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The Time-Keeper’s Ax: Prose Writers, Beware

The Time-Keeper’s Ax: Prose Writers, Beware

By Nancy Jensen, Associate Professor, Bluegrass Writers Studio

     Every prose writer who has worked up the courage to agree to participate in a public reading has faced the same gleaming ax: the time limit.  Poet-envy sets in immediately, because even if readers are limited to a slender five minutes each, every poet in the crowd can read one complete poem—sometimes as many as four complete poems—and still have thirty seconds to spare.  But for the non-poets among us, the time-limit always carries the implied message: Abandon all hope, ye Prose Writers, who enter here.

     It doesn’t matter, either, if the time limit is more generous.  Whether it’s eight minutes, fifteen or twenty-five, as a prose writer, you will never find a single, complete piece that fits perfectly.

     The problem, of course, isn’t just the number of pages in your sheaf or how long it takes to read them aloud at a pace slower than a Derby frontrunner’s—it’s that you nearly always have to take a chunk out of something larger, a chunk that has enough dramatic thrust to engage the listener and that can, at the same time, stand reasonably well on its own without relying too heavily on backstory, allusions, or other imbedded references.

     I wish I could offer a no-fail solution to this problem, but I can’t.

     What I can do is suggest you turn the reading challenge into a writing challenge.  It may take several hours for you to identify a few possible segments from different works, but once you’ve found them, practice reading each section aloud and pay attention.  If your mind begins to wander as you read, you’re boring yourself, and if you’re boring yourself, you’ll most certainly bore the listening audience.  If you’re bored, you’ve discovered your own slack writing—writing that will be just as flaccid when a reader encounters it on the page.  Don’t ignore this revelation: stop, and make the writing better.

     When you’ve found a section of your own work that keeps your attention after multiple practice readings, set a timer and practice again.  Listen for phrasings that tangle your tongue or confuse the pace or jar the tone—and fix them.  And practice again.  If you’re running over time, even by a few seconds, look for words, phrases, even whole sentences that just aren’t pulling their weight and slash them out.  Sure, once in a while, for the purpose of a public reading you may eliminate a reference that’s essential to the complete work, but most of the time, you’ll find that the threat of the timekeeper’s ax, poised to cut you off mid-breath, will lead you toward ruthless self-honesty.  Next time through, you won’t even miss what you cut.  Instead, you’ll be invigorated by your leaner, fitter prose—and so well-practiced, you won’t be nervous anymore.

Published on January 20, 2014

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