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.