Continuity, Repetition, & Keeping Track

Writing a long piece or series requires either an excellent memory, a precise organization system, or both (and that goes for novels, movies, comics, blogs, etc.). Otherwise, you’re going to have problems with continuity (but his sword hilt was black in the last book) and repetition (haven’t they had this conversation already?).

If any of you think that’s a cakewalk, think again.

When it comes to books (and movies), it’s hard enough to keep track within that one story. A fully developed novel can have hundreds of characters from major to minor and everything in between. It has different settings, costume changes, props – it’s like a really intricate play that’s mostly occurring in the author’s head (to begin with, anyway). When you add figuring out how and when to leak information to the reader, it’s a ton to think about at the same time. (As far as juggling goes, writers had better be better than good, or they’d better rig some sort of anti-gravity machine quick.)

Now, you’ve finished that book (party tiiiime!), and you’re starting the sequel (or worse, the prequel). You get to start another intricate interweaving of all those details, one that’s equally as complicated as before. There’s just one thing: it needs to match up with the details from the last book. All of them.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully doubled the number of details you need to keep track of! By the fifth book,… well, never mind. I don’t even want to think about counting all of that.

And if you think you’ll be fine because you’re really good about keeping track of that stuff in a book series you’re reading, think again. It’s totally different when you’re the creator (learned that the hard way). Never mind that you’re looking at it through totally different lenses and scales, as a writer, you’re also dealing with all kinds of information that never makes it into the books – things you had to know to write them but that the audience didn’t need to know (“What Does the Story Need to Be Told?”). So the number’s even bigger than I vaguely threatened before.

With a number that big, keeping track of all those details in your head is (how can I put this gently?) completely insane. Honestly, I have a very good memory for details and if I didn’t have files on characters, I’d be flipping through the previous book almost constantly to double-check what I’d said about something before. Either that or writing blind and hoping my memory’s accurate. The first is no way to make progress, and both make it far too easy to make mistakes. I know I’ve said it before (I think), but, really, writing is hard enough without going out of your way to make it harder!

If you value your sanity (and the quality of your work), set up a system of some kind to keep track. It could be literal files (paper), word documents, spreadsheets, 3 x 5 cards – you could even use a program for writers (like Scrivener) that lets you keep files linked directly to the text. Whatever it takes to organize the information and give you quick, easy access.

And that goes for blogs, too.

If you post every day or even a couple of times a week, your archives are going to build up before you know it (which is good, but…). You definitely want to start keeping track before it gets too far ahead of you. I’m creeping up on 250 posts on this blog, and if I don’t sharpen up my record keeping, I’m definitely gonna have more overlap than I’d like (and quite likely more than you’d like). I’ve kept track of some things, but I’ve had to do some serious checking to tell if an article has too much overlap with what I’ve already written. I even have to watch that with twytte – you’d be surprised how often you feel like writing the same poem (I certainly was).

Plus, the more that you write, the more there is in your head to remember. At the same time, the older you get, the more your memory likes to mess with you (having any bit of a life doesn’t help either). Add that together, and it becomes clear that keeping track of this stuff is only going to get harder as you get older. Would you rather set up an organization method now or wait until old age forces your hand?

Believe me, it’s easier to set up the system beforehand than to try to organize retroactively. And being organized actually makes writing easier. Why wait?

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