Clean Up Your Use of Time
This second post on self-editing revolves around the use of time. In the next post, I will write about time sequencing and flashbacks.
For the first article, What You Can Do Before You Send a Manuscript To An Editor! Click Here.
For the third article in this series, read Wrong Timing Will Sink Your Memoir. Click here.
1. The historical present looks like the past, but it isn’t.
What tense are you going to use to narrate your story?
For must writers, that choice is clearly the historical present—i.e., the past tense. When you write, “She walked into the room,” while the verb is in the past, the reader sees the character walking into the room. It is as if she were walking in right on the page. Although the action is written in the past tense, it comes across as the present. This is why it is called the historical present.
Before sending your manuscript in to be professionally edited, ascertain that your “present” is consistent. For most people, the “present” will be in the past tense. If you have used the present tense for your “present,” be sure all your action is in the present tense: no mixing allowed!
2. A clear relationship between times in a narrative helps interpret the story.
The use of time—hours, days, years—in a memoir (and in other forms of writing) is an essential meaning-making element. If you think of a memoir as a sort of map which the reader can follow to reconstruct a life, then the proper notation of time is necessary for any memoir to add up to meaning. How you make use of time will change the reader’s correct interpretation of your facts.
You write: “I played with a symphony orchestra when I was young.” Interesting, but vague as to time. Your having performed with a professional orchestra as a young person deserves our attention. It is impressive—but we do not yet know how impressed we should be. If you played when you were 10 years old, congratulations! You are a musical prodigy. If however you were invited to play with the symphony when you were 15, you were certainly exceptionally gifted. And then, if you took a seat with the symphony when you were 25, you have the reader’s admiration once more as you are obviously talented. At 25, however, you are still young but certainly not prodigy material.
Many memoirs that have I edited suffer from vague timing. When things happened is set in a bit of a blur. The above symphony example highlights the different interpretations we can bring to facts in a memoir—if we have proper timing. The vague “when I was young” is open to many interpretations. Proper timing eliminates blurring.
Specific dates are a useful tool for clarity. Use them whenever you can. Dates are markers that point you in the direction you must take to evaluate the narrative. If you can’t remember specific dates—November 27, 1976—then at least include a general season—the late fall of 1976.
Without a date or a year, we may not know whether you are 10, 15 or 25—whether you are a prodigy or talented.
Self-editing can correct these problems.
3. Time sequencing is meaning making.
Generally speaking, it is more effective to write about events as they occur in the memoir universe rather than to write all you know about one topic or character and then all you know about another.
For instance, if you are writing about your life and want to include your sister, it is clearer to write about what happened to her when she was 16 at a time in your memoir when she was 16. Subsequently, in your memoir—just say you are 25 when she is 20, then you mention things that happened to her when she was 20. This makes it easier to understand the sequencing of events in your memoir rather than to have her lifestory all in one chapter without any correspondence to what was happening either in your life or in the life of other characters in the memoir.
The above suggestions can all be effected by self-editing, and they can go a long way towards saving a writer editing fees.
For more free articles on editing, click here. : here.
Good luck with your writing—and your self editing.