Twelve days into November, I made the idiotic decision to first join NaNoWriMo, and ever since, my desk has been a feces-flingin’ factory of writing. Victory seemed improbable but is oh-so sweet for this now official NaNoWriMo-Fo. Reflections on the experience are forthcoming, but for now I really need to take a shower…
Category Archives: Novel
It seems inevitable that part of the aspiring author’s procrastination from writing consists of farting around with mocking up potential cover art. I suppose I might have sort of maybe done this myself before…in which case, oh, okay fine. May as well share with ya.
I came up with two possibilities for my first ms. No, I’m not sharing my title yet (too irrationally afraid to), and, yes, I’ve used stock images with watermarks still on them (too cheap to pay for them). Whatever. Do you like them or not? Sorry, that came out more antagonistic than I’d intended. And I’m also sorry that I for whatever reason didn’t keep a file that would’ve allowed me to just delete (versus hideously black out) the title in the 2nd image. So just to be clear, my title is not “Graphic Leftovers.” 😉
Have you ever done this, too? I’d love to see ’em!
I heard once at a writing seminar that every time we read, it’s an investment in our writing. So in light of that, we shouldn’t feel guilty when we spend our time reading someone else’s writing instead of working on our own.
When I do read someone else’s story, on one level of consciousness I’m processing how they’ve approached its construction and shaped its language, which helps me likewise reflect on my own projects. I still lose myself in the experience of the book, yet today was one of those when I did snap out of someone else’s story-world to reenter my own—because it had just smacked me upside the head, somewhere in the middle of the book I was reading, that I needed to work more on the beginning of the book I am writing. Seemingly out of nowhere, but I think my subconscious has known all along and something I read must have finally dislodged that. Not merely the revelation of what I probably need to do, but my acceptance of it. I think I’ve known for a long while what I should do but have been nurturing my precious poopsies, running the warm water over them and adding more bubble bath.
I’ve only done some cursory restructuring so far, but looks like my manuscript needs to be run like a conveyor belt in reverse again, backing it up another couple chapters to start at even later one. If I do this, I must be mindful of what had happened last time and ensure the babies of characterization and exposition don’t get thrown out with the bath water in the interest of moving plot forward a bit faster. And it really isn’t so much that I’m trying to get a move-on with the story line; the more I look at those opening chapters, the more I realize that I was still finding my way into the story with them; it doesn’t all have to be scratched, but it needs to be tightened through rearranging. So as I try to look at the story elements in those chapters more strategically right now—isolating the “need to haves” from the “nice to haves”—it’s like they’re all lined up before me, beads of sweat glistening at their brows and sweaty palms wringing behind their backs as they try to stand tall, stand proud with chins up but lips quivering, and some surely wetting their pants.
I shall place the little dears in the foster care of my archives and keep faith they’ll find a good home in a short story or other novel some day. Until that time of weaning, I’m letting them push their little rubber duckies through the suds, scrubbing them extra clean behind the ears before tucking them into bed for the night all clean and sweet-smelling and raisin-fingered…who knows, perhaps after I sleep on it, too, I’ll change my mind.
I’m curious to hear about YOUR babies—it’s inevitable that some of them get chucked out the window, but have you actually had success reusing them elsewhere? How so?
Hey, Editors, are ya there? Editors? Editors? Bueller? Bueller?…
I recently saw this editorial, “The Price of Typos,” which comments on how “typos are everywhere” now—in large part because publishers are employing less editorial staff and rushing to publish books ever faster. And modern authors are playing their part in it, too:
“Use of the word processor has resulted in a substantial decline in author discipline and attention. Manuscripts are much longer than they were 25 years ago, much more casually assembled, and beyond spell check (and not even then; and of course it will miss typos if the word is a word) it is amazing how little review seems to have occurred before the text is sent to the editor. Seriously, you have no idea how sloppy some of these things are.”
Though editors arguably have more work cut out for them in light of the above (man, don’t I know it firsthand!), when I read traditionally published books I’ve wondered the same: where are the editors? How did that typo get through? I’ve always said that I’ve never read a book without a typo, which is fine—annoying but fine, as I understand how that can happen maybe once or twice—but lately I see several mistakes, and it’s not just typos anymore.
Back when I read the Twilight series (disclaimer: my Freshman Year students were squealing about it incessantly and kept begging to write book reports on it, so I felt it my duty to understand what they were talking about…and obsessively read all four books, and joined Team Edward, and watched all the movies so far, and…), and, I’m sorry, where was I? Oh, so when I read Stephanie Meyer’s decent storytelling but crappy writing, her overuse of words like “guffaw” and “mutter” bored a hole in my head as they plunk, plunk, plunked against my skull like water torture. Where was the editor to chuck a thesaurus at her and make her vary word choice? [See Also: “Sloppy YA Editing: Tic Words“] And when each book got longer than the previous (and not in a good JK Rowling way), when plot didn’t thicken so much as stretch like taffy and read like a fanfiction of her own work, I asked myself, where was the editor to hack out those paragraphs and pages of redundancy and filler?
So maybe Twilight is an unsurprising example, but I was in a bit of despair when I read the most recent book of one of my new favorite authors: The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. I loved her first two books in a way I hadn’t anything that I’d read in such a long time, and while I still enjoyed this third one, it needed a good, solid edit. The thread of an interesting story was there for me, which did keep me reading, but I found myself in a frustrated “get on with it” mode—and this from someone who can totally nurture the slow-going and character-based. I don’t need action and rapid pace, really I don’t, but I also don’t need constant dancing around with dazzling wordsmithing and every detail about yet another thunderstorm raging outside while, go figure, conflict between characters is on the rise, too. That’s my two cents, but here’s a sample of what I saw at Amazon as well:
“What on earth went wrong with this book? Was there no editor involved?”
“[T]oo long and too repetitive. A great deal of the fault lies with the editors.”
“What did this book lack? An editor!”
“This seems to be a problem with modern publishing…some way down the line in an author’s output either the editors stop thinking they need to edit or they believe it OK to drop an earlier piece of work on an unsuspecting readership who naively expect new books to be better books.”
Hear, hear! to that last one; I really do think publishers think we’re chumps when it comes to best-selling authors. I don’t read much Philippa Gregory, so maybe she’s been doing this all along in her historical novel series, but I recently read her The White Queen and, while her writing style otherwise does keep a good pace (especially considering the mammoth amount of factual history she manages to distill), I felt little explosions in my head every time I chanced on passages like this:
“More importantly, I think, but I do not say, not even to Elizabeth, that once we are living in a private house quietly, my boy Richard might be able to join us. As we are stripped of our royalty my son might be with me again. When he is no longer a prince, I might get him back. He has been Peter, a boy living with a poor family in Tournai. He could be Peter, a visitor to my house at Grafton, my favorite page boy, my constant companion, my heart, my joy.”
Listen, I know there’s merit to lyrically using repetition for emphasis, but it loses its efficacy when this sort of thing is done over and over and over again for the length of a novel. I mean, seriously, this reads like she wrote the same thing a handful of different ways in brainstorming which she wanted to use and just forgot to scratch out the losing options.
And by this point, you’re probably all wishing I had an editor to keep this post concise. 🙂 But before I go, I leave you with this: eliminating redundancies might be a subjective task, but spelling and grammar are not. An editing colleague recently emailed this sentence:
“A woman without her man is nothing”
Evidently, an English professor wrote this for students to then punctuate. Most of the boys wrote:
“A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
Most of the girls wrote:
“A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
The power of punctuation! Never underestimate the importance of attention to detail—the importance of EDITING!
Friday night: Curled up on the sofa in a state of despondency. So quiet and lackluster that my husband continually asks me what’s wrong. To which I *sigh* and say I’m fine, just wiped out after a few days of steadily revising manuscript #1…yet again. What I don’t proceed to say is that I think my ending continues to suck, and I don’t know how to fix it, and I can’t wrap my brain around it anymore, and I’m so sick of my manuscript, and all I wanna do is lie curled there and sip from my glass of red wine and watch TV to lose myself in other people’s stories until I drift to sleep.
Saturday afternoon: Husband comes into our second bedroom/office to check on me at the computer because, masochist that I am, I couldn’t stay away from dear ms #1 for long. I look at him, smile, and proceed to bounce in my loudly creaking chair over and over and over again in a way that surely makes the neighbors think we’re up to something naughty. They’re not entirely wrong, because I am at this point climaxing and reveling in a satisfying ending. My manuscript’s ending. The first version of it I’ve ever been happy with as providing decent resolution. My mind was massaged and able to get off in the end…it almost needed to smoke a cigarette afterward.
Sunday morning: I tweak a bit more at the ending and review how it follows after the climax (a bit tricky, this, as working with two narrative threads has kinda resulted in a climax-within-a-climax…I have zero clue if I’m handling it right, but it feels appropriate). And I realize that for all the work I just put into it, the revision of this ending wasn’t even a rewrite at all! Honestly, it was done through mainly structural changes in which I pulled earlier scenes (that worked better as falling versus rising action) and inserted them into the last couple chapters. It’s hard to explain how it works, but O-M-freaking-G it does!
One of my issues with story arc was an overly quick resolution. It wasn’t “satisfying” and failed to clarify what the heck had actually happened during the climax. This was a pure product of me thinking I’d be so clever and not hand-hold my readers through anything, make them work it out themselves and leave it fairly open-ended so the readers can do the work there, too, and form their own conclusions of what happens next…basically, make them do my job because I think I was honestly too tapped (or lazy) to figure it out myself. 🙂
Well, that’s fine and all, but when it comes down to it, I’ve learned we do need to throw readers an occasional bone. In my previous post on marketability, I’d mentioned the strategies I’d try to make my work more commercially viable but had come to realize: “Is that writing commercially exactly or just better?!” Writing in a way readers can understand and enjoy is not commercial. Writing a well-resolved, satisfying ending isn’t selling out. “Satisfying” doesn’t have mean “happily ever after” or that every single loose end is tied up and explained in full. No, we don’t have to dumb everything down so readers are not only hand-held but pushed along in an adult-sized stroller and spoon-fed a purée of the unthinking obvious—and that’s not me being a snob as a writer; that’s me being a snob as a reader who finds stories like that mind-numbingly dull if not insulting. Resolutions should be like “a flick of the wrist,” I’ve been told, so I think it’s left to the writer’s judgment which matters can be wrapped up concisely, which developed a bit more, and which left to the reader’s imagination. I think a healthy mix of all of the above can be satisfying indeed for any novel.
I’m not saying I’ve written the perfect ending. It might not be satisfying yet to someone else or even to myself in a few days. It might go through dozens more face-lifts. But what I am saying is that the towel has been flicked at my arse, waking me up to the fact that the ending in my head wasn’t on the page, and mind-reading psychics aren’t necessarily my target demographic that would maybe make that okay. This is not only my story; it’s for future readers, so I need to be less selfish with what I share of it. And such is the moral at the end of this story. 🙂
How about YOU? What issues (if any) with your endings need some massaging out?
* SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen The Sure Thing *
Ah, a little inspiration in one’s life can go a long way in one’s writing…love, love, love that movie.
But to pick up where I left off Monday, here are the last two items covered during my one-on-one sessions at the Festival of Writing with agent Juliet Pickering and author Emma Darwin—
Opening Chapter: Does your opening chapter compel further reading?
JP – “I don’t have a strong sense of [main character’s] age or experience. She seems fairly calm in this alien place – has she travelled a lot before? Surprised that no wariness when accepting drinks etc.”
ED – “Yes, to some extent. Want to know about the mysteries in the past, and how the prologue fits. Can’t say I care much yet, about [main character] because we haven’t had much insight into what makes her tick, what drives her, why she’s come to [this setting], etc.”
Me: Let me just preface with some context – as you can probably tell, my first chapter starts out with my protagonist traveling in a foreign country. During our session, Juliet had seemed mildly interested in the chapter, but her lack of feel for the character prevented her wanting to read more. Emma, however, told me she definitely did want to read more, if for any reason because she was intrigued by my prologue in the voice of the historical thread’s main character and how it would come to relate to my modern thread. To repeat (and elaborate on) my last post, I have both a modern and historical narrative. The modern thread is the dominant one accounting for the bulk of the story, but the historical one pops up now and then to gradually reveal its influence on the former. Emma was engaged by the historical voice and the mystery of its cryptic words, but it was unfortunately my modern protagonist that fell flat for her as with Juliet.
I place a lot of the blame on the fact that this first chapter used to be my third one. I’d hacked out a duller, wordier opening and likely didn’t thoroughly think through what necessary elements of character were thrown right out with it. I’ve therefore been working to reincorporate that into the opening chapter; it isn’t all as simple as adding an age reference in there, but showing more characterization (and consistency in that characterization) through thoughts, dialogue, and actions. Bearing in mind the critique of my writing style from last time, I’ve also worked to simplify sentences and present it in a *hopefully* snappier, more engaging way that will make the reader more interested in my gal by virtue of better understanding her personality, background, and motivations.
Next Steps: Recommendations for the way forward.
JP – “Perhaps add a little more emotion into [main character’s] thoughts/feelings?”
Me: Juliet’s primary recommendation related to the issue above – characterization needs to be strengthened from the get-go. Emma hadn’t written anything down for this, but, in person, she reemphasized to me the importance of my two narrative threads having an impact on each other. She liked my writing (was hooked by the first sentence of Chapter 1—score!)—and just warned against the over-writing that confuses what I’m trying to say.
One sigh of relief was Emma’s validation with the way I shift POV between the two threads – the indie publisher I referenced Monday had an issue with that, but Emma said it was perfectly fine. There is an abundance of stigmas against first-time writers and what we are and are not able to do expertly enough; not that I’m saying I’m handling this case in point “expertly,” but I have a list of reasons why I’m doing it the way that I am that I’m choosing to stand by, no matter what. I can see it making a difference if a newbie tries something just for the sake of doing it, to be stylistic and experimental, but when there’s actual purpose underlying the choices we make, that’s gotta be worth something (see “POV for Vendetta” for an instance of this). We’ll see.
So once again, I ask you, readers, what feedback have you received on your manuscript’s opening that you’ve found helpful? How did you address it?
I’d mentioned ages ago that I would share the feedback I received at the Festival of Writing, so today I’m finally getting around to it. Along the lines of my post last week, the 10-minute one-on-one sessions were geared toward discussing the marketability of my story based on its first chapter (which the agent/author read in advance). I met with UK literary agent Juliet Pickering of AP Watt and author Emma Darwin (yes, she’s related to Charles), and this is what they wrote on the standard session form…
Market Appeal: Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?
JP – “Literary fiction – female readership? Any authors you could reference in intro?”
ED – “Always room for well-written high-end commercial women’s fiction, but it still needs to be strong in narrative drive, and the history-plot needs to have an effect on the story of the modern strand.”
Me: Juliet had a harder time discerning who my market would be exactly, so she recommended being more specific in my query letter. I’m still not exactly sure what authors I would list…My inspirations for story came from Rumer Godden’s A Fugue in Time, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to an extent, but I kinda modeled my approach (*wishful thinking*) after more modern books by Audrey Niffenegger and Gregory Maguire (Lost, not his fairy tale retellings). I haven’t aimed to copy anyone’s style nor do I want to, but I guess I’d aspire to Kate Morton if I did.
In any case, during our session, Juliet did say she thought the ghost-story element of my manuscript is marketable at this time. I have two threads of narrative running through the manuscript of different time periods, so Juliet had also echoed what Emma later said about one narrative needing to have an impact on the other. Rest assured, they do relate, though the interaction only gradually becomes clearer by the second half, and I leave the reason for this relationship open to speculation until close to the end. Right or wrong, I’m relying on the mystery of that to keep the reader going and give the ending its ta-da!, so hopefully it’s okay that the connection isn’t readily obvious from the start.
Prose Style: Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent’s interest?
JP – “Yes”
ED – “Potentially rich, and very evocative at its best, but it is over-written: too many elaborate words getting in each others’ way. Also I think it’s blinding you to where you’re using words loosely or wrongly, or a sentence doesn’t actually make sense.”
Me: Juliet’s commentary during the session was short-in-sweet on this point, too. Emma, however, was invaluable in calling me out on what I do get criticized on time and again. I had a professor in grad school who told me, “You’re a very good writer. You could be great if you relaxed it more.” The indie publisher who previously offered me a rewrite opportunity likewise said that my writing at the outset of my story was “very ‘erudite’ sounding with lots of metaphors and description, lots of almost ‘purple prose'” and needed to be “simplified a bit to make it more accessible so as to meet with the expectations of our typical readers.” So let’s just say I know this about myself and have for quite some time. I was also reading A.S. Byatt and stuff like Of Human Bondage and Victorian Gothic fiction at the time I started, which made a lot of old-school formality creep in. I’m working on it.
Interestingly enough, that publisher found my language to evolve over the course of the book, which no doubt has to do with practice making, well, closer to the elusive “perfect.” The act of writing itself is the way to become a better writer, and, not having tackled such a lengthy project before, I know that I fell into a more natural groove as the story progressed and had been applying other lessons learned along the way. So I’ve been concentrating lately on these opening chapters to make the writing more consistent. And when Emma says, “using words loosely or wrongly,” ha! Ouch! She’d noted specific instances in my first chapter, and they were definitely parts where I let myself drift into a bit of prose poetry without considering whether I’d let myself get too experimental/abstract. I’m hoping my writing prompts or Eda vignettes will be my outlets for that sort of thing and help get it out of my system for longer prose that should be more straightforward. 🙂
There are a couple other items on the list that I’ll leave for Part 2. In the meantime, happy writing-to-write-better, everyone! And please do tell what feedback YOU’VE received on the two questions above. How did you respond?
After a month hiatus, I’m finally back and swingin’! Travels and deadlines have quieted down, so I’m eager for a month of focusing on my own writing again. And some exciting news this week: my first editing assignment was published! Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy – it won’t be the same as looking at my own words in print, but still quite a creatively satisfying return on my two cents. 🙂 I’m thrilled for the author, her talent, and the trust she’d shown in my input.
Anyway, I couldn’t resist opening with the film clip above because, if you’ve ever seen The Player, you know how that pitched movie idea ends up…starring Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis, with a lot of commercial action and a happy ending. Why? Because “that’s reality” when test screenings of the original ending bombed. Which raises the question for me:
Is deliberately writing to “what sells” in the market selling out?
I’m not talking about those who genuinely enjoy reading commercial versus literary fiction and whose writing naturally takes to that course. I mean the literary fiction reader and writer who throws his or her hands up and decides, “Oh, to hell with it! I just want to get published!” Is there something to be said for catering to the broader market just to get one’s foot in the door, with the hope that down the road once one is established, one can write whatever one wants? Isn’t that what John Mayer did with his music?
I used to automatically look down on this tack, but lately I’m having a re-think. At the Festival of Writing, I’d attended a workshop called “The Market and the Muse,” which endeavored to discuss how writers can both write what inspires them while still being marketable. The UK author on the panel (C.M. Taylor, Premiership Psycho) reminded me oh-so much of screenwriter Tom at the end of The Player – the somewhat cocky way he sat back and spoke freely of tossing his failed literary attempts aside and just writing on a topic of mass interest (football AKA soccer), which, go figure, was the one that got picked up by a publisher. He spoke of the liberating feel of it, just writing, not poring over every word and working hard to build in symbolism and meaning…just writing and telling a story. It was definitely a moment of a once-literary fiction writer shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Hey, that’s what sells. And I had fun writing it.”
I was conflicted in my attitude toward him at the time, this peacock strutting so confidently now that publication had validated him as a writer, even though it didn’t reflect the writing he’d done before. And yet… As I continually revise ms #1, I find myself tweaking the phrasing to make it easier/faster to read, chopping out introspective moments to make the plot move forward faster, and I’m even contemplating how I might slap that happy ending on the damn thing after all! I’m not sure about that yet, but I do know this: the ms #2 that I’ve outlined is going to be approached in this new way, this less encumbered way of writing in which I just run with it and not struggle to make every sentence poetic or profound but keep the plot tight and always moving forward. It will still be the story I want to tell and in my own words, but let’s see if it doesn’t turn out to be something more marketable than the first baby I’ve nurtured so long now. Which then makes me wonder: is that writing commercially exactly or just better?!
Regardless, I won’t pitch ms #1 altogether, though I might not pitch it again (i.e., to agents/publishers) for a while either – not until I either find a way to make it more marketable or let it ride the coat-tails of ms #2’s undoubted success. 😉
What are your thoughts? Is there a perfect union between Market and Muse?
After surely leaving you in suspense all week with the dramatic hook at the end of my last post, “Pacing Your Pages – Part I,” I bring you the thrilling conclusion of the joke:
A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says…
“WHY THE LONG FACE?”
Right. To get back on topic, last time I introduced the first part of author Julie Cohen‘s workshop on Pacing. She’d explained how we’re the “Time Lords” over our readers’ experience with our novel—how engaged they are and how quickly they move through it. We’ve already been over analyzing our use of conflicts, functions, hooks, and variety, so moving onward today…
Keeping secrets is another tool for creating a page-turning novel. As Cohen said:
“Readers are nosy.”
As the writer, we can choose to either keep a secret from the reader or let them in on one that’s kept from a character. However you approach it, try to keep that secret for as long as you can, as wanting to find out what it is (or see the character do so) is what will prompt readers to keep reading. That being said, know when to let it go, even if it’s earlier than you’d want to if it means not distracting or overly teasing the reader. You want them intrigued, not annoyed.
And just when we’ve been talking about how to pick up the pace of your novel, just as important is slowing down. Moments warranting a slow-down are dramatic events, sudden happenings, and emotional high points that we might want to prolong for their significance and to allow the reader to process them. Strategies for expanding on reader time include adding section breaks, changing point-of-view, and leaving an incident for a chapter before returning to it later.
Then there’s the matter of speeding up. If you want to get things rolling a little faster, avoid coffee-drinking scenes and the like with characters just sitting around and gabbing if it’s not moving the story forward, along with description for its own sake. Establishing atmosphere and such can be better achieved through a few concise, well-selected descriptions than rambling on over every detail of everything appearing in a scene—and remember your R.U.E.: Resist the Urge to Explain! Other areas to cut include naturalistic but unneeded dialogue, bits that aren’t hooks at the beginning and end of scenes, and things necessary to real life but not fiction (think going to the bathroom or getting from one side of the room to the other).
Where making these cuts are concerned, Cohen says:
“If you have a sneaking suspicion something shouldn’t be in there, cut it.”
We new writers hear this advice at every turn. That’s because it’s essential, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Looking on the bright side of cutting things out, we can: 1) accept that we’ve learned something from writing it; and, 2) use it again somehow…perhaps in another story, as a “free read” on your website or blog as a means of drawing readership, or, quite possibly, it might even have to be stuck back in the story it originally came from! Cohen herself had this experience—she’d cut a scene out by her own choice, but when her editor later suggested that that part of the story was lacking a certain something, the bit that she’d cut was exactly the solution!
Finally, I’d mentioned her color-coding system before for determining the appearance and interplay of conflict throughout a manuscript. She likewise closed her session with a similar method for outlining other aspects of plot. Basically, however you’d like to slice and dice it, assign each plot element a color (e.g., interaction between hero and heroine, interaction between hero and his mother, etc.) and jot it on a Post-It note. Then go chapter by chapter and apply the Post-Its to a sheet of paper for each to see your story’s development. This isn’t so much for outlining in advance as it is a post-draft diagnostic tool.
* To see a photo of this strategy and read Cohen’s own description of it, see her blog post, “Post-It Plotting“:
What pacing strategies have worked for you? Would you give any of these from Part I or II a go?
Ah yes, welcome back to the Animal Kingdom, where if I’m not a monkey, I’m evidently a horse…let’s just say my husband and I are big fans of the Grand National and cheer the horses on the best way we know how from the pub. Now the Grand National is a looong-lasting steeplechase, so, just as in the London marathon two days ago, the runners have to pace themselves strategically so they have enough energy to race through the climactic finish. But that doesn’t mean they start walking, and, of course, it’s crucial they stay on track. Likewise, the workshop I attended, “Pacing: Or, How To Keep ‘Em Turning Pages,” at the York Festival of Writing instructed on how to keep the pace of your novel moving without meandering off course.
To start, as you can see on the right side of the screen, I’ve just started reading the novel Getting Away With It. I’m doing so for entertainment, yes, but also as a lesson in pacing—it so happens that its author, Julie Cohen, led the above-mentioned workshop, so I thought I’d check ‘er out.
Cohen started out by noting “novel time” and recommended using a blank calendar to map out the story’s timeframe (bearing in mind “reader time,” the timeframe during which the readers actually read it…you want to keep a novel moving, but you also want to work in enough time for your readers to catch their breath). And while a longer novel versus a shorter one can allow more breathing room for character introspection (which are necessary moments), she recommends against over-using it.
As for conflict, Cohen calls us the “Time Lords” over reading time. 🙂 What she means is that reader time is subjective; it’s the writer who manipulates it. And she advocates doing so by including as much conflict as possible in each page, which I’m sure we’ve all heard before:
“A lot of well-handled conflict will go quickly, no matter how many pages.”
– Julie Cohen
She’s not talking car-chase, high-drama conflict at all turns but, rather, varying types of conflict—this could be any of the usual types: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Nature. A blend of these conflicts are likely occurring in your novel, and Cohen suggests tracking them via a color-coding system to map out how they coincide chronologically. This can help you visualize the interplay of conflict as well as an approximation of your story’s shape.
Next up is function. A pacey book is efficient in its storytelling. Among the functions its chapters/scenes serve is moving the plot/subplot forward, developing character, creating emotion/atmosphere/conflict, and imparting information. But if you find you have several scenes serving the same function, either condense them or add in additional functions. A good way to determine this is to make a “scene function” list.
Also essential to pacing is starting and ending each scene with a hook, as well as giving your reader variety in mood, topic, theme, and style. To demonstrate the efficacy of this, Cohen had us do a simple exercise with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (it took a teacher to identify another teacher right off the bat, by the way—her presentation style was straight out of the trenches of keeping teenagers engaged, complete with energy, worksheets, and jigsaw activity. Everyone loved her! :)). Anyway, she’d provided a list of consecutive events from Act 1 Scene 1 to Act 2 Scene 2, and we were to label each with symbols denoting different tones, emotions, characters, and dramatic points of the story. The result is…*drum-roll*…That’s right, variety. You see an interplay of different elements without formulaic repetition.
“Putting your readers on a rollercoaster is going to make them think and feel like they’re going faster.”
– Julie Cohen
So in an attempt to pace myself and allow time to digest the above, I’ll quit here and resume with the rest in Part II. But to practice my lessons, I’ll end on a hook. While I haven’t yet shared the punch-line to my “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?” joke, I’ll leave you with this one, in keeping with today’s theme:
A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says…