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! 🙂

Errors in Continuity

So, today is Back to the Future day, and what could be more apt than a series of films depicting time travel to prompt me to write about continuity errors. Surely, time travel is a continuity error in itself!

Eagle-eyed viewers noticed many errors with the three films, not just with the storyline, but also with the props. Objects – and people – changed from one state to another, or would appear and disappear unexpectedly; reflections of film equipment or the crew could be seen in anything shiny… and all this when there was no time travel actually taking place! Fortunately, these continuity errors may have been small enough not to distract the viewer from the story. In films, they seem par for the course, fun to spot, even, but had Marty’s hair colour kept changing from brown to blonde, or had the DeLorean time machine switched to a Mercedes-Benz gull-wing, then I guess the viewer would become somewhat irate.

Unfortunately, continuity errors in a fiction novel will stand out like a flying car, and not have the same wow factor.  In a story where events run in chronological order, in the same year, and no time travel is involved, it cannot be April in Chapter 10, if it was June in Chapter 5.  Likewise, if a character’s mother has sadly passed away in Chapter 3, she can’t then come to dinner in Chapter 10.

The reader wants to be transported to the world that the writer has created. Any obvious continuity errors will take them out of the flow of the story and spoil the experience.  Here are some tips for the writer on how to manage continuity:

  • Always be aware of the time frame that the story takes place in, whether it be the year, the month, the day, the hour, or the season. (Remember, you cannot pick blackberries in March – not in the UK, anyway!)
  • Maintain a list of proper names and references, such as those of the characters and places, so as to not get confused about the spelling or where an event takes place.  Decide if a character’s name is to be spelled Katherine, Catherine, Katharine, or Kathryn.
  • Keep a record of a person’s characteristics: hair colour, eye colour, important dates and events, their dress sense, their likes and dislikes, the car they drive – anything about them that is pertinent to the story.

When a writer is so involved in getting the story down, it is easy to make continuity errors, and whilst it may be argued that it is a copy-editor’s job to spot them, the more errors the writer makes, the longer it will take the editor to carry out the work, and therefore, the more expensive it will be.

In my experience of copy-editing, errors in continuity tend to come pretty high on the list after mistakes in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Whilst an editor will know how to spell a certain word (or at least be able to look it up), punctuate a sentence, or correct grammar autonomously, they will have to ask the writer for clarification, or at least pass comment, on continuity errors, unless it is blindingly obvious.