Editing Timelines

A common developmental concern is a problem or error in the timeline of a story. Usually the copy editor is expected to track the timeline very carefully, but you want to avoid having a big problem at the CE stage that could have been solved at the DE stage if only you’d been paying attention. (And with indie authors, there may not be a CE stage.)

So, you need to be able to spot that if in story time today is Tuesday and tomorrow is Friday, something has gone wrong somewhere. Similarly, if Penelope is in Los Angeles at 9 a.m., she is almost certainly not getting off the plane in New York at lunchtime. In other words, we have to keep track of clock time as well as elapsed time.

For the author, fixing a timeline isn’t always as simple as changing the reference from Friday to Tuesday. It may require significant revision, depending on the story—which is why it’s better to catch the problem in dev than to hope the CE catches it.

You can use a spread sheet to track the timeline. If you’ve done a chapter-by-chapter summary, you can add timeline (and even location) tracking to that (Chapter 1—noon on Tuesday—Rome).

For beginning editors, tracking this in a chapter summary document can be extremely helpful. I still do this for complex edits. You wouldn’t send the author the tracking spreadsheet—that’s for your use. You would use queries and any necessary ms edits to deal with timeline issues. If they’re extensive, you would also need to address them in the revision letter, as fixing the issues may require the type of rewriting that’s beyond the DE’s typical role.

Tracing a Story Arc

Many developmental concerns relate to the story arc—what happens and why. The what and the why are of course interconnected but they can also be looked at separately (at least to some degree) to help you identify problems in the narrative. For example, a story may have a clear conflict, interesting characters, and carefully explored cause-and-effect (the “why”) but if the pacing is too slow or uneven, none of this matters. The reader will lose interest and wander off.

One technique I often use, especially with beginning writers, is to simply summarize what happens in each chapter of their novel. This approach that helps you see whether each chapter is pulling its weight as well as how the chapters (and the scenes within chapters, if necessary) link together – or don’t.

The chapter summary is just a sentence or two that describes the action of the novel. Note that by action I don’t necessarily mean guns blazing. It can be a decision made, a conversation that moves the plot in another direction, etc.

Recently I edited a novel where I came up with an outline of the first five chapters that went something like this:

In Chapter 1, the heroine rents a car.

In Chapter 2, the villain tells his minion all the things the author wants the reader to know.

In Chapter 3, a secondary character moves back to her hometown and has some mixed feelings about it.

In Chapter 4, the hero has an inciting incident but it’s told as a flashback.

At this point I made a note to myself: I have no idea what any of these characters want and I don’t know what makes them unique, interesting, engaging. What are their quirks and foibles?

In Chapter 5, the hero and heroine meet. They info-dump about their pasts. We are told he immediately feels deeply about her but this not shown. Then we find out that the two are “meant to be” together.

My note to myself says: “Meant to be” just doesn’t work in fiction. It robs the narrative of uncertainty and suspense. If everything is meant to be, then all these characters are just playthings of fate and nothing they’re doing matters. Their goals, choices, decisions, and actions are meaningless. They have no consequence. But what drives narrative/fiction? It’s the character’s goals, choices, decisions, and actions. You can’t tell the reader these don’t matter and then expect the reader to follow along.

At this point, the end of Chapter Five, we’re a hundred pages in and nothing has really happened. The author couldn’t see this because there were lots of words involved and any number of conversations and descriptions. But boiling it down into a brief outline helped her see that her novel consisted almost entirely of telling the reader things instead of showing them unfold. (The pacing was glacially slow.)

Once she was able to see that she made big improvements. Doing the outline also helped me identify what my concerns with the story were, as evidenced by the notes I made to myself as I went along.

While the outline is meant for your use, you can share it or parts of it (carefully edited for tone) with the author to help him/her understand where the manuscript is failing to live up to its potential.

Exploring versus Judging Character

One of the curious conundrums I’ve experienced as a book editor is encountering characters that the author clearly has contempt for but expects readers to be interested in engaging with.

Contempt is as poisonous in writing as it is in relationships.

The goal of the author should not be to judge character but to explore character. The reader can judge.

One of the reasons this contempt happens, or seems to happen, is when authors view characters as tokens to be moved around on a backdrop—chess pieces, as it were, having rules of engagement but no volition.

In other words, Beatrice does not murder the blackmailer Malcolm because that is the type of thing Beatrice would do when threatened with exposure, but because the author needs a dead body on the floor. Action then becomes motivated by the author’s need to check off a plot point on their outline rather than as something integral to the character.

The most important question we can ask in helping authors develop characters is: “Would this character really do/think/say this thing right now?”

Showing Character through Testing

Authors often create characters who are perfectly suited for the story that is being told. The brilliant detective is put to the task of finding out whodunnit, the brilliant surgeon must operate on the life-threatening tumor, the brilliant commando must rescue the hostage.

If these characters have suitable antagonists to oppose them, then enough conflict can be generated to make following along on their adventures engaging enough that readers will do it.

Fish Out of Water

But readers like to see characters both in and out of their element.

One of the best ways to define character is to plunge the character into unfamiliar territory.

So, what happens if the author promotes the robbery investigator to homicide detective? What happens if the life-threatening tumor must be operated on in a field hospital miles from the nearest blood bank? What happens if the commando is injured and tactical support for the operation completely withdrawn?

Now the character is tested in ways that will engage readers.

Who Are (All of) You?

One of the most common character development problems I come across in developmental editing is the introduction of the cast of thousands. We’ve barely met Harry and Sally when we are also introduced to Bernadette, Jose, Terry, Maximilian, Duane, Lisa, and their children and pets. The reader can barely figure out who any of these characters are, let alone develop any kind of interest in or empathy with them.

Unnecessary Characters Create Character Development Problems

When there are too many characters jostling for page time, it is difficult for the author to develop any of them in a way that will engage a reader’s interest. It is true that certain stories require a lot of characters, but when and how they are introduced matters. As with any type of exposition, character introductions can turn into info-dumping:

“And that’s Miranda, married to Michael—the blond—and their children Margaret and Mitchell, not to be confused with Michel, over there, who is seeing Angelique, whose ex, Antonio, is standing by the bean dip.”

I can’t keep track of any of these people and further I don’t care about a single one.

Authors sometimes try to fix this problem by turning all of the characters into viewpoint characters, thinking that this will allow us to engage with them more fully:

“Miranda overheard Penelope pointing her out to the new neighbor. She went over and introduced herself. When Michael saw Miranda abandon the shrimp cocktail, he knew something was up and went to follow her. Margaret, their daughter, watched her parents leave the buffet table and decided now was the time to snag all the crab cakes.”

But while this is a slight improvement over an undifferentiated list, the approach still creates only superficial engagement with the characters.

How to Reduce the Cast List

Some suggestions I often make for authors who have overcrowded their pages:

  • As with any exposition, characters should only be introduced when they are needed for the story to make sense.
  • Only the most important characters to the story should be viewpoint characters
  • Character roles can often be combined to reduce the number of characters readers have to remember, especially minor characters who only show up occasionally. For example, in the above scenario, maybe only one child really matters to the story, so Margaret and Mitchell can be rolled into one character.
  • Minor characters should be defined by their role, not given names (as the giving of names implies that the character is important and needs to be remembered). So unless the barista is a close confidante of the protagonist, she can just be “the barista.”

Who Am I?

Helping Authors Understand Character Development

Authors often use character sketches to understand their characters better. They’ll haul out a template and fill in the blanks with descriptions of the character’s appearance, when they were born, where they went to school, who gave them their first kiss, and more.

While some of these details can be important in character description—it’s useful for the author to remember that Murgatroyd is bald—this type of fill-in-the-blank exercise is fundamentally flawed. Character development isn’t saying, “Murgatroyd went to Yale.” Character development is saying, “Murgatroyd punched Nicholas for claiming that Harvard was a superior school.”

In other words, character development happens through action and dialogue, reaction and thought, motivation and goals—not details of biography.

An author doesn’t need to know where Murgatroyd went to school so much as the author needs to know what Murgatroyd would say and do if he felt insulted, and what kinds of things would make him feel insulted.

One thing I often recommend that authors do—rather than fill in yet another mundane character sketch—is to have the character take an aptitude test or a personality test, like the ones employers and career coaches do. These tests do not ask where you went to school but what your interests are and how you would react to common situations. An introvert character is going to act differently from an extravert; a doer differently from a thinker; a loner differently from a social butterfly.

Here’s a collection of such tests to try: https://www.themuse.com/advice/14-free-personality-tests-thatll-help-you-figure-yourself-out

Using Maps to Edit Setting

One way to help authors to nail down concrete details of their setting is to sketch a rough map of the various places characters go in the story.

What a Map Can Show

Such a map helps me see logical inconsistencies in the layout of an author’s setting: if the poor side of town is north of the railroad tracks, what are all the multimillion dollar mansions doing there? It also helps me correct problems like the auto shop and the Baptist church both occupy the same corner of 10th and Main.

Often the information in the ms is so vague I don’t know where various elements go. Is the grocery store near the bank? I don’t know. How far is everything from everything else? I don’t know.

It’s not that readers necessarily need to know these things (the story events should make sense to the reader without having to refer to a map) but this is a clue that the setting is not as concrete as it could be. Instead of creating a story world and having a character interact with it, the author is shoving the character into various locations without any regard for how those locations relate to the overall setting.

When you detect a character being shoved around like a chess piece in this way, look closer and you are likely to find related developmental problems, such as lack of clear goals, motivations, and conflicts.

The Setting Sketch

When I see a problem with setting, I often ask the author to consider doing a type of character sketch for the setting. This might include questions like:

  • how old is the town a character is living in
  • how diverse are the residents (and in what ways)
  • what is the town famous for
  • what is the climate like
  • what do residents love and hate about it

These “setting sketches” can help the author go beyond visually describing a setting and can help them create a setting that feels like a real place.

Setting and the Five Senses

Authors often visualize their stories as if they were movies unreeling in front of them. This is unfortunate because it often means they focus heavily on the visual, when the world of narrative offers so much more!

Namely, the other four senses.

Using the FIVE Senses

Sight alone does not make a reader feel immersed in a story. When authors do this, it often makes the setting feel as if it were merely a backdrop to the unfolding story events and not an actual place that characters interact with.

My basic rule of thumb, and a place to start, is that every page of the ms should have a sense other than sight on it. Bells should jingle and trash cans reek. Skin should prickle and mouths should pucker.

Often the challenge is that authors don’t have the vocabulary for or language of the senses, so it can be helpful to provide resources for them. WritersWrite.co.za has some great resources on describing all five senses. Here’s one.

We can also encourage the author to show the characters reacting to their senses: “The stench of putrefying flesh turned my stomach” versus “It smelled disgusting.” This is a matter of showing the character in the setting, not just posing in front of it.

Edit Setting for Variety

The setting of a novel consists of multiple elements, big and small, that nest inside each other.

The Russian Nesting Doll of Settings

We might show this hierarchy of settings like so:

  • Milky Way galaxy
  • Earth
  • North America
  • United States
  • New Mexico
  • Santa Fe
  • San Mateo Road
  • 601 San Mateo Road
  • 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16
  • the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16

If you think about it, the micro setting of “the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16” implies the existence of all of the other settings–Santa Fe, the United States. And of course we can get even more micro than this: the sofa in the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16, and so on.

Each of these settings has certain characteristics: Santa Fe is different from Roswell, New Mexico is different from Vermont, the United States is different from the Philippines.

How the various settings that go in to the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16 are dealt with depends on the story (and by no means do all of them need to be named in order to provide context for the setting), but typically it will improve the story if the author moves at least some of the action out of the living room.

Exploring the Story World

Authors often get focused on micro settings at the expense of the macro setting. In other words, the living room ends up being the character’s entire world, when in fact the character has an actual entire world to interact with.

In some cases it makes sense for the story to take place in the living room. Most of the time, though, the story would be more engaging if the author provided greater variety in the setting. Letting a character explore and interact with the story world brings both character and setting alive.

Just as a movie set only in one location at only one time of day can feel one-note (not as a universal rule, but typically), so too can a novel where most story events take place in the same location, especially if the characters are constantly doing the same thing in that setting. I would say that in novels, the number one setting for conversations is around a table while the characters are eating.

Certainly characters may be expected to eat and certainly tables are conducive to having conversation around but after a while all the meals blur into one, at least for the reader if not for the characters. Moving some of these conversations to other locations will help the story feel more vivid.

Therefore, part of our job is to play location scout: “AU: Consider moving this conversation to the park/gym/International Space Station.”

It’s even better if these locations reflect character traits: the bowling enthusiast could have a conversation at the bowling alley, the swimmer at the pool, the hiker on the trail.

Unlike a movie, asking the author to have the characters attend a wedding, go to the beach, or play billiards at the snooker hall does not cost extra.

Turning some of these conversations into other kinds of plot events would also be a good idea, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

Setting problems: lack of concrete locations

Writers often use setting like a painted backdrop to their stories, rather than as an integral element of their storytelling. As DEs, we can help them make the setting come to life.

If we think of Wuthering Heights, we think of the Yorkshire moors. When we think of Moby Dick, it’s a whaler on the Atlantic Ocean. My Antonia = the Nebraska prairie. In each case, the same story could not be told in another setting.

Not all stories need to be as closely identified with their settings: a cozy mystery could take place in small-town Oklahoma about as easily as it could be set in small-town Ohio. But readers need to feel as if the events are taking place somewhere.

Make Setting Concrete

One of the most common setting problems I encounter when I’m editing is what I like to call the undisclosed location. The author drops the reader into the middle of the action in some unnamed locale and the story unfolds without our ever knowing where, exactly, it’s unfolding.

So, I have to encourage the author to name the setting early on. A vague “college town in the Midwest” is not the same as Ames, Iowa. Even if the setting is made up, it needs to have a name and a location. If the setting is based on a true-life location, I help the author figure out how to make deliberate choices about how fictionalized the setting will be.

Elements to Fictionalize

For example, despite the disclaimer you see in front of every published novel (some version of “Names, characters, locations and events are all products of the author’s imagination”), most writers set their stories in real places: Los Angeles, Oahu, Paris. When they do, readers expect them to get the main elements right: Los Angeles has about four million people, Oahu is an island, Paris has a lot of French-speaking residents.

But some elements may need to be fictionalized: the address where the protagonist works, the name of the restaurant that burns down. This helps preserve the illusion of reality: readers may know that 261 Hudson Street is an apartment building, not an insurance company headquarters, and the discrepancy of having the protagonist show up there to go to work is likely to pop readers out of the story. Or they know that the Chipotle on 23rd Street is in fact still standing so hearing about how it went up in flames is a reminder that they are reading fiction.

If what is happening in a specific location and who is causing it would tend to suggest criminal or unethical actions, I often recommend that authors fictionalize these elements, not because they will get into legal trouble if they don’t but that some readers have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. If an author shows a child pornography ring being run out of the local Pizza Hut, someone, somewhere will be phoning in a crime tip to the local police.

(Same with characters: back when a crotchety old lady ran the Raven Bookstore where I lived and sometimes set my stories, I did not call it the Raven Bookstore and I moved the crotchety old lady to another location so she wouldn’t recognize herself.)

On the other hand, sometimes authors go too far and won’t even let their characters get a cup of coffee from Starbucks, so I assure them that Starbucks won’t mind the ordinary consumption of their goods, even if it is a fictional character drinking the latte.