The Writer's Toolbox #2: More Must-Have Tools for Writers

This week Ruth Harris gives us more must-have tools for writers in the second installment of her "Writer's Toolbox" Series. Lots of stuff here that's available FREE or cheaply.

This is another post—like the one about global markets last week—that reminds me how much I still don't know about this business. I have to admit I've never made out a style sheet. My publisher kindly has done this work for me, but I do need to learn this stuff.

Ruth really knows what she's talking about here. Before she was a high-powered editor (and later, publisher) at several Big Six Houses, AND a bestselling author on the New York Times bestseller list, Ruth Harris worked as lowly copywriter in Macmillan's textbook department. She worked in a "bullpen" and learned the trade from experienced, no-nonsense copy editors. She says it was a great education and foundation for what was to come.

Once again, Ruth brings us the benefits of her years of professional expertise. Take it away, Ruth!


The Writer’s Toolbox #2
Style sheets, style guides, code breaking + the best copyeditor’s query ever...and a copy editor joke
 by Ruth Harris

Style sheets

Look, guys, I don’t want you to freak out but you need a style sheet. 

Even if you’re trad-pubbing, you'll probably need one because publishers have cut back. Copyediting, like a lot of things, ain’t what it used to be. 

And if you self-pub and plan to hire a copyeditor, a style sheet will alert him/her to the basics of your manuscript and save you both time and money.

In case you don’t know what a style sheet is and maybe have never even heard of one, a style sheet is a list of all the important data—names, addresses, dates, people and places—in your manuscript. Making a style sheet is straightforward: the first time a character’s name (or any other data) is mentioned, add it to your list. Simple as that.

Basically, your style sheet is a road map to your book, a quality-control tool that provides coherence and consistency. A style sheet is analogous to continuity in a movie and will ensure, among other things, that your characters don’t suddenly change names—or worse—in the middle of your novel. Trust me, it happens.

Like this: Your MC is James Q. Black. You don’t want him to suddenly to become Jimmy Z. Brown and confuse the hell out of the editor you’re trying to sell. Because, guess what?, you won’t make the sale. A style sheet will save you from the vagaries of memory—and from yourself.

Or this: If you self-pub, you want to make certain your reader knows exactly which character is dangling off the edge of a cliff by the fingertips, don’t you? Is it James Q. or Jimmy Z, or, god forbid, Jane Z.—reader wants to know!

Example #2: Your heroine, Suzie Smith, lives at 21 Main Street. Add Suzie Smith plus her address to your style sheet. Will save you from calling her Suzy Smith a few chapters later and makes sure you refer to her address as 21 Main Street. Not twenty-one Main Street. And certainly not 22 Maine Avenue.

Suzie’s bff works at Lulu’s Bakery. Add bff’s name and Lulu’s Bakery to your style sheet. Loulou’s Bakery? What’s dat and what’s it doing in this story? A confused reader is a reader who’s going to lose interest.

Ace fiction editor Beth Hill, explains her approach to style sheets here and offers some useful how-to details. Deanna Hoak, star sf/f copyeditor, discusses the importance of style sheets here. She shares examples of actual style sheets here so you can see what they look like. You will find more about style sheets and a FREE downloadable template here.

Related to the style sheet are character descriptions that ensure a blonde is blonde (unless a change in hair color is critical to the plot). A six footer is six feet. A scar on the right side of a character’s face stays on the right side, doesn’t move to the left or completely disappear (at least not without a credible explanation).

Style guide or style sheet? Is there a difference?

Apple and oranges, bay-bee, although IRL ("in real life"...translation for the not so cool kids like me...Anne) sometimes there is overlap. Generally speaking, though, a style sheet keeps track of the nuts and bolts: 21 Main Street not twenty-one Main Street or 22 Maine Street, remember?

A style guide, OTOH (on the other hand), offer suggestions about how to write. Some publishers provide a style guide, a sort of house rules for writers. 

This FREE style guide from The Economist emphasizes clarity—a goal every writer is (or should be) aiming for.

Here are some samples from the Economist style guide: 
The New York Times Style Guide ($13) is here. And here's a useful FREE overview of the AP Style guide. An entertaining consideration of the difference between a diaeresis and an umlaut (don’t forget the diphthong!) in The New Yorker.

FREE download of Fowler’s Modern English Usage here  (McAfee seems to think this is a dangerous site, but I went there with no dire consequences...Anne) . How to choose a style guide. William Strunk’s classic The Elements Of Style FREE download.

Elmore Leonard’s beloved classic 10 Rules of Writing is a style guide with the stated goal of keeping the writer invisible to the reader.

Writers from Zadie Smith to Hilary Mantel spell out their approach in a great article in the Guardian on rules for writers. Here are rules for writing dialogue and William Safire’s witty Rules for Writers.

Writing teacher Roy Peter Clark reflects on the power of the short sentence here.

Just remember, rules are suggestions, not iron-clad laws. Once you know them and use them confidently, you can (maybe) break them as long as you know what you’re doing.

Preparing your manuscript

Related to the good housekeeping aspect of a style sheet is preparing your manuscript so that your book looks professional. Here, from the University of Chicago Press, is an easy-to-follow FREE guide to the details of manuscript preparation.

You will find more FREE information about preparing different kinds of manuscripts for submission—books, journals, art—here from the Chicago Manual of Style.

Breaking the code, or: working with an editor

Your editor has just returned your manuscript and it’s covered with doodles, squiggles and hieroglyphics. Those weird-looking doodles aren’t top-secret CIA spy codes or the formula for making an H-bomb in your kitchen.

They’re called editor’s (or proofreader’s) marks and, in order to communicate with your editor, you need to understand his/her language. You’ll find a handy Rosetta Stone here.

Format your manuscript for publication.

I wrote about formatting in the first Writer’s Toolbox but, since then, other on-line formatters have turned up on my radar.

  • Legend Maker for Mac costs about $30 and will turn your manuscript into epub or mobi format. Comes with a user guide, validators and on-line support. Find out more about Legend Maker here.
  • Mobipocket Creator converts Word files to .prc files that can be uploaded directly to Kindle. Mobipocket Creator is a FREE download here.
  • Kindlegen is Amazon’s own FREE downloadable tool for formatting your book into a Kindle-friendly format. Kindlegen is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. 

Build your own website/blog

Even if you’re not a tech guru, a number of on-line helpers make the job of creating a professional-looking website or blog doable without fainting spells or hair-pulling. WordPress,, Wix and Weebly all have their proponents and all of them are FREE.

To help you decide, here’s more info: A Blogger vs. WordPress shoot out. A Weebly review. Weebly/WordPress comparison. Wix/Weebly compare and contrast.

Link shorteners

Google has one. Other flavors include, and tinyurl. Twitter and Hootsuite provide their own shorteners and lets you create bundles, useful when you want to tweet a single link to send readers to your book at Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc.

Best editor’s query

“It’s not clear whose orgasm this is. Please clarify.”

Thanks to @SarahFrantz for this gem.

Copy editor joke

Q: How many copy editors does it take to change a light bulb?

A: This wording does not conform to our style guide.

Whew! Are you madly clicking on those links, scriveners? You don't have to do them all at once, the way I did. But you can ask Ruth questions about which style guides, web hosts, etc work for her, and what she'd recommend. Do you have any tools to add? 

Book Bargain of the Week

The Park Avenue Series Five NYT Bestsellers for $4.99

5 full-length novels by million-copy NYT bestseller and Romantic Times award winner Ruth Harris. 2000 pages of quality fiction.

Decades (Book # 1) Top 5 on Movers and Shakers. This bestselling classic is the compelling story of a marriage at risk, a family in crisis and a woman on the brink set against the tumultuous decades of the mid-twentieth century. "Absolutely perfect." ...Publisher's Weekly "Terrific!" ...Cosmopolitan "Powerful. A gripping novel." ...Women Today Book Club

Husbands And Lovers (Book #2) Million copy New York Times bestseller! Top 10 on Movers & Shakers! Winner, Best Contemporary, Romantic Times! The story of a shy wallflower who turns herself into a lovely and desirable woman and the two handsome, successful men who compete for her love. "A contemporary tale of passion and commitment. Steamy and fast-paced, you will be spellbound." ...Cosmopolitan

Love And Money (Book #3) #1 on Amazon's Movers and Shakers. Honored by the Literary Guild and the Book-of-the-Month Club. Rich girl, poor girl. Sisters and strangers until fate--and murder--bring them face to face. "Richly plotted. First-class entertainment." ...NY Times "Fast-paced, superior fiction. A terrifically satisfying 'good read.'" ...Fort Lauderdale News Sun-Sentinel

Modern Women (Book # 4) Million-copy NYT bestseller! #1 on Movers and Shakers! Three likable, dynamic women--and the men in their lives. The right men. The wrong men. The maybe men. "Funny, sad, vivid, and raunchy. Harris seeks to enliven and entertain, and she does it in spades." ...The Cleveland Plain-Dealer  "Ruth Harris's rapier wit spices up a superb 'rags to riches' novel. You'll love Modern Women." ...West Coast Review of Books "Sharp and stylishly written." ...Chicago Sun-Times

The Last Romantics (Book # 5)--A sweeping love story set in Paris and New York during the glamorous Jazz Age of the 1920's. He is dashing, handsome and celebrated but dangerously flawed. She is beautiful, talented, lonely, haunted. Fate brings them together but will the tides of history keep them apart? "I love it, I love it! Fantastic, immensely readable." ...Cosmopolitan "Gloriously romantic" ...Kirkus

Opportunity Alerts

WILDA HEARNE FLASH FICTION CONTEST $10 ENTRY FEE. 500 words. Any theme. Semi-finalists will be chosen by a regional team of published writers. The final manuscript will be chosen by Susan Swartwout, publisher of Southeast Missouri State University Press. Winner receives an award of $300 and publication in Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley. Deadline October 1st.

The Harper's Bazaar UK Short Story Prize is open to all writers. NO ENTRY FEE. Are you the next Dorothy Parker or Anita Loos? Submit an original short story (up to 3,000 words) on the subject of 'spring' The winning entry will appear in the May 2014 issue. Its author will be able to choose a first-edition book from Asprey's Fine and Rare Books Department to the value of £3,000 and enjoy a week-long retreat at Eilean Shona House, on the 2,000-acre private island off the west coast of Scotland where JM Barrie wrote his screenplay for Peter Pan. Deadline December 13th.

The Rumpus has launched the Weekly Rumpus and is calling for submissions. They are interested in "sharp, fresh, original work that grapples with life as it is really lived and felt in the world today. We want writing that walks on a wire, questions conventions, conveys a vision." 1000-6000 words. Here's their submissions page.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS podcasts. Get your short story recorded FREE for an online podcast! Fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

WILD LIGHT POETRY CONTEST The $25 entry fee is a little pricey, but this is run by the prestigious Red Hen Press and offers a prize of $1,000 and publication in The Los Angeles Review. Submit up to three poems of up to 200 lines each. Deadline October 15th.


This week Anne is visiting the Alliterative Allomorph, where she's talking about how the indie revolution has positively affected all readers, even if you still only buy paper books at brick and mortar stores. 

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