An editor looks for… Timing Problems

Here’s a tip for writers who wish to publish: KEEP TRACK OF YOUR TIMELINE!

Each novel I have edited has had some kind of problem associated with the order of events. It’s one of the most common mistakes that writers make.  Seasons, months of the year, days of the week, times of the day are either out of sequence or missing altogether; characters who seemingly travel from one place to another in record time; daffodils in the autumn, fallen leaves in the spring… these are a few of my favourite things!

Whether you are writing a complex time-hopping tome or a straightforward linear narrative, keep a note of the sequence of events, when they occur, and to whom.

Sorting out timelines are a headache for the editor; that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it, but it don’t half take a long time! By far the best person to keep track of a novel’s timeline is the author.

Why is the timeline so problematic? Well, many writers prefer to create events as they go along rather than plan out the whole story. Planning can take the fun out of the writing process; the writer wants to be as surprised as the reader as the plot unfolds. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily make for commercial success. It can cause a good idea to present itself as a rambling mess.

Apart from keeping tabs on the basic sequence of events, below are some examples of timeline inconsistencies that you may wish to bear in mind for general fiction:

  • The order in which the seasons, months, days of the week, and times of the day follow each other. Pay particular attention to sunrise and sunset times, and whether its BST or GMT; which plant life appears at which time of year; and the differences between the southern and northern hemisphere.
  • The feasibility of the time it takes to travel long distances. This applies equally to riding by horseback in historic times as to driving a car in the current day (Google Maps ‘Directions’ is useful for checking the latter).
  • The mention of a song, film, or TV programme that hasn’t been released at the time of your story; technological advances which have yet to happen; language usage relevant for its time…and other anachronisms.
  • Physical characteristics that change over time: if your male character is being held prisoner for six months, and has no access to shaving equipment, ensure that he has grown a beard.  If your female character becomes pregnant, ensure her term is no greater than nine months…

There are several commercial software applications that help to keep track of a novel’s timeline and even calculate the age of characters. For example: Timeline Maker, Storybook , and StoryMill. For fantasy and sci-fi authors, Aeon Timeline is popular as it has a ‘fantasy calendar’ for the creation of ‘off-world’ timescales. Some writers simply create their own timeline check using an Excel spreadsheet.

It is part of an editor’s job to determine the timeline, but the job would be much simpler, and quicker, if an author could include a sequence of events with their manuscript.

Happy planning! 🙂

Professional editing as a transferable skill… interested?

A few years ago, I had a great idea…well, I thought it was.  Why not set up a local group to help writers become self-published; offering advice on the creative writing process, the editing process, and the publishing process?  I went through the motions of advertising, finding a venue, and paying for it. I had received enough enquiries from interested parties to make it worth my while, and so I prepared everything for the first session.

The day arrived.  I took myself off to the venue, set myself up, and waited in anticipation for my ten students to present themselves… Only two people turned up. To say that I was disappointed was an understatement. Also, the community building where I had booked the room had a rumba class in the adjoining main hall, which for the first half-hour of my two-hour session was somewhat distracting. All that the three of us could hear was loud distorted music and the yells from the tutor; not to mention the boom-boom that vibrated through us.  It was not ideal, and given that the two people who kindly turned up were not even on my original list, I decided not to continue with the group at the time.

I still believe that there is a demand for this service, because many writers who wish to self-publish do not understand what editing for publication is all about, although many are coming to realise what it means, and how much work is involved. It doesn’t matter what anyone says; a writer cannot truly edit their own work. Having made the transition from writer to editor and having undergone the necessary training to carry out that task, the reasons why are obvious, but these are not always apparent to the independent writer.

It is a universal truth that nobody has to read a novel.  Just because a writer spends four years, or four weeks, writing a story, it doesn’t mean that a prospective customer is going to like it enough to spend money on it, especially if it hasn’t been edited or typeset professionally. But, in order to be able to use that service, the independent writer has to invest hundreds of pounds in preparing their work for publication, with no guarantee that they will recoup the outlay from sales of their books. It’s a risk; a gamble, but has far better odds than simply publishing their raw text – which without professional editing, their hard work will always be…

Hence the reason for my desire to set up a local group.  I would still like to be able to share what I have learned about the editing process with independent writers, face-to-face, so they can enter into self-publishing with a complete understanding of what editing for publication is all about. If nothing else, passing on some of the transferable skills to the writer will certainly make my job easier (maybe even cheaper!). However, as I have mentioned previously, an ongoing family illness prevents me from having much time to pursue this, unless I change the way I carry out my day-to-day editing, which is also on the cards at the moment.

Watch this space. 🙂