Skipping Through Time: The Whys and Hows

Most books proceed through a chronological version of events at a relatively regular pace. An author might jump forward a few hours, or even a few days, but skipping over months or even years of the narrative is somewhat less common. In my current manuscript I ultimately decided upon a two year time jump near the beginning of the story. I decided upon this jump because I did not want to spend the first fifty or so pages trying to explain complicated backstory with conversations and internal dialogue. I tried. It turned out it was much more efficient, not to mention interesting, simply to show the events as they happened, then to jump forward to the inciting incident.

A time jump can be useful for avoiding repetition of similar incidents. Perhaps your characters are on a journey. While narrating a few key incidents along the way can be interesting, reading a detailed narration of every step of a long journey (especially in a pre-industrial world, wherein travel could take months) can easily become tedious. How many campfires can your characters sit around before they all start to read a bit the same? I have several points in my manuscript in which characters are traveling from point A to point B, and they all make use of time jumps to some extent. On the last leg of one journey I cover three days in one sentence: “we are on the road another three days before we arrive, just before nightfall on the third day.”

An author might also find a time jump useful if your character matures over the course of the novel, growing from a child to an adult. My two year time jump starts off with events that take place when the main character is a teenager, and when we rejoin her story, she is a young adult. The thing about growing up is that we all do it, and while a coming of age story has its place, if your intent is not to tell one, then there is not a lot of reason to recount the character’s whole childhood or adolescence. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series does this well, starting off when Phedre is a young girl but skipping over great swaths of her childhood, only giving us select glimpses of important moments. We pick up the true thread of the story once Phedre grows into adulthood, although the backstory provided by the sections dealing with her childhood are integral to understanding her character.

So if you’ve decided you need a time jump, how will you execute it? When reading Kushiel’s Dart I was particularly impressed with the way that Carey handled her time jumps. Carey masterfully employs telling when telling is necessary, breaking the “show don’t tell” rule when telling is the best way to move the story forward. When Carey wants to avoid describing her main character’s encounter with a patron that would likely be much similar to a previous encounter, she writes “Of that assignation, perhaps the least said, the better. Suffice it to say that D’Essom’s ager had not cooled, and I was glad of it, for it suited my mood.” Sometimes a brief summary of the events skipped is enough so that the reader does not feel lost, a few lines, even a paragraph, depending on how much is skipped.

Other times, a more abrupt approach can work as well. If you’re skipping months or years, summarizing the events can take up too much space with little payoff. For my two year time jump I started the first post jump chapter with the header two years later. Occasionally I refer back to events that took place during those two years, just to give a sense that time did in fact pass. However, for all intents and purposes the intervening two years are fairly uneventful, so there’s no real need to linger over them (that’s why I skipped them in the first place after all).

Regardless of how you decide to execute your time jump, it is important to let your reader know that one is happening. Jumping forward in time with no warning is disorienting for the reader, even if you are only jumping forward a few days. Make sure that you find a way to signal the jump, either with a heading, a summary, or some combination of both. However, don’t be afraid of using time jumps. Many beginning writers make the mistake of over-narrating each and every detail, forgetting that readers are generally not interested in the minutiae of your character’s every day existence. A sure fire way to exceed your planned word count, not to mention slow your book’s pace, is to show the parts that you should be telling and recount the parts that you should be skipping.

General Writing

Lessons in Pacing

As I make my final revision before I query, one of the last aspects of writing that I am learning is pacing.

I long ago learned the trick of varying sentence length to increase tension. I’ve learned, too, such tricks of spacing dialog at regular intervals in a scene to increase or decrease readers’ attention, and half a dozen other tricks besides. However, I never learned how to pace an entire book until I had a nearly complete manuscript.

Like many writers, in my first draft or two, I had no idea of how long my finished manscript might be. I originally planned on a single book. However, two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I realized that the complete story would need to be divided into two books at a minimum. At the same point in the second draft, I realized that I would need a trilogy – something I swore that I would never write. I could persist in one or two books, but the story would be rushed and poorly told.

However, I didn’t worry much about the pacing until I accepted that I was doing a trilogy. Deciding where to end the first book, I found a natural climax almost immediately. However, in the first two drafts, the climax took a chapter. It was not that important, although I had always felt that the next chapter was a new start. To serve as a climax, the chapter had to be expanded to two or three. So, right away, I had to find a way to draw out the action and keep it interesting.

That was just the start of the change in pace. With the climax’s increased importance, I had to change the pace throughout. If the story were to rise to an exciting climax, I had to replot to have more encounters between the protagonists and the antagonists. That meant three new chapters, and heavy revision of several more. Mindful of the fact that Dracula works largely because the titular character has limited appearances, I also wanted to find ways to limit my antagonists’ appearances.

These changes had a ripple effect, throwing off the pace of the romance between my two main characters. Their personal story also needed to be re-paced, interwoven reasonably seamlessly around the main conflict. I was especially proud when one of the new chapters managed to advance both the main conflict and the romance sub-plot at the same time.

As I write, I am wrapping up the first book. However, already, I can see the ripple of changes continuing, and meeting other currents of revision. Most notably, the name of the second book means that events that originally started towards the end of the second book now occupy the whole of the second, and that another sub-plot has become much more important. As I turn my attention to the second book, I expect still more ripples, some scenes gaining importance and others becoming less important, rearranged, or even deleted altogether.

In the middle of this process, I have also learned that the distinction I once had between outlining and discovery writing has changed. As I think about pace, I have to outline far more than I did in my first drafts. Yet, at the same time, while revision of the whole means that I have to define my goals more clearly that in early drafts, I still need to allow room for innovation as I write. The distinction has far less meaning than I once imagined – both outlining and discovery, I have learned, are necessary to my way of working.
I doubt I would have learned any of these things except for refining my story. For that reason alone, I am glad that I persisted.


#Ownvoices, Authenticity, and Orientalism

I’ve written about authenticity before. It’s a topic that, no matter how often I write about it, never exhausts itself for me. A large part of my hate-on for the concept of authenticity comes from my years living in China, during which I was occasionally subjected to the rantings of fellow travelers who would express dismay that the city where I lived was too “Westernized.” Where is the “real China” they’d ask, hoping for some insider information, as if, by virtue of living in China for such a long time, I might know where the authenticity was hiding. Which village, which neighborhood, which experience, would give them the Instagrammable China they were hoping for. They didn’t endure twenty four hours of travel for Starbucks and Burger King after all.

This line of thinking always enraged me. Rich kids driving BMWs and sipping PSLs while wearing Gucci in Beijing were the real China, just as my sister in law selling leeks at the village market wearing a ratty blazer and sleeve protectors was also the real China. The criteria for authenticity is fairly straightforward: are you in China or does the experience involve Chinese people? Congrats, your experience is authentic.

The concept of authenticity, when applied to cultures and the products of those cultures has always had uncomfortable ties to colonialism and orientalism. The idea that cultures exist only to entertain and inform outsiders is not a new one, but this idea also intersects with publishing’s relatively recent emphasis on diversity in storytelling, and in particular, with the #ownvoices movement.

The #ownvoices hashtag was created as a way to highlight and amplify stories written by marginalized creators about characters that share those marginalizations. Increasingly, publishing and media in general have become aware of just how important representation is, particularly for children and teenagers, and #ownvoices is one way to ensure representation – that Black teenagers can read books that feature magical heroes that look like them, that Chinese-American kids like mine can see their culture represented in graphic novels, that Muslim children can read picture books about fasting for Ramadan. These representations, created by writers and artists who share the same background with the main characters, while not guaranteed to be 100% unproblematic, are usually less likely than those written by cultural outsiders to contain harmful stereotypes or outright racism.

Unfortunately though, we white folk are not. And, much like the travelers in China who complain about authenticity, white readers (and sometimes even publishing industry pros) often forget that the point of an #ownvoices book is not to educate white readers about another culture. A few weeks ago Arvin Ahmadi’s book How It All Blew Up was released. How It All Blew Up is a queer Muslim book by a queer Muslim author and yet many reviewers criticized the book for not being “Muslim enough.” One (non Muslim) reviewer said “I don’t really get how this can be labeled as a Muslim book, when that was not at all a main point, or even a side point in this book.” She was not alone in this sentiment. The popular criticism seemed to be that there was not enough “Muslim stuff” in the book. Ahmadi’s presentation of a relatively secular Muslim family was clearly not the exercise in cultural tourism that they expected. Ahmadi himself says, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, that “this is a religion of a billion people, so if you get five Muslim people together … they all practice differently. Some may be more secular, some may be more devout, and I would love to see that full range represented in queer Muslim stories.” Despite this, the (again, non-Muslim) reviewers seem to reject the notion that there is room in fiction for different kinds of Muslim representation.

Perhaps such reviewers should keep in mind that Ahmadi’s book was not written to educate non-Muslims about Islam. While education may be a happy by-product of #ownvoices writings, the assertion that such books must by their very nature adhere to an outsider’s concept of a culture, must satisfy the cultural outsider’s curiosity in order to be valid or useful, is an assertion that is rooted in orientalism. Just as the tourist exclaims that the big city is not the “real China” and demands that the country, which has existed for thousands of years on its own, satisfy their desire for a commodified cultural package, the reader devours #ownvoices novels as a cultural voyeur and demands the writer create an image of the culture which is suitably “exotic” and fascinating. To the cultural outsider a “good” diverse read should have just a hint of the “other,” perhaps foreign language words, some unfamiliar religious rituals, or a titillating cultural practice (see: white people’s love of novels about arranged marriages). Diverse reads that feature characters that just simply exist, rather than putting their marginalizations (and often, their oppression and trauma) on display find little welcome with these readers.

#Ownvoices is an important movement, and white readers can and should read diverse books by diverse authors. Reading and enjoying books is not the problem, but just as traveling should be done ethically and responsibly, so should reviewing. Cultural outsiders commenting on the authenticity of the culture represented, as if diverse books exist solely for their own edification, is bad enough. It is worse when publishers and agents insist upon a certain type of #ownvoices story, and pigeonhole the writer into a certain kind of representation. Chinese-American stories do not have to feature Tiger parents, Muslims do not have to be devout, Black stories do not have to be about police violence. And while they may feature these elements, if that is the story the writer wishes to tell, outsiders have no business dictating which narratives are and aren’t authentic to the cultures presented. The #ownvoices tag was not created so that white readers could be entertained by the “other,” with the expectation that writers satisfactorily perform their cultures for the cultural outsider. #Ownvoices creates non-harmful representation for the readers who truly need it, the kids, like mine, whose cultures are so often presented only in caricature. What does authenticity in representation mean to my twelve-year-old? “It means people who get it, mom.”