Writing a World Building Style Guide

Bible_and_Key_Divination.jpgToday, I wanted to talk about style guides. No, not the Chicago Manual of Style.  I’m talking about self-generated style guides that serve as a bible for your universe(s). I’ve been working with the Human Legion recently, and I’ve spent some time organizing world building notes spanning multiple authors. Different authors, writing different series, but in the same universe.

The solution, for me, was apparent — compile the notes and make a style guide to ensure consistency. This was easier said than done. Let’s talk about how to make one, what it can do, and potential information to keep within it.

A style guide, for those of you unfamiliar, is a tool to create consistency throughout a story, world, or universe. It is tremendously helpful to an editor, because it will show them invented words, character information, and world background. We’ve talked about World Builder’s Disease before, a style guide is a great place to dump the info filling your brain.

World Builder's Disease MemeIt should be noted, some of this information is only useful if you are writing within a large world or universe. Depending on the scope of your work, you may not need an elaborate style guide. It would be useful to create a short style guide for an editor. This becomes more essential if you have created words or are utilizing an odd stylistic device.

Before I jump into what to include, I wanted to mention how a style guide will save you time. When I first started working with the Legion, they had tons of reference documents. These documents were contained within multiple folders, spread out between authors. I’m talking about more than thirty folders, and many individual documents within.

This became a battle of navigation for me. How many arms and fingers does this alien race have?  A simple question, really. So, I would open up the shared folders, begin navigation, move from one author to another, search differently labeled folders, and maybe I would find the info…or maybe not.

Waiting for an Email

You might be saying, “Why not just contact the author?” Good point! Unless they are on a completely different timezone or work schedule. For me, the more time I spend working the manuscript and not on the phone, the faster things get done.

Usually, the info was there, I just couldn’t locate it quickly among the massive archive of folders. Plus, I have proclivity to over-organize. There is nothing wrong with organizing your files however you want. If it works for you as the writer, don’t change anything.  But as the editor, I needed a more intuitive and rapid way to find information.

While the writers and fans of the Human Legion have done an outstanding job of creating infopedias (Official Infopedia, Fan Wiki), much of the information within the style guide is secretive in nature. Hidden motivations, planet histories, and tasty spoilers. It’s intel the writers understand, but the readers don’t need to know about…not yet. As one of the editors, I needed to reference these notes to help steer the ship.

moon footprint.jpgSo began the first step: compiling all of these pertinent documents into a universal source. One that would contain all of the information hyperlinked. Now, if I need to know how many arms and fingers an alien has, I click Alien Species in the table of contents (hyperlinked), scroll the alphabetized list, click the species in question (again, hyperlinked), and viola.

Format. Much like a webpage with clickable links, if you can add navigation within the style guide, you win the prize. I use Word, which allows for linking within the document. This might seem excessive, but after compiling the needed information into a living document (i.e. it will keep growing) the word count was around 15k for the style guide.  If I relied on scrolling to navigate, it would take forever.

What should you put in the style guide?

A Refined List

Character Name List. A listing of character names, properly spelled, makes the gods of writing smile. Especially, when you have tons of characters. Non-human species seem to generate the most inconsistency — a standard helps.

Once a character name list has been generated, you can begin hyperlinking supporting documents (characters sheets, sketches, etc). This made life really easy for me.

Corey question: the character’s eye color has changed from blue to green…what is the correct color?  Answer: Table of Contents -> Character List -> Click Character (confirm spelling) -> read character sheet.

Technology List. Holy bologna, this is a massive list for the Legion (and one I need to update). Depending on your genre, you may have invented technology. If it’s military sci-fi, then the technology probably has corresponding acronyms. Some of it might be written as a proper noun, some of it might not be. Whatever you decide as the writer, there needs to be consistency. Listing how these should appear is a step in the right direction.

Science_and_Invention_Nov_1928_Cover_2.jpgLocation List. Sweet mothers milk, another sprawling list. If your story spans cities, continents, planets, or farther, it might be wise to start compiling these locations and linking supporting documents. There will always be the handful of readers who say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t Planet D’s sun too intense without the aid of an exoskeleton?” If the reader has sunk into your world well enough to notice things like this, you owe it to them to be consistent.

Invented Word List. My favorite!  Nothing will blow Word’s circuits like a ton of invented words being thrown into the mix. Invented words, within reason, are one of the spices that make a universe unique. Just be sure to list those words. It might be wise to mention if only one person, species, or planet uses these words too.

Acronym List. Holy alphabet soup, Batman! This will probably only be useful to those of you who are writing in certain genres. An alphabetical listing of acronyms, backronyms, and initialisms makes me want to river dance. It becomes ten times more important when you are inventing these.

alienSpecies List.  Have you unleashed new races and species on your manuscript? Cool. You might want to compile a list and start linking reference documents. Remember the question above about how many arms and fingers an alien would have? This list solves those problems before they begin.

Basic Grammar and Punctuation Section. This is more of an editing thing, but if you find yourself working collaboratively with someone from another country, you might want to flush out the differences. British and American styles differ. The goal, especially if you are collaborating on the same book, is to achieve consistency of style.

question-markThat’s it for today! I’m curious about what methods you all use to compile and organize your universe notes. Do they exist in a jumble of folders, or have you found a way to compile them intuitively? I’d love to talk about it and pick up some pointers. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always — stay sharp!

Self-Editing: Fighting Emotion with Logic

locked.jpgYou’ve written your book.  The masterpiece has been marinating in a drawer (or buried on a hard drive) for weeks.  Somehow, you managed to not tear into it early, despite it whispering into your ear at night.  Let’s face it, you both needed some time and space from one another.

The time has come.  You unlock the drawer, or click the icon, and staring you in the face is months worth (maybe more) of semicoherent words. The manuscript gazes back at you with worried eyes.  It knows.  You are about to tear it to pieces.  Now the question becomes—will you tear yourself to pieces in the process?

Many people think writing a book is the hardest thing you can do.  Then an editor comes along and breaks your heart.  As an editor, telling a writer to cut something from the work is akin to telling them to sacrifice a cute little fuzzy kitten to the writing gods.  Much of this heartbreak would be avoided if writers would practice more thorough self-editing prior to submission to an editing service.

The goal of this post is to give you some basic guidelines to sharpen your self-editing chops.  Go grab the garden sheers and put on a rubber apron…this might get messy.

chainsaw

Print first—word process later. I believe in this concept so much I wrote an entire blog post about it (located here). Because it’s linked, I won’t go into this.  I do encourage you to give the post a glance if you haven’t seen it before.

Work big first, then get small.  We typically write our first draft in a hurry, tired, and running on three gallons of caffeine.  There are going to be large chunks of exposition and rambling.  They served their purpose.  The purpose was to help you continue writing and bridge gaps in the story.  Additionally, when we are writing the first draft we make assumptions about what is going to be important later on.  We tend to over describe certain items, places, and people.  Now that you know all the punchlines, it’s time to gauge their worth.

editing.JPGRoy Peter Clark in his book, Writing Tools, recommends that you, “Cut any passage that does not support your focus.  Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes, and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.  Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader” (p. 51).

It’s good advice, but it’s hard to follow.  The reason is emotion versus logic.

Here’s a real world example.  One of the people I edit for wrote a beautiful, page long description about a set of revolvers one his minor characters carries.  After reading it, I could picture every line and blemish on the them.  He told me he did extensive research to make them feel real, and it was truly great writing.  I bit my lip and recommended he cut it.

Why?  Well, it was placed in the middle of a heated interaction.  Everything was building, the action was coming, and boom—we interrupt this gunfight to bring you a dissertation on handguns in antiquity.  Worse even, the character wielding the pistols is only in the book for a handful of pages.

The takeaway here is this: no matter how slick the dialogue or description is, if it isn’t pushing the story forward, it’s got to go.  Your readers want to read your story, don’throw down roadblocks.

Redundant Meme

Get rid of all those redundancies.  I already wrote a post on redundant prose, so I won’t go into this too much.  The only additional piece of information I’ve found since then is an interesting rule.

This comes from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, written by Renni Browne and Dave King.  The rule is  1+1=1/2.  They explain that, “When you try to accomplish the same effect twice, the weaker attempt is likely to undermine the power of the stronger one” (p. 178). It’s a great tip and something to look for when you are going through with the hatchet.

Syllables—check those big words.  If you really want to wear your reader down, use words with a ton of syllables.  Conspiratorially.  Automatically.  Conversationally.  Many of these big beasts tend to be adverbs, but not always.  Look for those five-dollar words and ask yourself, Will the average reader know what it means?  Will something shorter work in it’s place?  Am I using this for effect?

Regarding effect.  I’ve heard this rationale used before,  “My character is a smarty pants so he/she uses big words in a condescending sort of way.”  Cool!  I’m all for it.  Just know there is only so much the reader can take.  Also, if this is the only tool you use to enforce this character trait, the character can feel one-dimensional.

measure twice cut once.jpgMeasure twice, cut once. Anyone who has done construction, or is a DIY weekend warrior, has likely heard this advice.  The concept is simple.  Ensure you know where to cut before you drop the blade.  I encourage you to do the same when you are self-editing.

William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, offers a brilliant bit of advice he developed while teaching his students at Yale.  “I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work” (p. 15).

Writers who edit onscreen (using a word processor) have a tendency to prolong editing time because they are constantly doing the, backspace, rewrite, backspace, rewrite, tap dance.  A way to defeat this is to utilize the tool Zinsser is describing.

Print out the pages then read through them silently, and then aloud.  Go slowly through the words and decide what is doing work and what isn’t.  Be realistic.  Throw those words, phrases, and pieces of dialogue into brackets.  Once you are done, read the copy and omit the bracketed words.  Did it flow faster?  Was it smoother?

copy editing_2

[Editor’s Note]

This is a timely re-post for me as I recently reopened the first draft of my book up and started rewrites.  I can tell stepping away for more than a month (as painful as it was) has really opened my eyes to some major issues.  It’s a good feeling catching those mistakes now and knowing readers will never see them. I’m also glad to be back with Drake and playing in the wasteland.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for stopping by and reading.  As usual, I only scratched the surface.  Do you have advice or ideas you use during self-editing?  Please share them.  I’m always looking to toss more pencils into my writing toolbox.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

A Setting Writing Checklist

A Refined ListMost writers I work with tend to blend outlines and instinctive writing together.  There are exceptions.  Some are renegade mavericks who wander into the jungle with a machete and hack away a path.  Others spend months plotting all the paths, sub-paths, and hidden passageways before they type a word.

Regardless of the method, when the sky parts and heavenly light blasts down on the freshly minted manuscript, most writers are going to need to address descriptive setting elements.  The method I employ is starting at the chapter and working my way in toward the sentence.  

I’ve talked about setting before in the past.  We’ve hammered the following topics:

glasses-icon.jpg

This image was created by Jess Tahbonemah and is the property of M.L.S. Weech.  Any use without his permission is prohibited. 

Let’s take a day and merge the concepts together into a step-by-step checklist. 

Step 1: Think big by addressing setting on the chapter level.  This is where the article I wrote on anchoring the reader might come in handy.  Make sure when the chapter opened you took a sentence or two to address when and where the character(s) are.  If you aren’t writing in 1st person, you might need to clue the reader into who is present.

There are methods you can employ which could preclude you from having to clue readers into who is present.  M.L.S. Weech, Robert Jordan, and many other authors utilize chapter icons.  These icons offer a visual cue to the reader as to who will be present in the chapter.  The glasses icon I added is one of Weech’s, and you can check out more of his Caught icons here.  While this method is a great tool, you’ll notice most authors who do this also anchor the reader in each chapter with their words.  It’s a double whammy! 

Smell the Napalm

Step 2: Isolate the character(s) in the chapter and determine from which POV the setting is being viewed from.  From what I’ve gathered, writers who pump out large, daily word counts struggle with this the most.  This is because they can sit down and write more than one chapter in a session.  Their mind latches onto a single way of thinking (POV), and despite the change in character, the setting description will bleed over.  This is perhaps the easiest way to bamboozle a reader. 

I can think of many times where I was reading a passage and assumed the description and setting information was coming from Character X.  It wasn’t until I got to a character name that I realized it was coming from Character Y.  It’s important to switch descriptive gears when we switch characters.  Mindful consistency is going to be key.  It is important to consider how the characters’ arcs will impact their view of their world at any given time.  Even the most optimistic character is going to look at a flower and want to stomp on it every now and then.

jetpack.jpgStep 3: Think scene by scene.  Within the chapter there can be multiple scenes.  These are typically indicated by a shift in place, action, or perspective.  The writer usually accomplishes this by pulling in or out with description.  Each one of these shifts is an opportunity to provide a couple sentences, or even a few words, to indicate setting and how the character perceives it.

Consider the article listed above about stitching transitions into setting.  This is especially useful when analyzing how your character moves scene to scene.  Your creations may walk, run, drive, jetpack, or teleport to different locations within the chapter.  Look to see if there will be value added by injecting setting details into those transitions.  

crystal ball.jpgStep 4: Go inside scenes and address paragraphs and sentences.  This is where the real work starts to happen.  This is also where self-study and understanding of your genre will come into play.  It’s the dreaded show versus tell, devil in the details tedium.  

As the writer, you likely have all the answers.  Try your best to think like the reader and look for areas where they will have questions.  These are some of the most common questions I ask writers: Where are they?  How did they get here?  What does this look like?  How does he/she feel about this?  

Be mindful of these “constants.”

Constant 1: Think about where you are in the book.  Setting information has a cumulative effect.  If you’ve done a solid job building up, setting can be less about “stuff” and more about how people view “stuff.”  In essence, setting can become more emotional and less physical.

Constant 2: Show versus tell is something that I tend to address at the scene level.  Again, I don’t advocate the use of one or the other universally.  The article I linked offers a tool to gauge intensity within a scene and this can help determine the amount of showing or telling you need to do.  It’s not foolproof, but it’s something to consider.

Types of Conflict

Constant 3: For areas of the book that are conflict driven, consider if the setting is running against the characters. More often than not, you want the setting to act as a barrier to character goals.  Sure, you can toss down a yellow brick road to help them find their way, but make sure it is loaded with poisonous flowers and wicked witches.

Constant 4: Look for those “ly” adverbs and decide whether they should live or die. I’m not in the business of adverb annihilation, but if the adverb is being used as a crutch where a few words of insightful information could have been added, it’s time to reappraise.

Constant 5: Make sure to inject sensory details throughout.  You can refer to the article I linked at the beginning for more info on this subject if you require it. 

question-markThat’s it for today!  I wanted to take a day to compile our examination of setting into a larger tool.  I hope you found some of this information useful.  For my own study, I’m curious about what elements of setting, if any, you struggle with.  In revision, is there a certain method you employ to address this?  Do you have a checklist of sorts?  I’d love to talk about it and advance my own knowledge.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp! 

Copyright Info (final)

Killing Clichés and Birthing New Ones

We use clichés when we talk.  Why should we be surprised when they worm their way into our writing?  Surprised or not, when you start the process of self-editing your work you best underline those little gems and prepare them for annihilation via repeated backspace smashing.  If the cliché is located in the intro of your book, you can assume any literary agent worth their weight in shattered hopes and dreams will put your work down and move on to the next prospect.

cliches in history.jpg

Don’t take my word for it.  Here are some direct quotes from the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents 2016written by  Chuck Sambuchino.

“Anything  cliché such as ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ will turn me off.  I hate when a narrator or author addresses the reader (i.e., ‘Gentle reader’).” (Jennie Dunham, Dunham Literary)

guide to literary agents.jpg“1) Squinting into the sunlight with a hang-over in a crime novel.  Good grief – been done a million times. 2) A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.  3) A trite statement (‘Get with the program’ or ‘Houston, we have a problem’ or ‘You go girl’ or ‘Earth to Michael’ or ‘Are we on the same page?’), said by a weenie sales guy, usually in the opening paragraph.  4) A rape scene in a Christian novel, especially in the first chapter.  5) ‘Years later, Monica would look back laugh…’  6) ‘The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.'” (Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary)

That’s probably enough examples.  If not, there are more fury filled offerings listed on pages 66-67.

But hey, screw agents right?  Real authors do what they want!

“Clichés work because we all understand them, but they’re also a little sad because, really?  Can’t you do better?  ‘He ran like the wind?’  Yeah, well, I kicked your nuts like a soccer ball.  You’re a writer.  It’s your job to avoid clichés.  It’s your job to do better than the bare minimum”  (Chuck Wendig, The Kick-Ass Writer, p. 100).

I could pound out more quotes from how-to books and author memoirs, but I will save you the tedium.  Breath it in and accept it, we should avoid clichés.  So what is a way to avoid them?  Here’s a pretty cool concept I found in Writing Tools, written by Roy Peter Clark.

“When tempted by a tired phrase, such as ‘white as snow,’ stop writing.  Take what the practitioners of natural childbirth call a cleansing breath.  Then jot down the old phrase on a piece of paper.  Start scribbling alternatives…” (p. 81). 

Queen_Elizabeth_II_June_2014.jpgThe example Clark provides is this progression: white as snow -> white as Snow White -> snowy white -> gray as city snow -> gray as the London sky -> white as the Queen of England (p. 81).

It’s an interesting way to turn an old phrase into something new and unexpected.  Give it a whirl.  In case you were unsure if you were using a cliché, here is the most gargantuan list of them I have found as of yet.  Another good reference to check out would be Writing Excuses Season 2: Episode 25, Avoiding the Cliche with Tracy Hickman.

That’s it for today.  Got a favorite cliché?  Share it.  Think I am dead wrong and you can use them if you want?  Awesome sauce!  Throw your thoughts into the comment box.  I’m always open to hearing your insights.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

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