An American Editor

April 13, 2015

Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets — Part IV: Timeline

The Style Sheets — Part IV: Timeline

by Amy J. Schneider

In this final installment on the style sheets I keep while copyediting fiction, I discuss the timeline. Just as with character and location descriptions, the timeline must be kept consistent with the fictional world of the story, and sometimes also with actual events in the real world. I’ve found that authors often have difficulty maintaining a consistent timeline. Good thing I’ve got their back! Let’s look at one way to keep the timeline on track.

The Layout

I don’t often see timelines created by others, whether created by the copyeditor of a previous book in a series or provided by the author. When I do, it is often in a straight text format: paragraphs beginning with “Day One” or “Monday, September 3.” Occasionally it’s more of a plot outline, by chapter.

I’m more of a visual thinker when it comes to time and calendars, so I lay out my timeline as a Word table that’s set up like a monthly calendar. It has a header row with the days of the week, and the weeks extend for as long as the story lasts. This makes it much easier for me to spot when, for example, a school day falls on a weekend or we have only two weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Details to Track

So what kinds of details go on the timeline? Any references to time, whether specific or relative. Occasionally the author helps me out by including time indicators as heads in the text: “Friday night” or “March 26.” Great! On the timeline they go. Each item is preceded by the number of the chapter in which it falls (because in electronic editing, pagination may change depending on the user’s settings).

Occasionally the story may hinge on real historical events. Check those dates! Query if there are mentions of the day of the week that do not align with the actual dates. An online perpetual calendar such as the one at timeanddate.com can be helpful. Some calendars also include holidays. Some authors may not care whether their historical events, especially very old ones, align with the actual calendar for that date. But query any discrepancies anyway and let the author decide what to do.

Time references are often vague, and specific times or days of the week are not mentioned. In such cases, I simply note the reference and take my best guess as to where to place it in the table. “A few days later” might be two or three days. You can use other clues, such as whether it’s a weekday (judging by school days or business hours) or references to “later this week” and the like. Occasionally you may need to shift days around to better fit the calendar, and this can often help show you whether the timeline is accurate. If you have days that are not specific (for example, a day that is listed under Tuesday may not be specifically identified as Tuesday in the text), include a note to that effect at the top of the table. The phrasing I usually use is “Days of the week are indeterminate, except as noted.”

I haven’t yet run into a fictional setting where names of days or months are made up, or are divided differently than in the real world (for example, nine-day weeks and twenty-five-day months), but I did recently edit a novel that divided the day into an unusual number of hours in which each hour of the day had a name. Those divisions went on the general style sheet as well as on the timeline, where mentioned.

The following are some examples of specific things to track:

  • As mentioned earlier, any reference to time, whether fixed or relative: midmorning; three weeks later; Wednesday
  • References to weather, moon phases, sun position, seasons: the setting sun, a crescent moon, it rained all morning, a cool spring evening
  • School days, workdays, church services: Make sure the kids aren’t going to school on Sunday. This is where tracking relative mentions of time comes in. If a scene specifically takes place on a Thursday, and then three days later Joanie gets in trouble at school, that should raise a red flag. Similarly, I once queried whether New York City has a morning rush hour on Sundays. And if a person who works a nine-to-five job is in the office along with all of her coworkers on a Saturday afternoon, business as usual, that’s a good time to query as well.
  • Critical plot events: Tracking the day on which an important event happens will give you something to refer to later on: “Three weeks after the accident…”
  • Character ages, birthdays, and other life events: If Linda was 26 at the beginning of the story, in May, then she can’t be 29 the following spring.
  • Watch for “missing” holidays and big events (such as milestone birthdays), if their absence is remarkable. In a military thriller, a character may not be concerned about celebrating his 50th birthday, but in a homey country-themed romance novel, it would be unusual for the Christmas season to pass without comment.

Pay attention to logical inconsistencies relating to the passage of time. In a Civil War novel, I queried the author when a group of soldiers took more than a month to march 100 miles. That’s less than 3 miles a day, which seems unusually slow. In another story, a person left his room at eight p.m.; “the hours passed”; and then it was nine p.m. Either it’s later now, or less time than “hours” has passed. An event that was in the timeline three months ago would likely not be referred to as “the other day.”

I use a short horizontal line within days to indicate scene breaks. This helps if for some reason a scene needs to be moved or if there is a question about when exactly an event happened, if the description is vague.

Sometimes you may be able to fix timeline discrepancies by adjusting vague references (the author might have written “three weeks later” when it’s really two weeks, and making that change does not disrupt other elements) and writing a query to explain the reason for the change and ask the author if the edit is OK. Similarly, sometimes you can simply change “Thursday” to “Friday” and query. But you must be absolutely certain that you are not introducing another error. In other cases, the problem may be just too convoluted for a simple fix. In that case, write a query outlining the problem, make any suggestions that you can, and leave it to the author to fix (or not, if that is the author’s choice).

Nonlinear Time

Occasionally a story has characters moving in parallel timelines. Perhaps they have separated and are journeying in different directions (or are moving toward each other). Recently I edited a novel with parallel timelines (in alternating chapters): the odd-numbered chapters were about a person who was lost, and the even-numbered chapters were about the people who were looking for him. These can get tricky, but I simply do my best to align the days to keep events straight. In one novel, on the day when two timelines were supposed to join together again, they were actually several weeks apart. Query! Here, again, a note at the top of the timeline is needed to indicate that things may be fuzzy.

Similarly, some stories have flashbacks or otherwise jump around. Usually I separate these with a horizontal dividing line across the entire table and perhaps a line or two of explanatory text.

Conclusion

It may take some practice and experience to tune your ear to the sometimes vague and subtle references to time while copyediting a work of fiction. But your authors will thank you for it!

I hope you’ve gleaned some useful information from these articles over the past several months. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have. Beginning in May, Thinking Fiction is being taken over by Carolyn Haley; I’ve worked with Carolyn and I know the topic will be in good hands. Meanwhile, I plan to continue my own discussion of fiction copyediting in my own blog later this year. If you’d like to read more, follow me on social media and watch for upcoming announcements. Finally, I thank Rich Adin for getting me to dip my toe into the blogosphere.

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

Related An American Editor essays:

March 11, 2015

Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets — Part III: Locations

The Style Sheets — Part III: Locations

by Amy J. Schneider

In any novel or short story, the characters move around the world they inhabit: within buildings and throughout neighborhoods, cities, and even sometimes spiritual realms. Let’s talk about how to keep that motion logical. Many of the general concepts discussed last month in “The Style Sheets — Part II: Characters” apply here as well, so you may wish to review that article as we go along.

Here We Go Again: Details, Details, Details!

Last month I talked about the proclivity of copyeditors to keep alphabetical lists of characters, and how doing so isn’t really all that helpful for maintaining continuity. And so it is with geographical details. Rather than simply listing all places alphabetically, it’s much more useful to group places by their relation to each other: a house with all its descriptive interior and exterior details, shops that are near each other, streets and how they are connected, and so on.

One exception I do make to the no-alphabetizing rule is that after the edit is done, I often have a list of minor features such as streets, rivers, or businesses that do not have any extra information associated with them. These I will alphabetize by category—all the streets, all the rivers, and so on—just for ease of finding them.

Keeping It Real — Or Not

Many novels are set in real locations, and for the most part you’ll need to make sure that the details given reflect reality. Have you ever read a novel set in a location with which you are well familiar and scoffed when a street ran in the wrong direction, or a building was miles away from its real location? (One of my favorite examples from the world of television was from the 1970s sitcom Happy Days; in one episode some characters walked from Milwaukee to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in about an hour. Anyone who’s driven from the area where I grew up to Milwaukee knows that it is indeed about an hour from Fond du Lac to Milwaukee — in a car.) When specifics are given, check them out. Get out your atlas or pull up an online map.

However, bear in mind also that authors often introduce deliberate fictionalization, much in the same way that phone numbers in movies and on television are often of the “555” variety. So when you find such errors, bring them to the author’s attention, but query whether the error is deliberate.

For completely fictional locations, such as fictional towns or fantasy worlds, you may find it helpful to draw maps to help you (and the characters) keep your bearings.

Details to Track

With locations, as with characters, track anything that could be contradicted later. If a character’s bedroom window faces west, we don’t want her awakened in the morning by the blinding sun. Don’t let a solid wooden door turn into steel. And so on. Let’s look at what sorts of things you might want to put on your style sheet:

  • Cardinal directions and distances (the mountains are west of town; the comedy club is a few miles from Benny’s apartment; the fictional town of Midvale is a 3-hour drive from St. Louis; the laundromat is at the southwest corner of the intersection)
    • This point also relates to the timeline, discussed in next month’s article: if the characters take a day to travel from point A to point B, but a week to return, it’s time to query. Either there’s a problem with the number of days that have passed during that return trip, or there should be a good reason for the delay.
    • Also watch for the relationships between locations; if a hotel is just outside the city limits, how can the bar across the street be 5 miles out? This is where grouping by location can help you catch inconsistencies.
  • Names of regions, cities/towns, streets, geographical features, businesses, buildings; any proper nouns (including real names that might be spelled different ways: Walmart, 7-Eleven)
  • Descriptions of interiors
    • Décor, colors of walls/furniture/drapery, furniture type and placement; locations of rooms, windows, and doors; other details (the house has only one bathroom; Betty’s house has a business landline)
    • Right/left: rooms off hallways, doors, wings of mansions; turns taken while walking/driving to get from point A to point B (if specifics are given) (the main staircase turns to the right; Robert’s office is on the left side of the hallway off the living room)
    • Where the sun rises and sets (remember our early riser!)
    • Number of floors in buildings, locations of rooms (watch out for British usage here; in British usage, the ground floor is at street level and the first floor is the next one up, whereas in American usage we start with the first floor)
    • Remember that if an apartment is on the fourth (American!) floor, you will climb only three flights of stairs to get to it.
  • Descriptions of exteriors: landscaping, architecture (the cemetery is not fenced; Lydia’s house has a flagstone path from the small front porch to the sidewalk; neat flowerboxes at every window)
  • Business hours and regular events (the gas station is open every day; if the book club always meets at Beans & Books on Tuesdays, then what are they doing there on a Saturday?)

Again, as for character details, you can simply copy descriptions from the manuscript to your style sheet to save time, and edit as desired to save space. Note the chapter number where the description first occurs.

I Found a Contradiction; Now What?

Again, refer back to “The Style Sheets — Part 2: Characters” for guidance on resolving discrepancies. If there is a minor difference, it’s probably safe to change and query. But if the problem involves a factor that’s critical to the plot, bring it to the author’s attention and suggest solutions if you can.

Remember that when you are wearing your copyeditor hat, you are like the continuity director for a movie. If the locations are meant to represent real locations, it’s your job to make sure they are accurate. If they are fictional (or fictionalized), make sure they stay true to themselves within that fictional world. Next month, I’ll talk about keeping an accurate timeline to ensure that the story does not breach the space-time continuum (unless it’s supposed to!).

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

Related An American Editor essays:

February 16, 2015

Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets — Part II: Characters

The Style Sheets — Part II: Characters

by Amy J. Schneider

This month I continue my discussion of the style sheets I keep and the details that go into them. Let’s talk about tracking character attributes.

The Devil Is in the Details

When I receive a style sheet for a previous book by the same author, whether a standalone title or one in the same series, it usually includes a character list. And by “a character list,” I mean just that: a tidy alphabetical list of character names, often last name first, first name last. We copyeditors love to make alphabetical lists. But for ensuring continuity both in attributes of individual characters and in the relationships between them, such a list isn’t very useful.

For example, suppose that in Chapter 1, James is described as being a vegetarian, but in Chapter 18 he orders a Big Mac for lunch. Or suppose that Angela is an only child in Chapter 3, but in Chapter 6 she gets a call from her sister. I don’t know that my memory is good enough to recall a detail from so far back. And often such details are mentioned in the barest passing, and so they are easy to overlook. That’s what the style sheet is for. Any detail that could possibly be contradicted later on goes on the style sheet. Examples follow shortly.

In addition, I find it extremely helpful to group characters not alphabetically, but by their relationships to each other. Family members, coworker groups, the neighbors, the guys down at the pub, the bad guys: these are examples of how you might group characters. Sometimes you may not be sure where to put a character. That’s okay; just start them in their own group for now and later it may become clear. The advantage of grouping like this is that it helps you spot name changes (the bartender was Andy, but suddenly he’s become Randy), missing or extra people (there are supposed to be five Murphy brothers, but six are named), and so on.

Remember to track nonhuman characters too. I enclose animal names in quotes (“Max” — Susan’s cat; black fur, left front paw and tip of tail are white). Make note of unnamed animals too; make sure that the neighbors’ black lab doesn’t turn into a border collie. In fantasy and science fiction, you may encounter “characters” that are sentient objects such as weapons and other magical items (think of the elven blade “Sting” from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), as well as fictional deities, spirits, and so forth. On the style sheet they go.

Details to Track

So, what kinds of details should you track? As I stated earlier, anything that could possibly be contradicted later. (And as you come across such items, later, check against your previous entries on the style sheet to ensure that they are still accurate; if not, you know that you need to flag or query.) The following are only a few examples:

  • Physical descriptions: hair color/length/qualities, eye/skin color, facial descriptions (straight nose, thick eyebrows, high cheekbones), body build (muscle bound, lanky), blood type, clothing size, glasses, disabilities, vocal quality (pitch, accent)
  • Life status: age/birthday (age 27; her birthday was last May; the baby will be born next fall), relationships (her mother died of cancer when she was twelve; he has been divorced twice), employment, schooling, abilities (I once met a character who could speak a foreign language, but had mysteriously lost that ability later on), nicknames, habits (vegetarian, doesn’t drink), accents, pet phrases, personal history (inherited $6 million from his grandmother)
  • Right/left: scars, injuries, tattoos, and so on
  • Phone numbers, e-mail addresses, Twitter handles (query the author to ensure that these are not in use by real people)
  • “Negative” attributes: can’t swim, is afraid of dogs, has never seen the ocean
  • Relative descriptions: Rodrigo towers over Lancelot; Evan is two years older than Shane

Assuming you are editing in Word, it’s easy to copy relevant descriptive phrases out of the manuscript and plop them into the style sheet, for ease of searching later if you need to refer back to earlier text. I condense the copied text to save a little space by changing spelled-out numbers to digits and editing down to the essential key words (e.g., “her auburn hair cascaded down her back, and fluffy bangs accentuated her ocean-blue eyes” would become “auburn hair down her back, bangs, blue eyes”; “died six days before her eighty-fifth birthday” would become “died 6 days before her 85th birthday”). The idea is to take out information that’s non-essential to the style sheet (you might copy a full paragraph just to grab a few informational phrases). Another point to remember: in hard-copy days, we noted the page number for details, but with electronic editing, page layouts can shift, so use the chapter number instead. You can always use search to find the exact text you’re looking for.

I Found a Contradiction; Now What?

Oops. Nancy is blonde in Chapter 4 but brunette in Chapter 27. Michael’s eyes keep changing color from blue to green to blue again. Tonya’s parents died when she was a baby, but also threw her out of the house when she was sixteen. What to do?

Remember that it’s the author’s story, so if any major rewriting or plot adjustment is required, it’s up to the author to do so. However, you can certainly help by making suggestions.

  • If it’s a minor detail that’s not critical to the plot, and only a few instances are different (suppose Nancy’s hair is described as blonde twelve times and brown twice), it’s safe to simply change the brown hair back to blonde and write a query alerting the author to the change.
  • If Michael’s eyes are blue six times and green seven times, then you need to write a query that lets the author know about the discrepancy and ask the author to decide which way to go.
  • Let’s say that the fact that Tonya is an orphan is important to the plot, but so is the fact that she had to fend for herself at a young age. That’s not something that a copyeditor can fix. But you might suggest that the author have Tonya raised by an aunt and uncle, and they are the ones who threw her out.
  • You may find a character-related plot hole that has no obvious solution. The best you can do then is outline the problems and ask the author if he or she can see a way to solve them. After that, it’s in the author’s hands — and the author may decide to just live with it. (I’ve seen that happen.) But you’ve done your due diligence.

Because fiction is by nature made up, there’s no real-world reference for its internal factual information — so keeping a detailed style sheet with as much information as possible about the characters (and other elements) is enormously helpful for catching inconsistencies.  In the next article, I’ll talk about tracking information about locations and buildings, which involves much the same approach as I’ve discussed here.

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

Related An American Editor essays:

January 19, 2015

Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets — Part I: General Style

The Style Sheets — Part I: General Style

by Amy J. Schneider

So you’ve completed the first-pass read-through of the manuscript. Now you’re ready to get into the thick of things and do your main-pass edit. Let’s get to it!

Of course, as for a nonfiction copyedit, you will compile a style sheet. If a style sheet is available from a previous book by that author or a previous book in the series, use that as your starting point. (See my essay, “The First Pass — Just Read It!,” for more on reviewing previous style sheets.) I actually maintain four style sheets (general style, characters, places, and timeline) for each fiction edit for ease of navigation, although if you would like to combine the four sections I use into one document, go right ahead. Or you can keep them separate and combine them into one document when the edit is finished. Over the next four essays I will discuss the style sheets I keep in a little more detail.

General Style Sheet

In fiction as in nonfiction, we need to track the basics, such as treatment of numbers, abbreviations, punctuation, typography (use of italics and other font attributes), usage, and, of course a general word list. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of several standard style guides in book publishing, but the rules in fiction are looser than in nonfiction and thus Chicago — and any other style guide — should be considered more a guide than a collection of hard-and-fast rules. And, as I’ve mentioned earlier, there is much more leeway for style in fiction because the author is creating a mood and telling a story. (Imagine how flavorless The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be if it had been edited to be one hundred percent grammatically correct!)

Numbers

Most of the time in fiction, numbers will be spelled out, especially in dialogue, but as always there are exceptions. Phone numbers (particularly 911, the emergency number), years, decimals, vehicle designations (such as aircraft call signs), and weapon names (AK-47) and calibers are usually presented in digits. In general, use digits for numbers that would become unwieldy if spelled out. Common entries on my style sheet include heights (five-foot-one, six four), time (eight thirty, 6:27 a.m.), highway numbers (Route 28, the 101), decades (the seventies), clothing sizes (size eight) and room numbers (room 307). (The examples I’ve given here are just that — examples — rather than rules about how to style these. Again, each book might use a different style, with house style and author preference as factors.) I’ll delve into numbers in more detail in a future article.

Abbreviations

Abbreviations used in a novel might be those used in the real world (GPS, FYI) as well as invented ones from the fictional world in the novel (names of organizations, slang terms). I generally include them whether they have been spelled out or not, simply to clarify what they stand for. (Unlike nonfiction, there is no need to spell out every acronym for the edification of the reader. Context is key.)

Punctuation

Most authors will use the serial comma, but some prefer to omit it. Make a note! (And indicate that it’s the author’s preference. I use “(au pref)” after any such item. In my work, the publisher informs me of author preferences for certain terms or style choices, either in the cover note or on a previous style sheet.) The same is true for ellipses (some authors use the 3-dot ellipse only). I’ve had a few authors who said, “No semicolons.” This section is also where I note general forms of punctuation, so I can find them easily, instead of putting a specific term in the alphabetical word list. For example, I put “fifth-grader (n)” here instead of under F in the general word list because I want to show how I’m treating this word form instead this specific word. Other examples of things I track here include color terms (whether and when to hyphenate forms such as black-and-white, silver-gray, reddish orange, and sky blue), whether to set off words such as too, either, and anyway with commas (many authors have a preference), and possessives of names ending in –s. (I recently had an author who specified apostrophe-only for possessives of names ending in –s or –z. So I maintained that style for words such as Chris’ and Buzz’. It went against my grain, but it was the author’s stated preference, approved by the publisher. So on the style sheet it went, with the “(au pref)” tag.)

This is also a good place to note unusual punctuation used in dialogue: ’cause, ag’in, I’mma.

Typography

Direct thought, indirect thought, imagined dialogue, mouthed dialogue, remembered speech, telepathic dialogue, words as words or sounds, letters as letters or shapes or academic grades, signs, handwriting, text messages, e-mails, typed text, computer commands, foreign terms: these can be treated in many different ways. Italic? Small caps? Caps and small caps? A special character style in the client’s template? Roman, in quotation marks? All caps? Initial caps? Title case? Note it here.

A common consideration in fiction is how to treat terms of address and epithets. Generally, generic terms used to address someone that are not an established nickname for that person are lowercased: sweetheart, pumpkin, my dear, ma’am, jerkface. Occupational titles used in place of a name are often capped (but not always!): Doctor, Officer, Lieutenant. The same is true for temporary epithets: Mr. Wonderful, Crazy Homeless Guy.

Usage

Note any firm usage preferences here: whether to distinguish between that/which, further/farther, each other/one another, and the like. (These would usually apply mainly to omniscient narrative, as first-person narrative and dialogue are frequently left as is rather than conformed to “correct” usage, unless the character would be expected to use it.) An excellent usage reference is Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Miscellaneous

Ah, “Miscellaneous,” the junk drawer of the style sheet. In fiction I use this primarily for terms that don’t fit in other places: fictional and real items such as organization names, publications, historical events, special terms such as magical commands, and so on.

General Word List

The word list is pretty much the same as for nonfiction, with some additions. Here I note any British spellings and foreign terms, treatment of slang terms (dammit or damn it?) trademarks (real or fictional), sounds and interjections (uh-huh, uh-oh, for gosh sakes), and so on, as well as the usual sorts of terms one might include on a nonfiction word list. I also note any variants from dictionary spellings that the author may prefer (again, with the “(au pref)” label). In invented worlds, such as in fantasy novels, unconventional capping is much more prevalent: the Sight, She (referring to an exalted character), Before (referring to an earlier era). The word list is a good place to note terms such as these.

In Coming Essays…

In coming essays, I’ll delve into each of these areas in more detail. Hopefully, this article has given you a good overview. Next month: tracking character attributes.

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

Related An American Editor essays:

December 22, 2014

Thinking Fiction: Tech Talk — The Joy (and Efficiency) of Multiple Monitors

Tech Talk — The Joy (and Efficiency)
of Multiple Monitors

by Amy J. Schneider

I’d like to digress from the topic of copyediting fiction and expand on something I mentioned briefly last month: multiple monitors and why you should consider adding them to your desktop. This discussion focuses on a PC running Windows 7, because, well, that’s what I have!

A few months ago, my 24-inch Flatron LCD monitor suddenly went dead. Black. Gone. I had a full docket of work, but no matter; I still had three other screens to work with. This is one of the joys of having multiple monitors.

I’ve always been like a gas: I expand to occupy all available space. When I started freelancing (working on hard copy), my husband built me a marvelous U-shaped desk system, including a rolling cart for my books and a slanted rack for reference documents, for maximum desktop real estate. But when my workload shifted toward onscreen editing, I began to feel cramped now that the monitor rather than the physical desk was my workspace. And I began to lust after multiple monitors.

Hardware Considerations

I lived with a single monitor for years. My last CRT was a monster 21-inch refurb that weighed a ton. My husband had to build a special stand so my desk would support it. Today’s thin, lightweight LCDs are a welcome change. And as the prices drop, it’s easy to afford more than one. My first LCD, a 19-inch ViewSonic, cost nearly $900! But the 27-inch Acer I bought to replace the dead monitor a few months ago was $199 on sale.

But I digress in my digression. When it was time for a new computer in 2006, I had my trusty local computer whiz build me a tower with two dual video cards, so I could add monitors as the budget and desk space allowed. (As I mentioned last month, I named the new computer HARV, after the Harvard Mark I and also as a nod to my computer guy, whose name is Mark.)

At first I had just one widescreen monitor while I acquainted myself with HARV. With one monitor, I typically had my manuscript and style sheet open side by side, with browser and e-mail hidden underneath. If I wanted to look something up online or send an e-mail, I’d have to switch to Firefox or Thunderbird and temporarily say good-bye to my Word windows. If I needed to copy something from one window to another, that was more window-flipping. Then came the second widescreen. Huzzah! Now I could view three or four docs at once, without having to switch constantly between them. But a full page was still too small to work with on a widescreen monitor. When onscreen proofreading work started to arrive, I added a third monitor and rotated it to portrait mode so I could view a full page, nice and big. Soon after that, I added the fourth and final monitor, also in portrait mode. Now I can view manuscript and proofs side by side. Luxury!

The Setup

Below is a photo of HARV as he appears today. The leftmost monitor, the 27-inch Acer, is my primary monitor. When you set up multiple monitors, Windows will ask you to designate a primary. This is where your Windows taskbar goes, and it’s also where your computer boots before activating the other monitors.

AJS all 4 monitors

In the middle are monitors 2 and 3, both 24-inch LGs rotated into portrait mode. You’ll need to buy a rotating monitor to use portrait mode, of course; Windows enables you to designate a monitor as portrait, which rotates the display 90 degrees.

Finally, at far right is the 24-inch Dell. I have dedicated this screen to the Internet: Firefox, Thunderbird, Hootsuite, et cetera. Having it at far right makes it easy to ignore while I’m working, yet I can easily hop over to answer client e-mail or research something.

There’s one bit of third-party software I couldn’t live without: DisplayFusion Pro by Binary Fortress. They offer a free version, but the functions I use most are in the Pro version, so I found it worthwhile to buy. I have a taskbar on each monitor, so the taskbar button for each open window can appear on its corresponding monitor instead of having them all piled up on the primary. For me, this alone is worth the price of admission. You can also set up hotkeys for moving windows from screen to screen, maximizing/minimizing, and other window actions, as well as for performing a host of other functions. (Usual disclaimer applies: I gain nothing from mentioning this software other than a warm feeling; I’m just a satisfied customer.)

Other Arrangements

Some people use a laptop with a second, external display, or a laptop as an auxiliary to a desktop, or a tablet as an auxiliary to a laptop or desktop. These are other useful ways to maximize your screen real estate. Last December when HARV’s motherboard died (eep!), I survived on my laptop and an external monitor while HARV was in the shop. But I felt cramped with “only” two screens, and one of them a laptop at that.

The thing I like about having four monitors for one computer is the ability to easily copy and paste text and to rearrange screens to my heart’s content. That’s a little harder to do when your screens are on different machines. And occasionally when I’ve had my laptop running off to the side, I’ve been frustrated by not being able to move my mouse pointer from HARV’s screens to the laptop…until the neurons finally kick in.

How Do I Use All That Space?

In “The Commandments: Thou Shall Be Efficient”, Rich Adin reports, “Using two monitors increases efficiency by 50%; add a third and gain another 25%; add a fourth and gain another 5%.” So the fourth monitor doesn’t gain me much percentage-wise, but it sure is nice to spread out! It’s very handy to be able to see several documents at once, at a readable size, especially when copying and pasting between them.

When I’m copyediting fiction, I keep three documents on the leftmost widescreen monitor (see photo below): the manuscript at left, and my characters and places style sheets atop one another at right. The new big Acer gives me plenty of room to have the Document Map and the styles pane open in the manuscript and still have the style sheets at a readable size. Most of the time when I’m working with the characters and places style sheets, I simply run a quick Find to get to the section I need to see. Having both manuscript and three of my four style sheets visible makes it easy to compare manuscript against the style sheet to check a style point, or to copy text from one to the other.

AJS monitor 1

On the leftmost portrait monitor (see photo below) I keep my general style sheet, because it’s nice to have as much of it visible as possible.

AJS monitor 2

The rightmost portrait monitor (see photo below) holds my timeline, which is a Word table that simulates a monthly calendar page. It can get long for novels that have a long time frame (especially historical novels that stretch over years or decades).

AJS monitor 3

Finally, as mentioned earlier, the rightmost widescreen monitor is reserved for the Internet, so I can easily pop over and check a URL or look something up while keeping my work documents visible.

Occasionally I have other documents such as a PDF of a previous book in the series. Usually those go on one of the portrait monitors. (Frankly, if I could have a single portrait monitor for each document, I would.) In my nonfiction work, the portrait monitors are also handy for viewing long tables or design samples and for quickly scrolling through a document a screen at a time, especially if you can zoom it down a little while you do so.

Navigation

As you might imagine, it’s easy to get “lost” among so many monitors and windows. But there are a few tools that can help.

The mouse pointer can be hard to locate across several monitors no matter how much you wiggle it around. Fortunately, Windows has a solution. In Control Panel under the Mouse Properties dialog, go to the Pointer Options tab and check the box for “Show location of pointer when I press the CTRL key.” Now, when you press Ctrl, an animated “target” of concentric circles will zoom in on your pointer. Very handy!

To move among the manuscript and style sheets efficiently, I use a numbered naming scheme along with the Word shortcut for navigating windows: Alt+W, W, [number]. The general style sheet’s file name begins with the number 1; characters, 2; places, 3; and timeline, 4. This forces the files to always appear in the same order in the Switch Windows menu, and also forces the manuscript to appear as number 5. The keyboard shortcut quickly becomes second nature for switching focus without mousing.

I’ve read that it takes about two minutes after acquiring a second monitor to wonder why you didn’t get one sooner. I have certainly found that to be true! And If you decide to explore the world of multiple monitors, I hope you, too, find it to be true.

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

November 10, 2014

Thinking Fiction: The First Pass — Just Read It!

The First Pass — Just Read It!

by Amy J. Schneider

After I write this blog post, the next item on my agenda is (surprise!) copyediting a novel (a cozy mystery, if you’re curious). And the first step is one of my favorite parts of fiction editing: simply reading the manuscript. And why wouldn’t it be my favorite? It’s the pleasure reader’s dream: getting paid to read a novel. You might envision being snuggled up on the couch with your laptop and a pillow and blankie, a snoozy dog (or cat, if you swing that way) at your feet, a bowl of bonbons at hand. But the truth is…well, actually that is pretty much how I do the first read. But, as always, other tasks are involved. Let’s take a look.

Receiving the Manuscript

I edit fiction for major New York publishing houses, so of course they have the process well in hand. When a manuscript comes to me, it has already been accepted for publication and undergone substantive and/or line editing, and the publisher has applied its template and the associated styles for front and back matter, chapter openers, space breaks, letters, place and date markers, and so on. So even the unedited manuscript is pretty clean (with some variation, of course). One client helpfully includes a form with information and instructions for the copyeditor, listing items such as genre, setting, audience, and publication date; the level of editing the project editor believes it needs and what levels of changes require a query (generally, lighter edits such as transposing words can be made without a query, whereas queries are requested for heavier edits such as minor rewriting); specific instructions about how to handle things such as punctuation, spelling, grammar, capitalization, and any unusual choices the author has deliberately made; how receptive the author is to queries (this is helpful for knowing when to put on an extra pair of kid gloves); and any other notes. If a previous style sheet for the same author or the preceding book in the series is available, I receive that as well. (Quite often it is a PDF of my own style sheet with handwritten annotations that the publisher added after the previous edit: additional words, corrections/changes, and so on. Fortunately I always save my style sheets from previous projects, which is especially handy for maintaining consistency across a series or preserving an author’s preferences across unrelated novels. I just pick up the old Word files and use them as a starting point for the new book.)

But at this point, these associated documents are for review only. I look over the copyeditor instructions and mentally note anything that stands out, as well as anything that’s business as usual. (If you are editing for an individual author, you will want to discuss these points with the author ahead of time and agree on the details.) I review the previous style sheet, if one is supplied, and note anything that I may want to begin addressing during the first pass. For example, does the style of the book call for the serial comma? Most do, but some authors prefer to omit it. I’m a fan of the serial comma myself, and it’s very nearly a knee-jerk action for me to apply it. So for books that do not use the serial comma, I run a quick search and replace to flag all occurrences of “, and” and “, or” so I don’t accidentally leave in a serial comma or neglect to take an errant one out. The previous style sheet will also alert me to any other deliberate or unusual style choices as I do the first pass.

Finally, I apply my version of the publisher’s template, which changes the text to a font that is comfortable for screen reading (my preference is 14-pt. Verdana) and gives me access to my other working macros, and we’re off!

Time to Read!

Blankie, check. Doggie (or kitty), check. Bonbons, check. It’s time to get started.

As I mentioned earlier, this is when you simply read the story to familiarize yourself with the author’s style, the characters, the setting, the plot, and so on. No style sheets are required at this point, except perhaps for quick reference. Don’t get bogged down in making and noting style decisions while you are acquainting yourself with the story. In fact, this pass is the only time (except when I’m traveling) that I use my laptop for paid work, because I can do it on one screen, whereas I do the rest of my work on my mighty desktop, HARV (named for the Harvard Mark I; see “IBM’s ASCC Introduction (a.k.a. the Harvard Mark I)”), and its four screens. (I’d like to point out that this is one more monitor than Rich Adin has, heh heh.) I find the multiple monitors especially useful for fiction, because I keep five documents (plus browser and e-mail) open as I edit: the manuscript plus my four style sheets for characters, places, timeline, and general style. (See Rich’s discussion of the increased efficiency of multiple monitors at “The Commandments: Thou Shall Be Efficient”.)

So, no style sheets, just you and the manuscript. Ready, set, read! Enjoy the story. Make mental notes, but do not make style decisions or write queries at this point. You’ll probably notice things that you want to check in more depth later: wasn’t this character’s name different before? Note to self: pay attention to Melvin/Marvin on second pass. (Flag it with a note to yourself, if you like.) And you may also find that your questions are answered later as you read on. Get an idea of the level of detail, so you know how much to note on the style sheets. I’ve edited books where very little description of characters, objects, places, and time was given; it was all plot, and thus the style sheets were very simple. In other books, the level of character description is enough for a police sketch artist to do a pretty good job, and we learn addresses, brand names, car models, exact times of day, and myriad other details. For these books the style sheets will be more complicated to compile.

But you will also start cleaning things up so you can concentrate on the big stuff during the second pass. Go ahead and fix (using Track Changes) things that are outright errors: wrong word choice (e.g., hoard for horde), punctuation errors (e.g., deleting a hyphen after an adverb ending in -ly: newly returned king), and so on. At this point I don’t correct anything that might need a query, even an “AU: OK?” because I don’t want to derail myself. If anything, I flag it and move on. At this stage, I also correct silently (untracked) typographic glitches that the author does not need to approve, such as deleting extraneous spaces, moving commas and periods inside quotation marks (for American punctuation style) and converting multiple hyphens to en dashes.

You probably won’t catch all of the glitches on the first pass, and that’s OK. It’s not meant to be a heavy edit pass. This is one case where you’re actually doing what many laypeople think we editors do: reading the latest potboiler and fixing typos. You and I both know that the heavy lifting comes later. But that’s a topic for upcoming posts.

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

October 6, 2014

Thinking Fiction: The Mind-set of the Fiction Copyeditor

The Mind-set of the Fiction Copyeditor

by Amy J. Schneider

Before we delve into the details of copyediting fiction, I’d like to talk a bit about the general approach and mind-set that a copyeditor needs to develop when editing novels, short stories, and the like. Although some elements of the nonfiction editor’s approach remain, some adjustments are required.

I’ll start with an anecdote. When I was a greenhorn freelancer in 1995, I pretty much fell into copyediting textbooks, and that soon became my comfort zone. But during that first year, on a lark, I also took a fiction copyediting test (on hard copy!) as part of my application to work for a major New York City publishing house. Sometime later I heard back from the managing editor, who told me that she would like to start sending me novels to copyedit. And (don’t ask me why) I actually argued with her! I told her I didn’t know anything about fiction writing, I had never written anything “creative,” and how could I possibly be qualified to edit someone else’s creation? Bless her, she argued back. She told me that I was exactly what they were looking for — someone who wasn’t a writer and wouldn’t be tempted to put his or her imprint on the author’s work. So I agreed to try. And I’ve been working for her and her colleagues at that same publisher ever since.

So with that story in mind, let’s take a look at the fiction copyeditor’s mental toolbox.

  • Tact. Put yourself in the author’s shoes. You’ve opened a vein and labored over your story to get it just right. You’ve presented it to your writer’s group and gotten feedback, and you revised it some more. After that, your agent and the publisher suggested further revisions. Now it’s perfect, right? Time for copyediting. And you just about feel like you’ve been revised to death. Many authors are extremely sensitive to editing at this point, if they weren’t already. So it’s important that you consider your edits and suggestions carefully. Take care that you are making or suggesting a change for a very good reason, and not just for the sake of change or to impose “correctness” where it is not required; in other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, cast your queries and comments gently and objectively. Nothing is “wrong”; it is “unclear” or it “doesn’t seem to make sense because [give the reason]” or it “may contradict” something elsewhere in the story. Bring possible problems to the author’s attention, explain why they could create problems for the reader, suggest possible fixes if you can, and let the author decide what to do.
  • Respect. Remember that you are not the author, nor are you a ghostwriter. Your job is to help the author tell his or her story, not yours. I remain in awe of the process of story crafting; it seems like sorcery to me. And that is true for a first-time author or an established New York Times best-selling author. It seems to me that a work of fiction must be so much more personal than, say, a textbook. It takes incredible courage to put one’s creation out for the whole world to see. The story, location, or characters may be taken from the writer’s own life. The theme may be close to the writer’s heart. The writer may be taking a plunge, following a dream. If I can find the author’s website, blog, or Facebook page, I look it over. I look at what other books the author has written. Most important, if I can find a photo of the author, I keep it handy so that I remember the person behind the words.
  • Flexibility. Most book publishers follow Chicago style — but because Chicago is intended mainly for use with nonfiction, in fiction editing it’s more of a guideline (being, after all, a style guide; see, for example, Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance). Publisher’s house style may overrule Chicago, and so may the author’s chosen style. House style may specify the first spelling in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, unless the author’s preferred choice is the alternative spelling. The publisher or author may specify correct grammar, spelling, and usage in third-person narrative, but more leeway in dialogue or first-person narrative. (Garner’s Modern American Usage is an excellent tool for understanding variances in usage.) Most difficult of all for the copyeditor with prescriptivist tendencies is knowing when to leave something that is “incorrect” alone. Balancing all of these options can be a tricky business.
  • An open mind. You may be asked to copyedit manuscripts in a variety of genres — some of which may not be part of your personal pleasure reading. No matter; during the time you spend copyediting each book, you must embrace the idiosyncrasies of that genre and the world of those characters, whether you personally like them or not. Of course, if you get to copyedit an author you adore, great! But that’s not always the case. Periodically my clients send me military thrillers — which are definitely not my cup of tea! But while I’m copyediting that thriller, I immerse myself in the terminology of weapons, aircraft, land vehicles, and military rank and protocol. I make sure all the f-words muttered by bad guys and good guys alike are treated consistently. When foreign characters speak broken English, I make sure it stays broken, and in some cases I’ve broken it for them (with a query). Keep a variety of capes in your editorial closet. And speaking of capes…
  • Spidey-sense. Unlike nonfiction, the “facts” of a fiction work are usually not presented in a linear, logical order. There is no table of contents and no index. Story elements are described throughout; a character’s eye color may be mentioned in chapters 3, 4, 7, 13, 18, and 25. And as mentioned earlier, the story has likely been through many revisions, during which inconsistencies may not have been caught, or perhaps have even been introduced. The author may not have a clear grasp of how a certain process works in the real world, or simply may have been caught up enough in telling the story not to have paid attention to such details. A wise copyeditor questions everything. Was this character present in the scene from four chapters ago that she is now remembering? Can you drive from City A to City B in six hours? To steal an example from film, the director of Driving Miss Daisy did research to determine whether a proper Southern lady would eat fried chicken with her fingers. (The answer was yes.) When in doubt, check it out. Keep meticulous notes (which I’ll cover in future essays). Take nothing for granted.

I like to think of the job of copyediting fiction as sanding off the rough edges. The author has done the design and construction; I’m just smoothing and polishing, maybe pounding in a nail that sticks out here or there, maybe applying a little putty where something had to be taken apart and redone. If I’ve done my job correctly, my work is invisible — but it shows off the author’s work to its best advantage.

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

September 8, 2014

Thinking Fiction: An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting

Today’s essay introduces Amy Schneider and a new monthly series, “Thinking Fiction,” to An American Editor. Amy’s focus will be on fiction editing and writing. Please welcome Amy as a new columnist for An American Editor.

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An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting

by Amy J. Schneider

When I mention that I spend a fair amount of my professional life copyediting fiction, colleagues (especially those who have edited only nonfiction) and laypeople alike are fascinated. Wow, so you earn your living by reading romances and thrillers? Neat! Well, as with all editing there’s a bit more to it than just reading. Nonfiction editors recognize this, but they worry about getting so caught up in the story that they forget to edit judiciously. Or they worry about sullying the author’s creative work. In my contributions to An American Editor, I hope to address some of these issues and share my approach to copyediting fiction.

What Fiction Copyediting Is Not

  • If you are an aspiring or actual novelist, this is not the time or place to try to take over the telling of the story or critique the work. Your job is mechanical only. You may certainly set your writer’s or critic’s hat off to the side and glance at it from time to time as you copyedit, but do not even think about putting it on. A common saying among editors is “It’s not my book,” and this certainly applies when we are copyediting fiction.
  • This is also not the place to apply your own moral code. Unlike in most nonfiction, you may encounter naughty words, unpleasant people and actions, blasphemy, and (gasp!) sex scenes. Your job is to copyedit the narrative and dialogue in all its unsavory glory. You may certainly choose not to accept projects in genres such as erotica or violent military or paranormal thrillers — but once you do, you’re duty bound to edit the text respectfully and keep it true to itself. (Is that term for a sexual act one word or two? Decide and put it on the style sheet. Not every style sheet is one that you would show to your mother.)
  • In fiction, grammar, punctuation, syntax, style, and the like are much more fluid. Fiction authors often use words to paint a picture, create a mood, wax poetic. Characters may or may not speak grammatical English, whether in dialogue or in first-person narrative. If you are a stickler for language perfection, you must retrain your brain a bit when copyediting fiction. Mind, it’s not a free-for-all, and when copyediting for a publisher you need to balance house style against the author’s voice, but you must also be aware of when it’s okay (or even necessary) to break the rules.

Making the Transition from Nonfiction Copyediting

When I started freelancing, my bread and butter was copyediting college textbooks. Very formulaic, strong adherence to rules. So when I started editing fiction, like my nonfiction editor colleagues mentioned earlier, I worried about interfering with the story or offending the author. But really, copyediting fiction is just wearing a different hat. Instead of keeping the text 100 percent in line with the real world, it is your job to ensure that the story is internally consistent within its own world, whether real or fictional. This means checking both real-world facts (are there mountains in Wisconsin?) and fictional ones (which colors of magic stones are sentient and which are not?); errors in either case may interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the story (keeping in mind that authors sometimes deliberately fictionalize locations and other facts for various reasons). If the book is part of a series, ideally the same copyeditor will have handled the series from book one onward to ensure continuity across the entire story arc (I’ll talk about series copyediting in a future essay). Here are some of the things you’ll handle as you copyedit:

  • General style sheet: Every book needs one, and fiction is no exception. You need to track treatment of numbers (e.g., they are usually spelled out in dialogue, but not always). You need to keep a list of abbreviations for both real and fictional entities. How is dialogue punctuated? How are we treating internal thought, telepathic dialogue, remembered speech, handwriting, text messages, and so on? These need to be noted on the general style sheet. Which terms of address are capped (Officer, Detective) and which are not (ma’am, sweetheart)? The author may choose one style or another. Or the publisher may request that the author’s style be changed. Because these choices are so fluid in fiction, you need to note them for each book.
  • Characters: Some authors keep rigorous track of their characters’ attributes — but many do not. Or they make changes but don’t catch every instance. Marcel becomes Malcolm. Julie’s eyes change color from blue to green. Greg is left-handed but wears a golf glove on his left hand (oops — most golfers wear the glove on their nondominant hand). Lee is single and an only child — so how is it that she has a niece? Back when you edited book one in the series, you noted that Claude could read ancient Greek, but now in book three he has mysteriously lost that ability. Time to query!.
  • Locations: Again, you’ll track both real and fictional locations. Cathy’s bedroom is on the second floor, and the walls are painted blue. Sticksville is 25 miles from Cityscape. The tree on the west side of the park is a magnificent oak. And so on. So when Cathy walks in the front door of her bungalow and down the hall to her green bedroom, it’s time to query.
  • Timeline and plot: The level of detail here will vary. Some authors use only vague time markers (a few days later; by spring), if any. Others are more specific, mentioning dates, days of the week, and times of day. You need to note all references to time, whether vague or not: Carlos’s birthday is next month. The Friday night knitting club meets tomorrow (in which case today had better be Thursday). The last mention of time today was nine a.m.; has the action moved along sufficiently that it can now be midnight? I use a Word table that looks like a monthly calendar page to track time-related facts, because that’s how my brain works; it also helps me follow timelines that range over weeks or years, to make sure that six weeks isn’t really three or that it’s not snowing in Minnesota in what should be July.
  • Kid gloves: The most important part of your fiction copyeditor’s uniform is your kid gloves. As I alluded to earlier, a work of fiction is the author’s creative work — the author’s baby. Often there is no clear “right” or “wrong.” Query carefully and tactfully. If wording seems awkward enough to pull the reader out of the story, suggest a revision and explain the reason, rather than making the change outright. (Remember that it’s not your book.) I use the word perhaps a lot when querying: “Perhaps substitute [word or phrase] here, [give reason]?” Couch your queries in terms of what’s best for the story or for the reader’s enjoyment.

In future essays, I’ll discuss these and other topics in more depth. I look forward to engaging with you and getting down to the nuts and bolts of editing fiction.

(For another perspective on fiction editing, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction — AAE)

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

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