Managing Time in your Novel

One of my earliest fiction writing lessons was that my characters were like the Brady Bunch.  They didn’t have to have seven days in their week, nor did they need a bathroom. Or real grass.

What I mean is, even though women’s fiction encapsulates portions of real life and real emotions, we only need what’s pertinent to the characters stories.  And we don’t miss the rest.  So, no flossing unless your main character is a hygienist.  Or OCD.  No lunch because it’s lunch time.  We can skip Tuesday!  Or even all of 1997!

In fiction, we are the supreme and ultimate managers of time.

A excellent example of a book that is completely fulfilling, with nothing missing, yet that carefully constructs the story throughout time, is Randy Susan Meyer’s The Murderer’s Daughters. When I read it, this astounded me. Years pass in this book yet we miss nothing.  It’s masterful.  Reading it helped me tweak my own novel and feel confident in not accounting for, or making excuses for, missing days, weeks and months that did not matter to the story.

In fiction, characters might be crazed, overwhelmed, in love, troubled, ill, pensive, aloof — but we write only in what enhances and alters a character arc, a plot line, some subtext.

And we write only the moments that matter.

In real life, every bit of everything that happens affects our personal writer’s story — every minute of it.  We can’t skip a year.  Or the bathroom.

How do you manage the time in your novel?

In my current novel the timeline is December to April.  I use holidays, seasons and events to mark the passage of time.  The main character’s kids play sports, so the characters often interact on weekends at games.  I am very glad I learned that my characters didn’t need iCalendar or a DayTimer (I’m old!).

In real life I manage time by trying to stick to a schedule but I’m not always good at that. I try to only work during the day — but right now it’s 9:54 pm and I’m not finished for the day. (And I like to go to bed at 10, so pretty much, I’m toast.) I try to give myself Sundays off, but as some of you know, I don’t always do that either.

How about you?

I’m editing this post to add a link I think you will all enjoy.  It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with all of us. It’s called Steal Like An Artist. Enjoy!  Oh, but pop over AFTER you comment! 😉

20 thoughts on “Managing Time in your Novel

  1. Your novel sounds so interesting! To mark times with holidays, what a very cool idea. This is a timely post because one of my WIPs spans three generations, and it has really challenged me. I think a lot about time management as it relates to the WIP, but also as you say to my writing life….and there, I am definitely a WIP (and I’m old too!).

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  2. This is one that I need to work on, so thank you for the reminder about Randy’s novel. When I read it, I thought the SAME thing. And it made me wonder about all that advice that “novels today need to be written within short time frames.” If that were the case, I think fiction would we way too homogeneous. I LIKE novels that mix it up – take us 40 years into the past and bring us back to the present AND ones told in the span of months …

    I had to laugh at your first lines, though. While writing my first novel, I did not keep track of time at all. I mean, I’d put in the “season” reminders, but there was no lead up to them. I.e. In one chapter, we’re at Easter, then we’re suddenly at Thanksgiving – but I didn’t tell the reader this, so it was like time transport. THEN I did something even WORSE. Went through the whole book with a calendar and plotted when things really happened (down to the ‘day’). So I got back in and added those details. Umm… only when a reader said, “Why do you have all of these “three days later,” or “Four days earlier” comments. HOW DISTRACTING is that? Only then did I realize that you CAN leave chunks out as long as you provide enough breadcrumbs along the way (or if you use a chapte-namingr convention that tells you what month it is). BTW- Do you know of any articles/craft books about this topic? It’s probably one of my biggest hurdles, still, though I’ve gotten MUCH better.

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    • Hi Melissa,
      That’s so funny Melissa. When I first started writing I didn’t understand how it was possible to NOT say “and then on Tuesday they went and did this, on Wednesday they did that.” I don’t know if I’ve read any books on this, I think the biggest help to me is reading books and realizing how authors accomplish this in a way I admire. For me, I have to sort of know what my characters are doing in the invisible pages but the reader doesn’t. I learned to allow myself to believe that the reader would assume normal life was going on on those pages — and if not normal life — then that things were status quo with the characters during that time. Does that make sense? I think a trap I fell into for a while was what I always call “a cup of tea” where characters sit around having tea or coffee or a daiquiri discussing everything that has happened that isn’t part of the novel but that you want the reader to know. Many beverages deleted from my early drafts!! (and many remain as my main character drinks coffee a lot).

      🙂
      Amy

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  3. Hi Amy,

    I think because I’m new at this, I’m still writing “By Thursday the course work started making sense..” I definitely keep track of the days of the week! My novel takes place over the span of a year. In the beginning it’s a little slower because one character is taking a TEFL course to get certified to teach English. But then I really skip ahead, just mentioning holidays and seasons. It goes from June 2009-June 2010. It’s a WIP again because I’m doing a rewrite, so I hope this time around I can work on making the transitions smooth. Great article!

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    • Meredith – sometimes I think those transitions work, sometimes not. Since you realize you might have too many, I bet you’ll have no problem using the delete key where you deem necessary.

      Hooray for rewrites. That’s where great books come from!

      🙂
      Amy

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  4. I really don’t have specific “days off”. My husband works a rotating schedule…so one week he’s off Wednesday Thursday, the next week, Tuesday Wednesday. Weekends for us are still work days, but our daughter is not in school.

    Love that we can skip chunks of time in our stories and not have to account for it!!

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  5. Hooray! I am so glad you started this blog, Amy. It’s about time. 🙂 Just kidding. As for time, I don’t always figure it out until I’m finished. Time falls away and then I usually find myself in trouble that I have to go back and fix.

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  6. Oh, time can be so tricky! My novel has two parallel storylines that take place 20 years apart, one of which spans several years, the other, just a few months.

    In early drafts, I had the year and month at the beginning of each chapter and scene break. That was terrible. (Not to say that it’s always terrible, but in this instance…yeah, no.)

    I eventually started letting hints of time slip in through the changes in the characters and circumstances. Reading other books that did this helped tremendously. They do it so subtly, with just a simple mention of the weather or of a character’s progress in a certain project, etc.

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  7. Such a good topic, Amy. Time “management” in characters’ lives is definitely an important thing for beginning writers to learn. I know in the past I wasted many sentences accounting for time. I shiver to imagine reading those drafts now. Yikes.

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  8. I may not say “then on Tuesday” in the mss itself, but I’ve learned that I’d better know it happens on Tuesday. If I don’t tether my novels to a calendar I start squeezing in more time than my characters actually have. Now that I think about it, that explains the size of my real life to-do lists.

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  9. Thanks for this article, Amy.

    I’m one of those writers who still struggle with managing time in their stories. In my first novel I felt I had to write something about every day in my heroine’s life along her journey, irrespective of what happened or not (at least I only wrote about that journey, not about her entire life!). I ended up with many long and deadly boring passages. I still have a lot to edit!

    To avoid the same situation, I started my second novel by planning and outlining all the important events. I then wrote only the that mattered and tried to connect them like beads on a string. It worked better but I ended up with a rather chopped story that still needs rewriting.

    Capturing the passage of time in fiction is an art and I still haven’t quite mastered it.

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    • Kate,
      I did the same thing at first – and right now I’m reading a book that just walked the reader through a year in a few pages. I was a little surprised, but it worked. To me it meant the year was status-quo for the main character and nothing that invokes any change to her particular world or journey happened that year. And I get that. That’s why I love reading good women’s fiction — to see how other authors have mastered what I’m still learning! I’m going to blog about this novel at some point — but first I have to finish reading it!

      Welcome to WFW!

      🙂
      Amy

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  10. You started following me today, so I checked out your blog. I was working on tomorrow’s Tuesday tip when I saw the notification. I see that your last post was about managing time in your books, which is what my tip is about. My mind is blown. How uncanny!

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