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For musings on a messy writing life, the inspiration for Stella Rose, and the arduous journey to publication, along with side rants on family, pets, gardening, Vermont, and various other topics.

Home » How to Manage an Unruly Manuscript Tip #1

How to Manage an Unruly Manuscript Tip #1

The Timeline

Early readers of Stella Rose have asked me how I managed to keep it all straight. Granted, Stella Rose is no Game of Thrones in complexity, but it does reflect contemporary lifestyles which are complicated and tangled.

Tangled fence wire surrounded by flowers.

So how does a novelist keep it all straight?


NOTE: I hate tools. Most folks love the accessories of their disciplines. Gardeners covet fancy bulb planters, irrigation hoses, various breeds of spades, hoes, tined rakes. Me? Just give me a shovel and I’ll start digging. Same with writing. Give me a laptop with a full battery; I’m ready to go – no fancy pens, no storyboard software, no writer’s block app.

However, as noted in my previous post, Writing Season, desperate times call for desperate measures. I began writing Stella Rose on November 1, 2008, intending to write 50K words in a month. By design, this means pouring the story onto the page with little regard for grammar, syntax, or organization. I just kept asking: What Happens Next, racing headlong for a finish line I couldn’t see. In fact, often I realized that what happens next means what happened three scenes ago couldn’t have happened. And how could I place the climax at the appropriate point from the end if I didn’t know where the end was, or even what the end was?

In needed a way to contain the story. So I drove 30 miles to a Walgreens and emerged with a yellow legal pad, colored pencils, highlighters, poster board, and a ruler. (And two more pounds of M&Ms.)

All items needed for managing a manuscript

I returned to the condo reinvigorated and immediately emptied my bag of goodies on the table. And stared. Where to begin? I looked at my lap top and the 30k words careening towards a novel. What would be most helpful right now? An outline? Story board? Character sketches?

I grabbed the ruler, the legal pad, and a red pencil. With the ruler, I drew a line across the paper lengthwise. What span of time would this book cover? A simple question I hadn’t yet answered. I wrote June on the left end point, then plotted each month equally to the right until May. I stood back and knew instantly there would be twelve chapters in this book, one for each month of the year following Stella’s death.

I regained control of the process.

Looking at the timeline as an arc, I knew the climax should take place around March/early April so that resolution could take place before the end of the book. I placed a Big X on the timeline near the end of March. I plotted scenes I’d already written onto the timeline, moving some out or back in time, setting the tempo for March and for an incident I didn’t even know about yet – and wouldn’t write for two more years!

I still have this original, hand-crafted timeline. It accompanied me on all my Stella Rose writing retreats. I no longer needed it, but its presence assured me that I could wrestle this story to the page when it got unwieldy. I didn’t always know what happened next, but I knew there was a limited time frame to get it done.

Like life.

What if you could plot your life on a timeline – what would it look like?  What happens next?

Semonthong Waterfall, Lesotho, Africa
Semonthong Waterfall, Lesotho, Africa Pinterest:



  1. Nina Gaby says:

    Love this. I have a similar large steno notebook that I started to keep all my contributors straight. Lot’s of undecipherable checks and arrows and colors. Saved my life. Thanks, Tammy.

    • Nina – I have a kazillion scraps of paper that hold the code to … something. At the time I scribble something down, I think: I’ll know exactly what this means when I look at it later. Nada.

  2. Lee Bryan says:

    Laptops then pencils, rulers a yellow legal pads? Delicious juxtaposition. I do all that in Scrivener. I’ll be ordering your book when I get a chance to actually read again! Very excited that you got it done. Best, Lee.

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