Thursday, December 12, 2013

It's About Time. Are You Listening?

  After you chose the twelve stories for your forthcoming collection, you spent some time, considerable time, in fact, playing with the order in which they should be presented.  The time spent amounted to the equivalent of two intense work days, each of which then had to be extended in order for you to write the equivalent of at least four pages of text.

Those days, and the process involved reminded you of a time when the equivalent of a day's work was deciding on the name for a character, another kind of process in which you came to realize you were spending time not listening to the character telling you her name.  In due course, when you did listen to your characters, which is in its way a form of meditation, she was all too willing to tell you her name.  There were other things she wanted you to know about her, things you were growing impatient over because of the amount of time you'd already spent on her.


You're reminded of the story Elmore Leonard told you about the enormous amount of time he'd expended on naming a character, only to throw away much of the material he'd written about that character because it did not sound like him.  The character appeared in one of his Western stories.  After a good deal of wasted time, trying to get the character to say something in spite of having the wrong name, Leonard consulted some old newspapers from the pre-1912 days, when Arizona was still a territory.  He discovered a sheriff named Bob Isham, a name he gave his stubborn character.  "From that point on,"  Leonard told you, "I couldn't get him to shut up."


Time spent in the process of calculation instead of the process of listening to the characters and their individual senses of involvement with the story, which, of course, also has something it wants to tell you.

Now you are in the process of examining the twelve stories, all of which you were satisfied with when you sent them off to what would be their first homes away from you, magazines, journals, sometimes tabloid-sized publications looking like faded newspapers.  You see the occasional word or usage that causes your skin to prickle. and you begin to play with ways to change the wording, perhaps the punctuation, perhaps a deliberate attempt to alter a cadence.

Then you approach your publisher/editor's notes.  Yet again, time enters the picture, with questions, suggestions for deletions, movement, additions of entire scenes.

Story is all about time.  In one particular, story is about the reader feeling impatient with too much detail and, in consequence, skipping ahead in narrative time.

You look at notes for another story, where you see the editor telling you you've taken events for granted that could baffle or confuse the reader, causing the reader the need to reread for the purpose of understanding the character's intentions.  So far, you've seen scenes appear to you that were not included in the original story,  and you seek to capture these scenes in order to decide whether they are necessary, or was the editor calling upon you to explain something you'd thought to be evident.

Some writers you admire have honed the ability to capture the sense of a given moment as well as the passing of given moments into a sense of narrative history.  Denis Johnson.  Louise Erdrich.  James Lee Burke.  Daniel Woodrell.  Deborah Eisenberg.  Karen Russell.  Can you build such a plausible sense of time into your paragraphs, so that the narrative will appear to be a tangible presence in your stories?  You'd better look.  

You'd better examine the play of words to see if they form bloated or clotted paragraphs, or if they are not fitted with care, allowing too much lightness or darkness to filter in.

Are your paragraphs taking too much time or crying out for a different pace in which the ratio of detail to elapsed time is conducive to the story telling itself as opposed to you describing it or one of your characters presenting it as an argument?

Have you introduced speed bumps into your story or gaping holes of progression?  In spite of all your classroom and editorial arguments against authorial intrusion, are you still trying to argue your story into place rather than trusting its intended secrets to come spilling forth?

In all cases, the answer is time; it's about time.

Are you listening?

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