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The Red Pen: Continuity and consistency

Publishing Director and author Moira Forsyth is back on the blog today with the sixth in a series of blog posts featuring advice for writers. We are not currently open to unsolicited submissions, but the tips in The Red Pen blog series will help you ensure that when we do reopen in June, your book will be in the best possible shape. Find out more about our submissions window on our submissions page.


Ask yourself these questions:

Is this the same kind of novel as it was when you began?

Is it the same novel as it was when you began?

If the answer to either of these is ‘No, not really’ or ‘No, not at all’ you have some work to do making sure the opening chapters belong in the same book as the later ones. That’s where most of your revision might be needed – as we discussed in Making the Beginning Strong.

Mostly, though, the check for continuity and consistency is about detail, and this is where all your work on structure and timelines pays off. It’s always worth paying close attention to detail. If you don’t, your readers will.

As publishers we’re sometimes asked to pass on emails and letters from eagle-eyed readers who have spotted that the bus journey in Chapter 4 doesn’t follow the real route of the No. 78, or the walk from that end of the Cromwell Road to the pub on the corner of some other street could never be done in the half hour allowed in Chapter 7. Or that the film the main character sees in the cinema wasn’t released until five years after the action of the novel. Or the model of the car he drives wasn’t yet for sale.

Thank Goodness for Google, I say to myself when checking facts for my own novels.

Of course an easy answer to all these objections is: IT’S FICTION. I MADE IT UP.

However, if you’re aiming for realism, or at least trying to create an authentic world for your characters, you need to be sure of the facts as you’ve given them, and not cheat the reader out of their pleasure in recognising – or picturing – the streets your hero walks or the external details of his environment. If you’re writing historical fiction, you can be sure your readers are even more likely to spot anachronisms and inaccuracies.

Even if you’re writing a novel set in the future, or inventing a whole alternative world, it requires its own internal rationale and consistency to make it believable. I’ve published novels by authors who set their novels in cities they’ve never been to, but they’ve done their research and they’ve made the place come to life, not just with appearance but with sounds and smells. They know how to create an authentic atmosphere.

Are your characters consistent all the way through? People may change, grow older, react to a crisis, cheer up when something wonderful happens, suffer from pain or loss or grief. But your reader should believe this is the same person for the length of the novel. If that’s not the case, it suggests you, as the author, don’t know your own character well enough. If they behave totally out of character for no reason – in your reader’s view – your credibility is diminished.

There are also simple details throughout a novel which you might have altered as you wrote the first draft, then forgotten about. So look out for:

People: if you change a character’s name these days there is the blessed Find & Replace function on your computer which will sweep through the text on your behalf and fix it. However, you may also have changed their appearance, or decided they come from a different town, or how many children they have, and that’s much more difficult to check electronically. You have to do it yourself by attentive re-reading of your own work.

Journeys: have you allowed enough time – but not too much – for a journey to take place, whether on foot, by car or public transport?

If someone is injured or ill do they take some time to recover and not just leap up like Tom and Jerry (or a character in a crime drama on TV…) and rush about as if it never happened? I sent one character off for a run about two weeks after she sprained her ankle badly. When I realised what I’d done, I thought seriously about removing the significant scene where she has her fall, before I decided it was simpler and better if she just didn’t go for the run.

FINALLY

As you’ve gone through your work carrying out these careful checks, I’m pretty sure you’ve also been tweaking the prose, finding better ways to say something, streamlining dialogue and adding anything that seems needed. Of course you have.

BUT

There comes a point when all this revision and reworking has to stop. No doubt your editor will ask for further changes, but it’s important to know when to call a halt yourself before you submit to agents or publishers.

I’ve known writers try to makes changes when the text has been typeset. This is TOO LATE! By that point, unless a terrible error has been missed by author, editor and proof-reader, any changes you make are likely to be unnecessary. There comes a point where you lose judgement and changes are not necessarily an improvement – they’re just slightly different ways of saying the same thing.

All artists know the risk inherent in adding a final dab of paint to the canvas and thus ruining the whole thing!

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth