I’ve mentioned a few times that when writing we need to be aware of the importance of consistency. But why is it important?
To begin with, it will infuriate your reader if Jane turns into Jean every few pages and back again. Trust me, they will notice! So remember to make notes for yourself concerning the physical appearance and age and background of your characters. These type of errors look unprofessional and as if you don’t care a bit about either your work or your reader. I’m a great fan of Patricia Wentworth’s murder mysteries and her elderly spinster detective Miss Silver. But even the greatest fan can’t deny that there are a number of books where Hannah Meadows, Miss Silver’s trusty cook-housekeeper, renowned for the lightness of her scones, mysteriously changes her name to Emma Meadows, cook-housekeeper with scones of equally great fame. It’s clearly the same woman. They’ve both been with Miss S for years… This is a silly error which frustrates me, and makes me want to go back in time and tell Pat to get a grip. Because trivial though this may be, it detracts from my enjoyment of the story – I am jerked out of my little fiction-reverie and into the reality of proofreading and editing. The illusion is shattered.
We writers are always told you can’t proofread your own work, and this is so true. Time and again I’ve gone through my own books – spell check isn’t enough, we all know that, so you have to proofread ‘manually’ – and yet numerous typos and missed words creep through. I suspect our minds automatically furnish the missing word or transpose the letters that are in the wrong order. So it is essential to have at least one person and preferably two, proofread your book to search out these miscreants and destroy them via ‘track changes’. It may sound obvious but it’s important to check the spelling of place names, peoples names. Just this week on Amazon, I read a sample of a book I was thinking of buying, and on the first page, in the second paragraph, a real place name was misspelled. Eek!
(btw the word Misspelled is another nightmare…)
Even if you don’t actually create a style-sheet, at least keep one in your head. Ensure all your headings are in the same font and size, indent the first line of your paragraphs by the same amount every time, keep your spacing the same, decide on the speech-mark you are going to use (single or double) and stick with that. Oxford comma or not? Whichever – stick to the same throughout your work. If you are writing for an American audience, you need to remember to end -ise words with -ize, miss out your letter u and scores of other alternative spellings – invest in a US English dictionary. If you’re a British writer and writing in British English, ensure you are in fact using British English throughout – and what ever you do – don’t use a mixture of styles. As a proofreader, there is nothing that grinds my gears more than reading ‘realise’ on one page and ‘realize’ on the next. Again these are minor irritations that will turn off a reader and turn on a critic.
Similarly, ensure the passage of time is dealt with in a consistent manner. Even if it doesn’t matter to the plot which day a certain scene takes place, it is best to work it all out on a calendar at least in the early stages. It is so easy to forget to allow for school holidays, weekends, birthdays, anniversaries and other significant dates when writing a story about a family or even just a couple. These are things that have an impact in real life, and they could well be significant in your fiction. Nothing and no one exists in isolation, unless your main character is the only character and they are living in a desert in 1712. The internet is obviously a wonderful source of information and you can find old calendars which will tell you this information.
Likewise, don’t set your Easter holiday in March if you’re stating a particular year in case it was April, don’t assume the weather would have been cold as April can be very warm, check when the moon phases were or are; if talking about a hot dry summer in Australia, what part of Australia are you talking about? Queensland, for example is hot and damp… Do your homework to ensure your underpinning facts are correct even when writing fiction. And don’t have character one say they’ve got to be up early for work the next day then have them laying in until ten, unless it is clear to the reader they were lying. Don’t have it getting dark in Paris at 5pm in the summer, or still light at 7pm in London in November. Locals will know!
Not only do you need to remain consistent within your own work, but your story needs to be consistent with its own setting. If you’re writing a novel set in the past, you need to use idioms that were around in that time. It’s no good having adolescents of the 1930s telling each other that something is ‘sick’ ie very good, as that is a (hideous) modern term. Similarly, don’t call 15 year olds of the Elizabethan era ‘teenagers’ – again, that is a relatively modern term. In terms of the passage of time, don’t leave huge unexplained gaps for no reason. Readers will assume that chapter two follows on immediately from chapter one, so if it doesn’t, you need to make this clear and explain why.
Consistency is an important key to creating a believable world in which your reader can willingly, delightedly, suspend belief and sink right in. But the inner critic never sleeps and it will only take one misplaced slang word, one change from blue eyes on page 52 to brown eyes on page 113, one confusion over the day of the week, or a winter sunset at 10pm, for your avid reader to be jerked out of their happy little book-world and back into reality. And you don’t want that to happen, do you?