Thursday, November 02, 2006

Some notes on Skipped

I'm not sure any of this is of any interest to anyone but me, but it'd be worthwhile to jot these down for my own benefit. Here are some notes relating to the creation of the short story that I serialized here in 5 parts over the span of a week and a half in late October/early November.

First, as funny as it may seem, I took the time, before writing the first word, to draw out a timeline on a sheet of 8.5x11 paper. I felt I'd need this in order to keep the events of each Chapter straight as I wrote them, especially considering that those events had to be described in forward chronological order initially and then in reverse order at the end of Chapter 5. I wanted to make sure I didn't forget that the green object was appearing and disappearing in certain ways that had to make sense when I described them backwards. For example, in Chapter 2, Rich finds the object in McClusky's locker and then notices that it's gone missing from his backpack later in the day; whereas in Chapter 5, the object itself appears in his backpack, rides around in it for part of the day, and then is taken out and placed in McClusky's locker by Rich, only to disappear after the locker is closed. I just knew I'd never be able to get those right without notes, and I referred to them at each stage of writing the chapters.

I also mentioned to some readers that I was putting clues in, but that they were admittedly obscure. I wanted them obscure because I didn't really want the full disclosure of what was happening known ahead of time, but I also wanted to plant at least a few clues for the truly-obsessive. Here are the clues, oblique though they are:

1) In Chapter 1, Rich's Grade 5 teacher is named Mrs Supmet. "Supmet" is "tempus" backwards, and "tempus" of course is Latin for "time", so there you have backwards time.

2) Similarly, in Chapter 2, Rich and his schoolmates have a nickname for teacher Edward Mitchell, based on his uncontrollable flatulence, of Emit. Again, "emit" is "time" backwards, this time in English.

3) I think Jim Hinckley picked up on this next one at some point. The amount of time into the future that each subsequent vision reached kept increasing each time Richard encountered the green object. For the 9 year old, it was only a few hours (from the middle of the night to the next morning); for the 14 year old, it was several days before the field trip that he received his warning of the peril awaiting everyone on it; the 25 year old saw several years into the future, after his marriage had failed and Kate had found someone else; and the 41 year old drunk was gifted with a preview of his (and everyone else's) death more than two decades in the future. This would indicate that the distance was increasing, and yet nothing else was presented to suggest energy was being added, so one might wonder if perhaps it was more a case of energy depleting (since that's what generally happens when there's no source to provide more) in which case it might occur that it was actually travelling backward through time. Also, if, as a reader you trusted that all would eventually be explained, and since each chapter went forward years in time, it might be logical to assume the answer would occur sometime in Richard's future and have to somehow trickle back to explain away the earlier incidents.

4) Lady Fatima's cryptic comment about Dunfrey being somehow related to both the end and the beginning of the world might seem to be mumbo jumbo at first glance, but obviously it was literal and a suggestion that somehow he'd not only be present at Armageddon but also somehow be there at the Dawn of Time. And of course that requires some serious backward motion in time.

5) Since the green object clearly had an affinity for Richard, the fact that he kept finding it in other people's possession could've been a tip-off, since it doesn't seem consistent. Why would the object be hanging out in McClusky's locker or Kate's kitchen cupboard, after all? The answer of course is that it wouldn't, but would instead appear to Rich (flying into his hand on the bridge, and into his backpack on his back) and would only be given away to others by Rich. (And as soon as it was separated from Rich, it lost the connection with him and continued its backward flight outside the timestream.) If this seemed backwards, then maybe it would occur to a reader with nothing better to do with his or her life to consider if the object's appearance and disappearance were actually the other way around.

6) "Paid to lie." Those words by Fatima actually got more discussion than anything else in the story. As I typed the end of that chapter, I hadn't planned that part, nor even a return to Fatima's tent, but I felt like something was missing. Since I'd opened with her, it made sense to provide some symmetry by bookending the events with the gypsy seer. When I had to revisit her as a character, it occured to me that, if she really saw the future, she'd either have to tell everyone that the world was soon going to end, or else decide to tell them lies that would make them happy. Jim Hinckley picked up on the salient fact that Jamie, not Rich, had paid Fatima, meaning that she shouldn't therefore have been lying in what she told our hero. And in fact she hadn't been. And of course she didn't always lie (her words to Jamie were true), but she was having to do so more and more.

7) I probably didn't need to worry that readers would have trouble figuring out time travel was involved, but I still created the chapter titles to suggest it. All of them imply the movement of time while also carrying a clue as to their contents: Play Time (an activity that occupies a period of time / something kids do), Growing Pains (a period of transition / a painful tragedy as part of Richard growing up), The Course of True Love (time flowing like a river / a romantic story) and Time in a Bottle (trying to stop the march of time by bottling it / Richard struggling with his demons, especially alcoholism that would taint most of the remainder of his life). The only chapter title I changed from what I'd originally planned was the final one. It was originally going to be The Future Isn't What It Used To Be, an expression (attributed to Yogi Berra, I think) that I've always loved. I realized as I got to that part of the story that it didn't work, though, as one of the central themes is that everything (past, present, future) is exactly what it used to be. It might've still flown as a statement of what people expected the future to be versus what they got, but I didn't want to take that chance. So I changed it to In Which We Learn The Future Ain't All It Was Cracked Up To Be, since that delivers the same message but employs "cracked up to be" in place of "used to be" to make it clear we're talking about expectations here, not facts. And naturally it had to fulfill the original two criteria: time passing / the content (we all spend some time learning about the future / and the future ends up being not only different that what we'd expected, but also literally cracking up when those wacky scientists twiddled the wrong tachyon bit).

8) And finally, the title: Skipped. I put lots of possible interpretations of that word into the early chapters: Why's a 9 year old, who had his birthday over the summer, in Grade 5? He should only be in Grade 4... unless he skipped a grade (as Richie did). And 14 year old Rich skipped the field trip, luckily for him (and our story)! 25 year old Richard almost skipped his blind date, and would've except that his conscience got the better of him (did anyone really believe he'd gotten the time wrong, when Laurie had given him the details only an hour or so before?) But of course the real meaning of the title was our mysterious green thing skipping back and back through time, as we moved forward through it.

And that's all I can think of. Hopefully someone out there enjoyed this peek into the twisted mind of a guy who just likes writing stories.


Anonymous said...

Almost as interesting as the story!

Peter J. said...

Nice story, and interesting description of the subtleties. In any of my fiction writing (such as it is/was) I've had a predilection for reversing names, but I didn't pick up on Sumpet (although I thought it an unlikely name---sort of like Mxyzptlk, come to think of it) or Emit.

A belated comment on part five and note 3... I was surprised to read that the TR "appeared" for the first time to nine-year-old Rich. The "pitty-pat" of a skipped stone happens way more often near the end of its trajectory; I almost expected another earlier/later bounce causing him to get "skipped" ahead a grade by some foreknowledge granted by the TR (which wouldn't necessarily require its own earlier chapter, just a one-liner in chapter one) and perhaps even a few more in the wrapup. But it ain't my story. :)