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Hurry Up and Wait

I’ve said recently, on a few separate occasions, “I feel like my life is in a holding pattern at the moment.” And it’s true; if my life was a book, this would be the part where the author skips over a bunch of stuff so as not to bore the reader to death.

In real life, boring is usually good. Boring means that no one is dying, packing up their household to move across the country, or saving the world from aliens. Boring IRL also means that no one is having a baby, leaving a job they hated and getting a new and better one, or winning a million dollars in the lottery.

Random aside: Has anyone ever written a book about the adventures of a lottery winner? It seems like the sort of book that could be dry as dust, or hilariously entertaining.

Anyway. Right now, every aspect of life is moving very slowly. I’ve made some progress; I’m still on track to publish ten things (novels or short stories) by the end of the year; my garden was moderately productive; I’ve done a few disaster preparedness tasks that had been sitting on the back burner for a while.

But some things, like, the American political situation, where I’m going to be living this time next year, whether I can have a horse (cheaper than therapy!), and how I’m going to fund my pet projects- well, those have either ground to a halt or are out of my control.

Sometimes, life is like that, and I’m trying not to repine too much over it. Concentrating on the things I can control, and leaving alone the things I can’t, is a good start, though difficult to follow through, when the controllable things are so small and the uncontrollable things are rather large and life changing.

What does this have to do with writing? Good question. Balancing excitement and flatness is a skill, in fiction and in real life. As a writer, your job is to entertain the reader, but too much action, too fast, can tire the reader emotionally, and they’ll stop caring what happens to the characters. And the concept of ‘too much’ action varies between genres. A thriller doesn’t have nearly as much space for quiet conversation and reflection as a romance does.

I had a lot of trouble with this concept as a beginner. Like most writers, I enjoy spending time with my characters, and they kept getting into wacky but only moderately interesting adventures. At the time, those adventures were fascinating to me, and I wanted to include every little thing in the book. But readers won’t stand for that, usually. They want a coherent plot, not one that meanders all over the place, touching on past incidents that don’t contribute to the story. And at the same time, you, the writer, have to develop the characters and show their motivations, else the reader won’t understand why John Q. Public freaked out and stabbed his cab driver after the poor man accidentally ran over a squirrel.

If you’re writing a stand-alone book, give your character one or possibly two main motivations. In a series, you have time and space to show how lots of events have made a character into the person he is today. Motivations can be explained during an action moment, but you run the risk of going on a tangent (I would know nothing of this. Not at all) and throwing the reader out of the story. Detailed explanation of a character’s feelings and reactions is usually more effective in quiet moments, because the reader has the brain-space to pay attention to those things.

I wish I could give more concrete advice on precisely how to balance action and quiet moments, but, alas, it varies. A lot. In general, I’d say that a novel needs to have at least two ‘action’ moments, aka, conflicts, before the main climax. These don’t have to be battles; use what’s appropriate to the genre. Similarly, if you want to foreshadow, mention the object or event at least twice- depending on what it is, three times might be better- before that particular Chekov’s Gun is fired. The concept of the Hero’s Journey follows this metric, for the most part. Remember to include quieter moments in between the conflicts, so your characters and readers have time to catch their breath. These moments are also good for providing backstory, hinting at a character’s motivation, or giving some color to the setting by showing what your character does all day (when he’s not out pursing the villain, of course). Depending on genre and your personal style, the quiet moments might be very short, or a little longer. Remember that your readers should be invested in your characters, but they’ll never be as invested as you are, and therefore usually don’t need- or want!- to read about your character’s annoying habits at the breakfast table- unless he’s eating breakfast when an alien bursts through the wall, and he has to defend himself with the butter knife.

As always, your mileage may vary, and you’ll never please everyone. We all tolerate different amounts of change and calm, in real life and in books.

And on that note, I’m off to do something. Not sure what, yet, but this particular moment of quiet reflection has gone on long enough; now I need some activity.

 

11 Comments
  1. Margaret Ball #

    About the lottery winner: there’s an old novel by Eleanor H. Porter called, “Oh, Money! Money!” about a rich man who anonymously gives each of his three known relatives $100,000 and then sneaks around in disguise to find out who uses the money best and should become heir to his vast fortune. Moderately amusing, and free on Kindle.

    October 2, 2019
    • Joe in PNG #

      Carl Hiaasen did “Lucky You”, but it wasn’t one of his better works.

      October 2, 2019
    • Zsuzsa #

      Mary Higgins Clark had a lottery winner as a minor character in Weep No More, My Lady who was later featured in a collection of short stories called, appropriately enough, The Lottery Winner.

      I don’t know the title of it, but I know that David Baldacci had a book where the character could rig the lottery and was selecting various people to win it for him with the condition that he would be in charge of their investments. They eventually got wise to him because “his” winners were among the few lottery winners not to go broke.

      October 2, 2019
    • Luke #

      The two RL stories I know of lottery winners, were both tragedies.
      One was the standard stupid person gets stupid money, and does stupid things.
      The other one, had his head on straight. He wanted to run his own restaurant, and revive his dying hometown. He made a great effort, executed it competently, but it didn’t work out. (He’s still got money, he folded before he went bust.)

      October 3, 2019
  2. Mary #

    It tends to be an unexpected inheritance, not a lottery.

    Amazing how many friends you discover.

    October 2, 2019
  3. mrsizer #

    I’m not sure it’s the same issue, or just closely related: Don’t make things happen too fast in calendar/clock time. I just read some silly, fun books where things that should take days took hours and things that should have taken months, days. The book doesn’t need to be any longer, but the mapping of words to time needs to stretch.

    October 3, 2019
    • Mary #

      That is such a pain. I inserted two nights into a story because having two thirds of it happen in a day was silly — even though there were many passages of “They walked for a long way and did not find what they were looking for” which could be flexible timewise.

      October 3, 2019
  4. TRX #

    Before I gave up on Laurell K. Hamilton, her books were getting like that. Six hundred pages covering what should have taken days or weeks, compressed into 23 hours of Anitaverse time… It’s not like there was any *reason* for it; no McGuffin requiring everything be jammed in fast forward. It was just Hamilton’s thing after a while.

    After a few of those, I realized I was both bored *and* exhausted by the time I ground through to the end…

    October 3, 2019
  5. TonyT #

    “they kept getting into wacky but only moderately interesting adventures.”

    You could take a Tolkienien approach, and make casual references to these adventures (without explaining them in detail), just like real friends or companions might do. Handled right and consistently, it adds a layer of realism and depth.

    October 3, 2019
  6. I considered adding some time to the WIP, and then thought: I can write a scene or two to show how the days are filled, at the risk of boring the reader because we’re just wrapping up a slow part (the adagio, so to speak). Or I can say “for the rest of the week, [character] alternated between working, studying, and trying to sleep.” Then start the poco accelerando and poco-a-poco crescendo toward the next major scene and action acceleration.

    After kicking things back and forth, I settled on option B. If I hadn’t just written a relatively slow section, I’d probably have gone with option A.

    October 3, 2019
    • Mary #

      I’ve got one story that’s a bildungsroman and it’s so interesting to juggle the months and years.

      October 3, 2019

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