PLAYING WITH TIME IS THE WRITER’S TOOL
Freeing the mind from the constraints of the linear computer screen.
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 clichés 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?
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 is like air, not noticed until there is a lack
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.
Loosening the grip of 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 time – for story
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.’
‘Going to the paper’ in real life, too
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. I can sit here, staring at the screen until the cows come home – and nothing useful will happen.
Making notes on paper, scribbling, adding bits and pieces, and drawing arrows from one piece to another – going to the paper – is the only way I’m going to get through it.
The most important thing a writer can do is to respect the reader’s time – and put nothing into a story that is not strictly necessary.
That said, it has to be in the context of the readers you hope to attract, as time sense is a strong predictor of the kind of books a particular reader wants, and the writer’s is developed by the sum total of everything the writer has ever read.
Pretty big order, there.
I think the most important measurement of respect is that your target readers will never demand back the time they spent reading you. And the ones who are not your ‘tribe’ will accuse you of wasting theirs.
Fantastic post. One of my favorite things about Scrivener is its note card function. However, I’m bein real honest here — I prefer paper. Imma be even more honest and admit that I don’t think I can finish a book before one of these kids leaves home, because I truly believe I need a wall of bulletin board and index cards / paper like whoa. I am a visual person.
Even in my work-work, I like to read the paper copy before I close the software window. I prefer to chart the documents on a paper spreadsheet, too. I like to check it off, literally. I don’t know if it’s age, brain, or habit, but I just really like paperwork.
I’m also a believer that it doesn’t matter what the process is for the writer, as long as it works.
Scrivener has an amazing bulletin board simulation. One of these days I’ll learn to use it better, but I’ve made the transition more to outlines. There’s a bit of a learning curve for Scrivener, and I can suggest an inexpensive and marvelous course where I picked up most of what I needed from Gwen Herrnandez.
Paper is good, but more and more I’m finding myself printing something out – and then making a change and having to print again several times. Or not using the paper copy because I’ve trained myself to do it on my big monitor screen (a 30″ TV husband bought me for the purpose.
It’s what you’re comfortable with, but when I travel I have everything – and would never take all those printouts.
I agree – what works. But my ‘process’ has changed significantly since 1995 when I wrote longhand in notebooks (which I still have – and have to go through painstakingly because they aren’t digitized. Yet.).
Now I’m a computer person – with many backups.
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One thing that draws me back from procrastinating (over just about everything) is that I really, really REALLY, only have a finite amount of it left. 😀
Me, too – and it frustrates me no end when I know that – and can’t do anything about it.
Going to take a nap, which usually helps, but spent 4.5 hours directing the packing ladies, and there is nothing left.
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My WIP takes place over a year that cuts across two calendar years (1211 and 1212). To keep track of the various events of the plot, as well as background events like medieval seasons (different from modern seasons), holy days, character birthdays, and moon phases (yes, I actually found this), I just created a two-year calendar using MS Word and plotted everything in. I looked briefly at Aeon Timeline but ultimately decided that sometimes, a low-tech solution really is good enough.
This is not unlike how I manage time in my personal life. I’ve tried using various day-timers in the past and even the calendar and notifications on my phone. But these don’t work for me because I really do like seeing the entire month at a glance. I’m still one of those people who buys (or sometimes gets for free) wall calendars and marks events by hand. When a new event presents itself, with my month at-a-glance, I can easily shift things around like Tetris blocks to make room on a schedule that makes sense.
Many’s the time I’ve moved a scene a few days one way or another to keep a sense of flow in the calendar – from looking at the Calendar program on my Mac. I like that I can then drag the scene to where I want to try it.
We keep a paper printout of Calendar on our refrigerator – and use it the same way you use your bought calendars. Not completely digital yet. Husband has Google put things on his.
My fantasy trilogy did just what you said above: many timelines, some scenes shown from more than one viewpoint, flashbacks, bits of the story told AS stories…. I made a literal paper timeline with many, many notes on it to keep everything straight. I have friends who love the software, and I love it in theory, but I can’t seem to get the hang of it. I start out with it, but then I go to paper or directly to a word processing “document”. So the software is useful, I guess, as a catalyst!
Which timeline managing software have you tried? I dug into Aeon Timeline (sp?) at one point, but they didn’t have a way to print out a calendar – and no plans to provide that feature – and that’s my most important time tool: every scene is on a calendar for 2005/2006, so I can see gaps and chronologies and connections at a glance. Calendars show time in ‘real time’ – like we’re used to processing time. My regular Calendar works fine since I don’t have anything from those dates that I need to remember.
It’s funny to see Andrew and my husband both as red on the calendar. Never on the same page, but sometimes I have to think a bit.
For fantasy, you can set your own time-chunk names – and might have a hard time justifying a 7-day, 24-hour, 365-day chronology if you’re not even on this planet!
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Oh, I’m groaning over the alien calendar! I’ve never addressed that; that involves the whole cosmology of a planet, and I’m too damn lazy to do that. I’m soft science, not hard science. I admire and TRY to understand hard science, but theoretical physics is about as close as I can come. And, of course, I don’t UNDERSTAND theoretical physics, it just charms me like a quark.
I don’t find calendars linear. I have to draw a line on a piece of paper and write stuff. yWriter5 has some kind of timeline in it that I have yet to experiment with. That might work for me.
Please report back when you find things that work for you.