Time After Timing

Before I begin this week’s blog, I must quickly apologize for how sporadic the blog’s been recently. Still trying to figure out how to balance deadlines, i.e. making sure my novella’s making timely process before its ultimate due date of April 30th while remembering to come up with blog topics. I’ll hopefully be better about this once the first draft is done and I’m onto the editing stage, but we all have things to learn as content creators, now don’t we?

In a similar vein is the topic of this week’s blog, which is one of the first things I had to learn as a writer: timing.

Back when I got my start writing fanfiction, I was notoriously bad at timing. Part of this was because I was so excited to just be writing cool ideas that I wrote whatever came to mind and let the story guide me—the ultimate pantser, so to speak. Which would’ve been fine if I didn’t write “hot off the presses” and posted updates as soon as they were written (which the posting guidelines for fanfiction.net explicitly warned us not to do back in the day). I was notorious for scenes dragging on too long, only to suddenly crash into the ending with no foreshadowing because that’s what I happened to write that afternoon. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a vicious plotter and self-editor now?

Either way, I’d like to think that years of constructive criticism from readers and workshops have helped me turn timing into one of my strengths in my writing, instead of a glaring weakness. I put a lot of thought into how I pace my stories, and that’s weighing particularly heavy on my mind this week as I near the end of my novella’s first draft. Thus, I’m going to talk about a couple of tips and tricks I’ve picked up about timing, so I can get into the headspace of puzzling out how I’m writing this ending.

  • There’s a delicate balance between action and rest. No matter how much is happening in your story, characters still need a moment to breathe and process what’s going on. Without such respites, they won’t have time to reflect on what’s happening—and neither will your readers. How much time you need depends on what kind of story you’re writing. If the action scenes are few but really need to stand out, you can get away with having more time to reflect and build character. A film that’s actually a great example of this is the movie Redline; there are two big races, one at the beginning and one at the end, and the rest is building up characters and stakes while gearing up for the ultimate race. On the other hand, if you’re trying to keep the characters and readers on their toes, however, you can actually pull off interrupting a calmer scene with a sudden beat of action, something Cordelia Kingsbridge does well in Can’t Hide From Me.

  • From a technical standpoint, reading tends to drag on if the sentences and paragraphs end up the same length; the repetition becomes monotonous. Furthermore, structure can be used to convey mood and tension. Action tends to be clipped. Clipped sentences. Short paragraphs grab our attention. But if the sentence goes on longer, it usually signifies a calm in the action…or at least that things are slow enough that the protagonist can stop to notice and think about things. Changing things up in your sentence structure like this will actually help the flow, amongst other things.

    (On a related note: Sentence structure can also be used to differentiate character voices. When reading “Bones and Bourbon,” note how Jarrod is more curt and thus uses shorter sentences that are to-the-point, while Retz has a tendency toward longer but more casual sentences.)

  • I often work with multiple protagonists in my longer stories, so timing becomes important in order to maintain consistency in the story. It’s not a matter of rehashing the same timeframe or event with different characters; seeing the same thing on repeat bores readers unless there’s enough variance between the differing POVs. I tend to utilize switching between POVs to escape lulls in the story. In “Bones and Bourbon” for example, there’s a lot of travel that takes place, and the Gallows brothers aren’t always in the same location. Readers don’t need to see the entire journey, so I use that as a time to swap, such as when Jarrod gets hired by a client and is traveling to them for more details, so I let him travel while seeing what Retz is up to in the interim.

    Showcasing the same scene in different points of view can be a little trickier, especially if you’re trying to see the same moment for both of them. The trick here is that if you rewind or fast-forward time so one protagonist can catch up with the other, to do so in small increments. When Jarrod and Retz reunite, I reach the scene first in Jarrod’s POV, where he notices evidence that his brother’s shown up, but how and why is a mystery. When I return to Retz’s POV, I only go backwards by a scene, showing his lead-up to how he leaves the evidence behind, and then continue moving forward. If I had moved too far back—such as having Retz’s chnapter start an entire day before what just took place in Jarrod’s scene—it would be too much of a difference for the readers. (Unless, of course, Retz’s chapters were always a few days before Jarrod’s, but I would have to keep that consistent.)

  • I’ve always been fascinated by parallels, callbacks, and reprises, those spaces in a story that echo an earlier event in some way. Sometimes this is to repeat an emotional response, and other times to subvert it, but either way requires timing to pull off. A silly example I remember from my childhood (so you don’t have to) was the pilot movie for the short-lived TV Show Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. In one fight scene, Buzz Lightyear is training a robot companion and says “You’re good, but I’m better,” only for the robot to destroy a bunch of enemies and repeat the line back at him, echoing the sentiments of heroism and one-upmanship…only to get shot by the main bad guy, who then echoes the line again, still boasting but considerably more sinister. While it showcases both uses of a callback quite well, it all takes place over the course of about one minute—without time for the line and its implications to settle, the repeated line just becomes annoying at best.

I could go on, but blogs are bidden to timing too in order to keep readers’ attention, and letting your eyes glaze over at this rate would defeat my point. Timing is a delicate act, and to complicate it further, everyone has different preferences over it—just look at the debate over pacing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the end, like any writing technique, timing becomes a matter of not just skill, but preference, style, and what suits the story best.

Now dear readers, I believe it’s time for me to get this novella finished.

~Dorian

Hallo Spaceboy (What’s In A Name)

I’ve spent most of today working on a novella, which amongst other things is an introduction to a space fantasy setting I’ve been building for some time. (I would call it science fiction, except that I’m forgoing most sensible science so I can make weird aliens with musical-mind-control powers and cute tentacled bunny-creatures that can be incinerated to fuel FTL travel. Thus, space fantasy ala Star Wars or James D. MacDonald and Debra Doyle’s Mageworld series.) It’s an enjoyable break from my usual work, though now that I’m finally writing bits of it down, it’s come time to define certain elements of this universe. Amongst those elements are the names.

I don’t mean renaming things from our own world, ala the “call a rabbit a smeerp” trope; I’m taking Isaac Asimov’s stance on that (mentioned in his opening for Nightfall) and not bogging down the story with funny words. However, I do need to name the various characters and the alien races they belong to, plus this setting has the extra added challenge of having no humans (though plenty of humanoids), which means no human names. Also trying to avoid human words in the end-results of names, because Star Wars does a good enough job of mangling random words into names all on its own. (I’m looking at you, Savage Oppress. Looking long and bitterly.)

So how does one make up names that readers can quickly connect to, instead of just smashing letters together into something even H.P. Lovecraft would have a hard time pronouncing? Instead of creating a name convention to cover all of the galaxy I’m working with, I decided to differentiate it between each alien race. Here’s what I came up with and why:

Psyrens

The first race I needed to name, because the protagonists of my novella are all of this race. They’re a humanoid race who operate like the sirens of myth, their songs able to affect the minds of those who hear them. They have a couple twists involved too—their wounds don’t scar, instead becoming new mouths with which to sing with, and they mate in large groups of others they harmonize with, which is something their military takes advantage of when making combat squads. I jokingly describe them as “militarized barbershop quartets,” even though the protagonists are escapees of said military.

The name of the race came easily enough; I mushed the words “psychic” and “siren” together and fiddled with the spelling. Makes it easy for readers to understand and remember what they are. But the novella has four psyrens in it, so I needed to actually come up with a naming scheme. Thanks to an earlier bit of worldbuilding, I’d decided that their primary religion is based around scripture set into song, and nearly every psyren’s name is a word from that song. Thus, I came up with names featuring soft sounds that could easily be strung together if part of a long chant; Ashua, Nulani, and Silna. The exception to this is Kozrin, whose name has sharper and stranger tones that imply a stark refusal of tradition.

Skraks

Sharp noises automatically implies danger. Think of the Krogan of Mass Effect, Klingons in Star Trek, or even crocodiles in our own world. (Then there’s kangaroos, which are…still pretty dangerous if I think about it.) I wanted to work with this mental tendency to work with how the Skraks look; they’re built like chitin-covered centaurs with extra limbs and scythes for hands. They look dangerous because of their diet; they have no mouths to eat matter with, but instead feed of the pain of others. Sharp bits generally lead to painful bits.

However, I also wanted the names of the Skraks and their people to reflect their language. See, by having no mouth, they have no voice either; they communicate entirely through tapping and scraping their scythes across their chitinous bodies, a mix of sign language and morse code. Thus, their written names double as the sound effects they make, with names like Tk-skrit and Darch.

Rav’Melsh

Borrowing from “The Origin of Love,” the Rav’Melsh are actually two aliens in one. The Rav half is a powerful, multi-armed and thick-skinned race with an alarming tendency to be born without a number of vital limbs and organs. The Melsh consists of symbiotic, sentient fungus that link minds with their Rav host and take form of the missing pieces, creating a being with one body and two minds.

This example actually borrows from both of those above. Like the Skrak, Rav uses sharper sounds to imply power, this time like the roar of a bellowing beast about to charge. Meanwhile, the Melsh comes from me smushing the words “meld” and “mushroom” together, like I did with the components for Psyrens. The combined name of Rav’Melsh implies a whole but can still be taken apart to discuss the components, and the same goes for citizens like Lap’Parn and Tal’Soona.

This by no means include all my fun alien creations, currently operating under codenames such as “Sunshine” and “Rock Elves,” or concepts such as cultural interplay, like how the aforementioned elves have picked up the Skrak’s tapping-speak so their elders who have turned almost entirely to stone can keep communicating with others. If nothing else, it’s at least a fun worldbuilding exercise to think on both the hows and the whys of any given fantastical setting.

Hopefully, it gave you dear readers some ideas too.

~Dorian