I originally wrote this as a chapter in Mike Reeves-McMillan’s The Well-Presented Manuscript. I highly suggest you read the entire thing, which has much more meat than I provide here.
I remember the day I knew what kind of editor I wanted to be. Sure, I knew how to craft a story with a proper beginning, middle, and end. I even knew how to create plot twists and subplots. But I’d always enjoyed writing poetry or short stories better than novels. Sure, I knew all the grammar rules, but I didn’t love them. I just appreciated how diverse the English language really was. Sure, I’d been known to write a publisher and let them know every single tiny mistake that’d gotten through their editing and printing process. And, like many people, I thought that developmental, copy, and proof editors were the only kind of editors. I knew I wouldn’t love being any of those. Yet, the urge to be an editor was great within me.
And then that day came. I was twenty nine years old and an interview with Cheryl Klein was published. She was the continuity editor for the last couple of Harry Potter books. It can’t be easy stepping into a series at book six; that’s a lot of background you have to absorb. But she loved it. She loved every second of it. By the end of the interview, I knew that I was supposed to be a continuity editor, rather than any other kind.
The question I get most often is: What does a continuity editor actually DO? I make sure that your story doesn’t have any glitches. Klein said that before she came on board, Moaning Myrtle’s toilet had a U-bend in one book and an S-bend in another. Yes, that’s right. A tiny, minuscule, obscure detail changed. And fans noticed. Your story may or may not have raving fans one day. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t make you a failure. But if it does, then you want your published product to be as polished and detail consistent as possible.
Continuity is consistency. You might not have trouble remembering that your protagonist has blonde hair. But will you remember that your protagonist’s sister’s boyfriend’s uncle has black hair? Sure, it wasn’t that important to keep track of. After all, Uncle Joe Smoe only appears in one scene every other book. But if his hair is black in the second book and red in the fourth, someone will notice. I will notice. A book or series that is sloppy in the details gets negative reviews built up over time.
So, how do you, as the author, keep track of all of the tiny little details in your story? Especially if you end up being Terry Goodkind and publish over twenty books in the same series. And should you keep track of all of them while you write, or just let the story flow during marathons like #NaNoWriMo and deal with it later?
There are four main areas to keep track of to keep your story solid. Each of these have tools that will help you, and, if you choose to hire one, your continuity editor will help as well.
You want the world to be consistent. Make sure that the geography doesn’t change without geographical altering events like earthquakes. If there’s magic, you want it to work the same way every time. If you create a language like Tolkien did, you want the grammar and vocabulary to be the same throughout. If everyone in the world knows that ogres prefer to eat dwarfs to all other species, then you don’t want to have a dwarf that’s forgotten that. And if Mrs. Marple is going to solve over a dozen mysteries in St. Mary Mead, you want to make sure that the town’s post office is always across from the grocer’s and doesn’t jump to across from the church in that one book. The best possible way to keep track of your world is to draw a map. If you can’t draw to save your life, don’t worry! You can use a map generator like this one: http://fantasynamegenerators.com/map-creator.php#.VkouYXarRMz Or, even a rough sketch that gives you a vague idea is better than nothing. It can just be circles and lines.
Secondly, you want the timeline to be consistent. Especially if you’re writing a thriller or mystery that timing is highly important to the tension, then you want to make sure you have all the right days in the proper order. Could the protagonist have actually accomplished everything you just laid out in that time frame? Or do they need a few more hours? Did two or three days pass, but you’ve opened the next chapter with, “the next morning”? This, more than any of the other areas, should be at least roughly planned out before writing your book. It helps with pacing, key scenes and events, and even which characters appear when. If nothing else, a simple list will help. If you’d like something more elaborate, then check out the Aeon Timeline software that works with Scrivener: http://www.scribblecode.com/ If you’re setting your story in our world with particular dates as well as general days, then double check dates with this handy website: http://www.datedial.com/datWhich_Day.asp. And if the moon’s cycle is important for the magic, then you can check that here: http://www.moonpage.com/
You also want the scene to be consistent. Especially for action thrillers, murder mysteries, and fantasy fights, when the layout of the room is crucial to the action or the puzzle’s solution, you want to make sure that the unicorn lamp is always on the table by the door, and not the table by the window across from the door. If the antagonist grabs the fireplace poker, make sure he did so when he was next to the fireplace. Also, which way is your character turned? Are they sitting? When do they stand up? Did you mention them standing up, or were they lounged on the sofa, and suddenly they’re opening the door? This can be easily checked during the second draft editing process. If you’re a visual person, it’s great to draw out a room on a white board and move pieces of paper around with character names as you read the scene outloud. If you’d like a more elaborate tool, you can build building layouts as well as room layouts here: http://planner.roomsketcher.com/#/?pid=493174
You also want the characters to be consistent. Some authors use Character Profiles with pictures of famous actors attached. Some authors use a simple word document. Others use a complicated spreadsheet. And others create their own wikis. Whichever way you choose to keep up with your characters, you want their physical features, disabilities and injuries, personality profiles, accents, native languages, and background story to stay the same, except for development arcs. And even the development arcs should be tracked. And, yes, even minor characters should be tracked. If you definitively mention a characteristic, then that characteristic shouldn’t change.
So now the question is: when and how do you lay all of that out? Plotters find that they have to do a lot less detail tweaking than Pantsers do. If they’ve got a rough idea of the world, timeline, and scene layout ahead of time, then they can write within those guidelines freely. They’ve constantly got reference material for their current project handy. Even though this seems like more time upfront and time looking things up as you write, it saves a lot more time on the editing end. If you’re in the groove, I don’t recommend you stop to look up a minor character’s green eyes, but make sure you do when you make that first editing pass. And if you’d hadn’t already established their eye color, add whatever you wrote to your notebook of details.
When you are ready to start sending your manuscript to editors, should you hire a continuity editor? Well, maybe. If it’s the first, or even the second book, then probably not. A good copy editor will check for continuity within an individual book. But, if you’ve got several books set in a complex world, then it’s time to consider hiring one. I know of at least one author with a very, very complex, detailed world. He has a team that he calls his “Beta Readers.” They’ve all been with his series since the beginning, and they know the world inside out. Not only can they tell him things like, “This doesn’t sound like that character” but they can also say, “When you introduced her, the tattoo was on her wrist, not her shoulder blade.” However, if you choose to have your Betas check for continuity, you need to know that they’re qualified and experienced at looking for such things. If you do hire a continuity editor, they should land somewhere between your Betas and the copy editor. They can straighten out a lot of the universe details so that the copy editor doesn’t have to worry about them. A good continuity editor will not only help comb through your current work, but when you’re further along into your next book, they’re ready for random calls like “Did I ever establish the protagonist’s mother’s family name?”
If, however, your series will only be a couple of books, it isn’t set in a mythical world, or there aren’t many characters moving around a lot, then you might not need a continuity editor. If you don’t want to spend the money for one, because you’d rather spend that money on a better copy editor or cover artist, then you can use all of the tools mentioned above to check, recheck, and triple check for yourself. But, sometimes, you’re just too close to the story to be able to see those details clearly.
Continuity Editor & Virtual Assistant
Hello! I’m Adriel Wiggins, wife, mother of three, fur mom, bibliophile, art geek, and all around student. I’ve been on a quest all of my life to learn as much as I possibly can about everything I possibly can. This has helped me tremendously in what eventually became my life’s purpose: to help other people become the best version of themselves. It is in that line that I became an assistant.