How to Manage an Unruly Manuscript 

How to Manage an Unruly Manuscript 

hetrick-photoThe 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.

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.)

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?

By Tammy Flanders Hetrick​ of

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