Advancing the timeline

There was a movie a while back with Adam Sandler – really bad, really depressing – I think it was called Clicker. About a man who could pause, start, skip pieces of his life with a remote. I think summaries are a lot like that, quite similar to a remote.

They can pause or skip over action, either taking the time to delve into details or diving past a scene that would be too boring to write.

I think this is a good example of the second type of summary: Clicker on fast forward.

“I’m worried that I erased too much,” I say before I can stop myself. Then Frita, one of the two proprietor/cook/designers wanders over, and we’re lost for a while in praise of his latest creations, and of course we have to sample the fruits of the first production run and make an elaborate business of reviewing them while Erci stands by strumming his mandolin and looking proud.

“Erased too much,” Kay prods me.

“Yes.” I push my plate away. “I don’t know for sure…” (Stross 27)

Here, Kay and Robin (main character) are talking over lunch. And while this is the action within the chapter, the main purpose of this chapter is not to explore the scene, but to explore their reflections through conversation. They’re both in similar predicaments, with their memories having just been erased, and they want the verification of did they or did they not make the right decision. It’s hard to know without knowing what they erased.

Because this is its purpose, we as the reader and writer, don’t want to spend time over a pointless scene, where they’re talking about food, talking to a chef, and even though the writer could do a beautiful job of explaining what happens, without having a purpose behind it, there’s no reason to show it, which is why we can skip it with summary. Shown above.

This is a good learning lesson for many, including myself.

I like to write according to time, letting time direct most of my books – even though it should be as flexible as perspective – but having said that, I like to see all scenes, every scene, which can drag a book’s pace until it’s as slow as running through water.

And no one likes to read that.

When you read, you should be immersed. You should be pulled, dragged along the ground, until you’re running to try and keep up. You should be excited, engaged, and I read for entertainment, whether I’m engaged in the conflict or thought-experiment.

Either way, if I’m not engaged, I’m not entertained – same for learning, which is why summaries must be used in conjunction with scenes. You just have to decide as the writer, what is the purpose of this segment, and if it has none, cut it, skip it. Summarize it.

But please don’t bop it!

Stross, C. Glasshouse. New York, NY: Ace, 2006. Print.


Instant Gratification

One thing I love about writing: It instantly makes you happy, which can progressively increase with interest. (And that’s a purposeful pun!) And it doesn’t have to just make the writer happy; it can make the reader happy too.

Because the nice part about writing, whatever you want to happen, you can make it happen. And you don’t have have to wait for it. You can make it so that the event occurs immediately! Instant gratification!

Take for instance, this section of A Stranger in a Strange Land.

“Jubal, you go see what the score is. I can’t go back.”

“They’ll take you back with open arms and never ask why you left. One thousand on that prediction, too. Ben, you were there less than twenty-four hours. Did you give them the careful investigation that you give something smelly in public life before you blast it?” (Heinlein 369)

And not too much later – the next page even:

Twenty-four hours later Ben wired Jubal two thousand dollars. When, after a week, Jubal received no other message, he sent a state care of Ben’s office: “What the hell are you doing?” The answer was somewhat delayed:

Studying Martian-aquafraternally yours-Ben” (Heinlein 370)

I loved this! Mostly because there was this huge in-depth scene, showing this argument between Ben and Jubal, where Jubal was making fun of Ben for skipping out on this polygamous, everyone-shares-everything relationship, and then not two paragraphs later, I get the resolution to this miniature conflict: Ben was won over.

And I don’t know why! I don’t know how!

This is a beautiful driver. I get the resolution to the story, but I don’t figure out how it occurs because the writer skipped all the drama, fast-forwarding to the ending, which creates a reverse effect for me: Interest is upped. I have no idea how this happened, and I want to know how, so I’m going to keep reading to find out why.

What a beautiful trick that anybody can used. In this case, according to Freytag’s arc, I can skip the ‘falling action’ part and go straight to the resolution, in order to change the timing of the story and create more interest.

It’d be a nice trick to try at some point.

Heinlein, R. A Stranger in a Strange Land. New York, NY: Ace, 1961. Print.

Chapter Design

As I’ve written before, chapters are designed to encompass a sort of mini story line within the bigger picture of your book, and depending on your story, they can vary in length, perspective, POV…Now because I just finished The Martian Chronicles, I thought this would be a great book to discuss chapter design since each chapter is a stand alone story.

The overall purpose of this book is unknown to me at the moment. I can tell you the book is mainly about Mars and settling the planet, but each chapter shows a different piece of the timeline. And I say timeline because this book really does span the start to the end of the settling of Mars…probably why it’s called The Martian Chronicles – the lifespan of one species of Martians to the next…but I’m getting off topic.

The first chapter sets the scene of the whole book, telling of the origin of the first rocket launch. And then the next chapter goes into the Martian perspective, telling of how the first expedition failed due to murder. I think this chapter was important for the book (even though most other chapters are from the human perspective) because we need to know what makes a Martian…martian. Now we know they’re telepathic, what they look like, how they live. It really sets the scene on Mars.

The next few chapters tell of similar stories. Of humans struggling to settle on Mars, either being killed or killing each other until finally the Martians are gone, wiped out by disease just like how Europeans killed the Native Americans here in North America. And this sets the tone for the rest of the book. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that although the book was telling the history of the planet within a span of 5 to 10 years, each chapter wasn’t only telling a piece of the timeline but relating to some bigger theme that tends to be a problem on Earth. This is worth noting because all these same people are leaving Earth for these same reasons, and these same problems follow them here as well.

Maybe the book is trying to tell us we’re creating these problems and we’re the source of them. Our problems will always follow us where we go.

This book is a great example of how to tell a story through a generation or time span, which I feel isn’t possible (or difficult to do) unless you span multiple perspectives like Bradbury did. He does a wonderful job writing each story with a new character, giving them their own wants, needs, and conflict, and shows how that story ends within the chapter while expanding the story of Mars in itself.

For example…

Chapter 8: After man was finally safe to settle on Mars, chapter 8 did a sort of summary discussion of how it was only a few men at first who came to settle Mars.

Chapter 9: Gives one man’s story of how he terraformed the planet in order to create a level of oxygen that was more natural for the humans settling on Mars. This is what helped create a more comfortable planet for the people.

Chapter 10: Used summary to show the growth of the population, including those of men and women.

Chapter 11: This chapter I feel like didn’t fit the story as much since it discussed a sort of…timeline cross. It told the story of a human made aware of a Martian and a Martian aware of the human, who were both in different timelines and couldn’t interact with the other besides talk and listen. Nothing similar followed this chapter.

Then there were more men, more women. There was a discussion of spreading religion to the Martians. A show of boys playing in the debris leftover in the Martian cities, before that was cleared. A scene of women on Earth wanting to go to Mars. Of a man creating a house of darkness, witchcraft and such in order to discuss censorship and rebellion against the old Earth orders…

This book alternates between quick summaries of the general population and long scenes with specific characters to emphasize specific events that are critical to the timeline of the settling of Mars.

I think this a good strategy if you are focused more on the plot than a specific character.

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1997. Print.

How to make summaries exciting

When you read most chapters of a book, usually you’re witnessing a scene of some sort, where the characters are committed to an action. For this book, The Girl With All the Gifts, that is exactly true. Primarily scenes. Minimal summary. But, there’s a third type of chapters: reflection.

I think the biggest part came from supplementary character POV, for example Soldier Parks.

See? Parks is no fool. He knows what’s being done here, and he’s served that purpose silently and uncomplainingly. He’s served it for the best part of four years now.

Rotation was meant to happen after eighteen months. (Carey 73)

That isn’t to say that this paragraph isn’t also a summary. But, this whole chapter is also a reflection of his inner thoughts, and even if it’s a summary, there’s enough confusion, conflict that his own thinking lends itself to the tone of a scene. There’s also explanation for everything, like what’s going on and why. Why this setting? Why’s it so important?

The answers to these sorts of questions help grip the reader because these are the sort of the questions that the reader is looking to answer.

I also like how the chapter overviews Parks life so far, how he got wrapped up in this school to where he’s in discussion on how he got in some trouble with some junkers. This is a good way to do the history of the story, using someone else’s perspective. It gives the reader someone to identify with so that even though it was a heavy summary chapter, it reads very quickly.

The takeaway would be by lending perspective and emotion from your characters, you can give an otherwise long, tedious summary conflict and sympathy that makes for easy reading for people.

Carey, M.R. The Girl With All the Gifts. New York, NY: Orbit, 2014. Print.

“Lives of Tao” by Wesley Chu

This book I finished recently, Live of Tao – it’s a very interesting read. But, I find myself having difficulty picking out something I really liked. It performed well as a narrative – I found myself reading, pulled along by the story, and although I wasn’t captivated to the point I couldn’t put it down, it was a good read.

I definitely feel like this was more of a plot-driven book, where the alien was more important than the human, and the main character could’ve been switched out with out too much change in the plot. Not a bad thing – just a point I would like to make.

This book used a lot of design in the writing, and I have to stress this because there was a lot it played with: 3rd person perspective, 1st person thoughts from the human and body-residing alien, and 1st person background from the alien at the start of every chapter.

I’m going to focus on the background because I think this is a very well-thought out decision.

At the beginning of every chapter, there is a short paragraph in italics that talks about the history of the aliens’ time on Earth. Each paragraph talks about a specific event through Tao’s perspective. For example, when he talks about the black plague, he talks about how some aliens hid their conscious in the body of rats and how it was a terrible time for him and his people.

This are an interesting addition to the book because where the author may have spent time including a huge background for a chapter, it would’ve been very boring with no action and a lot of summary. But by condensing it to a single paragraph before each chapter, the story is broken up, and slowly we learn about Tao’s perspective, about the intense relationship between him and the antagonist. It was a nice addition to the narrative.

I’ve seen similar quirks before chapters, usually a quote, a few words, and I think this was one of the most well-thought out additions. An easy way to provide background without interrupting the main story line.

After thought: 

From my perspective, this book was written primarily for a dialogue on morals. There are certain parts of the book, where the protagonist has to make moral decisions; there are times where Tao has to argue the difference between actions and intents. On top of that, the alien’s name is Tao, and from what I learned in class, the alien is named after the morals that we humans abide by.

This isn’t a bad thing, but I think it helps explains why the book is so plot driven, or driven by Tao and the other aliens, rather than the humans. This is more their story than ours, and their war on morals is more important than a human’s life.

Writing Summaries

If summary means a concise paragraph of information, then why would we write summaries? As Dave Hood said, summaries are a different type of writing style, in contrast to scenes, they tell us what’s happening rather than show us. But, what is seriously the point of this? How do authors use this?

It’s a good way to overview the most important facts of a character’s history. As an example of from my favorite book as of late:

“Spiff’s flying saucer crossing alien skies, the little astronaut in his goggles under the saucer’s glass dome. Often it was funny, but also it was beautiful…She started thumbing through an old Calvin and Hobbes, and thought, this. These red-desert landscapes, these skies with two moons. She began thinking about the possibilities of the form, about spaceships and stars, alien planets, but a year passed before she invented the beautiful wreckage of Station Eleven.” (88)

Here, Mandel reviewed the origin of Miranda’s graphic novel, and it was so simple. Something reminded her of the idea; she reflected how she invented it; and then Mandel stated that this led to the creation of the story. In this case, summary was used to summarize the length of time, the series of events that spurred her imagination and led to the creation of her story.

Another example is from a good friend’s book. Here, summary is used to describe part of a scene and help introduce the reader to the setting.

“The shop was a cavern of a place. Wire mesh and glass and plastic formed twisting passages, all reverberating with the squawks and squeal and screams of their trapped inhabitants. / A dog here, a fish there, those were the mostly normal ones. Other genesplics represented more ambitious endeavors. A horse the size of a wolf with the head and neck of a giraffe.” (17)

Busemi did a good job of setting up a story before we’ve fully been integrated into the scene. What this does is help create an image within the readers mind, and gives us something to imagine while we read along with the story.

And at the same time, it doesn’t have to be limited to just setting a scene. Writers can easily integrate a character’s emotions within it as well, meaning summaries can be used to summarize a character’s internal reflections.

“At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the last expedition drifting off, one by one…” (5)

What a beautiful way to lightly touch upon the thoughts of the main character from Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. By giving the biologist’s perspective of her surroundings, we know not only what the scenery looks like, but we are given the exact set of feelings and thoughts that we as the reader should be feeling, helping us align with the mood of the story so far. (Which, from my experiences, seems to teeter between science fiction and suspense.)

Summaries have multiple purposes, and even though I have only given a few examples, I encourage readers to find more, and to really examine what makes a summary such an effective tool. I definitely will be coming back to Area X by Vandermeer. This is my current read, and it has proved to be quite interesting.

Mandel, Emily. Station Eleven. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Print.

Buscemi, Matthew. Lore & Logos. Seattle, WA: Fuzzy Hedgehog Press. Print.

Vandermeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Print.

In Summary

There’s something I want to talk about today, but before I do, let me divulge for a moment and do something I never do – let me tell you about my day.

So, it’s been inside me and my boyfriend’s head for a while that we should rent a tandem bike. I don’t know why. Maybe we supposed it would be the next step in our relationship, elevating us to the next possible tier. Maybe it seemed like an accurate activity for both of us to do, being we both like the outdoors and continuous movement. But, let me just start by saying that this was the worst. possible. idea. ever.

Not that tandem bikes are bad. I’m sure there are one’s that are enjoyable, and not utterly frustrating and painful for every microsecond that you are sitting on the bike. But for every second I sat on that bike, that specific tandem road bike, I alternated between thoughts of how the seat felt like it was jack-hammering the bones in my butt, shoving a stake into my *cough* woman parts, and putting the full weight of my body upon my two child-like hands. Trust me – they’re small and wimpy and can’t support the full weight of my 150-pound body when you’re leaning over your handle bars.

Now I’m sitting here while typing, and I’m still sore. It hurts to sit. My hands seem frozen in that permanent crippled-old-person claw, and I can’t do anything but theorize on different plots of revenge. Not that I didn’t do this while biking. There were multiple times I wanted to get off the bike, rip the gears off the side, toss them on the pavement, take out a flame-thrower miraculously hidden in my back pocket and burn the thing until it melted alongside the pavement, creating a uniform, if somewhat rippled, surface on the road. And this is before bring a cement roller and run over this bike, then back over it, then run over it again, and repeat this multiple times until the bike is a thing of sheet metal. Yes. I wanted and still want to murder this bike. I have the scratches to prove why.

Now, I’m not telling you all this just to complain – which I am, but mostly out of our road bike ignorance and my hatred for my body’s continuous rebellion against exercise – but this all has a point. What I did just there was summarize my day, which was mostly about bike riding and my continuous hatred of this exact bike.

I have a friend that said he struggles to write summaries, and I feel like a lot of people can find themselves with this opinion. But, summaries don’t have to be a wall. You can easily break them down by thinking of them as a sort of diary. How do you summarize your day? Your past? Summaries are those times when you want to convey information without going into the whole scene. Maybe the scene is boring, maybe it’s unimportant, besides that single fact.

Either way, I encourage everyone to practice their summaries. Write about your day or something that happened. You don’t have to go into detail. But, by providing enough anchor, you give the summaries their own weight. By capitalizing on this skill, you can elevate your skill as a writer. After all, stories continuously alternate between summary – scene and scene – summary. If you can get comfortable switching back and forth between the two, writing will feel much easier, at least in that way.