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Writing with consistency

Consistency throughout the whole story or novel is crucial.

Copy editing is the perfect platform for checking your consistency, and you'll need to be thorough. Have a jotter pad handy, and make notes as you go.

Many words have fairly recently entered the English language, and are not yet set in stone. T-shirt, teeshirt, tee-shirt, tee shirt, for instance. Footwell, or foot well? Stair well or stairwell? Pajamas ... pyjamas. Jump drive ... jumpdrive. Car yard ... caryard, carpark car park, and so on. Bookshop, book store ... parking lot, high rise, hi-rise, highrise.

Many American/Canadian terms are becoming more familiar in British/Aussie/Kiwi English, as the language becomes more cosmopolitan. Aeroplane ... airplane, BBQ, barbecue, motorway, clearway,freeway, peanut butter, peanut paste.

We've reached a point where international boundaries are blurring. It no longer matters which term use use. What matters is being consistent. Whatever you use, use it throughout. Don't swap and change back and forth.

Make your own decision on how "bluejeans" and "teeshirts" will be referred to. Will you be saying sneakers, joggers or trainers to refer to a pair of athletic shoes? Will you be referring to the breakfast food as porridge or oatmeal? Lollies, candies or sweets? Unless you have international characters who are using their own national references in their dialog, you'll need to standardize and stick to it. Copy editing comes to the rescue here.

Try to choose terms which are understood right around the world. For instance, US readers probably won't know what a skip is, in the context of a large rubbish bin ... but thanks to the movies, everyone knows what a dumpster is. They're the same thing, but you might not want to give your story an American flavor by using the US term. Revert to the ubiquitous "bin" and be safe. Do you say garbage, rubbish, or trash?

Which term you choose is much less important than your consistency, and the process of copy editing is the time when you'll grab the whole manuscript by the scruff of its neck and shake it into shape.

Have a jotter to hand and when you read a term which could go either way, make a note. Check your usages when next you see the term. Did you use teeshirt or tee shirt last time? This is a good copy editing habit to get into. As you go on, you can also choose to keep a jotter on the desk and scribble notes as you write. This makes for less editing to do later.

If you're writing speculative fiction or fantasy, you'll be inventing a whole vocabulary to describe the worlds you imagine. Now, it's especially important to be consistent, not only in your terms and how you use them ... but also, in how you spell them. (Again, copy editing to the rescue: it's indispensable.)

We asked Mel Keegan how the ongoing HELLGATE series is kept under control. At this point, it's four big novels, with a couple more to come, a vast cast of characters, two species, speaking two languages, and more locations than Lara Croft could imagine! Over to MK, for insights into how the long-time professional works:

    "Consistency is, to the writer, the same thing as continuity to the filmmaker ... and they give awards for the best continuity in the year's movies. The techniques for controlling continuity between the two industries are simlar. The writer uses scrap paper, or a notebook, or if s/he's a tech head, opens a file in the computer. For myself. I use a 10c notebook, though it might make you shudder. Yes, guys, those vast reaches of the Deep Sky, the elegant and sensual Resalq people — it's all marshaled in a 10c notebook.

    "When I create a new term, or a line of alien dialog, or a new relationship between various characters, perhaps a new location, or a new part of an existing location, I scribble a few notes. Sometimes I index the notebooks; some of them are divided up, page by page, alphabetically, to make it easier to find my way back to difficult, abstract items.

    "Alshien'ya ... Ellstrom StarCity ... San Marco Space City ... Borushek Sector Command ... the Deep Sky, and the DeepSky Fleet ... OnRabi ... Jai Serrano ... Mahak Cher'ytt, who changed his name to Mark Sherrat ... Lai'a ... IntelScan ... the Mare Resalq, known to the Resalq as El'arne, which translates out as 'The stormy side of the sky.' Rabelai Space, named for Ernst Rabelais — who is exactly what relationship to Colonel Rusch, the current commander of the super-carrier Kiev, though Rusch is actually a Shackleton (after which pioneer family the Shackleton Void was named). And so on."

The process of creating deep, complex, believable, compelling science fiction and fantasy can become very complicated, very quickly, and it's a copy editing nightmare. None of the terms, places, relationships or alien languages are real. They exist only inside your own head and, soon, in the minds of your readers. If you don't your ducks in a row and keep them there, you'll find yourself contradicting yourself, and readers do notice!

Get a notebook. What's more important ... use it! Later, when you get into the copy editing, you'll be so glad you did.

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