Writer’s Block Party is honored to host literary agent, Peter Knapp, for this week’s #DVPit blog hop. For more information on #DVPit go here: dvpit.com
In my apartment, sitting on top of my armoire, is a large shoebox full of keepsakes: ticket stubs and playbills, museum maps and gallery catalogues, postcards and birthday notes, party invitations, bookmarks, articles, recipes. I began collecting these things shortly after I started dating my now-husband, Jacob, when I realized with the arrogant confidence of a 23-year-old in love that we were almost certainly going to get married and someday may want to tell our story to others or, more likely, to ourselves. I hoped these keepsakes would help us remember it.
But of course, I’ve only sort of done my job. There is no order. I have not arranged all these breadcrumbs from our relationship neatly in a scrapbook with useful annotations and dates. Instead, when I find myself holding onto, say, the photo booth pictures of Jacob and me from my brother’s wedding, I just get on my tippy-toes and slip the paper under the lid.
When I finally take this box down, what story will it tell? Some of these things will be easy to place, and others will leave us confused: did we see that play together? Or: could that possibly have been ten years ago? Or: what the hell is this? Jacob will undoubtedly remember exactly what year everything happened; he has a preternatural ability to place events in time, always starting his childhood stories with the year, sometimes even the month. I, meanwhile, will give my best guess: “Definitely sometime after 2010,” the year before we met.
We all must learn to navigate time, and yet it’s such a slippery thing, easy to quantify and yet so hard to account for. So how does it shape our stories?
Here are a few questions about time to ask as you write and revise your manuscript:
Where in time are we?
This is basic but essential: when you write, be more like my husband and less like me. Know where events fall in time. One of the most common notes I put in clients’ manuscripts is: “Where are we in time?” or some variation on this theme. It is important readers understand where they are in the calendar year, but also how much time is passing between scenes—if you don’t communicate this to the reader, you will leave them disoriented. I often tell my clients to get out a calendar and place their scenes on specific dates. Sometimes doing this will reveal flaws in pacing of events and the character arcs, too; for example, if a book takes place over a school year but 50% of the events happen in a two week span in March, that may be a sign that too much is happening in too short of a period of time, making the timeline feel lopsided.
How is your character experiencing time?
Is time moving slowly for your character, or quickly—and why? For example, if your character is really excited to do something after class but must sit through the endless banter of a boring teacher first, you can bet time will be moving slowly. Try to reflect this in your word choice and narration.
What are the horizon events and how do your characters feel about them?
By horizon events, I mean things that your protagonist and secondary characters are anticipating in the future. For example, is your protagonist excited to graduate and get out of their small town? Is another character anxious about graduating because they’re struggling to imagine a future for themselves? Is a character nervous about an upcoming robotics competition? What your characters are anticipating and the different ways they feel about these horizon events will tell us a lot about their relationship to the future. It will also create a sense of the building narrative as the story approaches these anticipated events and we see how the stakes of these events may escalate, and how the characters’ feelings about them may change over time.
Another element of horizon events is the “ticking clock”, in which time becomes the antagonist. This is when your character has to do something by a certain deadline—or face the consequences. The most obvious version of this is a time bomb: your character must defuse an explosive before it goes off. But, of course, there are many other instances of a ticking clock—for example, in Nicola Yoon’s THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR, Natasha and her family, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica as undocumented immigrants, are being deported at the end of the day by I.C.E.—and Natasha must try to find an eleventh hour solution that will allow them to stay before the day’s end.
What are the characters’ landmark memories?
In other words, when your characters are going through their proverbial shoeboxes, what are the memories that will stand out the most, and how were they formative to your characters? It may be something in a character’s past that they regret or are ashamed of; it may be something that is a source of pride; or it may be something that they just don’t quite understand, and over the course of the novel we see how their relationship to this memory—to their own past—will evolve.
What does your character view as temporary and what does your character view as permanent?
In other words, does your character expect certain things will change with time, and certain things won’t? In Melanie Conklin’s debut novel COUNTING THYME (what a perfect book to use to discuss the passage of time), eleven-year-old Thyme Owens must move with her family from San Diego to New York City so that her sick younger brother can enroll in a new clinical drug trial. Thyme believes that this is a temporary situation, but she’s unsure how long it will last—and this uncertainty drives a lot of the anxiety she feels about the future and about her living situation. Compare this to a story about grief—about someone dealing with the death of someone they love, something that cannot be changed. And of course, all great stories have gray areas: a character may think something is permanent but discover it is temporary, or vice versa. Or maybe they just aren’t sure whether it’s permanent or temporary.
There are countless other questions you can ask about your story and your characters’ relationships with time: Does a character feel prepared for the future or overwhelmed by it? Are they deeply nostalgic, experiencing events by the memories they will make, or are they forward-leaning, always moving through life like a checklist? Whether your character keeps a to-do list taped to their front door or a shoebox of photographs above their armoire, they exist at the meeting point between their past and their future—and like all of us, they must negotiate with both.
To see how time factors into our stories, get a copy of your favorite middle grade or young adult novel and mark up every instance where you can see time working its way into the story, making note of how the author’s diction and syntax reflects the characters’ changing relationships to the past and the future. Then do the same for your manuscript.
Fueled by the thrill of reading a new story for the first time, Peter works creatively with his clients and the PLM team on marketing, branding initiatives and promotions to get great books into the hands of readers. Before joining PLM, he was a story editor at a book-scouting agency working with film clients, and he continues to look for new ways to partner with Hollywood on adaptations and multimedia properties. His clients include New York Times bestsellers Soman Chainani, Lindsay Cummings and Brenda Drake, and Lambda nominee Will Walton. You can learn more about Park Literary at www.parkliterary.com, and you can find Peter online on Twitter (@petejknapp) and Tumblr (www.petejknapp.com).