The Trials and Tribulations of Writing Over Time


On a recent conference call with my mentor/editor, I was asked why I had written a specific quantity in one place. I had written a piece of dialogue in which a character told the narrator he’d be back in 50 minutes. When my editor asked me why I said 50 minutes specifically in contrast to, well, any other measure of time, I told him the truth. The truth was that I had no clue why I had written that specific amount of time. Why? Because, to begin with, there was nowhere else in the text that alluded to the fact that 50 minutes was the proper amount of time to use there. Also, and most importantly, I had written that piece of dialogue about three years ago. Needless to say, I can’t exactly recall what I was thinking back during freshman year. Then of course, the “50 minutes” statement also raised the question of whether or not, in my fictional depiction of North America, the group I’m portraying has watches or any way to tell the time. And if I were to say yes, yes they did have watches, how could I justify that statement in a low-tech, post apocalyptic world? If they had watches, what other technology might they have? Radios? Computers? PlayStations? With all of those questions in mind, I broadened the statement a bit, with the character now saying that he’d return by nightfall, instead of in 50 minutes. No specific amounts of time, no watches, no confusion.

I wanted to give that example from my writing process because it underscores how meticulous and painstaking it can be to create your own world, even when you’re just writing “simple” dialogue. There must be meaning behind every laugh, every cry, every curse, and every little saying. I can’t simply explain my story and its world to you. I have to show it to you through the eyes of someone who lives in it. And if who we are as human beings is a response to the world around us, the characters in my story should be very different from us because they live in a very different world. How they act communicates the characteristics of their lives and their world. Thus why everything must have meaning. If I throw a careless and meaningless sentence or two (god forbid, even a paragraph) into my story, it could compromise the entirety of what I’d been building in the story. It’s not that these thoughtless statements are out and out contradicting of the rest of the story, but it’s that they could affect the overall feeling of authenticity and realness that I’m striving to create.

I bring all of this up because I’ve been having trouble agreeing with the ideas and writing of my 15-year-old self that began writing this novel. It seems that every week I must go back to edit something that I had written years ago because it simply just isn’t realistic and/or meaningful. And though I enjoyed having a solid base to begin writing this novel this year, it’s been a royal pain to reformulate the ideas and story concepts my younger self had thought up. When writing one piece over a long period of time, however, you’ve got to acknowledge the fact that you’re going to change your mind about plenty of things in your story in the future. It’s what I signed up for after all.

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3 thoughts on “The Trials and Tribulations of Writing Over Time

  1. ainsleybruton

    I love that you’ve talked about giving meaning to every little thing, because it is something I can totally relate to. Adding in details that are just for filling space and don’t have any immense significance can weaken the entire piece, but at the same time, giving everything incredible weight is exhausting and can bog down the work you’re trying to create. Art seems to always be about trying to find that perfect (yet unachievable) balance.

  2. dexcoengilbert

    I think it is very interesting how you chose to change “50 minutes” into “before nightfall.” Obviously I haven’t read the book, and don’t know what time the scene is taking place, but could it have been possible to change it to “in an hour?” If the dialogue had been taking place before (just for the sake of the argument) 3:00 PM, “50 minutes” and “before nightfall” are pretty big differences.

  3. margaretjhaviland

    You could have a person or two who has an old wind up analog watch. The kind you great grandfather probably had and kept on a watch fob. After all trains ran on time in the early 19th century, long before timex came up with a battery watch.

    Its also conceivable that some of your characters have solar powered watches that survive and continue to work.

    In this case, 50 minutes or any other “unnatural” division of time could still work.


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