Tag Archives: reading to write

Pacing Your Pages – Part II

Playing the "Time Lord" is no matter to horse around with.

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?”

Boddum-bum. *ching!*

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“:
http://www.julie-cohen.com/blog/2010/09/17/post-it-plotting/

What pacing strategies have worked for you? Would you give any of these from Part I or II a go?


Pacing Your Pages – Part I

Whoa there, horsie! Slow-n-steady does NOT always win the race...

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


State of the Zoo-nion Address

Image from cafepress.com

Hello, my fellow Simians.
Today, I’d like to brief you on my current state of affairs, not as your faithful Primate President, but as a Reader, Writer, and Editor.

First of all, in the wake of my whining two weeks ago (“Hedging an Investment in Myself“), I was delivered from my woes. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but I was sitting on a Christmas gift that I was about to crack open and rediscover inside it my love of reading. My new muse is Kate Morton, whose The Forgotten Garden I just finished over the weekend and whose debut novel, The House at Riverton, I purchased the same day. Her stuff might not be everyone’s bag, but this book was like a more accessible Possession meets The Secret Garden—a family mystery spanning generations and set largely on a Cornish estate with a maze and hidden garden—which suits my literary gothic fancies just fine. Her skill in structuring a story and incorporating detail (that richly fleshes out her settings and characters without seeming superfluous) is not only providing me new writing guidance within a genre and style that appeals to me, but has also at long last delivered me into a storyworld I can submerge myself in. I’ve read many books that I’ve enjoyed recently, but it’s been ages since I absolutely got lost in the atmosphere of one and didn’t want it to end. I came out of it feeling very satisfied as a reader and inspired as a writer.

Which brings me to the next talking point of my address here. The writing. Because (contrary to the bratty little rants I might have now and then) I do take constructive criticism to heart, I’ve lost myself in my own story again to overhaul its beginning. Whole sections have been hacked and the remaining ones rearranged, so the manuscript is looking a bit Frankenstein’s Creature-ish until I go back through and stitch up some of those fleshy seams and smooth it out. I’m now starting my novel with what was originally the third chapter as it involves a more critical turning point for the protagonist and gets on with the main story more quickly at not much sacrifice of backstory (which is just reinserted other places). I’ve heard this advice given to newbie writers countless times, and I’ll be damned if I’m not surprised it finally came my turn to follow it. Not as great a sense of loss as I thought it would be, though I’m being extra cautious not to throw any babies out with the bath-water.

And wouldn’t it figure my mother tells me over Skype last night that the lil’ stinker found an old copy of my manuscript on her computer, has been reading it, and loves the beginning just as it was. Doh! I might have to comfort her more through this revision than myself :).

In any case, I’m up against a March 1st deadline for both polishing my first chapter for feedback at an upcoming writing festival and completing my developmental edit, so I’m concerned I won’t have a new February story to submit for Write1Sub1…yeesh, time to crank. But never fear; the zoo is not yet in a state of crisis, merely raised to an alert level of **Yellow**.

How are YOUR current projects going, everyone?


The Mind’s Eye

Now that I’ve confessed to initiating my submissions, I think it’s rather timely that I caught a film on TV last night that delivered a little perspective.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Seen it or read it? I had read it about three or four years ago, and I’m not saying I think it’s a masterpiece or that the author is entirely likable, but the fact he wrote what he wanted to write and surmounted a massive obstacle to do so is commendable enough for me (not to mention makes me wonder what the hell I have to whinge about…).

The book is less than 150 pages, but if you’ve read it, you understand that there was nothing “short” about the process. If you aren’t familiar with the premise of the book, it chronicles the memories of a man (Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of French Elle magazine) diagnosed with “locked-in syndrome,” thus paralyzed from head to toe, other than the ability to blink one eye. The prison of his own body, then, became his enclosing “diving bell,” and after initially suffering an understandably defeatist attitude, he came to realize that his greatest mobility and freedom—his “butterfly”—was his mind and the imagination and memories it held. He learned that in this way he could escape to anywhere in the world, dine on the most sumptuous feasts, and do whatever else met his fancy. And thanks to the persistence of a hospital therapist, he learned he could write a book.

Unable to speak, unable to move, this man wrote a book. And I speak of him in the past tense because he passed away within days of this book’s publication in 1997. But it wasn’t about the publication; it was the process itself that helped preserve his will to live.

And, clearly, the way it came about is remarkable. In my second-to-last post, I talked about editing on a chapter-by-chapter, to paragraph-by-paragraph, to sentence-by-sentence, to word-by-word level; well, how about writing on a letter-by-letter one? As the woman transcribing his memoir would read through a special alphabet (arranged in order of the most frequently used letters), he would blink when she said the letter he wanted. Now imagine approaching writing this way; this is a time-consuming, surely exhausting effort, so you’re certainly not going to waste any words getting to your point. Yet it’s the presence of description that I remember astonishing me when I read the book. He “wrote” vividly, expressively, demonstrating that some detail is worth working for; it’s necessary to conveying the true idea.

So as I’ve written before, as we hack into our own pieces and try to reduce word count, it’s important not to strip those ideas of their joy. Every word needs to matter, however, so we must be discerning in our choices. And we must remember what we’re doing it for. Is it in the hope of being published so everyone knows our name and kidding ourselves that it’ll make us rich? Or is it the sheer achievement when the odds may have been against us? The joy of the act itself and of sharing it with others? Think of the celebration it is to pen the triumph of one’s mind, capturing in words the life we’re infused with through imagination and memory. It is tremendously difficult work, yes, and yet doesn’t inspiration sometimes flutter through us in a blink…peppering our pages with butterfly kisses from the lashes of our mind’s eye…


Remote Control

Today’s post comes to you via my new netbook, my new key to freedom!  Or is it… 


When my first iBook laptop went kaput after 5 years in 2007, I have since been desk-bound with my newer  iMac.  Yes, I am on Team Mac, but unfortunately don’t wish to shell out the quid on another iBook.  But this is beside the point…

My new lil’ Sony netbook is liberating me from my hybrid home office/guest bedroom.  So far, I’ve made it all the way to the living room.  Baby steps, baby steps.  What I’m getting psyched about is the ability to work on my writing project remotely in London cafes, pubs, parks, and even cemeteries, such that I can still get out and about and explore this city in the newly-turned gorgeous weather without the eternal guilt over neglecting my writing.

The guilt…oh, the guilt.  I am wondering if other writers out there will gasp at what I’m about to confess or own up that they sometimes feel the same way.  When I speak of liberation, this applies to writing as well, as, along with reading, it is the ultimate way to escape into the free life of the mind at any given moment, taking me into other locations and minds and hearts. 

Yet as of recently, I’ve been more conscious of the limiting effects of indulging this pasttime.  Rather than free, I can feel trapped…for one thing, there is the guilt I mentioned above when I heaven forbid do something else with my free time after work or on the weekend and have not planted my bum in my desk chair to crank out at least a couple more pages or revise what has already been written. 

Adding to this, I once thought it freeing that I could work through my plots and characters even away from my computer and pen and paper, as ideas and revelations will come to me in the shower or during my commute. 

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”   –Agatha Christie

“What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”  –Burton Rascoe

This has had the effect, however, of overwhelming my thoughts, exhausting me noggin when it’s set in hyperdrive and I find myself trying to figure out how to get a character into or out of a situation while I simultaneously need to get my work done…my brain needs to be in on that, too, after all, and my high levels of distractibility ever since I took on writing as a primary and ongoing endeavor are leading me into some embarassing situations. The other week, I was working through a plot line in my head as I was exiting the Notting Hill Gate Tube station, and, realizing I should probably top-up my Oyster card—my prepaid public transport pass—I walked up to a kiosk touch-screen and cancelled a stranger’s transaction, not realizing he’d been standing there and about to finish adding £50 to his card!  I’d never felt so foolish and kept apologizing profusely from the adjacent kiosk as I saw him restarting his transaction all over again in my peripheral vision. 

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”  –E.L. Doctorow

Even when I try to escape into reading to calm my overworking mind, I find I’m not enjoying it in the way that I used to—reading as a writer, there is the tendency to analyze the character and plot development, the descriptive detail and overall style and construction, not in analysis of the text itself (which is perfectly okay and necessary to truly engaging with it), but in comparison with my own style and approach, which is maddening.  Yes, reading can inform our writing, but what if I just want to read for reading’s sake?  Can I recover this ability at some point, or in taking on writing have I forever altered the relationship I have with other people’s stories?  And most importantly, should I feel bad to be feeling this way, or is it natural?  Writers of the world, please advise 🙂

In the meantime, I’m hoping that I haven’t just substituted a ball and chain with a house-arrest bracelet that permits me more mobility, but still holds me prisoner to obligation and guilt. I think instead my wee netbook and I will have many happy travels together as we get back out there to resume control of my everyday and observe life for it’s own sake—and, sure, if it provides good material for a story, that’s not too shabby either even if it does serve to feed my aforementioned neuroses.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”   –Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 19 August 1851


Chairman of the Bored

“An author is a fool who, not content with boring those he lives with, insists on boring future generations.”
– Charles de Montesquieu

Uh-oh…my worst fear is happening right now, so I have to take a break from my story.  And yes, I’m sure you have guessed it:  I’M BORED.  Not with writing it (though that sometimes happens, too), but in rereading it.  Yet I can’t figure out if I’m getting bored because I’ve already reread and revised these same parts several times before or because these are just genuinely boring scenes that readers would get even more bored with.

Is it bad that my first instinct is to get up and walk away for the night rather than keep plugging through?   I mean, it’s not like I’m a published author against a deadline, after all…yet I know that real writers do not wait for inspiration to write; it’s a discipline, and part of that discipline is trudging through when the going is difficult.  That said, I’ve been looking at it for hours now, so if I mentally step away to dash off this post right now and then go crack open someone else’s novel to read, that’s also an investment in my writing future, no?  And to continue over-rationalizing for myself, life has to exist outside of the storyworld as well if we’re to accumulate any authentic experience and emotion to be able to draw on for those stories—living life, versus only writing about it, is how we get our ideas (consider this post of inadvertent character-finding in “Of Characters and Other Weirdos” from the Write in Berlin blog).

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
– Ben Franklin

I hear you, Ben, and will try my best to make the most of this night if I do, in fact, shut down the computer until tomorrow.  And when I do revisit this little yawn-factory that is the last quarter of my story, I will be refreshed and ready to infuse some oomph into it.  And I think corresponding with this boredom is my great knack for comparing myself to others’ writing again.  And if the latter is the case, then maybe I need to adopt this mentality and just get over myself:

“My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine.  Everybody drinks water.”
– Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Well, hopefully I can work on becoming water and not the sleeping pill the water is washing down.  Okay then, I’m off to get my sight back. If you ever encounter this same feeling, please cure my boredom with your comments!


Fresh Air, Fresh Faces, Fresh Ideas

Ahhh…as I expel the diesel-perfumed air that I inhaled all day today in London, my mental lungs proceed to gulp in the intoxicating purity of the breezes breathed in this past weekend in the Northeast England countryside.  I mentioned in my previous post that I was venturing out of the city for a writing-focused retreat sponsored by the organization Room to Write.  I truly don’t think that I can duly convey what the experience came to mean to me and will not attempt to do so–rather, I will hold that close to my heart and simply say that I had the privilege of being brought into the fold of some of the loveliest, most accomplished, talented, yet modest and genuinely good-natured  folks with whom I could have ever interacted.  Sipping tea with them in the conservatory of a Victorian country estate amidst an endless supply of sandwiches, scones, and fruit on a day colored by blue skies, green gardens, and brown deer was sheer heaven…it’s so me (in my dreams), and I could have pinched myself.  Hopefully my Midwest American accent was not as piercing on their ears as the sun was in our eyes 🙂

As I tuck that sweet and shimmering memory in my breast pocket, I shall tend to some matters of business.  I promised that I’d share some valuable advice learned over the weekend, and I’m a lady of my word.  As I’m heading Stateside in the morning for a week—and consequently going to subject myself to 7 days of my parents’ torturously slow dial-up internet connection that I truly think would run faster if a hamster generated it by running in its wheel—I’ll break it up into smaller bits written in advance, but to be scheduled to post across subsequent days.  Fair enough?

All right then, I’d like to start simply with some gems of quotations that I picked up.  I will repeat them as direct quotations here, though most are probably just my close paraphrases of the actual content, and I apologize in advance to the plagiarism gods for not specifically citing their speaker of origin (as the facilitators may have been quoting from elsewhere in at least a couple cases) .  Whatever…you’ll get the point, capiche?

“80% of the meaning of a novel comes from the reader and 20% from the writer.”

“Writers taste life twice–once when they live it, once when they write it.”

On revision:  “Kill your darlings–if you love it, delete it.”

On research:  “Write, don’t research.”

I will follow up in a later post with a bit of elaboration on these…I have an early flight and had better catch some sleep.  In the meantime, keep writing!


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