The Blog of John Hewitt

Creating a chronology for your novel

Some people might have written their novel in chronological order, from start to finish in a straight line. If you were lucky (or good) enough to do this, then you might be able to skip this step. However, even a novel written in chronological order should at least be examined for opportunities. In your original draft, you may have meant for your protagonist to discover a sack of money shortly after he had a major argument with his girlfriend, but in revision you might want to consider how that same argument would read once he found the money.

Chronology can be an interesting challenge for writers. For example, in the novel I am working on, there are several major characters that at different points become the focus of the story. Not all of their issues and experiences are directly related to those of the other characters in the story. My character Chelsea has several scenes that don’t include any of the other major characters. Taken on their own, her scenes have a definite chronology, but within the novel as a whole, they can easily take place before or after certain other character’s experiences within the narrative. Finding the right spot for them, thematically, will be one of my challenges.

In another instance, I have two scenes that concern the same two principal characters, Henry and Anne. I wrote the scenes in order, which is fine for my initial draft. However, if I leave the two scenes together, it will feel as if no time passed between the two events. Plot-wise, this is possible and it may even be desirable. If I break up the scenes by switching to another character for a while, it will seem as if more time has passed. That may be better, or it may not. I can only figure this out by playing with the order and seeing which combination of scenes works best.

How to work through the chronology of your novel

  1. Prepare a list of your scenes. The list should have enough identifiers for you to glace at the description and know exactly what scene it is. A good way to do this is to write down a sentence or two about that happens, being sure to name which characters are in the scene. You might want to give the scene a brief title, so that you can know it by glancing at it. The list should be easy to shuffle and reorder. I recommend using 3×5 cards, or if you are more technically motivated, Microsoft OneNote (my current tool of choice).
  2. Create an initial order. Don’t do a read-through yet; just shuffle the scenes until you find an order that feels like a good start. Take as much or as little time as you need, but realize that you aren’t committed to this order, it is just a starting place.
  3. Move the actual scenes in your novel so that they reflect your initial order.
  4. Read through the novel. Make note of any obvious continuity problems created by your order. You don’t necessarily want to make changes yet though, because the order is still not firm. Take notes about your concerns, any ideas for new scenes and any other thoughts about the chronology that you have.
  5. Go back to your list and reorder it again from scratch. This is one point in which 3×5 cards have an advantage over most other tools because you can shuffle them like a deck of playing cards and just start over, which makes it easier to embrace wholesale changes rather than minor tweaking.
  6. Move the actual scenes in your novel so that they reflect your new order.
  7. Go back to step four and repeat the process until you feel you have an order you can move forward with.

There are still many steps to the revision process. You will be revising existing scenes and adding new scenes as you go along. You should feel free to return to the chronology step as often as you need to.

Performing a light edit on your novel

The initial step in turning your first draft into a novel was to read your novel. The goal of this reading was to absorb what you had written and get some ideas for moving forward. The general rule was that you were to limit yourself to simply reading and taking notes, resisting the urge to edit even the grammar and the misspellings. Resisting the urge to edit can be very difficult for some people. That is why a light edit should be your second step.

A light edit consists of proofreading and correcting errors in grammar and spelling, as well as making other minor adjustments in readability. A light edit is NOT an in-depth revision or rewrite. You should not be spending your time rewriting the existing text or changing the direction of your story. You can, however, eliminate portions of the text that you are sure you won’t want to use. I suggest that you take these eliminated portions and put them into a separate word-processor file. Do this just in case you decide at some point that you want to put a scene back into the novel or that you want to reread your earlier attempt with fresh eyes.

Steps to a light edit

  1. Save your first draft as a separate file. That way, if worst comes to worst, you can always start again. You may want to reread it down the road too, just to see how far you’ve come.
  2. Use the spell-check tool in your word processor to correct all of the obvious spelling errors. I like to do this first because it allows me to eliminate a huge chunk of errors quickly. Some people find it to be too repetitive. If this is the case, feel free move on to the fourth step.
  3. If your word processor has a grammar checking tool, use it to go through all of the sentences and phrases that have been flagged. Again, it is nice to go through the obvious errors first, which is why I like to take advantage of this tool before I move to the next step. Other people may find it too repetitive. Remember, grammar checkers are NOT always correct. Use your own judgment.
  4. Start at the beginning and go through your novel line-by-line. You’ll find plenty of misspelled words and grammar errors that your word-processor failed to identify for various reasons. You’ll also find plenty of sentences that, while not technically incorrect, can be improved.
  5. Go through the novel a second time. This time, read your novel aloud so that you can hear how your story sounds. Reading your novel aloud helps you to catch errors and weak writing that you won’t notice just by looking at the words.

General advice

Proofreading and editing can be a long and tedious process. Try not to get bogged down. If you find yourself spending more than a minute or two on a sentence, highlight it (I usually put it in bold text) and move on. You can always come back to those problem sentences in the next session, when you can look at them with fresh eyes.

People’s tolerance for editing varies. I can do it for about two hours before it starts to give me a headache and I lose focus. Don’t be afraid to break this process up into multiple sessions or to take breaks.

If you feel the overwhelming urge to write a new scene, don’t pass it up just because you are in the middle of a light edit. Just remember that your focus now is on editing, so when you finish that scene, go back to your editing.

Don’t expect to fix every error. You’ll be reading through you novel many more times in this process, and chances are that you will find new errors every time. Even then, when somebody else reads it, they’ll spot things you’ve missed.

Light editing DOs

  • DO save your original draft.
  • DO correct spelling errors.
  • DO correct grammar errors.
  • DO rewrite sentences for readability.
  • DO eliminate portions of the text that you are sure you want to eliminate.
  • DO keep all discarded portions of your novel in a separate file – just in case.
  • DO write down any ideas that you have for future changes.
  • DO take breaks.

Light editing DON’Ts

  • DON’T rewrite entire portions of your novel.
  • DON’T delete portions of your text without a way to retrieve them.
  • DON’T worry about story structure.
  • DON’T get obsessed with continuity, although it is OK to make minor, obvious corrections.
  • DON’T follow the rules at the expense of a good idea.

Reading through your draft

You’ve written the first draft of a novel. You may have done this as part of NaNoWriMo, or you may have done it on your own over months or years. You may have finished it yesterday or five years ago. Whatever the case, you are now looking for a way to make it better. You want to turn that first draft into something great, or at least something publishable. This series of posts, is designed to take you through the editing process.

The first step is to read what you have written. This can be a strange and frightening experience. Your first draft can be pretty rough. You may have ideas that didn’t work, prose that’s too purple, characters that are as flat as cardboard or so complex that even you can’t figure them out. That’s OK. If you were expecting perfection, now is the time to revise those expectations. You’ve created something from scratch, and no matter how good or bad it is, it can be better.

Three keys to an initial reading

  • Resist the urge to edit. Editing at this point is a waste of time. Why fix the spelling and grammar of something you may later decide to cut out entirely.
  • Take plenty of notes. Write down your thoughts as you go. Keep track of what you like, what you hate, what you want to change and what you want to add.
  • Stay focused on the big picture. Your goal is to think of ways to make the novel work better as a whole.

What to think about as you read

  • How does this draft compare to my initial vision? Should I change the story to meet the vision or the vision to meet the story?
  • Does the plot progress the way it should? Are there gaps that need to be filled in? Will a reader be able to follow what is happening?
  • Who are my characters? Are they interesting? Are they complete?
  • Are there any glaring inconsistencies? Do I call characters by the wrong name? Do any events or statements conflict with other events or statements?
  • What should I cut? What should I keep?

Beyond that, everyone thinks differently and everyone has problems unique to their work. Write down whatever comes to mind as you read.

Once you’ve read through your novel, read through your notes. Spend some time thinking about the draft and where you want to go. You may want to come up with your own battle plan at this point. You may decide to write some new scenes or rewrite old ones. That’s fine. Feel free to go your own way.

Writing an Action Outline

Outlines Make it Easier to Track Complex Events

An action outline is a point by point outline of the events that you intend to have happen in your story. The action outline serves as a roadmap for your plot. It demonstrates to you how your plot will be driven forward. It helps you to think about how an action taken in chapter two might result in an event in chapter ten, due to the sequence of events it causes.

The beauty of an action outline is that it allows you to look at the complexities of the different things happening in your novel. How the choice not to return a phone call early on may result in a lawsuit or a suicide attempt as the story continues. These action-based relationships are what are generally lost when you write without an outline.

Cause and Effect Drive a Plot Forward

When writing an action outline, think in terms of cause and effect. While, in everyday life, not every mistake or missed opportunity matters in a given day, in a novel these things must matter. If the choice to go to a party rather than visit a sick friend has no consequence further down the line, then it probably doesn’t belong in the novel. Life may sometimes feel random, but in the end, a story needs to feel like an evolution. An illogical event might happen early on, but as the story progresses it must have a logical impact on all the people concerned.

Some consequences may be less startling than others. A character may not suffer external consequences to an action, but may pay an emotional price that results in them making a different decision later on. The decision not to visit a sick friend on Tuesday weighs on the character until Thursday, then the character finally does go, just in time to run into someone the character didn’t want to see or find out that they missed out on something they would have wanted to be present for.

If you map out those possibilities from the beginning, you will not only understand what drives your plot forward, but it gives a shape to what you write so that everything feels logical within the framework of your story, no matter how different your world might be from reality.

Sample Action Outline

This outline shows two different chapters in a novel, demonstrating that actions from an earlier part of the novel often result in consequences later on. This is a very bare-bones outline to demonstrate the process. You might want to be far more detailed about the actions that occur.

Chapter 3

  1. Lisa comes home to find Sam’s father Roy parked in front of their house.
  2. Roy demands to see Sam. He is clearly drunk and angry.
  3. Roy grabs Lisa, holding her helpless. He threatens her life.
  4. Jeremy arrives from next door and bashes Roy on the head with a baseball bat. Knocking him out.
  5. Jeremy tells Lisa he will take care of things
  6. Jeremy shoves an unconscious Roy into the passenger seat of his own car.
  7. Jeremy takes Roy’s keys, gets in on the drivers side and drives off.

Chapter 8

  1. Lisa tells Sam that his father has been in the Hospital for several days.
  2. Sam confronts Lisa about her keeping the information from him.
  3. Sam and Lisa break up.
  4. Sam goes to Union Hospital to see his father.

Are Your Characters Well Spoken, or is it Just You?

How Articulate Are Your Characters?

Most writers are articulate. Because they work with the written word on a daily or near daily basis, and because they have a love of language, most writers express themselves well. Just because a writer is articulate, however, doesn’t mean that a character should be articulate. Adjusting your language to suit a character, especially in dialog, is vital to creating a realistic depiction of that character and vital for differentiating that character from others in the story.

Words Reflect Background

When most people think about writing realistic dialog, they think about things such as regional accents and vocal patterns. Those things are important, but it is just as important to adjust your dialog to the specific background of the characters. For example, people know that there is a Boston accent, but most people don’t realize that the Boston accent varies greatly according to where in the city that person lives and what their economic and educational background is. Not everyone from Boston sounds the same. A well-educated Boston lawyer is not going to sound like a poorly educated bartender at a local dive.

Don’t Distract the Reader

Another mistake people make in tailoring dialog is to go too far into an accent and ignore such things as speech rhythms or word choices. J.K. Rowling, for example, uses very exaggerated accents. In the early books, before the story got particularly dark, the exaggerated accents seemed to work reasonably well considering the stories were fantasy and the intended audience was mostly children. By the final books, however, when the story was very dark and the intended audience was much wider, the exaggerated accents seemed much more unsuitable and distracting.

Unique, Not Extreme

The key with dialog, especially with accents, is to make each person’s style differentiated enough that they sound unique and identifiable, but not so extreme that people are paying more attention to the words being said than they are to the intent of the statement. Try to think of what is distinctive about the way each person speaks, and why their word choices make sense for them.

Some Things to Consider

  • Is the character concise or long winded?
  • Does the character use words they don’t fully understand?
  • Does the character have influence from different regions (such as a person from Texas now living in California or vice-versa)?
  • Is the character used to public speaking?
  • Does the character have any particular patterns or phrases that stand out?
  • Is their something about the character’s role (Boss, employee, teacher, parent) that makes a difference in the way that character speaks in different situations?