This is an entry in the "DIY Writer" series in which writers share their tips, tricks, and experiences to help guide others from the opening sentences to self-publishing.
The story you’re reading starts on a Monday. You know this because the author said, “Monday morning, Joe drove to work.” The character goes to work a couple of days, and the next thing you know, it’s Friday. You think, “Hm. That’s odd. They didn’t mention Joe was part-time help, and I don’t think I slept-read again so what’s up with that?” You’re confused. You decide to have a drink and mull things over. Still confused, you have another. You stare at the words, which by now are running amok on the page like horny ants. So you have another drink to make them stand still. You forget why you’re drinking, so you have another. The next thing you know, you’re a raging alcoholic who refuses to attend your AA meetings because they might make you read a pamphlet, and reading will bring the traumatic memories of a reckless timeline to the surface. My point? No one wants to read a story that can’t follow a timeline. Not even alcoholics.
It’s easy to lose track of your timeline when writing, what with character A cheating on character B, and the murder of characters C and D, who already dropped the money at location #1 and planted a bomb at location #2! So how do you keep your days straight when writing?
Used to, I just did my best to remember. And as we all know (especially people who know me personally), the human mind is faulty to say the least, mine being no exception. In fact, my mind is probably from where that fact derives. What was I saying? Oh, yeah. Timelines.
Last summer, I wrote a novel called The Good Neighbor. While writing it, I decided to create a file in which to make a street map so I could keep track of whose house was located where and the relation to everyone else’s house. Then, I decided to list each character and their characteristics (i.e., hair color, eye color, jobs, etc.). Then, I decided that since I had already created a folder where I was keeping notes for the story, I might as well go ahead and keep track of everything else. After all, I was getting confused. I was keeping track of the whereabouts of 8 people, one of which worked two weeks on night shift and two weeks on day shift. (You see how this could be confusing.)
So I went back to the beginning of the story and read through, marking in my file on which day the story started and each day since. It was no surprise to me that when I’d caught up with myself, I’d already gone a day over where I thought I was in the story. I fixed it, and have kept track ever since. Work smart, not hard.
For something to be so simple and so obvious, it certainly took me long enough to stumble upon it. But it’s an excellent habit to get into. Each and every time I start a story, I create two Word documents. One labeled [Title of Story], and the other labeled [Title of Story Notes]. In my notes document, I put the following:
1) I list characters by name and every detail about them. You may think you know your characters well enough to not need a list, but eventually, you’ll forget who had the braces and who had the freckles.
2) I write down everything I want to happen throughout the story (I’ve never been one to make an actual outline) - not necessarily in order - and I check them off as I write them. I could delete them, but years from now, I may want to go back and look at my thought process, so I put a line through it.
3) During the course of writing the story, things pop into my head. I add them to the document and they eventually end up in the book’s description or as a clever line in the story.
4) I write on which day the story starts, and each day that passes. I also make a note of what day any major events occur, so I can reference it later. You don’t want to say in Chapter 20, “When the bomb killed Joe on Friday…” if the bomb actually killed Joe on a Tuesday in Chapter 4. It’s distracting to the reader. It draws them out of the story, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. And of course, you make yourself look silly. I mean, for crying out loud, if you can’t keep your story in order, it must not be worth reading. The next thing you know, your book sales drop and alcohol sales skyrocket.
5) And as a bonus for myself, I write the date, and how many words I wrote. It’s amazing to go back and look at which days I wrote 8,000 words, and which days I only wrote a few hundred. As a writer, you can detect any patterns in your writing. If you never write well on Mondays, you can plan to spend Mondays working on your blog, practicing your ninja skills, preparing for the inevitable zombie invasion, or whatever you like to do in your spare time. If you write better on Fridays, you know to clear your schedule on Fridays, lock the doors, lay down the throwing stars, unplug the internet, and turn off the ringer on the phone. Chances are, this is NOT the day zombies will invade.
It’s VERY important to keep your timeline straight. You owe it to yourself and your reader to keep them from becoming confused alcoholics. As a writer, you must’ve read at least one book in your life. You know how frustrating it is to find inconsistencies in the story. It pulls you out and draws your attention to the mistake. And this, folks, is a no-no.
Kimberly A. Bettes, Author of The Good Neighbor and Annie's Revenge.
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