The Importance of a Novel’s Timeline

During the editing process of my first Casey Holland mystery, The Opposite of Dark, my publisher asked me to submit a timeline of events so that the editor could keep track of the story’s continuity. Although I’d always used outlines, I hadn’t kept a detailed hourly timeline of events. Now, I couldn’t imagine writing without one.

As you can imagine, timing is crucial in thriller/mystery novels. I need to know what’s happening to whom, where, why, and when, sometimes right down to the minute. Think about it. If you’ve set up a traumatic event like a high school shooting, then you’d better make sure that your protagonist isn’t at Sunday church services when it happens.

I use an Excel spreadsheet to nail down my timeline. I’m sure there are useful apps out there to do this now, but I’m used to Excel. It’s simple, flexible, and free. My 6th Casey Holland mystery is 35 chapters long, but to keep the sheet from becoming too wide, I start a new column below chapter one at the halfway point. Everything is on one sheet and easy to see at a glance. Here’s a sample of the first six chapters:

Sat. Sun. Mon. Fri. Fri. Mon.
17-May 18-May 19-May 23-May 23-May 26-May
6:30 PM 2:30 AM 9:00 AM 11:00 PM 11:10 PM 9:00 AM
on bus with Wesley-riot at home after the riot-Lou introduced at meeting with Stan-talks to Benny & learns more about Lou’s injuries on the bus with the Friends-Benny attacked attack scene at Benny’s bus. Glimpse of suspect staff mtg. at MPT – graffiti on bldg. Just over a week since the riot.

The opening chapters are straightforward and don’t require many notes, but there’s room to added things if needed. As the book goes on, descriptions grow longer. The names and abbreviated content won’t mean much to you, but notice that the date, weekday and time of day are at the top of each column. Those are the details I’m going to forget during the numerous drafts.

I wait until the second or third draft before creating an Excel sheet because I know that chapters will either be merged or deleted during the first couple of rewrites.

Real-life disruptions can pull us away from writing projects for weeks or even months at a time. Using a timeline will help get you back on track quickly. It’ll also save you time and money if you’re hiring an editor. So, find a way that works for you and go for it. The bit of extra work is well worth the effort.

When You Find a Good How-To Book

Manuscript MakeoverIn my quest to read more nonfiction and improve my writing skills, I picked up a book that was recommended to me several years ago. It was a good decision. Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon is one of the best how-to books on editing I’ve read in a while.

One of the great things I’ve found about how-to books is that they trigger ideas for improving my plots, characters, settings, and so forth. It happened several times throughout this book, which has caused me to go back and make key changes to the second draft of the urban fantasy I’m working on.

Now I find myself with three sets of notes to type up. One for the book review I’ll post. The second is a quick summary of editing tips I specifically need to address in all of my manuscripts. The third is to incorporate all of those notes I scribbled down about the urban fantasy.

The last section is entitled ‘Marketing’, but it’s not about promoting and increasing visibility. It’s about properly preparing your manuscript to submit to publishers. Lyon offers some really great tips on writing query letters and a synopsis. If you’re a fiction writer, I strongly encourage you to read this book. With any luck, new ideas will spring up for your work.