We all know the old adage: Water never boils if you're watching the pot. That eight minutes for spaghetti seems to take twenty; waiting to dash in the asparagus (yes, I own no microwave oven) is the time it takes for one madly crazed cat to rip the NT Times Sunday newspaper into shreds. Time marches on all summer; time munches on all winter. We who gain and lose almost by osmosis are too fully aware of winter. An apple here, 1 point. A couple of chocolate covered pretzels there, minus 5. Two broiled chicken thighs and a poached pear with cinammon, 10 points and the signal to STOP! But then one turns around to look out the window and OMG, it's only 9:35 in the morning. Without the sound of traffic and the ringing of the school bells (buzzers), there is no distinction. We might absent-mindedly eat allllllllll daaaaaaaay looooooong.
Alas, so it is in many novels. Time has no anchors.
The reader is merrily skipping along, from dangerous dark staircases to wild winds of a storm, only to find that either six months has passed or thirty-five minutes. So many authors have taken to hitting us in the eye with a time frame sub-heading. May 23 7:52 PM. Four Days Later. On Board the Hummingbird in a Storm of Epic Proportions Twenty-eight Years, Six Months, a Lifetime Ago.
Enough. I fall back on Chekov. Anton, in case you were educated in the last few years when Russian short stories were no longer in the general curriculum. He charged writers to embed both time and place into the story itself, in order to expose the viscera of human relationsips. And his advice is undeniably sound.
Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
If you cry 'forward', you must without fail make plain in what direction to go.
A writer is not a confectioner, a cosmetic dealer, or an entertainer. [I'm dying to know if he saw writers as mere photographers of life and human relationships.]
And of course, he had a comment about humans, too, that we could contemplate on a winter's day:
All of life and human relations have become so incomprehensibly complex that, when you think about it, it becomes terrifying and your heart stands still.
I want my characters to be "human" as Chekov knew boys and girls, men and women, to be human.
I want my readers to sigh (or howl or laugh or weep), to flip back and re-read a scene to seal it in better, to hand my stories to someone else and say, "Read this one."
I'm spending more time with Mick and Reverend Richter these days, looking for the moments when a sensitive kid can see the 'glint of light on broken glass' as he grapples with identifying the Man's identity.
If I'm careful, middle grade hearts will 'stand still.'
Exclusives, the Dorian Gray topic
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