We are over a month into our work (and I need to call it our work given how many people are pitching in), and I continue to find it illuminating. Here are my latest observations!
People really *don’t* notice typos/continuity errors. I’ve heard it said that readers completely gloss over errors and typos if they’re engaged in a story, and I accepted that must be true without realizing how extensive that blind spot is. It’s like tunnel vision: the more intent the audience is on what’s interesting them, the more detail they demote to the status of distractions. My books have teams of proofreaders, sometimes between 6 and 18 of them, and they catch dozens of typos… but they are more likely to catch typos than to catch other kinds of errors. The minor character whose name was spelled three different ways across his series was not a fluke: at least six other minor characters have had multiple spellings of their names without anyone emailing me to complain about them, or even realizing it until they started reading the books for research purposes.
Are there people who notice these errors and find them so annoying they stop reading my books without pausing to leave a negative review or send an email? I’m sure. Are they vastly outnumbered by the people who didn’t even see those errors? I have absolutely no doubt. I’ve gone from ‘don’t beat yourself up about spelling this guy’s last name Levy, Lery, and Leary because your brain has only so much capacity and you exceeded it a decade and a half ago’ to ‘don’t beat yourself up about spelling this guy’s last name Levy, Lery, and Leary because 90%+ of the people reading don’t care.’
The people who do notice even the smallest details are going to tell you about them, of course, because that’s the type of person they are. But even those people are missing something when they send you their laundry list of errors, because their tunnel vision is going to exclude an entirely different set of data.
Does that mean I shouldn’t try to make the background as consistent as possible? Of course not, because I’m a perfectionist. But it has been illuminating to realize how many errors completely flew under the radar, and no one cared or noticed.
The reason why your favorite author can’t write a good ending or finish a series is probably because the background material overwhelmed them.This is a problem I have wiggled around (sometimes by means of truly wild gyrations) by having multiple series within a setting and overarching story arc. While it took research to maintain the continuity within Dreamhealers, or Her Instruments, or Princes’ Game, it required far less work than if those books had been sequential installments in a single series. I could see, out of the corner of my eye, the looming horror that was trying to stitch all those series together, logically, but I never had to make them perfectly align because they were happening to different people in different places, and hey, planets conveniently have different day-and-year lengths so I have lots of wiggle room! (Have I mentioned the wiggling yet.)
But the more data I put into this central repository, the more it boggles me that I was managing it with a few sketchbooks and Evernote entries. Princes’ Game is the longest of the in-setting series I’ve written and by the final installment I was making reams of notes, and re-reading all the prior books (and some of the books of the other series) and making more notes, and drawing notes, and creating diagrams and charts, and did I mention the notes?
None of this stuff went into a database, which meant that all that research became more things I would have to re-read and re-evaluate and make more notes on if I wanted to keep writing.
The wiki is a database, and even then it’s astonishing how much stuff there is that needs tracking. I think I was modifying the Fleet beachhead page when it occurred to me that the doomful feeling I had when confronting the writing of From Ruins—a relatively simple task as the capstone of a six-book series—is what must be stopping authors from confronting the ending of any complex series. The writers who continually build the tension in every succeeding book, adding more and more issues, characters, and details, might be looking back on all that preceding work and having a panic attack at the prospects of having to pick out all the loose and dangling ends for wrap-up. They might not even have the first idea how to do that wrap-up. It’s the opposite of writing yourself into a corner: it’s writing yourself into a room with too many doors. Adding more new things becomes easier than resolving old things, particularly when doing so might require the contradiction of previous challenges.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard this problem discussed at length in writing advice columns or seminars: that you can write yourself to a point where ending your series becomes an insoluble challenge, because you just don’t have the brainpower to get your head around all the inputs to your equation. It makes finishing a complex story the equivalent of writing a doctoral dissertation, with all the commensurate research.
While I know there are writers who enjoy it, I personally did not get into fiction writing because I like spending days doing detailed research. Research is the thing I get over quickly so I can keep writing. Which brings me to:
The reason no one edits Big Name Authors is because the editing process becomes more akin to a researcher’s. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard ‘so and so’s editor has stopped editing them because they’re famous but they really need someone to cut this book down to size!’ But when I recall the times I’ve said that myself, it’s always about a series author, and usually not about the first book in the series. It’s invariably book three or book twenty-six and the assumption is “because this author is a proven money-maker no one wants to joggle their elbow.” Looking at it now, I think it’s more “this person’s story has become so large that editing it properly requires research across all of their books.”
People who are good at broad story evaluation—the kind of editors who say ‘this ending falls flat because you didn’t set it up right in the beginning’ or ‘this character’s death doesn’t work because it contradicts this emotional tone you’re aiming for’—are not necessarily the kind of editors who are good at “I need to comb through Books 1-4 to see if you mentioned whether this technology could be installed on this size ship.” Being able to dissect a story’s structure and evaluate its emotional impact is a separate skill from the meticulous record-keeping a proofreader does. A proofreader’s job is time-consuming and specific, so you can’t expect the same person to be able to do the same level of work on separate authors’ books. If you hire someone to check a bestseller’s 50-book canon for continuity, they will become an expert in that bestseller’s canon at the expense of the time they would have used to become an expert in some new bestseller’s canon. You can’t interchange that widget.
That makes continuity-type proofreaders too expensive for most people to employ (no matter if it’s a single author or a publishing house). The editor’s not going to have the time or skillset to do it. And since a bestselling author is often going to remain a bestselling author even if his books are lopsided or too infodumpy or not perfectly shaped, it’s easier to give the book a once-over and hope it passes muster than it is to do serious work on it.
If this kind of consistency is to be maintained, it’s not going to happen after the fact. The author has to guarantee it prior to handing it to other people. And, as I’ve said, few authors have the brain capacity to keep all those details handy, so they end up either doing what I did (and making many errors that luckily most people don’t notice) or they freeze up and stop writing.
I feel a lot of sympathy for both those authors and those editors now that I understand the scope of their problems. And it’s not an easy to solve one, or people would be teaching/talking about it casually. No one does, though. You will find thousands of books about how to finish your first story, but let us count the books that will teach you how to handle this type of problem. I bet it’s a section, and it says “Keep a series bible in a separate document.”
Yeah. Good luck with that. -_-
I could probably write a book’s worth of entries on ‘what the wiki has taught me’ and ‘why I’m so lucky that people are willing to help me with it.’ But I do keep learning, I’m still lucky, and my volunteers are still awesome, so I guess I’ll keep going. Let me know when I start boring you. *grin* Also check out those volunteers! I add more of them every week. Y’all the bestest. 💖