Monday, December 20, 2010

Writing with Style (Sheets, That Is)

In my December 19 blog post I mentioned that I had completed my review and copyedit of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Five, edited by Jonathan Strahan, forthcoming from Night Shade Books in March 2011. One of the stories included in this volume is Theodora Goss's "Fair Ladies," which was originally published in the August 2010 issue of Apex Magazine.

As both a reader and an editor, I read a lot of genre fiction -- primarily short fiction -- but no matter how much I read (and, unfortunately, I read quite slowly), I still can't be expected to read everything. There are many authors whom I have not read at all; and of those I have read, there are seemingly an infinite number of worlds and realms that they have written about that I am not familiar with. Now, if I were editing a series of novels, it would be in the best interest of the author and the publisher to have me work on book one, and then continue through the entire series; I would thus be able to help ensure consistency with characters and characterization, place/environment, events, word usage, etc. throughout the series.1 But short fiction is entirely different: even related stories are published in different venues -- various online and print magazines and anthologies. Since each of these are edited by someone different, none of the editors can be expected to be intimately familiar with every world/realm about which the authors write. Nor should they be. Each story needs to stand on its own because each story will be read by different people depending on the venue in which it is published. Each magazine has its own set of readers, though of course there may be some overlap. Some readers may read only free online 'zines. Others may not read magazines of any sort, but may focus on original anthologies from specific publishers, or by specific editors.

Nick Gevers and I accepted Jay Lake's story "Permanent Fatal Errors"2 for our anthology Is Anybody Out There? (Daw Books, June 2010). This story is part of Jay's Sunspin cycle of stories; in Jay's December 19 blog post, he lists the six stories (so far) that make up this cycle, five of which have been sold, to five different venues (though two of those venues are published by Subterranean Press). My co-editor Nick Gevers was more familiar with Jay's Sunspin cycle than I was, but the story still had to work for me -- and be unique and intriguing and, of course, well written -- without any knowledge of prior stories or the series itself.

Which brings me back to Theodora Goss's story "Fair Ladies," set in her fictional world of Sylvania. It's a wonderful story that stands on its own quite nicely; but no editor, or reader, is going to have the background knowledge -- environment, religion(s), history, culture, etc. -- of Sylvania that Dora has, since this is her world. As a copyeditor, I have to do the best job with the content that I have in front of me, following the rules of grammar, punctuation, etc. while trying not to affect story content or the author's intent, or even the story's rhythm.

In "Fair Ladies," Dora uses the monetary unit "kroner." The word only appears twice, in two separate sentences on consecutive pages. (Actually, the word appears three times, but the first doesn't count, because it's used as a proper name, the Café Kroner.):

"That's Friedrich, the painter," said Karl. "I've never seen him talk to anyone since I started coming here four years ago. I'll bet you four kroners that she's a film actress from Germany."

The party had lasted long past midnight. The Crown Prince himself had been there. The guest list had also included the Prime Minister; General Schrader; the countess of the feathered hat, this time in a tiara; the painter Friedrich; the French ambassador, Anita Dak, the principal dancer from the Ballet Russes, which was staging Copélia in Karelstad; a professor of mathematics in a shabby coat, invited because he had just been inducted into the National Academy; young men in the government who talked about the situation in Germany between dances; young men in finance who talked about whether the kroner was going up or down, seeming not to care which as long as they were buying or selling at the right times; mothers dragging girls who danced with the young men, awkwardly aware of their newly upswept hair and bare shoulders, then went back to giggling in corners of the ballroom.

In the first sentence, we have the plural form "four kroners," and in the second sentence the singular form "the kroner." I knew the word "kroner," but looked it up in a list of world currencies to confirm: I found the currency "krone" (Danish and Norwegian) on the list, as well as "krona" (Swedish) and "króna" (Icelandic). The plural form of "krone" is "kroner." So, by definition, "kroner" is plural and no ending "s" is necessary. I marked the ending "s" for deletion in the first example in Dora's story; I see now that I should have marked for deletion the ending "r" in "kroner" in the second example, for the singular form, but I didn't. This would have been consistent with world currency. Unfortunately, I don't recall what my thinking was three weeks ago in this one example. Regardless, I eventually completed the project and submitted my copyedits to Night Shade Books. All was well and good. That is, until the following status appeared on Dora's Facebook page on Friday, December 17:

Does fantasy writing create particular problems for a copyeditor? For example, I just corrected a copyeditor on a detail about imaginary currency...

She added a second comment one minute later:
As in, in Sylvania, the word kroner is singular, not plural. The plural, at least in English, would be kroners.

When I read her initial status post I knew immediately that Dora was referring to my copyediting on her story "Fair Ladies." So I responded in kind:

I'm guessing that copyeditor was me.... This is where a style sheet would be *extremely* helpful to delineate this type of information. I believe I thought that a singular denomination of currency was being used as the plural (or vice versa, I don't recall exactly). Since the word is an actual type of currency, I had no knowledge that you had changed it in this fantasy setting. Regardless, my copyedits are for the most part suggestions, and it is up to the author and/or editor of the book to make the final call.

I referred to a "style sheet" because prior to my comment, author Robert Vardeman had responded:

Strange spellings, new words and odd usage ought to be on your style sheet.

And in response to my comment, Dora responded:
Marty, was that really you? If so, I just want to say (a) great copyediting, and (b) thanks for catching all those picky little mistakes! I was just pointing out the kroner thing because I thought it was funny. I do think fantasy writing creates special problems for copyeditors because we just make stuff up, like a currency, or use archaic terms. In "Rose in Twelve Petals" I referred to a backboard, and the copyeditor thought I mean blackboard. And in "Child-Empress, I had a LOT of Martian words...

This led to a sequence of posts between Dora, author Paul Witcover, and me (with me and Dora doing the majority of commenting). So here is the entire comment stream without further interruption:

Paul Witcover If a writer is going to make up words and new grammatical rules for an imaginary language, or use familiar words in unfamiliar ways, then it is incumbent upon the writer to provide a stylesheet for the copyeditor, as Marty suggests. A good copyeditor should of course catch and query any departures from normal usage, but a stylesheet will make it easier on everyone. And yes, I do think that copyeditors who are not familiar with a particular genre can have difficulties with mss. in that genre, whether it's sf, fantasy, romance, western, whatever.

Theodora Goss Ok, guys. What does a stylesheet look like? (So I know how to make one in future.)

Paul Witcover Basically just put together a list of the words that you are using which you feel a copyeditor might stumble over or mistakenly flag. Also usages and any grammatical issues you want to have treated in a certain way. It's helpful if the word list is in alphabetical order. A copyeditor will put together his or her own stylesheet in the course of CEing your novel; that can serve as your model in terms of format, but really, I'm just grateful for any guidance I receive from the author in these matters, whatever its format.

Theodora Goss Paul, that's really good to know. I haven't written a novel yet, but I'll do that for the first one. One problem with short stories is that sometimes you don't know whether they're going to be copyedited or not. They often aren't...

Paul Witcover Yes, that's a definite problem with shorter stuff. Some anthologies and magazines just don't have the budget for a good copyeditor, unfortunately.

Marty Halpern It pains me when I see fiction in online 'zines that have atrocious errors -- typos, dropped words, incorrect tense -- and it's obvious that these stories were not copyedited. Then, the story gets picked up by a "best of" anthology and the editor of that antho just carries over all those atrocious errors. If an author would just learn to run a basic spellcheck on the basic content, sheesh, life would be a lot simpler!

Marty Halpern But getting back to the "kroner" issue. There is an inherent danger in using a known/existing word in a different context or with a different spelling. Does every reader who reads that word say, Oh, this is a fantasy story, the author can write anything s/he pleases. Or, do they look at that word and think the author is grammatically incorrect and the copyeditor didn't catch the error? Had you made up a completely new word for the currency that doesn't appear in any international currency indices, I wouldn't have thought anything of it and would have left the word as is.

Marty Halpern Sorry for my overindulgences here... Regarding style sheets: There really is no set form; as Paul states, just a list would do fine, with any nuances in content highlighted, a list of people's names (You'd be surprised how often I find authors misspelling their own characters names -- even 3 different ways! Which is correct?), special words/usage, etc. In my 10+ years of editing, only two authors -- Mark Teppo and Michael A. Stackpole -- have ever provided me with a style sheet, and both of these occurred in this and last year.

Paul Witcover Yes, names are especially important!

Theodora Goss It's fascinating to gain insight into the copyediting mind! :) I will say, on behalf of authors, that I chose kroner because European countries tend to have currencies with names that sound alike and are actually related to one another, so for example there's a krone, a krona, and an (archaic) korona, all of which come from the Latin word crown. And the forint was originally the florin. So I would say the Sylvanian kroner comes from the Latin corona but ended up kroner because of the way Sylvanians form plurals, which is different than the Danish or Norwegian way, closer to the Hungarian way (we speak of forints), since Sylvania was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My imaginary countries tend to have elaborate backstories that no one is going to care about, but that determine the names I give things. Like for example, I have a town called Ashton, in Beaufort County, NC. In order to call it that, I had to know all about the Ashe and Beaufort families, which English kings gave them how much land, etc. But yes, I can definitely see how my choice would have caused confusion! (And if anyone has problems while actually traveling in Sylvania, you can use the Euro just about everywhere, nowadays. ;)

Theodora Goss Oh, and the Romans were in Sylvania way back when, just as they were in Hungary. That's why the currency is based on a Latin word. I seriously had to figure out almost the entire history of the country just to write the first story about Sylvania. Although I'm not entirely sure what happened after WWII. Part of me really wants Sylvania to have fought with the Allies and not become part of the Eastern Block.

Marty Halpern Is everyone okay if I quote your comments verbatim on a blog post? I think these comments will lend themselves to an excellent post on word usage and style sheets. I may not use *every* comment if it's not specific to these two topics. Cheers.

Dora states that the comments provide insight into the mind of a copyeditor, but I feel that Dora's explanation of how she came to use "kroner" provides some wonderful insight into the mind of a writer, which is far more complicated than that of a copyeditor, trust me on this -- we follow the rules; writers break the rules and create their own!

When I copyedit a story or novel, I essentially create a style sheet; if a novel, I enter my notes by chapter. I list character names, places, locations, dates; I track words that are capitalized, particularly if they are not typically capitalized; I track unusual words, fictional words, foreign words. I don't do anything fancy because this is for my use only. But it would behoove authors to create style sheets for all of their fiction, short or novel-length. The style sheet could then be attached to the story, or novel, and included as part of the submission. If the story is reprinted, send along the style sheet. If an editor chooses not to use the style sheet an author provides, that's the editor's issue; the author has done his/her job by providing all the necessary details and background for the successful publication of the story.

I'm going to send the link for this blog post to Dora because she wants to link to it from her blog and FB page; she also said: "I think I'd like to talk about the writer's experience on my blog as well. So we'll have a sort of loop. :)"

And when she writes her experience, I'll post the link here: Writers and Copyeditors. Hopefully you will find the two perspectives helpful, or at least entertaining.


1 Jay Lake's Sunspin story, "Permanent Fatal Errors," has been posted in its entirety on this blog for your reading pleasure.

2 Series work that I have edited include Liz Williams's Detective Inspector Chen series and Charles Stross's Laundry Files series. By working on these series across different publishers, I'm able to bring some continuity to the process. The first four DI Chen books were published by Night Shade Books; Morrigan Books has taken over publication of books five and six. I have editorial credit on the just-published book five, The Iron Khan, and hope to work on book six, Morningstar, as well. Regarding Stross's Laundry books, I acquired and edited the first two volumes for Golden Gryphon Press; when Ace Books acquired the recently published The Fuller Memorandum, Charlie put in a good word for me and Ace hired me to work on the book. I'm hoping to be involved in the next title as well, The Apocalypse Codex. I wrote an extensive blog post about working with Charlie Stross on these first three books.

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  1. It's fascinating to get an inside account of copyediting, about which writers are left in the dark by their editors/publishers for reasons I can only guess at. Thank you.

  2. KJ,

    You're quite welcome. Copyediting has the potential to cause huge disagreements between author and editor/publisher. I've heard many stories from authors how they had to fight their editor/publisher to not have a change made to their manuscript because the change would have eroded the sense of time and place, obviously something about which the copyeditor had no knowledge. And these authors end up giving way to most changes in order to retain a couple pieces of content they feel are critical to their story. Thus editors/publishers don't want to emphasize the copyediting too much -- and they certainly don't want the author to know who the copyeditor is (at least among NY publishers).

    - marty