The Value of Pacing In Your Writing

Although there are an endless number of topics that can be addressed in regards to what goes into writing a compelling story, today I would like to focus on the often overlooked topic of pacing. Admittedly, I may not place pacing above character, dialogue, prose, point of view or style (although I think pacing can greatly influence all of them) on the totem pole of story importance, but when used effectively, it can really enhance your story.

One of the reasons I think pacing’s importance is often marginalized is due to the fact that people often mistake it for as the occurrence of action or the arrival of plot to usher a character along on a somewhat contrived journey.  People interpret “your pacing is a bit off” as “there aren’t enough cars blowing up.” Somehow pacing is assigned this odd stigma as being a sort of gimmicky element of genre used to string readers along and keep them turning the pages. Those in this mindset unfairly confuse it as a means to bookend your chapters with cliffhangers and wedge action into every narrative lull.

Pacing is much more than action though. It is the ebb and flow of your story. It is the pulse of your narrative. Even within literary fiction where there are generally few occurrences of car chases, dystopian zombie landscapes or alien invasions, effective pacing can be the key to great emotional payoffs. Do you have a laconic, somewhat internalized protagonist headed toward an impending meltdown? What would be more shocking? A pg 15 outburst or a simmering rage that cataclysmically erupts on pg 210?

Truthfully, you can make either work, but if you are really looking for those big emotional payoffs in your stories, you are going to have to build up to such moments to earn them and when you arrive there, make sure the impact isn’t dulled by a sloppy flow. Even within the context of genre fiction (and arguably all fiction), pacing at the beginning of your story can be just as important. Do you start your story with immediate action, leaving out any context your protagonist’s situation, or do you take some time to set the scene and risk the dreaded information dump through heavy expositional passages? If you hit the extremes on either of these polarizing approaches, you run the risk of losing your reader within the first thirty pages.

Just to further illustrate, let us say your protagonist is in a story where he is unexpectedly jarred loose from a comfortable and familiar life. For this particular narrative yarn, you could have the catalyst enter the protagonist’s life and force him out of his shell on pg 4, setting the plot in motion, but what did we really know of the protagonist’s old life from only reading pgs 1-3? Certainly, you can revisit elements of his old life as your character is propelled forward. He can meet people from his past and reflect on the life he once knew, but that requires a gradual release of exposition over time in bits and pieces. On the flip side, if you spend the first thirty pages establishing his life, routines, friends and family, and then have him jarred out of that existence, you have a better feel for what he is leaving behind, and as a result, what is at stake for him. The pitfall of this approach is that you can fall into a slow developing exposition heavy first section.

So, how can you make sure the pacing of your story is in a good place? Well, one way is to sit down and outline your book. This will give you a broad sense of how your novel flows. You probably won’t be able to make too many declarative statements from an examination this broad, but it will give you a head start on isolating any problematic sections. Another approach is to go through each of your chapters and look for sections with long dialogue exchanges. This isn’t necessarily a red flag in itself, but you should pay close attention to these sections and make sure that they do not become long meandering diatribes. These are the sections where you run the greatest risk of losing the interest of your readers.

I personally prefer to dive right into anything I’m writing with a little bit of action. However, I also suffer from the dreaded exposition dump, bringing any sense of established pace to a screeching halt. This always leaves my first thirty pages as something of a bloated mess. Not really a desirable place to be, but this is where the editing process becomes invaluable. It is within revisions that I am able to trim and redistribute information, finding some semblance of pace to begin the story. So, do not despair if you think the flow of your story is a bit uneven. Editing is a great place to tighten that up.

Because I tend to write genre fiction, I actually do like the function of cliffhangers as chapter bookends (not for every chapter though, moderation is key). Cliffhangers and twists can be easily misused if you stuff the belly of your chapters with filler information and then try to rescue them by tossing in some unexpected cheap thrills to close. Utilizing this approach, you run the risk of having a notably hollow story strung along by unearned moments of shock and awe. But, if you can use cliffhangers well and you put time and effort into crafting moments of genuine surprise, these moments will pay off for you.

Ultimately, I think pacing is about balance, flow and consistency. If you’re writing a thriller, you can’t count on 300 out of 307 pages of car chases and shoot outs to be an involving experience. You really have to work at the other elements of your story and pace the action, so that when your character is placed in a tense or dangerous atmosphere, we care about them. So, yes, you could argue that the other elements of writing (character, setting, dialogue) are directly effected by pacing in your story. Because they are. If you don’t take enough time to develop your characters, you will leave the reader disconnected or apathetic to their plight. And on the flip side, if you spend too much time developing your characters and don’t place them in any situations of dramatic tension, readers may tire of the experience. For an example of really effective pacing in a genre novel, I would cite Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games.’ That’s a great example of a book that utilizes effective pacing without skimping out on the core elements of what makes a compelling story.

‘Exiles’ On 91.5 WBEZ’s Summer Reading List And A Kindle Copy Giveaway

So, just a quick update on ‘The Exiles of the New World.’ Last week, the book received a nice shout out on ‘The Afternoon Shift with Steve Edwards’ on 91.5 WBEZ(Chicago’s NPR station). Mary Dempsey (who is a family member for full disclosure) was on the show and was nice enough to plug my book (albeit a bit of a shameless plug) as part of her summer reading list recommendations. All the same, she is still too kind for mentioning it and saying nice things about it on the radio. I thank her for that.

You can listen to a stream of the broadcast on the linked story (my book is mentioned around the 28:40 mark), but I would strongly encourage people to listen to the broadcast in its entirety and check out the other recommendations. I have already added a few of them to my reading list including Solace by Belinda McKeon.

Also, I wrote a guest post over the weekend at Writer’s Party on crafting great twists in your story. Make sure to stop by their site and peruse the author interviews and events they host. They are good people. The site will be hosting a free kindle copy giveaway for my book. All you have to do is leave a comment on the post before the 10th and you could win a free kindle copy of ‘The Exiles of the New World.’ More info on the giveaway is on their contest page.

‘The Exiles of the New World’ Launch Recap

So, the signing/launch for ‘The Exiles of the New World’ was this past weekend and it went really well. Big thanks again to Jano from Iconic Publishing for coming up to facilitate the launch and to Open Books for hosting the event. The staff at Open Books are superb and I have nothing but good things to say about them and the program they run over there. The turnout for the event was great and the booing was minimal to non-existent, and that is all you can ask for with a first signing. But seriously, I am truly thankful for all that came out to make it a wonderful evening. I am lucky to have such a great group of people in my life and I cannot thank them enough.

We managed to fit a short reading, a Q & A and a signing into the evening. I’m sure my Q & A answers sounded like nonsense, but I suppose that’s what happens when you drag a writer away from their computer. But to the best of my memory, I didn’t have too many Sarah Palin moments, didn’t get in any heated arguments with audience members over the Oxford comma, and it was a lot of fun when all was said and done.


This Week's Writing Links

This week’s writing links feature the sci-fi writing prompt for the week, a best blogs for writers to read in 2012 list, 6 tips to resuscitate a dying author blog and a review of Elmore Leonard’s new book Raylan.

The art included in this week’s post, which was designed by Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe for Joe Vasicek’s e-book Desert Starscomes from io9’s sci-fi writing prompt for the week. Their prompt tasks you with creating a story based off the featured concept art. It’s a really nice piece of art and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time checking out the sites for both the artist and the author, which I would really encourage people to do if they have a couple of free minutes.

In other news, there has been a lot of rabble recently that it’s only a matter of time now before Amazon finishes off all the remaining bookstores on the planet, creating a storeless utopia where disenchanted souls mindlessly impulse buy romance novels to pad their already backlogged Nooks and Kindles. Amazon’s response to this charge? They added more networks (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon) to their streaming service (which I happen to be a member of) and continued to deliver all my packages in a timely and generally satisfactory fashion.

I wish Amazon could give me more reasons to hate them, but other than the complete and utter wastelanding of brick and mortar bookstores, they haven’t given me much ammo. As penance for my notable dependence on Amazon to deliver 3-D Imax blu-rays about space to my doorstep, I have made a resolution for the coming months to do my best to go out of my way to support brick and mortar bookstores, whether they be Barnes & Noble or some of the Chicago locals. Maybe if we all do our piece, we can give them a second wind.

Links:

– Concept Art Writing Prompt: Night At The Edge Of The World (io9)

– Best Blogs For Writers To Read In 2012 (robertleebrewer)

– 6 Tips To Resuscitate A Dying Author Blog (writersdigest)

– Av Club Reviews Elmore Leonard’s Raylan (avclub)

– The 10 Best Charles Dickens Characters (flavorwire)

– Frazen And The Ebook Bubble (jakonrath)

– Sf Signal Reviews Mind Storm By K.M. Ruiz (sfsignal)

– 7 Ways To Get Freelance Gigs Flowing (makealivingwriting)

– New Agent Alert: Dawn Michelle Hardy Of Serendipity Literary (writersdigest)

Monday's Writing Links (2/6)

This week’s writing links feature a cool list of 10 great science fiction novels for girls, a theoretical map of ‘The Hunger Games’ Panema poll that reveals only 11% of readers discover books they read from social networking and 10 tips to bypass cliche and melodrama in your writing.

I haven’t read ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ since my childhood, but I always remembered it fondly. Often championed as a YA classic in the same vein as C.S. Lewis, the book is featured on the 10 great science fiction novels for girls list (even though I think it classifies more as a fantasy book). It’s a great list nonetheless if you have a little voracious reader who wants to expand her reading horizons.

In other news, there have been some great success stories from Amazon’s KDP sharing program and more news concerning their escalating war with Barnes & Nobles. I don’t really have too much insight into the situation, but I do know that it would be a shame if there were no book stores in the near future. I understand the efficiency of Amazon (I use it all the time), but really wonder what would generate book recommendations if there was no physical browsing available to buyers.  I fear that it may remove spontaneity from the book buying process. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Either way, here are some links!

Links:

– 10 Great Science Fiction Books For Girls (flavorwire)

– 10 Tips To Bypass Cliche And Melodrama (writersdigest)

– Sf Signal Reviews ‘Shadows In Flight’ By Orson Scott Card (sfsignal)

– Barnes & Noble Will Not Stock Any Books Published By Amazon (mediabistro)

– The Great Social Media Flim-Flam (susankiernanlewis)

– David Kazzie: How Amazon’s KDP Select Saved My Book (thecorner)

– Science Fiction Futures Ruled By The Popular Kids (io9)

– A Well Researched Map Of The Hunger Games Panem (io9)

– Coming Soon: The Best Of Tor.com In A Free Mini Ebook Anthology (tor)

– New Agent Alert: Carlie Webber Of The Jane Rotrosen Agency (guidetoliteraryagents)

– SFWA Review: ‘The Late American Novel’ (sfwa)

– A Brief Survey Of William S. Burroughs References In Pop Culture (flavorwire)

This Week's Writing Links (1/19)

In today’s day after the SOPA blackout writing links, we’re featuring information about World Book Night10 ways to improve your writing while thinking like a comedy writer, new agents on the scene, a list of 10 musicians who should really write novels and the trailer for Wes Anderson’s new movie Moonrise Kingdom.

I hope that yesterday was a productive day for everyone with the relative blackout of the internet in protest of SOPA and PIPA. Although without wikipedia, the world’s most accessible (not necessarily reliable) encyclopedia, you might have been missing a huge portion of your research base.

The good news is that the internet is back today and with it, the everyday tools you are used to are once again at your disposal. Once again, instead of trimming all that unnecessary exposition out of your first chapter, you can now scour reddit for pictures of red pandas waving or read about which famous writers married their cousins on wikipedia.

Yes, the internet is back with all its distractions. The real question is how will you respond to the alluring return of the internet’s time wasting ways? One way to respond is to check out some links before you get back into the thick of things. I highly recommend this approach. Because the links have been provided for you and require no sifting on your part, it will help ease you back into old routines without totally removing the newly discovered feeling of unadulterated productivity you had this one fateful Wednesday when the internet chose to sleep.

Links:

– AV Club Reviews William Gibson’s ‘Distrust That Particular Flavor’ (avclub)

– Woody Harrelson On Haymitch And The Mind Blowing Sets Of ‘The Hunger Games’ (latimes)

– 10 Ways To Improve Your Writing While Thinking Like A Comedy Writer (writersdigest)

– This Spring Help Give Away One Million Books (tor)

– New Agent Alert: Carrie Pestritto Of Prospect Agency (guidetoliteraryagents)

– Connie Willis Named Recipient Of The 2011 Grand Master Award (sfwa)

– Kerry Conran’s Vision For ‘John Carter Of Mars’ (sfsignal)

– Quentin Tarantino’s Top Ten Movies Of 2011 (ropeofsilicon)

– Amazing 3D Portraits Of Authors Made From Their Books (flavorwire)

– 10 Musicians Who Should Really Write Novels (flavorwire)

– 10 Tips On Guest Blogging And Blog Tours (writersdigest)

– Scientists Prepare To Capture The First Ever Picture Of A Black Hole (io9)

– Trailer For Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ (youtube)

Look For 'The Exiles Of The New World' In January

‘The Exiles of the New World’ has officially been deemed a January 2012 release. When I signed my publishing contract in the summer, there was some hope that it might be out in time for Christmas, but the Holidays are the death knell for productivity in the publishing industry and the book is going to end up as a January release. It would have been nice to see it this month, but I am actually looking forward to it being a 2012 release.

Why am I looking forward to the January release you ask? Are there any advantages to releasing a book in January opposed to Christmas? Sure.

Really? I think you’re lying, what are they? Uh, let us pause while I make them up.

Well, for starters, if you wrote a book in a very obscure genre and it is the first entry of the year in that very obscure genre, you are afforded the privilege, however temporary and undeserving it may be, of being the best book of the year in that niche by default. So, for a handful of days, you can occupy the title of ‘Best Weight Lifting Murder Mystery’ or ‘Best Twilight Cookbook’ of the year until some competition comes along. It’s just a shame they don’t compile too many mid-January ‘Best of the Year’ projections, but you are still entitled to bragging rights for a couple of days.

Also, it’s cold outside and people don’t want want to go outside and socialize. To the best of my knowledge people generally just drink gin/hot chocolate and watch football/read in winter, so that also puts you in good standing in an odd way. People who do venture out, may take shelter from blizzards in the book store you’re doing a signing for, therefore creating unexpected foot traffic with a lot of time on their hands and a need for companionship/food.

Are any of these reasons legitimate? No. No, they’re not.

I can’t even fabricate especially compelling reasons for a January book release, but I was born in a January blizzard in the south, so I’d be more than happy to welcome my first book into the world in the same frigid, gloomy month that people generally associate with hypothermia, frostbite and aborted New Year’s resolutions. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, look for ‘The Exiles of the New World’ from Iconic Publishing in January, 2012. With my book’s 300 plus page hardcover girth, you can leave it in your car and it can double as a snow shovel in case you need to dig yourself out of any particularly comprising weather situations (E-book versions may be useless in such situations).

90 Secrets Of Bestselling Authors

The always reliable Writer’s Digest has provided this handy list of quotes from bestselling authors, chronicling their advice on writing, including how to find and corral inspiration, craft effective characters, discover your writing style and finally getting that manuscript published. Definitely a useful tool if you are in a rut!

INSPIRATION & IDEAS

—No. 1—
“Every idea is my last. I feel sure of it. So, I try to do the best with each as it comes and that’s where my responsibility ends. But I just don’t wait for ideas. I look for them. Constantly. And if I don’t use the ideas that I find, they’re going to quit showing up.”
—Peg Bracken

—No. 2—
“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed quickly, to trap them before they escape.”
—Ray Bradbury

—No. 3—
“Good writing is remembering detail. Most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.”
—Paula Danziger

—No. 4—
“I have never felt like I was creating anything. For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there’s a house under there, and I’m pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want. That’s how I feel. It’s like the stories are already there. What they pay me for is the leap of faith that says: ‘If I sit down and do this, everything will come out OK.’”
—Stephen King

Make sure to check out the rest at their site.

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Monday's Writing Links

This week’s Monday’s Writing Links highlights libraries, specifically the Chicago Public Library and the proposed cuts it faces. This is an issue that I’m incredibly biased on and will admit openly. Firstly, I live in Chicago and love books. Secondly, I have family who work for the CPL. So, again, not the most objective subject I’m going to tackle, but I’ve stood up for the CPL before (including an incredibly odd incident where I was explaining an arguably anti Chicago libraries piece that Fox News did to people at a grocery store and then was moments later confronted by the anchor who did the piece) and would be happy to do so again.

The Chicago/Illinois budget situation is always a dire one. Every other day it seems like they are hiking public transportation fees to the point that seniors are trying out skateboards or the city is considering turning Navy Pier into a peninsula of gambling and overpriced novelty popcorn stores. I guess I can understand the viewpoint in a budget crisis that libraries, in the eye of a very sterile assessment, would fall under the blanket of being an amenity and therefore not a necessity. This is a point that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with though. Sure, you could funnel money into bloated city salaries and fixing the potholes on North Ave that eat shopping carts, entire bus routes and inquisitive nocturnal animals (supporting city infrastructure is important though, I’m all for that), but if you focus solely on the very sterile necessities of a busted budget, where or what will you be driving to in a few years if Chicago is a land of sports bars, grocery stores, vacant Blockbusters and overpopulated Pizza Hut/Taco Bell hybrids?

Taking this strictly on a city by city basis, I would strongly argue for the CPL’s fate, if not just for their effort to embrace the technological age, improve the educational opportunities and research materials available to lower income neighborhoods such as the former Cabrini-Green and the inspirational events they put on like One Book, One Chicago. So, as mentioned in the linked open letter, it is strange to me that 363 of the 500 city jobs scheduled to be cut are at the Chicago Public Library. This website is definitely not a forum to get preachy, so we’ll move on, but it’s hard enough to find a bookstore in this city anymore, let’s not make it impossible to find a library.

 

Links:

– An Open Letter Against The Proposed Chicago Library Cuts (golibrarians)

– Av Club Reviews Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Damned’ (avclub)

– 10 Ways To Launch Strong Scenes (writersdigest)

– Catie Rhodes On Social Media Dos And Don’ts (catierhodes)

– Backstory: How Much Is Enough? (tor)

– The Center For Fiction Celebrates Fantasy And Science Fiction (sfsignal)

– That Shakespeare Movie Might Not Be Half Bad (rottentomatoes)

– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye And Pamela Gay Discuss Our Future In Space (io9)

– Be Sure To Check Out Sci-fi Writer Wendy C Giffen’s Website (wendycgiffen)

– The Best Sci-fi And Fantasy Costumes Ideas For 2011 (io9)

– A Writer’s Crash Guide To Social Media: Facebook (sfwa)