One of the moments of novel publishing I have most daydreamed about and looked forward to is here: My first round of copyedits, and my book's style sheet.
A style sheet is an in-house document copyeditors create to designate special use cases, unusual spellings, and frequently occurring formulations in a text. It helps standardize, ensuring that the edited text retains its oddities. It also acts as a reference for little-known names or technical details, because when these things dwell outside the realm of general knowledge, it's all too easy for a proofer to unwittingly add an error. When I worked on the copy desk at The Austin Chronicle, adding an error was the only real sin a proofer could commit.* Pretty much everything else seemed to be fair game (or at least that's how we played it).
A press has house style guidelines, and publications like newspapers typically have a book-length style guide, but each novel is its own horizon, and so the style sheet is a reference appendage. But more than that, it's a topography of all the weird shit in the novel. It's a map of all the jagged places where the words sound funny and kind of wrong; all the people who are famous to you, the writer, that nobody else cares about; all the brand names you have seen fit to include; all the fucky ideas you have in your poor head; and all the beauties, too. All the words neatly ushered along within the purview of the Chicago Manual of Style are like smooth pebbles in the riverbed. The style sheet is a list of all the places where you could cut your foot open. It's like a picture of your soul.
à la carte, AAA, AFL-CIO, afterward, Aldi’s, Alpine goat, AMBER Alert, arsoning
back-to-the-landers, backward, barefooted, Bath & Body Works, Bell’s Grocery, BLTs, Burchinal’s General Store, burned, Burns Delite, Butterick catalog
café, Camel lights, Caramello, Carhartt, chaga mushrooms, Chardonnay, Cheetos, chickie, chilblains, Cholula (hot sauce), coast guard, Coca-Cola, CoGo’s, coo holes, Crime Stoppers, Crystal (hot sauce), Crystal Light
D. Ferd Swaney Elementary, dammit, domme mom, doughnut, dove (not dived), downward, Ducati, Dunkin’ Donuts
earth, EBT, Econo Lodge, exposé, Eye of Horus
feint-stepped, FFA, fortysomething
Gebe & Skocik Tire, GED, Giant Eagle, Gilbey’s Gin, god (except God when Klink refers to it), goddamn, godsakes, good-bye, gossipful, GPS, grade-A (adj.), grandmomma, Grapplerettes, gray
Hamburger Helper, Hapsburg Empire, headscarf, Heaven Lake, helixed, Hockaday School, home ec, HVAC
I Ching, ID, IKEA, internet, IV
jacklegged, Jacktown Fair, JanSport, Jell-O, Januarys, jiggaboo
KGB, Kiko goat, Kmart, knee-walked
lamé, Law & Order, Lawn-King, leaped, LeBaron, Life Flighted, little Washington, longwall mine, lookie-loos, luft(ing)
Mason-Dixon Line; matryoshka doll; Met, the; milky-sick; Miller Time; mucus
Narcan; navy; Nessun Dorma; New World Order; New York Times, the; Night Train; nutso
O’Gillie’s, OD’d, OK, Op-Ed, Ormus gold
pachinko, pahoehoe, Parade magazine, pâté, Pecjak’s, pom-poms, Popsicle, Post-Gazette, POW/MIA, PennDOT, post( ), PSA, psych eval, PT Cruiser, pu-erh tea
Ravens Rock Overlook, religion-y, Roman Empire, RSVP’d, Rush’s Grocery & Video
sad-o (adj.), schatzilein, SCI Greene, Scientologist, see-through, Sheetz, single-A football, Skype, slippy (?), Sno Balls, Social Security, starfishing, Steak-umms, sweat-pinched
thirty rack, T-shirt
undergrass, upward, USA Gold (cigarettes)
Walmart, wangs, website, West Greene High School, Western civ, WIC, wi-fi, Wildman Run Road, Wite-Out, WPIAL, WVU
I think of my relationship to Greene County, where the novel is set (and where I was born and raised) as prickly, if not outright hostile. So it surprised me a few weeks ago when a friend said, "Well, it's clear you love it, from how you write about it." Shit, that was not clear to me at all! To tell the truth, I thought of writing about home in a sort of devious "now they'll sleep" way. A "do you love me now that I can dance" way. I was going to punish everyone by telling the truth! But when I first read this style sheet, I totally got it. No matter how else I feel about where I'm from, I have given it my attention, and I have represented it to the best of my ability. I've accepted it. I stopped pretending I was from "outside Pittsburgh." I have loved in the sense of holding some kind of reverence, even if the story that I'm telling is possibly unflattering.
My favorite writing teachers were not necessarily the ones who praised the most or the best. In fact, some of the more praise-happy sometimes seemed to be phoning it in: Great images! Great job! Wow! So interesting! Not to turn down a compliment, although I suppose that's exactly what I'm doing. I felt the most honored by the teachers who had clearly given my work the best of their attention, even if they were telling me that my scene delineation was mushy, my arch characters a clear attempt to hide myself in irony, and that I should perhaps know what I was trying to get at. (Maybe this is why I find copy edits flattering and humbling rather than critical! God bless you, copy desk, for cross-referencing every gas station and small town in this book.)
One of my writing teachers took the risk of telling me that I was writing in a superficial, witty way because I was afraid of inhabiting the physicality of my characters, and that I could write something that made the reader feel if I was willing to try to write characters as visceral, actual people. (A tall order, since "in my body" has often been the last place I want to stay.) I doubt he could have had any certainty that I would react well to that suggestion. I would be terrified of saying something similar to a student. It's so much easier to soften up what I want to say. It's a risk to tell the truth.
Being specific is an act of love. Looking is an act of reverence. Seeing what's actually there is an act of love.
* I have never, ever forgotten the press day where I struck the capital "Is" in a headline to make it lowercase; those li'l words are usually downcase in headlines, and we had been at work for something like 11 or 12 hours, and I thought I was making a brave last-minute catch until my co-homie Tofte flashed the page in my face yelling "NUH-UH. IS IS A VERB. IS IS A VERB. VERBS ARE ALWAYS UPPERCASE IN HEADLINES, Jesus Christ." It was like I had tried to steal her car.