Time for Tension

The concept of time is often used as a source of major tension in stories. We see this especially in suspense or action stories, where the clock on the bomb is ticking, or the first step of the heist has to be completed in time for the second step, etc.  Even in genres like romance, there’s often some kind of deadline used to raise the stakes—the vacation she’s on will end, he’s been away too long and worries she won’t remember him, and so on.

Time is also a great source of microtensions. Who hasn’t been frustrated by a long wait in a doctor’s office, or a traffic jam? When our sense of timing is thrown off, it can throw off our entire day and make any other pressures seem greater.

Not everyone views time the same way, however—our views on it are often very based in our culture—and there are endless opportunities for writers to use this to their advantage. So, let’s talk about some of the main ways people view time and how they can be played against each other for tension in our story.

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Linear/Clock Time

Most of the U.S. and many Western European cultures perceive time as linear. This means we see the past as done, the present as slipping away from us and needing to be wrung for all it’s worth, and the future as something to be planned and scheduled and worried about so we don’t miss out on its possibilities.

These cultures tend to be fast-paced, and they place a lot of emphasis on deadlines, start and end times, and see time as a valuable commodity—people worry about how much they are “worth per hour,” and use phrases like, “I’m out of time,” “I just don’t have time,” and “time is money.”

Another term for this mindset is “clock time,” because the exact time that things start and end is important, as well as how long it takes. This viewpoint is often favored by countries that value individualism and short-term productivity with very measurable results. They see punctuality as a necessary sign of respect.

Multi-active/Event Time

Many Latin, African, and southern European countries view time as multi-active, and feel most fulfilled when they are focused on many things at once, not just the one thing set on their calendar or agenda, and these multi-purposes are tied to events and people rather than times on a clock.

In places running on event time, things start when everyone who is supposed to be there arrives. Start times are given as general guidelines, but it is expected that life is unpredictable and not everyone will arrive at the same time.

Another aspect of event time is that people from these cultures are generally more concerned with relationships than events or deadlines, and more focused on what is immediately before them than something happening later that day. So, if something comes up with a family member or friend in the morning, they are likely to push back other plans and show up at work later/miss appointment times, and often not see this as a problem, because their personal priorities were met. They are extremely unlikely to cut a conversation short because they “are out of time,” and would likely consider it quite rude if someone did that to them.

Cyclical Time

In many Asian countries, they believe that events and opportunities often cycle back around, so taking time to deliberate and focusing on people and relationships is a better strategy than trying to hit arbitrary deadlines that can just be reset anyway. Where someone from the U.S. or U.K. might want to have a quick meeting and get back to work, often times their Asian counterparts will want more time to discuss, consider, and evaluate the relationship before committing to anything, and if they feel rushed, they might not want to collaborate.

People and cultures with a cyclical viewpoint on time are also often more concerned with long-term outcomes, and so the time they take to deliberate and set things up feels entirely justified, whereas in the U.S. people are focused on quick results—backers of projects want to see a quick return on their investments, etc.

Using these views of time to add tension in stories

As writers, figuring out our characters’ subconscious views on time can help us see how they either fit or don’t fit within their society’s norms and the people they interact with. If our main girl is chronically late but lives in or visits Switzerland, for example (the prime example of strict “clock time”), there will be a lot of conflict with people around her, and depending on how conscious she is of it, she may feel either that she’s always letting people down, or that people are always mad at her for no reason.

Say we have a character who is used to a society run on clock time. People come when they say they will come and plan in advance for things like extra traffic, etc. But this man gets teamed up on a group project with someone who runs on event time. This teammate is frequently late (according to the clock time-oriented man), and often on his phone taking care of family or friend matters during work hours. How would they learn to work together? How would they get the project done? What might they learn from each other in the process?

Using a personal example, I currently live in the South. My husband frequently complains that people here “live life at the speed of mosey.” Though our country is overall run by clock time, in the South, things do tend to swing toward event time. This leads to things like an A/C repairman who says he’ll be there “by 10:00 a.m.” showing up at 3:00 p.m…. the following day. Or week. If your character is counting on a repair, a delivery, or anything else that is time sensitive, this could add a lot of tension.

Not everyone who lives here in the South, though, was raised with the same perspective on time, and some give different weight to different events—for example, there are some who are always on time for church or business events, but may be very relaxed for social events, because they view their relationship with the person they’re meeting as strong enough to handle whatever came up to make them late.

Understanding our characters’ subconscious views on time can help us know how they make decisions, how they pursue goals, how they organize their days, and how they respond to various kinds of interruptions. It can help us make our characters stand out from each other, and help us understand and write about different cultures more accurately.

If you’d like to read more about the fascinating ways that people view time, including the Malagasy people in Madagascar who view time as flowing forward through the back of their head, so that the past is always before them while the future is an unseeable thing behind them, check out these articles:

http://www.businessinsider.com/how-different-cultures-understand-time-2014-5

https://hbr.org/2016/05/different-cultures-see-deadlines-differently

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Shannon Cooley is a creative–writing is one of her longest-running endeavors, but she is also a ballroom dance instructor, piano teacher, and runs a handcrafted artisan jewelry business with her husband. In her free time she crochets and knits, because she can’t seem to stop this whole creating thing. She has three children (who she created), who are surrounded by jargon and so refer to their stuffed animals as “characters” and their tasks as “projects.”  Shannon writes primarily Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman agency.

Seize the Moment

Time is a precious, limited commodity. I think this realization strikes us the hardest when someone near and dear to us runs out out of time.

One of my good friends passed away a couple of days ago, her time on this earth abruptly cut far too short. I am still grappling with the loss of this vibrant and spirited woman. She was a friend to many, and she was feisty and outspoken about things we often disagreed about but were simultaneously able to laugh about. In the past several years, she faced increasing issues with her health. Despite chronic pain and other challenges that affected her daily life, the time I spent with her was filled with her lovely smile and laughter, of her wit and her humor, of her kindness and love that she freely gave to others. Those are the memories I will forever have of my friend.

At the same time, I feel a great heaviness in my heart because I didn’t seize all of the moments with her that I could have when she was here. I didn’t rush over to the care facility the second I’d heard from a family member that she might not have very much time left. I planned to go the very next day to see her, but by the next morning, she had already left.

I know that this (guilt) is a part of grieving, that it’s natural and that I’m not the only one who feels this way right now. I am grateful that she’s not in pain anymore. I’m thankful for the times that we did spend together and that I was lucky enough to have been blessed with her friendship.

But time. So limited and precious.

Seize The Moment

My friend was a great supporter of everyone she knew. In her last few years, she would use social media to stay very well connected, especially because she had a hard time getting out. She would often post social media pictures of the wonderful things that she had found at her friend Sally’s gift shop and tell everyone to go. She had one step-daughter and loved children so much — she would rejoice in her friends’ children’s achievements and was the honorary aunt to so many. She rejoiced in all that she could — when I published my books, I gave her copies and she read each one and did social media posts and gave copies to her friends and told them to read. She made the most of her time, even on these days that were so hard for her.

This post is mostly a tribute to my friend. It is also a reminder to myself to seize the day. The time we have is borrowed. The past three months, I’ve been hit extra hard with the reality that I cannot do everything that I want to do. I have had to focus on what I need to do, and unfortunately, writing has not been one of those things. Family (always) and sharp increase in work obligations (recent) have expanded to fill my writing time. And it has also swallowed up much of time that I could have spent with good friends. I have to forgive myself for this, as I’ve been working to be better at managing the things that I need to do. As my chaotic semester ends (I am an associate professor), I will do better in seizing the day in doing the things that I love and spending the moments with the people that I love.

Seize the moments.

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HelenHelen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the upper YA MYTHOLOGY trilogy and new adult contemporary romances. You can find out more about her books at www.helenboswell.com.

Focus

I have a slight (okay, huge) problem with staying focused on tasks that I don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s because I find a task boring–like housework. Or it’s repetitive, or I don’t see the point, or . . . I love it, and I find it interesting, and I want to do it, buuuuuuuut it’s hard.

Writing, you guys. Writing is hard. I love writing, but it’s hard. So hard. It is, I might even  go so far as to say, quite difficult.

Whenever I get stuck for words, or I’m not quite sure how I want to go about writing the next scene, that’s it, my brain’s like “this is HARD,” and I’m off clicking on social media, checking my texts, getting up to grab a snack I don’t need, etc. But I’ve been trying a few things to help with this problem, and I thought I’d share them with you in case you have a similar issue.

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1. Meditation

Meditation is basically just training your brain to focus, and you don’t have to do it for very long each day. I’ve been using an app called Headspace to help me out. It does require a subscription to be able to use all of it, but the Take-Ten (10 minute) beginner/training sessions are free. There are also other apps out there–a quick search in your app store will bring up many. But you don’t even need an app for the basics. Just find a quiet, comfortable spot (sitting, preferably, so you don’t get too relaxed and fall asleep) and focus on your breathing. Count your breaths in your head, if that helps. And whenever you notice that your mind is wandering (and it will), just gently acknowledge that and bring it back to focus on your breaths again. I try to do this before I sit down to write, and it really helps a lot.

2. Physical Activity

Again, it doesn’t take much. A brisk walk or some yoga, or even just dropping to the floor and doing a few pushups can help get the blood flowing to your brain and increase your ability to concentrate. I will often do some stretches or pushups between writing sprints.

3. Less Caffeine

Wait . . . WHAT?!

Yes, I know. I’m a writer. Don’t writer’s practically bleed caffeine? I used to, but I just can’t do it anymore. Too much caffeine sends my brain into hyper drive, and makes it more difficult for me to reign it in. I do need some in the morning, however, to jumpstart my day. so I’ve started making my morning cup with one scoop of caffeinated grounds, and one scoop of decaf. That combo is perfect for me. You might need to do some adjusting to figure out the right balance for you.

4. Set up a Permanent Writing Space

. . . and be consistent about writing there. I’ve had a writing desk set up for quite a while, actually, but the couch is so comfy, you know? And so, until recently, I rarely ever wrote at my desk, preferring my laptop, a cozy blanket, and my sofa. It’s no wonder writing often made me sleepy. As soon as I lost focus, I’d often opt for a nap (and no, this has nothing to do with the reduction in caffeine–couches just make me want to nap no matter what, so don’t even go there.) Not only that, but the living room is where we watch TV and play games, and mine’s connected to an open kitchen where I can see all the dishes that are piling up, not to mention mail and papers and . . . you see what I’m getting at? It’s distracting because it’s associated with many different things, and they’re all competing for my attention.  My writing desk, however, is tucked away in this weird little nook in the hallway that the builders thought needed to be there for some reason, and it’s away from the chaos of the rest of the house. Everything on and around my desk reminds me either of my writing, or the things that have inspired my writing (like my T.A.R.D.I.S. and my Mulder and Scully Pop figurines.) If I consistently choose to write at my desk, my brain will associate that spot with writing only. And so far, it’s working really well.

So those are the main things that have helped me focus and stay on task as a writer. I hope you find them helpful too, and if you happen to have any other tips, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Considering the Cost

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The year is drawing to a close, and one of the themes that seems to be on everyone’s mind is time. It’s certainly on mine.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to speak to a group of students at the university where I teach. The topic? Time management. My gut reaction was, “Let’s find another speaker so I can listen to a talk on time management, because WOW, I need to hear that.” But I reluctantly recognized that the best way to learn to manage my own time a little better was to do the work of figuring some of this out for myself. So I got to work.

The students I was speaking to are like many of the readers of this blog: bright, motivated, and working tirelessly toward their goals. I asked them to start with this exercise: Write a list of the things that are important to you. No ranking, no set number of items on the list. You might include writing, family, work, exercise, sleep, activism or volunteer work, mediation or worship, travel–it’s your list! But there are a few to get you thinking. (This is the part where you actually take two minutes to write the list. Tasha’s insightful and inspiring post on essentialism might help.)

Okay. Now. Time is one of the most precious commodities any of us have to invest. I would assert that emotional energy may be the other, and that they are related through one of my mom’s favorite quotes:

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Consider, then, the goals you’re pursuing and the important things on your list. What is the cost of each–not only in terms of time, but the emotional cost as well? How much of your life are you willing to exchange for a finished manuscript, a book deal, an online presence? For a close relationship with your parents or children? For a physically and mentally healthy body? For the social or environmental causes that are close to your heart?

These are not rhetorical questions; there is no answer or position I’m guiding you to. But the cost of each of the things on your list–those most precious, important aspects of your life–is worth considering.

As you look toward 2017, reflect upon how you spent your time and emotional energy in 2016. Unless you’re perfect, there will be adjustments to be made. (I know there are for me.) But know that if you’re investing in the things that are important to you–even if the balance isn’t perfect, even if you sometimes feel you’re falling short–then you’re doing okay. Make those adjustments. Ask for help. And then be fierce and steadfast and work hard.

We got this. Look out, 2017.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

Speak Your Mind: A Real-Time Dictation Experiment

This . . . is going to be an interesting post to write. I need you, Reader, to bear witness to a little experiment.

Here’s the background: I’ve been playing around with Dragon Dictation for my iPhone lately, mostly to record quick ideas that I come up with while I’m in the car and can’t safely type. I’ve found that it picks up on my speech very well. So today, with this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo in mind, I decided to go ahead and purchase the Home version for my PC Laptop. It’s a bit of a splurge, but I feel like it will be worth it to keep my writing flow going. I could just go ahead and keep using the mobile version, but the problem, I’ve found, is that the mobile version will randomly stop recording (maybe because I’ve paused for too long? I’m not sure), and I won’t realize it until I pull my phone out of my pocket to see where I’m at. The PC version isn’t supposed to do that. So far, I’m finding this is true. The mic hasn’t turned off unless I’ve told it to.

Anyway, I mentioned an experiment. This is it. This post that you’re reading right now . . . is the experiment. I’m using Dragon on my laptop for the first time while “writing” this, and I will now tell you, in real time, what’s working for me and what’s not. I know. Meta.

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So here’s the first thing I’m noticing: remembering to add in punctuation as I speak is really slowing me down. It’s tripping up the flow of my thoughts. In fact, remembering to say “comma,” “period,” and “new line” means my dictation is actually much slower than my typing. This may change as I get used to it, but . . . hmm . . . how about I try something else? How about I just ignore all punctuation, and speak, not as if I’m dictating, but as if I’m casually talking to another person in the room? I can go back and edit in the punctuation and paragraph breaks afterward. (Obviously, most of the punctuation that you’re seeing right now has been added post stream-of-consciousness word vomit.)

The main purpose of writing via dictation for me is to get my thoughts out of my head and onto the screen. Sometimes (not all the time) I have trouble doing that while typing, as if somewhere along the journey between my neural pathways and the muscles in my fingers, my thoughts run out of gas and have to pull over—a bit ironic seeing that I’m writing this post for a blog called Thinking Through Our Fingers.

This occasional brain-to-page disconnect is why editing and revising is so much more pleasant for me than drafting. Once I have my thoughts down, I have something tangible to work with. It’s easier to replace and move around words that are already there.

A way that I’ve sometimes been able to get past this is to switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. And now I have dictation as a third option. And that makes me think of another way in which I will surely be using dictation to assist me with my writing—dictating handwritten pages into my word processor will be so much faster (and easier on my joints) than typing it in.

And here’s something else I’m enjoying about dictating this post. I can get up and move around. I’m not tied to my keyboard. Sometimes pacing and other forms of movement can help get my thoughts flowing, and I know this is true for a lot of other people as well. I may, (dare I even think it?) even find myself dictating my novel while exercising, or doing the dishes, or knitting, or even soaking in the tub. Yes! While taking a bath! With my laptop out of harm’s way, if I speak loudly enough for the mic to pick up my voice, I’m sure it could work. This also means I have no more excuses not to write. Hmm . . . maybe that isn’t such a bonus after all (says the chronic procrastinator.)

Now let’s pause for an update. Remember how in the beginning of this post, I observed that having to dictate punctuation was slowing me down, so I decided to stop? It has now been about five minutes, and I’ve written about 600 words. That would normally take me a half an hour on a REALLY good day—and hour or more on a bad one. Granted, here’s a screenshot of those words:

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Ugh. It’s one huge run-on-sentence, stream-of-consciousness paragraph. The editing may take me at least three times as long as the initial dictation took. Not only will I need to add in punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it looks like I’ll also need to remove or rewrite garbled sentences that I swear sounded much better out loud than they look on the page. But as I said earlier, I’m fine with that. I’m just thrilled to have so many words down so quickly; so many words to work with that would never have made it onto the page before.

Overall, I’d say that for me, this experiment has been a success. I am going to dictate the heck out of my NaNoWriMo novel. It’s going to be so great. I’m am so very, very excited. I may change my tune in December when I’m faced with gargantuan revisions, but for now, I think this is going to work.

Do you use dictation for writing? If so, please tell us in the comments what you think of it, and if you have any good tips!

(Note: I forgot to keep track of how long it actually took me to edit this, but I’d say it was probably around fifteen minutes, for those of you who are interested.)

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Take Care of Yourself!

Last Saturday, I ran a 50-mile relay with two of my siblings and two close friends. This does NOT mean that I ran 50 miles; I ran two five-mile legs of the relay with a couple of hours to relax in between. As I was reflecting on possible blog post topics for this week, I first thought of the relay as a metaphor for writing–I draft a manuscript, and at various points, I pass the baton to my critique partners or beta readers or agent or editor, and I can take a breath and a break while the manuscript still moves forward.

But then I realized that what I did last Saturday doesn’t just have to be a metaphor for writing. There are valuable, direct lessons from that race that influence all of us as writers, and the overall message is this:

Take care of yourself!

Here are some important aspects of that message, all of which probably seem obvious, but all of which writers have a particular temptation to ignore:

First, and most obviously, EXERCISE! This is extra important for me because I get grumpy when I don’t exercise, in much the same manner that I get grumpy when I go too long without writing time. Physical activity is valuable for all writers, whether this means walking, running, swimming, team sports, dance… Whatever gets your body moving will make you healthier and happier, which will clear your mind and improve your writing.

Second, EAT BETTER! I’m not advocating radical or extreme measures here, but again, you will feel better and think better and write better if the fuel you’re putting the right kind of fuel into your body, and the right amount. (Full disclosure: I eat junk food and drink soda almost every day. But I do make sure to eat more good stuff than bad stuff!)

Third, SLEEP! Our critique group has an ongoing (and hilarious!) Facebook conversation, and one of the things some of our members do sometimes is post the gibberish lines they typed when they fell asleep at the computer. Although they are loads of fun to read (“God only knows what the guardians would do to him if they ever found out about pigs…”), they do illustrate the principle that our best writing doesn’t happen when we’re overly fatigued.

Fourth, BE OUTSIDE IN THE SUNSHINE, BREATHING FRESH AIR! Enough said.

Fifth, SPEND TIME WITH PEOPLE WHO MAKE YOU HAPPY! Whether you go to lunch with a friend, snuggle up with your kids, go on a date with your significant other, or gab in a car while asphyxiating yourselves with your own relay-induced BO, spending time with people who make you happy is an incredible boost, and one that even the most introverted writer needs on a regular basis.

After all those tips, here’s my final one: ALL THINGS IN MODERATION, INCLUDING MODERATION! There will be times when you sit at your computer, day and night, binge-scarfing chocolate and isolating yourself from the world. And that’s okay–sometimes that’s just what you need during or after your endurance is tested. Sometimes that’s how you take care of yourself, for a little while anyway.

Readers, we love you. So, one more time, take care of yourselves! Your writing will thank you.

What tips do you have for writers to take care of themselves? Which of the above are the most important to you? Which are the hardest and the easiest for you to live by?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂