Style guides

Writing is just putting words on paper, isn’t it? No, not really. Just like verbal communication, how you say it is often as important as what you say. And, how you say it is more than just a word choice.

As writers and publishers, we have to put thought into how we represent ourselves and those we work with. Choices of what to capitalize, what to hyphenate, fonts, font sizes, headers, paragraph format, paragraph spacing, and many others play a role in what we do. There’s a visual aspect to pages beyond the words on them and how we present our words matters.

Fortunately, there are those who would advise us on these things. And… They’re right as much as they’re wrong. That’s one reason they keep cranking out new editions (it’s not just to sell books about how to write…). There are also genuine changes (like internet research) that force them to address topics that didn’t appear in former editions.

But… Here’s a big secret… Just because a publisher says they use the (MLA, APA, Chicago, AMA…) style guide, that doesn’t mean they actually use that style guide. Often publishers and organizations have internal style guides. And, if you’re self-publishing, running a website/blog, or even running an ad campaign, you should have one too.

Why? Because using a style guide helps you do things consistently. And customizing the style guide for your organization or purpose helps you focus that style guide to suit what you’re doing. Having a consistent style guide also allows you to set up and use the styles functions in your favorite writing software/ap. Combined, they cut down on extraneous thinky stuff and “fiddly bits” while you’re writing.

If you’ve planned out your style and set up your styles, when you want a ‘header 1’, it’s only a couple clicks away. If you’re just doing it “free hand” you have to choose the right font, adjust the font size, remember what color the font should be, set the correct spacing, and then reverse all of that for the regular text on the next line.

The choice to use styles and style guides really shows its merits in editing and revising for publication.

Your publisher might decide you should phrase things just a bit differently. Your book designer might suggest you make those headers a slightly different shade of blue. If you’ve setup and used a style guide, you’ve phrased things consistently and can do a find and replace. If not… you… have to… search… out… each… and… every… instance… and… change… them. If you’ve set up and used styles in your program, you make the changes in one place. If not? We’re… back… to… the… one… at… a… time… approach.

A style guide is a valuable part of your planning process. If you have one already, that’s great. But does it need a modification for this project? If you don’t have one, build one. it will make your life much easier further down the road.

Things can change. If you’re submitting to different publishers, you might need to shift the style for each one. If you’ve planned your style and used your tools from the beginning, that’s not too hard. If you haven’t, you’ve either got a lot of extra work to do, or you’ve just cost yourself an acceptance letter or two.

Words are important. but it’s not just about the words. It’s about communication and presenting ourselves and our projects in the right way. Creating or using the right style guide is part of that.

Use the right tool for the right job, dear reader. And, I’ll see you next post.

Queries and pitches (part 1)

“I’m thinking about just self-publishing. Finding a publisher is too hard!”

I’ve heard that more than once. I’ve thought that more than once. But self-publishing isn’t always the best idea. Actually, it can be one of the worst ideas if you want to succeed as an author.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes self-publishing is the right thing to do (there’s a whole ‘nother post in there somewhere…). But, don’t let your reasoning be “because getting a publisher is too hard”. And definitely don’t let it be because you’re afraid to put yourself out there! Seriously, we’re talking about being afraid of putting yourself out there while you’re putting yourself out there!

If you’re afraid of people telling you your writing isn’t good or pointing out problems, you’re going to have to get over that eventually. A great strategy for that is reading what’s out there, learning craft, and getting some alpha/beta readers and maybe even hire an editor or two before unleashing your writing on the world. Understand what you’ve got and make it quality work before you send it out. Once you’ve done that, there’s no shame in sending it out.

There may be no shame. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any nos. there will probably be a lot of them. I’ve never met a genuine writer who doesn’t have a rejection letter or two (usually a lot more).

But if I get a no, that means my work is bad. Right?

Not necessarily. Sometimes it’s the work. In which case, please see (and follow) my previous advice. But sometimes it’s the approach you’re taking and the agents and publishers you’re approaching.

In a previous post, I’ve talked about knowing your audience and realizing you have more than one.{link} Agents and publishers are one of those audiences. And, you need to understand them at least as well as you understand your reading audience.

You won’t get very far if you send your fantasy novel to a textbook publisher. Even if they mistake the book for an actual textbook, they’re probably not set up to print the final product you want.

You’re also not going to get very far sending your accounting textbook to a romance publisher (unless there’s an audience that’s really, really into numbers (and I mean in a way that’s probably not church approved)). So, first step, do some research and make sure the publisher you’re sending to publishes for the market and audience you want.

While you’re doing that research… Look into who you’ll be working with. It’s not always easy to know who the players are at a publisher. But, the more you know about them, the more you can tailor your query to them.

It’s also important to read the publisher’s submission guidelines! There are a lot of books out there and many people writing books. The front-line manuscript readers are looking for reasons to reject your manuscript, not reasons to accept it. So, don’t give them any easy excuses:

  • It doesn’t matter if Comic Sans is the ‘cooler’ font. If they say times new roman, use times new roman.
  • If they say electronic submission only, don’t send a typed (physical) copy
  • If they say the accept manuscripts from September to May, don’t send it in June.
  • If they say “no (insert genre here)” don’t send it to them! There are reasons for publishers to stick to certain markets and reasons for you to find a publisher who knows the market you’re going for.

Give them what they want on the simple stuff. Never ignore the guidelines or irritate prospective publishers for ‘artistic’ reasons. Modern publishers want to know you’re a professional business person/writer. The artist stuff comes later (and if you’re really an artist, that will come through without you having to force it).

“Ok. Ok. I’ll research publishers and make sure my query fits their guidelines. But what else should I do to get published?”

Gotta say it… That depends. Once you know what they’re looking for in a query, there’s a lot you can do to improve your chances of getting accepted. But, talking about that will take more than one post.

Next time, (part two of the series that is…) I’ll talk a bit about pitching. That’s the one where you’re actually talking to a person. It’s both easier and scarier than it sounds. It follows a lot of the same rules as sending a written query. And, if you do it right, it can really help with getting published.

We all have things to learn, dear reader. Learn yours well. And, I’ll see you next post.

It’s coming!

I was going to write about interviewing skills this week, but the interviewer (me) and the interviewee (also me) are having a scheduling challenge and we’re going to have to come back to that post later. One reason for the interruption… Registration for the 2023 LDSPMA writers’ conference is now open!

Writers’ conferences are interesting beasts and sometimes really helpful. Would you like to:

  • Connect and network with people in the industry
  • Learn from the folks who are really doing the work
  • Improve your web presence and social media (actually, I kind of need that one…)
  • Pitch a book to a live editor instead of launching a thousand queries
  • Just get away from the writer’s desk and spend time with people who understand your struggle

Well, those are all things you can do at a writers’ conference. And that’s not even speaking to the music and art folks who will join us at LDSPMA this year.

For those who’re wondering. No, you don’t have to belong to any faith, party, or social group to attend. We welcome anyone who’s interested in good writing, art, and making the world a better place.

Give the website a look. And, if you like what you see, come join us at the conference.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Registration has launched, but there’s still more to do to make the conference great. See you next post.

“Gamification”

How do you teach statistics? How to you make history more interesting for students? Is there a better way to teach chemistry? Someone, somewhere, got the idea to teach them through games.

Games can be an excellent teaching tool. If you use them properly. They can also be gold medal winners in the lame category if the creator doesn’t do so well.

But, what’s the difference between a good educational game and a bad “educational game”?

The good ones really are games. And, they’re also educational tools. Often, the bad ones are more busywork, or a weakly built game with a veneer of education pressed onto the surface.

Here’s an example:

When I was taking statistic, we used games, lots of games. In introductory stats, we learned probability. We talked about and played poker and craps. Later, as we got into more analytical things, we still used poker and craps, but baseball and roleplaying games took precedence. We learned statistics by playing games, talking about games, and analyzing games. We actually used the games to do the things and learned how to do the things.

Occasionally, I’ve met stats professors who try to develop their own games. If they play games, like games, and stick to the model I just talked about, they do fairly well. But then there are the ones who don’t.

Some professors decide that poker, craps, roleplaying games, and (God help us!) baseball are demeaning to their subject. So, they don’t want to use any of those games. But they still want to gamify their classes. This leads to “interesting” and occasionally innovative (in the “yeah, you really did something there…” sense). But they miss the mark.

Often, they aren’t games at all. Sorry, a word problem isn’t a game (usually). Or, they’re not well suited to the subject matter. Sure, you found the term analysis or variance in the word search, but does that teach you what an ANOVA is, how to do one, or why you would want to do it?

Even worse, the “choose your own adventure” professor who inflicts “if you choose to use linear regression turn to page 63, or if you choose to use correlation turn to page 91” on his students. (don’t worry, it’s not that bad in reality… I promise (the professor who inspired this one did it electronically so there’s no page numbers!))

The point is, if you’re going to gamify learning, you have to find or develop a game that’s actually fun to play and also allows the player to work with and learn about the information you’re trying to teach. If your game doesn’t fit both criteria, you’re probably going to fail (and so might your students!).

It all comes back to a common theme in the writing world; you’ve got to know your material and your audience. And that’s the secret.

Good luck with your material, dear reader, and your audience. I’ll see you next post.

Second opinions

Back in the bad old days (graduate school edition) I noticed my professors had one or more colleagues that they’d trade research papers and other written work with, to read over before submitting or publishing. It’s not only a good idea, it can be a real project and reputation saver!

Later, as I dove into the world of writing and publishing, the term beta reader popped up. It made sense. It sounded like what my professors did, and what writing groups do, so I needed to find some beta readers. Except, if they’re beta readers, who’s the alpha reader?

The people I talked to back then didn’t seem to know! Some people I talk to now, and writers who put out articles on the subject, don’t seem to know either. Typical answers follow the form of “An alpha reader is the first person you show it to and a beta reader is the second.” That’s not overly helpful.

Are they looking for different things?

What if you share it with two people at the same time?

Does a developmental editor count as either?

Does genre make a difference?

My answers (take them for what they’re worth):

  • Yes, alpha and beta readers are looking for different things. Since you should edit between groups, they should look at a different draft, so what they find should be different. (We can get into the holy wars over what makes up a different draft later…)
  • If you give a draft to more than one person without editing between, I’d consider them the same level of reader (otherwise we’re up to epsilon, omicron, and tau readers before we get serious work done…).
  • No, a developmental editor, or a copy editor, isn’t the same thing as an alpha or beta reader. Editors are usually paid, while alpha and beta readers aren’t. It’s not fair to expect one to be the other.
  • Genre always matters. It might not matter in determining who’s an alpha reader or a beta reader, but it might! Different people have different experiences and tastes. What they look for and what they report to you will differ based on their experience in the genre.

Practically speaking, I’m not sure the “whose an alpha reader and who’s a beta reader” argument really matters. It’s fine to stick with “alpha readers are the first group and beta readers are the second” (and you should definitely have multiple people in the beta group…). The qualities of your readers honestly matter more than what you call them (except when it doesn’t).

Ideally, your alpha and beta readers should reflect the audience you’re aiming for, or at least knowledgeable about that audience. And, they shouldn’t be people who are going to fanboy (or fan girl, or fan whatever) about you and your work. If they’re reluctant to give criticism, that won’t help you. (So, if you call the reader mom, you might not have the best reader on your hands).

It’s also a good idea to make sure you and your alpha/beta readers are on the same page about what you’re looking for from them. Genre matters so, I won’t tell you what to ask(a romance novel and an accounting textbook ain’t the same thing!). But you might want to work out a set of questions to ask your readers and even share that list with them in advance.

Are alpha/beta readers the same thing as a writing group? I’m going to say no. Writing group members might be your alpha/beta readers. But that’s not the same thing as bringing your work to a writer’s group. And writers’ groups are full of writers, which creates its own set of problems.

Your alpha/beta readers aren’t your editors. As people, they might choose to be alpha/beta readers but don’t expect them to give away their editor skills for free (and don’t expect a random friend to have the same skills as a trained editor).

The most important advice is to have someone read your stuff (even if mom’s the only one you can get at the moment). We can easily go blind to problems in our work and software ain’t that smart (even that ap on your phone that claims to be smarter than a million Chat GPTs and two million Jesuses!). Other people’s eyes will spot the stuff you miss and the stuff the software can’t understand well enough to look at.

It’s not always easy, dear reader. I don’t always like what I hear from my alpha/beta readers, but it helps the work go forward.

Make your work go forward, dear reader. And, I’ll see you next post.

Costs of publishing

“Want to make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a big one?” Yeah, it’s a joke. But, like most jokes, it’s funny because there’s a sudden turn based on a bit of truth. You can make money with a book. But there are also costs that go into writing a book and you have to think about them, even plan for them, if you want to succeed.

Not every project follows the same course. And, that’s ok.

A successful book is aimed at a particular audience. Your audience determines a lot about how your book should be presented and marketed. Yes, any of us could pound out a first draft and throw it up on the internet or print off a few copies. But is that a successful book? Not in any sense I’m aware of.

In business terms, how are you going to sell your copies?

In a story sense, a first draft isn’t a finished project. There’s still a lot more work to be done before your story is perfected.

Not all costs have to be paid in money. In fact, some of them can only be paid in “sweat equity”. You have to put the time and effort into writing the thing. But, one way or the other, you have to pay them for your book to succeed. And deciding to do it yourself or hire it done can have a big impact on your success and on how long that success takes.

Since entire books have been written about the publishing process, I won’t try to cover everything in one post. But here are some cost areas to consider when you’re planning and writing your book.

(NOTE: I’m not giving tax advice here. For that, see your accountant)

Planning and overhead

Among the hidden costs of writing (stuff some people say aren’t costs, but they are!) is the time we spend on planning the book and how we’re going to produce it. If we’ve got a “usual” plan, we might not spend much time, effort, or money planning for that next book. But we have to look at the book, understand how it’s different from the last one and how that will affect the process.

If we haven’t got an established process, we can sink a lot of time and money into figuring out how to do it. If we’re not careful about how we do that planning, we can spend a lot more than we need to too. If we don’t do the planning at all, things wander. And, if we succeed at all (not likely) things will take much longer than the need to, cost more than they need to, and result in an inferior product that doesn’t match what we imagined (and rarely satisfies us for long).

There are also things like housing and food. Ya gotta sleep and eat, dear reader. These costs might not matter if you’re writing as a ‘hobby’. But when you make the jump to professional writing (or just embrace your obsessive need to write) it’s part of the cost. You’re choosing to write over other things. The ‘I would have spent the money anyway’ costs become part of your writing costs.

Research

Even if you’re from the ‘just Google it’ school, research and research materials have costs. If you’ve set an hourly rate for your time you can calculate exactly what that five-minute Google session cost you. If you value your time at $30.00 hour, it cost you $2.50. If you set your rate in ‘lawyer territory’ that five-minute session might cost you $25.00 (that’s why lawyers hire assistants…).

If you’re doing other research, the costs can really add up. Travel costs? Materials to make the thing for your how to book? (Please actually make the thing before you write the book about it! Or at least interview the person who did…) Tools? Books and articles? Even your internet fees are costs that go into the equation.

Many times, the quality of a book, even a story, depends on good information. Knowing how much you can spend, getting the best bang for your buck when spending it, and staying in budget can make or break your project (Budgets… Again, with the planning.)

Editing and design

Both editing and design are things to spend real money on. If you’re going with an established publisher, somebody will edit and it’s coming out of your profits either way. If you’re self-publishing, you’re paying directly for the editing and design directly with cash or time.

There are a lot of authors that take an “I’ll do it myself” attitude toward both editing and design. And they’re usually not successful. As much as we hate to admit it, writers aren’t all that good at design and editing most of the time. Even if we’re good at those things while working on other people’s stuff, we get myopic when we’re working on our own.

In the modern market (and even in the historical market if we’re being honest) your writing has to be in reasonably good shape before a publisher will even look twice at it. That means we’ve got to spend the time and or money to get our sand together before we submit that manuscript. Editors know and forgive artifacts of a manuscript format (as long as they’re the artifacts they asked for in their submission guidelines) but they can spot an amateur or thoughtlessly put together book. And they’re looking for reasons to weed stuff out.

Editing and design can be a bit like car maintenance. Some people don’t want to pay for it. Some people will pay for it because they want their project to run well. Either way, not doing it leads to breakdowns and not getting where you want to go.

Marketing

It would be great if we could just throw our books out there and people bought them. But that’s not how things work. There are more books coming out than people have time to read. You’ve got to get your book to the right audience (and hope it gets their attention). And then we have to convince them to buy.

Marketing isn’t a lot of fun for most people. But again, car maintenance, ya gotta do it if you want to get anywhere.

When we look at it, book marketing mirrors book writing. We have to plan our ads (where are we putting them and who will they reach), which usually means doing some research; design and edit them, again often requiring research; and then there’s the ‘marketing cost’ of putting them out there (actually paying for the ad space and eyeballs).

Is it all worth it? If your book is worth reading, yes, it is. If not, stop now before you spend any more time and money.

Writing is an activity with purpose. If you’ve got something to say, take the steps to be heard. Just make sure you understand the costs of those steps and the resources you need to succeed. That’s how we get things done.

Well, dear reader, this year’s writers conference won’t market itself. so, it’s back to the other side of the house and doing some ad creation (joy…).

Do your planning. Find success. And, I’ll see you next post.

Growth through volunteerism…

Whether we’re non-fiction writers, fiction writers, editors, publishers, publishing marketers, artists involved in publishing, or anyone else who turns ideas into a book, we have to start somewhere. A lot of us dream of making it big. But, there’s a lot to learn before we get there. A few have made it big. They had to start somewhere too.

I’m not one to encourage working ‘on spec’. I don’t encourage giving our work away to no good end. But there’s a time and a way we can trade time for knowledge. And, if we do it right, we can make contacts and build our network at the same time. It’s called volunteering.

No, I’m not saying you’ll get a publishing contract handing out meals at a homeless shelter (though weirder things have happened). I’m suggesting you consider affiliating and working with a writer’s group or convention.

As I write this, I’m in my second year of working with the LDSPMA writing convention (this year at Utah Valley University!). I learned a lot last year and I’m learning more this year as I perform new duties and help those around me to succeed.

Last year, I met a lot of people (more than the year before, when I only attended the conference). I also found the confidence to pitch a book at the conference; learned a lot about press releases for books and events; and gained perspective on publishers that I’d like to work with.

This year, I’m doing more. This year, I’m getting a real inside look at how the movers and shakers do it. I’m building my name with the people who make the decisions, both for the conference and in the publishing houses. I’m gaining genuine experience and advice from folks in the know about how to handle the actual work of advertising our products, running meetings, working with volunteers, and reaching out to the folks we need to make our projects successful.

They say you have to know the right people. And knowing those people makes things easier. Guess what, if you don’t know them yet, working at a conference can help you meet them and make those connections. Working at a conference can teach you things and help you put your work out there successfully.

Yeah, it’s not all lovely beverages and fan worship. But volunteering at a conference helps us as much as it helps the conference attendees (often more so). It gives us access and opportunities that we might miss otherwise. And, if the conference relates to what we do, we’re not taking time away from our goals and purpose. We’re just moving toward them differently.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Think about serving. Find success in your work. And (if I survive tonight’s board meeting) I’ll see you next post.

Stories of faith

Successful stories are about something. They don’t always have lots of action, but they’re about something.

Good stories have good (as in well written and engaging) characters. Those characters can’t just be two-dimensional cutouts. They need thoughts and emotions. They need to believe something. When that belief comes with trust and confidence (and it should) it’s called faith. And, the keeping or breaking of faith and what happens after is an excellent attention and emotion grabber that keeps people in a story.

But, faith isn’t just a token or tchotchke our characters carry around and occasionally break or lose. Faith is something real people have that we can examine in stories.

Yes, we can use stories to examine faith. In fact, using story to examine faith may be more effective than a literal non-fiction discussion. Why? Because it’s “just a story”. Examining faith in a story can bring down barriers and reduce the reluctance that happens when we (and others) are confronted with “real life” questions about what we believe and what those beliefs mean.

It’s a powerful tool and a valid form of discussion. Stories in which we examine faith and the implications create a space to really think about what we (and others) believe, the implications of those beliefs, and other people’s points of view.

What are your thoughts and experiences with faith in stories (either writing them or reading them)? Does the idea engage you or enrage you? Do you find it useful?

Leave a comment if you like. And, I’ll see you next post.

I’m taking the weekend (and a little of the week) off.

It’s a fifth Friday, dear reader. Normally, this is the spot for a “dealer’s choice” post. But there are other things going on (which I talk about at Words Mean Stuff).

FMP is about writing, stories, and business. So, I won’t make any outside invitations here (you can find one at WMS if you’re curious). But, know that good things are happening and I’ll be back next week.

Good luck in your writing, dear reader. I’ll see you next post.

Drawing lines and defining the work…

When I’m not writing/editing/working on FMP or Words Mean Stuff (WMS), I’m on the committee of a writer’s conference (and when I have a second or two, I also write books and stories!). On the conference side of the house, it’s a busy month, even though the conference isn’t until October. Why? Because right now is the time we’re doing the planning and defining that will lead to an excellent conference this fall.

There are many tasks on the plate: developing a marketing plan, contracts with advertisers, recruiting and training the folks who’ll work at the conference, recruiting and planning with the people who’ll present at the conference, dealing with that one person who want’s to redesign the system for doing all this stuff (while we’re doing the stuff!), and handling crises that happen because we all have lives outside of running a conference. These things have a couple of points in common:

  1. Defining what work needs to be done
  2. Deciding who’s going to do that work
  3. Communicating with the folks involved

Some of you may ask what about doing the work. Well, the work needs to get done. But, productive work won’t get done without definitions of the work, decisions and commitments on who’s doing the work, and communication between the folks doing the planning and work. Without those three things, you can have a lot of effort happening but still not get productive work done.

This, dear reader, is why a good conference takes so long to pull off, you have to do the planning, put everything in place and coordinate the efforts of everyone involved (please don’t ask me how my church is pulling off two (actually more than two!) international conferences per year. I’m still struggling with my one conference some days).

There’s an old saying, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” That’s often accurate. So, assume as little as possible. Instead, do your prep work (that seems to be a theme in my world right now…). Define what needs to happen. Decide who’s doing what (you may need to hire some people and/or get some “buy in”). Collect the information you need to make all of this happen and communicate with the people who are doing the stuff. And then, do the communication (don’t be the guy whose star keynote shows up at the wrong place because someone forgot to send a text!).

This is work. I won’t lie about that. It’s not even the fun part of the work (at least for me). But, it’s the foundation for making the fun stuff happen.

Have a good think, make a plan, and communicate with your people, dear reader. I’ll see you next post.