I bring this up today because ineffective transitions killed my most recent back-and-forth with an agent on a novel of mine. You’d think an individual with personal experience transitioning would handle these story shifts better, but apparently, they’re two different things entirely.
Now then, with this case in question, much of any transition in the book had to do with the main plot point, uncontrolled time travel. With the protagonist at the mercy of something–or nothing–pushing him between the Prohibition Era and the 1980s, in different geographic locations, it was up to me to make sure readers could come along for the ride. A couple of my beta readers who looked at an earlier version of The Unintentional Time Traveler noted some bumps in the last third of the novel when time jumps occurred. So I sat back down with the manuscript and examined the language, the necessity of those movements.
Like I’ve said countless times in this blog, I’m a fan of rewrites. I love adding new layers, fixing squeaky parts, and finding little themes I didn’t realize were there as I make pass after pass through the prose. But these transitions were another issue. They read (past tense) to me and today, they still do. So there’s something I’m not noticing, if the agent’s assistant didn’t even recognize the protagonist’s final choice in the story.
I abhor over-explanation. We car drivers plunk ourselves behind the wheel all the time, never questioning the state of the pistons or the platinum usage of the catalytic converter. When writers overdo it, readers get bored. On the other hand, when not enough detail is provided to readers, they get lost, or worse, misinterpret what’s happening in the story. So I, like many others, try to balance the level of detail, considering all of the following:
- Is holding back on an element or revelation important to building suspense?
- Does the protagonist or reader need to know this detail right now?
- Does this piece give us something important about a character, universe, or plot arc?
Another level of confusion in my novel is the unorthodox treatment I give to gender. The agent’s assistant didn’t understand that I believe gender presentation and identity are fluid, devices we slap onto people to help the rest of us make sense of the world. So I ought not be surprised that she didn’t follow me throughout the text as the main character basically transitioned gender-wise. The more rules a writer breaks, the more explaining will have to take place. Here’s an excerpt from one of the time shifts:
I woke, feeling a heavy blanket over me that smelled of flowers. Detergent. I fumbled on my nightstand for the matches I’d left there and instead my fingers found something hard and rectangular. As my eyes adjusted to the dark I saw glowing numbers: 5:35. I was home, in my bed. I racked my brain thinking back to where I’d been last. Chased by Prophet Traver’s henchmen, fleeing with the Underground to the farmhouse, seeing angry flames licking up the stairwell and my mother looking at me like a ghost from her bedroom window—my mother. She was in the next room, with my Dad. I was Jack. Jack, I was me again. I put my hands on my chest, feeling skin that could only be described as dry, covering pectoral muscle. I wasn’t sure anymore which existence haunted me more.
Readers are adept at filling in the gaps of a narrative, but unexpected twists and turns need to be painted by the writer. I got tired of trying to open every temporal jump with blinding light, and I wanted to note that our hero (heroine) gets used to leaping across time–sometimes even in his sleep–to some degree. I think about it in that way that we stop noticing the little things when we develop familiarity. My 30th subway commute in DC, for example, saw me no longer staring at every station’s name on the tunnel walls because I knew by second nature that it hadn’t been long enough since I sat down to make it to my destination. Or driving the same path to the grocery store, by near instinct now I avoid all of the potholes in the streets, no longer needing to concentrate on avoiding them. If I haven’t gotten my readers accustomed to the time travel by the fifth such action in the text, I’m not doing my job.
I went back to my prose and highlighted where I could spend more time emphasizing the movement of leaping through eras. I reviewed other novels (Kindred, Blackout, Somewhere in Time, The Accidental Time Machine) and lo and behold many of them use very brief transitions if they don’t employ a lot of dials and knobs and devices. So my goal now is to keep it as minimal but as clear as possible when a shift occurs, and look to other sections of the text, like character motivation, dialogue, and the original exposition to help readers through the time travel and the gender development. With a firmer grounding up front, there need not be as many erroneous interpretations later in the story.
Rejections are never enjoyable, especially after a request for a full manuscript. And in this case I was something other than amused to see that the agent’s assistant greeted me as “Richard,” but I can use the takeaways from her reading experience to retool notable sections of the narrative, and get back to querying after that.
So it goes.