If you, like all right-thinking people, are a Star Trek nerd, you will be familiar with the wormhole aliens living next to Deep Space Nine. When Commander Sisko dropped in (sorry) to their wormhole, they learned about humans and our “linear existence”, this fascinating way we have of moving from past, through present, to future. It was very difficult for Commander Sisko to tell the wormhole aliens what it was like to live a linear existence. A bit like when someone asks me what it’s like to be dyspraxic, or vegetarian, or left-handed: I have no basis for comparison, because I have no memory of anything else. The human experience of time is very difficult to discuss. We have no basis for comparison. We know what it’s like to be us, though, and our writing reflects it best with an awareness of the passing time and where we are in it.
Writing Touchstone 4: Time
Time, our unappreciated 1950s wife who knocks on the office door, provides lunch or dinner, then shuffles out again while we get on with our work, is the invisible, ever-present character in the process of writing as well as the product. The ‘when’ and the ‘how long’ and the ‘is it still winter?’ of storytelling separates the agent-bate wheat from the slush-pile chaff. If you’re conscious of your time stream, you’re ahead. If you’re conscious of it and don’t feel the need to rub your hard work in the reader’s face (“I see you’re wearing a scarf because it’s winter!”), you’re way ahead.
“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
Ford Prefect, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Tip 1: The Right Time
The writer’s relationship with time is fundamental to success in life as well as art. In my ‘real’ life, I need to carve out the slots that, being honest with myself, are the right times for me. I know, whether I like it or not, that I work best a) during the daytime and b) in places with plug sockets and friends who will guard my laptop while I go to the loo.* Cafes, pubs, trains, self-employed friends’ homes: good. Home: working on it, but bad (it’s the cat’s fault. He’s bossy. And the constant visual reminders of other things I convince myself I should be doing are bossy too). On the other hand, I instinctively edit out the surround-sound of cafes, my conference organizer friend’s Skype chat, or my video editor friend’s Spanish Inquisition torture scene. You, on the other hand, might work best in silence, seclusion or the middle of the night. Good for you – we’re all different. Grab what is right for the kind of writer you are. Lunchtime and work time are whenever your creative brain says they are. I know, I know, it’s difficult to make it fit and we don’t have actual 1950s wives. But make it fit. You might finish what you’ve started.
Tip 2: The Write Order
Jumps in time are very exciting when handled well. When handled badly, like space (or time) travel, they mean travel sickness. Know thy linear time stream. Then chop it up, knowingly. That’s how you get The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald and how you avoid the narrative equivalent of a plate of spaghetti. To do weird stuff with pizazz, you need to identify the normal. That gives a sense of reality and contrast for the reader.
"That was inedible muck and there wasn’t enough of it." Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, Vivian Stanshall
You Will Never Have Enough Time
The way to give yourself a chance of finishing is to accept time is linear and to do what you can to mark it out and structure it. Structure is always imposed, by humans, on time. It’s what makes us feel less tiny, powerless and overwhelmed in the face of it. By the time we die, or finish a novel, there will have been a point of compromise: saying okay, that’s it, it’s not perfect ("There is a crack, in everything, that’s how the light gets in" – Leonard Cohen, Anthem) but it’s done. Time to send it to my writing group/agent/publisher.
Tips and Shining Examples
August: Gerard Woodward The same family live and die across three books in brilliantly realised locations and playful, usually naturalistic, time streams. He fills your world with these people and gives you an exquisite, heart-breakingly clear sense of time passing without forcing it.
Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte The Bildungsroman is a great discipline: everything ordered, connected. The symbolism and interlaced lives are a treat. I remarked to a friend recently that real life was in some ways always going to be a let-down after reading this in Year Eight.
* And a good thing too that I like working in cafes: probably that was the muse behind my annual Green Ink Sponsored Write for Macmillan Cancer Support, in Waterstones Piccadilly. If you feel like supporting a writer, visit www.justgiving.com/greeninksponsoredwrite2016 or join my mailing list for news of our showcase performance at Waterstones Piccadilly in October.
Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support (Waterstones Piccadilly, Tuesday 18 October). She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. www.greeninkwritersgym.com