by Vanessa Di Gregorio
When I talk to other writers, I sometimes feel embarrassed; they seem to know EVERY little detail about their story, right down to what colour shoes a secondary character is wearing. And me? Well, I keep forgetting what’s-his-name from the first 3 Chapters, and what his relation is to everything and everyone.
But my MS is still a WIP – I haven’t finished writing it yet. I’ve even recently added a whole other layer to the story. So I shouldn’t be getting down that I don’t know every little detail inside and out yet. My MS is full of different cultures, political intricacies, and a bit of magic – which means I do a whole lot of world-building.
When you start writing a novel, your mind is spilling with ideas. And as you write, you’re giving everyone and everything characteristics, from people to places to things. And depending on what type of novel you’re writing, you’re probably world-building to some extent. So how do you remember what that secondary character’s name is? Was it Tera? Or was it Tara? Do your characters have particular greetings or sayings? What do you do with all that information, especially when you’re still writing a first draft?
While taking my Fiction Editing class, I was introduced to a tool that many editors use: the style sheet. Editors and agents go through your manuscripts with a fine-tooth comb, looking for anything and everything that doesn’t quite work (or isn’t grammatically sound). They also check for continuity issues, which can be pretty major in a manuscript. So, in order to help further polish your writing (and to help you hone editorial skills, in case any of you are aspiring editors), here’s what you do!
Keep a list of character names, city names, hyphenated vs. non-hyphenated terms, dates and times, and any details you might have researched. Style sheets are also great for different spellings you might be using.
The most useful aspect of a style sheet is how everything is kept alphabetically. Style sheets are often used to document all kinds of decisions, such as:
- How a person’s name should be spelled – do they use a full name or nickname? Do they go by an alias? Does a specific character use a pet name for that character?
- Abbreviations and acronyms for terms, names, countries, etc – is it U.S., U.S.A., America, the United States? A.M. and P.M. or a.m. and p.m.? Be consistent.
- The preferred spelling of words (eg. zeros or zeroes?)
- Whether you spell out dates (ie. 1988) or write it out (nineteen eighty eight).
- Whether thoughts are italicized or in single quotation marks
- Punctuation – serial commas, or no serial commas?
As a writer, though, use a style sheet for things you would find most useful. Keep a list of things that you would want to know when writing/revising.
Things I like using a style sheet for:
- Remembering character names and physical descriptions
- Keeping track of names for different places, such as “The Outlands” and “The Great Rock”
- Cultural jargon and slang, such as the Ane’an goodbye: “May the moon light your path”
- Political alliances
You get the idea. It’s basically a handy alphabetical list with all the little details from your MS. Any characters, places, or cultural terms starting with the letter “a” would go under a header for “A”. The same thing goes for every other letter – that way, even if you print it out to keep beside your keyboard (or wherever you want), you can find things easily.
So what do you think? Do you already create lists with all the little details from your MS? Do you think this would be a useful tool as a writer? Or do you see it more as an editorial tool? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She also has a book publishing certificate under her belt. Currently, Vanessa is working on RIFT, a YA fantasy novel, and a Children’s non-fiction series. She also blogs about all things geeky at Something Geeky.