time management in life & narrative

When I was hard pressed for time – and there can be many reasons, most often a day job and/or small children, an ailing parent, etc. – I learned to write in 10 minute increments. I know writers (and am most emphatically not one) who get up at 4 am to write for two hours before their family is up and everyone has to go to work and school. That’s dedication. Not everyone can manage that. I say trust your body and your method. If you don’t work well when you’re tired, get some sleep and learn to work in 5 and 10 minute increments because it is possible to get a lot done in less time than you think. That kind of time management is successful based on what works best for you.

Now, about time in your narrative…. If you really want to learn about both time and a strong narrative arc in one pass, write a screenplay. It’s a highly disciplined form of writing in which time management is vital. My Dinner With Andre aside, no one wants to sit through long slogs of conversation or backstory. (note: I have mixed feelings about Certified Copy, but I’m still thinking about it hours later so it is thought-provoking, particularly about marriage and what happens over years) Anyway, if you have one of those long conversations, it had better be riveting or there’d better be a good reason for the effect (boredom) if it’s not.

When you’re constructing a narrative, you are also manipulating time: scenes lengthen it out and summarizing shortens it. Within scenes, adding sensory detail draws out time in a scene, allowing you to relate to the character in a different way, get inside their skin or allow time for the audience to catch up if there’s been a lot of emotion and/or action. Put some thought into when and why it’s best to detail a scene and when you can have the literary equivalent of a match cut (like the candle smoke into train steam in Schindler’s List) or a jump cut as Steven Pressfield noted from The Hangover: “from the guys clinking glasses on the rooftop—”This is going to be a memorable night.” CUT TO: a floor-level shot of the villa in which our four heroes are staying; dawn light streaks in; a chicken waddles across in the background. Then we see Stu (Ed Helms) face-down on the tiles, passed out, with his eyeglasses lying askew beside him.” Those scenes whether for the screen or in a book allow the viewer or reader to fill in with their imagination and audiences enjoy the opportunity. Give it to them.

And if that isn’t enough to consider, take a look at how language influences the way we see the world.

Jerry Seinfeld offers a strategy to keep writing.

There’s a bonus on procrastination if you click on the photo above. 🙂


the sound of silence

Shanghai at night

Do you pay attention to including sound when you write? I was discussing this with another writer and both of us default to the visual. If we need a creative person in the narrative, they are invariably a painter because we know something of that world (she was married to an artist). She’s going to try including a musician instead. I have not included a musician in my cast of characters, but I do try to be aware of sounds in the narrative.

New Zealand Sound

One of my mentors, Rob Roberge, is a musician as well as a skilled writer and not coincidentally broke me of the habit of including silence as in “They rode home in silence.” He pointed out that we rarely experience true silence. There are always sounds and the challenge is to tune into the ambient sound for your scene and then describe it. Today, in U.S. cities, there’s more sound than ever. Good luck going into almost any store without music either in the background or blasting. There are whole fields devoted to studying the effect of all this noise on us. What about your characters? How do they react to noise? Do they make a lot of noise? Has overexposure damaged their hearing or affected their anger level? What are the small sounds when they are in a quiet environment? Is there construction down the road, traffic, neighbors? Are the surfaces in their environment hard or soft? That will affect sound as well. City or nature, suburbs or wilderness? You can also use sound to play with time by dialing down the exterior sounds and focusing on a character’s thoughts, slowing everything down, drawing out a significant moment.

There’s the sound of the text itself and the sounds within the narrative. Your created world will benefit from taking some time, even doing a pass when you finish writing, to focus on this one sensory element. How do you include sound when you write? Are you more concerned with the sound of the words as written or the sounds engulfing your characters?

how to finish a novel

Ironman finish line

A friend who’s writing a book – a ‘publish or perish’ tenure track type of book – asked me if I have any tips on finishing. Well… not really. I mostly need help in the great chaotic middle when it looks like the entire book is going to fall apart and I’ve just wasted months of my life. Otherwise known as Act 2. Once I get past that hump (the literary version of mile 22), it’s fun – or a relief – to race to the finish line. Of course, then we all face the problem artist Paul Gardner articulated (and the rest of us creative folk adopted), “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.”

In his lecture on “How to Make a Scene,” my mentor, Rob Roberge, illustrated the point that dialog is people saying no to each other in interesting ways. Take a look at ABOUT A BOY (both the novel and the film, and here I’m quoting the film for concision) when the couple wants Will to be the godfather to their daughter:

Will: I couldn’t possibly think of a worse godfather for Imogene. You know me. I’ll drop her at her christening. I’ll forget her birthdays until her 18th, when I’ll take her out and get her drunk and possibly, let’s face it, you know, try and shag her. I mean, seriously, it’s a very, very bad choice.
Couple: We know, I just thought you had hidden depths.
Will: No. No. You’ve always had that wrong. I really am this shallow.

That’s the final ‘no.’ If scenes are built this way, then if you consider the larger narrative arc, this same element exists and the book has a natural conclusion and the protagonist has either fulfilled the desire driving them through the book or is finally, and perhaps irrevocably, thwarted.

This is likely not of much help to my non-fiction friend. For both fiction and non-fiction there’s only one piece of advice to finish a book: perseverance. For the novelist, it’s that, plus crafting a great conclusion that satisfies the reader yet does not tie up everything in a bow. The reader is satiated and the action has come to a place that feels both inevitable and unexpected (in the best of all possible worlds) and is at a point that could open up in a new way. I think of it as a journey through woods where the end is the arrival at a meadow.

A SciFi/Fantasy writer has some thoughts on the writing marathon and community of writers. Perhaps that’s the real secret – to have a group of writers around you whether in person or online who understand the journey and encourage you (no bitter people allowed). I know it works for me and I right now I want thank the group I check in with regularly. They definitely keep me going and help me solve problems. Thank you!

not so odds & ends

Great post on how different writers write – routine or lack of it, setting deadlines, using page count vs. word count. I use word count, setting a rough goal (for the next novel, it will likely be in the 90,000 range) and then daily and weekly targets. It helps.

What do Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor have in common? Read all of The Brutality of Grace:

Throughout much of her life, Flannery O’Connor struggled against what she perceived as dangerous and excessive sentimentality among her readers, defending her stories against accusations of violence, brutality, and “gothic grotesqueness.” For her, violence was an essential part of her message, for “to expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” Responding to her critics, O’Connor made an important point: “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.”

Yuvi Zalkow discusses using the computer as a creative tool for writing. I’m fine with MS Word, but if you want something simpler along with other suggestions, check out what he has to say.

30-Word Story Contest: SmokeLong Quarterly if you’re feeling overwhelmed, confine yourself to a 30 word story and enter

The rules:

•Thirty words exactly—no less, no more.
•You MUST have a title for your story, though the title does not count toward the word count.
•You can submit up to three stories, but please submit each story SEPARATELY.
•No entry fee.
•Submissions open from November 1 to November 30.

Enjoy your writing.