Freeing the writing mind from the constraints of story time

Time is a dictatorship

My left brain is linear. Orderly. And must eventually win: the words I produce on the screen or page will have to load into the brain, even in chunks, in an orderly fashion.

I call that the tyranny of the chronology. Or the tyranny of time. Tyranny, in any case.

Even if the story is being told non-linearly, with foreshadowing and backstory, and revisits the same events from different points of view, the ORDER of the words in the final product must be a queue: one behind the other.

We are creatures of time, mired in time, stuck in time – and used to dealing with input presented to us, in time.

Half our metaphors and cliches involve time:

A stitch in time saves nine.
In a timely manner.
Time heals all wounds.
Time to die. Time for dinner.
To everything, turn, turn, turn.

Our most common question: What time is it?

We’re born.
We live.
We die.
In that order.

Time is a relentless dimension, going always headlong into the future from the past, with a moment only in the present – and we are dragged along, willy nilly.

So much so that we hardly notice it.

Time and the right brain – not copacetic

The right brain, which doesn’t do things that way, is also dragged along. Even if it takes in many things at one perception, each instant in time will bring a different set, to be perceived and dealt with – if possible – before being assaulted by the next.

This affects writing in many different ways, but especially in giving a power to the words already on the page – in their ordered stream. The left brain resists changing that which is already sorted into a linear order. It did all that work to organize things, and now you want to change their order? It demands to know, Why? It gets in the way of finding a better order, a more coherent whole.

Busting out from the constraints of linear time

For me, one of the best ways to stop that linear progression is to go to paper: a fresh sheet of scratch paper invites scribbling. Pencil, pen, colored markers. A neon yellow highlighter. A printed copy of the current version or pieces of older versions invites scissors and tape. And rearranging. Always rearranging. Clumping – and stringing out. Grouping in different ways.

I know there is software for that – to make a screen more like a whiteboard. Maybe the next generation will be comfortable with its freedom, and not notice its inherent limitations: the screen doesn’t allow you to cut it into pieces.

But ‘going to paper’ stops time for me for long enough to see if this fiction has a BETTER timeline in it, a different order for all those perceptions and illuminations of the right mind.

Manipulating the reader’s time

Always in mind is the idea of how to slip all these bits and pieces of the story into the reader’s head so a coherent whole story can assemble, KNOWING the reader’s mind is different from my own, KNOWING that the story for the reader will be different from my version in many and subtle ways because every head is a whole world, and every world in a mind is different from every other one. Presenting the building blocks in the best way I can think of to invoke the reader’s use of her built-in software.

Overcoming my OWN Resistance to changing anything – to make it better – requires that I manipulate time for my own purposes, which also requires that I step out of the constraints linear time puts on ME.

‘Going to the paper’ does this every time I try it: there is something magical about messing with time, but I have to do it non-linearly, with different tools than my usual ones, and in a way that takes me back, metaphorically, to when it was okay to scribble anything anywhere (and I even had a hard time staying on the paper), before I was truly conscious of time, when there was only ‘now.’

I have to do a lot of year-end paperwork. It is stressful and confusing, and requires decisions from a mind not functional yet this morning. Making notes on paper, scribbling, adding bits and pieces, and making arrows from one piece to another – going to the paper – is the only way I’m getting through it.

How do you finagle ‘time’?

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4 thoughts on “Freeing the writing mind from the constraints of story time

  1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Always in mind is the idea of how to slip all these bits and pieces of the story into the reader’s head so a coherent whole story can assemble, KNOWING the reader’s mind is different from my own, KNOWING that the story for the reader will be different from my version in many and subtle ways because every head is a whole world, and every world in a mind is different from every other one.

    Beautifully said. I always struggle with this. In fact, it’s currently the most difficult facet of my writing. How to I include all those extra necessary or enhancing bits, while still maintaining a reader-friendly pace and flow?

    But I’m with you on the paper solution. Whenever I hit a particularly challenging stretch of a story – so challenging that I’m stuck – I pull out paper and pen. And plenty of paper. It’s important for my process that I can spread out with scribbles and phrases anywhere on the page and do a ton of crossing out or circling phrases/ideas and drawing arrows. The freedom to be messy is critical! 😀

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I write down everything I think should go in – all the extra bits and backstory – and then I edit ruthlessly to the absolute minimum version that still has all the basics, because I know that each word has the potential to dam the story flow. I look for places to slip it in where a reader would expect a little musing, and limit myself to only a couple of places per scene because most of the scene should be active: action, dialogue, description of things that are important.

      But by putting it all down in its full glory in my notes and on paper, I can compare the final, tight version to every idea I wanted in there, and make sure nothing important is missing. EVERYTHING can be condensed. Sol Stein’s On Writing taught me that.

      I don’t tolerate a lot of it in my reading before I give up on an author; I am stricter, even, with myself. (And it is still long.)

      I know what you mean, though: it is very hard to do – and the freedom to be messy is paramount.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I have a card by my computer on which I’ve written: FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO WRITE.

      Families have a lot of dibs on our time, and young children come first: their needs and wants are always so immediate.

      I admitted to myself that, even while ill, I had some degree of choice AND I wasted a lot of time. And that I really, really want to write. So I started by taking that first class while husband made the effort to watch the kids reliably on 8 Monday nights. Since then I have done only a single conference (Bouchercon 1998 – the first finished novel is a mystery), and shared writing part of the time with a single partner (we’re about to start up again after a hiatus of a couple of years).

      Manipulating time – contracting it and stretching it and circling back and doing it again – what you do in real life helps when you need to know how to write it.

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