Thursday, September 17, 2009

Keeping the Story Straight

People may think editors are a little too anal, nit-picking over the smallest detail, but sometimes that smallest detail, when it’s wrong, can jerk the reader right out of the story, and that’s the last thing an author would want to happen.

One of the details editors look for is continuity, making sure that the time-line is correct and making sure that an object or a person is properly introduced. You don’t want a character to pick up a gun that was never on the table.

In filming, there is a person who carefully notes what is in a scene, where items and people are, what characters are wearing, etc, so if that scene has to be re-shot, everything will be in the right place. That person also watches the time line, making sure that costume and set changes are made when time has passed in the story.

For novels, it is part of the editor’s job to watch that time line and make sure everything and everybody is in the right place at the right time. But sometimes that doesn’t happen.

For instance, I’ve been reading a wonderful book, Black Water Rising, a debut novel from Attica Locke. The book was published by Harper Collins, so I assumed it had been gone over with that proverbial fine-tooth comb by an editor and a copy editor, and then proofed again by the author. It may have been, but they still missed a few glaring continuity problems.

The latest, which prompted this post, occurred when the central character talks to a woman at a diner. He is asking her how to find a man he’s looking for. She tells him where the man lives and gives him directions to the house. Never is the woman named in this scene, but in the next scene, when the man is driving, he is mentally going over the directions “Wanda” gave him.

That stopped me, and I went back to read the previous scene again, thinking maybe I missed her name, but no. It wasn’t given. So here I am writing a post and not reading any more of the book right now. Which doesn’t mean I won’t finish it. It really is a good book with engaging characters and a strong plot, but part of me wishes the editing had been more thorough so I wasn’t pulled out of the story.


Maryann Miller is the Managing Editor of, an online community magazine, and a reviewer for and ForeWord Magazine. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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  1. These "small" glitches is one of the reasons why, when I edit, I mark things I see on the first go-round. I know some editors read through without making marks the first time. They want to get an overall feel for the book. Even marking things on the first read, I don't catch it all. Sometimes I'll find minor stuff on the third reading - a missing comma or period - along with continuity problems or other major things that I'm focused on in that reading. So I can see how something can get missed in the editing phase. Your post is a good reminder that even with the author checking, the freelance editor reading, and the publisher's editor scanning, things can be missed.

    Straight From Hel

  2. As a published author, I can tell you you'd be amazed at how often these things creep in.
    The problem is that editors are usually worked to death. So, try as they might, they have to rely on the author or proof reader to pick up stuff like that.
    My publishers are the first I've worked for (of 3) that employ copy editors, responsible for this sort of stuff.
    The Booker judges complained about this this year. It's not laziness, its overwork.
    It's very difficult to proof your own work. The imagination fills in gaps. The editor reads it, checks its of good quality but doesn't always use the fine tooth comb. They're more interested in content. Then the proof reader makes sure you know your 'you're' from your 'your' and it's into the shops.

  3. I don't know if I see it as such a glitch. After all, reader knows directions were given by a woman at the diner. So next morning when he is thinking about Wanda's directions, reader knows he's talking about "woman in diner". So it wouldn't confuse. And if she doesn't appear again in story, no need to know more than that.

  4. I'm in the same camp as Marisa because I don't see this as a problem if the events occur in quick succession. A break of five chapters between step 1 and step 2? Then I'd have an issue.


  5. My experience matches with Anonymous. Editors are overworked and proofreader staffs have been cut. Continuity is part of the craft. Whoa, that sounds preachy in a comment line, but it's true in film and doubly true in writing. So, nit-pick away, Madame Reader. I'm a better writer for reading your post this morning.

  6. Thanks for the comments. One nice thing about this forum is that we can get so many opinions on a topic, then take from the discussion what best works for us.

  7. That would have jumped right at me, too. Reminds me of a convulated plot in a famous mystery author's latest book - a series of loosely connected characters led to the determining clue that unraveled the mystery. Unfortunately, the character with the key clue never met any of the characters who had the clue, so how she got it remains a mystery - she couldn't have solved the mystery, and probably more than a few sharp readers caught that. Talk about being pulled out of the story - I can't tell you how many times I read and re-read to make sure I didn't miss a clue!

    Hate it when that happens.


  8. My biggest boo-boo--or at least the one a single reader caught was that in my first Tempe Crabtree mystery, Tempe first drove a Blazer then it became a Bronco, back to a Blazer and again the same switcheroo.

    No one else even noticed. Amazing.

    I'm not good with cars, only know the kind I drive and ones that are obvious like PT Cruisers. That's my excuse and I'm sticking with it.


  9. I see what you mean about marking things first time around Helen. I will try that when I dig out my novels and start editing - which I am about to do now.

  10. I'm glad that there are others to help with this chore when my time comes. I have a chart set up for my time line. I keep a list of my characters with certain details. Plus, I update my chapter by chapter outline while I'm writing. Without these things, I couldn't keep the details straight.

  11. It is also important for that "continuity editing" to continue ALL the way to the end. I worked with one published novel in which a central reason for the main characters to bond romantically was that they shared the loss of parents. Guess who disembarked from a plane to attend the wedding on the second-to-last page!?
    For interest's sake, this was by no means the first novel by this author and her previous novels had gone into multiple prints but this one never hit a second (and so was never corrected) - I'm not saying it was the only reason but, you've got to wonder.

  12. Great advice- thanks. I agree with Lily- I am also glad there are others to help with this chore… (Editing, proof reading, etc...). There is no excuse I can think of; if everyone work efficiently in their position and stay in their lane(s). We have a responsibility to our readers to produce a quality product for information and/or reading pleasure.

  13. I saw the same thing happen in Sarah Dessen's "This Lullaby." The MC kept referencing some guy in the band, calling him something like "Redheaded Drummer" or whatever. And then all of the sudden she had the "redheaded drummer" say something and finished his wordes with "Ted said." It really threw me. I had to reread it a half-dozen times.


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