Ensuring consistency is a big part of my work as an editor. As I work through a book I make sure there are no variations in how words are spelled: it should be either while or whilst, never both in the same text. The same with words like among/amongst, towards/toward, and O.K./OK/ok/okay. Numbers below 10 are either written out or not. Or all numbers are written out. Or not. Or only when accompanied by a measurement, e.g. all six competitors were over 6 feet tall.
Chapter titles should all be the same: centered or not, same typeface throughout. Any lists should have the same punctuation each time they appear: a period, semicolon or nothing at the end of each line. Always one or two spaces after a period, never sometimes one and sometimes two (but let’s not get too deep into that discussion).
Editors use a style guide to keep all this consistent, sometimes following an established one, like the Chicago Manual of Style, as well as keeping an individual style guide for each new book to make sure the particularities of that book, or series, are always the same, such as character names and place names. Does the character have blonde hair (or even blond hair)? How many children does the character have, if any, along with their age, size, occupation and so on.
These are all easy to keep track of and easy enough for an editor to change. It’s part of the job. What’s more difficult to revise is when characters don’t behave consistently. And that can happen very easily.
Avoid a major rewrite
Maybe your hero has always been a good friend but chooses to go watch a movie rather than bail his best buddy out of jail. If the buddy gets out of prison the next day and they argue about the bail before the story continues, then there’s not much of a problem. If the buddy dies in jail and that’s what sends the hero to investigate the death, it could look contrived, a touch too convenient that the hero was at a movie that night.
Such inconsistencies can lead to major revisions, a bigger rewrite than you were hoping for. And it’s better to catch these things before you send your manuscript to an editor—and definitely before submitting it for publication—because a major rewrite is likely to mean at least one more round of copy-editing.
And it’s easier than you might think to introduce character inconsistencies into your writing. You could have had a long break between writing chapters because, well, that’s how life goes. Or it could be that you don’t yet know the characters well enough to know how they’ll react to each specific situation.
There’s not a lot you can do when life gets in the way. You can try to develop good writing habits, write at particular times every day or week, set goals to write for an hour, two hours or 1,000 words at each sitting. But eventually something will happen to get in your way again.
Discover your characters
There are, however, various ways to help you get to know your characters and make sure they react consistently throughout your manuscript. [Read more…]