We’ve all experienced it.
The moment when you are reading along in a great novel, and wham! It hits you like a rock between the eyes. The main character who has blonde hair and blue eyes throughout most of the book, now has striking green eyes. This is not a case of some sort of genetic manipulation, it is an inconsistency in the writing. You read the new description and the world stops moving. Your brain can’t keep the story-line clear anymore as you leaf through the book for references to her eye color. Or you read a book about a family in Boston in the winter, and the author references the adults walking around in flip flops. Nope. Boston, adults, winter and flip flops don’t match usually. Or a hundred pages of the book state that the main character is a vegan, and suddenly he is eating a beef burger. Inconsistencies abound, and they can derail the greatest of novels.
As a reader devoted to the story in your hands, you think you should be able to get past the inconsistencies, but you can’t. The story withers and dies due to a lack of consistency.
Why is it a big deal? It causes a disconnect or hiccup within the story and can make even the most positive reader cranky. Read the reviews on Amazon. Reviewers slam inconsistent writers, and the comments can be brutal. Incredibly talented writers can be reduced to sniveling shadows of themselves when a reviewer rips into them for holes and mistakes in their details.
You don’t need to fall prey to such a fate. Protecting yourself and your story from inconsistencies is easy, and it makes your entire work stronger and better.
How do you prevent inconsistencies? Does this mean that every author needs a fact and detail checker? What is an author to do and what is the most affordable way to do so?
Most inconsistencies happen in descriptions of place, time, physical descriptions and behavior. How do you avoid them all? Do your homework and research carefully, plan your book, check your manuscript for inconsistencies, have readers look carefully at your work, and finally, get a great editor.
The first way to prevent inconsistencies is to make sure you have done your homework as a writer. Writing about places and things where you have no personal experience is possible. Possible as long as you are willing to put in high-quality research! If your book is set in Sitka, Alaska in the winter, you should know that they have mild winters with almost no snow. Writing about alpacas? Make sure you don’t get them confused with llamas and have an alpaca carrying a heavy pack up a hiking trail. An alpaca can’t do that but a llama can. Good research keeps you from making those mistakes. While it may seem like those are unimportant details, readers notice them. Mistakes diminish your reputation.
Historical mistakes are frequent in novels. How often are descriptions of models of cars incorrect based upon the time period? Often. Clothing? When did women wear bustles and when didn’t they? Make sure you get it right. Toiletries? A book written about the late 1800s should have straight razors in it, not safety razors. What about technology? A novel set in the late 1980s with dial-up modems can’t have a character using an iPhone.
Do your research. Research is free, or almost free depending on site fees. Jump on your laptop or phone and start reading and learning. Always get more than one reference point to make sure you are accurate. For example, if you are writing about a character on the Keto diet, check enough reputable sites to know what that means. Make sure you have the detailed and accurate information, do not settle for writing that she eats bacon and butter for every meal because your knowledge about Keto comes from ads on Facebook.
Then there are the details about character, setting and plot. How you respond to those depends on what kind of writer you are. Are you a “pantser” or a “planner”? Some writers are “pantsers,” meaning that the write “by the seat of their pants” as ideas come to them. The story forms in their minds and makes its way directly to the page without a detailed planning process. Those writers explain that they don’t plan out their novels, they just come to them as if in a dream. Others are “planners,” planning out every single detail of their books. Some writers have many more planning pages of notes and details than they eventually have in their completed manuscripts. Those writers are the ones often depicted in social media. You know the ones. They have the bulletin boards covered with post-its or index cards about characters, descriptions, locations, favorite foods and other minutiae.
How do you avoid inconsistencies as a “pantser”? There are two major schools of thought about this. The first is to commit to having extra sets of eyes read your book for inconsistencies as you go through your draft process. This can be done by a developmental editor or by several sympathetic readers. Another way to do it is to keep a minimum of details about your story arc and characters handy. Prior to the final draft, review your list of details to make sure you have stayed true to your details.
As a planner, you likely have detailed descriptions of every single piece of information you want included in your novel. The main character’s favorite food? English muffins with peanut butter. Favorite piece of clothing? The faded and holey hoodie from her older brother’s college. The kitchen has three windows and a battered pine table? Detailed down to the dings in the tabletop. All the details are accounted for, but authors still need to keep track of them, so no holes arise.
So how should you do keep all the details correct and consistent? What tools should you use? How much is enough planning and how much may be too much? Some instructors of writing suggest detailed planning, others suggest a middle ground between the planning nothing and planning everything. In this model, you keep a simple but detailed story arc plan handy. Write a biography for each major character. Keep a list of information about setting. Chart how characters connect to each other. Keep a cheat sheet of the details that matter to the story and matter to you as an author. Recognize what growth your characters show but keep it realistic and in line with your overall story-line.
Many writers now use online tools to help with their writing, such as Google Docs. Starting a background planning document for your novel on Google Docs allows you to take it wherever you have internet. If you aren’t a fan of typing your story directly or using online tools that way, try using the more old-fashioned but very effective post-its or note cards or notebooks. A binder with sections for characters, plot and setting will allow you to keep a running list that you can refer to for accuracy.
Either way you write, when your first draft is done, celebrate the accomplishment of completing the draft. Seriously, celebrate it. Many people talk about writing a novel, but you did it. Congratulations! Even if it doesn’t ever get into a bookstore, you have accomplished something few people ever will.
Once your personal celebration is over, the hard work begins again. Go back through that draft with a fine-toothed comb. Did you stay consistent? Does the character have the same favorite music all the way through the novel or not? Is the setting consistent? Clothing style? Dialect? If something has changed, is it due to a mistake on your part or because of growth on the part of a character? For example, the main character who swore he would never dance becomes a great dancer. Is that because you forgot he hated to dance or because he learned to dance to impress the woman he loves? If it’s a mistake, fix it. Personal growth? Explain and celebrate it.
Regardless of how detailed your planning is and how many times you have looked over your novel, once you have reached this point, you must have other eyes look at your work. Start with significant others, friends or acquaintances. Ask them to look for contradictions or inconsistencies. Ask them to look for holes and possible confusion in your story. Is the world you have constructed believable and causes an emotional reaction? Take their comments with a grain of salt while still listening to the essential content. Writing is a personal act, and hearing about your issues or mistakes is uncomfortable, but it is a lot less painful from people who want to be gentle with you than some stranger reviewing or critiquing your work!
Once you have integrated their suggestions and fixed any holes or inconsistencies they find, hire an editor. Pay for their expertise. There are excellent professional editors out there who are very affordable. Every writer in the world needs a professional editor when they reach the point of thinking of querying publishers or self-publishing. Friends who are strong in reading and writing are great support, but eventually, hand your work over to someone who doesn’t love you, and let them have at it. A good editor may make you swear and yell as they motivate you to improve your work, but they will polish your work so it shines.
With planning and organization, attention to detail, and extra eyes to read your work, your novel will be the gift to the world that you anticipated it would be. Congratulations on being a writer!