Posts Tagged ‘pacing in novels’

Before I get into this post, I want to take a moment and just say how very lucky I am. Two very dear bogging friends, with not-to-be-missed blogs of their own, Teri and Downith, checked in with me after my posting absence to see if I was okay. Wow. We’ve never met face-to-face and yet they made a point to check in. Thank you, ladies. Truly.  You can’t know how kind that was.

Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it? The flu of the century landed at our house and even after I put the damn pineapple at the foot of its bed, it still wouldn’t leave. So rude. Anyway, I can tell how long it’s been by the fullness of the box wine in the fridge and the number of empty tissue boxes stacked on the counter (Seventh Generation products, but I still feel badly for not going total-green and using hankies, but frankly I don’t want that gunk in my washer, so I ask your forgiveness yet again, dear trees.) .

But in between coughs that could be mistaken for seal mating calls, I have managed to be nearly done with a draft of my WIP, and can I just say: My characters think WAY TOO MUCH! Now I know I’m an analytical person who can over-think a wrong number, but my characters really need to, as Carly says: “turn down the noise in (their) mind(s)”.

But then I stop them thinking those seque-less bursts of self-analysis, and I realize the reader STILL wants and needs to know what they’re thinking, just not in such a way that pulls the reader out of the scene like a commercial break.

So I have them reveal their thoughts in as an unobtrusive a way as possible, while they are doing, the way we all do (unless we are in an actual conversation about our thoughts which happens a lot in real life, but can really kill the mood in a book)–ie, the dishes, walking the dog, making dinner, etc., so the thoughts come out in little pieces, enough to suggest their thoughts, ideas, maybe even their backstory, without usurping the pacing of the scene.

It’s not always easy. Especially when we find we’ve let those thoughts go unspoken and we feel the need to purge them in a single scene over several paragraphs like dumping old files when we realize we’ve overloaded our desktop.

So how about you all? Ever find your characters think too much?

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Last week I sat down at the doctor’s office and picked up the latest issue of a weekly news magazine.  I found a great single-page essay and was nearly at the end when I saw, wedged neatly into the final paragraph of the author’s column, a box telling me what I would find on the following page.


Now it’s no secret that I’m a card-carrying member of the instant-gratification club (recent membership in gazillions, last I checked) but is my attention span so short that I need a preview of what’s on the next page while I’m still on this one?

And even more importantly–what about the poor author of the article I’m reading? Here she is, about to deliver her powerful summary and right at the peak of its impact, my attention is yanked to the next author’s article. How is this good for either author? How this is good for me, the reader?  I don’t think it is.

As writers, we know we need to hook our audience right away. We all struggle with that perfect first line–the one that will draw our readers in and keep them there. We know how little time we have to make our impression–we’ve all seen MTV (or at least remember how it first looked). This trend of love-at-first-sentence doesn’t concern me.  What concerns me is that our wooing window is shrinking even further.

Then I am reminded of a book like Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, a beautifully written novel that brings its readers into the world of Crosby, Maine and into the homes and hearts of its small population. This is a gently flowing stream of a story, not a raging waterfall. At least, not right away. But make no mistake, despite the lack of an initial riptide, myself, and many, many other readers, were sucked under.

But back to the doctor’s office…

Now believe me, I was planning to turn the page of the magazine–frankly it hadn’t occurred to me not to. Yet seeing that “ad” for the next page put me off. Kind of like the way you’re reading an article on-line and a pop-up flies onto the screen, utterly blocking your reading from view.

So please tell me: Am I making a mountain out of a molehill here? Or are we fast approaching a place and time when we’ll need some sort of incentive (think: free toaster) to simply turn the pages of a book?

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For me, one of the hardest parts of writing is knowing where to start a scene.

The obvious answer: Well, at the beginning, of course.

But just where is the beginning?
Do you do as Elmore Leonard is always credited with saying, leave out the boring parts?

Let’s use the example of someone arriving at their office to find they’ve been fired. Following are two places you could begin the scene:

Option #1: The traffic on the freeway was thick as Joseph headed into the office. He punched absently at the radio buttons and sipped his coffee, thinking on the morning’s news. It had been a grim start. A fire downtown. A burglary down the block. It reminded him of that summer he’d spent in Boston, when he’d shared an apartment over a bakery with his ex-girlfriend and her best friend…

Option #2:
Fred Morris gave Joseph a weary look from the other side of his long desk.
“I’m sorry, Joe. You’re a good kid. I wish there was some other way.”
Joseph stared dully at the framed picture of his boss’s third wife on the wall, his head spinning. No. This wasn’t happening.
He swallowed. “You’re…you’re firing me?”

See what I mean? I don’t care so much about the traffic Joseph faces getting to work. He lives in a city. He drives on the freeway. Facing traffic seems obvious to me, and frankly, I don’t appreciate you the writer making me suffer it along with him. Unless, of course, Joseph commutes with a key character and that agonizing drive can serve as an opportunity to move the plot forward through dialog (useful dialog) then it’s just filler and a real mood and pacing killer.

Now myself, I tend to start scenes in the thick. The first line is often a line of dialog, and usually something dramatic, such as: “Here he comes!” or “You did what?”

Does this work? Sometimes. But only if I can successfully ground my reader in the scene ASAP. Never assume your reader knows where they are at all times. You are the tour guide, you lead your reader to landmarks, points of interest, etc. But keep in mind (and this is spoken by someone who was a tour guide in a past life), no one likes a long-winded tour guide. Keep a group of tourists standing too long in the hot sun while you elaborate on the finer points of gambrel roofs and you’ll see a lot of blank and grumpy faces.

The same holds true for your readers. They signed on to your tour because they want to see stuff. They want to learn and they want to peek. They want smells and sounds and sights and tastes. And frankly, they want it as soon as possible, so don’t belabor your introductions. Get to it. Bring them into the carriage house and show them the old wheels, the old beams, the scrawled numbers on the vertical boards where the builder did some last-minute math. The cool stuff.

Now, once you have them in the carriage house, once they are settled in, by all means, give them a bit of exposition, but only once they are comfortable, in the shaded cool, and with lots of stuff to look at while they listen.

So when it comes to knowing where to start my scenes, I try to:

–establish place, as quickly and succinctly as possible

–then, whenever possible, start at the point of conflict, or as close as you can without confusing your reader or changing the tone of your pacing

Anyone else care to share how and where they like to start their scenes?

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