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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Internal Consistency

Toying with Time

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

When you mention the genre fantasy, some people imagine dragons and faraway lands, some steer toward vampires, werewolves, and witches, and others--like myself--tend to be drawn toward the element of time. Time is a mysterious idea, even to modern-day scholars. It fascinates scientists and writers alike, spawning many theories and stories revolving around the variables of this fluid beast. We know that over time organic matter breaks down, and new matter can take its place. Time propels us forward, making progression possible. We use time to categorize and arrange past events. But little is known about time other than how it affects us. However, it is something that we religiously base our routines and everyday lives around. Acceptance of time means changes are inevitable; some things can be completely replaced over time, and others simply altered.

The sheer magnitude of the concept of time is one of the things that makes it so fascinating to us. There is almost an unspoken knowledge of its power. It's something that we have absolutely no control over, causing anxiety for some and a sense of relief for others. For writers, time is one of those magical toys that can be dreamt about contorted. It defines the lives and journeys of the character that we craft.

But playing with time is like playing with fire; it's a difficult to harness but is extremely dynamic. Most writers use this capability to their advantage, even in the most basic sense. They establish a chronological order of events but present them in a way that is the most effective for conveying the story. However, when time is presented as an object in a fantastical story, it becomes a living creature capable of wreaking havoc on the characters and story being told.

In order to best utilize this tool, there are three main areas a writer should focus on.

Idea or Object? Time is either going to be seen as an idea or an object in a story. If it is simply an idea, it will usually follow a linear path and affect the characters much like time in the real world as a unit of measure to signify when certain events occurred. If time as seen as an object, it is elevated and personified, and can be captured, manipulated, or even stopped. This view of time is most likely to occur in a story where there is sorcery. It will require the creation of extra rules which must be consistently maintained. Toying with time in this way alone can certainly hold a great amount of potential for plot development and unexpected twists.

Time Travel The next thing you'll want to establish is how flexible time will be: Will time manipulation and/or time travel be possible? Managing this view of time is tricky. There are whole shows based on this idea. Some are executed quite well, but ones that aren't are monstrosities. The best aid for writing this kind of a story is research. See what's out there, what works well, and what doesn't. Come up with your own rules and try them out. Just make sure that every action has a consequence. Based on context of the story, readers will know how devastating the consequence should be. When something as big as time travel is involved, readers will expect long-term effects to characters' actions. Even if an immediate consequence isn't appropriate, one should be queued for later.

Weave in History If there is any sort of manipulation of time in your story, a history of why and how time came to be that way is absolutely crucial to a well-developed plot. Without it, the actions of the characters toward the object of time are meaningless. Be careful to avoid long blocks of backstory though; doing so can simultaneously bore readers and give away too much of the plot. Use it instead as a detail to enhance the current point in the plot and peak interest in past events.

Why Good Writing Matters: Internal Consistency

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

This is the final blog post in my "Why Good Writing Matters" series. My husband gets credit for the idea on this one. His profession is pretty much the complete opposite of writing, but he always holds great insight in the field nonetheless. One of the many reasons I love him! Now, onto the good stuff...

Have you ever read a book that had a great plot, intriguing characters, and a distinct voice but lacked consistency throughout? If so, did it irritate you and ruin the book for you, or did you view it as no big deal?

This may not be the case for everyone, but stories that lack internal consistency—that is, they have plot holes or material that contradicts some other part of the book—really grate on my nerves. In my brief research mentioned in the introductory post for this series, I found this topic held the most disagreements. Some readers weren't overly bothered by inconsistencies, and others equated them to blasphemy, ruining an otherwise perfectly good book. There was also a spectrum of opinions in between. Where people stood within that spectrum depended on the type of inconsistency and the frequency of it for any given book.

That just goes to show, there’s a lot of gray area with this one. I'm not certain only a few minor inconsistencies are enough to deem an otherwise well-written book garbage. However, there are a few things regarding internal consistency that really do matter. These are the things that your readers will pick up on and remember even after they've finished the book.

Rules of the Universe
Know the physical rules and laws of your universe. Record them. Memorize them. Following the rules of the universe is a tip for writers of any genre, but breaking said rules results in differing consequences depending on the genre. If you bend or break a given rule in a strictly standard fiction, your readers may notice but be a bit forgiving so long as it's infrequent. If you make this mistake in a fantasy novel, watch out. Not only will there be a dip in believability, but your readers will likely become irritated and more critical as they continue flipping pages, making the experience for them much less enjoyable. By sticking to the rules you set, you'll gain even more credibility for your awesome writing skills.

Writing Through the Ages
Historical fiction novels and even standard fiction pieces taking place a few decades ago lend themselves to a minefield of problems: clothing, language, and objects (particularly medicine and media devices) that are downright tedious to get right. In a full-blown fantasy novel, the author can make up materials, clothes, language, and whatever they wish. So long as they stick to the rules for those things, there is no problem. But when fiction is part of reality, consistency in these things isn't just a good idea; it's a necessity. Novels that take place in the early 1700s need to reflect the era being written. The same is true even with a more modern time period like the 1950s. If you try writing a novel that takes place (in the USA) in 1959 and mention someone getting a mumps vaccine, you're in for a bashing from your readers. The bottom line? Do your homework. Writing a novel that takes place in another era can be fascinating. It can also be frustrating as heck. But if you’re dedicated to doing the research required and you respond to critiques from your beta readers, editor(s), and sensitivity readers when needed, you’ll be greatly rewarded. Well-written pieces of these genres are easily some of the best books out there! Get them right, and you'll gain serious respect from your fans.

Character Facts
By far, the most common and widespread issues has to be with character facts. Think date of birth, relations to other characters, physical features, dialect and word choice, personality traits, etc. If you make a mistake in one of these areas, your readers will notice, and you’ll likely get flogged for it. Since this has nothing to do with research (unless you're dealing with a specific mental or physical illness) and everything to do with organization, make a point to catalog every character during the planning and drafting stages when you write a book. Find a method that works for you, whether it be index cards, a spreadsheet, a writing program, or something else. Then use it as a reference point any time you add a new fact, change an existing one, or are unsure what the existing ones are with any of your characters.

Cross-reference your facts constantly. Even when you've checked and rechecked everything ten times over, go back and check again. Have your editor (who should already be looking for them) check too. An inconsistency in this area can best be described as one of those nagging thoughts in the back of your head. When readers come across one of these errors, they make a mental note of it and never forget it. So do yourself and your readers a favor by making sure to keep even the smallest of facts about your characters straight.

This is an area that I personally struggle with the most; I tend to leap first, then go back and try to undo all the knots I've created. I can tell you from experience that this isn't the best approach. All it takes is just a few knots to produce a major unwanted kink in your plot. So set the facts and adhere your story to them, not the other way around.

Internal consistency soothes readers, increases credibility and believability, and is congruent with good writing. Inconsistencies stand out like a sore thumb. Avoid them, and you'll avoid having to endure a painful sore that will blemish your otherwise beautiful masterpiece.