Friday, January 27, 2012

Doing Charles Stross's Laundry with Style

Back in December 2010 I wrote a blog post entitled "Writing with Style (Sheets, That Is)," on my need, as an editor/copyeditor, for the author to provide a style sheet. This blog post was the result of a series of comments to a status update that Theodora Goss had posted on her Facebook page. In addition to Dora's and my comments, Robert Vardeman and Paul Witcover shared comments as well. And with their kind permissions, I included the FB comment stream in that blog post on style sheets. Dora then wrote a complementary blog post of her own, from her perspective on the subject in question. So with my post and hers, the reader is treated to the editor's and author's viewpoints regarding a single copyedit in a short story.

I won't overly bore you with repetitions from this blog post, should you choose to read it in its entirety, but as I mentioned in that post, in the nearly fifteen years that I have been in this business, I've only had two authors -- Michael A. Stackpole and Mark Teppo -- provide me with style sheets along with their manuscripts. That's two authors in nearly fifteen years. In fact, just this past September I worked on Michael's Of Limited Loyalty, the second volume in his Queen's Command series published by Night Shade Books, and once again he provided the publisher with an updated style sheet for his book.

ApocalypseCodexThe second post I want to reference was published on December 10, 2009, shortly after I finished work on Charles Stross's third Laundry Files novel, The Fuller Memorandum, for Ace Books. Entitled "Charles Stross: On Her Majesty's Occult Service," this rather extensive blog post covered my working relationship with Charlie Stross: how it all came together, including the genesis of The Atrocity Archives, the first Laundry Files volume, and the Hugo Award-winning novella "The Concrete Jungle." (Which, by the way, is still available online -- as a PDF doc or as a web page -- for your reading pleasure.)

As he did in 2009, Charlie again recommended me to Ace Books to proof, line edit, and copyedit his forthcoming (fourth) Laundry Files novel, The Apocalypse Codex. I have a distinct advantage over an in-house or other freelance editor because I have worked on the first three books in the series, allowing me to maintain consistency across all the volumes. And Charlie and I work well together: I ask a multitude of questions, and he answers, often with links to reference material; I make content suggestions, and he either accepts, rejects, or modifies said suggestions. Just as it should be, between editor and author. In fact, regarding my work on The Fuller Memorandum, Charlie informed me that upon reviewing the marked up (i.e. change tracked) manuscript from his publisher, he didn't have a single STET on any of my copyedits. No STETs means I done good -- very good. No STETs also takes a lot of stress off both the author and publisher, since there is no back-and-forth dickering necessary over changes: I'll give you those three copyedits for my one STET; this inevitably speeds up the production process, too. (I don't know if I'll be as lucky with the the work I did on the latest volume, which I delivered to Ace Books in December.)

In The Apocalypse Codex, our reluctant hero, Bob Howard, skilled in the techniques of applied computational demonology -- as well as all things IT geekery, plus PowerPoint slide shows and departmental time sheets -- is once again called upon to save the world from a diabolical fanatic who plans to open a portal to call forth a nightmare from the vast reaches of spacetime, at the cost of thousands of lives. Sounds like a typical Laundry Files novel, yes? But there the typical ends. The diabolical fanatic is a reverend; and Bob must team up with a couple of "external assets": Persephone "the Duchess" Hazard (code name: Bashful Incendiary) and Jonathan "Johnny" McTavish (code name: Johnny Prince).

[Update: Less than two hours since I published this post and I just realized I neglected to include something at this point. I said that this is where the typical ends. Well, not only does Bob team up with the Duchess and Johnny McTavish, but the story is written from each of their points of view. In fact, there are occasions where the story overlaps at times because we read, for example, Persephone's POV, and then Bob's POV, when they are both under attack in the New Life Church. Very cool. Now, back to the original blog post....]

I asked Charlie for a spoiler-free explanation of "external assets" and this is what he provided me:
Some history: during 1940–45 SOE was very much an informal organization staffed by independent-minded types who had no place in the regular MI5 hierarchy. Consequently, with the end of the war, bureaucratic infighting ensued and SOE was wound up by November 1945.

Now we have the Laundry, a [fictional] revenant division of SOE. But the Laundry is a peacetime organization, as bureaucratic (in its own way) as MI5/SIS. However, the threats the Laundry needs to deal with will from time to time require highly skilled operatives (wizards, in the terminology of the uninitiated) who can act autonomously. And it's also the case that most sorcerers of great power don't work well within a bureaucratic framework. So there is a mechanism for handling such operatives. The mechanism is designed to protect the organization from the depredations of loose cannons, while providing said loose cannons with [disposable] cannon fodder when they need backup. Within the Laundry in general, the high-level types are known as Mahogany Row; but to the security-cleared folks who work directly with them, they're External Assets.

And Bob is going to undergo an extremely hair-raising apprenticeship that will take him right out of the bureaucracy and give him more than enough rope to hang himself, when I get round to writing book number 5.

For those familiar with the Laundry Files series, Bob Howard's superior, DSS James Angleton (aka Eater of Souls), sits on Mahogany Row. 'Nuff said about that. I don't want to delve too much into TAC as I promised Charlie there wouldn't be any spoilers (well, at least not too many), as the book won't be published until July. So let me get back to the editing.

This was the first book I've edited or copyedited in which the publisher asked that I provide a style sheet! I was quite surprised, to say the least, especially since no style sheet was required for the previous title, The Fuller Memorandum. I always maintain a style sheet for every book that I work on. I keep a "running tab," so to speak, by chapter: I write down every person, organization, and place, every special word, word forms, and so on. I do this by chapter in case I have to reference back to a certain person/place/date/thing; in this way I can find its first appearance easily. But for Ace Books, I had to go beyond my typical style sheet. I first provided a list of my references, in order of preference; I then provided a list of "general rules" as follows:
  1. American English spelling (except where noted below)
  2. American English punctuation
  3. But maintain British idioms and speech patterns, particularly collective nouns followed by a plural verb (e.g. the committee have)
  4. Adverbs ending in "ly" that modify an adjective or participle require no hyphen
  5. Blonde – feminine form ends in "e"
  6. Comma preceding final "too"
  7. Serial commas
  8. Possessive "s" after all singular nouns/proper nouns ending in "s" (e.g. Barnes’s)
  9. Signs: initial caps and italicized
  10. Time: no hyphen when numerals are used; before noon/after noon designation in lowercase with periods (e.g. six thirty a.m./p.m.)
  11. Titles with no ending periods (e.g. Mr and Dr)
Of course, there was another list of rules entitled "Rules Specific to The Apocalypse Codex." Even with all these rules, I'll be the first to admit that the four Laundry Files books are not perfect, but I've done my best to keep them as consistent as possible. Certainly not an easy task, and many times while working on TAC I had to open up the files for The Atrocity Archives and/or The Jennifer Morgue in search of a particular word form or phrase.

Charlie also uses an inordinate number of acronyms and organizations throughout each novel. In the first two books, I included a "Glossary of Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Organizations," but this was abandoned beginning with the first Ace title. So I essentially had to resurrect the glossary for this style guide. Here are just a few entries (not inclusive) under the heading "People, Organizations, etc. Specific to the Laundry Files":
  • Dansey House – Laundry HQ, being rebuilt
  • Dominique "Mo" O'Brien – Bob's wife; aka agent CANDID
  • Dunwich Village – secret Laundry training and R&R center
  • Field Support Engineering, or FSE (formerly Q Division in previous novels), aka Facilities
  • Gerald "Gerry" Lockhart – manager of external assets
  • New Annex – Bob's departmental offices
  • New Life Church – located in Colorado Springs; where Reverend Schiller will hold his lovefest
  • Other Place – magical realm where sorcerers go
  • Pinky and the Brain, or Pinky and Brains – Bob's former roommates, who work for Facilities
  • Raymond Schiller, Pastor or Reverend or Father – head of the Golden Promise Ministries
  • Sunningdale Park – HR civil service corporate training center
In addition, the style guide included a section strictly for acronyms, as well as two final sections entitled "Miscellaneous Proper Nouns" and "Miscellaneous Words, Word Forms, Neologisms, etc."

The most involved part was transcribing my own personal chapter-based style guide into a section-based style guide for Ace Books, being sure that I didn't overlook any critical entries. I submitted the edited manuscript to Ace Books by the due date, which was definitely a satisfying conclusion to this project. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Charles Stross for his support and referral, and for his continued faith in the quality of my work; I would also like to thank Michelle Kasper, Production Editor at Ace/Berkley Books, for yet another opportunity to contribute to the success of the Laundry Files series.

One last note: Charlie has based each of the four Laundry Files novels on the particular style of a British espionage/mystery novelist. The Atrocity Archives was written in the style of Len Deighton, and Charlie even included an Afterword -- entitled "Inside the Fear Factory" -- in which he spoke of Deighton at length, and in which he equated the spy novel with horror fiction. The second novel, The Jennifer Morgue, was written in the style of Ian Fleming -- "Howard; Bob Howard. Capital Laundry Services, import/export division." -- with a twist at the end as to the identity of the "good Bond girl." Volume three, The Fuller Memorandum, was written in the style of Anthony Price, a novelist with whom I was unfamiliar until I worked on TFM. Which brings us to the present, and The Apocalypse Codex. Does the fact that Bob Howard teams up with a pair of agents -- a female and a male, the Duchess and Johnny McTavish -- ring any literary bells? How about Peter O'Donnell, creator of the character Modesty Blaise, along with her right-hand-man, Willie Garvin.


  1. ...PETER O'DONNELL. Gods, I love the man. YES. Dead Man's Handle to the hilt, right down to the Reverend! I really can't wait for this particular book in the series.

    1. Hi, Shuku --

      Good to hear from someone familiar with Peter O'Donnell's work. And I do hope you thoroughly enjoy Stross's The Apocalypse Codex.

      - marty