

At least now I knew whose blood it wasn’t. And I had a wry tone to my character. So I’d begun to define the classic character in a setting with a problem, minus the setting thus far.

After that I typed a paragraph. Still pulling things out of the air, mind you.

It’s cold up here on the fly deck where I am cleaning my weapons. There is nothing around us but empty sky, stretching to the horizons and beyond. The good airship Entwhistle is two days and more from the nearest friendly port given our current heading and the nature of the winds in this airband. I can hear her engines straining slightly. They are running under just enough load to give them a workout without redlining. Which is good, because the rest of this vessel is about to fall through the sky, carrying us all with it.

(This is the straight first draft, by the way.)

At that point, I still didn’t know what the story was about, not in the slightest, but I had a little direction. I’d set my pins because now I had character, setting and problem, along with some implied action. It occurred to me that the story’s title was “Grindstone”, though I didn’t know why that was true, either. Then I typed about another page and finished the day at 300 words with a story stub.

Tuesday I sat down to write sgain. A second POV character presented herself immediately. She was watching Entwhistle dock, which gave me an opportunity to describe the airship from an external perspective. She had her own problems, every bit as severe as my first POV character’s. It was decidedly non-obvious to me how these problem sets were linked, or how I was going to resolve either of them. By the end of that writing day, I had produced another 2,000 words.

Wednesday I once more sat down to write. I had 2,300 words, didn’t know where I was going, and was aiming for 5,000 words. An hour and a half later, including various interruptions, I had 5,000 words with a fitting resolution that surprised me. I didn’t know until the last couple of pages how it was going to all come out. I did find a very good way to use the grindstone concept in the middle, and it paid out at the end as well. The story needs some more attention, though so far my first readers have liked the piece.

Short stories almost always work this way for me. I start out with a nugget of an idea, sometimes as little as a single word or a simple concept. In this case, the nugget was “steampunk story about automatons and airships”, plus those first two sentences, which I had utterly pulled out of thin air. I’ve jumped off the high board over an empty pool. I then begin filling the pool with water on the way down, so that when I land, the ending makes a proper splash. Or at least a proper enough splash that it can be fixed on revision.

It used to really bother me that I write this way. That’s almost the ultimate in following the headlights. Short stories for me really are almost the same as free writing. Ruth Nestvold used to say I didn’t write stories, I channeled them. And the way I do this matches almost no one’s advice on how to write short stories. But it works. In my own opinion, I’m a better short story writer than I am a novelist; in novels, I more or less follow the generally accepted guidelines on how to write.

My point is, it doesn’t matter how you get to the other end of the manuscript. There’s tons of advice out there. Some of it is even from me. But it doesn’t matter how you get there. It only matters that you get there. Hopefully in a way that is satisfying to you and produces a good narrative, but any finished story is by definition better than an unfinished story. (Exceptions include Ted Chiang and Howard Waldrop.) Because once you can and do finish a story, you can use that story as a tool to learn how to write a better story next time.

For me, it’s filling the pool on the way down. Writing short stories is a leap of faith. Very nearly literally so. Even now, having written something like 500 first draft short stories over the past twelve years, I’m still surprised every time I land.

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[process] Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes

I’ve been mulling over some other aspects of my delightful weekend at World Steam Expo. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot since that convention about how the creative process works for differently for people in different creative fields, and in turn, how that might inflect my own writing.

Watching the League of S.T.E.A.M. from up close was fascinating. Likewise talking to members of Abney Park and Steam Powered Giraffe, as well as watching the other bands, troupes and performers there.

In simple terms, what I saw was creativity expressed as a tightly interactive process.

The creativity of writers of print fiction is very much an internal pursuit. We work alone, usually in privacy. Even writers who collaborate generally do that serially rather than through face-to-face interaction. (As I understand it, this happens differently for the script writing staff of television shows, so it follows that the solitary work pattern is not universally true of writers. Journalism, to mention another counterexample, is arguably an interactively collaborative process in another sense.) Creativity runs silent and deep for people who write novels and short stories and poetry.

By contrast, the creativity of actors, at least in the context I saw at World Steam Expo, was absolutely a participative, iterative process. The League of S.T.E.A.M. were in character much of the time, even when they were not out in public. When not in character, they were thinking and talking about character, or performance, or script, or costuming, or props. They live their parts, moving in a literal swarm of multidimensional creativity. Likewise some of the other performers. I never saw Spine from Steam Powered Giraffe out of his makeup all weekend.

As a writer, I live my parts, the stage being inside my head. But that stage and its creativity are contained between the privacy of mind and the interface between my fingers and my keyboard. Like I said, a profoundly internal pursuit.

I found myself feeling very envious of the League of S.T.E.A.M., of the other performers and musicians. Watching that ongoing performance and creative exploration made me wish fiction writers could work collectively. It made me wonder what fiction writers could do if they did work collectively.

What would it be like to pull half a dozen writers together in big room and actively, verbally brainstorm a story from conception to completion? Sure, we sit around and talk about ideas sometimes. Sure, we consult one another on technical or plot details. But what would it be like to live our way through that process? Participatively, iteratively.

It’s not that I think the current process of writing is broken. I don’t, not at all. It’s just that I received a glimpse into a different process. It’s a new toy, and I’d love to try that out.

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[process] Reality, realism and synchronicity

Sometime this past week (it’s all something of a blur now), I was having a conversation about realism in fiction. I think this was with @madge707. We weren’t talking about realism as a literary movement, but rather the more plain meaning of the word. Specifically, the balance between enough detail and too much detail.

As they say, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. It’s simply not possible. Someone with special knowledge is going to be a much more critical reader of fiction in their knowledge domain. The amount and precision of medical information I would have to put into a short story about doctors in order to satisfy a medically-trained reader is far greater and more demanding than what I would have to put in to satisfy a general reader. On the other hand, there are a lot of doctors and nurses and med techs and so forth out there, so this is probably worth getting right.

Another example of this is a short story I read some years ago, possibly in a Writers of the Future volume. In it, the protagonist is time traveling, and flips through a series of historical vignettes. At one point, the arrive atop a yurt in Genghis Khan’s horde, and climb down the central tent pole to take some action. This threw me out of the story, first of all because “yurt” is a Russian word, and to Mongolians, it’s a “ger”. Second of all, gers don’t have a central tent pole. They have a pair of offset poles supporting a central ring. Why do I know this? Because I’ve spent time in Outer Mongolia, including visiting and sleeping in actual Mongolian gers. However, this is a knowledge domain that I share with about seven of the people who ever read that story.

One of the challenges of being a writer is knowing where to set that dial. When does reality trump realism? Sometimes the actual details really are less believable than the fictional details.

The example that had generated the conversation was that @madge707 was working on a story about a San Francisco police detective. In the SFPD, detectives are titled as “inspectors”. Someone in her critique group at the conference was confused by this, not realizing this bit of San Francisco detail. So the question was, did she go for the reality, which was confusing, or the realism, which was erroneous. (Obviously, there are fairly simple ways to resolve this, it’s just an example.)

I provided a similar example from living in Portland. While Portland has a police department, just like virtually every other city or town in the United States, the Portland police department is formally known as the Portland Police Bureau. (The fire department is the Portland Fire Bureau, etc.) I’m not even sure most people in Portland realize this. It’s not prominently painted on the police cars or anything. Almost certainly no one outside Portland knows this unless they have special Portland knowledge. So, as I said to @madge707, if writing about crime in Portland, would it be confusing to refer to the Police Bureau, or the PPB? Because that would look odd to most American readers, who expect the term “Police Department”.

A couple of days later, I’m reading Mark Teppo‘s excellent and gripping novel LightbreakerPowells | BN ] (which I have since left on an airplane, forty pages from the end, grrr) and what do I find but a reference to the Portland Police Department, being used by a character who is a cop from the Seattle Police Department. The reference is in initial caps, i.e., the proper name, which is of course, not correct. Something the character in question would absolutely know better than to do, insofar as real life goes.

I cracked up hard.

Ah, the magic of synchronicity.

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[process] My copy editor comments in response

Kalimpura‘s copy editor and I have had a very nice email exchange arising in response to my recent post about copy edits and manuals of style. [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ] With their kind permission, I am reprinting excerpts from that email exchange here, as I found it pretty interesting.

On eccentric spelling issues:

I thought I’d share a little bit about how British/Canadian spellings can come across to a copy editor.

Basically, the first time I see words like “storey” and “colour,” I’m on alert wondering if the author just went English for a second or what else might be going on. It gets harder again, when later “flavor” and “harbor” might go by as is. (And I’m not even sure why, or if the author has a strong reason why “colour” and “neighbor” might inhabit the same sentence.) Textually, it can read like the narrative has mysteriously decided to affect a brief accent that is just as quickly dropped again. At this point, I am noting what the prevailing style is and if there perhaps might be some narrative logic to a quick switch in voice/dialect/geography—yet only for certain words.

I don’t greatly prefer American over British spelling, and have had no problem when enough of the latter crops up, then going back and reconciling grey, kerb, spiralling, harbour, draught, neighbour, til, and so forth–all in. Before the tipover point, I’m writing down hundreds of words and instances in my notes, work that’s often needless when it turns out the author just quickly tried out a dialect and backed off from it. Those hours never feel wasted, just part of the job.

I am thinking that where many, many readers (and editors) see/hear an inconsistent regionalism in what an author spells, the author might just be trying to encode a quick flavor of nostalgia, sprinkled where they most prefer it with a spelling device. That’s the point at which the author’s stet is so stylistically priceless.

In my case, when I do this, I am trying to convey a flavor with certain spellings. So, “storey”, “despatch” and “draught”, for example. It looks right for what I’m wanting to do in the book. I’m not deliberately being Anglophilic or otherwise, just working within a certain context that feels right to me.

They go on to say:

I’m glad you’re keen on preserving your intentions when they might be invisible to someone farther along in the process. With 900 books behind me, I’ve witnessed that most often textual quirk is not the result of care or deliberation, but accident and inattention, and now and then forgotten indecision. You do your best as a CE to come across as an aide-de-camp rather than an adversary, giving the author more YES/NO choices than they might first have had in mind. Maybe 1 percent of authors are as good about process and design as you are (no lie), which makes the mighty stet such a blessing for everyone involved in the making of the best book possible.

I appreciated the kind words, but that’s also an important point. The copy editor has to distinguish between auctorial intention and textual errors, generally with very little context to work from. In my response to them, I mentioned that I had developed a stylesheet for the Sunspin books, to address certain items of usage and so forth. My copy editor replied:

A style sheet specific to each title could be helpful for you and for the other hands and eyes involved in the next books, sure.

Noting points of usage and style is valuable, as is delineating the reason and pattern behind, say, the narrative “speaking” in “storey” and “draught” but not “dialled” and “programme,” for example. Sharing your overarching scheme helps immensely and aids the CE with the gist of your spelling gimmicks and similar storytelling choices.

On the other hand, if it’s just as much of a time sink to create a comprehensive style sheet as it is to click “reject change” later on, then I’d say put the time in at whatever point in the process you can best spare it: front or back.

I’m increasingly coming to believe that an author-generated stylesheet can be critical. Of course, I only know what a stylesheet is from experience with prior copy edits. I don’t believe I’m free to share those here, as they are Tor’s work product, but at the bottom of this post, I’ll append part of my Sunspin style sheet as an example, since at this point that’s still my own work product.

A bit later, I received a third email from my copy editor, adding another interesting comment.

[S]omething else that might be valuable if you’re continuing to write in genres that use sometimes exalted, formal, studious, or ceremonial speech between characters is to let the CE know that despite the tone, you’re purposely leaving out the “whom” or similar constructions in either the dialogue or running text. A careful CE is generally trying to extrapolate and fill in from a mosaic of other hints–if you have an issue that contrasts rather than coheres, that’s the sort of thing to flag.

I want to thank my copy editor for their frankness, and their willingness to be quoted herein. And also for the terrific copy edit.


Sunspin stylesheet notes follow. In addition to these explications of usage, I have lists of people and place names, as well as a list of starship names. I still need to create a list of nonstandard words in deliberate use.

Titles or ranks are capitalized when they are part of names or used in direct address in lieu of a name. They are uncapitalized when being referenced without the name or otherwise in indirect use. These include father, father superior, sergeant, lieutenant, lieutenant-commander, commander, captain, admiral, baron, count, earl, duke, prince and princess. The only exceptions are Before, Library, Interlocutrix, Patriarch and Imperator, which are always capitalized, even in their adjectival forms. (“Before” does not have an adjectival form.)

The prefix “go” when applied to an officer’s rank (i.e., Go-Captain Alvarez) is specific to the Navisparliamentary service, and is reserved for those officers trained and certified for starship command. Note that some starship captains do not have a “go” prefix. These are either captains from outside the Navisparliamentary service (i.e., Captain Kinman), or more rarely, Navisparliamentary officers in a command role without the formal certification. The “go” prefix may be omitted in casual address, much as lieutenant colonels are often referred to simply as “colonel”.

The suffix “praetor” when applied to an officer’s rank (i.e., Lieutenant-Praetor Shinka) is specific to the Imperatorial Guards (also sometimes referred to as the Household Guards — the two terms are interchangeable). “Praetor” is reserved for those officers permitted to carry weapons in the Imperator’s presence, or to command troops carrying weapons in the Imperator’s presence. The “praetor” prefix may be omitted in casual address, much as lieutenant colonels are often referred to simply as “colonel”.

Starships are always formally referred to with their pair count, so “Third Rectification {58 pairs}” in narrative or written references, but “Third Rectification, fifty-eight pairs” in dialog. This formal reference should be used the first time a starship’s name is introduced in narrative or dialog, but can be omitted in immediately subsequent uses. If the starship is not referred to for a while, the reintroduction of the name should again be with the formal reference on initial occurrence.

Note that both Third Rectification and Joyous Strength have varying pair counts within the manuscript of Calamity of So Long a Life. This is because of the new pair master built at NSN.411-e. AA. Characters unaware of the return of the two starships will refer to them by their previous pair counts, Third Rectification {58 pairs} and Joyous Strength {21 pairs}. Characters who have become aware of their returns will refer to them as Third Rectification {59 pairs} and Joyous Strength {22 pairs}. This creates an apparent inconsistency in the text, as for much of the book, not everyone is aware of their return, so both references are being used. However, any given character will be consistent according to their knowledge of the situation.

Polite address for persons without title or rank is “Ser” or “Sera”. This corresponds to “Sir” or “Ma’am”, and also to “Mr.” or “Mrs./Ms./Miss”. However, in a very few cases the older, archaic forms of address are used, exclusively by Befores, and usually under stress or in a moment of thoughtlessness. Likewise, a common expletive is “hells”, except for the Befores who will often use the older, singular form. (I.e., “what the hells?” vs “what the hell?”)

This culture does not make a strong distinction between the name of a star and the name of the primary inhabited planet in any given solar system. Hence “Salton” for both the star and the planet. Often the star will have a different name or survey number for technical or scientific use, but in Calamity of So Long a Life this rarely occurs explicitly in the text.

In starship operations, generally speaking a “cruise” is a voyage between destinations which or may not include multiple distinct transits between pair masters. A “transit” is more specifically the process of traveling between any two pair masters. This language is not used with precision, and so there may be occasional inconsistencies depending on the speaker, dialect or stylistic concerns of the text.

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[process] Copy edits and manuals of style

I am currently more than halfway through the copy edits of Kalimpura, recently received back from Tor. The manuscript is actually pretty clean, and the copy editor’s queries are both minimal and very much to the point. I’m going to assume this is a good thing, though as [info]calendula_witch recently said to me in a related context, she feels like she’s cheating when she receives a clean manuscript to work on.

However, one thing that has always baffled me is why fiction publishers use manuals of style for copy editing manuscripts. In my case, per the abbreviated notation in the style sheet that accompanied my copy edit, M-W 11th, Chicago 15th, Words into Type, and Garner’s Modern American Usage.

I do understand why some aspects of house style are important, such as getting the ellipses and em dashes correct. That’s a book design and typesetting thing. For example, the style sheet says the following:

em-dashes:
“Use this form—” When an action. “—interrupts the speech.”
“Use this form”—when an action occurs simultaneous to speech—“without interrupting it.”

Okay. Fine with me. This is how Tor wants their books to look. Hooray! I’m not a book designer, and I certainly didn’t embed any punctuation geekery in the manuscript I turned into them.

But on usage and spelling…? Fiction is in one important sense all about voice. And there’s a lot of changes that get made in the copy edit that I have to stet. There are certain archaic or non-standard spellings I favor. “Storey” for “story” when describing buildings. “Dreamt” instead of “dreamed”. “Til” instead of “till”. All of which get carefully amended to the current standard written usage, and all of which I just as carefully stet back to my original.

Don’t even get me started on the that/which distinction. The rule about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses is a piece of prescriptivism demonstrably at odds with the way people actually use those words, and I personally will deliberately stray from the rule for the sake of smoothness of the reading. (i.e., not creating a clunky string of serial uses of “that” or “which”)

Likewise “who” and “whom”. I know the difference perfectly well, thank you. But almost no one uses “whom” in casual speech, so in dialog my characters don’t, unless they’re the sort of personality who would be either that formal or that persnickety. Also, “they/their” for third person gender indeterminate is a very common usage dating back hundreds of years in English, and really doesn’t need to be corrected.

Oh, and comma splices, I loves me some comma splices when I’m writing fiction. So what? It’s my voice.

Fiction isn’t formally correct, and it shouldn’t be. It should reflect the author’s voice. I can write very formally when I need to. I do it all the time for business writing in the Day Jobbe (though that has its own usages and quirks). I also do some legal writing in the Day Jobbe (disclaimer: I am not an attorney and I do not practice law, I do, however, routinely draft certain contract provisions for our Legal department to review), as well as some technical writing that is distinct from my business writing. I even occasionally do marketing writing there, though less often than I used to. Each of those forms has their distinct speech register, expected norms of usage, and formalisms.

The really great thing about fiction is that you get to craft your own speech registers, your own norms of usage, and your own formalisms. While I definitely need to be internally consistent in style and usage within the text (though I can readily imagine exceptions even to that statement), I don’t need to be consistent to formal usage, so long as I remain clear and comprehensible.

So I’m always puzzled about why publishers instruct copy editors to round off all the interesting bits.

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