Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "Do I go with my head and finish the book that I think has a good chance? Or go with my heart and write the stuff I really enjoy?
Five minutes' fun

What time are you talking about?

I've been working flat-out on the WIP, and I can now see the end of the story, in the sense that I know  pretty much how I'm going to get to the end which has always been there, though I still need to imagine-out-and-write my way through all the exact moves... So I didn't get out for my statutory walk till after ten last night, and halfway round it I had a qualm. The last few days' writing is quite brisk because there's lots happening; there's not much expansion of setting or atmosphere, nor much in the way of flashback, exploration, thinking (in the ruminative sense), or a sense of the world outside the small house I've got four people penned up in, in a thoroughly unstable stew of relationships.

I do think a rhythm of tension and release, action and reflection, systole and diastole, is absolutely essential to a good story: one reason I work looking at two full pages of MS at a time on screen is because I can see - literally, see - the pattern of dialogue and narrative, short paragraphs and long. But is this bit too briskly, plainly, forward-moving, I worried: is there not enough human flesh on the lay-figures' bones, for too long? I thought back to the last time I was writing multi-layered and richly (I hope) evocative stuff, and realised it was a whole week ago. That's ages for the reader to be plodding along with bare dialogue and stage directions; should I cut, fillet, amplify lavishly?... delete? Is the fact that it felt unsatisfactory to my memory as I walked, telling me I'm on the wrong plot-track altogether, without scenes which get my best writing out of me?

Except that it isn't ages at all, it's about 5,000 words ago. Thirty minute's reading-aloud speed, and even less to the eye. So, thanks to my rule that I don't fiddle with work, I didn't go home and pull the latest writing apart, or delete it. I'm leaving it for now, and only when I've got to the end will I know if it sits right with everything else. In other words, as so often, I'd nearly fallen foul of how many different kinds of time* are folded into the pages of a novel.

Real Time: the time these events actually took to happen [as if they were] in real life. The time built into what narratology calls the fabula, as R N Morris describes it there on Jenn Ashworth's blog: the fundamental story that (as with folk tales, say) underlies all the versions that might be told of it.

Storytelling Time, which you could also call Narrative Time: the time the story takes to be told this time. In the Russian Formalists' terms it's the time that is taken by the siuzhet, which is the version of the fabula which a given writer makes: cutting and shaping, jump-cutting or moving gradually, reversing time or fragmenting it, switching direction, going backwards, connecting events or disconnecting them. Is this the equivalent of a perfect, two-minute song which has all the joys and miseries of a love affair in it? Or is it a great, fat world that we live in novel-year by novel-year as we watch that love affair from first glance to last, farewell kiss?

Textual Time: the time the actual words take to express a certain unit of action or series of events. One of the things I find magical about storytelling is that time within the telling of a story is infinitely compressible, or expandable, as I was exploring in my post Blow by Blow: you can cover the ground as fast or as slowly as you choose, from snail to lightning-bolt, and still bring things alive. Homer's Odyssey takes place over ten years, and is 12,110 lines long - that's 3.31 lines per day, if we were being silly. Joyce's Ulysses takes 930 pages, in my paperback edition, for one day, although of course in both there are whole worlds of time and space folded in as well.

Writing Time: the time it takes to get those words down on paper. On a really storming day I'll write 3000 words in four hours. So, 10-20 times slower than I'd read the same number of words.  And, as I found at ten o'clock last night, this fact can really, really confuse your sense of how the story is experienced by the reader. It's one reason that a lot of my process, I've realised, is aimed at trying to write my first draft forwards and fast, in order to hold on to some faint sense of how it will be to read.

Not-Writing Time: the times when you aren't writing for some days or weeks, so the pot goes off the boil. Just as with any relationship of recent memories to more distant ones, memory can confuse your sense of the proportions of present and past in terms of space but also importance: of what the dominant effects of the experience are. And you're even more likely to have a mis-matched sense of how the beginning of the chapter you started today sits with the end of the last chapter, if you wrote the last chapter six weeks ago, let alone what you wrote last year. Yes, you can go back and look. But then you wouldn't be working fast and forwards: you still won't be reading it as a reader does.

Reading Time: as I said, perhaps 10-20 times faster than writing time. It's one reason printing out a large chunk and taking it from my writing desk to my reading sofa is such an important part of my process. Other people actually Lulu a copy to look like a book, and all to try to get a sense of how the novel works for the reader: the bigger rhythms of systole and diastole, action and recuperation/reflection; how long a character is absent for; whether two scenes set up to echo each other are close enough for the reader to hear the echoes; whether we have, or haven't, had time to forget that while we were mainly seeing the hero's first kiss, out of the tail of our eye we saw something being sneaked into the baby carriage.

Re-created Narrative Time: how does the reader experience the storytelling time that the storyteller has set up? If your hero has a revelation about his marriage in Chapter Three, are we convinced by how that composts in his psyche to change how how he behaves to his wife when he gets home in Chapter Four? I think that often this is where the intelligent but ultimately formulaic kinds of fiction fall down: effect follows cause too pat-ly, without the sense of contingency and messiness of real life, and the reciprocity failure that long exposure can cause. Does the whole thriller plot unroll so briskly that we don't acquire an intuitive sense of time passing in the longeurs that real life actually contains even when you are busy trying to save the world. We are temporal creatures: it takes clever writing and structuring to not just tell the reader about the long, dreary muddle, but evoke that length and dreariness: to not bore the reader, and still convince our temporal wiring how the patient person is driven to a sudden, impatient act which leads to the final explosion.

Reading Aloud Time: A 13½ minute radio story is about 2,200 words, which is at least a third fewer than it would be to read to yourself. The text is experienced more ruthlessly temporally than it is in print, and the fact that you're pretty hoarse and slightly dehydrated by the end of the marathon can make you feel it to be even longer. Most poets acknowledge that now the main way to get your work out there is performance not print, they have to write with reading-aloud in mind... or rather in ear. I'm a huge fan of reading aloud privately, as part of my process, precisely because it does work through the brain in a different way. But it's worth remembering that for both good and ill you're experiencing the novel more slowly than most readers (including yourself as reader-writer) would, and in a subtly different medium.

Historical Time: most historical novelists have had readers for whom the writer's history is memory, and others for whom the writer's memory is their history. In a sense all novels are historical: they tell a story as if these events have happened. But we also situate what we reader in a larger sense of the history of ourselves and our world... and although you may have put in the references to the Festival of Britain with a delicate accuracy of a Fabergé worker, some of your readers will see a jewel of the past, and others a familiar childhood birthday present.

So I certainly don't think there's a clear way of avoiding the complications that arise when several kinds of time are at work at once. I do think that when things aren't working, as I was exploring in The Common Scaffold, it's often the natural outcome of how novels get written, and read. Maybe it's just a matter of becoming more aware, at the subliminal level, of the different kinds of time ticking away. Some of the clocks keep going, some start and stop, some are soprano and others bass, some keep in phase and some don't, there's rhythm and counterpoint and even syncopation between them, some strike thirteen and others run backwards. If humans are temporal creatures who have evolved memory to understand their own world, then the novel - the art form which has evolved to re-create the memories we don't have - is most intimately built to do the same.

 * I'm sure there are proper lit-crit words for all of these different kinds of time, but having got my degree pretending to be a tree before Theory began to chop them down, I don't know what they are.

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