Timely versus Timeless

Some genres (like blogs), by nature, lend themselves more to the timely than the timeless. We want new, fresh, up-to-the-minute information, and one way to demonstrate this is by writing what’s timely. [Insert clever remark about the Giants winning the Super Bowl and/or my favorite Super Bowl ad.] See how easy it would be for me to paste something right there are be very timely?

It’s not such a good idea, however, to let that spill over into your novel writing. It’s an election year, so publishers may want political books! I just saw an agent interview where she said she wants to see a steampunk novel in verse that features a rabbit as the main character! I’ll write that!

I think a temptation exists, especially when writing for tweens and teens, to demonstrate how relevant and cool we are by writing what’s popular (and timely) today. It seems easier to connect with readers by naming a popular song than describing the core emotion that the song represents. But which will result in the better book, both today and ten years from now?

I am currently reading (and thoroughly enjoying) Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. I think this book works on many levels and for many reasons, and here’s one of them: It has that elusive quality of being timeless.

Reviewers have compared this book to everything from Romeo and Juliet to Jane Austen to Alexander McCall Smith. I agree with all of them. I had read several chapters before I came across a subtle reference to emails exhorting the major to save a Nigerian princess and knew for certain that the novel was taking place sometime near the present day (or at least after phishing scams had been invented.) Until that point, the prose and dialogue and plot would have all been equally comfortable anytime in the last fifty years or, probably, the fifty years to come. And for that reason, I think this book just may be read fifty years from now.

(By the way, I don’t think telling a timeless story means being vague. Books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are very specific about both place and time, but are still widely read and deeply felt because they have that timeless quality.)

Unfortunately, writing this post has provided me with more questions than answers, so I’m calling on you, dear readers.

How do I write a timeless book? What about your work in progress? Does it lean toward timely or timeless? Can a book be both?

Please provide answers to all of these questions in a timely manner.

5 thoughts on “Timely versus Timeless

  1. I think Shakespeare accomplished both – taking universal themes but applying them to the present society.

    I also think this is along the lines of write what you love not what is *hot*. Writing what is loved can make it timeless and if it is timely as well, great.

    Fun post – good job.


  2. I'm so glad you're enjoying Major Pettigrew!

    Like Tasha, I think you have to write what you really love. And there's a danger in something being *too* timely. I recently read the Story of Us, set in 1996, where two teenagers logging onto AOL online for the first time stumble across facebook pages from their future selves.

    For me the nostalgia factor made the book a lot of fun to read. But some of the references are so time specific that I have to wonder how well this will hold up.


  3. I read that one of the reasons Jane Austen is so timeless is that she didn't mention current events in her novels. A war between Britain and France/Napoleon was going on at the time. I also watched a discussion about the 3 writers who challenged each other in the 19th century and out of that challenge we have Frankenstein among others. In its day, it would have been a SciFi novel, today it is a classic. I think we need to forget what agents and editors want and write what speaks to us.


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