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! 🙂