I’ve never been one of those writers who completed an outline of her story before starting to work on it. I did a character outline once but only because I was asked to do so by an interested literary agent. As a standard practice, I don’t map anything out. I sit down and write.
For the most part, this practice hasn’t let me down. I did run into an issue in one of my paranormal young adult books in which I introduced a character as the girlfriend of my male lead. I went on to show the twin brother of the male lead meeting his brother’s girlfriend for the first time at a party. It didn’t take long for alert readers to catch a glaring mistake in this. Earlier in the story, I had shown how these characters should have already met.
I doubt an outline of my story or the characters could have saved this oversight, but it reminded me of something I once read in Jack M. Bickham’s book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And how to Avoid Them). In his book, Bickham pointed out the importance of making certain that facts are correct, even in a fiction novel. He cited an instance in which an author had written a Western novel and his hero used a gun that wasn’t made until two years after the date in which the story was set. Several readers caught this mistake and pointed it out in their reviews.
At the moment, I’m currently working on my third in a four-book contemporary romance series. Last weekend, I was able to devote quite a bit of time to that story. When I finished work on Sunday night, I saved everything, shut down my computer and headed off to the shower. As I washed my hair, something in the story was nagging me. Did the family relationships of the characters match up to what I had in the first book? Since the first book is already out, readers know the answer so I needed to make sure I had it right.
As soon as I was out of the shower, I pulled out a pen and a piece of paper and my copy of This Time. I began to write the names of the characters and how each of them was related to one another. What I ended up with was not only a family tree but the realization that I just saved myself from making a huge error in my third novel. I almost took a brother and sister and turned them into ex-husband and ex-wife. I know what you’re going to say; how could I have missed that? Seeing as how this pair plays small roles in the series, they’re a bit harder to remember than my main players.
Whatever the reason for the slip, the responsibility to prevent that from happening rests on me. As a professional writer, it’s my duty to make sure I’m giving readers the best possible product which means its error free. In this case, the error wasn’t with the punctuation, grammar or spelling and not something my spell check would have caught.
Needless to say, a valuable lesson has been learned. I need to make sure I’m doing a better job of accounting for my characters and their role in my stories. They count so I need to count them. From now on, especially in the case of a multi-book series, I will be making character outlines or at the very least a family tree.