Friday, February 23, 2018

The Growing Onslaught of Continuity Errors

As much as I like to blame us Millennials for the destruction of the world, and I’m talented enough at mental gymnastics to find a way to claim our literature has gotten worse ever since typing class became mandatory, the truth is, I’m actually just talking about me here.

One of the reasons I advise authors to not make changes without fully understanding ‘why’ is a lot of your choices have a natural continuity—a sensible thread that ties them together—whether you are aware of it or not, whether it’s a realistic thread or not. To truly implement a change well, making it feel organic instead of mechanical, it needs a subtle application throughout.

You might have a poorly crafted female character, but she’s better off with a consistent personality than trying to jam a battle-cry somewhere in the middle. The best solution is to mildly tweak little choices throughout to better craft a well-developed character than take the big overhaul most critics tend to suggest.

I realized recently, however, I had a strong sense of continuity in the first drafts. Not to an extreme amount mind you, but not all authors have a natural thread through their decisions. I came to realize this when my thread was lost.

Continuity is, in its simplicity, exactly what it sounds like. It is a continuation of logic and facts throughout the story. “The maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes.”

In The Dying Breed, a manuscript I edited for three years, one of my bigger issues caused by the revision was how much I wonked with continuity, especially spatial. Spatial continuity is when the objects filling the scene don’t randomly change or disappear, but because part of my massive cutting project was achieved through the merging of scenes.

For instance, the characters meet in a parking lot, go into a diner, and then get surrounded by mercenaries before having a fight scene in that same parking lot. To save space, I altered it to them never going into the diner in the first place, taking the important elements form the dinner and finding places for them elsewhere in the manuscript.

Errors started to pop up. That scene in particular was the infamous time I gave it out to three different people and two of whom focused so intently on word choice, they didn’t notice the fact that a gun had disappeared. I hadn’t either; it was the one who actually read for content that wondered where it had gone.

I had taken lines where the character didn’t have a gun and put them into a scene where he had. The manuscript became riddled with these errors, mistakes that I rarely ever made in a first draft.

Until now.

After a long, horrible period, writing became easier again. I’d been working hard on several manuscripts that had been gradually growing since… well, at least one of them was started prior to The Dying Breed and still not finished. So four years now?

Here’s the thing about working on abandoned projects, several projects, and just all around slowly; the natural continuity I believed in is less existent.

When I wrote five pages every day on one story, I would finish a book around 40 days, a maximum of three months. (The Dying Breed took five, but it was 180,000 words initially, twice the size of a regular book.) Not only was my head in the story due to consistently working on it, but it was easy to remember details without writing it down.

For the last few years, I’ve struggled to concentrate. At times, I managed to overcome this by working on several books at one time. I have probably over ten that I know I want to finish, many of them over 50,000 words at this point. Switching back and forth wasn’t too difficult because the worlds and the characters, even the presently underdeveloped ones, made sense to me. Chanter wouldn’t say what Rhea would. Her experiences weren’t the same. Her world wasn’t the same. Her goals weren’t the same. I had no problem keeping track of who had done what, who would do what. But the problem arose that going from 2-2.5k words a day on one manuscript down to 500 made a book take a lot longer, five time to be precise. Combine that with my inconsistent writing schedule, and I simply was forgetting what I had done.

I couldn’t remember questions I had already answered. I couldn’t remember solutions I had come up with. I got writer’s block more frequently, not knowing how to get my characters out of situations I had trapped them in, not knowing the truth of the enigmas I had raised. Not even remembering the enigmas themselves sometimes.

I know that I’ve changed minor characters’ names, in some cases, refusing to call them by any name at all. There are times when I knowingly had to make a hard, inorganic decision I’d already made, but didn’t know where the original choice was. I have to trust I will catch these things in the second draft, but I fear the likelihood that I’ll only notice upon the second choice and still be in the position of not knowing where the first one lay—or what it affected. Point is, it sucks to start making errors that you never had to deal with before. Perhaps, however, it will mean that I’m more on the lookout, more hypersensitive to those types of errors. And good news, I won’t be so obsessed with understanding why I made a mistake like that. Previously, I almost always had a good reason that affected how I should fix it. Now, it’s less that I poorly executed a rational choice and more that I just fucked up. Yay!

Whenever anyone asks me how to tell if they’re a good writer, my obnoxious answer is that you’re never going to write at a consistent level of quality. Some things you write will be great. Some things will be awful. A lot will be mediocre. Experience and effort will often stabilize the chances, but the truth is, your forth book might be worse than your first, your third draft ruining your second while your sixth is the best. Plus, factoring in subjectivity, the same exact work can have drastically different evaluations just by shifting it to next person in line.

Everyone will be a bad writer and a good writer and an average writer, depending on the context, the longevity of their careers, and whatever your standards for good writing are. I also claim that if you have the exact same opinion (positive or negative) on everything you write, it’s definitely you and not your work. Self-loathing, delusions of grandeur, unable to unsee how it went together, whatever. But that’s my advice for anyone who is questioning their ability to evaluate themselves: write a lot, read it, see how your opinions differ from piece to piece. If you hate/love everything you do (in the same way and magnitude), you definitely need to develop means to be more honest with yourself.

It’s difficult to write something over a long period of time, to stay in world, remember the progression you planned, and keep your unconscious mind trained on plotting while you do things like shower. My continuity has taken a pretty big hit, but writing several books at a time have other benefits as well. Losing and gaining talents through experimentation is all a part of the game; at least I am aware of the effects.

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