When working with fiction authors, we also address other problems that can arise: issues with the plot’s timeline; changes in point of view (POV) or in a character’s description; and improbable/impossible actions, among others. For an author it can be hard to keep all the plot lines, scene descriptions and character details in your head. There are many software tools available to help you organise all this information, e.g. Scrivener, etc.
Editors also need help tracking these details and in this blog post I will share two of my handy, customisable tools that I use when copy-editing a fiction manuscript. Authors can use them, too. The more errors you find during redrafting the more money you will save when you send your manuscript to a professional editor/proofreader. Whether you use these tools during your novel-plotting stage or when redrafting is up to you – choose whichever bests suits your style of working.
A manuscript’s timeline can trip up an author in numerous ways. As I work through a manuscript I use this tool to help me identify errors and inconsistencies in the timeline, POV and action.
For each chapter I make a note of the time/date/season in which it is set. I note every mention of the time/date/season and include the manuscript page number in brackets after each for easy reference, e.g. 0930 Mon (p26). (I use the twenty-four hour clock for brevity and speed). Chronological errors in the timeline will soon show themselves. For example, a novel opens at the very start of October. In chapter ten the plot indicates that time has moved on six weeks and the hero’s children are overexcited because it’s Christmas Eve. But it can’t be Christmas Eve – six weeks after the novel’s opening means that by chapter ten it’s only the middle of November. Or perhaps a character arrives home at 9 a.m. having worked a nightshift and the reader is told he manages to get a solid six hours’ sleep, yet a few pages on he is described as having woken up at noon …
Improbable Actions and Inconsistencies
I also keep note of a chapter’s location/setting and its key action points (again noting the page number for ease of reference). This helps to highlight problems of improbability and inconsistency. For example, in chapter three a punch-up occurs between the hero and his antagonist in McCauley’s pub, but in chapter fourteen it changes to McCormack’s pub. Likewise, if the pub is located at a rural crossroads "in the middle of nowhere", how likely is it that the hero will stumble out of it after the fight and hail a passing taxi?
Point of View (POV)
When writing and editing a novel with multiple third person POVs it can be helpful to keep track of the POV switches to highlight any imbalances or sequencing difficulties between them. For example, in a manuscript with alternating POV chapters the tracker will highlight if one POV character gets two chapters in a row.
I use the Character Tracker to keep note of the characters’ names; their physical and personality descriptions; their relationship to other characters; and the key points of their history as written in the manuscript (these sometimes differ with those in the author’s head, but remember the reader can only go by what appears on the page!). As with the Timeline and Plot Tracker I record the page number of each relevant point. They're not editing myths – the following types of character errors and inconsistencies do sneak into manuscripts:
- Eyes change colour (blue in chapter four but green by chapter twenty-four)
- Name changes (Angeline becomes Angelina)
- Age remains the same for two years or more (I wish I could manage that!)
- Physical attributes change without explanation (a tattoo moves from the right shoulder to the left)
- Miraculous cures (a heroine’s peanut allergy mentioned in chapter two magically disappears when she eats a handful of nuts at the bar in the penultimate chapter)
- Backstory inconsistencies (in chapter five the reader is told the hero had graduated from University College Dublin, but in chapter nineteen it has changed to Trinity College Dublin).
This tool gathers all the relevant character details in one handy location, making it easier to spot an error. It can also highlight name duplication of minor characters (yes, this does happen). It’s also handy for checking if a minor character’s plot line remains unresolved by the end of the book or, worse, if they were forgotten about altogether!
Download for Free
You can download the Timeline and Plot Tracker and the Character Tracker below and use them as templates when planning or redrafting your manuscript. You may wish to add additional information columns such as a chapter word count column. I’ve used a table format in Word but you could also try using a spreadsheet format if that better suits your needs.
What are the tools you use, and would recommend to other authors, to help manage a fiction manuscript? What howlers did you or your editor/proofreader find in your manuscript during the redrafting and editing stages? (You may be reluctant to share such bloopers, but you’re among friends here!)