Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Importance of Bibles


by Janis Patterson

Be at ease – this is not a religious rant. I am using ‘bible’ in the purely secular definition, i.e., ‘a book that is considered the most important one for a particular subject.’ (Just to put things straight, Bible with a capital ‘B’ is the religious book; bible with a small ‘b’ is the definitely un-religious context I’m using here.)

I’m talking about the book about your book.

Confused? You shouldn’t be, either about bibles or books that obviously haven’t had one. We’ve all read a book where a minor character changes names somewhere in the book – Mavis the bookkeeper becomes Maura somewhere around chapter 22, for example. Or a location shifts without reason or warning – the crime scene is located north of the river for most of the book, then suddenly migrates to south of the river for a chapter or two, then miraculously appears back on the north side. The detective who favors a Beretta suddenly and without justification starts carrying a Glock. Such mistakes are not only confusing and irritating to the reader, they are the sign of a lazy writer.

When I become queen of the universe, one of my proclamations is going to be that everyone writing a book has to do a bible. Many writers – especially the good ones – already do. There are all kinds of formats for bibles, from expensive software to cheap spiral bound notebooks, but however they work all serve to keep your characters, locations, timeline and odd facts straight.

I do a bible for every book I write, and mine are about as simple as you can get. (Warning – I’m a pantser, so if you’re a plotter or some other kind of writer, you’ll have to adapt this to your particular process.) When I open a new file to start a new book, I open two – one for the manuscript, one for the bible. As I write and something (character, location, whatever) appears, I flip over to the bible and make a note of it. Just a short note with all the pertinent information – the bigger part that particular whatever plays in the story, the bigger note it gets. Later on, if I reveal something more about that whatever, I add it to their entry in the bible. Entries are usually single spaced with double spaces in between one and the next to set them off.

I don’t bother to alphabetize or rate entries according to importance – I just note them down as they appear. Believe it or not, this doesn’t create a problem when I have to go look something up several chapters later. As I said, the entries are short and very factual, and for most books the entire bible doesn’t run more than 3-4 pages – a lot easier to flip through than going back through the whole manuscript to find the name of Lady Bellingstoke’s butler or whatever.

The one exception to this generality was my semi-paranormal gothic INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS – the bible for that ran almost eighteen (yes, 18!) pages of dense copy. In my defense, however, I will say that book was more complex than any other I’ve ever done, with a romantic storyline, a father/daughter storyline, a sort-of-ghost story and seven different books written about seven different worlds, all of which had a direct bearing on the main action of the novel! All in one book… When I sent in the final conceptual manuscript to my editor I also sent in a copy of the bible, for which I got an almost sobbingly-happy letter of thanks from the copy editor.


Writing a book is hard enough without tripping yourself up on the minutiae. Keep a bible, write down every fact and name as it happens, and your life will become so much easier – and so will your editor’s!

21 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I have to admit, I've made those mistakes. Good advice!

Rose Anderson said...

That's great advice. I had a character named Merriam nicknamed Merry that showed up as Mary.

Linda Andrews said...

I keep a bible, I just don't notate things as I write them, only when I have to go and look up the butler's name. Maybe one day, I'll get my act together. Oddly, my bible is in a notebook and sits next to me when I type. Doh!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

What a great idea! I do jot down much the same in a notebook, but I think your idea is much better. Thanks!

Margaret Fieland said...

Alas, I don't have a bible, and I'm working on the fourth book in the series.

I should have started one with the first book, only I didn't plan to write a series. I wasn't thinking too much about getting it published. Ah, hindsight.

Wynter Daniels said...

I write a bible, too. But I never thought to send it to the editor. Next time... Good post!

Anne Marie Becker said...

Great tips! I love that you sent your bible to the editor. During my first contracted manuscript, when my editor asked for a timeline, that's when I realized the importance of jotting this stuff down in a separate document. ;)

Renee Pawlish said...

Good advice - I keep telling myself I need to do this, and I don't. I think this is my reminder to start :).

Elise Warner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elise Warner said...

Great blog. I've been using index cards and pads. Using a bible will be much better for me.

Thank you.

Alana White said...

I have a lengthy Character Bible--since I write historical fiction, I couldn't survive without it. It is a thick notebook with character pages by alpha order. The main characters have several pages each; at the top of a character's page, I put the title of book(s), their age therein, and so on, so I don't have to work it out each time. A lot of work going in, but a time-frustration saver now.

Jan Christensen said...

Great advice. I make what I call a notes document. I list characters in a table when they show up so I can put them in alphabetical order by first and last name to make sure I don't have too many beginning with the same letter (I'm a panster, too, so come up with names on the fly). Across the table I have columns for eye/hair color, height/weight, age, make of car, and notes. I also do a time-line table with chapter #, day, time, place, and a short summary of the chapter. After I finish each chapter, I fill this out. And then there are other misc. notes I make as you do below or above those tables. Terrific idea about sending to your editor. I'm going to start doing that.

earlwstaggs said...

Great idea, Susan. I've always said you were brilliant.

Kaye Spencer said...

For my longer historicals, I use an Excel spreadsheet and make timelines, character information, historical dates, etc. For shorter works, I use Word and jot notes. I, too, am a pantser, so I can really muddy the waters if I'm not careful with changing eye/hair color, name changes, right-handed in one chapter and left-handed by the end of the story, especially if I've stepped away from the story for a period of time. O_o

Delia Latham said...

Love this! I'll have to give it a try.

Cathy Perkins said...

I've never referred to it as the story "bible" but I set up a document with the characters, setting details etc when I got sick of having to scour the manuscript for those details. Sounds like it would be way more efficient to have a "plan" :)

Rita said...

I make notes and write a back story. These are very good tips.

Josh Lanyon said...

I could not agree more -- says the author who didn't bother with Bibles for four of my five series. ;-)

Marcelle Dubé said...

I couldn't agree more -- especially when your one-off turns into a series. You really need to know what the name of that bit character was from novel #1 and whose father is dying, etc. Very good post!

Diane Vallere said...

This is something I keep saying I'm going to start. Right now the bibles for more than one series are in my head. I do a lot of searching of previous manuscripts to double check info!

Diane Burton said...

I have to have a "bible" (I call my file "details"--real original, huh?) My memory is like a sieve so I have to write down every character and a little about them, places (esp. for my scifi romances), anything that I need to remember. Like others, I never thought to send it to my editor. Great idea.