Timing Workshop IV: Focusing the mind wonderfully

by Sarah A. Hoyt

It is said that the prospect of hanging in the morning focuses the mind wonderfully.  What is not often said is that a lot of the effect of timing and pacing IS focus.  And a lot of this can be achieved by a series of tricks that have absolutely NOTHING to do with what actually happens in the novel.

I don’t know if I ever told you guys – more than a hundred times – but plotting used to be my bete noir, and a great part of this was timing.  You see, people kept coming back and saying my novels were too slow, or that they just didn’t flow, or…  A thousand other things that amounted to “dang it, your world and characters are interesting, but they aren’t holding OUR interest, and we don’t know why.”

Being me and congenitally inclined to go exactly the wrong way about anything at all, (I have scores of ancestors who staked their lives on the WRONG side of wars to prove it) I decided the problem is that I was putting TOO MUCH in.  Too much world building, too much character building, too much description, too much complication to the plot, too much.

This was, understand well before I was published.  I decided that, of course, what people needed was a clear cut line from beginning to end, where every action advanced the plot.

To be fair to my younger (and markedly stupid) self, part of this was justified by reading (rolls eyes) ENDLESS nonsense about just that from writers who clearly never took the time to analyze their own writing, much less anyone’s else’s.  Alternately it’s written by writers who think ONE school of writing – minimalist – is correct.  These are the same people who believe EVERY adjective must be excised ruthlessly and every word must be compacted to contain the most possible meaning.

Look, minimalism is all very well if you’re writing artistic statements, or if your goal in life is to write a certain type of bloodless thriller.  However for everything else, it sucks.  Why does it suck?  Because it lacks flavor.  It’s a highly stripped-down form of story-telling, which in no way resembles either our genetic predisposition to tell stories nor The Way Real People Talk TM.

I’ll freely admit part of my loathing for it is a matter of personality.  I once made myself what seemed, on paper, as an ideal office: walls and floor reflective white.  Desk, bookcases and file cabinets steel and glass.  Everything clean and stripped down.

And I couldn’t write in it.  I fled it for my current office: Roll top desk, oak bookcases cluttered with books, and just enough interesting objects to hold the eye.

It’s probably a personality thing.  In the next house, G-d willing, we’ll take the glass furniture (which is upstairs) and put it in the “publishing room.”  It seems ideal for that sort of methodical work.  Just not for a place where I relax and work.

I think with writing I feel the same way.  I love the minimalist style for non-fiction books.  I’m actually a great fan of bullet points.  (History books are a little different, and I do like the flavor of the times.)  But for my fiction, let me have the impression that the characters live and breathe and that the place they are in is not like a bad television set – the good ones are actually artfully made imperfect and lived in – where everything is brand spanking new and coordinates.

But again I was – and still am – stupid, so I followed the advice.  At the end of this, I was writing what should have been six book series compressed into 100 thousand words, and people were less interested than ever.  (This is when guy who would turn out to be agent #2 sent me a rejection saying the sense of timing couldn’t be taught and therefore I’d never be published.)

What I’d missed is that the reason we read fiction is not to absorb information, even if the information is a bloodless narration of an exciting chase, but to experience the emotion of the character(s) and, sometimes, to live in the world – or both.

What this means is that stripping it down, in order to improve pacing is exactly the wrong thing to do.  I started suspecting this when I heard people enthuse about Harry Potter.  It wasn’t what HAPPENED that made them fans, so much, but the exciting details about the world.  When my kids decided, unanimously, that I’d gone to Slytherin and dad to Hufflepuff, for instance.  (Okay, Sarah, you say, you only have two kids.  Unanimity cannot be hard.  Right.  Someday remind me to introduce you to my kids.)

Then I went to a local con and heard a relatively successful local author read a passage from her book.  She gave the readers a chance to pick the passage and they universally shouted “the one with the sausage.”

Okay, the scene was – had to be.  Couldn’t be anything else – completely irrelevant to the plot.  It was the characters in a tavern getting in trouble/confusion over purchasing/stealing a sausage.  Silly in the best Shakespeare comedic style.  It was “a bit with the dog.”  BUT it was clear it was part of what attached the readers to this series.

Being me, I went home and thought about it.  Clearly what made books work was having enough of this sort of thing (of course I didn’t know why yet.  Despite having been a reader for years, when I started writing I became stupid about “why people read.”) to give flavor to the plot.  And the thing was that I was writing these bits.  I was just ruthlessly excising them in revision.

So with fear and trepidation, I started allowing some uneeded scenes to fall in – the first one being “three guys in a car” in Draw One In The Dark, which stupid me thought was completely uneeded.  Until readers started writing about how they could see the characters grow up and bond in the scene.

Eventually I came to realize that actually most of a book will be things that don’t DIRECTLY affect the plot.  They do affect it, in a roundabout way.  They’re character development, and worldbuilding, which by themselves, and where you put them might not do much, but which will, later on make the climax more climaxy and the clinch more clinchy.  (EVEN if you’re not writing porn.)
So, what is the difference between that and having the character go shopping or have breakfast?  Well… Here’s the thing, you really shouldn’t have the character do things that couldn’t possibly interest anyone but the character’s mommy.  Other than that, putting in a bit of quotidian life might work to give the world solidity.

BUT how do you do it, and keep the novel flowing.

Txred in the comments mentioned having a character in a gun show.  Yeah.  completely dumb if all the character is doing is going, “um, ah.  I like that one.”  But have the character shopping for the one gun that can save her life, while expecting the bad guys to burst in at any minute?  Tada, tension.

This gets particularly important with later books in a series, because you have all this background to apprise the reader of.  I know the author school that just infodumps ten pages at the beginning, but unless you have fans who would walk through hell for you, no one is going to read those ten pages.  And hell, if they’re like me they won’t even remember them, even if they read them.

So, faced with writing a short story (well, 11k words) in the world of DST for Baen’s Christmas collection (coming out this November!) I had to subsume everything that the name Jarl Ingemar will mean to anyone who has read Darkship Thieves, or even more so, by then, the earc of Darkship Renegades, into the first few pages, so the reader gets the impact of this personality that will eventually bestride two worlds and a starving, freezing, ill-treated young man of 19.

Now, here I have to tell you you can’t trust your instincts.  I still can’t do it by feel.  I do it by “knowing how” then test it with first readers.  But here’s the trick:

The prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully…  So start with your character walking to the gallows (metaphorically.)  The reader is so riveted to seeing how he escapes, that he’ll tolerate any number of explanation on how he got there.  You can subsume entire pages of physical description, tactical details and past history, so long as every few paragraphs you remind the reader he is walking to his own hanging.

You can use the same – should use the same – in a longer work.  Amid your scenes of tavern revelry or bawdy house fun, always, always, always bring us back to three things: the objective, the timing device and the objective.

And make sure, always, that you remind us at the beginning or ending of the more frivolous chapters/scenes of at least one, and preferably all three of these things.  Of course, you should find ways to do it that aren’t repetitive, but you know that.

The other thing is to keep the goal in mind, and make the goal big enough to carry the novel.  Your character MUST have a goal, and the goal can be simple: to survive, for instance.  But it must be told in ways that can be visualized: for instance, your character has to be able to see himself back in his living room on earth, after his adventures in fairyland.
And he has to want it so badly he can taste it.  And you have to remind the reader how badly he wants it.

The goal can change.  In Darkship Thieves it changes from “I will survive and get back to my position of power” to “My husband will survive and we will go home” – but then it could be argued it’s still the same goal recast – but it has to be done in a logical manner and preferably over one or two memorable scenes.

Anyway – that’s the way to concentrate the mind: remember the hanging is coming in the morning.  Unless…

Now, go over a favorite book, again, and look at all the scenes that don’t directly affect the plot.  Then go through and mark down all the times you’re reminded of the objective, the timing or the danger – and the various means you are.

8 comments

  1. “And he has to want it so badly he can taste it. And you have to remind the reader how badly he wants it.”

    Very true BUT… Be very careful with this one. The HOW is exceedingly important.

    I’m feeling curmudgeonly. I figured this out recently while watching such things as America’s Got Talent and American Idol: it does nothing for me if the contestant tells me how much me/she wants or needs to win, or if he/she wants to do it for grandfather or … EVERY contestant wants to win. Every contestant has a story. I find it extremely irritating when contestant after contestant tells the audience how badly they want to win. Except for the idiots with no self-awareness (the ones the shows use as comic relief), each one of these people has worked hard (ok – their own personal ‘hard’).

    Maybe that’s enough for the casual viewer – but for me, I’m looking at the dynamic of how viewers interact with reality shows, for its similarity to the dynamic of how readers interact with the stories they choose to read, and how they decide which stories they will read, and whether they will read more of the same.

    Maybe it’s as simple as the fabled show vs. tell: but pull me in, make me feel with the character, and then I will feel with the character who wants to go home. And that takes skill. Which is what I’m looking for in an author when I want something to read. And for contestants: show me why you DESERVE to win, and it had better be your performance, not your want. You’re not on Who Wants It The Most.

    1. No. I never meant it to go to “one who wants it the most” — of COURSE — unless it’s a romance (grin. And yes, I’m joking.) BUT remembering the goal keeps you focused on getting there.

  2. I’ve been reading a book by someone I usually enjoy, but the story went “thud, plod, plod,” and I could not figure out why. Setting? No, quite well done and interesting. Characters? Some old, some new, although no really great villains this time around. Story? Familiar but neatly done for the most part. Pacing? Splat. The protagonist’s story flows well, BUT two important secondary characters appear and then, well, hang around, wander a bit, and drag things out until the pace accelerates abruptly when the protagonist takes center stage again. The secondaries are important to the story but they accomplish their assigned task early in the story and end up hanging around at loose ends for a while, something that seems to have bled into the overall pacing of the novel.

  3. “three things: the objective, the timing device and the objective.” Two of these three things is a duplicate? Probably need the comfy chair, too. I’m almost sure of it. Or it could be stakes or cost or something like that, I suppose… threat, conflict? Objective, timing device, and opposition? Oh, there are so many possible third things! On the gripping hand…

      1. Aha! Nope, idiots don’t pose tantalizing texts. People who type fast and sometimes see what they were thinking rather than what they actually typed, yes, but that’s another difficulty. Thanks for clarifying! Although I was having fun coming up with possible third items 🙂

  4. Arrrggggh. Tearing my hair out because you’re making sense, but I can’t see how to apply it to WIP without serious ripping up, and I’ve done that once already. Any more and there won’t be enough corpse to reanimate.

    Next one. I promise to do this on my next one.

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