The Writing on the Wall: Adventures in Time Lining

I almost called this ‘Part One’, because I feel like I might have more to say on the topic in the future.

I spent my Sunday with three Sharpies, a collection of neon colored adhesive dots, similar neon rectangles, Post-It Notes, Mardis Gras beads, and 3×5 index cards. To what end? I was mapping the first book in a series that is consuming my life.

I started writing the series with a partner in 2010. Before that, it was just the two of us role playing back and forth using characters we’d created for the purpose. Eventually it took on a life of its own and we realized it needed to be at least one book. The monster almost immediately grew several more heads. Earlier this year I took the entire project onto myself — the friendship with the partner has ended, you see — and today I finally put my index card idea into action.

See, I had this theory that if we treated the books like screenplays and mapped them by scene, it’d be easier to write them in the end. The partner did not agree as enthusiastically as I did, and so the index cards got shelved. Today, I sat down and wrote ‘BOOK ONE’ on a Post-It Note. I stuck a pink rectangle in its corner and placed up high on my bedroom wall. I’m 5’10”, so that’s nearly the ceiling. Me and my high hopes. Haha.

Then, I gathered my stack of index cards and a black marker and started writing down scenes I know will take place in the first book. In the corner of each, I placed a small pink dot, matching it to the Post-It Note I’d already placed. I tried to keep the scene titles basic. “So-and-so meets such-and-such.” “So-and-so’s secret is revealed.” Ocassionally, a card bore the header ‘FLASHBACK’, which I highlighted in yellow. Once I had a sizeable stack, I stood up and faced my empty wall. With careful thought, I taped each index card to the wall in what I knew to be a loose chronological order, leaving gaps where appropriate.

I stepped back and took stock of the empty spaces. Via memory and imagination (and some reference to the binder dedicated to this project), I filled in the blank spaces. The more index cards I filled, the more I needed to lift and reposition the first cards I’d put up. One by one, I watched the scenes of my novel come together on previously blank canvas.

Fifty-six index cards later, there it was. Book effing One.

Impassioned, I put up two more Notes: ‘BOOK TWO’ and ‘BOOK THREE’, color coded orange and green. Between the columns, I pinned strings of Mardis Gras beads to separate the clusters of index cards. My last act was to use a sheet of regular notebook paper and a red Sharpie to quickly summarize the intended message of the first book, as well as the motivation and tone of each of the main characters. That sheet of paper hangs above the column for Book One.

I can look up now and admire my work from the corner of my bed, where I currently sit, thumbing away at my phone to write this article. With the scenes mapped and numbered (1-56, duh), the intent is to write the novel by scene and later stitch the scenes together until a completed first draft emerges.

May I just say, boom?

Tell me about your time lining process, if you have one. Do you consider time lines to be essential to the process, or are you more comfortable playing everything by ear? Do you consider time lining to be a personal strength or a weakness you’d like to improve upon?

The Reading List for Week One is available for viewing and much appreciated voting!

Is ignorance bliss? Give us your take on Week Two’s topic! Entries are due this Sunday.


About RicoChey

I'm just an unmarried, childless, thirty-something high school dropout with big ideas and a small attention span. Weave drunkenly behind me as I meander through my own life: a winding path of musings on life, relationships, food, the few politics I can stomach discussing, and probably really dumb stuff like the ratio of Sex and the City episodes wherein Carrie does and does not appear to be wearing extensions.
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9 Responses to The Writing on the Wall: Adventures in Time Lining

  1. Boom!

    Employing all these different tools has brought brilliant results 🙂 With this sort of project, any kind of outlining, really, I tend to get bored (or at least my motivation dwindles) and I move on to something else. Which is a shame.

    I think you’ve inspired me.


    • Shane Bell says:

      That’s kinda my problem too, Kathy. It’s almost like once an idea is fleshed out it tends to kinda stop being this new, exciting thing and becomes old news. Kinda like a relationship. Once the excitement of the newness of it wears off you are basically left with something that just isn’t as exciting as it once was. And also much like a relationship…thats when the real hard work begins.

      I have yet to see any of my outlines go the distance and become real things…but reading Chey’s post was indeed inspiring.


  2. Shane Bell says:

    Yeah man, it’s just like storyboarding. Its logical and probably fun and cathartic. I cant imagine why someone wouldn’t think that’s the way to do it…or disagree with it so fundamentally that it would cause any kind of rift.

    I attempted to do the same at one point and all i had was a wall full of multi-colored post-its. Each with a completely unrelated idea or character. The end result was a bunch of schizophrenic nonsense…but i didn’t have anything to start with so at least i was able to turn a few of the post-its into shorts. While many of the characters born on that day remain homeless, begging me to give them work, clawing away at the walls of my mind like restless meth-ghouls….my point is that i like the index cards on the wall idea. It makes sense visually.

    Anyway, typically when i have an idea i make a pretty standard outline in a word file and then spend years rearranging the order of the scenes, obsessing over them, until it all makes sense…then it goes into my writing vault to be placed under the care of “top men” and its on to the next dog with a puffy tail that runs by.


  3. skyllairae says:

    That’s an awesome process! Congratulations to you for getting it done. I want to try it for my own book ideas. For fiction I don’t really have a practice because I don’t feel as confident writing fiction as I do writing poetry and I get really concerned about outlining because I’m afraid it will limit random acts of inspiration. I have a lot of issues I need to get over about writing fiction.


  4. Pingback: Books About Writing | Brigit's Flame Writing Community

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