Outlines and Timelines

As I’ve told you all before, I’m re-writing my 1950s novel for the 3rd time.  I wanted a fresh perspective, new ideas and masses of encouragment.  I’d heard writer Emma Darwin (http://www.emmadarwin.com) speak more then once and met her for a chat at an event at Bell House, Dulwich. http://www.bellhouse.co.uk. The decision to work with Emma as my mentor has already paid dividends. It has also thrown challenges at me. Or, to be accurrate, Emma has thrown challenges at me.

On our second meeting, Emma said to, ‘I assume you’ve written an outline for this novel.’ I could have said ‘Yes’ but I had the feeling she knew already that I hadn’t. Of course I hadn’t. I’d never written a full outline for a novel. I just write stuff and arrange it later and then, inevitably, re-write it to make it all work. Sensing my doubt, Emma said, ‘It might help.’ Meaning I needed the help and guidance of an outline. Her final shot was, ‘A grid layout often helps to keep the story-line on track.’

A grid-ouline?! I’m not ace at using the tricks of the laptop but I decided to have a go. I planned how many columns I’d need and decided on 3: Chapter number, Date in novel, VP & Location; Events; Info, developments & Questions raised in the text. I discovered that I’d created a grid which expanded its cubes in length if I typed more words. I typed the headings eg, Two 1943 Ted, in bold and I was all set.

It was a tricky task. My keyboard skills are not brilliant and any wild leaps of my fingertips sent the words jumping into the wrong columns, the pattern of the grid getting into muddle, in one case the formatting changing out of recognition. But I stuck to it, occassionally putting my head into my hands and groaning, until it was finished.


And yes, it was a useful exercise. I could track the causes and events in the novel, the change of mind-set of my main characters, Janet and Ted, and move scenes if the sequence was wrong. I didn’t resent the time it all took as I could see an outline could save weeks of extra work. You don’t have to use the grid idea. Just type in paragraphs, using numbers, bullet points, underlining and bold print to clarify which aspects of the novel you want to chart.


I’d already typed out a character list, grouping the members of the two families and showing the relationships. But when, on the next meeting, Emma asked me how old a particular character was, I had to admit I didn’t know, not really, not exactly. I knew which decade he or she had reached but that was it. So the second challenge was to settle the ages, dates of birth and, in some cases, deaths for all my characters. I begun by drawing a family tree but that got into a real muddle when, on the level below the two Grannies, I put the eldest son/daughter first, the 2nd one 2nd and so on and then tried to show two of the characters as married. Or tried to work out, assuming Ted was so many years old in 1957, how old he was during WWII at the invasion of Italy and they figures didn’t make sense. Start again.

This time by typing the years on the novel, 1942-45 and 1957, in a list and then fitting in the characters’ names on the date line for their births, marriages if appropriate, births of children, major events in their lives and their deaths. That worked better.

I found I enjoyed this confirmation of dates, ages and events very much. It gave me a solid foundation for the story and the certainty that I now won’t get it wrong. When you are not in the  mood for the actual writing, do try creating both an outline and a timeline. Unless, of course, you’re a most organised writer and have them already on your desk.




8 thoughts on “Outlines and Timelines

  1. Stuart Danker says:

    I’m a pantser myself, but lately I’ve found myself intrigued by outlining lately. Maybe once I’m done with my latest manuscript I’ll try writing an entire one by outlining first. Thanks for sharing!


    • janehaywardwriter says:

      I still think that the first pieces of wrting should be straight from your heart/head. I have all that ‘first writing’ for my current WIP and it stil has the freshness it had from the start. So that writing can show you what you mustn’t lose by following all the ‘rules.’ Often, those scenes or paragraphs can be slotted in as you write your full drafts. Best of luck. It’s a major achievement to have completed a novel. Jane


  2. judehayland says:

    We all write differently – if someone used the word ‘grid’ to me, I’d run a thousand miles as I don’t know what one is – I have never created a spreadsheet or anything like that.
    But I do make records of my characters’ birthdates/significant events – even if they don’t feature in the novel – and numerous details. I have charts for this on the walls of my study – but mostly, all my ideas for my characters and plot are in my head.
    I started to write my new novel about a month ago – but I had the idea for it last April 2019 so the ideas have been festering and developing since then. I am not a person who makes careful lists – so I am a writer who plans each chapter before I write it – too many ideas occur to me AS I am writing.
    Although advice from other writers is interesting and can be helpful, I think we all have to work out what works best for us – we are different in our approaches to the way we run our lives and write our novels!


  3. janehaywardwriter says:

    You are completely right. We writers must work as individuals or why bother? I can’t remember when the idea for current WIP came to me but the real work began in 2009 when I was on my MA at Chichester Uni. A wonderful 2 years. Best of luck with the new manuscript. Jane


      • janehaywardwriter says:

        I looked at Winchester but it was too far away and I seem to remember it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. My nearest was Goldsmith’s but you had to follow a course on English Literature as well as the creative writing and I certainly didn’t want to do that!


      • judehayland says:

        I did mine in 2002-2004 – so ages ago now although it took me longer to complete my dissertation and graduate as I couldn’t afford the fees and had to save up for them – and also it’s so hard to find the time when you are working full time …got there eventually, though! It was a good course – I specialised in the novel, but also did modules in short stories and non-fiction writing which were interesting.


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