I write crime fiction, so there are often references to when the crime occurred in relation to when in the story the discussion about the crime is taking place. “The girl with the blue hair, I saw her four days ago in the alley behind the curling club,” for example. In one traditionally published book I DNR’d, the story, which was being told chronologically, accidentally moved from Sunday night to Sunday morning, so you can see why it’s important to catch timeline inconsistencies.
For my last two books, I’ve taken a strategic approach to editing for timeline inconsistencies, and in doing so, have each time found passages where I, for instance, miscalculated someone’s age in a given year, or, when referring to an event that happened earlier in the story, wrote the wrong day.
If you plot every time-related detail before typing a word, or if your story is completely linear with rare references to past events, then you probably don’t need to do this or something like this, but for those authors whose timelines are making their heads spin, here’s my two-step, no-software-required process.
Step 1: During one of my full revisions, I choose a digital highlight color and consistently highlight all passages that relate to time (age, day of week or other time markers, passage of time, etc.) It can be a waste of time to do this if you anticipate major structural changes ahead, so you may want to wait until you’re a couple of drafts in. It becomes second-nature after a bit, the highlighting; easy-peasy.
Step 2: I get myself an oversized piece of paper, and I mean big. You could use the back of a desk-calendar tear-off or splurge on a large piece of bristol/poster board or take six regular-size sheets of office paper and seam them together with tape on one side only. You’ll be writing in pencil, so have a good eraser handy as well. Draw as many lines across the length of the paper as you have timelines. I draw two, one for the present-day timeline and one for events that happened before the story started. Now start at the beginning of your story, and add every highlight to your paper timeline along with the scene in which the mention occurs. As you go through this process, look for and iron out all the timeline inconsistencies. Keep your timeline FOREVER, because you’ll need to refer to it at all stages of editing.
At which stage of your revision process do you take a close look at your timeline? Do you use software for this or a pen-and-paper solution similar to mine? Chat with me in the comments!
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