A Couple Style Guides I Like

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

As I’ve branched out to different writing projects (novels, short stories, and blog posts), I’ve become quite aware that each project requires its own special formatting in Microsoft Word. While I don’t think it matters whether one writes a rough draft with a particular word processor, typewriter, or pen, I do try to have some formatting details accomplished ahead of time. For me, it eases my mind when it comes to finishing up the project for submission. Right now, I found two style guides which have helped me tremendously.

What I do for self-publishing a novel.
Smashwords has a helpful style guide which taught me more about how to do stuff in Microsoft Word than actually googling the topic. Although that guide’s requirements are for Smashwords submissions alone, it is incredibly helpful in figuring out how to format Word so annoying things don’t happen (like typing something and getting it auto-corrected to a wrong thing, or having weird stuff happen with copy and paste). It’s been helpful enough that I use the formatting in the guide for all of my novel rough drafts.

The specifics of it are that the draft is formatted using style parameters instead of the buttons on the top bar and menus. I won’t need to use the tab key for anything, which I’ve discovered is a great way to get hidden errors in submissions. Most of the advice I’ve read for other submissions tends to back this up, so getting away from tabbing everywhere has been a hidden benefit. Other than that, I can use styles to change centering, first paragraphs in new chapters, and doing other special formatting elsewhere in the book. Because I’m creating default settings instead of creating exceptions in one setting, I don’t have to worry about writing something and then accidentally switching from a readable font to whatever that awful default font is in Word.

And yeah, it happened to me a lot, which prompted a string of curse words at my monitor every time.

And I’ve started doing it for short story writing.
Here is a very helpful guide suggested for short story submissions by William Shunn. It was recommended by many of the magazines I was looking to submit to. So far, I’m writing the first short story I want to submit using those tips. More than that, the guide actually provides insight into what editors are looking for in a manuscript, which means the weird specific things make sense.

Unfortunately, neither guide will write things for me. I suppose the person who comes up with that will stand to make several boatloads of cash.

Busy Day & Linda’s Got Her Book

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Today I’m waist deep in trying to get a short story written for submission to a magazine. Unfortunately, this means I don’t have much time to write a blog post. However, the famous Linda G. Hill just got her author copy of an anthology she’s in. Not physically. It’s a collection of short stories, and one of her stories is in it. I’m sure nobody’s invented technology to place themselves within a book. Yet.

If you want a link directly to Amazon to buy it, here it is.

On a semi-related note, Ms. Hill also has her own short book she published entitled “All Good Stories.” I linked to the Amazon edition, but I purchased my copy on Kobo. It only costs 99 cents, but I promise it is worth more than every penny. If you’re looking for an enjoyable, witty, and engaging read, I cannot recommend it enough.

Or at the least, give her blog a follow. She’s good people, and you will never know what awesomeness will happen next.

Sweating the Details

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

I’m revising my novel, and things are starting to pick up. Revising a written work is an incredibly fretful process. The goal is to clean up as many mistakes as possible, tidy up sentences, rework paragraphs, and put the finishing rough touches on the work itself. There’s always that nagging voice in the back of my head wondering if I made some embarrassing oversight.

That voice is useful when revising and finishing up a work, but it’s also the voice of a merciless skeptic. At times, I find it easy to think of my novel as a terrifying forest with monsters of poor grammar and word choice lurking behind every tree. They hide and wait for me to pass, and I simply miss their existence.

Taking control of that voice has been a long process. Part of it is learning to be gentle with yourself (something I do have a problem with), but another part is accepting that the little details also can add to the overall enjoyment of a book. Not too many people will throw a book away in anger at witnessing a minor error, and stories of even a few thousand words can have them. If the story is worth reading, nobody will care about the blemishes.

Sweating the details is walking a fine line between noticing the things that take away from my creation and being confident enough to accept the ones that I miss.

Writing Routines

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Okay, so this post is way later than I wanted it to be, because most of the day I’ve been feeling ill. On days like this, I get knocked out of my usual routine. Worse, they feel completely unproductive and soul-crushing. Well, maybe not soul-crushing, but something close to it.

Having a routine for writing has been crucial for me. Even on days where I don’t feel like writing, I end up doing some. It’s because there will be those times where I just feel out of place for not pecking away at my keyboard. I’ve found it can also help me out with mild forms of writer’s block.

What I haven’t done is set up a full routine for blog writing. This is probably why I don’t update when I’d like. When I work on my fiction, the whole process is graceful and elegant. Right now my blogging efforts feel a bit clunky. The writing I do here is not something I review as meticulously as my other work, and I do find errors when I go back and look through old posts. Every bone in my body wants to edit, but I have to ignore them bones and go back to my other routines.

If you have a routine, I sincerely hope it works well for you in whatever projects you do. If you have any tips or tricks for the rest of us (me for now), drop them in the comments section!

Moving at the Speed of Plot

Photo credit: frhuynh. Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Photo credit: frhuynh.
Image courtesy of Stockvault.

I recently caught a few old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and got reminded how some of the details in science fiction plot truly aren’t necessary to explain. One episode, the Enterprise is talking about how it takes forever to get from where it is to some other system. In another episode, the ship is running around from system to system without caring about silly things like distance. Over time, little inconsistencies build as the permanent details of the story unfolds.

But nobody really cares (that I’ve met, at least).

The thing is, stories call for different attention to different details. Writing about travel and exploration, the journey is everything. Whether it takes a long time or a short time doesn’t matter; the plot determines which details are important at the time. I think this is true for any sort of episodic story, including written works. In fiction, plot is a more fundamental law than the speed of light.

That’s kind of sacrilegious to say as a fan of science fiction. Personally, I want a story to be internally consistent. Additionally, I want science fiction stories to be consistent with whatever science it does rely on. Breaking those rules either turns the story itself sour or turns an attempt at science fiction into speculative fiction. While there’s nothing wrong with mixing fantasy and sci-fi, it creates situations where a story is mislabeled.

I’m realizing that even in Star Trek, their inconsistencies were in carefully placed gray areas. So, in the episode where speed was an issue, they never actually said how fast the ship was going. The story played to its strengths and avoided any major pitfalls in details.

Even in writing science fiction, I think this is something important to remember whether the story is hard or soft sci-fi. The science is important to be consistent, but building that consistency means knowing when to not explain too much. Nobody has to know the specifics of how fast your ships can go, or how the engine works. They just have to know that the ship is moving to the next plot point, and that something interesting is going to happen when it arrives.

Time & Tide – I

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Kent turned and felt the sun on his face, its intense light warming his entire body. He lay on a puffy white cloud, about ten kilometers or so above the ground. Way below, if he wanted to he could see his little red farmhouse right next to the corn fields his family had owned for generations. Even from such a height, he could watch his kids running in between the rows playing hide-and-seek.

The wind blew gently from the south and began moving him and his cloud northwards. Kent didn’t particularly care where it took him, just so long as he could hop down and make it to dinner on time. His wife was the punctual one in the house, and since she was also the better cook, it meant he couldn’t spend forever floating around. Frowning, he decided to hop off his puffy ride and float gently back home.

He landed just outside the front steps and gave his front door three good knocks. The paint had faded and cracked, and Kent made a mental note to come back out with a paint bucket to fix it. Although he vaguely recalled having given it a fresh coat not too long ago, he still didn’t mind the work. Knocking again, he checked the nearby window to see if anyone was inside.

“What are you doing?” his wife asked from behind him.

Kent spun around, bewildered. “Oh, I thought you were inside,” he said. “Isn’t it time for dinner?”

“It sure is,” she replied with a toothy grin. “But this isn’t your house.”

Looking back around, Kent saw that the building he stood at had changed. The wooden slats had changed to a dull yellow, and the door had a shine to it like a light. “I’m confused,” he said, scratching his head.

“Don’t be confused,” his wife whispered into his ear. “Just remember, you’re a guest here. Be yourself, and I’m sure they’ll love you.”

Kent tried to hold his wife’s hand, but the world spun out of control. Instead, he saw his own hand swimming in a viscous liquid. Everything grew cold, and he felt like he was slowly descending. To his growing surprise, he realized he was suspended in that liquid, which slowly drained out of the chamber he was in. On his face, he felt a chilly apparatus attached securely with wires.

When the liquid finally emptied from the chamber, a metal arm descended from the ceiling and hooked into the apparatus. As panic started to set in, he felt the wires unfolding and something metallic sliding out of his throat. The arm yanked the device quickly, taking it and several tubes with it. Kent wanted to cough, but he couldn’t take a breath in. In front of him, a giant glass door opened upwards, and Kent tumbled out of the chamber onto a cold metal floor. Somewhere in his back, a needle pricked his skin, sending a violent shot of pain up his entire spine. Kent sucked in air and screamed.

He heard the sound of feet padding along the floor to the right. Kent looked up and saw a bearded man with a hairy body matted down with slime. The stranger tossed him a towel and said, “Get yourself cleaned up.” He read the confusion on Kent’s face. “Doc says it’ll take a few minutes for your memory to return. Get a shower and some chow, and then head up to the bridge. It looks like the ship dropped us out of our normal route.”

The man leaned forward and grinned from ear to ear. “Looks like we found something.”

Trunk Stories

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been looking at a few science fiction magazines’ submission guidelines for short fiction. One of those magazines had a pretty exhaustive list of what it didn’t accept, including the usual things like stories about one’s favorite RP characters and poorly written gorenography. Still, I got to the end of the list and found a term I wasn’t familiar with: trunk stories.

I did some digging.
The term made sense when I did a google search. Trunk stories are those unpublished works that writers cling to, keeping them in a proverbial trunk. They occasionally get brought out, dusted off, and submitted to places – where they get rejected and put back from whence they came. I even found out there are things called trunk novels, which are basically just novels that occupy space in the same trunk.

Of course, this might not seem intuitive to many writers who increasingly store their works digitally. Sending out physical copies of short stories doesn’t seem to be an industry standard in science fiction publications, and with e-pubs proliferating all over the world, I doubt many writers of the future will have a physical trunk to store physical writing in. While it might reduce the size of physical trunks, there will probably be many ones and zeroes in the cloud devoted to e-trunk stories.

Another thought I had was that I might be weird for not holding onto old stories.
All told, I’ve written and finished only a handful of short stories before I started blogging. Most of them were either practice drafts I deleted or school assignments I turned in and forgot about. In the latter category I probably have many more works, but it’s real easy for me to forget about them. Also, I’ve written some stories that I’ve deleted for various reasons. Thus, I can’t really assess how much writing I’ve done since I graduated high school those many moons ago.

I do understand why some people want to hold onto prior works. Writing anything takes time and effort, and some people are quite adept at recording where they’ve been. Part of me wishes I was better at that, because there are some older stories of mine I half-started and never finished, and they probably might turn out nicely if I tried them again. Since I haven’t heard of too many other writers sharing this regret, I might be in a small minority of people that usually looks forward and doesn’t care about the burning bridges behind him.

Fortunately, my time spent blogging has at least informed me that I don’t have to feel any need to cling to any future stories I write. If I write something and can’t get it published, I always have the option of putting it up here for people to enjoy. Just because a magazine or publisher doesn’t like something doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. It just means it won’t get published by those people.

So I don’t think trunk stories are inherently bad or neglected. With today’s publishing options, I think they won’t have to spend time locked away in storage.

Polishing That Draft

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Back in the eighth grade, I received the most difficult yet rewarding writing advice for the first time. My English teacher told us to take firm control of our word choice, and she required every submission we turned in to obey one rule of hers in particular. Every sentence within a paragraph must start with a different word.

At first, that advice almost made me hate writing of all kinds. I spent hours going over writing assignments, figuring out how to change my sentences so I wouldn’t start them all with “The.” Doing this made my revision process turn into a small nightmare as I neurotically labored over every word I placed after a period, question mark, or exclamation point. Sometimes I’d keep paragraphs short just so I could cheat and use the same word again.

What I didn’t realize was how well this advice would serve me later on in life. Although it’s an arbitrary rule that has no grammatical or stylistic necessity, it’s an effective one that breaks many hidden crutches a writer might have. Not only that, it helped me think about how I expressed myself in a way I’d never considered before. It served as a mirror to hold up to my writing, to make sure I wasn’t being lazy.

Nowadays, I relegate this rule to a revision process. I still use it because it helps me put finishing touches on anything I publish. At the very least, it helps me put that last bit of polish on a draft, making the whole thing shine.

For people who might want to consider using it (or at least trying it out), here are some other things to remember. In longer fiction, this rule should only get used to clean up clunky passages. With shorter articles, posts, and stories, this rule really helps out in keeping things flowing. Finally, there will be times when you actually want to use the same word to begin sentences (like using a rule of three to help readers remember an important point), so it’s not something one has to slavishly adhere to at all times.

It’s Cold Outside

Image courtesy of Stockvault.  This also is not what my backyard looks like.  For now.

Image courtesy of Stockvault. This also is not what my backyard looks like. For now.

I live in Northern Alabama, a place that normally only sees snow a couple short times a year. Even then, it’s usually too warm for it to stick, or it’s so windy that I get to see snowflakes float on the wind. Snow is such a rare occurrence that whenever the meteorologist has it in the forecast, people panic and run to the grocery store to buy milk and bread. Despite living here for so long, I never did figure out why.

Right now, I’m inside on my computer, occasionally taking a peek at the cold weather. There’s been a very light dusting of snow, not enough to cover the lawn. However, since it’s still there, I know it’s freaking freezing outside. My feet are getting cold just thinking about it. Or maybe it’s because I don’t have socks on at the moment.

For whatever reason, it’s the cold weather that makes me want to sit and write the most. When it’s summer, the heat down here is so oppressive that I just want to sip sweet tea and wait for the sun to go down. I do most of my writing at night on those days. Today, the cold weather seems to invite me to keep warm by visiting my fictional worlds. It sounds strange putting it in print.

To everyone staying in from the cold, best of luck to you however you manage it. As for me, I think I’ll throw a log on, watch the snowflakes dance on the breeze, and get back to editing.

And maybe put some socks on too.