Self-editing Your Novel, Part 5: Timeline
In Self-editing Your Novel, Part 1: Let it Cook, I encouraged you to allow your brain to do its subconscious thing. In Part 2: Plot Structure, I showed you how to outline your story after it’s finished. In Part 3: Subplot and Digression, I gave you questions to consider for your subplot, and rules to follow when using digression. In Part 4: Characters, I showed you an easy way to make sure that all of your characters have depth and consistency by using post-writing character sketching, and I gave you a list of specifics to check. If you’ve been following along so far, editing your timeline should be a breeze.
You wrote a synopsis of your overall story, and of each chapter and scene when you wrote your outline in Part 2, right? If you’ve rewritten any of your story in the meantime, make the changes in your outline now.
Once your synopses are ready, review each one, paying attention to the following details.
- Overall story. Does it make sense? Is it straightforward, or does it flashback? Does it jump around too much? Remember that readers have a tendency to put down a book at the end of a chapter or scene, then get busy and not pick it up again for a few days. Will your reader feel lost when returning to your story at any point?
- Surprises. Even in genres that follow an expected course (e.g., in Romance, the heroine finds true love; in Mystery, the mystery gets solved), the journey should not go straight to the predictable end. Throw in some unexpected twists and turns.
- Tight scenes. Does each chapter, and each scene within that chapter, enhance the story? Does it (1) move the action of the story forward, or (2) reveal something that will come into play later on, or (3) reveal something that gives more depth to, or new information about, a main character? If not, cut it. If a scene is constructed for the sole purpose of revealing one tiny bit of information, is that scene at least entertaining? (Really?) Would the story flow better if you cut the scene and slipped the bit of information into another scene?
- Tension. Does the tension vary? Readers can’t sustain edge-of-your-seat intensity for the twelve hours spread out over a week that it takes to read a novel. And they won’t put in a lot of time if they never feel that intensity. The tension in your story should ebb and flow. Keep your readers wanting more by making sure that at any given point before the end of the book, something is unresolved. (This is where subplots come into play.) It can be something as simple as whether or not Bernice will really bob her hair, but leave an open question, so your reader feels compelled to keep reading.
- Years, days, hours, etc.
If you mention a date, a time, whatever, it has to sync up with the rest of the story. Use the Search & Find feature and look up time-related or age-related words: hour, day, Saturday, old, morning, sunset, etc. Write them down in order, if you need to, to make sure the timing makes sense. You can’t keep a hero awake day and night for several days, unless that is an intentional part of the story. You can’t leave your characters suspended in time, and pick them up a week later at the same spot you left them. They can’t know something until after they learn it.
- Weather. If your story takes place on Earth, on a specific date, at a specific time and place, you can’t just declare a full moon or a rainstorm or fog. Look up the conditions for that time and place, and make sure your story matches. Look up past weather conditions for specific places at www.wunderground.com/history . For future weather predictions, try farmersalmanac.com or gcmd.gsfc.nasa.gov/learn/pointers/weather.html .
- Life forms. Again, if your story takes place on Earth, make sure that the plants and animals in the story had been discovered by the story’s time frame, and lived in your story’s setting during that time. No pet hamsters for the children attending the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.
- Technology. Anything mechanical or technological in your story should fall within believable parameters. The telephone was invented in 1876, but it’s not very likely that a typical farmer in Wyoming would have owned one by 1901. Even if your farmer is rich, he may not have access to such technology. Look up your story’s town history to find out. Electric toasters were in common use by 1901, but they didn’t “pop” yet. Does your story take place in the near future? Learn about and include technology that is already in development to add more science to your science fiction. If your story’s in the far future, anything goes, but if technology goes backward or stays the same as today, give a reason for that.
In short, read dates and times carefully, and do your research. Yes, readers will notice. And they will look things up for accuracy. They’ll either be impressed with your attention to details, or they’ll be impressed by their own ability to prove the writer made mistakes. Your choice.
COMMENT FOR A CHANCE TO WIN FREE COPY EDITING
As my holiday gift to my readers, if you comment during the month of December 2015, I will add your name to a drawing. If you comment and also link back to my blog, I’ll put your name in twice. After December, I’ll pick a commenter at random. That commenter wins one free copy editing by me, up to 65,000 words. If you can’t use it, you can gift it to someone else (one person), but it has to be scheduled before March 2016 or the offer expires.
UPDATE: This contest is closed. Winner has been notified.