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.

Pacing
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.

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News from Writers At Work

Happy to announce that Doug McBride, a longtime participant in Meditate/Create and the newest member of The Art of Prose, has had his first publication of a work of fiction, the story “New Years Eve” in Wolf Willow Journal.  You can read it here: http://www.wolfwillowjournal.com/new-years-eve.html

Congratulations, Doug!

At my desk

Last week I had the chance to participate in two separate discussions about David Shields’ Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, the first with members of the Working from Life: Writing Creative Nonfiction workshop and the second with two members of the Future of Publishing Think Tank (FOPTT).

Shields’ book contends that shifts in perception—of self, of the world, of the nature and function of art—are changing the ways in which content is created and consumed.  The book is loosely assembled as a collage of quotations by writers, musicians, filmmakers and cultural critics—and occasionally Shields himself—that allows disparate points of view to bounce off one another and vibrate in proximity.  The structure supports one of Shields’ assertions—that a tidily structured narrative is so unlike the way we experience our lives, barraged with information as we are, as to be an obsolete way of structuring a work of art.  Instead he argues for breaking form and for barely mediated content and he challenges the notion that one can originate content. As his subtitle indicates, he intends to be provocative.

Among Working from Life participants, two points garnered huge pushback. The first is Shields’ flagrant appropriation of the words of others (he does cite sources but only at the insistence of his publisher’s attorneys and suggests one might just cut out of the book those pages of citation). One of my students is a board member of the National Writers’ Union and a vigorous defender of artist copyright protection. While it’s self-defeating for any artist not to be a defender of these laws, I’m also not in favor of sacred cows.  I’m willing to at least imagine a world without intellectual property, one in which ideas and their expression are not owned by anyone, just as many indigenous societies did not have any concept that land should or could be owned.  What would that be like?  It would mean artists would need to find other ways of supporting themselves, but most artists do anyway.  What would it mean for the kind of art created or the way we regarded such creations—not as the result of the effort of a single, exceptional individual but arising out of a collective and communal pool of values, ideas and experience.

The other point of resistance, also shared by one of my FOPTT colleagues, is Shields’ dismissal of fiction.  He clearly believes that nonfiction is the more honest and relevant form (though he does acknowledge that nonfiction contains a health dose of fictionalizing.)  One of my students and one of my colleagues were both passionate in their defense of the pleasures of the novel, of losing themselves in an invented world that could nevertheless reveal potent truths about this one.

Shields is especially scathing about the element of plot, which he feels is artificial and tidy and serves to narrow the perception of the world rather than expand it.  Anyone who has worked with me knows I am an avid proponent of plot as an engine that can move the story forward and as a device that helps to shape meaning.  To me, plot provides the bones on which a story can be hung; Shields may be proposing that we move beyond story itself.

To me this is the value of a work like Reality Hunger. The opportunity to engage with bold ideas—whether one agrees with them or not—is expansive, and nothing is more valuable, I think, for an artist, is whatever facilitates that expansion of mind and perspective.  When I teach at Antioch, I tell the students, “I’m here to mess with you.”  By that, I mean I want to help them broaden perspectives, undermine assumptions, open to greater possibilities.  In Reality Hunger, Shields intends to mess with us, and in the best possible way.

Writing Prompt by Rob Roberge

A revision prompt:  Go back through any story you’ve done (or essay or whatever) and highlight every simile or metaphor.  Usually our first attempts at these are pat—using the borrowed language dead with, as Shklovsky points out (in the great book for writers “Theory of Prose”), the weight of familiarity. Say you’ve written a clunker like: “We fought like cats and dogs.”  Take this simile’s beginning, “We fought like…” and then write five more similes. Usually, sometime around the third or fourth, a writer will find a sharp, original simile or metaphor that another writer (with a different history of experience and experience in language) would not have come up with.  It’s a way to distinguish your work from other people’s, and a way to give voice to your unique history with event and language.

Biography of Rob Roberge: Rob Roberge is the author of the upcoming book of stories, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen, Fall, 2110), and the novels, More Than They Could Chew (Perennial, Dark Alley/Harper Collins, February 2005), and Drive (Hollyridge Press, 2006).  He teaches writing in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, in the MFA program in Creative Writing at UC-Riverside’s Palm Desert, and in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003.  His stories have been featured in ZYZZYVA, Chelsea, Other Voices, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the “Ten Writers Worth Knowing Issue” of The Literary Review.  His work has also been anthologized in Another City (City Lights, 2001),  It’s All Good (Manic D Press, 2004) and SANTI: Lives of the Modern Saints (Black Arrow Press, 2007).  Newer work is scheduled to appear, or has appeared, in Penthouse, Black Clock, and OC Noir, part of the series that includes San Francisco Noir, LA Noir and Las Vegas Noir. He plays guitar and sings with several LA bands, including, among others, the punk pioneers, The Urinals.  In his spare time, he restores and rebuilds vintage amplifiers and quack medical devices.  For news and more info, visit & or email at www.robroberge.com or on Facebook.

Writing Prompt by Rob Roberge

I’m a great believer in forced limitations—stories/modes of composition that have some pre-enforced limitation that requires us to find creative and unique ways out of a bind (as writing is, among other things, a form of creative problem-solving).  Lipograms, formal poetry, all these things tend to spur creativity.  So, with that in mind, a writing prompt:

Do a three to five page story (it can be longer, but if you’re stuck and looking to get un-stuck, sometimes shorter is better) in which, in the last paragraph, a character ends up alone in a motel room.  A few rules:

• Make it a MOTEL, not hotel, room.  They are different and the potential for unease, squalor, and the gravity of loneliness is greater in a motel.

• The character who ends up alone in your last paragraph MAY be your main character, but it doesn’t have to be the main character.

• Do not, no matter how great your misguided intention, have the character(s) alone throughout the story.  Remember Flaubert’s great observation from his notebooks that things exist in fiction when they are worked upon by other things…that the sunlight doesn’t exist for the reader until they see it coming through a window with dust specs floating in it…that the wheels of the cart don’t exist until you hear them rolling over cobblestones.  The same is true of people—they exist much more vibrantly in fiction when they are worked upon by other things and other people.  Have your characters interact.  Give your main character a desire and have him or her act on that desire with others.

• The story need not limit itself to the motel as a setting.  It only needs to end with the character alone in the motel—anything else is up to you.

Biography of Rob Roberge: Rob Roberge is the author of the upcoming book of stories, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen, Fall, 2110), and the novels, More Than They Could Chew (Perennial, Dark Alley/Harper Collins, February 2005), and Drive (Hollyridge Press, 2006).  He teaches writing in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, in the MFA program in Creative Writing at UC-Riverside’s Palm Desert, and in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003.  His stories have been featured in ZYZZYVA, Chelsea, Other Voices, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the “Ten Writers Worth Knowing Issue” of The Literary Review.  His work has also been anthologized in Another City (City Lights, 2001),  It’s All Good (Manic D Press, 2004) and SANTI: Lives of the Modern Saints (Black Arrow Press, 2007).  Newer work is scheduled to appear, or has appeared, in Penthouse, Black Clock, and OC Noir, part of the series that includes San Francisco Noir, LA Noir and Las Vegas Noir.  He plays guitar and sings with several LA bands, including, among others, the punk pioneers, The Urinals.  In his spare time, he restores and rebuilds vintage amplifiers and quack medical devices.  For news and more info, visit & or email at www.robroberge.com or on Facebook.

Writing Prompt by Felicia Luna Lemus

Punk Nerd Revolution Writing Prompt

Pick a central character you’d like to develop further.   What is one thing you know for sure about said character?

Revolt!  Take the one thing you know for sure about your character’s identity and turn it on its head.    For instance, if your character is male, make your character female instead.    If your character is straight, queer his/her life.    If your character believes in the fantastic, make your character a rationalist.    If your “character” is a constant presence of grey skies, make your character sunshine brightness.    If your “character” is an urban metropolis, make your character pastoral.

Write at least 5 pages in this experiment.   (If you’re applying this experiment to a work-in-progress, choose a scene you’re having difficulty with.)

Perhaps you’ll realize that this identity switch is exactly what the character needs to become dynamic and you will decide to replace the “original” character with the “opposite” character.    More likely, there will be ways that the “opposite” character can inform the “original” character or your narrative as a whole.    What unexpected details/perspectives/conflicts can be incorporated into a revision?

Enjoy.   And let the punk nerd revolution begin!

Biography of Felicia Luna Lemus: Felicia Luna Lemus is the author of the novels Like Son (Akashic Books) and Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).   Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies and in magazines including BOMB, ZYZZYVA, and Latina.   For more information: www.FeliciaLunaLemus.com.

Writing Tip by Lisa Teasley

Photo by Rex Wilson

Take Notes

When it comes to fiction, my primary discipline, I’m brought to the page by character: his or her peculiarities, vulnerabilities, self-perceived shortcomings, and conflicts with others.   If I’m stuck in any way with narrative flow, I’ll take notes on the character’s history, whims, scuffles, crises, and then come back to the page fresh with understanding.   When reading poetry, the newspaper, or even the ending film credits, I jot down a word or name that pops out alien and seductive, emphasizing the art of language.   Working in the yard, dancing, and going to see art are also juicers to get me back to the computer, feeling less enslaved by the editor in my head and more newly motivated to create.

Biography of Lisa Teasley: Lisa Teasley is the author of acclaimed novels HEAT SIGNATURE (Bloomsbury, 2006) and DIVE (Bloomsbury, 2004), and the award-winning story collection, GLOW IN THE DARK (Cune Press, 2002 and Bloomsbury, 2006).   Teasley is writer and presenter of the BBC Television documentary “High School Prom”; her stories and essays have been much anthologized, appearing in publications such as the Christian Science Monitor, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times and Essence magazine.   She has taught in the Cal Arts and Antioch MFA writing programs, as well as the UCLA Writers Program.   Her website is www.lisateasley.com.