Keeping Track of Details
If you’ve been writing books for long, you may have come across the challenge of keeping the details straight so that you can be consistent throughout the book. If the hero has blue eyes in chapter 1, he shouldn’t have green eyes in chapter 14. If your characters live on 5th Street in one chapter, they shouldn’t later live on Fifth Street. But how do you keep track of these things without having to simply rely on your memory?
You could create an Editorial Style Sheet. This is what editors do when they line-edit and/or copyedit your book. It’s ultimately their responsibility to see that everything is as correct and consistent as possible throughout your book, so as they’re editing, they write down details; names of people, places, businesses and all proper nouns; strange spellings; and style rules that will apply to your manuscript.
Your style sheet doesn’t need to be too detailed, but a simple one that you create as you write or revise could help you define and keep track of the elements that are important to you.
When editors create style sheets, they usually include the following elements:
1) A list of some important style rules that will be followed throughout the manuscript. Whether or not they conform to CMS or AP, the important thing is consistency and a pleasant reading experience. So this section will address things like whether or not the serial comma is used; under what circumstances kinship or pet names (“mama” or “sweetheart”) are capitalized or lowercased; whether inner thoughts are set in italics or roman type; rules for whether to spell out numbers or use numerals; and countless other issues that come up in editing.
2) The book’s setting—time frame and location on the map.
3) A list of all the places and street names, to insure consistency in spelling and capitalization. For instance, is it Babies ‘R’ Us… or Babies R Us? Is it Wal-Mart? WalMart? Walmart?
4) A list of all the characters with the correct spellings of their names. (You’d be amazed how often a writer spells their own hero’s name three different ways dozens of times throughout a book.) For the main characters, this list also includes pertinent details like age, relationship to another character (i.e. “wife of John”), hair color, eye color, height and any other available information.
5) Names of any animals in the book.
6) A long list of words whose spellings could be easily mistaken or challenged. For example, “blonde” and “blond” are typically confused and the rules for usage have evolved over the years. A nicely edited manuscript requires a rule so the word is spelled consistently, i.e. blonde for female and blond for male; or blonde for noun and blond for adjective. Sometimes a word is only used once, but is included in the style sheet to show that an intentional decision has been made to go with a certain spelling; or to show that the spelling has been verified through an external source (i.e. “Walmart” is verified by the company’s website.)
Obviously you don’t have to go to all this work—the editor will do it later, and most likely you’ll never even see it. But there are a couple of reasons you may want to keep a style sheet for your book:
→ You want to keep track of details that are important to you so you’ll be consistent.
→ You want to deliver it to your publisher along with your manuscript so that the editor doesn’t change things for which you’ve already made intentional decisions.
Even if you never use a formal style sheet, hopefully this opens your eyes to the detailed scrutiny your manuscript will someday undergo.
Q4U: Do you have any system for keeping track of details in your manuscript?
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent