Thursday, April 3, 2014

Andromeda: Why It’s So Hard to Read and Revise Our Own Novels, Part II: More Than One Kind of Time

Part II of a series. Part I is here.

To re-read our own work in preparation for a major manuscript revision, and especially to check its pacing and accumulative effects, we have to get into the mindset of an imaginary reader, which is hard to do for many reasons. One of them is the fascinating fact that time has many faces.
As the French theorist Gerard Genette explored in great detail, there is story time—the actual duration of the story events covered (a day, a year, a lifetime), which we can never experience directly—and then there is discourse time, the amount of time taken to actually tell that story. Story time (duration) can vary radically: a novel can be about a man going to lunch for fifteen minutes, or about three generations living on a family farm for a century. Discourse time is often measured spatially, as words or pages. A story about a man going to lunch can take up 10 pages of discourse time, or 300, why not? (Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine manages to make an entire novel of lunchtime by being a vehicle for the narrator’s absurdly digressive associational thoughts with occasional dips into personal memory; Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which has a story time of one day, is nearly as expansive, but leans even more heavily on memory.) 

A 1:1 story/discourse time novel about a man's life would take a lifetime to read, just as a 1:1 map of the world would be as big as the world itself (both may score points for realism but not for helpfulness or artistic effect). The difference between story time and discourse time gives us lots to play with as writers. We can compress and expand, and we can alter pacing throughout, summarizing years into sentences and shifting into “slow-mode” and stretching high-intensity scenes across many pages.

In revision mode, if we note that our writing seems to plod along, too evenly, with little variation in emotional effect, we can see if we’ve overlooked those compression and expansion possibilities. Even if we’re already aware of time’s flexible potential, we may still not utilize time to maximum advantage. In error, we may compress where we should expand, because we arrive at a scene that is emotionally hard to write about, or some part of our story we haven’t sufficiently imagined (or researched). We may expand where we should compress, simply not realizing (until a kind first reader informs us) that we’re spending way too much time on boring details or slow-paced dialogue or anything that doesn’t advance the story.

On the page, that’s story time and discourse time – complicated enough.
But think of all the other ways we experience time, as writers and readers. This is where things get even more interesting during those final manuscript revisions.

Let’s say I write a scene about parents coming to visit their daughter, an anxious mother and her new baby and the husband the parents don’t like. The story time covers dinner and post-dinner visiting -- about three hours. The discourse time is, let’s say, about 4500 words.

On a good day, I write about 1000 words; in a good week, maybe 3000. So I can guess this scene would have taken a week and a half to write. Maybe longer. I could label that “composition time.” I can unscientifically guess that many before-bed readers open a book for 20 minutes before turning off the light. At less than 2 minutes per page over 15 pages, my imaginary reader might not have time to finish the scene in one quick reading session. (Should it be shorter? Or is it just right? And what about the great majority of the book’s scenes, which are only one-third to one-half as long? Which will have insufficient impact due to their brevity? Which will have insufficient impact because a reader can’t process them in one sit-down reading time, or can I write a scene so riveting that the reader will stay glued to the end, even after her spouse complains about the light?)  

Now that I’ve forced myself to do the math—which I wouldn’t have done, if not for this blogpost—what does it tell me? What can you tell first readers to look for if they’re helping bring fresh eyes to your manuscript?

·    Watch out for tics and repetitions: If I use the same words or repeat a metaphor, the reader will experience those repetitions only hours apart. I may not realize that I use certain words or types of punctuation too often (semi-colon or em-dash addiction, anyone?) but a fresh reader will.

·    Watch out for repeated information: Do I trust my reader’s memory enough, especially when she can read so much more quickly than I can write? How many times do I need to remind her that so-and-so is the narrator’s sister?

·    Watch out for pace of character development: It took me months to write the process by which my narrator fell in love, learned to cope with a first baby, became jaded with life, found new hope (and also some dark truths). Does each stage happen too quickly in my novel? Does the progression feel real for the reader? Do I build up to the climax sufficiently, or hit it like a huge speed bump?
And on the other hand…
·     Do I space information and revelations so far part apart that the effect is too subtle for the reader? Can he hold clues and cues in his head, which are strongly imprinted in mine only because I’ve spent so much time writing this novel? What happens too slowly? When does the reader say “enough already, I get it!”
These are only a few things you can think about in terms of composition speed (slow), reading speed (fast), and also the mind of the writer (heavily invested, possibly obsessed) versus the mind of the reader (less invested, less patient, more easily irritated).

In reading for revision, we must be aware of time’s many faces, and the many ways we experience story as it’s imagined, written, and read, by ourselves and others. We can learn, as authors, to become our own best editors. And we can recognize the need to make use of another set of fresh eyes when the time is right.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at for more info on her book coaching services.


Lynn Lovegreen said...

Good food for thought, Andromeda. I just bookmarked this to come back to it when I'm revising.

Deb Vanasse said...

Great advice, nicely articulated. Especially like what you pointed out about blogging - it often provides an opportunity to reflect in ways we might otherwise overlook.