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

Cut and Drive

I just returned from a brief trip to California for a memorial service (a sad occasion, but a lovely time was had), and as is tradition in our family, we drove all the way down (and back) in one 9-10 hour stretch, with only two pit-stops in between. We’re militantly tough drivers, partially because we don’t mind being alone with the scenery and a case full of classic rock CDs. Some of my best brainstorming comes from letting my mind wander during these trips.

As I remembered this trip, sometimes building also means destruction. This is true in fiction more than anywhere else.

Much as we want to keep every great idea we scribble in our notebooks, the truth is, we can’t hold onto them all. Too much of anything, be it plot threads or characters, and the story gets weighed down. Some authors can go on for a few hundred thousand words longer than the rest of us, but I’m sure even George R.R. Martin has had to cut content from the Game of Thrones series. Even outside of books, there’s a reason that extended cuts and b-sides exist, but aren’t kept in the core content.

I found myself doing a lot of story trimming this weekend. One task was simpler, streamlining a novella I’m working on for NineStar Press’ LOST collection. I cut out a couple characters (I have a great fear of bogging down a story with too many characters, after my first NaNoWriMo attempt landed me with a novel of 16+ characters in 50,000 words) and rearranged relationships around, which on paper sounds like no huge deal. And really, it isn’t. I have to scrap the opening to the novella again, but elements of those first attempts can still be recycled. If nothing else, I learned more about the world and the people within it, so the demolished wordcount at least lead to some worldbuilding. Like tearing off a bandaid, it stings a bit, but the pain passes soon enough to forget.

Then there’s the hard cut: I scrapped an entire book.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done so for the Deadly Drinks series; the first draft of “Bones and Bourbon” was similar only in name and protagonist to the novel releasing next April, and its in-progress sequel had so many restarts before I finally finished the first draft. I’m lucky in that I hadn’t started book four (seeing as book three isn’t even done yet), but even though words hadn’t hit the page yet, tossing it still hurt. Why was this?

Because it had so much I WANTED. The magical world intruding on the mundane. Playing with Frankenstein’s Creation (I refuse to call him a monster–or, stars forbid, Frank). Secret societies! Magical cyborgs! Ghost-powered transportation through other dimensions!

But from the time I revved up the engine and rolled out of the parking lot with Santana tunes blaring from the speakers, I knew it didn’t fit. When writing a series, one has to consider not just developing plot and character across one book, but over the series as a whole, and this book didn’t fit the direction the series needed to grow in. Such a fantastical tale would raise the stakes for the entire setting too much for a mid-series book, and the Gallows brothers were taking the back seat to all the cool elements I wanted to include.

So I let it go. I burned the images in my head and picked a few pieces out of the ashes that I did need for what book 4 will become. The rest of it gets tucked away to percolate in the back-burners of my mind, likely emerging on another long road trip as a new story all its own. I collected sights and snippets of songs to inspire a story that’ll fit better with my narrative arc, and if I’m lucky, I might still be able to sneak some interdimensional ghosts in there. (But first, we finish book three, edit book two, publish book one. I like to work well ahead of schedule.)

It’s a matter of weighing what we want to write with what the story needs. Let your mind wander, but know when to reel it in when it drifts too far.

Now that I’ve spent so much time cutting content, it’s time I got back to work creating again.

~Dorian

PS: Speaking of road trips, I did sneak a couple of my favorite details along I-5 in “Bones and Bourbon.” I also refrained from making any jokes about the State of Jefferson, but I can make no promises for the finished product…