When I started writing my young adult novel, My Summer (with Robots), it was intended to be the first of three parts. Writing a book series was a new venture for me, as my two previous novels were standalone stories. I did have my graphic novel series, Dark & Fevered Dreams, but these books of approximately 15,000 words each were merely installments on a larger story, not individual stories in a larger arc. I knew creating a grand story arc which encompassed several novels, thousands of pages, and tens of thousands of words, was going to be a huge challenge.
When it comes to any book, a major irritant for both authors and readers is loss of continuity. This becomes an even bigger problem when you’re dealing with multiple titles written over several years. Right from the beginning, I needed a detailed, easy-to-use way to track continuity across my Summer novels. I thought describing how I did this might be of interest to both authors and readers.
Over the years, I have experimented with different writing apps like Evernote and Scrivner which are designed to help writers organize and distill their thoughts. (There are tons of these apps out there. See some here.) Invariably, I found these expensive downloads overly complex and eventually settled on using Excel spreadsheets. In order to keep spoilers to a minimum, I will describe how I used spreadsheets without actually showing them.
Since only the first novel had a title, I color coded each so I could tell at a glance which volume I was working on. I created lines and columns for every major character, location and plot point, extending them across all the novels. Now don't worry about filling in all the blanks up front. My spreadsheet still has plenty of gaps for Book 3, but this is okay because novels should evolve organically as you write them.
As I worked through my drafts on My Summer (with Robots), I found my spreadsheet began to fill itself. Some of this was easy. Each of my Summer novels takes place two years apart, so filling in dates and character ages were no-brainers. More difficult was how to anticipate the psychological and emotional changes of characters I may not have yet written. I forced myself not to worry about this, knowing that the more pages I finished the more blanks would disappear.
On a separate spreadsheet, I outlined and tracked thematic changes. Themes are often overlooked, especially in young adult books which tend to be heavily plot driven. Since I have always considered myself more of a thematic writer, having a clear vision what I wanted to say between the lines was very important to me. As with the story arc spreadsheet, I used color coding to designate each book, the major themes, and how they would be introduced, disappear or change across the novels.
Combined, the two spreadsheets are my roadmap to maintaining continuity in my Summer novels. The success of this technique remains to be seen. Honestly, something will always slip through the cracks and that’s where editors and proofreaders come in. Still, creating the tool has helped me keep my thoughts organized and enabled me to do more consistent world-building than I thought possible.
How do you maintain continuity in your novels? Let me know in the comments section below.