Monday, August 30, 2010

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

What I'm reading: 61 Hours, by Lee Child

Actually, what I'm really, really, really reading are copy edits for Where Danger Hides.

We spend a lot of time trying to ensure our work is perfect. Are my margins right? Correct font? Chapter headers starting in the right place? Should I use numerals or write out the words? Headers? Footers? Page numbers? How do I denote scene breaks? How many spaces at the end of a sentence?

We stress about rules—which are fixed in stone, which are flexible, and which are brittle enough to break. We worry about the details—too much telling, too many POV characters, too much head hopping. Does the plot hold true? Did I do enough homework? Are the details right, or will I look like an idiot putting Ponderosa pines where there ought to be spruce trees?

Don't tear your hair out. By all means, follow the rules of grammar. Yes, make sure you've got the right critters and plants in your locale. But it's highly unlikely your manuscript will be rejected because you've got a couple of commas in the wrong places.

For Five Star, this is the process:

First, you submit the manuscript. You format it to THEIR specifications, which are probably not the ones you've seen for other publishers. So even something as basic as manuscript formatting rules aren't universal rules. Five Star wants Times New Roman 11 point font, except for chapter headers which are 13 point and bold. Scene breaks are 5 asterisks, centered, separated by spaces. They want leading and following spaces for ellipses. They also don't want the first paragraph of a chapter indented. Page numbers are centered in footers, not in headers. Headers are centered as well.

Does any of this matter when you query? No. At least it shouldn't. But if they ask for more and send you a style guide, then by all means, follow it. If they don't send one, check their website for guidelines. Yes, you may end up with 5 different versions of your manuscript if you're submitting to different publishers, but your word processing program is one of the tools of your trade, so learn how to use it. By all means, "Save As" is your best friend. "Find/Replace" is another good friend IF you know its hidden secrets. Click on that "more" box and see all the things it can do. Learn what goes on behind the scenes in that "Format/Paragraph" option.

(If there's interest, I can provide some step by step procedures for some of the things I've learned, mostly by trial and error. And if anyone has the definitive steps for headers and footers, I'd love those. I'm STILL using trial and error on that one!)

So, back to the copyedits. You've decided you've got your manuscript polished to a high gleam. When the manuscript is accepted, it goes to a first round editor. I've had the pleasure of working with Brittainy for both my Five Star books, and we've developed a good working relationship, one where I can explain my reasoning if we have different opinions.

Once we're both sure the work is perfect, it goes back to the publisher to a copyeditor. At some point, probably out of the blue, the manuscript comes back, this time as a PDF file (so you can't mess with it), with the copyeditor's comments and corrections.

Corrections? Wait! It was perfect. The editor and I agreed on everything. But, the copyeditor has decided that where I've written "Blackthorne, Incorporated" (because it looks funny to write "Inc." in dialogue or internal monologue), the copyeditor wants it to say Blackthorne, Inc. OK, that's their style. Also, where both my former agent and editor followed what I was told was a 'new' trend, and didn't put any commas before the word "too" at the end of the sentence, the copyeditor put them all back. Another OK.
The copyeditor also liked commas even more than I did—and added a bunch. She also put semicolons in, something I'd been told wasn't the best approach in fiction.

So—don't sweat the small stuff.

And when you get that copyedited manuscript back, how should you approach it? That's Wednesday's topic. Tomorrow, my guest is author Mark Danielson, who's a pilot in his day job. He shared some pictures of his travels a while back. This time, he's putting some words with his pictures. Be sure to come back.


Katie Reus said...

I had to get used to the 'no comma before too' also. I'll be working with a new editor in the very near future so I'm curious how many things I've come to think of as standard will change according to their house rules. Sometimes it's hard to keep all these rules straight!

Terry Odell said...

Katie -I agree, and since every house can have different "style guides" (sidling away from the "R" word!), you go with the flow. Once you're 'in house' you can make the adjustments. I don't think any manuscript would get rejected for adding or not adding commas. There's that whole, "do you need a comma in the last item of a list?" thing too (Note: no comma before too) :-)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

I keep saying you and I are on the same wave length! I am also in the midst of reviewing the copyedit for my May Five Star mystery THE TRUTH SLEUTH. The thing is I've also gotten those petty little comma thingies, etc. However, I actually found several things that I need to change, some detail errors for the mystery. The copyeditor obviously didn't find them. But I did.
So it's not a waste of time. Still, there is such a thing as overwriting.

sue fineman said...

Every time I go through a manuscript, no matter how well it's been edited, I find something to change. Having a good editor, one who respects your voice, is a real gift.

Patricia Stoltey said...

And you have to watch copy editors who make a last minute comma change which alters the meaning of your sentence. By the time I'd reread my novel through the editing and copy editing phases, I was sick of it. I didn't love it again until I held the hardcover version in my hands.

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm glad to read this. Don't sweat the small stuff. Check. Moving on :)

Hart Johnson said...

And finally my day job is good for something! I publish scientifically, and journals all have thier quirks. There is no benefit whatsoever to arguing with the person whose decision it is... You're right--don't sweat the small stuff!

Mary Ricksen said...

Sweating that stuff after the book is in print, is a waste of sweat. I sweat about whether it will be liked by readers.
It does effect you when you are writing if you sweat the small stuff. That can be fixed before publishing. Just write and fix later.

Jemi Fraser said...

That's so interesting. I didn't have any idea how that worked - thanks so much :)

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - nobody's perfect, and with only 2 rounds of edits, things do get missed.

Sue - there's always going to be something you wish you'd done differently. You just have to let go at some point (but it's hard!)

Carol - yep. Move on.

Hart - Hubster does scientific writing, and there's always something.

Mary - yes, having a reader like the book IS what it's all about. Once you get it to the point where they can access it!

Jemi - stay tuned - I've got more for Wednesday.

Terry Odell said...

Oops - didn't mean to skip your comment, Patricia. I've caught one 'suggested' change that does alter the meaning. I'll be going into more detail about how I approach this phase in Wednesday's post as well.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

As a Virgo, I'm all about trying to make things perfect, but until the final edit is underway I concentrate on more on logic, accuracy, and making sure characters act in character. My theory is that the protagonist's automatic becomes a standard shift or if the solution to the mystery hinges on a cliched plot device like a convenient dream, I'll alienate readers faster than I will by misplacing a comma.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Oh my. a writing career seems to be a series of more and more hoops. Do they ever stop?

Terry Odell said...

Carolyn, you've nailed it.

TerryS - Nope. :-)

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

I've printed this for reference. I could never remember it all. How the heck did you?

Terry Odell said...

Mary, you only need to remember what you're dealing with at the moment. As far as the style guide--I refer to it faithfully when I'm submitting; not when I'm writing, unless I'm writing for a specific publisher. I have 3 at the moment, and yes, they've all got different requirements.

Janice Seagraves said...

Very good post.

But I'd like to add that if your submitting through email you don't need the pages numbered.


Terry Odell said...

Janice - when formatting for e-books on places like Smashwords or for the Kindle store, they don't want page numbers. But my other 3 publishers all expect them--some in the headers, some in the footers, but their guidelines want numbers on the pages, even though they all want their submissions send as e-mail attachments.

Kathy said...

I was worrying earlier tonight about showing vs telling. I'm working with an 18 month old here so I was trying to figure out how to show her and not tell. But sometimes you just have to tell. I don't know if it worked or not. I sort of head hopped between the villain and the child he kidnapped, he hates kids-the boss stuck him with the baby to keep for now. The baby is a tough one like her mommy she gives him hell when she can. An independent toddler, I have a 21 month old great niece to borrow for observation. I will double check with my niece who has her cousin the same age almost just a month older. Lily will be 2 in Ootober, Kylee will be 2 in November. SO I ask Lily's mom does this work? Between three mommy's I get fact checks and reasonability checks lol.
But I hear a voice in my head saying you are doing that wrong or this wrong and I get bogged down right there.

Terry Odell said...

Good luck, Kathy - I recently read a mystery that went into a dog's POV, so there's no 'right' or 'wrong' if you can do it convincingly. I'm a minimalist when it comes to POV characters--3 is the most I've ever written.

Jud said...

In the best of all possible worlds, an author wouldn't have to worry about page numbering, headers, footers, what-have-you. That's the job of the publisher. Until a few year ago (maybe still), Japanese authors submitted handwritten manuscripts, some of them so illegible that publishers hired decrypting experts. :)

Now some publishers are demanding direct-to-print submissions and, judging from some of the dreadful examples it's been my misfortune to buy and read, some books do go directly from .doc files to print. Either that, or publishers are hiring editors who think two hyphens do an em-dash make, and quotation marks are straight not curly.

A month ago I d/l an e-book that was set in a hideous decorative typeface. For a book-lover like myself, it was the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel. Absolutely unreadable. I gave up after two lines.


Glynis Peters said...

Oh boy, did I need to read this today. Rejection 6 made me look at my ms again. I am ripping it apart and jiggling it about. Sorry, editing.☺

I have been fretting so much over the 'small stuff', that I missed the big picture; several errors.

Thank you for an interesting post.

Terry Odell said...

Jud - I'd love to live in that publishing world. I recall when I was starting out, (not long ago) a crit partner said, "You're ready to let an editor fix it. Submit." Well, editors don't have time for all that blue-pencil stuff anymore. And publishers will take a 'ready to go' book over one that will need a lot of work.

Still, there's no need to obsess over minor formatting or style issues--those things they will fix.

Terry Odell said...

Glynis - sorry to hear about the rejection, but if you can take it constructively, you're moving forward. (And my first reaction was "only 6?" I've got a three-inch stack of them! Keep writing. Keep submitting.

Sheila Deeth said...

Cool. I'm still glowing at actually having worked with an editor. The small stuff is just that--stuff--and the big stuff is writing the best I can, and fixing the best I can when the editor tells me what doesn't work, because, after all, she's far enough away to know how it reads, not just how it's meant.

Terry Odell said...

Sheila - it's nice to have a professional opinion, especially knowing they're trying to make the work better. Crit groups are great, but this is an entirely different level.

Jud said...

Terry: Did you use the term 'blue-pencil' generically, or do most of your editors use that colour?

For over 30 years I've been using a red pencil to edit and proofread and assumed red was standard. Your post sent me scuttling over to Wikipedia, where I discovered the choice of colour depends on the technology used in the next step of publishing.

(Grinning, not grouching, this time. It's great to learn something new, however late.)

Commas: I've learned not sweat it when American editors persist in removing my Oxford Commas.

Pines and Spruces: One of the main reasons I've never had the courage to venture into fiction writing. As a reader, factual errors spoil the pleasure of a book and I don't have the confidence to write about something with which I'm not familiar.

Terry Odell said...

Jud - since everything I've done has been electronic, there's no pencil of any color involved. Just computer markups.

I learned to assume I know nothing, even when I do know it. And there's always someone who's going to "know" you're wrong, no matter what. Can't sweat the small stuff. If I've done my homework, I have to let go. (Author Linda Howard said she got an angry letter complaining that her scene set in a KMart at midnight couldn't happen because they closed at 9 -- but not the one where Linda Howard actually went to in the wee hours to figure out where her character could have hidden a laptop. Some are 24 hour stores, but if yours closes at 9, you'll assume the author got it wrong.)

Jemi Fraser said...

Good advice! I definitely sweat the small stuff far too often! I'll try to relax a bit more. :)