Time and Tides wait for no man..uscript

Dear Miss Snark-Clooney, (ha)

I began writing a novel as a senior project in college last year. In the novel the scenes are somewhat disjointed (though there is a flow), and comments from one particular professor say so. That's fine. However, after rereading the draft, I'm beginning to think this professors comments ("When does this take place?" and "How much time has passed?") are irrelevant. Not only because I'm not writing for her, but because the disjointed-ness (is that a word?) of the story lends to the subject matter (mental illness).

As a young, idealistic writer fresh out of a liberal arts college, I feel the flow works for the story. However, I'm concerned readers (agents, publishers, public at large) will find the disjointed-ness (there's that word again) jarring. In your professional opinion, do you find yourself reaching for the nearest lighter if a story doesn't include clues about passage of time (we're not talking huge gaps of time...a few days at most)? Or is the ultimate answer "whatever works for the story"?

You can pretty much do anything weird IF I know ahead of time. This is why your cover letter is important. Tell me the "disjointedness" is on purpose, that you chose it as a motif, and I'll read with an informed eye.

Same if you have a character who speaks incorrect English all the time; you tell me the character has a distinctive grammar style, and I don't reach for the red pen.

On the other hand, you can use captions at the start of the chapter or time shift to great effect.

I have an (unsold) brilliant novel by a very very good writer that uses a twisted chronology to reveal character. His captions are event names (Christmas; Miss Snark's Gin Fest; Killer Yapp's night at the MTV Awards, etc) to ground the event on a timeline. You can bet I mention that in the cover letter and in all my pitches about the book. Of course, I haven't actually managed to sell it yet, but that's another story.


Kit Whitfield said...

You may be too smart to do this, but just in case you were planning on it - don't mention to agents that the book was a college project, or cite your prof's opinions. It looks amateurish. All they'll be interested in is the book, not how you wrote it or what some professor they don't know thinks about it - or, come to that, what you think about it.

Instead, stick to talking about the book itself. Tell them what it's about, what happens in it and the fact that includes some disjointedness which reflects the characters' confusion, and then let the book stand on its own. Good luck.

Jason C said...

This can work, though it's a challenge and you should consider providing some ways to ground your readers, who are presumably not mentally ill, in the objective timeline. You can do this with environmental clues, dialogue with the other characters, or, as MS suggested, headings. You want to let readers feel the madness, but you don't want to alienate them or kick them out of the story by making it completely out of touch with their own experiences. Doing this skillfully will take a deft touch.

If you haven't read it yet, I recommend looking at Mark Haddon's book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It's written from the POV of an autistic teenager and plays around with reality as perceived through the prism of a different mind. The book follows a basic chronology, but there are unremarked gaps in time when Christopher, the main character, withdraws into his head. It's a remarkable book, and Haddon makes it work while adding a dry touch of humor for readers as they see Christopher react to the world around him.

Anonymous said...

This is good to hear. I once subbed a ms for review by an ed at a conference. No cover letters allowed, as usual. He spent the first half of the story correcting choice bits before he realized they were intentional. They were the backbone of the story.

No cover letters is a stupid rule. Without them, it seems impossible to submit interesting work for review.

See what you can do about that, okay? Hey, you shut down the Sobol!

Anonymous said...

So how do you get the cover letters into the novel, then? If you need the cover letter to explain the ms, how do you explain the published novel to the readers?

librisfb said...

In addition to 'Curious Incident...' also read "You Remind Me of Me" by Dan Chaon. He writes brilliantly but the flow of his story ignores traditional timelines. (If I tried to write out of time sequence as he does readers would simply be confused. I guess that's why Chaon is Chaon and I'm still unpublished!)

Anonymous said...

I realize that the two are very different beasts but Jane Espenson made a blog entry on a similar problem in screenwriting:

"So you give the note, saying that you found it confusing, jarring, and the writer says, "Good, because that's what I was going for!" Well, yes, making something jarring on purpose is a thing you can do for a certain effect. A writer might very well want to employ it. But if it's bothering the test audience enough that they're mentioning it, that'll mean it'll bother the ultimate audience too, and then the writer won't be there to explain that they like it like that.

If you're the writer, and you're getting a note like this, don't feel like you've solved it just because you were able to convince you're friends that you wanted that reaction. You really need to address it. Addressing it doesn't always have to mean giving up on that special thing you were going for, either. Sometimes it's just a matter of letting the readers know that what you're doing really is a choice, not a mistake."

She then went on with an example on how a screenwriter would point out that they meant to do this. Just thought I'd offer that up. It may have just been that it wasn't your professors taste but when you're rereading it try to think of it from a readers perspective. Seriously ask yourself if it works or if it needs something to alert the reader that you choose to write it this way and it's not just a mess.

Kit Whitfield said...

'If you need the cover letter to explain the ms, how do you explain the published novel to the readers?'

In the case of The Curious Incident, with a cover blurb.

Anonymous said...

I was going to say the same thing as the anon who quoted Jane Espenson. As much as you'd like to be able to say, "it's OK she found it jarring; that's how I want it to feel," take time to note that your prof was pointing out something that took her outside of your novel, and left her questioning and doubting you.

In other words, just because you can give a reason for a negative comment doesn't mean you should discount it.

And it's not considered nice to say so, but be prepared for the possibility that your senior project isn't ready for publication. There are a lot of professionals who say that it takes a second or third book to get good enough to sell.