Monday, May 30, 2016

Writing Your Own Style Sheet - Mar Preston

Not knowing any better when I began writing my series set in Santa Monica, I called this document a Character Roster. I’ve always loved theater programs listing the characters and the actor playing the role. Fiction writers struggle with many aspects of plot and story, one of them keeping track of our characters and settings.

The Character Roster is a simple idea, but it will save you a lot of agony, searching back and forward through your manuscript, scratching your head and trying to remember what you called the pharmacist your detective visited to nail down the victim’s timeline. Now he needs to go back to the pharmacist. What did you call him?  Look it up in the Character Roster.

A Style Sheet is more advanced.  A style sheet is documents the style standards and practices of a publisher of newspapers, books, or magazines. If you were to write for them, you’d know to ask for one before you submitted your piece. I wouldn’t have, so here’s a tip.

A traditional publisher to may adhere more or less strictly to the Chicago Manual of Style and your local weekly follow the Associated Press’s guide. Suffice to say there are many other style manuals for specialty publications.

Style sheets offer the publication's guide to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization practices so you can turn in a manuscript consistent within itself as well as match the style of the publication.

A style sheet can help you as the writer, as well as potential beta readers, and any editor you may hire to develop consistency and reduce errors in story details.

Make your own style sheet

You can make this reference document as simple or complicated as you like. Working simply, you’d list in alphabetical order on a sheet of lined paper (or spreadsheet or word processing document)  any odd spellings or words that you make up as you go along. Stick in place names for example, if you’re writing a mystery set in Wales.  

Use this also to keep track of odd spellings or words that you make up, especially if you're writing fantasy or paranormal. If your beta readers or editor pauses to make a decision over a word or grammatical construction, their attention has been jarred loose from the smooth flow of the story.

Make decisions.

Serial comma or not? Em dash or parentheses? Numerals for all numbers greater than nine or will your cut-off be ninety-nine?

Decide on the use of quotation marks and/or italics, especially for unusual words, or words used for emphasis. If you don’t know common usage for quotation marks and italics, this is the time to look it up and professionalize yourself. Writing down the differences will embed it in your brain.

Time to learn the basic rules of capitalization as well. For example, “seeing the sergeant” and seeing Sgt. Fields.”

List words in foreign languages that you’re using and how to spell them.

What belongs in your style sheet is anything unusual that the beta reader, editor, or copy editor should know as they are reading. Anything that would make them stop and say "What?"

If you’re a plotter you may enjoy this task. A seat-of-pantser may not want to slow down until the first draft is complete. Working on one before that point might get in the way of the pantser’s feverish creativity.

I do urge you, nonetheless, to set up the Character Roster. You may find you’ve referred to an incidental character as Billy, Bobby, and Bob. Get it right and your initial readers will thank you.

And your story will flow like honey when you send off your final manuscript wherever it’s going.

I'm curious if other mystery writers use this tool. Please let me know.



Morgan Mandel said...

At times I wish I were plotter, but then again I enjoy surprise.

Mar Preston said...

I'm trying very very hard to plot my next mystery. I can see that it save time and endless rewriting. Who knows if I can force myself to do it.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I can't really do the whole plot thing--I usually have a general idea where i'm headed, but things always change along the way.