By the schedule I’ve been following, today’s topic should perhaps be a character profile. But because the “timeline revision” that my writing status updates have been mentioning for many months now has been stalled for a long time, the next profile will have to wait until that revision is complete and I’ve written a new character history. In place of a profile, today I’d like to talk about this “timeline revision”: what it is, why it’s needed, why it’s been stalled, what I’ve tried unsuccessfully to use in the past, and my most recent attempt.
(I’ve written about the problem I need to solve here before, more than three years ago, but I didn’t remember that or happen on my archive of that post until well after I’d written the bulk of this text.)
Back when the Shine Cycle was first taking shape, I developed it in outline form (which the current outline still significantly resembles) first as a piece of prose, and then on a two-page spreadsheet.
Sometime in the first few years after that, I realized that the timeline I had developed left much to be desired. Even before the story’s first implied mention of space travel, for example, I had battles lasting years, sieges lasting decades, and wars routinely lasting centuries. So I revised the timeline, shortening nearly everything. In all, it went from well over two thousand years in length to scarcely two centuries.
Early in my college career, I started writing “histories” of individual characters—their paths through the history briefly described by the main outline. When I started inserting the events in those “character histories” into the main outline, it blossomed to something on the order of a dozen pages, and counting.
And then, sometime in the past year or so, as I was developing the timeline into outlines for individual books, I came slowly to the realization that much of the timeline was now too compressed. While some parts could and should be made briefer, on the whole more time ought to be added between items on the main outline.
But when I set to it, revising it—keeping intervals the same where I wasn’t making changes, but updating later events’ dates in light of added time before earlier events—proved an immense and tremendously frustrating task. My most up-to-date spreadsheet version of the timeline was in a format that’s easy to navigate in a virtual terminal but not so easy to edit in the way I needed, and it didn’t include anything from the “character histories.” Those were included in a text file version of the outline, which is easy enough to read and add to as needed, but an even bigger headache to revise in the way I wanted to. I’ve begun the revision again a couple of times using those tools—that console spreadsheet and a text editor—and gotten too frustrated to continue within a few hours every time.
I’ve also considered writing my own history-editing tool, to fit my needs (which I described in more detail in my “Unwritten Programs” essay about a “fictional historiographer”. If I hadn’t already made a good start on one to solve a different problem, that of developing a projection of our world’s future history, which I tried to adapt, I might have had more success with that—but that, too, became too frustrating for me to continue. Probably I don’t have a good or clear enough understanding of the details and complexities of my problem, as usual.
Most lately, however, I thought of using a “real spreadsheet” program, in my case LibreOffice. I had used conditional formatting to color the different “categories” in my future-history timeline, and thought of conditionally hiding everything except what I wanted to deal with at any given time. After I investigated past several dead ends, I found that LibreOffice implements this but calls it “data filtering.” And this looks highly promising. Because this spreadsheet supports merged cells (cells spanning multiple columns), I can store “character history” entries alongside the main outline and have it come out right, and once I convert the explicit year numbers (“110”) to relative ones (“1 year after such-and-such event”) the revision should go much more smoothly.
This format should also make developing new character histories easier. As I think I’ve mentioned before, one reason I stopped was that sometimes so many characters I’d already developed had so many noteworthy “events” in their lives at once that it was more than a page between “main outline events.” But with LibreOffice’s “filtering” capability, I can hide those, and develop new characters with reference to others only when I wish.
We’ll see how this goes—if I remember I’ll report on it in my next writing status report, next week. And, I hope, in the coming months I’ll have new character profiles to post.