We all have a lifetime’s training in time and waiting.
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Waiting to start school. Waiting for exam results. Waiting to meet The One. Waiting for medical news. Waiting in vain for someone to turn up. Waiting to give birth. Waiting for your child to start school. Waiting for your article to be in the paper. Waiting for your publisher to make a decision.
This lifetime’s training in waiting and time is useful to a writer.
‘How long does it take to write a novel? A short story?’ is a regular question when meet people in talks or workshops. I resist saying how long is a piece of string? I do mention that Barbara Cartland wrote dozens of novels a year and JK Rowling apparently took five years to write the first Harry Potter novel.
My own answer is that it takes about eighteen months for me to research and write each novel. I can only conclude that because I’m looking back at quite a few.
A big part of the novelist’s toolkit is the management of time. I was reminded of this recently when editing my latest novel The Bad Child.
Questions of time for the editing process
How does time feature in lives of the characters for the duration of the novel? A day? (See Ian McKewan’s Saturday) A month? (See JL Carr’s A Month in the Country.) My own new one takes place over a year in the life of twelve year old Dee. A generation? Almost any saga of families of high or low estate. Of course embedded within these novels – such is the magic of fiction – is the whole of the lives of the characters within them.
· A most important time question in the editing process is how does the narrative deal with time? Does it jump backwards or forwards in invigorating leaps? Does it run forward smoothly, almost unnoticed? Most importantly how will this work for the reader?
· Then there’s an important question regarding the timescale of the background of the narrative. War campaign? A political campaign? The duration of a strike? (See my novel Lizza.) A day of festivities such as Bonfire Night or the Coronation? Your decision is whether you mark this element of time as a distinctive aspect of your novel or let it act as an unobtrusive background, perhaps making the story more generic, more universal.
Importance of time in the editing process.If you have let the novel grow organically as I tend to, it’s really only at the editing stage that you realise just what you’ve done and how you’ve done it. This is when you make sure that it will work for the reader. It’s something like fiddling with the innards of a clock to make sure it will tick away accurately on the background of your life. Once the job is finished, you don’t need to see the works of a clock to feel that time is significant in your life. The reader doesn’t need cues and clues to notice the passing of time in a novel unless the background is essential to the way the narrative works.
Stop Press:shiny copies of my new novel The Bad Child have just arrived. Early readers have commented that it ‘races along’. I was not so conscious of that when I was writing it. My preoccupation with the passing of time must have bitten deep into my soul and the pace of this novel – one year in a child’s life - is at the level of writer’s intuition, which is where it should be.