November 10, 2015 by Gregory Josephs
Perhaps my greatest frustration as a writer comes from the handling of passing time. While things like dialogue come very naturally to me there is absolutely nothing natural about my handling of jumps from one period of time to another. It is something that I truly loathe and as much as I work on a passage it never seems anything more than clumsy. This is a problem I’m dealing with a lot in these early chapters of Metamorphosis. Chapter Eight saw a bumbling transition from mid March to the end of April, and Chapter Nine took us all the way to Memorial Day weekend. These were very necessary jumps forward but they were unpleasant to write, and even worse to revise.
So I ask myself, whats the issue? This is something other writers seem to do so deftly. I think the absolute queen of this is Patricia Highsmith, who also happens to be one of my all-time favorite authors. She is known for such unsettling suspenseful 20th century classics as ‘Strangers On a Train,’ ‘The Price of Salt,’ and ‘The Ripliad’ whose first installment ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read. She is famously quoted as saying:
“Honestly, I don’t understand why people get so worked up about a little murder!”
This carries through to her writing. I remember a particular transition from one of the Ripley books. Tom Ripley has just killed someone and avoided discovery by the police yet again. Then in a single paragraph without breaking a sweat its three weeks later and he’s going about his business like everything is normal. As readers we’ve just been left reeling by the previous scene and she just takes our hands and says “Don’t worry about catching your breath, now its almost a month later and Mdme. Annette is bringing the bar cart into the parlor so Tom can have a drink.” The best part is, we don’t even flinch.
But when I try to write a transition for me at least it feels very different. Its like I started painting a room yellow. Then halfway through the second wall I just switch to red instead. Perhaps it doesn’t come across that way reading it, but for me thats how it feels.
Again, back to the question. What’s the issue?
It probably comes from my struggle with brevity. In my mind I hate to miss a detail. I feel like I want to recount every single thing that happens to Ryan during these time jumps even though the reason for the time jump is that nothing really happens at all. So I start writing and I’m putting in extraneous details and in my head I know that they are extraneous but my fingers type away anyways. Then before I know it I’ve done in a thousand words what Highsmith would’ve done in fifty. Then the real struggle begins:
“I need that in there. Its essential to the plot. I think?”
“I could save this part for later—just mention it after the time jump. Won’t that seem too sudden? It shouldn’t come off like an afterthought.”
“If I take this part out how will readers know how sad he is?” (Side note, how can anyone reading not know how sad he is ever?)
“This part would be so much better expressed in dialogue but if I write a whole other scene this chapter is going to be 8,000 words long!”
—And on it goes.
Sometimes—and this is surprisingly more effective than I’d expect it to be—my best solution is to just avoid explaining the time jumps at all. “And then it was July—”
I’m certainly open to suggestions. If you think something is clumsy please let me know what you think could make it better. Most of the big jumps are done now. There’ll probably be one more fairly intense one at the beginning of Part 3 so I’m going to have to figure it out by then.
In other news I’m finally a little bit ahead of the game. I finished my revision of Chapter Eleven this morning which means I just have one more chapter to revise before I’m finally writing new material. I hope to be laying down the first sentences of Chapter Thirteen by this time next week. While this project has been great so far and I’ve rewritten thousands upon thousands of words, nothing is going to feel as good as finally moving forward into the unknown. Its been a long time coming.
And as far as trajectory? Things are forming up nicely in my mind for the end of Metamorphosis. I’m not sure exactly how long Part 3 will be—I know where the story needs to go, I’m just not sure how much detail I want to include. But if I had to estimate, I’d say that I’m approaching the midpoint. Chapter Ten will post on Friday, and I’m thinking the completed manuscript will be between twenty and twenty-five chapters. Certainly not longer. I’m definitely approaching the summit. Soon it’ll be all downhill to the finish line—