Timing – it’s not just for comedy

Last night was the second Stories in the North Open Mike. You can find out more about it here.

When we first thought of doing the open mike nights, we decided to have a strict time limit of five minutes. This is because we all know people who, given half a chance, will monopolize a mike for fifteen minutes or half an hour, and we wanted to avoid that. Sixteen five-minute slices of time is an hour and twenty minutes. On top of that you need time for introductions, door prize draws, breaks to vote (and get to the washroom, and refill your beer or your snack plate), time to count the votes and time for presentation of the prizes. Even with that five-minute limit, it’s easy to have the evening run from 7:30 to 10:00 p.m.

We give a one-minute warning, a thirty-second warning and a “stop”, and then out comes the hook. At each of the two Open Mikes, we’ve had one contestant whose presentation was interrupted because they simply ran out of time.

I got my training in radio. When I began writing slice-of-life humour for CBC Sudbury in 1993, I had a strict time limit. The producer I worked with suggested I read my pieces aloud and time myself to make sure that I’d fit into the time allotted and not have my final few lines cut for, say, the news. The news was a national feed, and couldn’t be delayed ten or fifteen seconds while I finished.

Every time I thought I’d finished a piece, I sat down in front of the only clock we owned that had a sweep second hand. It was in David’s woodworking shop in the loft of the barn, where he made spinning wheels. I’d sit and read, glancing from the page to the clock and back. When I ran out of time, I’d mark how many words I had to cut. Then I’d figure out where to cut them – a phrase here, a word there – until I was inside the limit.

What I learned from this was how to find the essential part of a story, work with that and trim what didn’t contribute to it. Sometimes I trimmed things I really liked. I always remember Daphne du Maurier’s remarks about editing her first novel, The Loving Spirit: “I cut passages it had given me exquisite pleasure to write.”

It’s trendy in writing to advise writers to “kill your darlings” or “kill your babies”, meaning that if you really, really like something, it probably has to go. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that, but I do think that first drafts are often self-indulgent, and that trimming is good for them, and for the writer. You don’t have to kill the bits you take out; file them and save them for another piece.

While an untimed piece is easier to write, it also allows the writer to be lazy, and to consider the first draft done. Why bother to edit an episode to five pages, or five hundred words, unless you have a time limit?

I’ll tell you why; odds are, it’ll be a better piece. Get out the stopwatch or the oven timer. Get out the scissors. Make the cut.

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