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Monday, May 14, 2012

Style Sheets: The Writer's Punch List

I hadn't planned on discussing style sheets until the end of the month, but Shelley Munro asked about series bibles on her blog recently so I thought I would go ahead and do it early.

Because the worlds I build are so complex, I regularly use style sheets. A style sheet in its simplest definition is a punch list of every unique detail in your story. A series bible is usually the same document but it transcends the style sheet in that it keeps track of the over-arching details like names, phrases, and other world building facts that will appear in book after book. 

Both are indispensable. It's especially useful for SF & Fantasy writers when designing aliens, languages or customs.

True Believers had an immense style sheet. Not only did I have to keep track of the Nephilim, Alturians, and humans, but the computer characters as well. 

Each aspect of the world building has its own style sheet. Some readers said True Believers had an epic feel to it. That was totally intentional. But I wouldn't have been able to accomplish it without my punch list.

I recorded religious holidays, human politics, language, and cultural habits. There was also a style sheet on time lines that not only kept track of the time of day, but the time of year. Even though I lived and breathed that story, it was too complex to do it without a guide. It saved my bacon plenty of times when I was trying to remember spellings and practices.

Readers notice when you screw up. A style sheet helps keep the facts straight as you're telling your story.

Names & slang: Every time I used a proper name or created a new term, it went into the bible. Hint: When you create a character name especially one with a unique spelling, add it to your Word dictionary so Word will correct it if you spell it wrong later on in the story.

Characters: Each of my characters had his own page where I described physical appearance, quirks, what made them angry, and what made them scared. In my new book, "Mistress of the Stone", my heroine uses sea-faring expressions unique to her. I jot them down both under "Slang" and "Characters" so I know these are distinctly hers.

Time: It is so easy to lose track of time. If the hero is making breakfast at the start of the chapter, you have to make sure you don't have him eating dinner by the end of it.

Weather: Atmospheric conditions are common in settings. Like the time line, you want your weather to be consistent. If it's sunny when your heroine looks out the window, it can't suddenly be dark and stormy just so you can match her mood.

Topography: Fantasy authors often deal with vast distances and geography. It doesn't matter where you send your characters, but stay aware of the time in relation to the geography. If your hero crosses a desert in the morning, don't have him land on the other side to a tropical paradise (unless you're talking virtual reality).

Whether you use a style sheet just for your own peace of mind or turn it in to your editor with your manuscript as a supplementary database, it will save you hours of searching for a specific detail and it will keep your story consistent from book to book.

Have you ever used a style sheet or series bible?

Other stuff: I'll probably be late answering comments today. The county in its infinite wisdom called me in for jury duty. In my whole adult life, I have never been chosen. Greg says it's because I have the look of a hanging juror. But who knows. It's a different county. Maybe they haven't heard of my reputation yet.

If you follow me on Facebook (and why shouldn't you) you saw a picture of the giant snake on the gravel road in front of my house. This was a big guy, far bigger than the one who was climbing up my office window a few weeks earlier.

There are days when I think I'd rather live in the city... 

Anybody want to place bets on whether I'll get picked for jury duty?

This week on Back to Basics we talk about cheapo gardening and re-purposing empties.


Renee Miller said...

I do use style sheets, although I'm new to the process, so I'm terrible at organizing and using them religiously. I started using them during the rewrite process, so perhaps I'm backward. I'd go through after writing and record all of the tiny details to determine where I messed up. I've used them only twice right from the first draft, and let me tell you, it takes a ton of time out of editing when you have style sheets ready from the beginning.

Wow, I'm rambly today.

Jennifer Shirk said...

No I haven't used a style sheet, but I can bet when world building you would really need something like that.
Good luck with jury duty...

Stacy McKitrick said...

I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of my book's progress (shows what characters are in what chapters as well as the time and date). I hadn't thought of keeping track of new words, but may have to do that with my newest book (since he's an alien). Thanks for the idea!

Nadja Notariani said...

My Character page is where I list characters and keep track of spellings, nicknames and such. My character profile packet is where I get into slang, common sayings, and habits/mannerisms.
You hit the nail when you explain how important it is to write it down!! In my first book, I cannot tell how many times I had to go searching through over 200 pages to find some detail I was certain I had assigned - only to forget what it was! It was so frustrating... cured me forever of pantsing. Ha! My poor brain can't keep track of all those details without help.

Incidentally, good luck with jury duty. I've only received a summons when I was nursing - so I got out of it!

Suzanne Brandyn said...

Sounds like a good idea, Maria. Similar to Character sheets yet more involved.

As for the snake, yikes.... more of them... I killed the last one out the front as it was deadly. I didn't want it sneaking up when I least expected. Oh, I've got the shivers just thinking about them. lol. :)

Angelina Rain said...

I've never used style sheets. The only thing I've used was a character sheet that lists their personality trails, physical traits, whole life before the book starts. That makes it easier for me to write the characters consistently when the story starts.

L.G.Smith said...

I really, really, really need to do this in a formal document. Right now everything is scattered in different notebooks or just floating around in my head. I keep saying I'll put it all in one place, but never do. It will catch up with me one of these days and I'll make a mistake about a character or something. Thanks for the reminder. Maybe I'll get my butt in gear now and do this. :)

Mark K said...

Interesting post - I've often wondered about this kind of thing and had started numerous times to begin a log book of such details, but always seemed to fail at it? Most likely because I hadn't a clue as to what I should be doing.

Will use this now as a guideline for my writing. Thank you for this. Any such advice on writing is always appreciated :)

Sarah Ahiers said...

I've also never been picked for Jury Duty. I kind of want to, because it has to be better than the dayjob, right?
I'm behind on FB, so i haven't seen the snake yet. I'll try and catch up tonight.
Also, i've never used a style sheet, though i probably should. I generally have a really good memory, but every once in a while i forget how i spell something. Or, i usually have to make sure i don't say every night is a full moon.

LD Masterson said...

I haven't tried using a style sheet, exactly, but I do keep a timelime, scene by scene, with key events or revelations in bold face so I can find them quickly. I also use color code supporting characters and/or subplots to make sure they're getting enough page time.

I do keep character sheets including special abilities/gifts (I'm writing paranormal).

You should have taken the snake with you on the jury duty call. See what kind of reaction that got.

Raelyn Barclay said...

When you first brought these up I wasn't sure exactly what you were talking about. Now, it's something I've done just called it something else. Love the breakdown though!

I bet you'd be brilliant on a jury. Of course, the other jurors might not appreciate your questions :) Cause I KNOW you'd have questions!

Clarissa Draper said...

I use these templates and style sheets too. They are so important.

Maria Zannini said...

I'm back! And my record holds. I did not get picked--again.

My only regret is that I wish I wrote suspense. Talk about a Peyton Place of story ideas.

Maria Zannini said...

Renee: That's how I started too. I left little notes for myself during rewrites. Then one day it dawned on me...Duh. Do it as you're writing the darn thing.

Jennifer: Even if I didn't write SF, I'd probably still use the style sheet. I have a terrible memory.

Stacy: It was the new and unusual words that forced me to create a style sheet. From then on it was easy to tack on anything I needed to remember for next time.

Nadja: Never had to lug a baby in. I think they released me because I looked more dangerous than the criminals. LOL.

Maria Zannini said...

Suzanne: Oh, lord, Suzanne. Where you live everything kills you. I'd kill them too if I thought they were poisonous. The only really bad ones here are water moccasins and rattlers.

Angelina: My desk used to be littered with little post-it notes until I realized I could type everything in a nice, neat file.

LG: That was me! I started out very simply with the first book. Just names and spellings to make sure they were consistent, and then it just grew. I keep all the info on one document, but some people create folders. Whatever is easier for you.

Mark: I was buried under little pieces of papers and notes. But now, as I write the story, I keep an extra document file open and list anything that needs to be remembered for later.

Maria Zannini said...

Sarah: Ref: jury duty
I can't believe they didn't pick me again. Maybe I ought to shower next time. ;o)

Linda: I think there were enough snakes in the courthouse--most of them were wearing suits.

Raelyn: That court room waiting area was packed! But I enjoyed the people-watching. It was a goldmine of ideas.

Clarissa: In my youth, I'd probably remember all this stuff on my own, but the logbook keeps me honest. :)

Demitria said...

My style sheet is usually a series of unorganized post-its :) I haven't created a completely alien complex world yet though, maybe next time!

Wayne Assiratti said...

Hi Maria.

Just started following your blog and I found this post really useful. I'm a first time writer and plan on using this technique to keep track of things as I write the book I have been putting off for years. Many thanks for the advice!



Jenny Schwartz said...

I've only ever scribbled in notebooks, but now I'm attempting a more organised story bible. The devil is in the details ... and I'm gonna keep him there!

Congrats on not being picked for jury duty! It may have been different if you'd left Tank and Iko at home ;)

Jackie Burris said...

Maria you were not shanghied by our dubious justice system? What a shame, you might have met a wonderful "innocent" criminal or two!

Snake on FB, have to go check for the photo as not hanging out on FB much these days and I missed it.

We have been "blessed" with Copperheads visiting since the rain. 5 inches in one week so guess they are hunting drier ground.

Angela Brown said...

Reading craft-knowledgebase-increasing info?




Feeling smarter?

Well, give me a moment on that part. :-)

Maria Zannini said...

Demitria: When you create a digital file, it's like having all your Post-It notes all in one place.

Wayne: Welcome! Glad you found it useful.

Jenny: It was funny. The three women next to me were showing off digital pictures of their frou-frou dogs. I would've shown them a picture of Tank and Iko, but I don't like to brag. :grin:

Jackie: I'm kind of glad they didn't pick me. It's a long drive and it's very hard to find a parking spot. Trust me, the lawyers don't want me on their jury. I'm not as forgiving as the judge. :)

Maria Zannini said...

Angela: The beauty of the 'bible' is that it's flexible enough to mold to what's useful for you. Every book's needs are different.

Shelley Munro said...

I'm so glad I asked this question.
In the past I've used a notebook. I'm about to embark on a new series and I intend to be a lot more organized this time.

Time lines are always something that I manage to muck up. Keeping a record as I go would be a much better idea.

Shirley Wells said...

I don't suppose my scribbled pages clipped together with a giant clothes peg count, do they? Thought not.

I am 'trying' to be a lot more organized.

Maria Zannini said...

Shelley: Sometimes I lose track of the year, but I don't mess up as much with the time of day.

For me, the biggest help has been keeping track of new words and the spellings of names.

Shirley: It works (I started that way) but it's much easier to find what you're looking for in an electronic file. Even if the document gets too big, all I have to do is run a search for that item.

Dee said...

Very interesting. I keep a timeline in Excel so I can keep dates and times straight, especially if a story is covering long periods. I also keep a character list with characteristics & history in a separate Word document. I've seen too many cases of inconsistencies from one book to the next in a series to want to be guilty of that myself.

Maria Zannini said...

Dee: The only time I've ever used Excel was when I needed to make calculations or a budget.

Excel makes me nervous. I'm positive that if I hit the wrong cell, it'll launch nukes. Nobody wants that.

Mike Keyton said...

Sorry, I'm behind. Builders = chaos.

Stylesheets - I wish, really wish I was so organised. I've tried several excel variants but never use them adequately. So far I've been able to lodge most of the information in my head. That's not a boast - more an inadequacy ref more efficient methods. Mind you, it might guard against dementia - one way of allowing my various characters to run riot.

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: My memory is horrible. I'll forget the hero's name or where the story is set, and yet I'll remember the most inane things like a phrase or eye color. Why is that?

Madeleine Maddocks said...

Thanks for the link Maria
I shall have to create a style sheet of my own.

Maria Zannini said...

Madeleine: They've been a life line for my Swiss cheese memory.