It takes a long time to write a book.
Seriously. Anything between three hours (going by what is currently being published on Kindle nowadays, and frightening all the ebook customers back into the paperback aisles of Waterstones) and sixty years.
At the end of the day – however long that working day has been – you hope that the author is the go-to expert on their work. Including thoroughly knowing what has been added or removed after an editor has had their grubby mitts on it, if you are one of those lucky authors.
A character’s eye colour or birth-sign shouldn’t change in the time it takes the reader to make a pot of tea between pages. For the writer, who was living in a different time-frame while constructing the story, this interlude between paragraphs may have been forty years. But even in a NaNoWriMo novel, over the course of a month’s hard writing, it’s possible to see where the author’s imaginary world morphed, grew, shrunk, and in some cases emigrated, with no reference point or explanation.
Continuity errors are not limited to film and TV. They appear in written prose all too often as well. But it’s not just continuity errors. It’s reality-check-bouncing too.
- A character who lives in a bungalow (or a trailer, tent or caravan) as designated at the start of the story, should not pop upstairs for any reason, sleep in a room upstairs, or hear noises downstairs at the dead of night.
- A character should remember the names and sexes of their siblings, whether or not those siblings are married, and to whom. They should also remember how many children they have. And if a family is limited to one car, they should own one that they can all comfortably fit into.
- A character who tells everyone that he/she ‘does not drink’ should not be quaffing Champers at the staff party, or opening the Jack Daniels every night after work and the Beaujolais with dinner, unless he/she is also a humungous liar. Teetotallers do not merely drink less than the average struggling author. They don’t touch alcohol at all.
- A virginal character should not leap like a porn star onto the first man to compliment her cleavage, unless she is a sperm-jacker hoping to get a council house.
- A character who remembers his/her parents’ death in a car crash while still at primary school should not also have memories of how embarrassing they were at his/her wedding, have photographs of them at his/her graduation, or receive phone calls from them with unexpected news of other nonexistent relatives (such as siblings of only children), reminders of family birthdays which have already been celebrated and forgotten two chapters previously, or other postmodernist twists in the plot. And while on the subject, twin siblings usually celebrate their birthdays on the same day, so reminders of a twin’s birthday are bizarre, to say the least… we’ll ignore the fact that my own mother once called to remind me of family birthdays looming in the next two days – it was my own, her eldest child’s birthday that was looming. I got a dead potted plant. It must have been too short notice for her 🙂
- A character in a novel set in 1914 whose husband only gives her ten pounds a day ‘spending money’ should not be roaming the streets of London pleading with shopkeepers to give her a job stating that her family is in need (unless again, she is a great big liar). ‘Ten pounds a day’ to live on in 1914 is roughly the equivalent of £100 in today’s terms. (Even today, sometimes I wish I had as much as ten quid a day just for ‘spending money’).
- A character should not ‘fly out to Rio’ for a one-stop party weekend and ‘return from his Mexican holiday’ on the Monday, unless his nickname is Speed Gonzales, Fastest Drug Dealer/Liar/Cross-Border Trafficker in the west.
No matter how well you think you know your story, your characters, where they live, the layout of their house/spaceship/camp-site or crime scene (or any other matters of world geography) – or indeed, in how short a space of time you wrote it – you must sit down and read it cover-to-cover once it’s finished. It’s the only way you’ll find all the booby-traps you’ve set for yourself in the process of incorporating all of the add-ons your imagination has furnished the story with since you started.
Did you know that you can Google what time the sun sets anywhere in the world, on any given calendar day? Recently, one of my author clients nearly changed the solar year in Tokyo to be in parallel with Northern Scotland, imagining that the winter days in Japan were as short as those approaching the Northern Lights and the Arctic Circle. I checked, as she had not. It turns out that the shortest daylight span of the year in midwinter Japan is less than 3 hours shorter than on the same day in Nairobi, close to the Equator. Japan may have mountains with snow on, but so does Mount Kilimanjaro. Which is not in the highlands of Scotland either.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, I thought Vienna was in Spain. I was sending imaginary holiday postcards between Barbie dolls. I then opened an atlas, looked it up, and had to change it. It’s even easier to look things up online. Don’t use the world of your imagination as an excuse for getting the simplest of things wrong, unless you too want to sound like an elementary schoolchild when reading out your story at your first public appearance.
While looking for continuity/geographical errors, check out your spelling and grammar. Do you know the meanings of all of your favourite words? Is your hero accurately described as ‘a tenuous mass of muscle’ with ‘an autocratic accent’ or did you intend to say something else when you pictured him?
Lord Dark Helmet of Spaceballs – both tenuous and autocratic…
Also, is your prose dripping unintentional double-entendres at every turn? Is your heroine always asking folk to ‘bare with her’ (while she doubtless races to win the strip-tease contest first) or to ‘grin and bare it’ (obviously to collect photographic evidence of the aforementioned strip-tease).
Not long ago, I formatted a family saga – book-club, women’s fiction, that sort of thing – not humour, not parody, but quite serious and stately. It started out in rural Yorkshire, with a patriarch named Dick, host to a large brood and an explosive temper. The book was already published traditionally in print, so it was only the ebook I had to format – no changes, no edits allowed. After a few chapters, Dick’s incendiary nature nearly cost me two cups of tea and a keyboard.
Before she could finish, Dick had exploded.
She opened her mouth, and Dick exploded again.
If you’re writing serious prose, and have to negotiate the waters around some delicate choices of character name, try to exercise caution with descriptive verbs. And maybe cut down on their repetition, if the behaviour is unavoidable, as with Dick’s hot temper.
Otherwise, you may be misleading the reader into believing you’re writing something else.
A few authors become attracted by certain phrases, no doubt picked up from earlier reading habits of their own, which they do not see are also misleading to the reader. One author who consulted me was fond of describing the reactions of his characters in a certain way. They always ‘managed to appear genuinely amazed’ or ‘managed to seem genuinely surprised’ or ‘genuinely appeared to be puzzled’ etc, etc… what the author does not realise, is that these descriptions would be perfect should the characters all be routine dreadful liars and deceivers – yet again, this was not the author’s intention. I said to him, “when you chat with friends and they tell you something amazing, do you say ‘I’m amazed!’ or do you say ‘I am managing to appear genuinely amazed!’ – which of those actually sounds realistic and genuine?”
If your character is amazed or surprised, just say so. He/she was amazed. No-one should ‘appear to be genuine’ in any reaction, unless it is an outright act put on to deceive the other character or characters. Be wary of a fondness for expanding on what should be very simple bits of your illustrative prose.
Authors suffer from short attention-spans as well as overactive imaginations, and that shows all too painfully also.
In third-person storytelling, the author gives away whenever they are bored with the internal thoughts of the MC, or are merely delighted with an incidental character they have just created, by glaring amounts of pointless head-hopping:
The bus conductor looked at the beautiful girl and felt pity for her. It wasn’t her fault she couldn’t afford the fare, riding the strangely advanced London bus in 1914 with only ten pounds to last the day, before going home to her house in Mayfair and tightwad of a husband. Why, if he was ten years younger himself and wasn’t supporting his family of four he would have something to offer her all right, but on this occasion, a free bus journey was sufficient…
What the author thinks they’re doing is directing the reader to feel sorry for this loaded idle wench, as she trolls around the city of London with pockets full of her husband’s money on a daily basis. What they’re actually doing is attaching misleading significance to minor passing characters, while using as many pairs of eyes as they can in every scene to illustrate their own lust after the leading character (or desire to be the leading character, it’s usually one or the other).
If you want to make the readers feel sorry for your character, put them in piteous situations. Not riding buses around town, skirts weighed down with cash, while other characters stare at them and think the things that you want your readers to think.
Head-hopping can also take a terrifying and unforseen turn through ‘the fourth wall’ – away from the characters altogether:
Bella sighed as she got off the bus, and the flower-seller on the pavement nearby took pity on her at once, handing her a rose.
‘Poor girl,’ thought the flower-seller. ‘She looks like she’s been worrying over something all day. And it looks like she’s got off at the wrong stop…’
Yes – yes – see Bella suddenly running now, realising her mistake.
“Wait!” she shouted, but the bus had gone.
Look at Bella now – lost, dejected. Tears pricked at her eyelids. No! She mustn’t cry.
So – let’s watch and see what happens next, as she heads mournfully along the rain-sodden street…
A couple of things happened in the segment above. One, the author stopped writing the story from the point-of-view of the characters, and started addressing the reader directly, as if sitting alongside them in a movie theatre talking over the film. This is often a ploy when there is an annoying ‘narrator’ character, such as a ghost watching over the players, but it doesn’t work when it’s the author themselves.
Do you know why? Because the voice of the descriptive prose dictates the landscape portrayed in the reader’s imagination. If it suddenly switches to the author’s voice, saying in as many words ‘Look at this’ or ‘watch this’ then the reader is immediately teleported out of the location of the plot they were involved in, and into the seat next to the author as they wrote it (and a miserable place it is to be, too).
The reader is NOT INTERESTED IN YOU. Or in what you are thinking. Or in who you fancy eavesdropping on/sleeping with in the story, in any given session of writing. The reader wants to be on that street, with Bella, figuring out her next move with her, and when she’s going to learn that ten pounds will buy her quite a lot of groceries for her Mayfair house in 1914 – if she can only find a shopkeeper who has that much change to give her in return.
The reader does not want the author hanging around at their shoulder, prodding them, pointing at passers-by and telling the reader what each of them thinks about Bella as she freeloads her way around pre-WW1 London.
The other thing that occurred was the jumping of past tense to present tense. Past tense – that’s where the story was occurring (disregarding the head-hopping that was still going on). Present tense was what I used as evidence that the fourth wall was being smashed – that the author was addressing the reader directly. It isn’t necessarily the case – unwary writers can hop tenses as erratically as they can hop into and out of the heads of point-of-view characters – but it is occasionally a giveaway of fourth wall infringement that I’ve encountered as an editor and proofreader.
Remember, it takes a very clever writer to lead a discerning reader in a merry dance through the plot, on an entertaining journey to a satisfactory resolution. But it doesn’t take a genius reader to spot a terrible writer… you have been warned 😉 x
Spaceballs predicts the Clones 😉 x