Saturday, 21 July 2012

Keeping Continuity

Continuity errors might seem one of the least important aspects of a writer’s list of things to watch out for, but they are easy to make and sometimes difficult to spot and yet remain an important part of the writing method.

Writing a novel isn’t an instant process. It takes months (years even), and during that time it is feasible and sometimes unavoidable that writers will inadvertently create continuity errors, simply because it’s hard to remember what happened on page 12 when you’re at page 200 of the story and you’re beavering away to get it completed.

Just as in movies, the mistakes can sometimes be glaring or sometimes quite subtle, but they are errors nonetheless.

Common Errors:-

Time – Time of year, time of key scenes etc.
Place – Setting, place names etc.
Characterisation – Clothes, personal objects, birthdays, names, traits etc.
Plotting – Plot flaws and gaping inconsistencies.

Time continuity errors happen because writers forget timeframes. A writer might have a story set during the summer and thus in chapter 4 he or she mentions that it is June, but then a few chapters later, and without realising, the month has changed to July. Likewise, they might forget that it’s summer and write something more akin to a wintery scene.

There are also times when the time might actually be mentioned because it is relevant in a key scene, so the writer mentions that it is 10pm in chapter 7, but when referring to it again further into the novel, that time suddenly changes to 9pm.  

While tiny details like time might seem unimportant, you can bet the reader will pick up on them. Overall, it shows lack of attention.

The same rule applies for setting – it’s easy to mix up place names, particularly if they begin with the same letter. It’s easy to forget that a character might be boarding a plane in London, but then the name of the airport suddenly changes to Luton halfway through the story.

Characterisation is a prickly area for continuity mistakes. Don’t have a character start off with blue eyes at the beginning of the story, and then by chapter 20 he has brown eyes. Does a character wear glasses at the start of the story and then halfway through he is inexplicably is cured of his short-sightedness because the writer forgot that the character wore glasses?

What if you describe a character’s clothes in one scene, then several scenes later the character is wearing something else completely different? Again, this is an easy slip up to make. You might not spot it, but the reader will.

Also, make sure that character names don’t morph into something else, or are spelled differently in chapters. Their traits, personality, their style and idioms etc. should remain constant throughout.

Plot continuity is paramount – errors here cause massive plot flaws and gaping holes. For instance, if you have a character that is scared of heights and you’ve highlighted this as part of their characterisation early in the novel, then during the exciting climax don’t have the character heroically climbing up the side of a building without a whiff of fear, unless of course you make it part of the plot. In other words, the character is forced to confront that fear in order to save another character from danger.

Pay particular attention to this area so that you don’t create to make everything fit. Make sure your plot is watertight and not full of those gaping holes.

Objects cause writers all sorts of continuity gaffes. Got a patterned rug in chapter 3, but the patterns vanish by chapter 8? What if a character is driving a 4 x 4 in chapter 10, but by chapter 11 it’s become a saloon car? If a character is using a Blackberry at the beginning of the story and then it changes (without explanation) to an iphone, that is a common error.

Did a character place an object on the table in the dining room in chapter 12 of your crime novel, but a chapter later the object vanishes or turns up elsewhere in the scene?

Colours can also change, so make sure the blue car you describe early in a scene stays blue. If a character picks something up to use, like a gun, then make sure that the character still has it. It’s easy for that object to simply vanish while you’re busy writing the following scenes.

To avoid common continuity faults like these, during the writing process, make a list of the names you’ve used/will use, make a note of key dates and times in the story so you don’t get in a muddle. Keep track of key events or places in case you have to refer back to them later in the novel.

Doing this makes it easier while editing. And of course you have to be thorough, so when reviewing your work, keep your lists and notes in mind so that you can check to make sure that times, places, names, objects, characters and plot flaws remain constant throughout.

The idea with continuity is to keep the information consistent from one chapter to the next, so there is a smooth, seamless transition of time, characters, plot, setting and objects.

Next week: Keeping viewpoints balanced.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Polishing Your Prose - Part 2

With the usual faults of clichés, grammar, POV and sentence structure etc all corrected through judicious editing - the prose polishing process should then take on a deeper narrative cleanse to tidy the things that are not so obvious to writers, the things that we don’t always look out for.

This means looking a little deeper to see what else can be improved prior to sending your pride and joy to agents and publishers.
Ambiguity, for instance, is something writers tend to miss.  Ambiguity occurs due to poor sentence structures, often inadvertently giving sentences double meanings and thus confusing the reader (and on occasion, making them chuckle).  What you intended for the reader isn’t always what is understood by them, so make sure every sentence reads correctly and doesn’t give a double meaning.

Tenses still remain the one thing that confuses so many writers, and especially so when working in first person point of view because it’s easy to lose focus and slip from present to past tense.  It’s imperative that you pay attention to tenses, otherwise the narrative becomes weakened.  For example:
I live by the shadows, I hide in them, make them my own. I’ve never had a fear of the dark; they made me who I am.

Spotted the tense change? ‘I’ve never had’ and ‘made me who I am’ should be ‘I don’t have’ and ‘they make me who I am’ respectively.  That’s how easy it is to slip up with tenses. The reader may not spot this, but an editor will.
Hanging participles to begin sentences don’t impress editors, either.  They cause ambiguity and weaken sentences, but they are also a sign of poor writing. 

Flinging aside her coat, she turned to him’ might sound perfectly fine, but to an agent or publishing house editor, it tells them the writer hasn’t paid attention to clarity of the sentence.  You can’t really have a character do two things at once (even though it’s perfectly fine in the real world) because this is fiction, and every action should be clear to the reader. In other words, she flung aside her coat and then turned to face him. Avoid starting sentences with hanging participles if you want to make the right impression.
Clarity and simplicity count – you don’t have to make your writing overly complicated, so that it is hard to follow, and as shown in the example above, don’t fall into the trap of letting your writing become ambiguous and thus weakened as a result.  Writing should be clear and concise.  Clarity and simplicity speak for themselves.

Keep your characterisation consistent throughout the story – characters evolve with the story, as will your reader, so don’t let them step out of character by doing something ludicrous in order to falsely evoke dramatic effect or events in order to force the story, otherwise your risk losing narrative integrity and the reader won’t be too impressed either. 
Also make sure your characters are not clichéd.  In other words, don’t make them cardboard cut outs or caricatures.   They should be individual and flawed as real people, and instantly likeable.

Overall, your prose should have movement, so to speak.  It needs to undulate, race away, slow down, it needs rise and parry, it needs to be gentle, it needs to be exciting.  It should never stay still; otherwise it would bore the reader.  In other words, your prose should have the right balance of pace.  If it doesn’t – either it reads too fast or too slow – correct it.

Polishing Prose Checklist

  • You’ve eliminated ambiguity.
  • You have the correct tenses throughout.
  • You’ve cut out hanging participles.
  • Your prose has clarity and simplicity.
  • You have consistent characterisation throughout.
  • Pacing should be balanced – not too fast and not to slow.

Perfect prose is unattainable, but better prose is achievable.  By paying attention to what matters, a writer improves his or her chances of becoming published and staying published.

Next week:  Getting continuity right

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Polishing Your Prose - Part 1

Every writer should understand the importance of adding finishing touches prior to a submission to an agent or editor.  While absolute perfection is unattainable, writers should tidy and polish their MSS/short story to the best it can be, and this is for several reasons.

One is to present to your would-be agent or publisher a professional writer, someone who knows what they’re doing.  Your aim is to make an impression – the right impression.  Another reason is show the reader a flawless, enjoyable piece of writing.
Paying attention to your prose – an integral part of the editing process - is vital because this is where your voice, your style, your technique and your narrative is scrutinised by your agent, publisher or readers and the very structure of your prose determines whether it reads smoothly, makes sense, is enjoyable, or whether it is jarring, clunky or doesn’t read right at all.

The downfall of some writers is that they don’t pay enough attention to editing and rewriting, and the result can be pretty awful.
There are umpteen ways you can tidy and polish your prose, but here we’ll look at the usual things that tend to escape a writer’s attention – the more important ones – like clichés, repetition, waffle, unbalanced sentences, show/don’t tell (exposition) balance of description, narrative and dialogue, overuse of adjectives and adverbs and keeping your POV consistent.

To begin with, start by getting rid of those terrible clichés, unless you want your narrative sounding as though you wrote it in the dark ages.  The same goes for rarely used or archaic words, which might have been popular at the beginning of the 19th Century, but will seem out of place in the modern world (unless of course you are writing a historical based story, where such language was common).
Look out for repetition wherever possible.  This can catch every writer out, so edit judiciously.  Repetition can be certain words within the same sentence, repetition of whole sentences or part sentences, and on occasion, parts of scenes, especially when cutting and pasting during the editing process.

Weed out irrelevant information and cut out unnecessary waffle because this inevitably slows the pace and renders the writing clunky and hard to follow.  Stick to relevant information to move the story forward.
Also, aim for smooth, evenly paced narrative, rather than badly constructed sentences and paragraphs which make to it hard to read.  Tighten sentences wherever possible

Go through your story and reduce the use of ‘Was’ and ‘there’ because these are tell-tale signs of telling rather than showing.  If you want to impress an agent or publisher, then cut down on them.  Too much use of either screams ‘amateur’ at prospective agents and publishers.
Every writer should know the maxim ‘Show/Don’t tell’.  Plenty of writers fall into this – they tell the reader what is happening, but never show them.  The ‘art’ of writing is to create and construct places and people and events, to make the reader become part of the story, to describe them in such a way that the reader feels like they are there.  No writer will accomplish that with ‘telling’, and yet a high proportion still continues to tell rather than show.

With your descriptive scenes, show the reader, don’t tell them.  Paint a picture and lure them in.
As stated in previous posts, try to balance the narrative, the description and the dialogue.  Too much or too little of these elements can make the story uneven and awkward to read.  It doesn’t have to be exact, but get a good balance of all three and you will make a reader happy.

Don’t forget to cut overuse of adjectives and adverbs.  Again, too many of either will show agents and publishers that the writer is amateur.  Let your nouns and verbs do all the work.  They are much stronger.
Make sure your POV is consistent throughout – don’t have it change from one point of view to the other during the middle of scenes, and it’s essential that you maintain the protagonist’s viewpoint by not letting other characters take over.  Aim for an 80% - 20% ratio of protagonist: other characters (more on this in upcoming articles).

At the end of the day, whose story is it?  The protagonist’s story, therefore make sure it doesn’t waver from their perspective too much.

Polishing Prose Checklist
  • You’ve eliminated clichés.
  • You’ve eliminated repetition – words, phrases, sentences repeated scenes etc.
  • Cut out waffle/irrelevant information.
  • That narrative isn’t overly flowery and sentences remain tight and concise.
  • That there are few instances of ‘was’ and ‘there’ as possible.
  • That you show/don’t tell.
  • You have a good balance of narrative, description and dialogue.
  • You’ve removed adjectives and adverbs.
  • You’ve kept a consistent POV.
There are a lot of things to look out for in fiction writing, but by keeping an eye on these main points, polishing your prose should become second nature.

Next week: Part 2 of Polishing Your Prose.