Part II of a series. Part I is here.
A 1:1 story/discourse time novel about a man's life would take a lifetime to read, just as a 1:1 map of the world would be as big as the world itself (both may score points for realism but not for helpfulness or artistic effect). The difference between story time and discourse time gives us lots to play with as writers. We can compress and expand, and we can alter pacing throughout, summarizing years into sentences and shifting into “slow-mode” and stretching high-intensity scenes across many pages.
In revision mode, if we note that our writing seems to plod along, too evenly, with little variation in emotional effect, we can see if we’ve overlooked those compression and expansion possibilities. Even if we’re already aware of time’s flexible potential, we may still not utilize time to maximum advantage. In error, we may compress where we should expand, because we arrive at a scene that is emotionally hard to write about, or some part of our story we haven’t sufficiently imagined (or researched). We may expand where we should compress, simply not realizing (until a kind first reader informs us) that we’re spending way too much time on boring details or slow-paced dialogue or anything that doesn’t advance the story.
On the page, that’s story time and discourse time – complicated enough.
But think of all the other ways we experience time, as writers and readers. This is where things get even more interesting during those final manuscript revisions.
Let’s say I write a scene about parents coming to visit their daughter, an anxious mother and her new baby and the husband the parents don’t like. The story time covers dinner and post-dinner visiting -- about three hours. The discourse time is, let’s say, about 4500 words.
On a good day, I write about 1000 words; in a good week, maybe 3000. So I can guess this scene would have taken a week and a half to write. Maybe longer. I could label that “composition time.” I can unscientifically guess that many before-bed readers open a book for 20 minutes before turning off the light. At less than 2 minutes per page over 15 pages, my imaginary reader might not have time to finish the scene in one quick reading session. (Should it be shorter? Or is it just right? And what about the great majority of the book’s scenes, which are only one-third to one-half as long? Which will have insufficient impact due to their brevity? Which will have insufficient impact because a reader can’t process them in one sit-down reading time, or can I write a scene so riveting that the reader will stay glued to the end, even after her spouse complains about the light?)
Now that I’ve forced myself to do the math—which I wouldn’t have done, if not for this blogpost—what does it tell me? What can you tell first readers to look for if they’re helping bring fresh eyes to your manuscript?
In reading for revision, we must be aware of time’s many faces, and the many ways we experience story as it’s imagined, written, and read, by ourselves and others. We can learn, as authors, to become our own best editors. And we can recognize the need to make use of another set of fresh eyes when the time is right.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at email@example.com for more info on her book coaching services.