Episode 69: Pace 911 or Why You’re Bored by that Book You Wanted to Love

On November 16, Kasie and Rex took on the craft topic of pace. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Pace — Why you’re bored with a book that you really wanted to LOVE

Agenda

  • What is “Pace”?
  • How to recognize pace as a reader
  • How to write and revise “pace”
  • What everyone’s working on
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Photo by Chris Peeters on Pexels.com

Segment 1

“Pace” is one of those mysterious writerly words that when we use it in critique the newbie’s eyes glaze over.

So here you go, noobs: What is pace?

Pace in literature is the speed at which the story is told. How fast the action moves, how quickly the characters achieve their goals, not necessarily the time over which the story takes place, but the urgency of the action that makes up the story.

Sometimes it’s the dialogue — is it rapid fire between two people? Back and forth rapidly or broken up with narration, movement, or time elapses which would slow the scene down?

Sometimes it’s in the action — words like jerked, raced, sprinted, threw, are action verbs that have a rapid pace to them. Slower words like recoiled, shrunk, strode, or tossed are action verbs with less urgency to them. Even slower words like meandered, tiptoed, crept, stretched, or watched are more passive still and can create a kind of stillness in a scene.

Sometimes pace is in the description — cold air, gathering clouds, a sudden change in brightness or darkness indicate rising action. Warm sunlight, a lazy breeze, a trickling brook or the rhythmic crash of the surf against sand establish a kind of timelessness. The action can contrast with this like the thundering pounding of hooves on the beach or the cries of a drowning swimmer.

Segment 2

How do you recognize pace as a reader? The most common way is to feel bored by the book and start skipping paragraphs, whole pages, or even whole chapters. I’ve known readers who skipped entire narratives — the Sheriff’s POV in No Country For Old Men for example, or the Vine’s observations in The Floatplane Notebooks. The latter, by the way, is a damn shame cuz that vine adds a lot of context.

Anyway, when you’re skimming, it’s because you’re bored and if you really want to like the book but you’re bored anyway, it’s probably not you. It’s probably the pace of the novel.

Take heart! You’re not the only one to identify this. Many, many writers feel it about their own work and just aren’t sure how to fix it. We’ll get to that part. But first, here’s some other clues your pace needs work:

  • Long paragraphs that stretch the length of the page
  • Stacked paragraphs over several pages with no dialogue
  • Exposition that pulls the reader out of the immediate scene and delivers memories for pages at a time
  • Can you identify what is the immediate action? If not, you’re stuck in a flashback or your exposition is dragging the story down.

I once queried an agent who wanted the first page and page 90 of your manuscript. He wanted to see if there was cohesion mid-way through the book with what you’d established in the beginning. I love that test. Check the page you’re on, then flip an arbitrary number of pages later in the work and see if the two bear a resemblance.

I’ve also read novels (YA primarily) that were so plot-driven and fast paced that there was no down time to catch breath between threats to the heroine’s life. Like white space on the page, exposition can give the reader a break. Provide a respite from the constant GO! Of action in a story.

Segment 3

How to write and revise pace.

It’s rare that pace comes out in a first attempt. That word dump that is the frenzy, the gluttony of creation, it’s not concerned with timing or pace. It just wants to bleed on the page. But in revision, we take on pace as a serious task for analysis and work.

Most writers will tell you the first draft is rubbish, garbage, just a starting point. No matter the planning that went into it or the narrative skill you probably (maybe?) have, the first of anything always needs work.

Some writers, be it hubris or that same silly thing that makes people say tattoos don’t hurt (lying) will tell you their first draft is quite brilliant. This blogger says you can train yourself to be great out of the gate. Or follow her list of steps, anyway, and be better at it the first time.

But come on, do we believe that? Is there a formula for making drafts suck less?

Anyway, one of the things that usually sucks in the draft is the pace of the novel, and at a scene-level, the pace of the scene. This can usually be detected in workshop pretty quickly by the magic trick of reading the scene out loud. If you’re bored, it’s probably slow.

How do you fix it? Quick fixes (our Writer’s Digest advice):

  • Action scenes — in short and medium-length sentences. Omit characters’ thoughts or feelings, just show what happened. The actions of the characters should tell us what they’re feeling and thinking. Limit details to one or two relevant elements.
  • Cliff hangers — so called for the ending of an episode where a character is hanging by a slipping grip about to fall to his death, these leave-them-wanting-more tactics include unresolved problems, surprise twists, and interruptions. They’re used well at the end of chapters to encourage the reader to keep going into the next segment. The anticipation naturally increases the pace for the reader as she wants to know what happens next. Even if it is three in the morning.
  • Dialogue — in rapid-fire, few details, thick with tension, dialogue can express what the characters want and what they’re willing to say to get it. Don’t let them discuss or ponder (according to our resource), make them challenge one another and compete.
  • Prolonged outcomes — resolution is complicated by new information, by an interruption, by the stakes being raised causing more anticipation.
  • Scene cuts — when the scene abruptly shifts, the characters are abandoned, or the work being done is left for after this interruption. It’s the old “meanwhile…” way of shifting the camera’s view to another conflict or another character who is moving toward the scene. It raises anticipation of the resolution of the original scene while also showing complications the original scene’s actors may not be aware of.
  • The Summary — rather than recapping what has already occurred, summarize it. When the scene is dragging, tidy it up with a quick one- or two-sentence summary that keeps in the important information but stays with the main action.

Segment 4

We started this thing last week where we went out to Facebook and asked our writing community here in South Carolina what they’ve been working on. Here are some of the updates we received:

Patricia Gaddis Brandon says she’s still working on marketing The Center of Gravity, her historical fiction that takes place between 1933 Europe and 1976 Lowcountry South Carolina. She reports she’s “happy to say it has gotten very good editorial reviews thus far at several South Carolina Public Library branches, and on Amazon.” She also says she’s researching a new historical fiction project that takes place in 1919 in western NC – during the time of Prohibition, Women’s Suffrage, and the Red Summer. That story, she says, has “An attempted kidnapping, a murder, and a strange and macabre ritual; (it’s) a coming of age story in the pristine mountains of Appalachia.”

We know a great Appalachian writer, Sharon May, who was featured on the show a year ago in this episode. Her Appalachian stories are more Kentucky than Carolina, though.

Though not from South Carolina, we got this update from Arthur Turfa “I am 58k words into a draft of a novel. With my talented artist friend Carol Worthington-Levy, I am writing ekphrastic poetry about her watercolors of historic houses in our hometown of Plymouth Meeting, PA, which are being threatened by development. Some of these houses were on the Underground Railroad.” Would love to hear more about that project, Arthur. Keep us updated on how we can support you. He also says he’s working on a poetry/prose anthology with another friend. Aren’t collaborative projects the best? Shout out for our poets writing and submitting.

We know a great poet, Bonnie Stanard, who has had a few submissions accepted recently including five poems published in the October issue of Scarlet Leaf Review

  • In “Fig Tree,” the slavish wasp dies of lust while the tree produces a fig. 
  • “Carbon Copy” asks how our past of unanswered questions can provide guidance to our future. 
  • “A Natural Deceit” returns to nature and suggests that while we may love nature, it does not love us, nor care for us, nor protect us. 
  • “The Middle of Ages” suggests that we think about the risks we take by embracing science and technology.

Scarlet Leaf Review publishes fiction, non-fiction, reviews, interviews and poetry dealing with social, political, and personal subjects.

Candace J. Carter tells us she’s writing the second book in a traditional/cozy mystery series with a modern western theme. We had asked what the hardest thing about being a writer is and Candace admitted she sometimes struggles with discipline among all the distractions. She added, “I feel that knowing support is out there is a type of reassurance.” So this is it, Candace! You’re supported. Thanks for being part of our literary community.

Lastly, friend of the show and local publisher, author, and teacher James D. McCallister said, Thanks for all you do, #WriteOnSC, including my recent appearance on the show. I’ll be (finally!) officially signing and promoting the DIXIANA series during the upcoming Five Points Starry Night event on December 13. I also recently delved into poetry and got my first journal acceptance, with the piece also shortlisted for their so-called Bukowski Prize. It didn’t win or place, but still not bad for a wet-behind-the-ears poet.” Congratulations, Don, and we’ve added that link to the Starry Night event so our locals can plan to attend.

UPCOMING EVENT

If you’re thinking 2020 is the year you write your book, you may want to attend “Book Ready in 2020” with my publisher, Alexa Bigwarfe. It’s at ConverSpace here in Columbia next Saturday, November 23rd. Here’s a link to registration.

Ready to support Write On SC? Go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC to become a patron!

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