My newsletter just tipped over 500 subscribers -- thanks to all the folks who came over from my guest post on Jane Friedman's blog yesterday. Welcome, readers of Jane! I'm SO EXCITED about how my little list has grown and am determined to keep writing relevant, actionable, inspiring lessons for book writers each week.
As a thank you and a celebration, I'm going to host an open Q&A webinar on July 8 2015 at 4 pm PST. Think of this as an "ask a book coach anything" opportunity. There will be a limited number of seats only because I don't yet have a big enough empire to warrant that kind of webinar platform, so if you want to make sure to reserve a spot, just email Jade@authoraccelerator.com. We'll send you the call-in details as we get closer and also give you a chance to ask questions in advance -- about starting a book, finishing one, technical considerations in writing, editing, platform-building, agent seeking, publishing. Whatever!
I'm also working furiously on some cool new giveaways so stay tuned for those.
Now to today's post:
A few weeks ago, I heard Clare Bidwell Smith do a reading for her new book, After This, a grief counselor’s exploration of death. I have been aware of Smith for a number of years because her memoir, The Rules of Inheritance, is often one people cite when they talk about memoirs they have loved. I had not read it, however, so grabbed a copy at the reading, and decided to read it before the new book so I could get a sense of the flow of Smith’s ideas. The Rules of Inheritance is the story of Smith’s journey through grief – she lost both her parents and her best friend at a very young age. And the word on the street is that Jennifer Lawrence is going to play Smith in the upcoming movie.
The book is just as astonishing and luminous and moving as all the blurbs from all the literary luminaries promised. I loved it. There was something besides the story and the generous revealing of messy, dark and frightening emotions that grabbed me, and that was the structure itself. Smith makes some very unusual choices, and I soon realized that what I was reading was a master class in how to handle time in narrative. There are lessons here that all of us can learn about how to present material on the page, whether it’s in memoir and fiction, or the kind of non-fiction narratives you might be writing in self-help or how-to books.
Classic narrative structure – think of watching a Shakespeare play on a stage – happens in real time, from start to finish. It’s a theatrical construct that mimics the way we move through our days – from birth to death, from 7 am to 11 pm every day, give or take a few hours in either direction if we have to catch a flight to Dallas or attend a great party that doesn’t wind down ‘till 2.
The genius of the human mind, however, is that within that straight chronological experience, our brain allows us to remember events of the past, and leap forward to imagine events of the future. For the writer of narrative, this can be an enormously tricky reality, and it immediately presents some key questions that must be answered. To wit:
- What is “story present” – the chronology through which the story unfolds? It is a day, a week, a year, a lifetime, or a span of many generations?
- Where is the narrator standing in time as they tell their story? In real life, you have no choice. You live where you live, in this moment. The stories you tell all spring from this moment. You can only know what you know right now. In a narrative, however, you can choose. The narrator can know everything about how the story turns out, or they can be as clueless as we are in our real lives about what happens tomorrow.
- If the narrator leaves story present to recall something from the past (flashback, backstory, call it what you will) or to imagine something in the future, how do you exit and how to you re-enter in a way that is elegant, seamless and doesn't cause your reader to throw the book across the room in frustration?
I’m going to use Smith’s example to try to teach you some lessons about how to answer those questions for your own work. I’ll explain what she did, and tell you why it works.
- Effective structure. She splits the narrative up into “parts” based on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. This gives the narrative an overall grounding structure. From second one, we know what is going to come next – sections on denial, bargaining, anger, acceptance. It’s important to realize that decision is not just window dressing. Form is function, and Smith is using this form for a very clear reason. She is actually exploring those ideas in each section; these ideas are her point and she is using the raw material of her life to peer deeply into those ideas. She has, in other words, drastically narrowed down the material she is going to cover. This is not her life story. This is not a memory of everything her mother ever did, said, and believed. This is a narrative designed to do a particular job and everything that doesn’t serve that job is left out.
2. Bold tense choice. She writes in the present tense – which is extraordinarily difficult for most writers to pull off in a book-length narrative and can often be very distracting. This choice serves Smith well, however, because of #3 (and also because the narrative is grounded by #1 and #5.) Smith is very mindful of her tense at all times. She never slips up. Watch this transition, for example – from present seamlessly into past tense, hinging on the idea of how her mother looks. Just one of the sentences is in past tense, but the movement from present to past and back again is seamless:
The first night in the hospital I burn with Deni’s words. I sit on the edge of my mother’s bed. I haven’t seen her since parent’s weekend, and she looks worse than ever.
My mother was once a very beautiful woman, statuesque with a perfect sheath of white-blond hair that fell to her shoulders. She turned men’s heads well into her fifties. But now her skin is grey, her cheeks sunken and sagging, and tubes snake their way from her nose, disappearing into the sheets. The skin hangs on her arms like threadbare towels on a laundry line.
3. A fluid sense of time. Smith willfully jumps around in time, back and forth, with great aplomb, both on a large scale – meaning years – and on a small scale within those years – meanings weeks, days, even minutes. Sometimes within a few pages, we are in present time, past time and future time, several times over. And yes -- as frequently as she jumps back in time, she often leaps FORWARD in time, telling us what a moment or scene will meant to her later, even while that scene is unfolding in story present. Again, she doesn’t do this randomly, or willy-nilly, or just because it would be cool. She is making a point about the way grief unfolds, about the way it causes time to fold back on itself every day, about the reality of how the people we love impact our lives in a million ways whether we are in their physical presence, temporarily away from them on this earth, or permanently away from them because of death. In other words, she choses a narrative form to help her make her point.
Watch how, in this excerpt, she moves into the future on two different occasions, which I have bolded.
His name is Alvaro. He is Spanish, has been studying at Oxford. He comes from a wealthy family, is home on break, just out for the afternoon, enjoying a coffee, the sunshine. His hair is thick and lustrous and his dark eyes sparkle in the afternoon light.
Do we want to meet him for drinks later that evening?
Years later I won’t remember anything about the landscape of Santander. The layout of the city, the size of it, the streets will escape me completely. But I will remember the bar where we meet Alvaro. The three of us sit upstairs at a little table and I do all the things I always do for boys. I match him drink for drink. I talk about Vonnegut and Hesse. I quote Keroac and I French-inhale my cigarettes. I lean forward so that the shallow curves of my clavicles become deeper, and I look away when he looks at me.
The moment Liz leaves for the bathroom he is kissing me.
I already know I will sleep with him. I knew it the moment I reached into my bag at the cafe, my fingers closing around the sturdy weight of my camera. Knew, as I handed it to him, my fingers brushing his, that this was the final piece of the trip. I will sleep with a perfect stranger.
Do I want to see his family home, he asks between kisses. I do.
Liz is worried and I am drunk.
I’ll be home by dawn, I reassure her as I climb into Alvaro’s convertible.
I wave to her, my gaze fastening on her frame for just a moment before I swing back around in my seat, lifting my face to the wind that whips down over the windshield.
If Alvaro and I talk during the drive it’s only about trivial things. Mostly there is the road, dark and rushing before us. Despite the alcohol swirling in my veins, I feel incredibly present to this moment. I am distinctly aware of what I am doing. I know that I am eighteen years old and that my mother is dead. I know that I am in the passenger seat of a strange boy’s car, that we are winding along a nighttime road, that there is a town glimmering with little lights below us, that I am somewhere in Spain.
It’s one of those moments that will be easy to return to, for years to come.
In this instance, Smith is using the flash forward to underscore how present she was, how vivid things were in the wake of her mother's death. At other times, she uses these “flash forward” moments to shine a bright light on her main point -- how grief grabs a hold of you. One particularly harrowing example is when she recounts the drive she makes from Vermont to DC because her mother is about to die. On that drive, she stops off to see a boy, and because of that, she is not with her mother at the moment of death:
This is the moment I will come back to for years to come. Over and over, this moment…. It will play over and over and over, rendering me more powerless than Christopher ever did. My insides will tumble out onto the floor around me, a slick , hot mess of hate and regret, this very moment, me and Christopher in a coffee shop in New Jersey, the epicenter of it all.
4. Effective chapter headings. At the start of each chapter, Smith lets the reader know where we are in time and where we are in her life. So Chapter 1 starts with this line: “1996, I’m Eighteen.” Thirty-three pages later, Chapter 2 starts with this line: “1992, I’m Fourteen Years Old.” Sixteen pages later, Chapter 3 starts with this line: “2002, I’m Twenty-four Years Old.” This is another grounding mechanism that helps the reader rest in the hyper-active narrative timeline. We know that Smith is in charge of this story. We can feel her authority. We willfully give ourselves over to what she is doing, time-wise, and we feel the same buzzing curiosity – what happens at 14? What happens at 24? when is she going to get to the actual death scene? When is she going to meet the man who is going to be her “most important person” (which she tells us is coming)? Having authority over your story -- what it's really about, what is happening underneath the surface, what the reading is there for -- is the most critical element of hooking a reader, and yet you can't really see it on the page. It's something the reader feels, and it springs directly from the writer feeling it, too. That's why every choice you make -- even chapter headings -- must be intentional.
5. Standard time cues. Within the text, Smith relies heavily on what I will call standard time cues to help the reader know where are in time and space. Here’s a quick example. Notice how in every line, there is a cue. Many writers shy away from using these simple tools because they think it’s heavy handed or unnecessary – or they don’t realize that they are leaving their reader to scramble to figure out where they are in the story. Making the reader work that hard on the basic elements of your story is always a recipe for disaster. I bolded the time cues here:
On Sunday I watched her drive away, my lip between my teeth, blood on my tongue from the force of it.
That was two days ago.
I tune back in to what my father is saying on the phone. Something about hospice.
These lessons underscore the reality that having authority over your story means having authority over the unfolding of time, as well. Take some time (ha!) to step back and make sure you are clear and firm in the timeline of your story present; that you are seamless in how you move backwards (and possibly forwards) in time; and that your structure is serving your story.
To read a chapter excerpt from The Rules of Inheritance, click here.
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"Making a reader guess about where they are in time is always a recipe for disaster". @JennieNash
How to manage narrative time. A post by @JennieNash