Friday, February 24, 2012

Watching the Clock: Keeping track of the third 'W' in your writing.

I was recently re-reading an old manuscript when I stumbled across the following passage...
    "Jordan paused before turning the corner, wondering what she was going to say to the old man that would make any difference. She toyed with her lighter, but couldn’t bring herself to light it. MacLeod had done nothing to earn her disrespect; his house, his rules.
     She could smell the old man’s cigar smoke on the late-afternoon breeze and wondered what she’d have to do to earn the latitude Pastor Kipfer seemed to enjoy. Maybe he'd share his stogie, turn it into an ersatz peace pipe. 
     The rattle of gravel echoed off the garage wall as a car pulled up out front and she hesitated. She didn’t want to do this in front of an audience. She stalled for time, stowing the lighter back in her pocket and hoping it was just a deliveryman.
     A gruff male voice yelled “You Ashleigh MacLeod?"
   “Maybe, who’s asking?” growled the voice of the pastor. 
     A sound like twin thunderclaps shattered the afternoon silence. Light flared, casting harsh shadows against the garage wall, freezing the moment like a camera's flash. The moment of inrushing horror seemed to stretch to infinity the moments before Jordan screamed..."
Did you catch it?  

The muzzle flashes of the shooting we're witnessing through the main character's eyes are bright enough that she sees them from around the corner. Moments after noting that it was mid-afternoon.  
If you've ever been around guns much, you know that's just silly -- it's a gunshot, not a lightning flash.

I know exactly what happened. The first time I wrote the scene, the two characters (Jordan and Pastor Kipfer) had just risen from the supper table and dusk had fallen.  During a rewrite, I removed a bunch of material and shifted the preceding scene from dinner to lunch.

End result: The sun was still in the sky, but the way I was describing the scene still assumed it was dark.

Who, What, When, Why, Where, and How?  Sometimes the third W seems obvious, and sometimes it bites you in the butt.

Incidentally, I checked my notes from the beta readers and one of them even mentions that this scene has timing issues. I remember going through looking for things like this and still I missed this one. More than once.

It goes to show the value of close-reading during revisions.

There are many ways to keep track of this. I've known some authors to keep an account of every scene with a minute-by-minute timestamp. I'm convinced that the trend in thriller novels to include a timestamp at the top of each chapter started with an author's attempt to keep track of what was happening when and then forgetting to erase it.

Instead of military-style timestamps, I've started using an Afterthought Outline (patent pending).

It's not a new idea. In high school and college, instructors would require me to turn in an outline for a paper. Because I didn't see the value in them then and still don't, I would write the paper and then generate a fake outline after the fact. They're fine for those they help, but an unnecessary chore for those they do not.

Good thing I'm not teaching high school English, I suppose.

These days (since long after I wrote the passage above) I've started using the afterthought outline as an editing tool.

Instead of writing from an outline, I have a short precis of the story and some notes about how the main characters will interact. Sometimes I have character sheets for the characters detailing their descriptions and mannerisms, sometimes I don't. Sometimes, I just pin all of my cocktail napkins and bits of paper to a cork board in approximately the order in which they will unfold. Then I start writing and let things happen organically. It's not until the second or third draft that I start seriously jot noting how the story finally settled down and start flagging pages with Post-it notes to indicate where certain events begin and end.  This helps me sort out the flow of events and ideally, notice discrepancies like the one I mentioned above.

To avoid the kind of mistake I detailed above, I often note the date and time at the top of each scene either in the manuscript or in the attached outline: This happens and then this happens. And it's ___ o'clock. And in that location at that time and date, the sun would be ____.

So it goes that even an organic writer (so-called) finds it necessary to outline at least a little. Because if they don't watch the clock, at the very least they're going to have lighting issues.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).