Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Facts, Ma’am, Just the Facts

We’ve all seen mistakes in books--a deleted word here, a repeated phrase there--but I found a whopper a few days ago in a book I thoroughly enjoyed. (And no, I won’t tell you the name of it.)

A new character is introduced (really just mentioned--we never actually meet her) on the second to last page. She’s mentioned again on the last page, but this time she’s got a different name. Oops.

I sympathize with the author. And the editor, copy editor and everyone else who let this little nugget slip by. It’s not easy to keep all details straight in a brand new world.

I make a lot of mistakes like this as I forge through my latest WIP. Tired of my normal pokey-pace, I’m fast-drafting the second half. I’ve called a character Mrs. Maloney and Mrs. Mahoney. I’ve made a six block walk take an hour. And I’ve played fast and loose with money--a major part of the story.

So what’s a writer to do? How can you keep track of every little detail in a world that currently lives in one mind only?

Orson Scott Card offers great advice in his book Characters & Viewpoint. He suggests “Keeping a Bible”--a notebook or separate computer file that lists every decision the writer makes. To keep the momentum going, he doesn’t stop while writing, but reviews yesterday’s work and jots down all details and decisions. This, Card says, helps maintain consistency, brings him right back into the story, and makes him think about each decision.

As for me, I’m setting up a separate computer file pronto. If it works for Orson Scott Card...

What about you? How do you keep your facts straight?


  1. For my last manuscript I used an outline and it helped out a lot. It helped me see how each action organically lead to the next action. I also kept a week by week timeline and made sure I put in hints or details where they needed to be. It was a lot of work on top of work, but worth it. I think I'm an outline convert!

  2. J.A. - GREAT post.

    With all the revising and stopping and starting I've been doing with my current WIP, my characters have had their names, their family circumstances, their motivations, and entire personalities changed. Today I made an outline (of sorts) to keep track of each characters' "stories." I've never done this before, but I'm hoping it keeps me focused. I think the idea of a separate file for each decision might be a good idea also.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Question: What's the worst job in history?
    Answer: Copyediting the Harry Potter books.

    There are entire websites devoted to mistakes in those books--there are hundreds, maybe thousands of gaffes--many of which never made it past the first printing. Here's a fun site to visit:
    Now if only that copyeditor had followed these tips, HP might have been a big success. Hehe.

  4. J.L. -- that site is a hoot! But it does help to look at it. it shows the many inconsistencies that are so easy to overlook in the mad drafting dash.

    Robin and Meg -- I'm also working with loose outlines in ways I never have before. It really helps to have direction, but I do find myself taking lots of twists and turns I hadn't seen coming.