An American Editor

May 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients

Carolyn Haley

If you edit enough novels by independent authors, you’ll notice patterns in author types and ambitions. By this I mean broad patterns — which always contain exceptions — that can help guide editors in determining how to guide individual authors on their publishing journeys.

The three broad types of indie authors are those who (1) write to market (in my shorthand, the pragmatists); (2) write to express themselves then figure out how to find their audience (the dreamers); and (3) write for either/both reasons and believe that everyone is their audience (the in-betweeners).

In this context, writing styles and genres are irrelevant. It’s all about expectations and approach. Every indie editing job has its unique parameters and focal points, driven by author desire, budget, and publishing goal. How these weave together is where the distinctions come into play.

(1) The pragmatists

Authors who write to market tend to do their homework before presenting their books for editing. They have clear story ideas (usually lots of), intend to make money, and have invested time in researching the rules of the game. The economically efficient ones go for cheaper services than I can offer, unless they have well-lined pockets, although it happens occasionally that they regret their first choice(s) of editor and come to me for re-editing, either before publication or in reaction to embarrassing feedback from readers after they’ve released their books independently.

In the main, this group wants copyediting or proofreading. They are confident about their writing technique and storytelling, and often have worked with beta readers to iron out the wrinkles in their content. Then they just want somebody editorially competent to do the nitpicky housekeeping.

Almost always, these authors self-publish. Many of them are DIYers who have already formatted and illustrated their manuscripts when they submit them for editing. They know exactly which publishing service they will use to release the book, and how to promote their work.

Rarely do these authors care about the minutiae of punctuation and style. That’s the editor’s job, in their minds, and all they want is to have their text made clean and consistent. From the editor’s viewpoint, these are easy jobs, and what matters is to have straightforward conversations with the author to understand their particulars, then gallop on through the project.

(2) The dreamers

This group of authors is inclined in the opposite direction. They’ve had a story burbling inside them for years, and finally their life situation has given them a chance to pour it out. Many have retired from an unrelated career and are indulging at last in their dreams.

Unlike the pragmatists who write to market, the dreamers are usually under-informed about the realities of publishing, either traditional or independent. And they’ve done little or no study about composition, grammar, narrative structure, etc., since their school days.

They seek an editor who will be their partner and guide them through the wilderness. They lean hard on the editor’s knowledge and expertise. Viewed cynically, they can be considered artistes or hobbyists, and it’s sometimes painful to work with them, knowing their passionate effort has little chance of acceptance or sales in the real world. At the same time, they can be the most satisfying to work with, because of their enthusiasm, openness, unfettered creativity, and sometimes astonishing growth.

For these authors, editors need to provide a lot of information, starting with careful definition of services and costs for each level of service. Scope of work may include education in storycraft and the publishing process, including advice about composing query letters, synopses, and jacket blurbs and taglines. Often, these authors’ dream is for traditional publishing success, which may or may not be appropriate for their work. It helps a lot if the editor has publishing experience in addition to language and writing skills.

Emotionally, this group of authors is “needy” in comparison to the pragmatists, so editors should be conscious of their own willingness to be drawn into ego support and where to draw the line. In contrast to the pragmatists “driving the bus,” the dreamers need to be chauffeured, or at least given an explicit road map.

(3) The in-betweeners

The third group, not surprisingly, is an assortment falling between the two extremes. They throw in the most variables for the editor to manage. The main challenge with such authors is defining what they’ve written and toward whom to target it, because they frequently believe that publishing is a single-step process that leads to anyone and everyone having access to their novel and wanting to read it.

For these folks, editors need to take extra time up front to figure out what the author specifically wants and/or needs. Pitching services to them might run the gamut from manuscript evaluation to a deep developmental edit, with copyediting or line editing as options. Like the dreamers, the in-betweeners usually require dialogue and sample edits to pave the way for a successful arrangement. They understand some of the logistics and value-added aspects of editing, but might have to be educated or convinced.

(4) Others

There’s a fourth group of authors that indie editors are wise to steer clear of, although editors don’t have to work hard to avoid this group because its members don’t really want to be edited — although they often have strong opinions about it.

Such authors fall into two camps. One disdains editors completely, while the other thinks editors overcharge. It’s rare to receive inquiries from either faction, but occasionally an author who recognizes that editing helps goes searching for someone to provide that help — at the cheapest possible price. An editor’s best practice when that happens is to steer them to one of the low-dollar bidding sites and wish them well.

Patterns and particulars

In simplistic terms, indie authors cluster into black, white, and gray areas, each seeking different levels of editorial involvement. Understanding these clusters helps editors form a strategy for approaching and accommodating their differences.

In all cases, frank and polite communication before committing to the job is imperative. So is a contract that spells out scope of work, and payment and delivery terms. The goal — always — is to avoid either or both parties receiving something different from what they expect and desire. Considering authors in broad types can also help editors evaluate their personal limits and design their service offerings for maximum mutual benefit.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences

November 27, 2020

Thinking Fiction — The Indie Editor/Author Equation, Part 1

Carolyn Haley

In the business combination of independent editor and independent author, especially in the realm of fiction, both parties quickly learn that there are no rules to the game.

Yes, there are best practices we should all consider; and yes, editors and authors must adhere to the legalities and tax responsibilities required by their locations; and yes, there are generally accepted ethical guidelines in conducting financial transactions for services.

Aside from those, indie fiction writing-editing-publishing is the new Wild West!

That’s because anyone can open shop as an editor, just as anyone can write a novel. There are no educational or technical qualifications to be either; no licensure mandated, no expertise needed beyond functional literacy. No official entity is watching or managing; no sanctioned organization or employer is mentoring, evaluating, or penalizing. Individual editors and authors must decide on their own how to operate together, and make personal judgments on what constitutes “good enough.”

This combination almost guarantees messy relationships and novels. The negative results are well-represented in the marketplace, and well-covered in other articles and blogs. This essay focuses on how to avoid those messes and succeed as an indie editor working with indie novelists.

First steps — understanding each other

It starts with understanding what “indie” means. On the surface, “indie” is merely shorthand for “independent.”

For editors, that means “self-employed” (aka “freelance”) versus being on the payroll of a publishing house.

For authors, it means essentially the same thing — they are not writing on behalf of a company, only for themselves. They might plan to self-publish their novel from the start or decide to do so after failing to interest traditional publishers in their work, or they might seek to publish traditionally and persevere toward that end. Any of these authors might seek indie editors to help them advance toward their goals. That’s why we can’t consider “indie publishing” to be synonymous with “self-publishing.”

Options and efforts

It frequently falls on indie editors to help indie authors distinguish between their options and guide their efforts. The main distinction between traditional and indie publishing is in which direction the money goes, combined with author involvement and control.

In the traditional publishing model, the author never parts with a dime. The publishing house bears all of the editing, proofing, production, marketing/promotion, and distribution costs, and eventually the author gets royalties on sales (after earning out any advance), at a modest percentage.

Actually, it isn’t quite true that no money ever comes out of the author’s pocket in traditional publishing (trad-pub). To gain access to the best houses, and often any house at all, novelists need to sign with an agent. Agents offer many valuable benefits to an author, but in exchange they take a commission of 10–20% of the author’s earnings. That indirect tap is often overlooked in the trad-pub vs. indie-pub decision.

Because trad-pub has become extremely competitive, with more authors struggling for fewer slots, many authors hire indie editors before submitting their work to agents and acquisition editors to help get their novels onto the playing field. They also might purchase help to navigate the bewildering maze of queries and synopses. Sometimes that pre-submission investment pays off — big time! — but most authors never recover their investments.

When their novels do get picked up by a trad-pub house, they’ll likely have to pay for their own marketing and promotion to keep their books available over the long term. Although this happens a lot with small publishing houses, it’s becoming increasingly true with big houses, too, so the original economic advantage of traditional publishing is slowly being eroded by changing market forces and consumer practices.

On the control and involvement side: In traditional publishing, authors (or their agents) must negotiate what rights are granted to the publisher for what terms. Assuming they reach a satisfactory contract, the book goes into production and out of the author’s control. They might have some say in the cover design or marketing campaign, and/or acceptance/rejection input over editorial changes, but in many publishing deals, authors are left out altogether between signing the contract and seeing the finished book.

Indie publishing is the reverse. The author pays for everything up front, but gets the full return of any income after expenses, and retains full control of rights, and full or semi-control during production.

For example, if the author is publishing through an author-services company, such as BookBaby, then that entity might perform tasks the author isn’t involved in (e.g., editing, design, production) as part of a purchased package. But most times, authors get authorization control.

Danger comes if an unsavvy author hooks up with an unscrupulous company, which might confuse authors into signing away rights out of ignorance and deliver a sloppy, unprofessional product as well.

Authors who pursue true self-publishing are their own business: a micro-size company with full decision-making authority and retention of all rights. These author-publishers are wholly responsible for hiring editors, proofreaders, cover and interior designers, typesetters and formatters, audiobook narrators and producers, publicists, promoters, schedulers, accountant, attorney. Not to mention ensuring that all tasks are performed, and managing the outgo and income of the enterprise.

Real costs

Many new authors have no idea how much money publishing requires (thousands!), because for generations, those costs were buried in publishing house salaries and administration overhead — information not publicly available. When indie authors move outside that model to get indie help, they are often rocked back on their heels by “sticker shock.” This is a regular problem for indie editors seeking clients, because appalled authors who haven’t done their homework aren’t prepared to pay professional rates.

Originally, all book editors worked in-house for publishing houses. Over decades of economic, cultural, and media changes, editorial staff began getting pushed off payrolls and forced to go freelance or change occupation. Meanwhile, computers and the Internet made it easier to work remotely, drawing more editors into the field from myriad directions.

This change was accelerated by the entry of Amazon into the arena along with other author-service providers and aggregators/distributors, which transformed indie publishing from a pure vanity exercise to an intentional option for authors. In turn, it has increased demand for editorial support outside traditional publishing houses.

Today’s indie editors are predominantly sole-proprietor businesses who might contract with a publishing house, or an author-services provider, or directly with an individual author — maybe all of the above — to perform specific editorial services at self-established rates.

Editing roles

When working for a traditional publisher or author-services provider, indie editors deal with an intermediary, who might be called any combination of production or project manager/editor/coordinator. The indie editor has no contact with an author beyond the back-and-forth of files (sometimes not even that — indie editor provides edited files to the coordinator and never sees or hears about them again). The institution pays the editor, under terms that may or may not be negotiable. Editors must adhere to house rules of process and style (sometimes flexible; most times not), and usually wait weeks or months for their paychecks.

In contrast, when an indie editor works directly for an indie author, nobody else is involved. It’s a one-on-one private arrangement with lots of room to go smoothly — or horribly. Both parties are responsible for communicating what they want and need and expect; for establishing and agreeing to rules of engagement, and adhering to them; and being willing to discuss changes in a grown-up and flexible way.

In other words, they must make their own rules.

Time and experience among indie editors and authors are establishing successful approaches. Still, choices must constantly be made, be they for basic operation or how to organize an individual project. See Part 2 of this column for insights into what those choices could be and how to navigate them.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Friday, December 4.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.netor through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for theNew York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences.

April 12, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Three — Themes and Variations

Carolyn Haley

Dialogue is a big area of editorial focus in fiction. It presents multiple technical issues — making sure all open quotes are paired with close quotes; punctuation is inside or outside the quote marks as appropriate; terminal punctuation is there at all; quote marks are right-side-up and/or have no spaces around them, and are “curly” (typographer style) versus straight.

It also presents issues regarding who said what and how, and whether that information is needed. The primary content elements are identifier tags (the who part) and writing style (the how part). Two simple examples: “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he said quietly, versus, “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he whispered; and “Ready, aim, fire,” he shouted loudly, versus just, “Ready, aim — fire!

My house style regarding dialogue is to emulate what I see in the hundreds of traditionally published books I read and review annually. The accepted wisdom is to minimize tag use (e.g., he said), use an appropriate tag when needed (e.g., he whispered), and/or bracket the words with an action so the reader can follow the exchange (e.g., The general stood behind the troops and counted down with his arm. “Ready, aim — fire!”).

Dashes and Ellipses

Em dashes (—) and ellipses (…)occur often in novels to signify broken or interrupted speech or thoughts (em dash), or hesitant or trailing-off speech or thoughts (ellipses). Regardless of purpose, they have to be handled consistently in a manuscript. They are handled differently in manuscripts destined for electronic versus print production, which adds a formatting element to the editor’s equation.

My default practice is to edit for print production. More and more, though, my clients intend from the get-go to self-publish in e-book and/or print. I now need to negotiate up front how I will format the edited material I deliver. Some authors prepare e-books themselves; others send out their edited manuscripts for formatting, or publish through a service that does the e-book prep work for them; while some want me to do that prep as part of the edit.

In manuscripts intended for submission to traditional publishers or for self-publishing in print, the em dash without spaces on either side (closed up) is the preferred style. At production time, a typesetter will finesse line length and word spacing so line breaks occur correctly. MS Word files containing em dashes transfer well to page-layout programs; in submitted-for-consideration manuscripts, an author using em dashes (vs. double hyphens or en dashes) sends a subliminal signal to the acquiring editor that they either know what they’re doing or have worked with an editor and the manuscript is in respectable shape.

In manuscripts intended for self-publishing for e-readers, however, the em dash without spaces can be a hindrance. It adheres to the words on either side, and in text that will be enlarged or shrunken at will by the reader, the clumped-together words plus em dash can cause some funky spacing on the reader’s screen because of word wrap on variable scales. The dashes, therefore, have to have spacing around them, and ideally be attached to the preceding word with a nonbreaking space so word and dash will wrap together. In some cases, the e-book producer prefers an en dash ( – ) with spaces around it. For .epub files in particular, the ideal is for any dash to be a Unicode character.

Whatever the situation, somebody has to take care of dash detail. I offer value-added to my clients, where viable, by taking care of it myself.

The same is true for ellipses. In conventional print production, ellipses comprise nine elements: word+space+point+space+point+space+point+space+word. Typesetters insert hard spaces in this sequence to avoid line breaks between the points. I can do that in Word as part of grooming the text during an edit, and often do. Manuscripts slated for e-book production, though, work best if the ellipses are coded as a single character — a three-point unit without spaces between the points, with or without spaces before and after. Spacing around the three-point character allows for better wraps during enlargement or shrinking.

Again, this is a formatting detail I can provide or ignore, depending on the client’s desires. Where it applies to house style is establishing with the author what route to take, then performing the task and recording the choice in the style sheet.

Putting It All Together

I communicate my house style through the style sheet I produce for each manuscript. I start by listing my core references.

References used for general style

  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, online unabridged, first variant used unless indicated
  • Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.
  • Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed.
  • Multiple online sources

Some manuscripts are clean and simple, so I stop there. Others require lookups from throughout my library and the Internet, which I don’t list unless a particular project requires heavy, repeat consultation.

For example, one militaristic science fiction novel included many biblical quotations. In checking the quotes for accuracy, I discovered there are multiple versions of the Bible, and quote checks among them showed variables in phrasing. The differences could be just a word or two, or complete sentences. In this client’s book, a few checks against his phrasing showed that the King James Bible matched his work most closely, so I made sure that all the quotes in the novel aligned with the phrasing of the King James version, which I listed on the style sheet as a resource.

In the same manuscript, I had to check a lot of firearms, too, so I listed my primary resource: the annual edition of the Gun Digest catalogue. Another author switched back and forth between metric units and other measurement systems. After checking which the author wanted, I converted those numbers in the text. Years ago, I found a website I like to use for that purpose (www.convert-me.com); when I use it a lot, I list it to show the author where I got my numbers.

This information is all I provide on the style sheet for references. I don’t think a client needs to know every single book or website I use to check something. I list the top three or four resources to make the point that I employ the tools of my trade and have indeed checked items that needed verification. This signals the same point to other publishing professionals who might follow me in the chain, such as a proofreader or an agent, an acquiring editor, or a publisher’s in-house editor. My resource list tells them the manuscript has been professionally edited and which frame of reference the editor used.

Next on the style sheet, I provide a bullet list of applicable generalities. While these mainly concur with the core references, they accommodate any dominant deviations and reflect things done globally to the manuscript. Here’s an example from a contemporary time-travel fantasy.

Conventions followed in this manuscript

  • add ’s in singular possessives ending in s (Dr. Jones’s, Professor Albates’s, his boss’s)
  • cap first word of full sentence after colon
  • cap honorifics and titles in direct address or referral (Father vs. my father; King Ageis vs. the king)
  • cap university class and division names (Modern Physics, Thermodynamics, Psychology, Biochem; but: the medical school, the business school)
  • cap software or keyboard commands (Run, Stop, Send) and lever positions (Drive, Park)
  • comma after long introductory phrases (4+ words) and to separate long compound sentences
  • comma before last item in series (friends, students, and professors)
  • comma before terminal too, anyway, though, either [untracked]
  • distinction made between each other (two) and one another (several), except in dialogue
  • ellipses = traditional print version ( . . . ) with hard spaces between points to prevent breaking at line ends
  • italics for book and media titles; foreign languages; ship names; emphasis; sounds (pop); telepathy; thoughts/inner speech/remembered speech; unspoken language (she mouths, Everything is always okay); words as words (To her, okay is the male equivalent of the female favorite, fine.), letters as letters; dreams; text messages
  • no comma between easy-flow coordinate adjectives where meaning is clear (hot clammy darkness, large green leaves, low sweet sound)
  • no comma in common informal expressions (“Oh my,” “Oh yes”; but: “Yes, sir”)
  • no s in –ward words (backward, upward, toward) [untracked]
  • no single quotes used except for quotes-within-quotes
  • numbers spelled out zero through one hundred, plus round hundreds, thousands, fractions, and any in dialogue (except years and other special items, e.g., firearms and ammo [.50, 9 mm])
  • numerals for dates, decimals, huge numbers (1043), alphanumeric combinations (3-D, Fortune 500, room 603, I-82, serial number 34321-KT-14133, section 9B5, DL99 maintenance drone)
  • title caps in quotes for signs (“No Trespassing”), including tattoos

After this summary, I provide an alphabetical list of terms. These cover anything I look up to confirm that the dictionary or style guide differs from what the author uses, along with proper nouns that aren’t addressed elsewhere in the style sheet, words unique to the manuscript, foreign-language terms or phrases, any word including a diacritical mark, technical terminology, and whatever else might be relevant. Here are a few examples from a contemporary fantasy novel:

amid (vs. amidst)

among (vs. amongst)

ax (vs. axe)

back seat (vs. backseat)

blond (masc. & generic); blonde (fem. n.)

co- (hyphenated; co-anchor, co-worker [contrary to MW, save for co-opt])

decor (vs. décor)

facade (vs. façade)

naive (vs. naïve, but: naïveté)

And so on. In complex novels, the terms list can run for pages. Likewise the sections for characters and places, which I subdivide as needed for clusters — families, companies, opposing forces, human and alien societies, flora and fauna, spacecraft; whatever is appropriate for the book.

I also include chronology for stories with complicated timeframes and changing viewpoints. In simpler stories, which might take place in a few hours or a few days, in an obvious progression, I take care of any hiccups by querying in the manuscript rather than map out the complete timeline.

Balancing Act

Most of the time, dealing with variables is just a balancing act between upholding professional editing standards without interfering with a client’s voice and vision, and it occurs without client involvement. If something is especially sticky, or requires a global change throughout the manuscript, I contact the client and we work it out while the job is in process, rather than after I deliver the manuscript, so the client isn’t surprised.

As noted above, there are times when author preference prevails over house style. If the author keenly prefers something I object to, they can have their way. It’s not my book, and English is a complicated and fluid language. Authorities agree that they disagree on the fine points, so my house policy is to not slavishly adhere to something that isn’t critical. If I get too carried away with enforcing my preferences, I might exceed the scope of work and create deadline or payment problems with an alienated author. Who needs that?

Another factor to consider is that many fiction writers are passionately protective of their work. Indeed, some of my clients have come to me after bad experiences with other editors who got overzealous about “the rules.” The authors don’t necessarily know what the rules are; they only know that corrections were applied arbitrarily and heavily to change their prose for no apparent reason. I find being the replacement editor an uncomfortable position to be in. I work just as hard as other editors to learn my craft and might be inclined to heavily change the author’s prose, too. This is why I’m careful about defining the scope of my work with my clients.

Even with well-defined boundaries, though, occasions arise when an author wants to keep something that I know to be technically wrong according to acknowledged authorities, or silly/stupid/counterproductive/embarrassing according to my own common sense. In those cases, editorial rules have to be trumped by human ones, such as the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the copyeditor’s mantra (“It’s not my book, it’s not my book . . .”).

The bottom line is customer satisfaction and paid bills. If I can see a problem client coming, I’ll decline the work opportunity, but if something conflicting develops during an otherwise going-well job, I will concede that “the customer is always right” and give them what makes them happy. (To guard against that policy getting out of hand, I’ve inserted a clause in my contract that holds the client responsible for the ultimate content of the book.)

Absent passionate client feeling about a particular point, I focus on choosing between correctness and appropriateness. As long as the text is clear, consistent, and using variations allowed by reference works honored by the publishing industry, I find no need to interfere with an author’s writing style and overload a manuscript with markups. After all, a writer’s choice of spelling or punctuation may be perfectly correct according to one authority but not another, such as one or more of the core references underpinning my house style.

Why a House Style Works

Having a house style, I’ve found, allows greater efficiency when editing a novel because I spend less time looking up rules and spellings, and weighing alternatives against each other. The act of establishing and fine-tuning a house style forces me to make both macro and micro choices about my editorial approach, and following a house style makes me consistent within a single project as well as across all projects. The combination gives me the editorial equivalent of what novelists seek for themselves: an individual voice.

We may never discuss the nitty-gritty of my editorial choices, but on the rare occasions when clients do question a choice, I have a basis upon which to answer and discuss. This increases their confidence in my ability and helps us communicate better. The result is a mutually satisfying editing job that often brings a client back with their next novel, and encourages referrals. That achieves my ultimate goal: a win-win relationship between author and editor, resulting in a better novel with its best chance for success in the author’s chosen market.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

February 16, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Two — The Author Factor

Carolyn Haley

Part One of this essay discusses the baseline of establishing an indie editor’s house style. Part Two expands to discuss examples of why, when, and how to apply house style vis-à-vis author variables.

In the main, my choice to allow, disallow, or discuss a given point is driven by the author’s attitude and writing technique. The majority of my clients care more about their story content than the nuts and bolts of their sentences; they want their manuscripts “cleaned up” in a generic way, and leave it to me to decide what that means.

A handful of my clients, however, care ferociously about the small stuff, and this group divides into two. The first group wants me to follow all the “rules” precisely (without specifying which authority to follow), and the second wants me to follow their rules precisely. The latter are the trickiest authors to work with.

In a recent episode of working with a technically focused author, my sample edit saved us both a lot of trouble. The author’s response to my sample edit made it obvious that our “rules” differed, but, since we liked each other’s personality and attitudes, we had many lively conversations defining scope of work before starting, and I extra-customized his contract to reflect our joint decisions.

My standard procedure, when it comes to spelling, is to follow Merrian-Webster (MW) online unabridged and correct an author’s variant spellings to MW’s main listing of a word. The author I was working with, however, used more variant than standard spellings, so we agreed that as long as MW allowed his spellings at any level of preference, they would stay in his book. This gave him his preferred axe instead of MW’s preferred ax, and the like.

Our agreement also allowed him odd spellings for lingo in his characters’ dialogue, particularly two he was adamant about: looki and pardn’r (as in “Looki here” and “Howdy, pardn’r”). To my surprise, MW contained both these terms, but included no variants matching the author’s spellings. MW had lookee with looky as an option, and allowed pardner as an alternate to partner. Had MW not included these terms, I would have had to spend quite a bit of time searching them out elsewhere to validate (or not) the author’s use, which I didn’t care to do because we were on a tight deadline with a lean budget. Since the author’s meaning was clear with his own spellings, and he was self-publishing his book, I felt no need to challenge him. What mattered to both of us was that his historical facts were accurate, he got to keep the tenor of his story intact, and I was able to provide a clean, consistent manuscript that aligned with generally accepted authorities.

We also had to negotiate some punctuation details. My house style generally follows Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), which treats the possessive for singular words ending in s the same way it does singular words ending with any other letter; thus, James’s horse instead of James’ horse. The author, however, flip-flopped between styles, so we discussed this, and he accepted my house preference. That worked fine until we came to Four Feathers’s shirt. I was all set to accommodate the author and drop the second s on this one, creating a single style inconsistency in the book with Four Feathers’ shirt, or else to suggest recasting the sentence to avoid the construction, but then he solved the problem himself by changing the character’s name to Knife Blade.

How Authoritative Are Authorities?

Sometimes my house style disagrees on points where the authorities I consult agree with one another, and I don’t happen to like their choice for fiction. An example is capitalizing God in the exclamation “Oh God!” In most instances, this is an emotional outburst that has nothing to do with deities, and to me, spelling it with a lowercase g is appropriate in the same way terms like godforsaken and goddamn have become accepted in lowercase.

Other times, when I can’t find a majority agreement among the authorities I consult, or the authorities don’t take a stand on a particular subject, I apply my house style. Common examples occur in dialogue, such as all right versus alright, and okay versus OK, ok, O.K., o.k. I prefer all right and okay and correct all manuscripts to those spellings. To date, no client has objected. Similarly, when authorities disagree on abbreviations, such as Ph.D. versus PhD, or U.S. versus US, I go with my preference, which is the version with periods.

Sometimes my core references don’t take a stand on a point, leaving me to choose. This occurred when I searched for a guideline on whether to capitalize endearments and pet names like sweetie, honey, darling, and sugar, which crop up frequently in dialogue. I couldn’t find a guideline on this in half-a-dozen reference works, or in online searches using half-a-dozen search keywords, until I consulted the FAQ section of the online CMoS, which declares: “Chicago’s preferred style has always been to lowercase pet names, but you can’t go wrong unless you’re inconsistent, since the issue is guided by preference rather than rule. Please see section 8.39 of the 15th edition. (The issue is not addressed in the 16th.)” There is nothing further in the current edition — the 17th — either.

Ah. That explained why I couldn’t find an answer in one of my core references. At the time, I was using the print copy of CMoS 16 and never thought to go to an older edition. The exercise showed the value of keeping old editions as well as having both the online and print versions of a resource. I wasted time I didn’t need to waste, but did finally get the information I was seeking. It helped me decide that lowercase would be the DocuMania house style for endearments.

Then there are occasions when no reference resource can answer the question. This occurs often in science fiction and fantasy (SF/F), where authors make up their own vocabulary. For example, a recent manuscript contained a special author-invented metal, which he spelled xenite, zenite, and xynite on different pages. There was no contextual difference to warrant variations, so all I could do was query which spelling he preferred, then make sure it was used throughout the story. (In case you’re wondering, it was xynite.)

A common occurrence in SF/F where I choose my own solution is when leapt, dreamt, and burnt arise. These -t constructions of past tense, instead of the conventional -ed version, are deemed archaic or obsolete in American English according to my core references, and thus should be corrected. Their persistent appearance in client material, however, gives me pause. Do those authors use -t spellings because their SF/F novels are set in environments, cultures, or worlds modeled after ancient Europe or America (a common scenario in the genre)? Or because the authors were influenced by other novels in the genre that were published in different eras or countries? Or is it merely a coincidence that a batch of SF/F authors who happen to be my clients use different dictionaries than mine, or their word processors’ spellcheckers are set to a different version of English?

It only matters because I edit to first-preference standard, so I have to choose whether to impose my standard on the clients or accommodate their style(s). My choice usually depends on the author and the book. As an example, one of my prolific clients, who is several volumes into both a science fiction and a fantasy series, uses leapt, dreamt, and burnt in all of them. He does so intentionally to achieve a certain tone. Once I understood this, I made sure that all his manuscripts use these spellings. Conversely, he doesn’t give a hoot about hyphenation or commas or other mechanical minutiae, so I correct to my first-preference standard at will for everything else.

(Interesting aside: The same authors who use the -t constructions of past tense usually reverse style when it comes to the past tense of kneel. With that word, first-preference spelling is knelt and second is kneeled, yet the authors prefer kneeled. Go figure.)

Defaults

As an American editor who works predominantly with American authors, I default to American language preferences as expressed by my core reference resources, unless it’s clear from the project that other versions of English (British, Canadian, Australian) are at play. Thus, in American manuscripts, I change grey to gray, colour to color, whilst to while, travelling to traveling, cheque to check, and so forth. I also remove the terminal s on words such as towards, backwards, and upwards, and remove the hyphen on prefixes, such as non-profit, re-engineer, counter-measure, and multi-colored, making them all solid. I call out any exceptions out on the style sheet.

With punctuation, I use the American system of double quotation marks around dialogue instead of single quotation marks (ditto when words appear in scare quotes; for some reason, many of my American clients put dialogue in double quotes, but use single quotation marks when calling out words in scare quotes). I also put commas and periods inside close quotes of either type, and employ the serial comma in series ending with “and” (e.g., red, white, and blue vs. red, white and blue). I feel strongly about these practices and only deviate from them if the author expresses a strong preference to the contrary.

When it comes to spellings in transition (words that are still spelled one way in my core references but are transforming through common usage), I let context be my guide. Examples of transition words are electronics-related terminology such as those mentioned in Part One (e-mail to email, Internet to internet, cell phone to cellphone) and the vocabulary of modern institutions (health care to healthcare), along with words like duffel bag (which I’m betting will become duffle bag first-preference spelling in MW within a few years) and Dumpster (a trademark succumbing to genericization like xerox, google, and photoshop).

(Another interesting aside: Genericize hasn’t made it into MW online unabridged yet, but I can find it all over the Internet and hear it in conversation. If I adhere too closely to my core references, then I can claim a word doesn’t exist!)

Mechanical Minutiae

House-style decisions involving italics, dialogue, dashes, and ellipses come up so often that I’ve standardized my practices and keep a checklist on my style sheet template to remind me to address them every time.

Italics

I follow CMoS for italics use in general, which in fiction occurs commonly in media titles of complete works, ship and aircraft names, foreign languages, words as words, letters as letters, sounds, and emphasis. What I encounter most often, though, is silent speech: thoughts, remembered or nonverbalized remarks, dreams, and telepathy, all of which are conventionally italicized. It only gets problematic when telepathic communication goes on for paragraphs or pages. That much italic text is tough on a reader’s eyes, yet nonverbal communication must be set off from the main narrative by some system or other for the reader’s comprehension.

Before desktop word processing, authors only had underscore and all-caps available, later bolding, to indicate what would end up as italics when the book was typeset. Nowadays, if they use those styles for emphasis, they announce themselves to readers as amateurs whose work is not yet ready for submission or publication. I therefore ensure those styles get stripped from the manuscript and replaced with italics, or otherwise set off for clarity.

Direct thoughts can be handled in different ways, such as:

What’s that all about? (no tag; speaker identified by context)

What’s that all about? he wondered.

What’s that all about, he wondered.

What’s that all about? he wondered.

“What’s that all about?” he wondered.

I favor using italics and dropping the tag where possible. The important thing about thoughts is that they must be in first-person voice, regardless of whether the voice of the narrative is in first or third person. If not, then they are considered indirect thoughts and kept in roman (e.g., What was that all about? he wondered).

A recent project challenged my standard italics practice. The main character had long psychic dialogues with an alien entity on another planet light-years away, and we needed a way to make it clear who was “talking.” In these dialogues, the characters were disembodied, so the usual gestures, actions, and expressions that make speakers obvious weren’t available to use. The option of inserting “he said” at changes got intrusive.

After experimenting with different combinations of italics and quotation marks, none of which worked gracefully, I recalled a trick I’d seen in a short story I’d edited the year before, where the author distinguished between an individual character’s thoughts and his psychic dialogue with another character by using European-style quotation marks, guillemets (« »). I ended up putting these around the alien’s communication. They instantly and obviously distinguished his words from the human character’s words, providing a visual break in block italic text while enabling readers to follow the story.

Part Three continues with examples of when and when not to apply house style, and a summary of the benefits of having a house style.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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