Teachers Write 7/15/13 Mini-Lesson Monday with Linda Urban

Happy Monday, everyone! Our guest author for today’s mini-lesson is the inimitable Linda Urban, whose new book THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING made me laugh and cry both. And on top of that, it made me crave donuts, too. You can read my not-quite-a-review of the book over at the Nerdy Book Club, but for now, Linda’s visiting us to talk about something that’s a part of all of our writing lives — time.

Got minute?  Let’s talk time.

One of the coolest things about writing is that we can become masters of time.  We can speed it up, summarizing entire weeks of a school year in a sentence (By the time my daily writing journal was full, I had come to the conclusion that Dana and I would never see eye to eye on this.) or slow time down so that a second-long gesture takes on weight and importance through its extention. (Dana stared at me, her pencil tapping out a funeral march, and I swear I could see the whole history of our friendship erased in the slow, steady shake of her head.).  We use scenes to allow our readers to participate in the important stuff, to feel crucial emotions, to process information along with our characters, to experience action.  We use summary to say: here’s a bit of info you’ll need to know, but you don’t have to fully engage in.

Time is one of the ways that we signal importance.  We usually spend more time with major characters than minor ones.  More time in scenes that detail key actions or emotions than in scenes with little consequence.  You can use this assumption to your advantage.  Want to hide a clue?  How about sneaking it into a scene where the majority of our attention is spent on something else?  Want readers to understand that a moment in a character’s past shapes their current actions?  Don’t just tell us, take the time to show us in a scene.

And what about those really important parts of our story – the ones that mark crucial decisions or key turning points?  We can use time to help those moments stand out in the mind of the reader.

Here’s an example from my most recent novel The Center of Everything, which has time (our perception of it and our desire to manipulate it) as one of its themes.  In this scene, our main character, Ruby, who has been shielding herself from her emotions after the death of her grandmother Gigi, has just seen the color wheel project of her classmate, Nero DeNiro.  The wheel is creative and funny and Ruby laughs a real, genuine laugh and feels for the first time in a long time.   This is what happens next:

 But when she stops laughing, all the little Nero faces start to blur.  And Ruby has a bunch of thoughts.

 One of them is that there is something wrong with her eyes.

Another is that there is something wrong with her ears, because when Lucy says “Are you okay?” it sounds like she’s using a speaker phone.

And another is that maybe there is something wrong with her hands, because they have dropped her pencil to the floor, and even though it makes sense for her to bend over and pick the pencil up, her hands are not moving.  They are just sitting there on her color wheel, covering up all the complement lines. And there are drops of water landing on her hands and on the painted squares of color too, and the red and the orange are mixing all up into some other color that Ruby doesn’t have a name for and for which there is no complement on her color wheel, and she knows she is going to get a bad grade now.

 “Ruby?”  That’s Mrs. Tomas talking.  “Ruby? Did you hurt yourself?”

 What I hoped to do in this bit of the scene was to both slow time down in terms of the way that Ruby is processing and experiencing information, but also speed up the events around her.  I spent time in the scene to put in the details that show how Ruby is experiencing sound, color and movement, so that the reader can truly feel her struggling to make sense of what is happening.  I cut out the details that she doesn’t process, such as Lucy and Nero calling their teacher Mrs. Tomas over to the table to help.   In playing with time in this way, I hoped to signal that this moment was unlike the ones that had come before – that it was important to Ruby and important to the story.

So, how might this work in the story that you are writing?  Have you come to a crucial scene yet?  Is there a key moment you want your readers to slow down and really experience?  Think about that moment and see if you can find one central action in it – the turning of a door handle, the connection of bat to ball, the touch of a fingertip to the nape of a neck – and slow it down.  Slow it way down.

 As an experiment, let’s overdo.  Let’s see exactly how long we can extend this moment.  Keep it moving forward but detail every sense, every thought, every tiny change along the way.  See how long you can make this moment last.

Not in the middle of a project? You can still give this a whirl.  Take a fairy or folk tale you know well, identify a key moment, and extend that.  Can you make the bite of a poisoned apple last for a paragraph?  Two? A page?

When you’re done writing, take a look at what you’ve got.  Chances are what you’ve written is way longer and more detailed than anything you’d want to put into a novel or short story.  But I’m betting you’re going to find some great details in there, some emotions you hadn’t examined before, and some key words or phrases that you’ll want to keep in the scene – and maybe use again in times when you want your readers to remember that crucial plot moment.

 If you did do the experiment using a moment from your work-in-progress, put it aside for a day or two and then see if you can edit it down to something that works for you.  At the very least, I’m betting that this exercise has you thinking about that moment in a more vivid and dramatic way.

Note from Kate: Feel free to share a few lines of today’s writing in the comments if you’d like! Thanks again, Linda, for joining us! And don’t forget, everyone, that Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-Up today, too!

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37 Comments

  1. Posted July 15, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Linda! This is exactly what I needed to hear. My critique group says I’ve sped up the climax of my middle grade novel too much. This will give me a great guide to slowing it down and really letting the reader savor the moment.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      I’ve done the same thing, of course. Part of my current revision is slowing down a couple of key scenes, letting the reader experience the moment (and the setting in particular). Don’t be afraid to slide into super slow motion. You can cut stuff later if you need to.

  2. Posted July 15, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this. I had just been thinking about this concept of time as I’ve been re-reading my WIP and reflecting on passages I like and ones that feel amateur, and then happened on this paragraph from an old article in Writer’s Digest:
    “My favorite exercise is to ask my students to write two pieces, each about a minute long. Piece 1 should rivet the reader; Piece 2 should bore the reader stiff. Each student reads both pieces out loud. Whenever I’ve done this experiment, in almost every instance the result is the same: The “riveting” piece bores, while the “boring” piece holds interest. There are several reasons for this. In their effort to grip us, beginning writers tend to rush: They equate their own adrenaline with that of the reader. Conversely, when trying to bore, the same writers take their time… And—to their consternation—the result mesmerizes. At any rate it holds our attention. But far worse than rushing, in trying to interest us, most writers abandon sincerity and, with it, authenticity.” (Credit/link to that article: http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/10-tips-to-bypass-cliche-and-melodrama )
    .
    I’m going to reflect on these lessons during appointments this morning, and am curious if I’ll find that “rushing” was the error that made a few of those scenes fail. If I have time, I’ll blog what I learned from it, later. Thanks for this. And good luck with your writing today, everyone!

  3. Brian R
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Linda. That was fun and instructive… Here’s a sample:

    It hadn’t been so bad until the rock. His arms and legs flopped like clothes in a dryer. At some point, his fingers lost their grip on the pail, which clanged off in another direction. He noticed the world smelled like a just-mowed lawn, and he had enough time to form this thought: “Ma will explode when she sees grass stains all over my overalls!” He also remembered, from not too many moments ago, the feel of two hands against his back, shoving. Jill’s? Then, he felt the sting of the rock against the side of his skull. Bolts of light cracked behind both his eyeballs, and then he didn’t see or feel anything else.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Kudos Brian.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Such a delicious and dark take on Jack and Jill! I like the moment he considers whose hands had shoved him. It has a bit of the feeling of a car crash and all the random thoughts that might run through your mind in the moment it happens – like that his mother will be mad about the grass stains. Nice.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      So many cool details. Loving the clang and the grass stains. Tells us a lot about his relationship with his mom, too. Nice work!

  4. Gretchen
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Here is something I have been working on….
    Visiting hours started at ten and George didn’t want to be late. He told me he would be done with his dialysis procedure and morning routine early. He was missing his lady, that was evident.
    I could see him peeking around the curtain when I pulled into the driveway. I parked up close to the garage so he wouldn’t have so far to walk. He was locking the back door before I could get to him to help. He clutched his Yankees hat in his hand and put it on as he closed the garage. George paused to cock his hat just a bit to the side, that’s how he wore them, then smiled at me but not like he normally would. Fastening his seat belt, he told me he had chosen the red and black checkered dress shirt he was wearing just for her. He said she always liked this one. Then he looked away. It was all he said to me on the ride.
    Nancy brightened as we appeared in the doorway. As I wheeled George up tightly to the bed, she slowly reached over for his hand. He gently cupped her hand in both of his. Though pretty heavily sedated, she seemed to smile as he spoke to her. Fifty-two years of conversations had led them here. He struggled to fight the tears welling; I know he didn’t want her to see them. He pushed back his shoulders, pulled at his collar.
    Finding it hard to breathe, I glanced at my brother and gestured towards the doorway. He put his arm around me as we moved as one into the hall.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Love love love that detail about the hat, and that special shirt. I\’m curious about your narrator — what details is she noticing that matter to *her*? What can we learn about her that this passage lets us slow down to see? I know this is part of a larger piece, so you probably have answers, but I was curious.

      • Gretchen
        Posted July 15, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        Good questions, Linda! I need to work more on this obviously. I was trying to focus on the hat and the shirt. So do you think the narrator should tell more what she is feeling about this moment?

        • Posted July 16, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

          I think what is here is terrific. I’m really interested in who this narrator is and what he/she makes of it all. I wouldn’t want you to TELL us that, but what if you let the narrator describe the shirt before the man explains that it was Nancy’s favorite? What might we think of the narrator if he/she noticed that it was buttoned up improperly? Or that it was a little frayed at the cuff? Or that it had been neatly ironed? Or that he/she had one like it? Or that he/she worried it was a little too warm for such a hot day? Etc.
          The details that we put in our stories often tell us as much about our narrator as they do about the person/situation being described.
          I go on about this here, because the details are so vivid and so full of possibility. These are people I want to know!
          🙂

          • Gretchen
            Posted July 17, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

            Thanks, that helps a lot. I had a bit of that in there but took it out. Now I know to work on fitting that back in!

  5. Posted July 15, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    At 6:30 in the evening, the couple breezed out of the cold, air-conditioned hotel lobby into the busy, hot street. Locals coming home from work brushed past with cell phones glued to their tired ears and designer sunglasses blocking their eyes. Oblivious to the silent rules of commuters on foot, the tourists admired the architecture and unknowingly stepped in urine from pets that had yet to be washed from the street by the doormen. They were smiley and proud. In only a few days they successfully mastered the art of going out to eat in New York City. Not only were they determined to eat well, but also to find the little “best kept secrets” of the neighborhood on the upper west side.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Interesting beginning to a story. Your tone suggests the author/narrator’s slight disdain for the couple. The streets feel like they’re on a different time standard than the couple. The couple’s time is fleet and ephemeral – the streets have existed and seen the history that this couple is just a blip in.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Wonder if you could slow this down even more and keep your focus on the couple for a few sentences longer? If this is a crucial moment in the story, we may want to stick with the couple and let us feel their wonder and pride even more distinctly before the narrator puts them in the context of pet urine and broken rules. Wonderful details in their actions, though. Particularly admiring the architecture.

  6. Jane
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    The carriage jerked and jostled along the road as her step-mother’s voice prattled on and on, complaining again. Miranda traced tiny swirls in the highly polished wood of the carriage with her little finger. One of the stays of her bodice stabbed at her rib with each bump in the road. There would be no point in asking to loosen it. A spider, barely bigger than a dust mote, swung on an invisible string from the lush green silk roof down to the edge of the window. Barely pausing, it scrambled up again, spinning and weaving all the way. Miranda watched its heroics as the carriage lurched on. It was going to be a long trip.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      You just made Cinderella more current and realistic than I have EVER read her. She could be any teenager on a car trip. Well done – way to connect an ancient archetype character to an authentic human moment! Well done!

    • Tammy Petty Conrad
      Posted July 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      I really enjoyed reading this. Such a simple thing, but yes, it really adds to the story.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Loved how you used this expansion of time in order to emphasize the length of the journey to come — and I love that she sees the spider’s work as heroic. Says a great deal about this character.

  7. Posted July 15, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Brilliant example!! I love the idea of simultaneously slowing and speeding time to increase the significance and heighten the emotion of the moment!

    Thank you for sharing!

  8. Posted July 15, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I chose to write a scene from my Work-In-Progress, a YA novel called The Rude Awakening of Marlon Grunt. One night, unable to bear the loneliness he feels will be his lot in life, Marlon takes what he believes to be an overdose of painkillers, never expecting to wake up again. Imagine his surprise when he does wake, with no one the wiser to his attempt, and in the wrong house.

    The first thing Marlon knew for sure was the true meaning of the term “cottonmouth”.

    Did people get cottonmouth in heaven?

    His tongue was wrapped in sticky fur, and his teeth were coated in glue. His arm reached for the glass of water he always kept on the nightstand, but it was too far away. He turned over to reach with his other hand, but met only air on his express trip to the floor.

    Ow.

    But it wasn’t the pain he’d expect if landing on the linoleum floor of the trailer. The carpet currently mashed in his face smelled faintly of woodsmoke and carpet deodorizer – something flowery. Marlon’s fingers clenched in the cushy pile. Is this what clouds felt like?

    Someone, not his mother or grandmother, asked if he was all right, did he know his name?

    The pit of Marlon’s stomach lurched, and he heard his molars grind in his skull. His eyelids unstuck from each other, and a wavy, blurry vision of a well-pedicured foot and the hem of a soft pink bathrobe.

    Clouds should be that soft and pink.

    But living-room carpet is not clouds, and Marlon felt the hole inside himself reopen and all emptiness of before whoosh in fill it. The hole drew him in, a drain sucking him into the fetal position.

    It hadn’t worked.

    • Jane
      Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      This is a great balance of detail and emotion. I feel the utter hopelessness of the character. It would be easy to overdo this, but it is restrained, which makes it even more powerful.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Really great way to let us into Marlon’s new reality — one detail after another adding up to . . . well, I guess we’ll see, won’t we? I like that the reader and Marlon are piecing this together at the same time.

  9. Christine Benson
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Linda, thank you for this lesson. I have used a similar lesson with some of my more advanced students, I got it from the book, After The End. However, I just went through my WIP, looked at the key places this technique should be, and realized I shrink time more than I stretch it. I have much work to do today. I will post later when I stretch time in my writing.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Looking forward to it. Thanks for the reference.

  10. Tammy Petty Conrad
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Expanding time July 15
    First she heard a muffled, squeaking sound. Then she felt a slight breeze rustle through the hair of her arms. These were unfamiliar. She couldn’t open her eyes, although her mind was fully awake. What was happening? She had been sleeping, sleeping such a long time. It was so lovely after working hard for so long. Then there was a touch to her hand. She couldn’t will her body to move, to recoil against this unwanted advance. Her mind did what her body wouldn’t and she thought of all the possible things that could be happening to her.
    But she couldn’t verbalize them or her resistance. She was as still as the frozen water she had last seen on the surface of the pond. But like the water that kept pumping up from the bottom, her heart beat sharply. Then it was a touch to her face and muffled words. It was a person, but what was he or she doing. Then an unfamiliar touch to her lips and her body felt like it melted from its solid state. Now her limbs were as active as her mind and her eyes flashed open.
    She pushed the unknown assailant away with her arms that were now flailing wildly about. Once his lips released, she grasped for air and began to make the first sounds she had made since that fateful day many years ago. “No, no, no! No more stinking dwarfs,” she shouted.
    With a thud her assailant hit the ground as she rose up to her full height ready to continue her attack. It was then that she realized this was no dwarf, but a full grown, stunning man. “Oh my,” slipped from her surprised mouth as her body slumped back down into her former dreamless state.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Wonderful! Love the details, the timing and the twist!

  11. Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I\\\’ve done the same thing, of course. Part of my current revision is slowing down a couple of key scenes, letting the reader experience the moment (and the setting in particular). Don\\\’t be afraid to slide into super slow motion. You can cut stuff later if you need to.

  12. Posted July 15, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Love love love that detail about the hat, and that special shirt. I\’m curious about your narrator — what details is she noticing that matter to *her*? What can we learn about her that this passage lets us slow down to see? I know this is part of a larger piece, so you probably have answers, but I was curious.

  13. Jennifer Kraar
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Linda – thanks for this exercise – it was a challenge and helpful as a writing and as a storytelling exercise. I used a folktale – Anansi and Witch Five, a story I tell often. Here’s an excerpt:

    He stood on the path waiting. The smooth dirt felt almost cool beneath his feet while the rest of him was prickling with the usual intense heat. Everything was so still that sounds amplified – the crickets chirps clamored in his ear, the distant sounds of the village children playing seemed to be coming from near his feet and he could distinctly hear each word as the men’s voices discussing the need for rain. Anansi also heard the low rumble of his stomach.

    • Posted July 15, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      This is great! The crickets, the children, the way the heat prepares us for the nervous talk about rain. And the belly rumbles. Way to slow it down and set the scene!

  14. Marnie Turman
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the lesson. This was fun and it was great reading the wonderful examples. I found a spot in my WIP to try this.

    I sat on the couch, rereading the same page in the 4th Harry Potter book for what must have been the fifth time. I was really watching, listening, and waiting for Granddad and Miss Mary to leave. Why was it taking so long? I positioned myself on the couch so I could see the clock over the top of my book. I glanced up at the clock and could swear that the second hand was stuck on the two. Maybe, it’s broken, I thought to myself. I saw the hand bounce so slowly it looked like it was going backwards. The dryer buzzed and then the click of the door opening. Did she need to fold the towels? It was time for her to go home. She was messing up my plan. I could hear her pleading with Granddad to let her stay the weekend.

    No, please no. I thought to myself.

    He reassured her again and again that we would be fine. I watched the second hand bounce for five minutes as Miss Mary folded laundry and continued to state her case for staying the weekend to watch after me. It felt like two hours. Granddad stood his ground and I was glad.

    I had fun with Granddad. Things weren’t the same when Miss Mary was here.

    • Posted July 16, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      Terrific. That clock. The dryer buzz. So clear that we are waiting waiting agonizingly waiting along with this character.

  15. andrea p
    Posted July 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    yes, even a subtle detail, hidden within the scene, as Linda mentioned in her post. (although she mentioned hiding a clue for a mystery) I would like to be able to visualize the narrator and hear some of her thoughts and feelings, too. These will definitely add to the overall mood, and capture the reader\’s attention.

    I really liked what you wrote.

  16. andrea p
    Posted July 16, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    oops- not sure what happened…I was responding to Gretchen in post 4

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