Scenic Time



I’ll often go through whole periods of my day in narrative time. I could describe to you what happened, but I wasn’t really there. My novel’s first draft was mostly in narrative time, like I was just telling you about the story rather than telling it.


I learned the concept of scenic vs. narrative time in the writing workshop I took this past summer on Denman Island. It provided me with words for the distinction I had felt but never been able to fix because of my lack of words to understand it. Scenic time or narrative time: we either see something happen or we don’t.


I recently looked at the beginning of my friend’s novel about his grandfather. I sensed that he had written the way I had initially: he had skipped over the description of important moments because he wanted to get to the next important moments. I shared with him the terms I had learned and he sent me a second draft. I couldn’t believe how clear and effectively narrative time turned to scenic. It was as though each moment had exploded into a story. I could see so much more.


When I miss a moment in my day because I wasn’t paying attention, I think that’s a missed opportunity at a story. I’m narrating my life instead of living it. Writers like to do that, forget about life because there’s so many stories to tell about it.





Reading The Age of Innocence

I like to review books before I’m done them, not because I’m a lazy journalist, but because I’m not a journalist, I’m a person reading a book.

The thing is I forget about a book once I’m done it. The book doesn’t lose its impact on me – I think I am probably shaped in one way from every book I read, whether it’s that I learned a new word or I changed the way I live my life – I just lose the book. I put it away or I return it to the library or I lend it to a forgetful friend and I simply don’t think about it for a while (unless I am recommending it or talking about it at Book Club). I certainly don’t ever remember a book’s ending.

I would rather tell you about a book when I am fully immersed in it, when I am breathless about it. And this way I won’t tell you the ending. I will only tell you the middle, which is by far the worst part of any book, and therefore okay that I spoil it for you.

Well, here’s the middle of The Age of Innocence: Tension is rising! Maybe Newland and Ellen will get together! Where the heck is May, Newland’s bride-to-be anyway? Oh yeah, she’s in Florida! Newland just had a pillow fight!

(from Wikipedia – not my cover, but so cute! It looks like she stapled it together.)

Yes, I know: Edith Wharton sounds like a hoot. I say this somewhat sarcastically, somewhat with honest surprise. This is a woman writing in the 1920’s about the 1870s. I haven’t ever heard the word hoot next to Edith Wharton’s name, a name I hear often in articles I breeze by in The New Yorker and other literary sources (sure, I’ll give it to you, what am I talking about?). I thought Edith Wharton was a crotchety lady writing about crotchety people. But no – it’s all about escaping crotchetiness. And Ellen Olenska is awesome!

I am actually so excited to be reading this book right now. I like reading three books at once because I like to be braggy and also because I like to discover the merits of books by seeing how much I want to read one over another.

For example, right now I am also reading The Wealthy Barber Returns, and a light-hearted French novel called Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles. I’ve read enough in French that French requires equivalent brain-using skill as English does to read, so this means that a novel should win out over an old novel I am forcing myself to read through a Pulitzer Challenge, and a non-fiction book about money. All the credit goes to David Chilton from London, Ontario who is hilarious and just feels like my best friend, and also to Edith Wharton, this awesome lady from the 20’s.

My favourite lines so far from The Age of Innocence:

1) I already mentioned the pillow fight, which takes place in a brief re-telling of a party where I couldn’t quite figure out if all these things actually happened in the literal sense. If yes, so fun:

“And finally, about midnight, he assisted in putting a goldfish in one’s visitor’s bed, dressed up a burglar in the bathroom of a nervous aunt, and saw in the small hours by joining in a pillow-fight that ranged from the nurseries to the basement.”

2) Ellen says this to Newland. Ellen is from Europe!:

“Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by one’s self? You’re so shy, and yet you’re so public. I always feel as if I were in the convent again – or on the stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never applauds.”

3) And a few things I think apply even today:

“He arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life.”

“Winsett was not a journalist by choice. He was a pure man of letters, untimely born in a world that had no need of letters.”

So, if you are following along with me in the Pulitzer Challenge, or in my Governor General’s Award challenge which I have yet to begin according to my rules, then I would recommend choosing this book!

If you are doing the challenge, I would love for you to comment about it, or to tell me which book you are choosing instead of this one. I will continue to write blog posts as though everyone ever is doing this challenge I made up. So congratulations, guys!

PS: I am writing to you from a beautiful converted green house on Denman Island, British Columbia. More on THAT to come.

So Scared about Formatting

I’m leaving tomorrow for a week-long writing retreat on Denman Island. I am attending a five day group writing workshop with Steven Galloway, where the first chapter of my first novel will get its first critique (sounds like I’ll probably make it big time), and then staying for the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival.

I didn’t get nervous until yesterday, when I had to print out seven copies of my first chapter. And then I got so nervous. I stood over my printer as it ejected double-spaced, Times New Roman versions of the sentences I wrote. Why is there so much dialogue? I asked out loud, sweating. Such simple words, such petty subject matter.

The worst was my title, which I had to format four double-spaced lines down the first page (according to the first website Google generated for me). I previously thought my title was neat, but now with my name underneath it (with “by” before my name), isn’t it a little pretentious? A little too trying?

Then I had to write a summary of the rest of my book. I didn’t know whether to make it sound gripping and suspenseful, like the dust jackets of novels that have actually been published, or analytical, like I was really telling people what was going to happen and wanted to get their advice on whether it made sense. I remember doing it wrong in elementary school – I was supposed to write a book report, and instead I made it sound like a book trailer.

Why is it the formatting that makes me want to curl up in my bed and throw my novel away?


I think it’s because formatting makes immediately evident the serious writer who has before sent things out to agents and editors, and me, who is only calling this a novel because it took me a long time. I’m also afraid that now that my book will look like everyone else’s – with the same margin and page formatting (I hope) – it will be clear that I am nowhere near the stage I need to be at, that I am not yet a writer.

I’m scared about formatting because it replaces other things I could be scared about. Instead I could be scared about imagining people laughing at my writing. Instead I could be scared about the way I will react – maybe I’ll pretend this was a first chapter I just threw off and I don’t have any more than that, I’m just trying this writing thing out. Instead I could be scared that I’m going to leave this place thinking I’m not a writer, I don’t fit in with writers, and I’m never going to get anything published.

So instead of being scared of any of that I keep glancing at the pages I printed off and worrying about the way it looks. I hate Times New Roman! I hate my name!