You Finished Your Manuscript! Now What? – Part Two: Continuity

6a. Checking for Continuity

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and noticed the drinks levels on the table change between shots? Or maybe in one shot, a character is wearing a jacket, but in the next – in the same scene – the jacket vanishes? Or even a cup magically changes colors in a scene?  Or a character’s name changes between seasons?

All of these are issues with CONTINUITY, “the maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes of a movie or broadcast.” The Script Supervisor’s role in film and TV is to catch these issues before filming is complete and editing begins. But, as I’m sure you’ve seen on your own, this doesn’t always happen.

Of course, in Hollywood, finger-pointing can take place to explain away these issues.  But when you’re the lone author of a novel, a short story, or other work, the responsibility for continuity within your story lies on you. And even though the above definition cites “movie or broadcast,” continuity is equally essential when editing your novel.

6b. Why Continuity Matters 

As a writer, your job is to keep the reader focused on the story and keep them turning the page. This means the story needs to flow, allowing the reader to effortlessly move through the story and not get pulled out because of something that should have been fixed during the editing process.  

As I mentioned in Part One, read and reread your manuscript, strengthening the story, characters, and dialogue and checking for spelling and grammar errors.  On top of that, it’s important to make sure that character names, descriptions, settings, and other permanent aspects within the story are consistent from start to finish.

I like to write varying drafts of different chapters, and sometimes I combine different versions to create a more exciting version of the sequence I’m writing. In doing so, this can cause continuity issues to crop up that need to be addressed to avoid confusion for the reader.

For example, if I write a version where the detectives show up in a black sedan but leave – thanks to a later version of the same chapter – in a green Prius, the change is jarring and pull the reader out of the story.  

The same is true with clothing. If you write a version where a character enters the room and takes off their coat, and then later in the chapter they take a pack of gum from their coat pocket in another part of the house, they either can transport locations, or there’s an issue that needs to be resolved.

Once you make a choice, stick with it.

6c. Tips to Monitor Continuity

One of the easiest ways to keep basic continuity within the story is to have a basic spreadsheet or written list of all the named characters (first, middle, and last), their ages, and a basic description. If the characters drive, add the make, model, and color of their vehicles. If there are homes, workplaces, or major locations in the story, give brief details on the sheet to ensure paint colors and basics are consistent.

Also, be conscious of all characters’ actions during a chapter. What did they do? Did you have them put something down or pick something up? Did someone exit the room? Did they suddenly reappear, or just vanish from the chapter altogether?

If you’re like me and love to do multiple drafts of chapters and sequences, be aware of these changes, and make sure that what has already been established earlier is crafted into the newer version of the chapter or sequence.

So, now you’ve edited, you’ve polished, and you’ve checked your manuscript for continuity. You’re confident in your story, the characters, and the manuscript as a whole. It’s time to release your child to someone else to read and get feedback from.  But who?  Who is this person, and why should you entrust them with your creative work?

We’ll explore these topics and more next week!

You Finished Your Manuscript! Now What? – Part One

You did it! You stayed focused, sat down at your laptop or computer, and finished the manuscript of your novel.  This is an exhilarating moment. From Chapter One to The End, you have written a complete story that you’re proud of, and you know readers will love.  

I know from experience that once you get to the end of the manuscript, you can feel a sense of relief. You’re done. It’s over. Now you can go and binge-watch Pawn Stars.  But, this is not the end of your manuscript’s journey. Far from it.  So, let’s explore how best to proceed when getting ready for your manuscript’s adventure.

[Writer’s Note: When saving your manuscript files, always put the title and the revision date as the filename (Example: TheField_06102018). This will help when you start rewrites, and you can keep track of various drafts.]

1.         Take a Month Off!

Now, you can binge-watch those shows you’ve been putting off. You’ve earned it for all your hard work. But there’s a reason behind this month: to give you distance from your material. It’s hard to be objective right out of the gate when you’ve worked so hard and for so long on something as massive as a novel manuscript. During this time, don’t open the file, and don’t retrieve it from a drawer if you’ve printed it out. 

Leave. It. Alone.

This doesn’t mean you can’t THINK about the novel, and this is when your brain will start to work in mysterious ways. You’ll be on a walk, or watching TV, or reading, or in bed at 3AM, and all of a sudden, a new section of dialogue that links two sequences will pop into your head. A better sequencing of events, a better description of a character or location, even the idea that a chapter can be cut will all flow through your mind.

If you think of something during the time away, write it down. Have a legal pad, the notepad app on your phone, or a separate file on your computer available to write down any and all ideas, edits, additions, etc. that come to mind during this month away. You’re still creating, still working on the manuscript, but in a periphery way that allows you to think clearly about changes you might consider once you return to the manuscript.

Like it or not, that great draft you just wrote has a lot of problems, and your brain knows it and during this time will slowly begin to tell you what the issues are and ways to fix the problems. I know this from experience, and it’s 100% true that this phenomenon happens. “What if…” “Maybe I should…” “If I have them go right instead of left…” 

If you think of it, write it down. Even if you look back at it later and go, “That was a dumb idea!” at least you won’t be mad at yourself for not writing it down.

Now that it’s been about a month…

2.         Welcome Back! 

You have your new set of ideas and notes. You have written down notes on revised chapters, character moments, and description. Now is the time to start fleshing those out – again separately from the manuscript – indicating at the top of each new section where it goes in the story (Example: [Dialogue right before the campfire scene]).

Write it all out in any way you feel is best. Then, once you have all the new content written, rearrange the sections in the order they will be added to the manuscript.  Take a day or two away from these, see if anything else pops into your head (inevitably, it will), and then make any revisions you need to these new sections.

3.         Time to Return to Your Manuscript 

It’s been a while. You haven’t seen each other for a long time, but the feelings are still there. You’re a bit nervous – butterflies are fluttering in your stomach – as you begin to read the first chapter…and it’s not as good as you remember.  

Don’t panic.

The good news is that you A) recognize that there’s an issue, and B) you can resolve the problem at this early stage of the editing/rewriting.

As you read, if you find section you don’t like and want to rewrite them, highlight them in BOLD, and keep reading. That way, when you come back to start the rewrite process, you know what areas to focus on. If you are reading a printed version, use a highlighter to indicate where issues are. 

I recommend doing this initial read over a series of days. If your manuscript is 300 pages, read through 30 to 40 pages a day. This is your opportunity to dig deeper into your story and see opportunities to fix issues.  Read too much in one sitting, and you begin to gloss over things, and this exercise requires your full attention. 

While you’re reading, you can now drop the new material into the areas of the story where it belongs, or you can indicate with brackets, ALL CAPS, and in bold where these new sections will go: [ADD NEW CAR CHASE ENDING HERE].  Sometimes, when I’ve noticed a chapter hits a dead end, I’ve added [MORE HERE] to indicate there’s an issue.

Now, you’ve read the whole manuscript. Let it sit for a week, then come back to it again.

4.         Time for a Deep Dive

Only you know your story. What you want to say. How you want to tell the story. Who your characters are. It’s all in your head. And now is the time to really start focusing on these things and making sure the story you want to tell ends up on the page.

This can be a lengthy process but a rewarding one. As you begin the rewriting process, you are wearing two hats: WRITER and READER. Your story should be something you enjoy reading as much as you enjoyed writing it.

During this phase, take your time. Read each chapter closely. Does it convey information about the characters and story? Does the chapter move the story forward? At the end of the chapter, do I feel the need to keep reading?  These are good indicators that your story is working, and it’s essential to take the time to make sure that every piece of the puzzle fits how you want it to.

Make sure to add in the new stuff you wrote during your month off if you still like it. Some you may decide you don’t need, or what you wrote doesn’t work with the new direction you’re taking the chapter. That’s fine. Your goal here is to do what’s best for the story.

As you rewrite, you will feel compelled to rewrite entire sections, revise dialogue, and maybe even cut sections or chapters entirely. Maybe there’s a character who’s just there with no purpose. Time for them to go. 

These are all positive things for your story and your manuscript. You are taking steps to make your story better, have more clarity, and flow smoother.  All good things.

Again, take the time to work things through. This could take a month, three months, six months. Whatever is needed to get the story to be exactly how you want it to be.

If you finish and want to take another pass, take a week off and start again.

5.         Remember, Writing a Novel is a Marathon, Editing is an Exploratory Nature Hike 

Outlines. First Drafts. Second through Sixth Drafts. You’re confident that you’ve got a solid story. That’s great. Now, the real fun begins. 

Editing!

This is the technical part of the process. Yes, you would think that your writing software catches grammar and spelling mistakes 100% of the time, but it doesn’t. It also doesn’t catch when you’ve used the wrong word, put the wrong character name, or left a line in from one draft that now makes no sense in the context of the latest one.

I have two pieces of advice as you begin this process: Pace Yourself, and Avoid Skimming.

Pace Yourself

Take your time to explore and read each chapter thoroughly to catch as many errors as possible. Break the novel down into manageable chunks so you can go into each section with a clear head and focused mind. Find it and fix it. And, trust me, you’ll find stuff.

Avoid Skimming

An easy thing to do, especially if you know your story and novel, but skimming could mean a missed extra word, the wrong tense, incorrect word usage, or other issue goes unfixed. Read. Every. Word. 

During this process, if you do feel something is missing and should be added, do so. Since you are reading the story so closely now, you may find that there’s a story problem or a set-up missing a pay-off that you missed. Fix it now.

I have also started to use the program Grammarly to assist with editing my manuscripts and writing. It’s been a great resource and help, but even it has missed one or two things.  The trick is to implement as many tools as possible to weed out as many errors as possible.

Next week, we’ll delve into the world of Continuity.  See you then!