Editing novels in a series

Authors often write novels in a series, and this poses a special problem for developmental editors. One of our jobs is to make sure a novel has internal consistency – what we might call being in charge of continuity.  If Jeremy is bald in Chapter 2 he should be bald in Chapter 5 as well, unless a hairpiece has been introduced. As a developmental editor, you need to point out these discrepancies and advise the author to address them.

It is common to find many of these continuity errors as novel manuscripts are written over the course of many weeks or months (sometimes years) and through numerous drafts. Maybe in Draft 1, Valeria is a yoga teacher but by Draft 3, she has turned into an accountant. But there may be some echoes of her earlier incarnation in Draft 3, including references to students or classes that will be baffling to readers who know Valerie only as an accountant.

Authors need us to back them up on this; it is very difficult to catch everything when you’re the author. I just proofread the final draft of an urban fantasy ms I wrote and have read with care at least five times and I just noticed that the protagonist performs an act of magic in Chapter 10 that is explicitly described in Chapter 3 as not possible. I will be sending the ms to a developmental editor (even developmental editors need developmental editors) but this is an example of how continuity errors can escape even experienced authors. We’re juggling a lot in the process of writing novels.

So, it’s hard enough to keep track of what’s happening in one novel of 80,000 words. Multiply that difficulty by a factor of ten if you’re also keeping track of what’s happening across three or five or seven novels in a series.

The series bible is a great way to help ensure that you spot continuity problems. A series bible is basically the repository of information about a series:

  • book titles
  • background/premise/setup
  • setting
  • backstory
  • key characters with brief character sketches
  • timeline
  • family tree/relationships of characters
  • map even if not included in books
  • book arc for each book
  • series arc

One challenge is that authors often fail to update the series bible (if they even have one) to reflect the final version of their manuscripts and often they leave out important information.

When I’m working with an author on a novel in a series, I always cover these key issues before I finalize my project quote:

  • I review the series bible. I make sure it includes all the information I will need to edit the ms. If it doesn’t, I let the author know what information I will need. If the author doesn’t want to go to this trouble, then “create a series bible” becomes a line item in the project quote.
  • If the author doesn’t have a series bible at all, I include “create a series bible” in my project quote. If the author doesn’t want to pay me to do this, I will wait to book the edit until they’ve created one (then I review it before booking the edit).
  • If the author doesn’t have a series bible, doesn’t want to create one, and doesn’t want to pay me to create one, I consider whether I want to take on this client under the circumstances (as it will be difficult for me to provide a good edit).  If I decide to go forward, I’m very careful to point out that I can’t promise to notice any continuity problems.
  • If I haven’t read the previous novels in the series, I will discuss this with the author. Typically I will want to read at least a few of the novels in the series, but this takes time and I expect to be compensated. That goes into the project quote. If the author doesn’t want to pay for this, then (depending on the client) I may agree to read the current ms as a reader new to the series, which allows me to point out areas where the backstory isn’t clear or I don’t understand motivations, etc., that were provided in a previous installment in the series—but, again, I emphasize that I can’t promise to notice any continuity errors.
  • Editing a novel in a series is more complex than editing a standalone novel. I will need to take a continuity pass in addition to my regular “look for dev problems” work. This goes into the project quote.

If you’re interested in editing novels in a series, check out my new class, starting February 27, 2023.

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