This is it, my surrender to doing something that as a writer I always promised myself I wouldn’t do. It involves the passing of time.
A critique the beta reader of my manuscript gave me was, “I had a hard time telling when time passed.”
At the time, I didn’t quite understand what she meant, and she didn’t go into any further detail by pointing out an example of when I had been vague. It was clear to me when one scene ended and another began. I didn’t want to discount the critique, but because I couldn’t see the problem, I didn’t know how to fix it. So I filed the comment away in the back of my mind for a time when I had found a solution.
The solution presented itself to me when I had a short story critiqued by the Alexandra Writer’s Society writer in residence, Lee Kvern, a couple of weeks ago. She gave me the exact same critique. I had given her story about an old man and the story shifted periodically between the present and his past life. I thought the difference between the two times was obvious. Apparently not, and as before, I didn’t know how to fix it. I wanted to rip my hair out.
With her critique, Lee had the solution for my problem, and it came in the form of a little star that appears when you hit shift 8 three times in the center of the page, asterisks.
She told me this was “a simple problem with an easy fix.”
Star. Star. Star.
My initial response was to balk and throw this advice as far away as I could. This advice suggested I break one of my cardinal rules of writing:
I do not use asterisks.
When reading a novel or a short story, I almost always found that those little stars caused a terrible jarring effect that ripped me out of the world the author had tried so hard to build. I didn’t want to do that to my readers and when Lee suggested it, I instantly rejected the thought. Not that I told her this, of course. I was grateful to have a successful talented writer taking the time to give me suggestions; I wasn’t going to disagree with her. That would be blasphemy.
Anyway, we went through the rest of the critique and the next day I went to town on my story, applying all of her suggestions to improve it. Well, all of her suggestions, except one of course. There were to be no asterisks in my story, no ma’am.
But when I’d finished with the rest of her suggestions, I was still stuck with a problem: if I wasn’t going to use an asterisk, how was I going to solve the ambiguity of the passage of time?
This is where my stubbornness was undercut by that terrible thing known as logic. The truth is, using those three little stars is better than the alternative:
I may have thought that the use of asterisks pulled readers out of the story, but I realized that it was better to be pulled a little out of the story than it was to be confused about what was happening. If the readers think they’re in the eighties and they miss a transition sentence and they’re suddenly in the nineties without knowing how they got there, that would be far more jarring than those three asterisks. If things aren’t clear enough, the reader could give up on the book entirely. I don’t want that.
So, despite my balking and prejudice against the asterisk, I admitted defeat. Lee was right. Asterisks are the way to go, and it is a simple fix. Shift 8, shift 8, shift 8, center. Boom. No more confusion.
I now bow down the asterisk gods and thank them for their mighty powers of clarity.
Side note: if you ever happen to get a chance to have a writer in residence look at your work, do it, do it, do it. You will never get a better critique of your writing.