How Do You Keep Track of Time?

Some great posts by Charles Yallowitz on flashbacks (like this one) got me to thinking about timelines and story. Another thing that got me to thinking was catching a mistake in the timeline of one of my WIPs. Events I thought happened concurrently with the events of another character’s day weren’t lining up. Though I plotted the movements of each character on a calendar, something was missed. I needed to fix that.

Why does this matter? you might be thinking, especially if you don’t write novels. A story’s timeline affects the story events you include. If you claim a story happens in, say, twenty-four hours, but the characters do enough activities to fit a thirty-six-hour timeline, you’ll need to address that gap. Things get even messier if you are tracking the movements of more than one main character, as I was doing.

As a freelance line editor, I have had to check the timelines of many manuscripts. Only occasionally did I receive a typewritten timeline from the author. Someone gave me a handwritten note with dates once. Somewhat helpful, but not overly so, since I had to give the publisher a typed timeline that the copyeditor and proofreader could use—which meant I had to type it. Some authors didn’t have notes, preferring the “it’s all in my head” method. I’m not knocking that if it works for you. But does it work for your editor? One hundred percent of the time in the manuscripts I have edited, I have found timeline mistakes even in the most linear stories. Even if an author hands me written notes, I don’t just take those at face value. I check the notes against the events of the manuscript.

So, this post is kind of a PSA (public service announcement, since those initials stand for many things these days) asking you to please keep a written timeline if you are working on a fiction or nonfiction book with any type of chronology. If you have time to type your manuscript, you have time to keep track of, and type, your chronology.

You’d be surprised at how easily an author can get a sequence of events wrong, even with the use of time markers like “the next day,” especially if the author is coming up with events on the fly (and sometimes adding scenes between existing scenes) but isn’t keeping track of the chronology of said events. Imagine having to tell an author, “Your timeline is three months off” as I have had to do, which definitely meant a major rewrite.

I totally get that writing anything takes precious time. With some impossibly fast deadlines, you don’t have much time. And keeping track of a timeline is one of those drudgery activities that no one really likes to do. It’s like loading a dishwasher or a washing machine. But if you elect to avoid doing it, mistakes—like dirty laundry—can pile up. If your editor has to take the time to fix something you could have fixed early on, it becomes more costly, especially with freelance editors charging by the hour. So please listen to Auntie L. Marie and keep track of your chronology. Your editor (even that editor is just you) will thank you.

Clock from Project management image from