Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Time After Time

For every pitfall I think I’ve successfully sidestepped when it comes to shaping and structuring a novel, I encounter new and unexpected challenges. I consider this a good sign because at least I’ve gotten better at recognizing them as they materialize, which was not always the case. Someday, maybe I’ll figure these things out before I even start, but – baby steps.

My WIP started out in the present time, shifted to an earlier point in time and my initial intention was to bring the story back to the present time for resolution. I then realized I would need to also include a third period of time and I would have to shift between periods a fair amount.

It was serendipity that a week ago I happened to read America America, by Ethan Canin. It begins in the present day and alternates between the present and roughly 1971 and then to another past time period around 1975. Ethan Canin managed to shift between the time periods seamlessly. He didn’t even wait for new chapters in order to do it. There are chapters that have scenes in them from two and sometimes three time periods, but it works.

Up until now I’ve been writing my WIP in the order in which a reader would read it. I’ve been shifting between the past and present at the points where it seems to make sense to me now. I’ve heard that another author who wrote a book with multiple time lines actually wrote the storyline for each time period and then meshed them together afterward. This approach makes a lot of sense to me, since it allows each time period to retain its own pacing and the characters can retain the voices appropriate to the time. This also makes sense in that it would allow a more objective view of each time period in order to decide what to keep, cut and where to shift from one time period to the next. It seems a little radical, but I’m thinking about giving it a try. Writing the story as I have been, in the order that I think I’ll end up with feels more natural, but something tells me it may not allow for as much creativity.

I’d like to find some more novels to read that use multiple time lines. Thanks to my out of control book buying habit, I think I have at least two. I think (but am not certain) that Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje uses multiple time lines and I know People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks has them.

So, my friends, I am looking for any reading recommendations you may have for books that alternate between different time periods. Chances are I may have one or two more on my TBR stack already.

I’m also looking for thoughts and ideas on the approach to writing this kind of structure.

Has anyone structured a story like this?

I suspect many people would recommend keeping time periods in their own separate chapters – although Ethan Canin managed to shift within chapters – yes, I know. I’m no Ethan Canin and just because he managed to do it does not mean that I can.

Or can I?

Thoughts and ideas?


Stephen Parrish said...

It's been a while since I read it, but doesn't Vonnegut do that pretty effectively in Slaughterhouse Five?

Lisa said...

I don't remember either, but I happen to have copy so I can check. Thanks!

Günter said...

I am definitely psyched to read that Ethan Canin novel. As a novelist he's just gotten better and better.

Carry Me Across the Water played a few tricks with time, as well, but probably you've read that one.

Lisa said...

Gunter, Actually I haven't read it, but now that you've tipped me off that it's not a linear narrative, I'm going to order it. Just by dumb luck, I bought THE EMPEROR OF THE AIR back in 1988 when it was released and so I'm a fan, but I haven't read everything. Coincidentally, I'm reading THE ELEVENTH DRAFT, a collection of essays by writers and teachers from the Iowa Workshop and so far, the Ethan Canin essay is my favorite.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

May I point you in the direction of one of the most astounding literary talents out there today: KATE ATKINSON.
There is simply no-one who does this kind of thing better. For example, in Behind the Scences at the Museum, her debut, the protagonist Ruby narrates the story of her own life, starting with the moment she was conceived, and then flitting between past and present, her great-grandmother, the Great War, The Blitz, and back to modern times. In her second book, Human Croquet, the story of Isobel Fairfax and her delightfully curious family is intertwined with that of England itself, going back even further in time. Her third, Emotionally Weird, not only moves effortlessly between past and present, but also between reality and fiction, truth and deception, stories told and stories written, stories within stories. I cannot recommend her highly enough.

Steve Malley said...

Slaughterhouse Five does indeed jump around: after all, it's about a man who is a perpetual time-traveler... but only within his own life.

Definitely read it, but don't emulate it. Part of the point is that this poor sap is always on the wrong foot, finding himself 40 and going through divorce, 19 and scared shitless, 50 and his kids leaving home, etc.

I reckon I'd try to outline the arc of events for each of the three timelines. Pick the main one, then treat the others as subplots. Then you can use those sub-climaxes to bolster the dreaded saggy middle of Act II.

Who am I kidding? I'd be out in the yard, no idea where I was going, shouting at the trees, every few pages. Ouch.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I think Iain Banks does it effectively in Espedair Street. I have plans for three timelines in my next novel. I'll be looking at Kate Atkinson and Ethan Canin now, thanks.

Ello said...

My first finished manuscript had multiple time lines which I clearly was unable to incorporate in a seamless fashion as my feedback proved to me. I am actually really intrigued by your post today because I will definitely read these books before I ever tackle revising the old manuscript. But I did write the stories separately and chronologically and then tried to weave them in together. Evidently I wasn't that good at it! ;o)

Travis Erwin said...

I wasn't crazy about the novel, except the ending but Michael Cunningham did this in The Hours and he won a Pulitzer.

Denis said...


Melissa Marsh said...

The Thirteenth Tale alternates between the past and present - and I loved it.

I can't write out of order. If I do, I lose all sense of the story.

Charles Gramlich said...

I can see pros to writing each time line separately and then meshing them, but that mesh job could be a B****, if you know what I mean.

James Sallis almost never uses linear storytelling. His books Drive and "Ghost of a Flea" particularly illustrate switches back and forth in time.

Shauna Roberts said...

One book that I loved that had two timelines was the sf novel Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. One interesting thing about this book is that one of the time lines was written first and published as a short story and the other time line was later added to make the book a novel.

Lana Gramlich said...

I had a friend back in Canada who fancied himself a writer. Unfortunately, everything just kind of ran together. By the end of the 2nd paragraph, not only couldn't I tell WHEN it was supposed to be, I couldn't keep track of who was talking. I didn't have the heart to tell him to keep his day job.
Best of luck to you, however!

Lisa said...

Orchid Hunter, Great recommendations! I checked them out and ended up ordering her first two books. I always trust your judgment :)

Steve, I think you'd handle it flawlessly. Hmm -- maybe that's another alternative. I could roughly sketch the arc and where I think they'll intersect and then...hmm.

Rachel, I don't know that one. I suspect I'll like it though. I am checking it out and I'll let you know if I end up reading it. Thanks!

Ello, It's amazing how many times I read a book and I'm completely oblivious to something they've done that took an incredible amount of skill. It's like ballet -- it looks effortless, but it's incredibly difficult. Glad this got you thinking about going back to your old ms!

Travis, I never read it, but I did like the movie. I may have to try it out -- thanks!

Denis, Hi!!!!!

Melissa, I've heard good things about that book -- another one to check out.

Charles, James Sallis -- another one to check out. It's amazing how many people have done this and I never gave any thought to how complicated it actually is.

Shauna, Another one to check out! Hey, that's pretty cool. I've read several books and felt like I was experiencing deja vu, only to find out I'd read an excerpt in the New Yorker or somewhere already.

Lana, Ha! It's my secret fear that the world views me that way too!

Larramie said...

Definitely ORCHID HUNTER, Lisa. That read so smoothly.

Sustenance Scout said...

The Time Traveler's Wife is a typical book-clubbing book with an atypical jump-all-around timeline. I got hooked after a while, though the other titles recommended here sound much more weighty. Yet more great additions for the list! K.

Carleen Brice said...

Lisa, I have The Hours and The Time Traveler's Wife (one of my fave books!), if you'd like to borrow them.

Also, are you taking any Litfest classes? I'm taking Karen Palmer's class about keeping the big picture and the small picture alive at the same time. Not exactly what you're talking about, but it sounds like a great class.

rebecca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Günter said...

Lisa, I agree that Ethan Canin's is at least one of the best essays in The Eleventh Draft, though I can't remember the book well enough to confidently say which was my favorite. I checked it out at the library a long time ago and basically kept it for a couple years, until I finally decided I should probably bring my library books back. :) I remember that his contribution was really encouraging - not because he was saying, "You can do it, one word at time," etc., etc., but because he was candid about how difficult things were for him when he was in Iowa, how he got in on the strength of a couple stories and barely (or never?) wrote a word while he was actually enrolled. Good stuff for someone who has trouble with momentum.

As far as other non-linear recommendations, I can second the earlier mention of The Time Traveler's Wife. You'd have fun with that one. I think because it was so popular for a while it wasn't taken seriously enough in certain circles.

Günter said...

I had to delete the comment before mine because I accidentally posted it using a friend's Google account. D'oh.

Jennifer said...

I definitely think you can do it, Lisa. :)

Structure is one of my biggest challenges, and it seems like the longer a piece is, the harder it ends up being. My novel-in-progress (not the DC piece) switches between two time periods, and I've toyed with the idea of breaking them into separate books, but my instinct tells me they have to go together.

I like the idea of writing each timeline individually and then trying to mesh them together. I've put the thing aside because I need to do some more research, but that might be how I approach it when I pick it back up again. So thanks for the idea!

No titles are jumping to mind at the moment, but if I think of one, I'll come back and post it.


Sustenance Scout said...

Well jeez, I am a book snob, aren't I?! I did enjoy The Time Traveler's Wife, just had a slow time warming up to it at first. There are many scenes from it I'll always remember, mostly because of Audrey Niffenegger's wry humor. I'll bring a copy to LLL tomorrow if you're going, Lisa; I bet you'd get some intriguing suggestions from that group too. K.

a cat of impossible colour said...

It's so early in the morning that I have nothing intelligent to add (give me coffee!), but here's my stone ... (o)

Actually, I can add something - I have never structured one of my novels in different timelines ... for some reason my stories have never lent themseves to it. But I admire people who can do it successfully. It's the writing equivalent of spinning plates, I think.

a cat of impossible colour said...

Oops, typo in 'themselves', sorry :)

Lisa said...

Larramie, Did you really mean ORCHID HUNTER? I don't know that one. Maybe THE ORCHID THIEF?

Karen, THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE is getting a lot of green lights. I've had an irrational resistance to reading it for a while and I can't explain why that is. I guess that's what makes it irrational :) I think I've reconsidered.

Carleen, I would love to borrow THE HOURS (and I see I can borrow TTW from Karen). If you're going to the LLL tomorrow, maybe you can bring it?

Gunter, Ha! You win the prize for the longest overdue books. I did see an episode of Seinfeld where the library cop came to his house for not bringing a book back for seventeen years, so I don't think you have the record ;) Yes, I liked Canin's essay for that reason, but also because he focused on the need to let an image or a moment in time or some small thing be the impetus for the story and let it determine where the story will go. We all initially want to start with big ideas and fill in the blanks and his point was that it should go the other way. I really like that.

And I think you hit the nail on the head of my reverse snobbery (yes I admit it, so sue me!) and resistance to reading TTW.

Jennifer, It's amazing how frigging HARD this is! Trying to figure out an entire novel feels like when you try to assemble one of those cheap storage units alone and as soon as you've got one side put together, the other side falls apart.

And...the book has arrived, so as soon as I'm done with THE ELEVENTH DRAFT, I'm starting in with Carrie Brown :)

Cat of impossible colour (I love that!) and I'm so glad you decided to comment. I think spinning plates is the perfect image. The ridiculous thing is that I really do know my limitations and despite that, I keep unwittingly getting myself into complicated issues. I suppose the only way to learn is by trying and even if it's abysmal when it's done, I'll have learned a lot. Love your blog!

Shauna Roberts said...

I only read The Time Traveler's Wife because my book group did. I liked it but, as I expected, the science fiction elements and romance elements were not strong enough. It was too literary. Knowing your tastes, you may be thinking the book will have too much science fiction and romance and feel too genre-y.

steve said...

Lisa, I've been wracking my brains trying to think of books that switch back and forth on time, and the first thing I think of is Jack Finney, and Time and Again. While it's a straight time-travel novel, Finney uses a first-person narrator to deal with the more usual time changes--reminiscences and the like. Erich Maria Remarque, in All Quiet on the Western Front, does the same thing in the third person, though it's a virtual first-person narrative. Your WIP is also is also from the virtual first-person POV, so it shouldn't be too difficult to have Tracy tell the intervening story. (I know, easy for me to say, having used a mage to get my character from one time to another.)

Larramie said...

Lisa, you're right, it was ORCHID THIEF but I was obviously not thinking at all yesterday because I forgot my all-time second favorite book -- THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE -- and my #1 favorite -- TIME AND AGAIN!

Btw, I love Scott's "Autumn..."

Billy said...

Timeline books are cool when they're done right! So many great ones out there! Vonnegut did it with a twist in Slaughtehouse-Five.

Riss said...

Water for Elephants does a pretty good job of using past and present though Sara Gruen does it fairly whitebread style where its kept nice and neat. Italo Calvino wrote a book called Invisible Cities which isn't exactly divided by time but the structuring, pace and shifts are really nice I think.

Something I find interesting when playing with time is finding sentences that do double and triple duty based on context. That sounds obvious maybe and it takes a lot of writing but a lot of the books I've read that effectively use time manipulation have these token sentences that seem to bring everything into focus.

Also-I suggest Really Loud and Extremely Close-it blends three stories that happen to the main characters and makes it into something really stellar. Not an outright time distortion but definitely something worth thinking about.

Lisa said...

Shauna, I think you've totally nailed my taste. I get a little squeamish when there's too much romance and I'm not discerning enough to look for much in the science fiction elements (I'll willingly suspend disbelief over some pretty ridiculous things if I like the narrative voice). Karen just let me borrow it, so as soon as I read the one book in front of it, I'm going to give it a try.

Steve, Don't minimize the use of the mage -- I didn't even know what one was!

Larramie, I think you transposed "thief" and "hunter" subconsciously, after seeing the comment from The Electric Orchid Hunter ;)

Billy, I may have to reread Slaughterhouse Five...just because.

Riss, I have INVISIBLE CITIES, although I haven't read it yet. After reading IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER, I am sure that anything else I read by Italo Calvino will only make me want to run my laptop over with the car :) He was incredible. Great picks -- thanks Riss!

Seachanges said...

The Time Traveller's Wife - but as someone else has already commented, there's sci fi in there. The Hours made a great film, which I loved when I saw it (for the first time) a couple of nights ago. It's mesmerising.

Lisa said...

Seachanges, THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE got some pretty overwhelming recommendations and a friend just let me borrow it, so I believe I can now see myself reading it :)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Although I don't remember The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean as being particularly time-swappish, it is one of my favourites, and - after all - inspired my obsession with orchids. It has been majorly influential in my life (not to mention expensive). Read it today! And then read Orchid Fever by Eric Hansen.

Lisa said...

Orchid Hunter, You're killing me with good recommendations! But I do appreciate them. I may need to move out of my house to make room for them all, but I appreciate them. :)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf