I had a history teacher in high school, (god rest him, as he has since died.) Smart enough man, but by the time my class year rolled around I think he had started to phone in a few things as a teacher.
For example, the last class I took from him dealt with America in the 1960s. But virtually every single day the entire semester, he wheeled in the TV and popped in a movie. We’d take a quiz on the movie, but he rarely if ever lectured, took questions or, as I said, put in a movie.
One such movie was All the President’s Men. If you’re unaware, it’s the story of Woodward and Bernstein cracking the Watergate story.
Watergate, as in 1974. During out America in the 1960’s class.
It takes about a week of classes to watch a movie of that length in 30 minute slices. Some of us called him on it, wondering when we would be getting back to the true theme of the class– the 1960’s.
His answer represented the most phoned-in moment of that phoned in class. He told us, “You can’t study history chronologically.”
Really? Are you serious, Mr. F? In essence history studies, if nothing else, are the examination of sequences of events that lead into other sequences of events, thus shaping the world/nation. One could be as obtuse as humanly possible, and would still be forced to conclude that if nothing else in the world history does in fact have to be studied chronologically.
What he really was saying of course was that that was the movie he had in stock for that week, and we were going to watch it, so he had to do work.
That absurd cop-out annoys me to this day. But it does get me to thinking about linear story telling.
My own writing is almost always told in near linear chronology. It may meander sometimes, and I’ve employed the occasional flashback scene, but just about all of my fiction is moving ever-forward in time. (However time is defined in that universe.) I am not a fan of multiple or conflicted timelines in fiction. I enjoy a novel far less when it does this, and hence it would be unfair of me to try to write it for my readers on a regular basis.
This is my counter to people who mention that life isn’t lived in a linear faction, so our fiction shouldn’t exist that way either: as humans we can invoke memories or visualize futures. We can be short of information and discover it out of sequence. We even might not know what day/time it is at any given moment. Yet no matter how we collect the information of a story, we are, without fail, experiencing the process in forward moving linear time. One timeline at a time.
In certain select works, an our of order chronology may be required to tell the story properly. Time-jumping enhances certain sci-fi of course. On the whole, however, things happen in the order they happen, even if the characters or readers do not find out about them in the same order.
So, overall I stay away from non-linear, multiple timelines. HOWEVER, if you insist such tactics are necessary, I have a few humble suggestions as a reader who also writes.
- Limit the timelines. Three or four seems optimal to me, and that’s pushing it. If you have that many, you may be telling too many stories in one book. I feel like I am reading more than one novel at a time, and I never do that.
- Please label the timelines. If you insist on unfolding your story out of order among various eras, swallow your pride a bit and put what year I’m reading at the start of each chapter. It may cramp your style a bit, as some consider this “telegraphing,” but I’d really like to know right away where and when I am.
- The farther apart, the better. If timeline A is only two years before timeline B, and involved the same two people, (one dealing with how they met, and the other dealing with them being married) than I am super-likely to give up on your story. Again, labeling the chapter with what year it is helps, but even then, when events are that close and I have to set a book down for a day or two, it all blends together and I have to reread chapters. Don’t make me do that. A hundred years apart? Still tedious, but far easier to keep separate in my mind.
- Have a really, really, really good reason for doing it. Don’t do it just because you thought it would be cool. If the story makes the same amount of sense told in linear fashion, it’s unnecessary to be non-linear at all. On the flip side, make each story so self-contained that it is impossible to confuse with any other timeline.
- Keep it year-based. I read a novel that not only jumped back and forth between years, but later on jumped back and forth within the same year. Out of order. Hopping back and forth between 1881 and 2003 is one thing. But hopping between 1881, and March of 2003, and January of 2003, and October of 2003? If the whole story is in 2003? Fine. But otherwise? I’m calling it…month-hopping is outlawed, and never makes the story better ever.
Experiment, of course. Do what your heart is telling you to do. And perhaps it my ASD’s literally-minded tendencies that propel my preference for chronological correctness. But if you’re on the fence, and you feel I’d be an intelligent reader, take my advice to heart most of the time.
At least in our current timeline.
By and large, anyone who says, “I have no time to write,” is making an excuse not to write. I don’t mean to say everyone, or even most people can dedicate a whole day at a time to it, but the truth is, with discipline, everyone who actually wants to write can set aside at least a short window a few times a week. (Doesn’t have to be every day to me.)
However, all the time in the world won’t matter if you don’t get below the surface of the waters of your imagination. This, sometimes, is a bigger problem for me than the actual clock.
All first drafts are shit, we all know this. But there is quite the chasm between this idea, and not paying attention to what you are creating any given moment. I could blindly type words, sentences, even have some semblance of a story arc, without giving it much thought or imagination. I can accomplish this surface level writing, just floating about with the current, (or no current) on a blow up raft without oars. I can almost literally write some kind of story or article by rote without much thinking.
The results wouldn’t be worth much of a damn, and editing can only fix so much, but it could be done.
For even a first draft to have some power though, we have to enter into at least the first level of imagination. We need to be at least a step removed from reality around us. Not to the point of failure to know the place is on fire, but at least to the point of someone perhaps having to call our name twice. (Though why would they do this is we are working??)
There are of course many stages to the depths of imagination, for all of us. We can sink as far, and be as obsessed with our created world as our minds and attitude will allow. Some minds can go deeper than others. Yet the key is that first drop below the service. It is there that the biggest differences lie. Above and below that metaphorical membrane represents more difference than any levels of deeper imagination because we cannot get wet if we don’t get in.
I have to give myself enough time, enough energy to dip into at least the first level of imagination, (and preferably deeper levels, when other factors permit.) And it’s not always so easy; we do many things, even driving down the highway, without truly realizing we are doing them. Writing can be one of those things.
But let’s not allow it to be one of those things. At that point we run the risk of doing what Jack Kerouac did with On the Road, according to Truman Capote;
“That’s not writing. That’s typing.”
Take the time to write under the surface, and not merely type.
There Is Pain Here has gotten some high praise from some very kind readers so far, on Amazon, for which I am very grateful. I hope that you will consider buying a copy to enjoy yourself, for which I will also be very grateful.
I am also grateful to James Garfield himself, in a way. I’ve never written a novel with a true historical figure before. And though There Is Pain Here is by no means historical in and of itself, much of what happens in it, and what i tried to convey through it leans heavily on aspects of a real, verifiable historical person.
To that end, later this week I’ll be taking a little road trip with some friends of mine to the James Garfield tomb. No mere tombstone, it is quite an ornate building, which artifacts and artwork inside honoring the 20th president of the United States. Going to visit it will, in a sense, complete a circle for me in the creation of this novel.
Not that I feel any intense pressure to do this. The tomb is in Cleveland, which from my home is about a six hour drive. Had it been in California, for example, I don’t see that I’d have been able to afford the trip, in money or time. I don’t think the spirit of James Garfield would expect that of me.
Nor indeed do I feel he “expects” even this trip. But if the man on whom I based a fantasy fiction can in any way detect a sort of nod of appreciation from me, wherever he now is, for letting me borrow certain aspects of his existence, it’s worth the ride and the one night stay in a hotel, I think.
My hope is to take some pictures of the trip, which I’ll post probably most often on my Instagram, but I may put a few here on the website as well.
About eight weeks ago, I submitted a piece of writing to a national contest sponsored by a magazine. (Complete with 40 dollar entrance fee.) Yesterday they informed me I wasn’t chosen.
Part of the deal, however, was that someone from the magazine would send applicants thoughts on their submission. Among other things, they told me that the piece was the work of “an immensely talented writer,” though it lacked the “heart and soul” they were looking for in the contest entries.
I’m disappointed I didn’t win. I appreciate their compliment. I’m somewhat confused by their finding little “heart and soul” to the piece, but it was their heart and soul, not mine.
But at any rate, now that it isn’t exclusive anymore, I’m sharing the piece below. I call it “Literary Lapidary.”
In my writer’s mind, a pick ax dangles ever present on my belt. A landscape of boulders, cliffs, rock faces and the occasional diamond mine surrounds me. From these are hewn, (with constant labor) the phrases, sentences, fragments and clauses-,the lists and letters, plots, points and protagonists. The thoughts and metaphors, remembrances and explanations, all the words I compose.
Particulates of rock dust powder my hair, my clothes, my shoes. Calluses and scabs and scars and fresh, bleeding cuts adorn my hands; they are the price of gaining passage to my voice.
On certain days the ax swings dormant at my side. On other days I call upon reserves of strength and swing away at my own personal Gibraltar. Most days lie in between; I excavate the crossroads of the real world and my mind.
I have uncovered novels in this fashion, and poems in this fashion and essays in this fashion. Into the tumbler of revisions they go, until they shine and glimmer in a manner worthy of my name. These are my offerings in which I am well pleased.
Then, of course, there are the “lesser” finds: The cloudy gems and broken crystals. These are “imperfect specimens”, uncovered far more often as I dig than that which is destined for museums. A turn of phrase, a partial narrative, a character without a home, or a home with no one in it. These I save as well, in my private collection. For they are the treasures I unearth, all be they broken, common, heavily included. I hacked my way through mountains just to reach them, when no other person did or could.
Now, I have known the muse. Here and there, he or she or they wander into my life, and bestow on me a gem already cut and clean, and move on, with perhaps a wink. Thus far, perhaps a half a dozen times I’ve known this gift.
With somewhat greater frequency than this, I look up from my digging, and the dust clears, and a muse is leaning on a distant rock formation, eating an apple or sipping coffee. They throw their hand up, nod their head, and something distracts me. I look back and they are gone. Yet now I hew the ax, as hard as ever, where they stood. With no little bit of sweat I do in fact uncover wonders.
As a rule, however, I am not blessed with constant inspiration. Ideas do not exactly soak my mind like a monsoon soaks the ground. God love the writers who find their ideas that way; I hope they know their gift.
I, however, am a different sort. A geologist of genius, a literary lapidary. The writer’s life does not come to me; I must go to it, and do so over and over again, sharpened pick axe in hand, ready both to swing all day, and catch the muses when they opt to appear.
Stories must be told, and I am here, with my ax. I keep swinging.
But of course, the end always comes for a project. And with the end comes thoughts of the next.My next novel, for instance, will be my fifth. I’ve not started on it yet. In fact, I’ve not even decided what it will be yet, and that’s just a little frustrating.
I’m not used to it, you see. This is the first time I’ve not at least known what my next novel will be about once the current one is published.
Once, I did have to ice one completely, be because it wasn’t working. That was a difficult decision. Yet even then, I knew which story I was starting when it came time to start writing it. That story failed eventually, but it was on deck as I sent Flowers of Dionysus out into the world.
Even when I made the difficult decision to abandon the original “Novel 2,” I knew what I would be replacing it with first.
Like I said, not this time. I’m not a fan of not knowing what the next big project is.
As an indie author, I of course answer only to myself. One could say there is no deadline other than the one I set for myself, and that would be true. But I would rather know what was next and take some time off before beginning, than allow X amount of time to pass without being sure what to begin next.
Writer’s block isn’t the issue though. Not the conventional type, anyway.
I tend to have a cue of potential novel ideas sort of “lined up” in my head from which to choose. It’s no small thing once I appoint which one of these comes next. All things being equal, whichever of these takes root in my mind the most while working on a previous novel becomes the next project. I have such a collection of broad ideas now.
The problem is mood. Most of the shadows that are on deck would tell rather somber stories. There Is Pain Here is not only on the somber side itself, but my life was in many ways somber while writing it, much of the time. Even when my life ceased to be somber, I was drained a bit, and actually couldn’t work on the novel for a few months.
It’s time for a more upbeat novel. One in a lighter mood, with a lighter tone while still telling a good story.
By my own standards, I don’t have such a story in my cue into which I can jump right off. Hence my current frustrations. I can either wait who knows how long until I can come up with such a potential story, (or until the muses bless me with same,) or I can proceed with one the somber story ideas already in my cue. My mind wants something that is ready to go, regardless of mood. My spirit says that if I am going to spend the next year or more in a setting, with certain characters, it needs to be a fun journey this time around.
In general, I’m not a total “pantser.” I’m not wild about the idea of just writing and seeing what story comes about. (Besides, I wouldn’t want it to be another somber one.) I’m not a total plotter either, but I almost always have scaffolding before I begin. I’ve got no scaffolding for an upbeat story right now.
As I’ve mentioned, there are solutions to this problem of a sort. Plus others I didn’t mention. But mood matters, and I don’t want to be neck deep in the wrong mood, a darker mood for the next year. I need some light. But I don’t want to just throw together a lighthearted story willy-nilly.
As with most creative endeavors, time will almost certainly provide an answer. But I’, not used to waiting, and this time, my mood matters.