Thursday, June 17, 2010

Missing a little Zip

The other night, The Kiddo and I settled down to read The Happy Hollisters and the Haunted House Mystery. We were in a very dramatic part, where three of the kids and the faithful collie Zip go check out the haunted house, which has no electricity.

As a mother with a pilot's license in helicopter hovering, I was horrified. In the story, the oldest kid is 12, one kid is deaf, and the third kid is 10. That their parents actually let them go poke around in a dark house BY THEMSELVES, armed only with a flashlight and waaaay before the invention of cell phones, made my hair stand up. The mother in the story does raise some qualms, but quickly decides it's okay if Zip goes along.

The Kiddo was biting her nails as we read about how Zip breaks away from the three kids after hearing a noise.

The story continues, with the kids racing up to an attic room filled with mysterious dog howlings and groans and moans, and finding the room empty. And I do mean empty: not even Zip is to be found, only the author didn't mention that.

The Kiddo jumped on it like a duck in a junebug. "Where's Zip?" she kept asking. "What happened to Zip?"

We finished reading the chapter and a little bit into the next, and Zip was completely MIA. He didn't show up until the plot needed him again. It worried The Kiddo to no end, in part because she's very tenderhearted when it comes to animals, and in part because she's all about the logic of a situation.

It got me to thinking about continuity in writing.

We writers write in piece-a-block fashion, even linear writers like me. We churn out an 80K MS in chunks, an hour here, two hours there, a scene, maybe a chapter, at a time. And even with professional editors and copy-editors looking over my shoulder, I've screwed up -- in my first book, I'd changed the countertops in my heroine's kitchen from slate to soapstone. But sure enough, upon re-reading the published book, I caught a mention of slate countertops.

So how do we do our best to eliminate continuity goofs? Here are a few tips that work for me.

1) Print out a blank calendar from Outlook of the proposed time-span of the novel. Jot down briefly the time and place of each scene and the characters involved. (You can also use index cards or create an Excel spreadsheet.)

2) If you have room on that same calendar, note the weather (a pet screw-up of mine -- I'll have my heroine outside in short sleeves in the dead of winter).

Now, take a look at the order of those scenes. Are they logical? Do they give your characters the time to get from one place to another? Do you have them eating two suppers in one night? Is the weather as it should be -- no snowing in July unless it's meterologically likely? No darkness falling at 5 p.m. in mid-summer in Georgia?

Then as you're doing your final edits, read for continuity, with a special eye for disappearing Zips. Have your Critique Partners or Beta Readers do the same. You're not looking at your word-smithing. You're looking at the logistical movement of your characters -- think like a detective.

Usually even the most egregious screw-ups are easy enough to fix in process. It's after the book is finished, and when your editor writes in her revision notes, "Uh, wait, better check the time-line on this? When is this happening?" that it's like untangling a knotted fishing line.

But of course, I'm the only doofus who ever does this, right? Me and the author of the Happy Hollisters and The Haunted House Mystery, who somehow lost Zip.


Toby Speed said...

This is a major issue for me, too! Not only weather and props and characters, but things people said or didn't say in one scene that they either say again in a later scene, or completely forget about! Knowledge continuity, I guess you'd call it. (Almost like real life, as I'm getting older!)

Mia said...

LOL, poor Zip, all MIA. I haven't seen major mistakes like that in most of the books I've read, but the ones I write? Heck, yeah. In my WIP, two of the characters are high school students, and one is a principle (no, it's not YA). I had them showing up at school on Saturdays and Sundays. Writer fail. *blush*

Piedmont Writer said...

You never cease to amaze me Cynthia. A pilot's licence in hovering? Go you!

Continuity -- I didn't realize how important it was until I started messing up the secondary characters names. I finally took a pad and pen and wrote all the characters, their family trees, their animals, and their butlers (Regency). I have found this to be invaluable.

I can usually keep a pretty good eye on the weather. Most of my stories are written during the summer. It's easier for me that way. Then I don't have to worry about snow.

Lola Sharp said...

That's a MAJOR pet peeve of mine and it annoys me right out of the story.

I can forgive a minor slip once or twice (when reading Charlaine Harris' Sookie books, her brother truck kept changing color...teal then purple...and a few other continuity glitches, and it pulled me out of the story. Fortunately, I love her world and characters, so I continue to read her books, but all these years later and I still think of those mistake when I think of her and her books.
I used her name, because I said I still buy, read and enjoy her books. But there are other best selling authors that I will no longer buy/read because I find sloppy errors. It drives me insane.
Part of me blames the publishing industry...they force a crazy schedule on authors to pump out a book or 2/year. I think that's a pretty tough schedule to put out a clean, well crafted story for the author, and for the editor to comb through.

Admittedly, I'm a bit of a perfectionist and therefore could not ever turn in something I didn't believe was pristine. I go through my MS like a mental patient hundreds of time before I even hand it off to a beta. I don't ever want someone to read my book(s) and catch silly mistakes (trucks that change colors) that stick with them forever.

And because I don't outline, and because I'm unorganized by nature, my first draft is a hot mess. So is the second and third draft. It isn't until somewhere around the fifth draft where I feel like it's in decent shape and I might be willing to let a beta take a fresh look at it.

And this is why I will never be able to churn out/commit to a book or 2/year. I need about 18 months per book. I'm slow.

Freak that I am, I have no anal issues with proofing my posts or comments. They are frequently littered with typos.

Lola Sharp said...

For the love of all that is holy, my LONG-winded comment above proves my point. It is FILLED with typos. *blush* Sorry. Still working on my first cup of coffee.

Linda G. said...

Great post! Especially important if you're an "over-writer" like me, and have to cut out large chunks during the editing phase. I have to be careful I'm not left referring back to things that no longer exist.

Lickety Splitter said...

Heck, half of the time, I can't even remember what I left my desk for by the time I reach the front of the office. I can't imagine having to keep up with a book full of characters, seasons, times of day, what the characters are wearing, what kind of drapes they have, etc. Double heck, I could not even tell you what my co-workers wear from one day to the next day. Triple heck, I can not even remember what I wore yesterday.

out of the wordwork said...

OMG. Excellent advice, as always. I wish I had a continuity editor like they do in the movies so that when they're looking at the scene they shot the day before the coffee cup is still in the same spot on the desk and the time on the clock is the right time. It's kind of fun when you're watching badly done movies (even great ones have glitches) and trying to 'spot the differences' from even one shot of a scene to the next shot.
Not so much fun when you find a glitch in your own novel though!

Tawna Fenske said...

I'm terrible with time-lines on first drafts of my novels, and have pretty much given up ever assigning months/years/hours to anything until the second pass (which is probably annoying to you as my CP to see early versions that say "she was married xx years" or "the weather is always lousy here in xx.")

I do sit down and map it out in the end, but there's no hope for me at the beginning!


Samantha Hunter said...

I'm so anti-spreadsheet, notecard, etc that I just have to hope I notice in edits/revisions. ;) I think for the most part, it's worked out -- mainly because I go back over what I write most days before I keep writing, so whatever I did the day before gets gone over 2 or 3 times in the process of doing. But I am just not a record keeper...

Still, your point is well taken. ;)

Anonymous said...

Great advise! :)

prashant said...

I still think of those mistake when I think of her and her books.
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Jerry West III said...

Hi Cynthia,

Your post about continuity is wonderful! I was especially amused by your daughter's concern for the missing Zip in The Happy Hollisters and the Haunted House Mystery: my grandfather was Andrew Svenson, who wrote The Happy Hollisters series under the pseudonym Jerry West.

I thought you would be interested to learn we have just republished the first volume in the series. It is now available in paperback for the very first time, but the content is identical to the original (typos, continuity lapses and all). Our files contain lots of editorial corrections and comments that were made over the years, and when the time comes to republish The Haunted House Mystery, we will look very carefully to see if the error was caught; it's possible Zip turned up in a reprint! You can read more about the project at our website:

In the meantime, however, please let your daughter know that in real life, Zip was the Svenson family's dog "Lassie" who was lovingly cared for by the real Pete, Pam, Ricky, Holly and Sue (Pete was based on my dad). We'll try to add a picture of Zip to our website soon. There is photo of the "real" Hollisters, so you'll see that, despite their parents' lack of supervision, the children did manage to grow up to adulthood!

Thanks for remembering The Happy Hollisters!