Revising Leah

August 14, 2008

Chicken or Egg? (Time, Part 1)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:45 am
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(It’s been a few days since I posted last. As September approaches, I’ve had a lot of distractions which have kept me away from the novel, and since I’m trying to read the novel out loud, the moments are rare when I have a chance to sit down and read alone. Sometimes I’m working near other people, and I don’t want to sit there, by myself, seemingly talking to myself as I work. People think I’m strange enough as it is. Therefore, this cycle of revision has gone very slowly. I’ve been working for several days and I’m only up to chapter 12 [not even halfway through]. Hopefully, my pace will pick up again soon.)

One of the things that I need to do as a writer in order to keep track of the plot is establish a calendar of events. As I write, I take note of when events occur in relation to each other. It’s especially important when writing about school, because weekdays and weekends are completely different experiences. I can’t simply write, “and the next day . . . and the next day . . . and the next day . . .” because eventually I’ll bump up against a weekend (or a holiday) that I need to account for.

Time is a very important element in Leah, so I thought what I would do for the next couple of posts is write about time and how I use it in the novel. In my next post, I’ll describe how I use time thematically, but in this post I’ll discuss some of the nuts and bolts issues regarding how I deal with time when writing and revising my stories.

The first draft of Leah, which I wrote out by hand in a notebook some thirteen years ago, includes a “calendar page”. Here, I scribbled out a calendar, circling and making note of the dates of important events in the novel. This calendar is something that I referred to frequently as I wrote that first draft, and I’ve referred to it a few times during this revising project. One thing that I haven’t been sure about is whether that calendar is still relevant. I’ve mentioned before how I imagine Leah and my other novel, The Spring, as constituting two stories set in the same fictional universe. Leah takes place during ninth grade and The Spring is set three and a half years later during twelfth grade. Since both novels occupy different points on the same time line, their calendars must also match.

When writing and revising The Spring, I also kept a detailed calendar of the events in that novel. The Spring is bit more compact, in terms of time, than Leah. The Spring takes place over a period of only 26 days while Leah lasts a little more than three months. Since I published The Spring last winter, I’ve decided to let the calendar of The Spring anchor the calendars of the other two novels in the trilogy. (It’s actually sort of a chicken-and-egg dilemma with respect to which novel came first. Technically, The Spring was written first, about three years before I wrote the first draft of Leah, but I published Leah first back in the 1990s. But since I’ve disavowed that edition of Leah, the publication of The Spring a few months ago represents a new start — a reboot — of the series. It’s all very confusing!)

So using The Spring as the anchor, and keeping a perpetual calendar handy, I’ve counted back three and a half years and found — to my amazement (and convenience) — that the calendar I created for Leah thirteen years ago fits perfectly with the calendar of The Spring. I don’t know if that is just a lucky coincidence, or if, at some point in my revising work on The Spring, I brought that story’s calendar in line with the calendar of Leah. Revising The Spring was a long, on again-off again process that lasted several years. I know that I didn’t get the idea of placing the two stories in the same fictional universe until after I wrote and published the first edition of Leah, so sometime in the late 1990s, when I first started revising The Spring for possible publication, I must have revised the calendar of The Spring to bring it in line with Leah. I don’t remember doing that, but it sounds like something I would do. Whatever, as of right now, I have a definite calendar set for the story. Leah begins on Saturday, August 22 and ends on Monday, November 30. (I should do something to celebrate August 22 next week — maybe go to a garage sale. ;))

In what year is the story set? That’s something that I don’t ever answer. While I pay careful attention to the days and months in which the stories are set, I’ve resisted assigning a specific year to either Leah or The Spring just because I think that if I do that, then I’m setting the story in the past, and I want it to seem as contemporary as possible for as long as possible. Of course, there are cultural artifacts mentioned in the stories, like cell phones, mp3 players, the Internet, and — perhaps — gasoline powered internal combustion engines which place the stories sometime in the early 21st century, but I don’t want to get any more specific than that.

Something else that I ought to do soon, which I’ve never done before (not even for The Spring) is figure out exactly what the time schedule is for the fictional high school where both stories are set. I’ve established that Leah’s school day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m. — a generic school schedule. She has six classes during the day — three classes before lunch and three after (and in chapter four of the book I list what her classes are), but what I haven’t done is identify exactly how long the periods last and when the bells ring. I need to do this for Leah’s history class, at least, since time, with respect to that class, becomes very important in a couple of the chapters.

I consider the treatment of time and its relationship to the plot to be one of the most crucial elements when structuring and organizing a story. Paying attention to those little details can only enhance the illusion of realism. I’ve seen stories (movies and TV shows more so than novels) where time lines were handled sloppily and it definitely takes me out of my enjoyment of a story if I have to try to figure out what is happening when. So it’s important that I get the calendar right for my novel. In the next post, I show you just how important time really is for Leah Nells.

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