Thursday, August 20, 2009

SLAY THE SLOG! Kill the Pacing Dragon!

Did I mention that writing is hard work? And that when it comes to the hardest parts, novelists have this damnable tendency to tell themselves they're lousy writers, when in fact what they've got ahead of them is just plain hard work. The damnable tendency is a subject I'll deal with another time. Today it's about one of the hard jobs of writing. That elusive and confusing thing called Pacing. It's a Dragon. Let's slay it.

Anyone who thinks he can just sit down and write the fantasy of his heart and call it a novel- well, maybe he can write it. But if he thinks it's readable, he's probably wrong. Because 90% of the work in producing a novel others would want to read is in the re-writes. And most authors don't know how to edit for better pacing.

So let's gather our weapons and do a little reconnaissance.

Pacing is hard even to define. Basically, good pacing is the combination of all parts of a story to make it flow in a way that enhances the story. It' a matter of timing. Just as a comedian knows he must time his joke perfectly or it will fall flat, so an author must time his story.

As authors we can work magic with time. We can alter it as we please, and our readers accept it- if we did it in a way that serves our story well. The rest of the world is stuck with this ever-ticking clock that advances forward at the same eternal pace (other than the ones Einstein decided to move at the speed of light, that bring their travelers back to earth still young when everyone they knew on earth has aged and gone to their graves, but we're not going there today.)

Think about it. You pick up my book and spend a few hours reading it. In that amount of reading time, I took you back in time and we journeyed several months together. We might have skipped forward- I tend to discount hours spent sleeping as boring parts not worth recording, and hop right past little trips to the outhouse unless they're significant). We might have back-flashed to a previous time.

But that's only the obvious part. We also might have slowed time to luxuriate in a place of utter pleasure, say, floating down a very lazy river with the sun dappling through the trees along the shore. Or we sped it up to leap on our horses and dash over the fields to the churchyard where the bad guys hold the heroine hostage. And all in all, our story held us in the magic thrall of time, the illusion that we'd lived all of that, plus the memories of the events that led up to the story.

It's magic. Because it all happens by words. I say "horse", and you picture horse, complete with flowing mane. But no horse is really there, just in your mind and mine. I take maybe 2 seconds to say, "next morning", and your mind jumps to there, accepting that eight hours have passed. If I documented all those eight hours, you wouldn't just throw my book against a wall, you'd hunt me down and beat me to death with it.

Yeah, you say, but WHAT WORDS? Yes, that's the trick. Well, actually, the trick is more in HOW MANY words, and WHAT Kind of words.

In other blogs I've talked about cutting out the boring stuff and starting at the right place. Those are important parts of good pacing. The first thing is the boring stuff. What's boring? Anything that isn't really part of the story, and story is about conflict and conflict resolution. So idle conversation is a story killer because the reader has to dis-engage from the story and listen to chatter that in another situation might interest him but does not now.

The same is true with extra words. This has been a really hard one for me to learn. Women are more verbose than men, and they use more 'qualifier' words, like 'maybe', 'I think', 'rather', 'part of me thinks'-- get the idea? They have their uses, but they slow things down. So whenever you want your story to move faster, go on a hunt for qualifiers and slay them as mini-dragons. So just as a matter of habit, get rid of them through your entire story.

Slow scenes are hard to master, but I find most contest entries and even some published books have a really hard time with action scenes, where the pacing must be very tight and tense. For some reason it's common for authors to over-write action scenes. Sometimes I think they believe they have to get in more information to be believable. But actually, this is the time to trim to a bare minimum. The first thing that needs to go is internal monologue because the last thing a person is doing when he sees a car screaming down on him is to think, "I wonder if that's my Cousin Dewey. He always hated me after his dad took me on that fishing trip to Yosemite Park. I remember Aunt Maud wearing the dress with the tiny flowers as she packed our balogna sandwiches in brown paper bags..."

No, he's going to get the h&!! out of there, and think about Cousin Dewey and mouth-watering balogna later. So f it's possible, get rid of every single bit of internal stuff.

Also tighten with short, hard-hitting words. Short sentences.

Go on a modifier hunt, and slay that mini-dragon, too. If it ends in -ly or -ing, chances are excellent it needs to go. Look for verbs that do double duty. Verbs that require a modifier are generally weak ones, and you'll get more impact plus faster pace if you find a verb than can say what both verb and adverb are saying now. Limit the number of objects you describe. If you have a string of visual things you put in your description, pick ONE, describe it quickly (one word or less) and get on with the action.

Look closely at your nouns, too. Don't say feline when you can say cat. Better yet, get specific and say Persian. Yes, the word is longer, but it gives a more vivid picture, and you need all the help you can get with visuals here. Also be sure you've varied your words because a slightly different word can contribute more information just by being there.

Pronouns? Use them but be sure they refer to the right person, place or thing. Nothing worse than confusing the reader to slow down pacing.

And emotion- substitute it for all that thinking you took out. Also body language, and PAIN. If your hero takes a bang on the head, he'd better feel it or you lost your reader, who won't take it seriously.

And in an action scene more than any other, do not say anything twice, just in a different way. Don't follow a great piece of action with a short internal thought about what or why. Show it all in the action.

But there's one dragon that above all must be slain: Lack of Conflict. Your fiction must be conflct from beginning to end, even in the slow, easy scenes. Every scene must have a problem, and something must happen to change the scene so that when it is done, the characters' world and situation has changed. If not, then you need to find out what the conflict is that you've left out, and if you can't find it, then your scene needs to be cut.

I've read several contest entries lately in which the author has worked very hard to beef up the pacing. The prose is so tight, if it were a trampoline it could bounce you to the stars. But somehow it still falls flat.

Why? No amount of tightening can take the place of good work on Goal, Motivation and Conflict. If you have characters that are walking around town talking about yesterday's ballgame, I have a hard time caring. I can hear that at home. If they walk out of the game arguing over whether the game was thrown, sorry I still don't care, because that's just arguing and it's not going anywhere. It isn't true conflict as far as fiction goes. But if a car screams up, masked men jump out and grab a guy's girlfriend and drag her off, gunning down the boyfriend in the process, then I want to know why. A story has begun.

Whew! Did I mention this Dragon-Slaying is hard work?

Monday, August 17, 2009


Winner of our MOST OUTRAGEOUS RAKE Award

a Five-Rake Read!

Today we are in Berkeley Square, calling on Phrygia, Lady Thistlebloom, patroness of the British Museum and general arbiter of good taste and social graces. Lady Thistlebloom is at home and entertaining our newest Hero of Great Reknown, Mr. Nicholas Congrevance, hero of A MOST LAMENTABLE COMEDY, by Mrs. Janet Mullany, and recently returned from the Continent after a lengthy absence. Let's listen in:
* * *
Lady T: Good afternoon, Mr Congrevance. So kind of you to come. Do have a seat, won't you? Would you care for tea?

Mr. C: Your servant, ma'am. Why, tea would be delightful. Tea, plus the company of delightful English ladies, is something I've missed sorely.

Lady T: I understand you have recently returned from abroad, Mr. Congrevance.

Mr C: I have indeed, ma'am. I've traveled the continent quite widely these past few years

Lady T: Do you know, I was in Venice myself, quite recently. A rather odd thing occurred there. I saw a gentleman who resembled you quite closely. In fact, I should say he could very well have been-- but no, I believe he was an Italian fellow, some Comte de Something or other. Picked up by three ruffians and tossed head first into a canal. Since he most likely drowned, I am certain you could not have been the fellow.

Mr C: How shocking! Foreigners do the oddest things.

Lady T: Indeed yes, and his trousers were at his ankles. I suspect he was discovered by a cuckolded husband.

Mr C: I am most sorry you were subjected to such a grievous sight. For a lady of your tender sensibilities the shock must have been very great.

Lady T: Indeed yes. Quite huge. The shock, that is. And did I hear Lord Otterwell say he had come across you in Rome?

Mr C.: Lord Otterwell? Yes, of course. I go to visit him shortly.

Lady T: Oh, he is the most delightful gentleman. He puts on a Shakespeare play every year, as you probably know. Last year Lady Cynthia Bellbury played a breeches role in As You Like It, and it is quite extraordinary that she spends all her time in the country now, often seen in breeches, in the company of the lady who played with her. They are quite inseparable.

Mr C: How charming. And will you be going this year? Maybe we could travel together.

Lady T: Regretfully I declined the invitation after hearing that a certain lady had been invited. You have not been in town long enough to hear of her disgraceful conduct. She is quite dreadful, excessively vulgar, and--

Butler: Mrs. Jane Haddon, ma'am.

Mrs. H: Oh! My dear Lady Thistlebloom, I didn't know you knew Count Orlovsky! So honored to meet you again, your grace!

Lady T: Don't be silly, Jane, this is Mr. Nicholas Congrevance.

Mrs. H: I assure you, I knew him in Paris as Count Orlovsky. Why, you rogue, you disappeared entirely!

Butler: Lady Venetia Whitham, ma'am.

Lady W: Oh, dear Reverend Biddle, how delightful to see you again. I have thought so often of your good works among the poor of Vienna. Dear Phyrgia, you must make a contribution to the Reverend Biddle's fund. I am sure you will be delighted with his gratitude.

Lady T: You are mistaken, my dear. This is Mr. Nicholas Congrevance.

Mrs. H: No it is not. It is Count Orlovsky.

Butler: Mrs. Janet Mullany, ma'am.

Mrs. M: Ladies, I'm afraid I cannot stay--I must take Mr. Congrevance off your hands. We have an emergency committee meeting of the Association for the Rescue and Succor of those in Extremis. I'll bid you all good day.

[hasty farewells are said and Mrs. Mullany escorts Mr. Congrevance out, leaving the three ladies to decide who their caller really is]

Mr. C: Whew. That was unfortunate. I'm delighted to meet you again, Mrs. Mullany.

Mrs. M: I warned you not to linger in London, Nick, you idiot. I can't believe two women from your lurid past showed up at Lady Thistlebloom's and didn't want to kill you.

Mr. C: Well, you know, I left them both very happy. I always do.

Mrs. M: After emptying their husbands' pockets.

Mr. C: Where are we going? The Association for the what? It sounds like ARSE.

Mrs. M: It's a joke I wanted to recycle from the last book. Here we are. Mrs. Jacobs, this is Mr. Nicholas Congrevance.

Mr. C: Your servant, ma'am. [Whispers to Mrs. Mullany] Should I send my manservant to enquire of Mrs. Jacobs' maid what her allowance is?

Mrs. M: Don't be a fool, Nick, she's a writer. She doesn't have any money.

Mr. C: And these other ladies?

Mrs. M: They're the ladies Mrs. Jacobs has invited over to ask you questions. I'm sure they want to hear all about you.

Mrs. J: So delighted to meet you at last, Mr. Congrevance. Mrs. Mullany has told me of all your charms. I'm quite happy to see for myself, and I'm sure you will become a remarkable asset to society. Do allow me to introduce you to the ladies of ARSE, your devoted readers and fans.

Mr. C: Do pardon me, Mrs. Jacobs, but what is ARSE?

Mrs. J: Why, Mr. Congrevance, I am shocked. You have not heard of Ardent Readers of Salacious Editions? Our membership is quite large. ARSE is expanding everywhere. The membership, that is.

[Mrs. J turns to the eager-faced ladies who await them.]

There you are, ladies, did I not promise you the most delic-- well, let us simply say his starring role in Mrs. Mullany's marvelously naughty, 5-Rake-Winning book has brought him to the foreront of our imaginations.

Ladies, I am pleased to introduce to you, Mr. Nicholas Congrevance, winner of the prestigious IN SEARCH OF HEROES Award for Most Outrageous Rake of 2009. Feel free to ask any questions.

Ah-ah, though, Mrs. Cullidawny, you mustn't touch.

(Mrs. Jacobs wishes to point out that she and Mrs. Mullany had a bit of fun putting together this interview, and we hope you have enjoyed it, too.)

Mrs. Mullany's book, A MOST LAMENTABLE COMEDY, is publishe through Little Black Dress and is available through, UK , on Book, and a few other places too. And while youre out there looking, drop by her website at and learn more about Janet and her funny, saucy and sexy books.
She is, after all, the creator of our delicious Mr. Nicholas Congrevance, our sexy MOST OUTRAGEOUS HERO.

About Me

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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.