Tag Archives: fiction writing

Pacing: The Overlooked Skill in Writing

Pacing is like that secret ingredient in the beef stew–you can’t identify it, but you know when it is missing. I came across a couple of recent blog posts that discussed in detail some pacing problems and solutions.

In a December 12 post on the blog, Adventures in YA Publishing, Jake Kerr defined pacing and then delved into some common problems writers encounter. “Pacing means how quickly the reader perceives things as happening in a story. This is different from rhythm, which is more about how the reader perceives something as ‘sounding’ as they read it. Pacing is more often discussed at the narrative level–the pace of a chapter and a novel as a whole.”

Among the pacing problems Kerr identifies is starting a book too slowly. This problem, Kerr wrote, occurs because the writer introduces the narrative tension too late. The obvious solution is to introduce the conflict earlier. Perhaps there is a scene already written where the conflict is introduced. Look for that first sign of conflict and think about starting with that scene.

Another pacing problem centers on slow sections of the book. “This section of the book is soooo slow,’ was how Kerr put it. He challenged writers to ask themselves: is this creating tension and extending it? “Extending tension doesn’t generally work. What’s a better solution? Delaying tension, which leads to: ‘This book is paced too fast.”

I see this all the time. If a little fast pacing is good, then continuous fast pacing must be better, right? Well, not really. As Kerr put it, “This is really what pacing is all about: taking all the pieces of a novel and putting them into a narrative that builds tension, releases it, and builds it again, with every piece either adding to the tension or releasing it.”

Kerr makes an important point here. The reader needs a breather from a fast pace, just like a runner who exerts himself needs to slow down and regulate his breathing. A reader needs time and space to process major events in a story, I’ve found it helps to follow a rapid-paced chapter with a major reveal with a slower chapter that provides some reflection and time for the reader to grasp the import of what has happened.

Kerr found another problem is confusing pace with plot. He urged writers to chart out what needs to be shown and what can be told, and craft scenes in such a way that keeps the story moving forward.

“Finally, pacing does not mean that every novel should be a roller coaster ride,” he wrote. “A successful novel can be a slow build of rising tension with incremental forward movement. It can also start with an explosive scene and then unfold as the after effects are revealed. Where the tension in the narrative exists really doesn’t matter: Pacing is all about shepherding the reader along in a way where they enjoy the ride.”

In a blog post on Writers Helping Writers, Becca Puglisi shared some useful” tips on common pacing issues:

Current story vs. Backstory: “To keep the pace moving, only share what’s necessary for the reader to know at that moment. Dole out the history in small pieces within the context of the current story, and avoid narrative stretches that interrupt what’s going on.”

Action vs. Exposition/Internal Dialogue: When the story gets too passive, put the characters in motion. “Characters should be in motion–smacking gum or doodling or fidgeting–while talking. Give them something to do during their thoughtful moments…”

Conflict vs. Downtime: “Readers need time to catch their breath, to recover from highly emotional or stressful scenes. A good pace is one that ebbs and flows–high action, a bit of recovery, then back to activity again.”

Keep Upping the Stakes: “To keep the reader engaged, each of the major conflict points needs to be bigger, more dramatic and with stakes that are more desperate.”

Condense the timeline: “When possible, keep your timeline tight. If it gets too spread out, the story will inevitably drag.”

I thank Kerr and Puglisi for these tips on pacing. Writers must always be mindful of pacing. It is the secret ingredient to a tasty novel.

What are your most common pacing problems and how do you overcome them?

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What I Learned as a Writer from Derek Jeter

As a diehard New York Yankee fan I have reveled in the tributes to Derek Jeter as he wrapped up his amazing career this September. Reflecting on what other have said about Jeter, it struck me that his achievements and approach to the game of baseball contain valuable lessons for writers.

Maintain a consistent level of productivity. Jeter was never the best player in Major League Baseball (MLB). For most of his 20 years in baseball, he was never even the best player on his team. Yet he leaves the game ranked first on the Yankees in hits with 3,465. That’s right. Derek Jeter had more hits than Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, just to name a few Yankee Hall of Famers. He stands sixth all time on the MLB list in hits. How did he do it? He was consistently productive. He had eight seasons with 200 or more hits, the gold standard in baseball. The lesson for writers? Be productive. A writer who at the age of 20 (the age Jeter was when he broke into professional baseball) committed to writing a book a year would have 20 books by the time he reached the age of 40. Sure, the first three or four books might not be good, but over time if the writer developed her craft, she would have a vast library of books to her name.

Develop solid work habits. The corollary to maintaining a consistent level of productivity is work habits. Jeter’s devotion to staying in shape and taking extra batting and fielding practice to stay sharp served him well over the years. Similarly writers must adopt the daily writing habit. As Steven Pressfield wrote in his classic book, Turning Pro, one of the traits of a professional is showing up for work every day. But, the daily writing habit is not enough. Writers must commit to lifelong learning through reading craft of fiction books, reading fiction and nonfiction, attending conferences and engaging with other writers. It’s the only way to get better at writing.

Show respect for the game (craft). This may seem a small point, but when Jeter got the game winning hit in his last Yankee Stadium game, his shirt tail came out as he was mobbed by his teammates. Jeter tucked it back in before doing any television interviews. MLB gave umpires permission to be interviewed about Jeter and a veteran umpire said he knew the kid was squared away as as rookie by the way he wore his uniform. Opposing players said nobody had more respect for the game than Jeter. As writers we must respect the craft. Read great writers. Honor the best practitioners of the craft and learn from their example. Conduct yourself with class on social media. Give back to the profession. Help young writers.

Understand your audience. When addressing Yankee fans in public, Jeter always said he didn’t know why they were thanking him. It was he who should be thanking the fans. He was the most fan-centric athlete around. And we writers must never lose sight of our audience. It’s not other writers; its readers. Don’t write for other writers, Write for the readers.

Is there a person you look up to who has taught you valuable lessons as a writer?

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Joan Rivers: Lessons for Artists

As the tributes have poured in for the iconic Joan Rivers, the one word that struck me was “fearless.” Jimmy Fallon used the word to describe Rivers on his Tonight Show tribute.

Joan Rivers was a trailblazer, launching her career in standup comedy in Greenwich Village during a time when there were few female comedians. I recall watching Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller (another important figure who blazed the trail) perform on The Ed Sullivan Show back in the 1960s. Their comedy was different from the standard standup fare. They were edgy, irreverent, and self-deprecating.

Rivers’ breakthrough occurred when she appeared on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, which eventually led to a permanent guest host role. Later, Carson would end their friendship over her decision to host a new latenight show on Fox.

What I remember most about Rivers was her no-holes-barred style. She was fearless. Nothing was off-limits. She made the red carpet a must-see event with her quick, acerbic wit. Her fashion takedowns on the show Fashion Police skewered Hollywood’s biggest stars.

In the span of one month, we have lost two legendary figures in comedy, Rivers and Robin Williams. I recalled in reflecting on Rivers’ life a comment made in relation to Robin Williams. I couldn’t find the reference, so I will paraphrase. Basically the tribute centered on the premise that comedians must overcome fear (that word again). Fear is a natural emotion in the performing arts. What if I’m not good enough? Am I going to humiliate myself in public, in front of an audience? What if my jokes offend people? The tribute basically concluded that comedians and performers must have no fear. Fear is paralyzing. Performers of all types cannot be at their best if they let fear control them.

The same premise applies to writers. Are you afraid your subject matter is too edgy? Are you afraid you are going to offend people? Worse, do you fear you are not good enough? Are you afraid critics are going to publicly savage your work?

Joan Rivers conquered her fears. She was absolutely fearless. Writers can take a valuable lesson from her. RIP, Joan Rivers.

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Writing Process Blog Tour

Author and blogger Kim Bullock has invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Kim is a historical fiction writer currently working on a novel based on the life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens, and his wife. She blogs at What Women Write.

What am I working on?
My work-in-progress is a family saga tentatively entitled, “A Prayer for Maura.” The story centers on the estranged relationship between Frank O’Malley, the patriarch of a Boston Irish-Catholic family, and his daughter, Maura. They had a falling out over Maura’s decision to have an abortion, which triggered a series of events that culminated in the murder of Betty, Frank’s wife. It is now ten years later. Frank is dying of cancer. Maura never did have the abortion, but couldn’t face her family after her mother’s death. Frank’s dying wish is to reconcile with his daughter and solve the mystery of how his beloved wife was murdered.

How does my work differ from others in my genre?
There are a number of authors who specialize in family sagas. My favorites, my personal Holy Trinity, are Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t write as well as any of those three esteemed authors. A common thread running through their stories and those of others in the genre (Sue Miller comes to mind) is the unhappiness that sets in for a female as she advances toward middle age trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. As Peggy Lee sang, many of these characters seem to be saying, “Is that all there is to life?” In some cases, these characters act on those feelings and in some of these stories, they decide the grass isn’t always greener or they don’t fully appreciate what they have. So what’s different about my work? In both of my stories, my first novel, Small Change , and my current WIP, the protagonists were much younger—teen-agers when the stories began and on the cusp of middle age when the stories ended. My two main characters, John Sykowski and Maura O’Malley, are defined not only by the choices they make, but by regrets over missed opportunities, feelings not acted on and dreams not pursued. They are very different characters, but they share some common struggles.

Why do I write what I do?
I read many genres and enjoy many types of writers. I like mysteries, literary fiction, Young Adult, psychological thrillers, legal thrillers (Grisham and Turow), and even horror. I am drawn to stories that center on families. There is something about the dynamics of family relationships that makes for powerful fiction. Of all the relationships that humans have in their lives, the family is the most enduring, complicated and often the most difficult. The potential for conflict and tension—the twin staples that move stories forward—are always present in a family situation. Even families that appear content and happy on the outside undoubtedly have tensions simmering somewhere beneath the surface. What I aim to do through my writing is to show (not tell!) that when it comes down to it, when all else in life fails, a person’s family is all she has. And if a person does not appreciate and love his family, he’s lost something fundamental to his being. And I try to convey that in a way that is not preachy. OK, sermon over.

How does my writing process work?
Oh boy, that is a good question. The short answer is I am a pantser at heart who is trying to be more of a plotter. I start with a germ of an idea. In the case of Small Change, I was thinking about a family’s first real summer vacation. That’s not much of a story, though, so I asked a series of “what if” questions. What if this blue collar family from the Chicago suburbs meets another family that is the polar opposite? What if this other family is from rural Iowa and is headed by a minister? What if these families become intertwined over the years through various relationships. And, of course, what if there was a big family secret that even the first-person protagonist did not find out for twenty years? So I started there.

I do a lot of outlining in my head before committing any words to the page. My mental outline usually consists of about a dozen milestone scenes that get the story from the beginning to the end—in this case from 1973 to 2000. The nice thing about a general roadmap is that you can make mid-course corrections. The first draft for me is one of discovery and one of my major ones was that I had drawn the character Rebekka all wrong. I pictured her as the typical wild child of a clergyman, but that didn’t feel right to me. Instead she became the victim of withering verbal attacks by her mother and grandfather, the mother believing Rebekka’s birth had ruined her life and the grandfather believing it had ruined his son’s life. Rebekka became the heroine of the story and her inner strength and fortitude allowed her to rise above a bad childhood. A more dramatic mid-course correction occurred in A Prayer for Maura. Originally Frank O’Malley was the main character, but I had trouble writing scenes from his point of view. The scenes from Maura’s point of view felt more alive and full of energy.

The lesson is that every writer has a different process. If you are a pantser and it works for you, that’s great. If you cannot write without a detailed plot outline, that’s great, too. I’ve become a believer in thinking through major story questions and character development before beginning a draft because it can save a lot of unnecessary revisions later on.

I am attempting to line up some of my author friends to participate in this tour. If you are interested please contact me at cblake55@comcast.net.

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How Many Characters Do You Need?

Like the bromide about too many cooks, an overabundance of characters can spoil the novel. How many characters is too many? Well, like a lot of questions about writing, it depends. The type of story, the genre, the plot, can all affect how many characters show up in a novel. An epic like the Harry Potter series has a castle full of characters. A “quiet” novel that explores interpersonal relationships may have only a few.

I came across a helpful exercise by Janice Hardy in a June 2013 blog post.

Hardy’s exercise goes like this: Take a sheet of paper. Make two boxes in the middle, equally spaced apart. Write the name of the protagonist in one box and the name of the antagonist in the other. Write the names of other characters below the protagonist and above the antagonist, depending on which characters are connected to with character. Next, draw a solid line if the character is directly connected to the protagonist or the antagonist and a dotted line if indirectly connected. Finally, draw lines between the characters who are directly or indirectly related to each other.

“If you had a hard time finding room for all your boxes, that’s a red flag you might have too many characters,” she wrote. “Same if you have a lot of characters who have zero connections to your protagonist, but connections to other characters in the book. Lots of people with dotted lines to one person could be ones you can combine (like those extra thugs).”

The real value of this exercise, Hardy writes, is that it “forces you to think about how the various characters are connected.”

It is also visual. If your paper is cluttered with boxes, you just might have too many characters.

There are two main problems with having an abundance of characters, blogger and author KM Weiland writes.

First, when there are too many characters, the reader may be unable to keep track of who is who. Second, a writer who introduces too many characters runs the risk of fragmenting the narrative.

Most of the posts I’ve read on this subject advise something like this: How many characters do you need? Just enough to tell the story. That doesn’t fully answer the question, though. The real test for me is whether each character fulfills a purpose, either large of small. For example, let’s say the main character does something stupid as a teen-ager and is arrested. The cop who makes the arrest serves one purpose. He doesn’t need to reappear, unless he decides to mentor the young man.

Every main character needs a supporting cast. This cast can be small or large. It may include the following: sidekicks, mentors, confidants, spouses, siblings, parents, teachers, co-workers, friends, enemies. You get the picture. The writer may not choose to include everyone on the list; she will choose carefully depending on the genre and the nature of the story.

A related question is how many Point of View (POV) characters should a novel include? Personally I have trouble keeping up with more than five or six POV characters, yet I’ve read stories with as many as nine and the writer was able to make the narrative work. However, it takes tremendous skill to juggle nine or 10 POV characters without diluting the narrative.

What about you? How many characters do you create for each story? How many is too many?

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Good Girl Gone Bad or Shades of Gray?

How good is your hero? How bad is your villain? Discussing character development recently with a group of writer friends, I expressed my dislike for protagonists who are too good and antagonists who are too evil. Main characters must have flaws; otherwise they could never surmount the serious challenges that pay off in transformative change.

Most writers get this, but there is a different kind of protagonist, embodied in film by Michael Corleone and, more recently, by Walter White. These are characters that start out virtuous and sympathetic but, as Walter’s series title sums it up, break bad. Michael Corleone was the good son in The Godfather. He was the one who enlisted and fought in the war. He was the one who Don Corleone wanted to keep out of the family business. Circumstances forced Michael to make a choice. He rationalized his killings by reasoning he was going to get the Corleone family out of organized crime. At one point, after deciding to go into the casino business in Las Vegas, he states that in ten years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate. It surprised nobody when that didn’t happen.

Similarly Walter White embarks on a life in the drug trade with the best intentions. Given a terminal cancer diagnosis, the high school chemistry teacher and soon to be dad starts cooking meth to leave a nest egg to his family. Walter fools himself into believing he can get out any time he wants. Not only can he not exit the drug culture, he makes a series of decisions that plunge him deeper into the world of corruption. When he commits murder for the first time, he rationalizes it by convincing himself the man he killed was going to murder his family. And that might have been the case, but soon he is killing for less clear reasons. He evolves from a character who is protecting his family from danger to a person who boasts, “I am the danger.”

A good example from literature is Scarlett O’Hara. At first blush, she comes off as a domineering, self centered harlot, but as the Civil War rages on and her family and community are in danger, she almost singlehandedly protects her loved ones from mortal danger, including her nemesis, Melanie Wilkes. In the end, I had mixed feelings about Scarlett. Was she a hero? She was a tragic figure, too blinded by her love for someone she couldn’t have that she failed to see how much Rhett Butler really loved her.

I like my heroes to have flaws, that is, to be human. And I like my villains to have redeeming qualities. In fact have you noticed a trend in films and television series of drawing heroes who are loaded with flaws and demons? Ultimately complexity in characterization is a good thing.

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Structural Challenge: The Out-of-Sequence Story

Story structure is on my mind as I revise my work-in-progress. My challenge is that I have discovered after reviewing my first draft that my story must be told out of chronological order. I discovered this after coming to the realization that the person who was originally my main character was the wrong character to carry the story. I didn’t realize this until I was well into my first draft.

Here is the background. The story, tentatively titled, Say a Prayer for Maura, centers on an Irish Catholic family in the Boston area. Frank O’Malley, the patriarch, is dying of cancer and his only wish is to reunite with his estranged daughter, Maura. I envisioned this as Frank’s story, but as my first draft progressed it became clear to me that this was Maura’s story. The character Maura really took life and crystallized as I wrote her. I felt alive and in tune with her psyche and I struggled to write the scenes involving Frank. The original inciting incident focused on Frank’s cancer diagnosis. I realized later the inciting incident was the argument that led to the rift between Frank and Maura. Specifically there was a powerful scene that occurred when Maura found herself homeless on the streets of Boston during a blizzard. She was six months pregnant.

This scene took place ten years before the original inciting incident. I had to move it up as close to the beginning of the story as I could. My challenge now is to intersperse key events that led to the estrangement ten years earlier with Frank’s quest to reconcile with his daughter. Complicating the task, Maura’s siblings, Junior and Kevin, play major roles in the events and there are chapters woven into the story from their points of view.

It will require much care and several rounds of meticulous review, but there are clear benefit to telling this story out of sequence.

Have you ever written a story that required an out-of-sequence narration? How did you deal with it?

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