Getting Pacing Right

pacing

Getting Pacing Right

You know how sometimes a novel moves so slowly that it irritates and seems to positively encourage you to put it down even if the story interests you? Or when events move so quickly that you’re saying to yourself, “Huh? Wasn’t he trapped in the underground cave?” Or, the best, when you move from revelation to revelation in the story in a satisfying way? That’s pacing.

It is subjective

Whether the pacing is right depends largely on the reader. If he revels in elaborate description, he won’t find things slowed down by it. If the reader prefers fast paced, he’ll skip over any moments of confusion or disconnection to get to the climax.

So this is annoying for the writer. There probably isn’t one right answer unless you already know your readership well as a popular mystery novelist might.

But there are some general rules which generally work.

Getting the pacing is right

Mechanical ways

There are some standard ways to keep the pacing right

  • Description slows things down. Even beautifully crafted, heartfelt passages pause the action so we can admire the craft and heart.
  • Action speeds things up. When your characters are doing stuff, the pace of the novel picks up.
  • Slowing the pace of the action can build suspense. One of those counter-intuitive things but slowing the pace at the right moment can be more effective than barreling along.
  • Reflective/internal dialogue slows the pace. But may be necessary both for the story but as a chance for the reader to recover from the previous fast-paced action.
  • Varying sentence length can break things up. It really can. Breaking up dialogue with bits of business (he tapped his fingers; she turned her head sharply) produces the same effect.

Soul-searching ways

You sometimes need to look deeper to ask yourself some hard questions.

  • Is the world you created more interesting to you than to the reader? [1] Writers can get very excited about the world they’re creating. They explore all the nooks and crannies of this creation, getting more and more enthusiastic about the possibilities. All to the good. And can certainly infuse your writing with that enjoyment. But by and large, this neat stuff is more important to inform your writing than the reader.

Long passages describing how fascinating the world is are probably interesting only to you. What hooks a reader is the action the characters take within that context. And the constraints and opportunities that arise because of the unique setting. The magic layer in your world may only start five thousand feet above the surface. The protagonist must figure out how to reach that layer in order to access the magic that will further his goal, whatever it is.

  • Are you rushing to the end? This is a particular problem if you’ve already decided how the novel will conclude. There is a tendency to write the scenes leading in a straight line to the climax. Which leaves the reader rather breathless and in addition, ignores the byways, asides, and subplots which not only give a fuller story but also slows things down enough for the reader to enjoy the unfolding of the tale at a more satisfying pace.

In summary, this is a Goldilocks thing. Not too fast. Not too slow. And varied pacing. Too much of the same pace—no matter how exciting—will begin to feel tedious to the reader.

[1] Lukeman, Noah The First Five Pages Simon & Schuster New York 2000

Writing about Therapy Sessions

therapy

Writing about Therapy Sessions

What can I say? Writers, while not necessarily crazy (sorry, with mental health issues), nonetheless seem to be not infrequent users of therapy in various forms. And there is the whole write-what-you-know thing. So, sooner or later, we try to depict a therapy session.

And it almost always falls flat.

Not because you are a crummy writer but because of the nature of therapy. As those of us who have addressed our problems this way know, it is iterative, repetitive and slow process which takes a long time to get results. All things anathema to story.

So, if you try to truly reflect conversation in a session, you’re likely to get a boring, going nowhere mess which contributes little to the story.

How about speeding things up?

One option is, of course, to telescope the process in the novel. This compression in other areas is often quite justifiable to maintain the momentum of the story. So, the main character is completely open to all the suggestions made by the counsellor, integrates the learning with lightning speed, and is back on the right track in no time. She goes from mistrusting the world to complete and utter belief in the innate goodness of humanity.

First of all, sucky tale. You’ve removed all the struggles and conflict that makes a narrative hum. But more importantly for our purposes, completely unrealistic. Because we know in our own lives, with or without guidance, change doesn’t happen that way. Change is iterative, repetitive and slow.

How to avoid writing therapist scenes

Despite this, the insights that come with therapy may be pivotal to your plot. So how do you write about it without writing about it?

First, you probably need a scene establishing that your protagonist is seeing a therapist. But it might be the first session, where the main character illustrates the real reason she is embarking on this process. She thinks it’s because her family is so difficult but her defensiveness and the sharp tongued way she communicates cues the reader that there are other issues. Tricky to write, but if done well, it provides the reader with important information early on.

From there forward, the therapist might not figure prominently at all. But the main character might recall something learned in therapy which she applies to the present point in the plot. You might even be able to get away with a short—very short—scene where the protagonist comes to a significant revelation which we then see her applying it to refocusing her actions and life.

So you might be able to get the juice out of these sessions without having to do all the peeling, pitting, and dissecting which actually occurs.

If you must write about therapy

It is possible that your plot is integrally tied to depicting therapy sessions.

The only thing I have ever seen which did this effectively was an originally Israeli series, adapted to North American audience called In Treatment. In it, a therapist treated four different patients. And it works. Even though the whole series takes place inside the therapist’s office and the patients are just basically telling the therapist their stories.

So, if you must, you would do well to study why this tell-not-show approach works. If it’s the acting or direction, then you’re sunk. If it is the extremely clever writing (and I suspect it is), study how the writers made it work. Unless of course, it’s just bloody magic.

How to Keep Writing: Bum in Chair

bum

How to Keep Writing: Bum in Chair

Often, what keeps us from writing is not a lack of things to say or stories to tell, or the skill to tell them, or even the courage. It is sometimes as easy as keeping your bum in your chair. To keep writing even if you have the irresistible urge to throw in a load of laundry, play with the cat, or re-organize your cupboards.

So this post are some fairly simple-minded but I have found, effective, ways to keep going when these other siren calls intrude.

Keep your bum in chair with mantras

This isn’t at all new age. I don’t know why it works, but even if nothing is coming to you and the urge to check your Twitter account sweeps over you, just keep typing. Doesn’t have to further the story. Doesn’t have even to make sense. But the act of keeping your fingers typing seems to eventually force your brain back in gear.

I do have some mantras which I type when I’m just trying to keep my fingers moving.

Don’t reach for it. Let it come if it’s going to

Sometimes, I’m straining for the next idea, the next scene, the next sentence. By writing this phrase, over and over, it reminds me to have faith in myself. That it will come if I am patient. Perhaps not today but it will come. Just let it come on its own timetable.

Process not product

I can inadvertently get into a production mode. This has to get done. I need to finish this story. I focus on the end product and forget that the magic of writing is in trusting the process. You let yourself be immersed by that special cloud that comes to you when writing and allow its flow to direct you. Rather than trying to push it to the finish line. Process not product.

Fierce and bold

I won’t bore you with the story but suffice it to say that I have a rubber duckie with a pirate scarf and a machete under his little wing which reminds me that I need to be fierce and bold in my writing. No matter how weak or dull my writing machete feels right now, I can swing it with ferocity and bravery.

So, not rocket science but it works for me. Here’s what I wrote one time when I was being tempted off the chair.

Just do it but don’t reach for it. Impossible state. Magic state? Don’t reach for it. Let it come if it’s going to. Process not product. Fierce and bold. Fierce and bold. Keep the fingers moving. Keep the fingers moving. Don’t reach for it. Just let it come. Don’t try to shape it as it comes. Let it come. Let it be what it’s going to be.

Start your engines please

At other times, an almost opposite approach works. Sometimes it might feel right to put yourself under some pressure.

Then, I literally write: Start your engines, please, gentlemen (sic). It’s 10:32. I will write until 11:02. No stopping. No on-line.

Doesn’t have to be half an hour. Can be five. But set a timer and stick with it. This is the time to stop communing with your inner angst and get something on the page.

I use both approaches, mantra and engines, choosing the one which fits my mood at the time. Doesn’t matter what you use as long as it keeps your bum in the chair.

Going For Broke

brokeGoing For Broke

I think every writer, consciously or not, decides how much of themselves, or their history, or their great ideas they want to reveal in a particular piece of work. That is, we don’t often go for broke.

This is what I wrote in my journal when I was starting a new project.

What if I put everything in one basket and went for it? All out, everything I’ve got on one story—rather than eking out the thoughts, rationing the imagination so it will last for the rainy day when the magic is a sodden as the clouds. What if I thought it was a river not a reservoir? What if I trusted myself? God, there’s a concept. Go get the laundry.

I don’t know if the passage makes as much sense now as it did then, but I felt that I was holding back, tiptoeing in rather than jumping into the deep end of the novel. By which I mean, allowing any semi-deep insight or crazy idea or scary revelation to just flow onto the page. To open the dam and see what comes out.

Why was I holding back?

Well, I think it comes down to trusting yourself, or at least it did for me. If I threw everything I cared about, everything I feared or hungered for or dreamed on a silly night, what would I have left? Nothing, I feared. I’d pour my whole self into this one novel and then I’d have no more to give. I’d be emptying myself, at least the writing self.

Yes, and of course, there were the ancillary concerns that I don’t technically know how to do what I want to produce, or that doing it will reveal too much of me, that I will offend, that people will think I’m crazy/callous/sentimental/boring.

But fundamentally, it came down to: was I going for broke or not?

So I took a deep breath and jumped in. Frankly, it was scary. However, when I finished, I was pleased with the result. The no-holds-barred seemed to produce a piece that had more life and depth.

Good result but didn’t address the concern—was I going to be able to write anything else?

Well, of course I was. I might feel empty after finishing a piece but the hopper got refilled shortly thereafter. With that comfort, I try always to go for broke when I write. Doesn’t always work, sometimes I chicken out or get distracted. But I have adopted it as my mindset.

What if it gets broke?

You may feel differently—that you tried it and you were emptied. I admit that sometimes it feels as if it has happened.

But I would say, pretty emphatically, it doesn’t really. You haven’t stopped thinking, have you? Or living? Or changing, for ill or good. There will always be ideas and thoughts and insights which can be turned into story.

Still disagree? I firmly believe what you are experiencing is due to other circumstances. Like writer’s block or self-censoring  or fear of appearing naked on the page, or being stuck .

My advice—go take a nap, reread the novel that made you want to write, walk away for a bit (a bit, not forever), get on with real life. From which river, you can catch your next insight, event, or feeling. Which you write about.

Orwell and Rule Three

Orwell

Orwell and Rule Three

In the previous post, I listed Six Rules for Writing  created by George Orwell and focused on why Rule 2 (Never use a long word where a short one will do) is so important for writers. In this post, I want to talk about Rule 3.

Rule Three: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

On the surface, this has a ho-hum, yeah, yeah feeling to it. Sort of like your dentist reminding you to floss. Sure, I’ll do it when I have a minute.

And the ‘always cut it out.’ A bit extreme, surely. Discuss among yourselves.

Example

Alex hid among the bushes, with hands trembling and knees weak. He knew he might have to run at any moment but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold up. He tried to slow his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Seems okay, no? Let’s see what happens when you cut words. This bit was 43 words.

Applying Rule 3 to the example

Alex hid among the bushes, with hands trembling and knees weak. He knew he might have to run at any moment but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold up. He tried to slow his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Here is the cleaned up version.

Alex hid among the bushes. Hands trembling. Knees weak. He might have to run at any moment but would his legs hold up? He slowed his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Discussion

See what a difference cutting words can make? Tightening up the word count also tightened up the tension. It more closely mimicked Alex’s staccato breathing and thinking. It pulls the reader into the scene more effectively.

The number of words cut wasn’t that great. 43 in the original. 34 in second version. Nine word difference which makes all the difference.

(Although almost 20% of the sentence was cut. That’s a lot over the course of a manuscript.)

Obviously, what and where you cut is a judgement call. For example, Alex is repeating himself when he thinks I can do this. I’ve got this. I decided it was worth leaving both statements as a reflection of the kind of self-talk a person in his situation might do.

Cutting words helps heighten tension in a scene but is effective with all types of writing.

It helps the reading flow for readers. I’m not sure that extra words get in the reader’s way so much as slow her down. Extra words which don’t need to stand in-between her and your exciting climax.

Situations where the Orwell rule 3 might not apply

So, being an enthusiastic proponent of Rule 3, I have discovered that it can be taken too far. An obvious problem is if you cut so much that you confuse the reader.

But I have discovered a penchant which actually hurts the reading. I love to cut thats. I could have written (from above): An obvious problem is if you cut so much you confuse the reader.

The ‘that’ is cut and the sentence is still understandable. However, if you do it too much, the reader is kicked out of the continuous dream. My beta readers reported that, over the course of the novel, they had to reread certain sentences. The grammar was correct but dropping the ‘that’ violated their expectations and made them focus on the language itself rather than the story. A focus which is the writer’s job not the reader’s.

But I’d still say, cut, cut, cut.