Lessons from the Writing Workshop #12 — Representing Time

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #12 — Representing Time

Time is such an important element in writing, and maybe we don’t talk about it enough. There is the time period in which a story or poem is set, the span of time that occurs within the work, how we move through time in the piece, and the reader’s experience of time while reading. All are elements a writer is crafting in their work.

Time as setting
Events take place not only in a particular location, but also in a particular time period.  A love story will have different elements set in the 1940s, the 1960s, or the 1980s.  A story about AIDS will be strikingly different if set in 1981, 1988, 1998 or 2017. It is part of the author’s work to evoke that era through a faithful rendition of its language, its concerns, its mores, its historical events, and its cultural representations. This may require research, which can involve reading books or periodicals from the time period, reading books about the time period, talking to people who lived in that time, consulting online almanacs for the particular year, and/or viewing photographs or films from the time period. Such research can help you immerse yourself in the time period.

Span of time
What period of time the work will cover—is it an hour, a day, a week, ten years, or three generations?

There is always a “present” (although this does not necessarily determine the choice of verb tense), a time in which the protagonist is either undergoing or realizing the effects of his/her arc of change. Change can’t happen in the past, and so the plot advances in the present.

There may also be a “past” (or more rarely, an implied future), revealed through back story or scenic flashbacks. It’s important to keep in mind, the past is always there to be in service to the present, to help us understand why the character is making the choices they are. Sometimes writers will use the present merely to create a frame for a story set in the past, but unless something is happening in that present time, you’re better off to let it go, and let the historical story become the “present.’

Some novels with a broad span of time treat this passage as a continual, unfolding “present,” as with Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Ordering of time
When we speak of the structure of a story, we often mean how one arranges time in the work. One may tell a story in chronological order, but this is not the only choice. There are as many structures as there are stories. Charles Baxter’s novel, First Light, for example, is told in reverse chronological order, beginning with the end and working backward toward the beginning.

A story with flashbacks obviously inter-cuts different time periods. It’s critical that flashbacks be triggered by events in the present, and that the reader be returned to the present, which is the place where the plot advances.

A work may contain parallel time periods, such as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Or a work may contain multiple points of view about a single time period, so that a moment may be replayed in the work from different vantage points, as with Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

Duration of time
A writer must choose which moments to elongate as scenes and which to condense into exposition. Moments containing action that is pivotal to the plot of the story, or behavior that is specifically revealing of character and motivation are usually most effectively presented as scenes. It’s important not to let major moments take place “off stage” or simply be referred to in exposition.

The author must also decide about the duration of such scenes (are a few lines of dialogue in a specific setting enough, or does the action need to play out in a semblance of “real time”?).

Moments or spans of time which are more incidental are often best dealt with exposition (keeping in mind though that this too should be made vivid through specific observation and sensory description.)

Movement in time
Is the action continuous from beginning to end or are there breaks in time? Movement in time is typically signaled in the following ways: end of chapter; end of section; paragraph or, in poetry, stanza breaks.

It’s crucial to keep the reader oriented as to where they are in time. This may be done by attaching Date/Time headers to chapters or sections, or by building references to time into the text of the work.  (“Three days later, she…” or “A long month passed before he saw his father again…” or “Seven summers blazed and died again before she returned to the island…”)

Reader’s experience of time
What kind of experience does the author want the reader to have? Long, slow, meditative, reflective? Jagged, disturbing, disrupted? Edgy, heart-racing, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down?  Among other elements, the manipulation of time will contribute to this reading mood.

How does the reader perceive his/her experience of reading? If the experience is too slow, they may become frustrated and not finish the work, but if it’s too fast they may feel unsatisfied, as if they’d gleaned no substance. The author can’t avoid such factors as people’s shortened attention span and faster pace of life.

Scenes with action and dialogue tend to move more quickly than paragraphs of description or exposition, due to the reader’s involvement in the action.

Pacing is affected by the density of text — ratio of action/dialogue (through which a reader tends to move more quickly) to description/exposition (through which a reader may move more slowly).

Another element is diction. Elevated language, unusual syntax, or an unfamiliar dialect will all contribute to slowing the reader’s experience of reading. Simpler language, conventional grammar, easily understandable slang will all move the reader through more quickly. I’m not saying faster is better, just that you are determining your reader’s experience of the text.

Then we can consider the following: Sentence length — usually one wants variety with this, but longer or shorter may predominate; Paragraph length — a reader moves more slowly through long paragraphs than through short ones; and Chapter length — how much span of time is contained in each section—a moment, a day, three weeks, a year?  And, are the chapters divided into sections that signal shifts of scene and/or breaks in time?

The element of time may not be the first thing you think about when beginning a first draft. Often the initial rhythms of a piece—languid or breakneck—appear intuitively. However, this craft element is an important part of your toolkit when you begin revising and refining your work.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #11 — Characters

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #11 — Characters

Whether you are writing fiction or memoir, stories have people in them (even in Disney’s WALL-E, the machines have full personalities; in Watership Down, author Richard Adams invest his rabbits with human-like qualities and behaviors). Characters give the reader someone to identify with and someone to root for.

The skilled writer renders characters that are specific; they seem real. Characters that feel generic or merely formed around an idea (the ditzy blonde, the strong silent type) don’t satisfy readers. Readers look for complexity, contradiction, the quirks that endear or annoy. Whether the characters are like people they know or are incredibly different from themselves, readers are looking to bond.

Writers investigate the lives of their main characters—what they were like as children, what their favorite food is, what scares them, what they keep in their bathroom cabinet, what are their secrets. The writer will know much more information than they share with the reader, but such knowledge helps the writer understand what this character will do in a given situation.

Ideally, the writer is not imposing a personality or set of traits upon the character. I tend to believe characters already exist fully formed somewhere in my imagination; I see it as my job not to decide who the character is, but to listen to them as they tell me who they are. Like anyone, a character wants to be known, to be represented accurately. It’s worth it for the writer to invest time and attention into getting to know them. Listening also helps to bring forward a character’s voice—their unique speech patterns and conversational tics, as well as the content of their expression.

Like anyone, a character is most revealed by what they do. Some beginning writers just have their characters sit around and think about things, or have an omniscient narrator describe who the character is. It’s not that interesting when the writer analyzes a character or tells the reader what the character is like, but it’s fascinating when a character takes action that shows the reader who they are. In a recent workshop, a writer introduced an otherwise-classy-appearing woman who proceeds to key the Mercedes of a driver who’d cheated her out of a parking space; the action conveyed more about the character than any description could.

I mentioned this in an earlier post but it bears repeating—we don’t want to read about a character who never does anything wrong and or a character who never does anything right. Even our heroes are more likeable when they have some flaws, and even the most reprehensible villains have positive qualities that humanize them. People are complicated, and your characters seem more realistic when they are too.

In addition to making characters real, we also want to understand their dramatic function in the story. Are they the protagonist (the character the reader will root for, the character who will undergo the most change in the story)? Are they the antagonist (the character who will try to stop the protagonist from achieving their quest)? They might be a support character (best friend, buddy or sidekick) or a contrast character (someone unlike the protagonist, so the reader can compare them) or the love interest. You might occasionally have characters whose function is to provide weight and mass (a group of bullies waiting after school for the young protagonist; a crowd of neighbors who shun the new arrival to the neighborhood), although these characters may remain undifferentiated.

Sometimes a writer will include too many characters in the story. Sometimes they will write characters who have no dramatic function; they’re just there in the story. I see this frequently in memoirs, where every member of a family is chronicled, even if most of them do not have a role in this particular story. Sometimes a writer will include characters with duplicate dramatic functions (two best friends, for example, where one would suffice.)

Characters need names, unless they are insignificant and/or part of a crowd. They also need physicality. No one wants a list of generic descriptors: “brown eyes, caramel skin, curly dark hair, about 5’4”, 140 pounds, usually wears jeans and tee shirts and running shoes.” Such details don’t help us to know the character. Better to use the opportunity of physically describing them to also show us something about who they are (“Jenna’s olive-green eyes were near-sighted, but she was too vain to wear glasses, so she often appeared to be squinting, as if trying to figure out whether to believe you or not.”)

Characters have histories; they come from locations, from families, from cultures and religions and economic circumstances that have shaped their personalities. Of course you don’t want to stop the story to give a big chunk of description or backstory; it’s far better to interweave such details into the action of the story (“It was only as he stood up to leave that she noticed a slight limp when he walked. She remembered the story he’d told about the war that had devoured his childhood in El Salvador. For a moment she wanted to hold him there.”)

We also want to see how a character changes over the course of a story. The protagonist is likely to have the biggest character arc; the significance of the events of the story is often revealed in the change the protagonist undergoes. But any character we follow throughout the story can have an arc, even if it’s not as dramatic as that of your main character. Depending on the plot of the story, the change may be internal (a change of mind or a shift of perspective) or external (a choice made, an action taken) and the consequences may be modest (the character will have a happier life in the future) or immense (the hero saves the world from blowing up.)

It is frequently the characters that stay with us once we have finished a story or novel. They have become real to us; we’ve suffered with them, cheered them on, and often find ourselves transformed along with them. We may re-read the work over and over in order to spend more time in their presence. Because the writer has been skillful, we’ve come to know these characters, and we miss them like we miss an old friend.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #10: Re-Vision

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #10: Re-Vision

To be a writer, you need to love the writing process. It’s a process of ongoing discovery, the discovery of the wisdom your work wants to convey. If you already know everything that’s going to be in your work, that work is going to be D.O.A. As Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press says, “If you don’t discover anything while you’re writing your work, the reader isn’t going to discover anything from reading it.” It’s an archeological process; you can’t discover that wisdom all at once; we discover it layer by layer. This is why revision is your friend.

It’s the job of a first draft to be insufficient. Sometimes an emerging writer may feel like it’s a rebuke to be asked to revise a work, as if they have somehow failed. Writing is the only art form in which there’s the expectation that you’ll get it right the first time—musicians know they have to practice constantly; actors rehearse; painters paint over their canvasses; dancers spend grueling hours each day performing the same positions.

When your first draft is insufficient your haven’t failed; you’ve succeeded in completing a first draft. When we’re lucky, the first draft maps the general territory the work wants to explore. But there’s a lot we still don’t know at the end of the first draft. Now the real work begins.

Revision is not editing.  Re-vision literally means to see again, perhaps to see anew.

Sometimes you have an idea of what you’re trying to say; revision gives you the opportunity to measure what you’ve said against what you meant. In the process of revision, you may also become aware of additional perspectives, additional angles, additional layers that you couldn’t have seen before that first articulation.

Or maybe you have no idea what you are trying to say. Revision gives you the opportunity to discover the meaning or meanings in what you have written (another word for this is themes), and then to craft the work to deepen those meanings.

Revision isn’t a one-step process.  It’s not just “first draft/revise/done.” A piece may get “worse”—more disorganized, more self-conscious—in a second draft, but that’s not your last chance. Writing offers endless opportunities for redemption. A piece may undergo several revisions, until you’ve discovered as much of that wisdom as you can. The poet Mary Oliver reports that she revises a poem 50-75 times before she is satisfied. Don’t be in a hurry to be done; again, love the process.

As you approach revision, don’t have it in your mind that you are trying to “fix” something (revision is NOT editing). Approach revision with the goal of seeing more, learning more, understanding more, adding power, adding depth, adding risk, adding artfulness. Don’t worry about making it “good”—make it real, make it true, make it meaningful, make it, as Jane Hirshfield suggests, more strange.

How to approach revision if you’re working on your own:

  1. Put away your first draft for a while. Give yourself time to gain some distance, and thus, perspective. How long a time depends on how quickly you can come to see it as a thing in its own right, disconnected from your ego, your ambitions, your intentions.
  2. Interrogate the work and interrogate yourself as its maker. Here are some questions to ask:
    • What meanings have you made? Are these what you intended?
    • Have you made it possible for a reader who does not know you to understand these meanings?
    • Have you made it likely that a reader who does not know you will care about what you have said?
    • What do you want a reader to take away from the work?
    • What have you risked? Have you risked enough? Are you shrinking from some risk in the piece?
    • What have you discovered? Is there more to discover?
    • What of your own questions remain unanswered? What needs to happen for you to answer them?
    • What are the missed opportunities?
  3. Assess the craft elements in the piece:
    • Does the plot reveal the significance of the events that take place?
    • Are the characters believable, dimensional, unique?
    • Is the world of the story—the time and place—rendered so that the reader can enter the experience and know where they are?
    • Does the structure support the reader’s journey through the piece?
    • What are your themes and do you understand the hierarchy of them?
    • What is the voice of the piece and how does that support its meaning?
    • Are your images specific, concrete, sensory and fresh?
    • Does the language/diction help to deliver the world of the piece to the reader?
    • What is the music of the piece—pacing, rhythms, language?
  1. Make a plan for what you will tackle in the next revision. Don’t try to accomplish everything you think needs to be done. Choose one or two things to focus on; choose the most important things to tackle first.
  2. Save your previous draft and then let nothing be sacred as you approach the revision. Risk, experiment, be bold in trying things out. If you make a wrong turn, you can always go back to the previous draft. Let each draft be as playful, as rich with discovery as your first.


Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #9: Critique

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #9: Critique

We’ve all been in those workshops. You present a piece of writing and everybody jumps in to tell you what to do to fix it. Some of the suggestions seem like they might be useful, but some are contradictory (one person says, “My favorite part was the first paragraph,” while another insists, “I think you could lose that first paragraph.”) Someone urges you to radically re-direct the work, make it something else entirely than what you had imagined, something more like what they would enjoy reading.

The expectation is that you will go home and revise according to what everyone has said and bring back a product that has been improved by the group’s input. Instead you get home and feel a little discouraged. You’re not sure how to recapture the energy you felt about the work. Maybe you set about to try to incorporate the feedback, but the piece starts to feel like a Frankenstein monster. Or maybe you decide to just put it away for a while until you can get back in touch with your own vision for the work.

For many years, I followed this kind of format as a workshop leader, because it was what I had often experienced as a writing student. But I saw too many writers revising work according to feedback they received and sometimes losing touch with their own vision. I saw workshop participants merely reinforcing their own tastes in their feedback, rather than learning to appreciate strengths in work very different from what they would choose to read. I also sometimes saw writers become risk-averse, writing (or at least bringing in) works they knew would go over well in the workshop, instead of taking big chances and trying stuff out even though it might not succeed. To me, creating a climate in which writers feel safe to take big risks is perhaps the most important value a workshop can offer, so it was distressing to see the process yielding the opposite result.

I began to re-think the purpose of a writing workshop and to consider what writers actually need in terms of feedback. The writer’s dilemma is that, because we are so immersed in the material we are writing, it’s hard to step back and see the results separate from our intentions. One thing important workshop readers can provide is a sense of what they are receiving from the work. Not whether they like it or not, not how they would have created it, but what are they getting out of it? This allows the writer to assess how close they’ve come to fulfilling their intentions.

I also believe it is essential for the writer to retain agency over the work. A piece of writing has its own integrity when it is first imagined—content, form, style. I see my job as instructor to be assisting the writer to best fulfill their intentions for the work. Sometimes they need skill-building, sometimes they need permission to risk more, sometimes they need to overcome internal obstacles (fear, self-doubt). Sometimes it’s useful to them to brainstorm ideas. I can provide those things. But it is not my job as instructor, nor the job of other participants, to “fix” the writing of another writer. I have seen it become proprietary (“why didn’t you take my suggestion; it was really good”), and that can actually be harmful to the writer.

So in the majority of the workshops I instruct these days, we use this process:
• The writer reads the work aloud; participants have copies and follow along;
• The group members take a bit of time to re-read on their own and formulate their thoughts;
• Participants first talk about the meanings they found in the work. That might be an overall meaning or a partial meaning. [Here’s an example: “The meaning I found in your story is that the mother is looking to the daughter to rescue her, and it puts a burden on the daughter who thinks she has to be Super-Woman.”)
• Next, the group talked about what they noticed in the work. Notices are not evaluative; they’re observational. [“I notice that a really big event has already happened to the protagonist when we first meet her.” “I notice several words that I didn’t know the meaning of.” “I notice the humor in the piece.”]
• Then the group is encouraged to pose questions to the writer. These might be questions about form or content or what-if questions. [“What if the piece were told chronologically?” “Why does the protagonist lie about where she comes from?” “What are the rules of this alternative reality you’ve created?”]

You’ll notice there is no moment for participants to say what they liked or didn’t like, to say what’s working or not working. These subjective assessments are just not that useful to writers, nor do the other participants learn much from it. If a reader has found something pleasing, they will learn more from identifying what the writer has done to create that pleasure [“I notice the imagery; I really get to experience the scene you’re writing.”] Similarly, if something is disrupting that pleasure, participants learn from being able to zero in on what that is.

You’ll also notice we don’t give advice. The questions are as close as we come. It’s very different to be asked, “What if you started out right in the middle of the action” than to be told, “Cut out that whole first page and start on page 2.” In the first example, the writer gets to consider, “What if?” I might decide that I could let go of most of the first page, but the detail about the protagonist’s secret is really important to understanding the action, and maybe I need to emphasize that more. I retain the vision and the decision-making power over my work.

Following this conversation, the writer is asked to talk about what they discovered in the process of writing the piece (I find that if the writer hasn’t discovered anything, if the writer is only writing what they already know, then the reader doesn’t discover much either). Finally, the writer may ask any questions they have of the group. Sometimes a writer will want to clarify something a reader has said, or the writer may be wondering about an issue nobody brought up in the discussion. They might ask the group to brainstorm solutions to a problem they’re having. A writer could, at this point, ask “What works and what doesn’t,” but for the most part, they don’t.

I’ve found that a lot of the “advice” or proposed solutions that are given in a workshop are not right. It may be right for the person who gave the advice, but it’s often not right for the work of this particular writer and their vision for the work. Most advice is more about the person who is giving it than an appropriate solution to the writer’s perceived problem with the work.

So if you’re a writer, should you even be in a workshop?

YES, but not to find a committee who will “fix” your writing. Writer can be a lonely activity and writers benefit from the supportive community a workshop can provide, a place to share your process and a group to cheer you on. Writers, as mentioned before, benefit from being able to perceive their work outside their own minds; the reflections of other group members help you to see what you have actually created, rather than what you meant to create. The process of receiving questions helps the writer to re-see their work, understand better the choices they made, and engage with expanded possibilities.

Here are a few guidelines that help you to benefit most from workshop critique:

  • Make clear to the readers what stage the work is in (there’s no reason to focus on line edits if the work is in an early, conceptual stage, for example. Or if this is an almost final draft and you’re ready to send it out, it won’t be helpful if someone asks you to go back to the beginning and start over in a new direction.)
  • Don’t take it personally. I know, this is can be hard. Our writing is important to us and we want it to be brilliant. It’s not fun to find out that the work is not yet brilliant. But that’s the beauty of writing; it can always be revised.
  • Write down every comment you receive, even if it seems dumb in the moment. You can’t know what might seem useful later.
  • If you get some feedback you don’t understand, ask the person to clarify.
  • Give yourself a minimum of 24 hours to absorb the feedback you’ve received before taking any action about it. If you still feel emotional about the feedback, give yourself longer.
  • When you are ready to think about the feedback, consider everything with an open mind. Often the proposed solution isn’t right, but it can still point you in the direction of something in the writing you could pay more attention to.
  • Keep in mind your own vision for the work and your intentions. Don’t let the group become the authority on your piece. Take what is useful to you and let the rest go.
  • If there’s an idea that intrigues you, let yourself explore it and see where it goes. It doesn’t mean it will necessarily end up in your final draft, but often there is further discovery to be gained in pursuing new directions.

In the best workshops, you will learn as much from reading the work of others and giving feedback as you do from receiving critique on your own work. And the reflections you do receive should help spur you to dig deeper, to be more clear, to take more risks, and to find more satisfaction in the work.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.