A Matter of Time (Part 1)

HourglassTiming is everything.

This phrase appears frequently in the books of my mystery series, because my protagonist is a birder, and the timing of nature determines what birds he might see in each adventure: depending on the season, only certain birds are (typically) in a particular area. The phrase also is a descriptor of a ‘perfect’ crime – timing is everything if you’re going to get away with murder.

As it happens, ‘timing is everything’ holds true for all kinds of genres, fiction and non-fiction alike, both in regards to content and the pacing of narrative. In this post, we’ll take a look at how content benefits from timing; in my next post, we’ll focus on the art of pacing.

Content is dependent on the context of your experience of time. Everything a writer writes reflects his or her unique perspective and experience of life. For example, five years ago, I could convincingly set a book in a high school because I worked in a high school, and the students and faculty I met provided me with the raw material for characters and plots; a year earlier, I would have been inept handling the same material. The take-away: no matter the genre, write out of your own experience, because authenticity depends on reality. That’s not to say you can’t write a medieval romance – you can research the historical details that make the setting accurate, but you need to infuse your own feelings and insights, based on your own experience, to make the story ring true. Pay attention to what’s going on in your life, because that’s where your story will ultimately come from – the feelings and ideas you have in response to real-time life.

Content is strengthened by its connection to what is happening in the world right now. The obvious example is the spate of books that are published when an anniversary comes around, such as the books that hit the market last November to remember the JFK assassination. Holiday books do the same thing – they capitalize on timing. Any time you can connect your content to current events or trends, you accomplish two things: you strengthen your content by association, and you build in marketing opportunities. Are you writing a novel about a young person struggling to achieve success? Use current research about how depression can manifest in video game addiction to add intriguing layers to one of the characters; if you’re writing a study about age 30 being the new 18, that same research would add depth and attract readers.

If you’re lucky, time can even solve writing problems! I had that experience with my book A Murder of Crows, which dealt with the conflict between wind energy development and bird advocates. Mid-way through writing my manuscript, that exact conflict erupted in a neighboring county, furnishing me with ideas and even plot twists I hadn’t considered. I don’t routinely plan on serendipity to help me out with manuscript issues, but the timing couldn’t have been better for that one.

How do you make use of timing in your writing?

11 Replies to “A Matter of Time (Part 1)”

  1. My main use of timing is pacing. My stories and poems like to have a sort of marked pace to them – I am a runner and often I write about running. The pace of the run is punctuated into a rhythm in the writing too. Even my posts on Momsie can be paced (usually quite fast paced and frenetic!) – my posts are my “tempo runs” I guess. 🙂

  2. Jan, thank you for this wonderful post! Yes, timing is so crucial. My example is more of a macro-view. My publisher wanted to release my next book in the fall of 2013. (The book is “Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hate and Hurt” : http://amzn.to/JEeime) But I asked to wait 4months until January. It killed me to wait!! But I knew this was a New Year book, most needed after the holidays, after families have been together—-or NOT been together. Timed when our hunger for need and forgiveness is at its height and our resolution to live a better life is at its height. It’s very hard to wait, specially when our work is done, but I think we’re often rewarded for patience.

    1. Excellent example, Leslie. It’s hard to question a publisher’s decision, but in this case, you had a great rationalization based on your own wisdom about your readers’ needs for timing. Bravo!

  3. This is a fascinating topic. Timing/serendipity has played such a big part in my own writing and publication life; I’m in its debt.

    On the other hand, the passage of time has also made some pieces unpublishable. I wrote a piece about taking a redeye with my baby son and though I loved the article that came out if it, I didn’t do much about sending it out and trying to find it a home. Now, he’s far from being a baby! I wish I had moved faster on that.

    1. Good point, Ginny, about missed opportunities – I’ve had the same experience. Although I’ve also learned that your readers can still benefit from a story you penned long ago, so maybe it’s time to dust off that article and give it a try. I had a poem published 17 years ago that I wrote after the birth of my last child, titled A Mother’s Midnight Prayer, and two years ago, I found it had been circulating on the web and that women were still clipping it to put on their refrigerators! While timing can affect what’s happening right now, human emotions and experiences can also be timeless!

  4. I’ve had to wait to write certain pieces until after I’ve lived them. When I try to write them too soon, I often face a wall until the timing is right. I’ve waited over two decades to write one memoir, but I think the time has come to finish it. Yeah!

  5. Jan Dunlap, that is awesome that the very conflict you wished to include in A Murder of Crows erupted in an adjoining county while you were writing your manuscript. When those kinds of events happen in my life I see it as God’s way of saying, “Barbara, you are doing exactly what you need to be doing. Just keep on keeping on.”

    Small things happen, too. If I am looking at a word and hear it spoken somewhere at the same time, I take that as a spiritual go ahead. So, in your paragraph that begins “Content is strengthened by its connection to what is happening in the world right now,” I was focusing on your word “add” when I heard “add” on NPR. And just now, as I was typing your word “world,” I heard “world,” again on NPR. Previous recent examples were “goal” and, the phrase, “all this.”

    With regard to your question, “How do you make use of timing in your writing?” I hope to have my memoir, based on the nightly diary entries I kept when I was a college student from 1961 through 1965, ready for its launch at the time of the Class of 1965’s 50th year reunion during Park University’s Alumni Weekend in September 2015.

    Thank you, Jan, for your thoughts and your question.

    1. It sounds like you’ve got timing down pat for that memoir, Barbara. The right timing can invest our writing with both meaning and marketability.

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