Today, I wanted to talk about style guides. No, not the Chicago Manual of Style. I’m talking about self-generated style guides that serve as a bible for your universe(s). I’ve been working with the Human Legion recently, and I’ve spent some time organizing world building notes spanning multiple authors. Different authors, writing different series, but in the same universe.
The solution, for me, was apparent — compile the notes and make a style guide to ensure consistency. This was easier said than done. Let’s talk about how to make one, what it can do, and potential information to keep within it.
A style guide, for those of you unfamiliar, is a tool to create consistency throughout a story, world, or universe. It is tremendously helpful to an editor, because it will show them invented words, character information, and world background. We’ve talked about World Builder’s Disease before, a style guide is a great place to dump the info filling your brain.
It should be noted, some of this information is only useful if you are writing within a large world or universe. Depending on the scope of your work, you may not need an elaborate style guide. It would be useful to create a short style guide for an editor. This becomes more essential if you have created words or are utilizing an odd stylistic device.
Before I jump into what to include, I wanted to mention how a style guide will save you time. When I first started working with the Legion, they had tons of reference documents. These documents were contained within multiple folders, spread out between authors. I’m talking about more than thirty folders, and many individual documents within.
This became a battle of navigation for me. How many arms and fingers does this alien race have? A simple question, really. So, I would open up the shared folders, begin navigation, move from one author to another, search differently labeled folders, and maybe I would find the info…or maybe not.
You might be saying, “Why not just contact the author?” Good point! Unless they are on a completely different timezone or work schedule. For me, the more time I spend working the manuscript and not on the phone, the faster things get done.
Usually, the info was there, I just couldn’t locate it quickly among the massive archive of folders. Plus, I have proclivity to over-organize. There is nothing wrong with organizing your files however you want. If it works for you as the writer, don’t change anything. But as the editor, I needed a more intuitive and rapid way to find information.
While the writers and fans of the Human Legion have done an outstanding job of creating infopedias (Official Infopedia, Fan Wiki), much of the information within the style guide is secretive in nature. Hidden motivations, planet histories, and tasty spoilers. It’s intel the writers understand, but the readers don’t need to know about…not yet. As one of the editors, I needed to reference these notes to help steer the ship.
So began the first step: compiling all of these pertinent documents into a universal source. One that would contain all of the information hyperlinked. Now, if I need to know how many arms and fingers an alien has, I click Alien Species in the table of contents (hyperlinked), scroll the alphabetized list, click the species in question (again, hyperlinked), and viola.
Format. Much like a webpage with clickable links, if you can add navigation within the style guide, you win the prize. I use Word, which allows for linking within the document. This might seem excessive, but after compiling the needed information into a living document (i.e. it will keep growing) the word count was around 15k for the style guide. If I relied on scrolling to navigate, it would take forever.
What should you put in the style guide?
Character Name List. A listing of character names, properly spelled, makes the gods of writing smile. Especially, when you have tons of characters. Non-human species seem to generate the most inconsistency — a standard helps.
Once a character name list has been generated, you can begin hyperlinking supporting documents (characters sheets, sketches, etc). This made life really easy for me.
Corey question: the character’s eye color has changed from blue to green…what is the correct color? Answer: Table of Contents -> Character List -> Click Character (confirm spelling) -> read character sheet.
Technology List. Holy bologna, this is a massive list for the Legion (and one I need to update). Depending on your genre, you may have invented technology. If it’s military sci-fi, then the technology probably has corresponding acronyms. Some of it might be written as a proper noun, some of it might not be. Whatever you decide as the writer, there needs to be consistency. Listing how these should appear is a step in the right direction.
Location List. Sweet mothers milk, another sprawling list. If your story spans cities, continents, planets, or farther, it might be wise to start compiling these locations and linking supporting documents. There will always be the handful of readers who say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t Planet D’s sun too intense without the aid of an exoskeleton?” If the reader has sunk into your world well enough to notice things like this, you owe it to them to be consistent.
Invented Word List. My favorite! Nothing will blow Word’s circuits like a ton of invented words being thrown into the mix. Invented words, within reason, are one of the spices that make a universe unique. Just be sure to list those words. It might be wise to mention if only one person, species, or planet uses these words too.
Acronym List. Holy alphabet soup, Batman! This will probably only be useful to those of you who are writing in certain genres. An alphabetical listing of acronyms, backronyms, and initialisms makes me want to river dance. It becomes ten times more important when you are inventing these.
Species List. Have you unleashed new races and species on your manuscript? Cool. You might want to compile a list and start linking reference documents. Remember the question above about how many arms and fingers an alien would have? This list solves those problems before they begin.
Basic Grammar and Punctuation Section. This is more of an editing thing, but if you find yourself working collaboratively with someone from another country, you might want to flush out the differences. British and American styles differ. The goal, especially if you are collaborating on the same book, is to achieve consistency of style.
That’s it for today! I’m curious about what methods you all use to compile and organize your universe notes. Do they exist in a jumble of folders, or have you found a way to compile them intuitively? I’d love to talk about it and pick up some pointers. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always — stay sharp!