Monday, June 30, 2008

Build a Bible

by Helen Woodall

Yes, I know you have done your research – spent hours delving into facts about the heroine’s career, the location where she lives, where she shops, etc. etc. But the devil is in the details, as the old cliché goes. Did you write it all down?

What about those minor characters? If the heroine has green eyes and so do three of her friends, is this an important plot point or are you just stuck in a rut on eye color? And that friend with green eyes? Why does she have blue-green eyes in chapter four and gray-green eyes in chapter fourteen?

Have you made a bible for this book? Or even a simple spreadsheet? Or did you think you would remember all these things? After all, these folk have been in your head and clamoring to be heard for months now. Still, to keep a grip on the tiny details that make a book look good (and to avoid driving your editor to chocolate), a bible for contemporary stories is nearly as important as it is for books where you are creating a new world. Especially if you have thoughts of writing a sequel.

Continuity, consistency. You described the clothing your heroine was wearing at work. She is attacked by the villain and runs away – in stilettos? Are you sure? It is a good idea to list character clothing and other details by scene (has she got a purse? laptop? briefcase?) so you can refer back and check each scene carefully. Once again, watch out for the minor characters. You know the hero drives a sleek red sports car but what about his friend Pete the plumber? He probably drives a truck. Why was it a blue pickup in chapter six and suddenly it’s a white SUV in chapter twenty-five?

Another point to watch is meals. Yes, I know your heroine absolutely adores Chinese food but she ate it in chapter four. And in chapter six. And in chapter twelve. Hmmm, are we seeing a plot point here or is she in urgent need of some nutritional advice?

When describing a town, be sure to make yourself a map. If the heroine drives north from work to visit Grandma in chapter ten she needs to do the same in chapter nineteen. And if it took twenty minutes the first time and thirty the second there needs to be a good reason for this. Again, note it in your bible.

List the names of even the minor characters. You may have four friends named Leah, but if there is more than one Leah character in your book it will drive the readers crazy working out which is which. And while we are talking about names, please check their meanings too. It is really hard to like a heroine whose name means something nasty in another language.

So check all those details, and then write them down. And be sure to give a copy of your story or series bible to your editor, so she can double-check things.


Amy said...

This was a great post! I generally have a spreadsheet for my bible, backed up by a document that includes more explanations and details, background info and the like for each character (and yes, even that maid who hands the tea tray to the heroine *grin*).

But I NEVER thought to give the spreadsheet to my editor--what a great idea! I feel like an idiot for never even thinking about that.

So thanks!

Anny Cook said...

Ah, well. A bible, hmmmm? Especially with the cast of thousands. Thanks for the wonderful idea! I'll make sure my editor gets one right away!

Charlene Leatherman said...

You know you just opened the door for all those poor editors who will be recieving tons of information tracking bibles, don't you?
So, are you heading for the chocolate to commiserate or to celebrate cause now you and all the others will be able to keep your misbehavin' writers in line?

Thanks for the great idea.

Cindy Spencer Pape said...

Excellent advice, Helen.

Phoenix said...

I'm not a plotter but I will write an outline AFTER I finish each chapter. And in that outline will have whose POV, what day it is, the important plot points, who else is mentioned, the direction I think I'm taking that last bit (like if an idea for five chapters ahead hits me and I want to remember it) as well as the cast of those introduced. It saves me so much time when I go back to revise.

As yet, my editor has not requested these things. You think she wants them?

Anonymous said...

Oh, Helen! Raising my hand as a terrible offender. At least I fixed my anuscript where a character from a previous story just popped up unrelated. I used to be so very good about my spread sheets and then I got sloppy, but you cn bet your booty I'm on it now. Especially for my editor extraordinaire! Thanks for the nudge back in the right direction.

Unknown said...

Chinese food and Leah....I will immediately add both into the latest wip - thanks for the suggestion...from 'who' not 'that'

Robin Leigh Miller said...

I've always tried to write the important bits down in a notebook so I don't make those mistakes but they do seem to happen every once in a while. Never occured to me to send it along to my editor. I hope she's ready for it!

Jacquéline Roth said...

Ouch! I'm an offender here too. Had a recent reoccuring character who suddenly had an eye color change in one mention in a scene. Don't know what I was thinking at the time. I have my trusty spreadsheet and I do believe my editor has a copy too. *grin*

And if you write shifters, you might want to list the details of what they shift into. If it's fixed and they become a white wolf in one chapter and a black wolf in another someone might notice.


EECH!! boy have I been guilty of some of those things. It's so easy to change eye and hair color as you write, which is why you need ANOTHER eye.. A freinds, or hubby someone to look at your work, because we are too close to our work.
Helen is a gem, and has helped me in ways she will never know.

Patt (who is hoping her word verification is not a sign of how she is thought of ..pcwwFU) hahahah

Joanna Waugh said...

I use those nifty blue notebooks we had in college. I have one for each book I write. In them I put all the pertinent information Helen noted. It's a handy format to use--so easy to file away on a shelf when you're done. I start one with every story idea, even if I'm not ready to begin the book. That way when I run across important information pertaining to that story, I have no trouble finding the corresponding notebook.

Katie Reus said...

I definitely keep a spreadsheet, though it seems like I always miss one or two things. I never thought of giving it to my editor though, what a wonderful idea :)

Marianne Stephens said...

Ah yes, the details we authors need to keep straight...and consistent. I swear, we're not trying to drive our editors crazy and looking for chocolate "fixes". But, sometimes we just "forget" to keep a list of pertinent information handy for continuity checks!
Thanks for the good advice.

Anonymous said...

Great advice, Helen. I keep the plot and characters and their characteristics on separate computer files. Do you really want all the stuff? Jean

Mona Risk said...

Great post. I usually prepare a spreadsheet as I write, scene by scene. But I note POV, setting, sensorial, emotion, sexual tension and the hook. I will keep track of clothe from now on. I know my heroine's hair and eyes subtly shift in different chapters. Since I saw your edits on my last book, I keep a calendar for my characters. LOL

Regina Carlysle said...

Great post, Helen, and I NEVER thought of a bible.Guess I figure I'm sooo dang intelligent I'm certain to remember all those details. LOL. Yeah..I'm joking. I messed up recently. One minute heroine's tennies are squeaking on a step and two paragraphs later she's BAREFOOT. ACK. Yep. A bible would work.

Liana Brooks said...

My current WIP has spreadsheets and a character list and another list of locations and lists of transportation types (sci-fi). I know that if I don't double check the murder victim 3 will not only change gender but species if I'm not careful... How on Earth would you survive without all the details written down somewhere?

Kimber Chin said...

Awesome post!

My biggest issue is with names,
especially after having written multiple novels (only one of them published thus far - the others on their way).

I can see that problem compounding.

Terry Odell said...

Gee, you mean your editor doesn't catch that stuff? Like they've already had dinner once today? Mine does!

And luckily, I caught the change of clothes error before I submitted.

I don't usually have too much trouble being consistent on the first draft. It's the cutting and pasting, adding, deleting and revising scenes that cause all my disconnects.

For characters, I keep a page of character notes and add to it as I go. Siblings, parents, secret fear, etc. When it becomes critical is when you do a series and bring characters back--ones you never thought would appear again, who merely got a name because someone referred to them in a line of dialogue.

Names are another one. I started keeping a spreadsheet with the alphabet in two columns; one for first names, one for last names. Any time I name a character, or need a name, I check to make sure I don't have six names using that letter already. It hit home when I wrote a scene where Laughlin and Langley were talking about Lalone. Definitely went back and changed some of those names!

Haven't used a spreadsheet, though.