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Timeline Troubles

January 20, 2011

When I’m not trying to make my flat habitable (which currently involves a lot of sawdust and sandpaper), I’m once again rewriting one of my older stories.

You’d think that three years of NaNoWriMo, three times thirty days of writing rubbish without looking back, would have taught me to just go ahead and finish something before I go back and fix mistakes. But no. Not with ‘Masks’. And the problem with it is always the timeline.

The first scribbled-in-messy-notebooks bits of ‘Masks’ go back to my last year at grammar school. I wrote little that year, first too busy studying for finals, then too worn out by it. It wasn’t until much later that year, when I was at university, that I thought of it again.

The story that eventually came to be called ‘Masks’ started as nothing more than a thought experiment: what would my life be like if I hadn’t been born and raised in Austria, but in an imaginary country called Tokre, which I had been writing about since I was thirteen or so?

(The world in which Tokre is situated is largely the same as ours – most of the countries are the same, most of the languages, the same politicians, books, music, movies… I just squeezed in a few imaginary countries between the real ones, because at thirteen, I was too lazy to either make up an entire world, or do the necessary research to set the story I was writing in the real world.)

While I was lying in my dorm room, too homesick to sleep, I thought about this story. My alter ego, who I named Emma, would have the same birthday, the same family, the same friends, live in the same house, the same neighbourhood, go to the same school, read the same books… only, it would all happen in an imaginary Tokrean town, not in a real Austrian one.
I only meant to compare everyday situations – how would the fanatically Catholic government of Tokre, and the presence of an openly oppressed minority, change an average young woman’s life? But the thought experiment soon spun out of control, and became an actual story. A story that kept me busy during boring lectures and miserable nights.

This, however, meant Emma could no longer have the same birthday as me. There were certain events I had described in another story, set in 2001, and Emma had to be eighteen before then for the story to work. Which created the small problem that the books she had read and the movies she had seen would be different, but I decided I could work around that.

And then, as it usually happens, I got bored with that story, and set it aside to work on a different one. I didn’t pick it up again until December 2008, three years after I’d started it. Looking over what I’d written before, I decided it needed a lot of very serious changes, such as being rewritten in the form of a blog, and started to write it all over again. One of the biggest problems, I found, was that certain scenes, originally set in 2001, would work so much better with cameraphones and youtube.

So, what to do? Work with what I had, trying to remember what things had been in 2001? Or move the story to a different year? The advantage of the latter options seemed bigger, which led me to the next question: What year? For a while I considered moving it all the way up to 2008, but eventually decided to give Emma the same birth date as me, which would mean moving the whole story five years ahead, to 2005/2006.

That being decided, I started to dig through my desk drawers for my old timeline, to change the dates there. Only – it was gone. All the political developments in Tokre, and even some from the neighbouring countries, as well as Emma’s personal life – gone. I still don’t know what happened to it, and I still haven’t written a new one, so I still have to write things like, ‘according to the law passed in [whenever]’, or ‘when he had been born [???] years ago’, to be filled in whenever I’ve had time to concern myself with the background – it’s very annoying.

Still, setting the story in 2005/2006 worked beautifully. It gave me the technology I needed (for scenes I still haven’t written), and I could assume Emma had read all the same books I’d read, and seen the same movies, at the same time and the same age. Which was all the more convenient because I decided to quote a lot. Screw publishability, I was writing this story because it was fun, so I’d quote anything from Harry Potter to Bob Marley lyrics, and not care about permissions.

Two years later, I still haven’t exactly written a lot. There’s always something else that gets in the way, work, exams, holidays, this blog (which is at least as much fun as Emma’s fictional one), moving…

And then last autumn, I was just getting back into the swing of things, passionate enough about the story that I even scribbled away during my lunch break, when another disaster struck, one that would have been easily prevented if I had had a proper timeline from the start, instead of just making one when I need to keep closer track of the sequence of events and the comings and goings of characters for a few weeks. Easily prevented, if I’d bothered to look at a calendar, instead of just making an Excel table with date, day of the week and ‘Lionno is gone’ and ‘Lionno is there’ (it’s quite difficult to make two characters fall in love when one of them constantly gets himself arrested!)

It was mid-April in the story, everything was going well, I was once again writing in the back of the nursery workroom, pen in one hand, sandwich in the other, hoping I’d not be disturbed by any customers, when something struck me: Easter! I’d forgotten about Easter! There had to be school holidays at Easter! For the rest of the day, I wished there was an old calendar of 2005 lying around at work, but of course there wasn’t. Who keeps calendars from five years ago? (Apart from teenage, internet-illiterate me, who kept stacks of them around for story research.)

Coming home, I looked it up on the Internet, and of course Easter destroyed my carefully made plans. I could not have scenes set at school at a time when there obviously had to be Easter holidays.

I sat there glaring at the calendar and my timeline for a while. What to do, what to do? Rewrite everything again? Juggle the scenes until I found some reasonable order again? Or change the year, to one in which Easter fell on a more convenient date?

Eventually, that was the route I took. I moved everything up another two years, to 2007.

It bothered me. It would once again change the books and movies Emma was familiar with. How likely was it that she’d quote Lion King when she was too young to have seen it when it came out?

Still, I thought I could live with it. I reworked my timeline, went through everything I’d written to change the dates and days of the week, and went on writing.

But some time before Christmas, I came to the conclusion: I can’t do it. I don’t want Emma to be a different age. I want her experiences to be the same as mine, I don’t want to have to worry about what she might and might not be familiar with.
Which means going back again, changing all the dates back, and more importantly, shuffling around the scenes to make room for those annoying Easter holidays.

It’s proving difficult. It means introducing three characters about two weeks later than planned, which means a lot of conversations go differently, or don’t take place at all, which in turn changes later conversations… and I can’t kill that pagan priest on Easter Sunday, as I’d been planning.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult if I’d just actually do it. What I do is, I stare at the to-be-edited chapters helplessly, stare at an empty word document for a while, write a note at the beginning of a scene that says ‘change this to after Easter’ or ‘Kristof can’t be there!!!’, then go back to the early, easily-edited chapters where I only need to change the dates. Two weeks ago, I met with some of the NaNoWriMo crowd in Vienna, and spent most of the evening glaring at my laptop and muttering, ‘I hate Easter!‘ instead of actually editing something.

But it will be worth it. If only for the sake of the titles of the first and last chapter. The first chapter is called ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of Number Four, Privet Drive…’ – the opening words of the first Harry Potter book. And now, if I keep the story in 2005/2006, and the frame story, which is Emma posting about the experiences of those two years on her blog, in 2007, I can call the last post/chapter, ‘All Was Well’ – the last words of the last Harry Potter book, which Emma would just have read at the time she writes that post.
I’m much happier with that, even if it means a lot of scene-juggling and timeline-tweaking. And maybe it’ll teach me to write the timeline in advance, instead of making it up as I go along.

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