Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ode to Timelines

This entry I hope will help first timers like me wrest control of their novels-in-progress.

6 people (angels) agreed to review the first draft of my novel-in-progress. A chunk of the feedback had to do with the marking and passing of time, which was all too often, as I'd written it, a.) not possible b.) not likely or c.) unclear. The marked-up manuscript below illustrates:

My characters were using technology that didn't exist, talking about wars that had been fought 10 years earlier, and aging at different rates than the roman calendar. One reviewer gently suggested I create timelines of my novel on macro and micro levels: even sometimes, depending on the pace of the action, hour by hour. Here is the first one, the timeline of my character's sweet 19 year life. The timeline is six feet long:

She's in school throughout most of the story, so I had to know how old she was in each grade, and had been computing this (inaccurately) in my head. When l I created the timeline, I remembered how old you are in a certain grade depends on what month you are born. Almost always, you are two different ages per grade level. Additionally, because school starts in September, if you are born between September and December, you are older than most of your peers and if you are born June to August, you are younger than most of your peers.

For other time elements to work best, my character needed to be born in the spring, so I made her an Aries because astrologically that sign most suited her temperament. Here is a close-up of the timeline, with her birthday (April 2) and the start of school (September 7) marked for each year, and major events penciled in. Her age is in blue, her grade is in teal and the year is highlighted in yellow. It's not in any way pretty, but it works. The events are penciled because they can still move around:

Life gets pretty busy for my character between 2005 and 2007, so I made a timeline of just those two years:

Just putting in the events in the spring of 2006 makes the timeline smooshy, so I made another timeline of just those months. It's hard to see here, but I have the actual dates and days of the week marked in so no longer will the same action occur on both a Friday AND a Saturday:

There is much more timelining to do, but an unexpected payoff already is the timelines have not only helped organize the action, but the emotional arc of the story as well. For example, I kind of knew a lot happened to my character in a 2-day period; I wrote it that way after all, but when I saw all the events on a timeline, my thought was: this poor kid, she has to be freaking out! Now I have a choice: I can ratchet up her emotional state (also suggested by a reviewer) or parse the events out over a longer time span.

Such is the power of organization.