Skipping time

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First of all, I apologize but I’m going to take this opportunity to just give a shout out for the release of my third book, The Dark and Hollow Places which will be coming out from Delacorte Press March 22, 2011 (less than two weeks!).  I’m leaving for tour soon and if any of y’all live near any of the stops I’d love to say hi!

But I promise that small bit of self-promotion wasn’t completely off topic because in this post I want to talk about skipping time.  I’ve been asked a lot recently about how it feels to have my first series draw to a close and it’s very surreal because it really does seem like just yesterday when I sold the first book.  When I think back over the past several years I think it can almost be summed up with a *** — that little symbol you insert in your manuscript to indicate an nondescript passage of time.

The *** is a very very handy symbol (I believe in short stories it’s often a # symbol) — an easy way to just skip ahead in time.  Not too long ago I was reading contest entries from unpublished writers and I noticed a common thread: the compulsion to show every detail of a character’s life.  And trust me, this is something that I’ve dealt with first hand in my own writing (and actually, it wasn’t until I was judging a batch of contest entries several years ago that I became aware of this issue).

The thing is, as writers we really don’t have to show everything. Our readers are smart and they can put stuff together. For example, a lot of the contest entries I’ve been reading are YA and set in school. We see the character in class, walking out of class, at her locker, changing out books, walking to the cafeteria. This is all stuff that every student does almost every day. But some of these scenes don’t pull their weight — they don’t add anything to the story — and so they can drag.

I’ll also see these scenes as “connections,” i.e.: I have to get my character from her house to the bowling alley where she discovers the dead body so I need to show her finding her keys, getting in the car, driving, stopping at the light, taking the left on Park Road, looking for a parking spot, etc.  We feel the compulsion to write these details because they’re true — our character WOULD be going through those motions and it’s hard not to want to follow along with them.

Except that… often those scenes are boring.  And more importantly, they’re not necessary.  They don’t add what I call “weight” to the book.  I think every scene has to pull its weight and even better, it has to serve multiple purposes. It’s always important to ask ourselves “Why is this here and what does it add?” For that first example at school, maybe there’s a note slipped into the protag’s locker and so it’s important we see her there. Maybe the cafeteria scene sets up the social hierarchy which will play a pivotal role in the book. Maybe in the second example the character missing the green light means she didn’t arrive at the bowling alley in time to save the victim’s life.

But at the end of the day, those scenes have to matter.  Here’s the test: if you can delete those scenes and the story still makes sense… they’re not pulling their weight.  If the story mostly makes sense, they’re often not pulling their weight (for example, if barely missing the green light causes the character to get outrageously angry which is important for character development, consider bringing that trait out in another necessary scene and having that scene then pull double duty).

For me personally, this wasn’t easy advice to incorporate into my own writing.  It wasn’t until I started experimenting with The Forest of Hands and Teeth and I forced myself to be as minimal as possible did I begin to understand how useful the *** is.  It’s really easy to drag a scene out past its purpose or to enter a scene too early.  But often if you sit back and think, “Why is this scene important?  What purpose does it serve for the story?  What’s the latest I can enter this scene and the earliest I can leave?” then you’ll start to learn how to use the *** to your advantage (when revising I call it the “blah blah blah” moment — when that’s what you start to think about in a scene, skip ahead).

Some examples: when I was writing a recent book I found myself writing a scene that seemed lackluster. It was three people arguing about having to get a first aid kit and what it looked like and where it was and blah blah blah. Which, in some cases, could be important. But it wasn’t important to what I was writing at all. And the characters kept repeating the same arguments and the whole thing was just meh going in circles.  Finally I just decided that I would skip ahead and my first thought was “I can’t! I have to explain to the reader everything so they can follow along!” Bah! Such an easy trap to fall into! In that scene the first aid kit wasn’t important, what it looked like and even getting it — none of it was important! What was important was the protag sewing up someone’s wound and I didn’t have to spend 10 pages getting her the supplies she needed. Going through all the motions just felt like the logical next step but it’s like sending your character to her locker because that’s what kids do before going to lunch — if the important scene is the lunch scene, who cares about the lockers!

Here’s a movie example… in Independence Day Will Smith shoots down that alien and he gets the ship open and punches out the alien. We don’t see him struggle with getting it out of the ship, getting it wrapped up in the parachute, starting on the journey — we don’t see any of it even though it had to happen. We just see him walking alone in the desert dragging the thing because that’s what’s important. The details would drag and it wasn’t that kind of movie (it would be a different movie if Will took his time examining the alien, trying to figure it out, etc — but that wasn’t his character).

I’ve become a particular fan of skipping time in my short stories when there’s not the luxury of exposition.  Here one of my short stories, Flotsam & Jetsam, for free online where you can see what I’m talking about.  I was a big fan of the *** in that story.

I’m not saying you should zip merrily through your manuscript hitting only the highlights of the plot. But pay attention when you’re writing that stuff that you feel like HAS to be there and ask yourself if it really does. And if it does, make sure the scene pulls its weight.

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13 comments to Skipping time

  • One of Elmore Leonard’s famous bits of writing advice — Skip the boring parts. It’s so true. The thing a lot of beginners don’t realize is that if you skip the unnecessary bits, the stuff you do write becomes more exciting because the reader is not only absorbing the story but also filling in the blanks that you skipped. It’s more activity/stimulation for the brain which equals a more engaging read. So, yeah, I’m all for skipping parts. Oh, and good luck on your tour. Looks like it’s going to be hectic!

  • Great post, Carrie, couldn’t agree more. My only other comment is a little off topic, but I couldn’t help notice how you were able to learn some important things by studying the patterns you found in other people’s writings while you were judging the contest. Not a lot of people will get asked to judge contests, but there are other ways someone can get to read a bunch of stories written by people who are just getting started out (critique groups, etc). Doing so can be a very educational experience that people shouldn’t overlook.

  • As a Newbie Writer, I just recently noticed this problem in my own writing. I’m reading through Strunk & White right now and rule #17: “Don’t use unneccesary words.” really hit home to me.

  • Edmund — excellent point! I learned a lot from joining a crit group (and mine wasn’t a formal set of people, it was a large online group where people critted when they could). It can often be hard to figure out what an editor means by a slow opening, or needing to skip the boring bits when all you read is published material because, hopefully, those things have been edited out. When you start to read more and more unpublished I think you get a better sense of that stuff, at least I did! I started to really understand what “starting in the wrong place” meant (and that’s something I’ve done myself several times).

  • Hi Carrie. Excellent post. Not everything needs that moment by moment transition. Then again, overdoing the text breaks can be its own problem. I read a police proceedural by a famous author recently where there was a text break on every other page. It was hair-pullingly annoying and brought me out of the story. I forced my way to the end of the story, and realized the writer had nothing to say. He had filled up pages with empty space.

    Now, I try to use the text breaks with a fine hand. I guess that moderation is everything.

    I just looked over your tour. OMGosh! I’d so miss my own bed!!! Be safe and have fun. And when you get back — TRIP REPORT!

  • What a great post! “Starting in the right place”, so to speak, is one of my writing goals for this year, especially after deciding that I could hack off the first 30,000 words of my manuscript, and replace it with a much more exciting 10,000-ish. My trusted beta-readers often catch me on unnecessary details that I think are world-building or environment-building, but which don’t pull enough weight to actually deserve their place in the story. I’m learning to make more liberal use of the ***.

    That said….I AM SO EXCITED ABOUT YOUR BOOK. I tend to dislike zombie stories because they scare me witless, but I have a friend who is a YA Librarian, and she tricked me into reading “Forest of Hands and Teeth”, and I adored it. Never-mind that the old Japanese lady in a red vest scared me half to death walking home one day. I am now rabidly looking for your tour schedule to see if you’ll be near me.

    Ed>> Most of the discoveries I “made about my writing” have either come from discovering the pattern in work I was beta-reading, or getting threats from my beta-readers. (With problems such as melodramatic dialog, one friend has threatened me with the same spray-bottle she uses when her cats dig up the potted plants.) On the topic of reading other people’s work: I used to belong to a writing website called http://www.fanstory.com, and that was a really valuable resource before I found a writing circle of my own. By reading a lot of other aspiring writers’ work, I was able to notice the patterns and apply that knowledge to my own writing, which was just as, if not more helpful than the comments themselves.

  • Unicorn

    A very helpful post, especially since I’m trying to revise a currently 157 000 word (hey, it used to be 160 000… at least there’s some improvement) novel, which is supposed to be YA. Groans, groans. Each scene, each sentence, each word gets minutely inspected. “Do you really need to be in the story? If not, push off, NOOOW!” But what really works for me is cutting scenes that only accomplish one thing and blending that accomplishment into another scene. By my calculations, though, I still have at least 57 000 words still to lop off before it’s acceptable. Groans, groans, groans. I’m hoping that there’s a lot of extra baggage near the middle, that’s usually where I bog myself down.
    A technical grammar thing – where do you use the *** symbol, and where is it right to just put in a plain paragraph break (if that’s the right term, sorry, hope it makes sense)? Do you skip time with *** and change point of view with the break?
    Thanks for the post.
    Unicorn

  • Julie Nilson

    Many congratulations on your new book! That’s very exciting.

    I love what you said here. I have a tendency to write those unnecessary scenes (and then excise them later when my writing critique group points them out!) and I recently discovered the following quote from Ursula LeGuin:

    “Crowding is what Keats meant when he told poets to ‘load every rift with ore,’ … never use ten vague words when two will do…Vivid, exact, accurate, concrete, dense, rich: these words describe a prose that is crowded with sensations, meanings and implications…

    “But leaping is just as important. What you leap over is what you leave out. And what you leave out is infinitely more important than what you leave in. Listing is not describing. Only the relevant belongs. Some say God is in the details; some say the Devil is in the details. Both are correct.”

    I’ve found that “leaping” can be used to build anticipation: For example, a character goes into the dark room… *** Then the next scene begins later than that, and we must wait to find out what happened in the dark room. I love it when writers reveal in that way, so I am working to do more of that myself.

  • Unicorn>> I’m in the same boat! I finished a novel at 156,000 words when I was 21. Revised to 90,000. Rewrote it in its entirety last year, and got 130,000. This spring, I lopped off the first seven chapters, and am working on writing a new six-scene opening that does more in fewer words. Current WC is 107,000.

    We should start a support group. I suggest: PWN (Pleonastic Writers Network)

  • Great post, Carrie. This is definitely something I needed to learn, and I think it falls under the heading of “Trust Your Reader” — something I’ll be posting about in the near future. Our readers understand that there is all kinds of mundane stuff that has to happen in life that we can’t allow to clutter up our stories. (I mean, really, when did Harry, Ron, and Hermione ever use a bathroom for anything other than talking to Moaning Myrtle…?) I’m a big believer in the “#” or “***”.

  • I’m joining the “I need to work on this” club. I absolutely love it when a book lets me figure out the cool themes and parallels on my own, and I think that’s one mark of a classic–you keep discovering new things. I want to write that kind of book, so it’s been rewarding trying to think about this kind of thing more.

  • Tom G

    After reading this post, I thought about my current WIP.

    ***

    I have scenes not pulling their weight.

  • I’ve found a great way to find unnecessary gumph in my WIP. I read a chapter out loud to my wife before we go to sleep. If she starts dozing off, I know I have to skip ahead :)

    In general, reading out loud has highlighted many issues with flow and boringnesses. I highly recommend it.

    ***

    I’ve reached #1 on the NY Times best seller list.

    ***

    Who’d have thought 5 years as #1 was possible?

    ***

    I woke up.