Tag Archives: pacing

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Pacing

Kate got caught up by real life and asked me to post this for her. This is the second in her “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide” posts. You can find the first one here. — Amanda

This chapter is the first of several covering various aspects of plotting and characterization technique from the extreme pantser’s perspective. The thing to remember here, is that this is stuff that matters, and if you as an extreme pantser don’t ‘get’ it free, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than a plotter would to get there – but not necessarily work in the same way.

One of the more interesting things I’ve found as I’ve developed as a writer is that I typically have a vague, not terribly clear feel for the techniques, but I’m not applying them with any sense or consistency because I don’t understand what the heck it is I’m trying to do, much less what my subconscious is throwing at me. Those unfortunate enough to have read some of my early stuff know what I mean here. You can see the shape I’m after but it’s kind of like a small child trying to color inside the lines.

I still color like that, but at least I’ve got better at writing.

So, pacing. This is what makes a story feel fast or slow. Unless you’re planning on writing literary fiction, you’re going to want a variety in your pacing – enough fast sections to drag your readers along with you, and enough slower ones that they have time to breathe. SF and Fantasy, particularly recently, tends to want to start fast, then have something of a slowdown before a series of increasingly sharper accelerations until the climax of the piece. Most – but not all – authors will give a chapter or three of wrapup after that at a nice, gentle pace. Sarah refers to this as the post-climax cigarette.

Pace is partly influenced by vocabulary: short, sharp verbs with minimal assistance from adverbs, action verbs in the sense that someone (preferably your protagonist) is acting… these tend to signal ‘fast’ to readers. Polysyllabic with lots of descriptive usually signals ‘slow’. We as readers are remarkably sensitive to these – to the extent that a particularly fast-paced scene in someone else’s book is quite capable of having me breathing heavily and feeling as though I just outran a bear.

So… read what you can about pacing, but also read fiction with known pace. L.K. Hamilton’s first three books are close to perfect examples of fast-paced. Terry Pratchett’s pacing is generally more leisurely, but again, pitch-perfect.

What tends to happen is that after immersing yourself in well-paced books, the extreme pantser builds a feel for pacing that manifests as “Something needs to happen soon” or “My character needs a break” – also, “Slowing things down here will increase tension” has been known to occur. In my case, rarely quite that explicit, but I do still operate at this level.

I know this sounds very vague and almost – horrors! – frou-frou, but it does seem to work this way at least for me. I’ve had to learn to trust in the pants, not least because the bloody things know more about how this works than I do (As a side note, this is one of the reasons why I’m bloody dangerous when I’m over-tired. It’s not just the narcolepsy, although that doesn’t help. It’s that all the ‘this is not socially acceptable’ filters stop working – which leads to unacceptable truths being aired out, often loudly).

 

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Filed under KATE PAULK, WRITING: CRAFT

Trendy Trendsetters, All

There are trends, and then there are trends.

Look at it this way: you could be trendy and buy jeans with fake dirt on them, for $425. Frankly, I raised an eyebrow when I first saw this go viral, because it’s an interesting psychological study. We are, culturally, fetishizing the working man. Think about it. It’s like guys buying used women’s underwear. It makes them feel like they’re sexy. Dirty pants? Sexy also, I guess. I mean, look at this book cover, and tell me that guy isn’t wearing dirty pants. For that matter, it you scroll through the romance listings, you’ll quickly note that there are some strong trends, and two of them are rich guys (who presumably could afford the fake-dirty jeans) and tough guys (who presumably don’t need no fake-dirty jeans). There are a LOT of writers putting out stories for the trends. But what happens when the trends end?

I suspect there’s a growing market segment that would like to see more sweet romance. I know I hear that from people I talk to – and the one romance I’ve indulged in, I kept sweet. Not just because my Mom and grandma were going to read it (Hi, Mom!) but because it worked better for the characters. I didn’t see a need to write to a trend. I’m not knocking it – there are writers making a ton of money because they are playing to the market and surfing the wave. I just can’t do it myself.

But then there are other trends. The ones that slowly build, and build, and then suddenly take off like a rocket. Susannah Martin interviewed Brad Torgerson and I about the self-publishing trend, and I highly recommend you click on over to her article.

But don’t forget to come back here after!

It’s not that I have anything else exciting to say… Oh, who am I kidding. I have a book.

Persistence has paid off, and two long years after the publication of my last novel, my seventh novel is now available for sale. It’s not out in print yet – that will be about two weeks from now. I could probably just not bother, but it is rather nice to hold this hefty chunk of paper in one’s hand and say ‘I wrote this.’ Right now, I’m looking at all of you out there, readers, because I know most of you are also writers. Two things: one, don’t give up on the story even if you feel like you can’t do this, or you can’t do this fast, or life is in the way of it happening. Keep working on it when you can. I got to a few points with this book where I was doggone good and ready to give up on it. Even my First Reader couldn’t help much, he was too close to it. In the dedication I thank my Mom, and one of my best friends, who both read it as alpha readers (before it was done) and egged me on to finish it. Mom actually was reading it as I wrote the end, because I was working on it in a shared Google Doc file. It was funny to see her colored cursor following mine as the words came out on paper, er, screen, and to have the comments in the side bar when I goofed up, or she wanted clarification on a thing. I wouldn’t recommend that for most situations, but it really did help me finish. I had to, so Mom could read it all!

Second, whack your inner perfectionist on the head and gag her. This book isn’t what I started out to write. Which is not to say that I don’t think I’ve produced a good book – it’s not the book I’d intended. It grew organically in ways I didn’t expect. But Cedar, I can hear you say, you’re a pantser, don’t they all go that way? Sort of. Only they don’t all take two years to finish. I think the longest I’ve taken before this is the Eternity Symbiote, and it’s got issues, being my first novel written and with a half-assed ending. I changed, as a person, my life was radically different, by the ending of the tale. That affects my writing. And that’s why I needed the reassurance from early readers that yes, I was on the right track, and no, I didn’t need to scrap it all.

My main concern was that the pacing was too slow, and that the characters would develop erratically. In the end, I think that although there’s not a lot of action – and by that I mean exciting combat scenes – the pacing does work. And I think that the growth arc is consistent. But I couldn’t see that while I was in the middle of it. I encourage you to not rely on your own perceptions if you are working on a similar problem with your writing.

Oh! Check out the awesome blurb Dorothy Grant created for the book!

When the starship’s captain died midway through a run with a cargo of exotic animals, the owner gave first mate Jem one chance, and one choice. The chance: if he successfully runs the trade route solo, he’ll become the new captain. If he fails, he’ll lose the only home he’s ever known.

And the choice? He’s now raising an old earth animal called a basset hound. Between station officials, housebreaking, pirates, and drool, Jem’s got his hands full!

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: CRAFT, WRITING: LIFE

Interruptions

I recently finished a book. It was a feeling of great relief, since I had begun to wonder if I would ever finish it. I’m still a relatively new writer, and I was slowly convincing myself that the other books had been a fluke. I couldn’t do this, I wasn’t a real writer… It took me two years to finish this book, when it had taken me at most six months to complete one before. It’s probably understandable that it made me feel like a failure, looking back, but while I was in it I lacked the perspective.

It was a learning process. I learned that I could keep writing after life-changing interruptions. I learned that I could hold a story in my head for that long. As a pantser, I didn’t think that was possible. Sometimes in this process I would put my head on the keyboard and wonder why I was bothering with this hot mess. As a result, I wound up with not one, but three alpha readers. The First Reader, who had come up with the original story idea, was too close to it. The others helped me regain confidence in the story which let me finish it. I couldn’t have done this without their encouragement.

The story went off to beta readers a week ago, and reader reports have been trickling back in. To my relief, they are all positive, with small problems that can readily be repaired. The story isn’t broken.

It would have been easy for me to break the story. Erratic pacing, that left readers bored or confused in turns. Pacing problems would have required major manuscript surgery – not fun when you are dealing with more than 100k words. I had been worried that would be a problem so I had written it in chapters, not my usual procedure. This enabled me to look back and plot the arcs when I returned from an interruption and then have a better feeling for where I was.

Uneven development of character was another concern, as the story pivots around a young man who must grow into his role. Just like in real life, I wanted to show him try, slip up, and finally come to a place where his confidence was not self-concious. Characters are easy to make succeed. You’re the author, you have omnipotence in the book. Forcing it, though, leads to unbelievable characters who are too good to be true – or whiny useless characters in roles that leave you wondering how they got there, much less were kept in it.

Finally, and the place where I do have work ahead of me… Foreshadowing. Years ago, when I was a dewy-eyed writer, I sent my baby manuscript, my first book, off to my mentors. In return I got a coconut off the noggin. I knew it was delivered in love, so I just rubbed the knot on my head, made a coconut cream pie, and went back over the book. My foreshadowing did suck, and being told that by a man who is superb at it didn’t hurt (much). I’ve got a pretty thick skin. This book (which I wouldn’t bother the coconut-thrower with, his life is even busier than mine in the decade that has passed) took two years to grow from planned short story for an anthology that died, into a planned series. I literally had no idea, when I wrote the first scene, where it was going. Or I was.

Now, I have to go back and weave in hints of what is to come, but not big whopping clues. I have to decide if I will include part or the whole of Jade Star, which takes place in this same universe, and is a story told to my main character in the book I’ve just finished. I have to be sure there are loose ends to tie on the next book to the events of this one, but not so many the reader is left unsatisfied. Just writing the end doesn’t mean you’re finished!

But in the meantime, there are interruptions. Real life intrudes. I have begun working on the next books, or rather one insistent story and three novels. I can’t write all of them at once, I’m simply waiting for the dominant story to come to the forefront and writing on them in turn until then. To facilitate, I’m reading for research. This book can’t take me two years to finish. It just can’t, because I don’t think I could go through that again. I need to write.

 

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Cleaning Up Infodumps

 

I was at a job fair this last week. It was sort of a waste of my time, but not really. By that I mean there were maybe six prospective employers I matched with, out of some two hundred. But I did have some lovely conversations with people, including the Army Corps of Engineers ladies, who were actually pitching me on joining them, since I’d originally thought they wouldn’t need me (I’m not an engineer, can’t hack the math). We wound up talking environmental clean-up, decommissioning military bases, and superfund sites. One of my professors had been involved in the chemistry of a superfund site and the testing, and another professor had spent half a lecture period talking to us about how a microscopic parasite changed the nature of garbage disposals and dumps in Ohio forever.

Why am I talking about toxic waste, and dumps, on a writing blog? Well, I’ll get to that. First, though, let me tell you the Rumpke story, because as fiction plots go, it has potential. Way back when, before Cincinnati was much of a city, the Rumpke family (as my professor explained) provided a valuable service. They got paid twice: once to haul off perishable garbage from restaurants and stores, and again for the pork they got from feeding that garbage to their pigs. This business was lucrative enough they wound up buying a hilltop far from town, planning to move their hog farm away from the edges of the city and the complaining neighbors, when tragedy struck.

In telling a story, you have to give your reader enough information to keep them in the story. The danger lies in giving them too much information, thereby drowning the plotline, diffusing the tension that will compel them to keep reading, and leading to them setting the book down, or even more fatally on the kindle, closing the file and promptly losing it in the disorganized chaos Amazon seems to think Kindle readers prefer. As a writer, you need to avoid that fate at all costs. Which may mean making some unpleasant choices in digging out your info dumps and cleaning them up, which is what the Rumpke’s were forced to do when Trichinella hit the stage. Pork – especially garbage-fed pork – was suddenly suspect; no one wanted to eat a pig that might harbor the encysted parasites that could lead to illness and death, and the Rumpke family had this empty mountain they had just bought… So they sold the pigs off at a loss, and shifted the focus of their business to hauling garbage away from the burgeoning city. They turned the hill into the first landfill, and a dump saved the family business.

Here, we saw the central characters (names lost to history… I’m sure they’re out there somewhere, but I’m not looking them up right now) adapt to what could have been the killing blow to their little family business, and come out on the other side with an even bigger, better plan. This is what we are often trying to write into our fiction, convincingly. We want to write a battle, and have our hero win it. The problem is, if we drop info dumps into the story, we slow our hero down as he wades through the swamp of description.

I know we’ve all had books we’ve skipped through page after page, trying to find where the hero wandered off to, leaving us lost in the dump. I personally can think of a glaring example of a series I eventually gave up on – not just because of the pages of detailed military weapon minutiae, but the rather condescending alt-hist info dumps that explained what he was doing on an elementary-schooler’s level. When I’m skipping over half the book, past those two elements, it becomes a waste of my time, and certainly not a fun read.

When I’m writing, I try to look first and foremost at my pacing. Not every book needs to progress at break-neck speed. Some shouldn’t. Working in exposition carefully, in a lull between action, works much better than throwing it in the middle of a fight scene. Even here, keep it sparing. Trust the intelligence of your readers, and don’t spoon-feed them every last implied detail. Let them use their imaginations – this is, after all, why they are readers and not film geeks.

And if you go back over your book and discover that you’ve littered up the landscape with dumps, consider how best to clean them up. You can sometimes break them up, leaving small, easily digested lumps of data through the story that will gradually reveal the information you want to convey to the reader. This can be a great way to keep them reading, as they try to suss out what is going on. But don’t suspend them in the grey, either, with no feeling of what is around them, what the characters are thinking or feeling, what the characters are doing and why. No description is probably as bad as too much of it.

Going back to the Rumpke story a bit, I didn’t bother to go look up their names. It’s not relevant to the story I was telling, the reason I was telling it. I could – and just might, because I’m perennially inquisitive – see if there is a bio or history out there with all the details. But research is not necessary for amassing details you must dump into the story. Sometimes it’s really tempting. When I was researching for the Pixie books, and reading massive amounts of mythology, I kept finding stories I wanted to write into my story… except that the pacing in those books was fast, and having these myths in would slow it down and lose the reading momentum. So I set them aside, for another time, another story, and wrote on. As tempting as it is to show off your intensive research, resist the urge to create a dumpsite in your book.

 

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Making it Fly

Everyone here has read something that just plods along and doesn’t seem to go anywhere or do anything. The ‘fortunate’ among us have read pieces that should be exciting – they should be riveting, edge-of-the-seat reading – but they’re not. They trudge.

I’ve certainly gone “What?” when I see these – they’re plentiful in fanfiction, mostly because fanfic contains everything from the sublime to the gor-blimey as it were, and in typical fashion, the vast majority of leans to the latter (yes, the same applies to traditionally published items as well as self-published and small and independent presses). Since I’ve been on something of an Overlord fanfic binge lately, that’s where I’ve been seeing the range of interesting.

I’m not going to claim I never committed this particular sin, either. I can guarantee I have. What matters is why it happens and how to fix it.

Part the first of course is why it happens. This, believe it or not, is the easy bit. It’s not pacing. It’s not how big the stakes are (unless you’re talking vampire-killing phallic symbols, in which case there’s no hope and you might as well go to the sparkly side where they’re really pervy). It’s whether the piece gives you a reason to care what happens.

Simple, right?

Wrong.

For starters, one person’s drag-you-in-and-sink-claws-into-your-heart exciting is someone else’s ho-hum (of course, if everyone falls asleep when you hand them your precious to read, you have a problem). You’re never going to catch everyone, even if you’re baiting the hook with gold.

Then there’s the simple fact that it’s not easy to write anything that appeals to other people. The usual flaws I see in fanfic are either too much of the wrong information, or not enough of any information.

Not enough of anything usually happens first – all writers start out rather fuzzy on the notion of what to put in there and usually what ends up on the page is like the Cliff’s Notes version of what’s in their heads (and let’s face it, that’s not exactly exciting). This is when the epic, world-changing (and sometimes world-destroying) battle is over in half a page, most of it antiseptic overview. Yes, I have done this, and no, you can’t see it. I’m pretty certain I euthanized most of that a long time ago, and I’m not chasing through my archival files to find what survived.

The next phase usually ends up being too much of the wrong information. Here, that epic, world-changing battle would be wrapped in the best part of a chapter on the finer details of everyone’s armor, including what color it was. Yes, I’ve done this too. A slight variation would include all the technical specs of said armor, and of all the assorted weaponry in use. You know, so-and-so had a chestplate of unobtainium with gold filigree, and an unobtainium sword, and his bodyguards all had compound bows with fifty arrows apiece and and and and…. You get the idea. (Yes. Guilty. Everyone does it, okay. Shush.)

The thing that gets missed, at least until the writer matures a bit (which does not mean ‘gets older’, by the way) is what makes this battle so epic for the characters. If it’s your lead character’s last stand against the Big Bad, we know the stakes. If you’ve given us reason enough to care for the lead even a little bit, we’re going to be interested in what happens.

The Big Bad needs to have a stake, too. The epic last stand against the all-powerful Evil doesn’t work too well when the all-powerful Evil can just wave a hand and wipe out the other side (you do that battle at the start, to establish how difficult it’s going to be to take down the Big Bad).

The Overlord games do this part remarkably well. In Overlord (the original), the protagonist is facing a much more powerful wizard who not only set him up to fail from the start, he’s by implication going to steal the protagonist’s body and everything the player’s spent the game building. In the expansion, Raising Hell, the protagonist can’t even fight the Big Bad directly – and the Big Bad is a God who’s planning to kill the protagonist so he can finally escape the Overlord universe’s version of Hell (where his former wife – yes, a Goddess – banished him after she caught him playing a bit more than footsie with one of his worshipers). In Overlord 2, it’s win or be annihilated along with everything else with any kind of magic. Within the frame of the game world, they’re epic battles with massive stakes for the player character.

In written fiction, of course, you don’t have the easy visual cues or the immersiveness of a game world. We’re primarily visual critters, biologically speaking, with hearing taking second place. A game that has involving visuals and good sound will give the illusion that you’re there and effectively remove the externals of manipulating the game controls. In a book, the externals that go away are the awareness of words on the page and turning said pages, whether you’re holding a physical book or reading with a computer, ebook reader, smartphone, or whatever. Writers do have to work a bit harder to make this happen because we don’t have the quick and easy shortcut of graphics on a screen.

So what do we do? My primary tool is close and focused point of view. If I want my readers on the edge of their seats and crossing their legs rather than put that book down to take a much-needed bathroom break, I work from so deep into the character’s perspective that I’m not showing anything they didn’t see, hear, or otherwise notice. Then I drop that character so deep into the brown material meeting rotating blades that they don’t have room for anything except action and reaction. They’re moving, they’re responding to everything around them, but it’s all very choppy and disconnected, and they don’t think about anything because they’re too busy just staying alive.

Then I hurt the character. I drive them into pure reflex by throwing impossible odds at them and letting them almost fail before they find the key to survival (which can be as simple as pure pig-headed stubborn). For an example of it done perfectly, I’d suggest the Koom Valley sequence of Thud!, or the river sequence in Snuff (Yes, of course I’m citing Pratchett). If Pratchett isn’t your thing, look at the chase from Flinders Island in Dave’s Cuttlefish.

Sarah’s technique is a little different – she tends to have a two-pronged climax, with the inner one being the more action-oriented and the outer being more of a psychological thing – but the psychological/emotional sequence is the one that resolves the underlying danger. I’m not good enough to swing something like that, so I don’t even try.

If there’s more than one character involved, put them all at the same level of risk, and drive them all to their limits. And focus on what’s going on on the inside. It’s much more satisfying to everyone when your hero overcomes having assorted important bits broken, cut off, bleeding or crushed and wins on pig-headed can’t be having with that. Then passes out. Describe the pain. Use short words (trust me, short words really do make a piece feel like it’s moving fast), short sentences, and short paragraphs. Save the lyrical descriptions for when the hero romances the love interest, or when you’re taking a break to admire the scenery.

And don’t be afraid to get a bit purply or overdone. Half the time what you think is excessive isn’t going to register with most readers, and the rest… well, that’s what betas and editing are for.

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Pacing workshop and opening paragraphs

Good morning, everyone. This morning we were supposed to being the pacing workshop. Unfortunately, the flu bug has taken up residence in the Hoyt household and Sarah is down sick. She asked me to let everyone know that she will start the workshop next Sunday. However, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have homework for you.

Pacing is more than just how your plot progresses. It’s how your plot begins. If you don’t grab your reader and have them wanting to turn the page within the first couple of paragraphs, it doesn’t matter how well-paced the rest of your plot is. That’s especially true with short stories.

So here’s your assignment. Post the first two paragraphs of your current work in progress, or of what you are currently editing, in the comment section below. Sarah will look over them when she’s feeling better. The rest of the Mad Genii may also pop in to take a look as well.

The comments are now open!

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A reminder, a request and a contest

Good morning. It’s Saturday at the asylum, er, working offices of the Mad genius Club. We’re all busily working on our next books — butts in chair, fingers on keyboards and lots of coffee and chocolate at hand. So, let’s get down to business this morning.

First the reminder: tomorrow starts the workshop on pacing you requested. Sarah’s going to spearhead this workshop, although she’s threatening to bring some of the rest of the mad geniuses — genii? — in on it as well. So don’t forget to check back

Now the request — which will also include some free e-books for some of you. We’re looking for folks to do some honest reviews of some of our e-books. If anyone would be interested in getting a free e-book or two to read and then post reviews on Amazon, leave a note in the comments section below. Let us know what sorts of books you enjoy reading because we’ve got everything running the range from romantic suspense to mystery to fantasy to science fiction and stuff in between.

And now for the contest. I’m in need of some red shirts for several different projects. The first is for the book I have the privilege of working on with Sarah. It’s tentatively called Rye Crisp. It’s a mix of urban fantasy and mystery with some romance along the way. And yes, there is a Dyce-like character (good heart, willing to do anything to help, hasn’t quite accepted the fact he is dead — yes, he). The main character is an arson investigator who just happens to see things most other folks don’t.

The second is for Russian Nights, which is part alternate history-part historical fantasy. The only way the Romanovs can hold onto power — and keep Russia intact — is to find a way to tap into the magic of the land. This is a power their bloodline has been losing over the years. Enter Rasputin who has discovered a way to find those of the “old blood” who still have that power and to sacrifice them to help keep the tsarevich alive.  Of course you have the members of the old blood, the ancient royal lines, who are starting to suspect what is happening and who have to decide whether their loyalty lies with the tsar and a way of life they’d long known or with their families. Then there are those who will eventually become the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

Of course, there’s the next Nocturnal Lives novel to be written shortly as well. And we all know that where there are shifters, there must be at least one unexplained death or disappearance. That’s especially true when unnamed government agencies get involved.

So here’s the contest. If you want to be red shirted, write a paragraph that tells what book you want to be red shirted in and how you’d like to be killed. I’ll let Sarah and Kate, both of whom are familiar with what I’ve written so far, choose the winners. You’ll get to be red shirted and you will get a free copy of the e-book.

(Here’s where I go hide under the sink, afraid no one will want to be red shirted. Whimper0

The floor is now yours.

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