Friday, April 29, 2011

On Pacing

(Don't forget to enter the contest for an ARC of Supernaturally!)

No real preamble here. I'm talking about pacing today, so I've cut out the fluff! Aren't you proud of me. Wait, this is fluff. Crapitall. Guess I need to read my points again.

I've written and edited and read a lot of books. Here are some tricks I've learned along the way:

1) Cut out the first chapter. I heard Cassie Clare talking about this on her book tour, and it's so true. The first chapter of the first draft is for the writer, not the reader. You're figuring out the voice and setting up the world/character for yourself. Most of the time (at least this was true with many of my early books) the story doesn't really start until chapter two.

2) Assume your readers are intelligent. Your readers don't need you to tell them that your character sleeps, or showers, or eats, or, you know, goes to the bathroom and stuff. They are going to assume that for themselves. If you've already established that your character wears light makeup, you don't need to tell us every time she puts it on. If you've already established your character's general style, you don't need to detail every outfit she ever wears unless there is a reason to (it is special, she's putting it on for a specific reason, etc). This also goes for getting from point A to point  B. We don't need to see everywhere your character walks, or hear about every car ride. If you say, "We're going here," and the next chapter starts with your characters already there, your readers will understand that there was some sort of transportation that took place in the meantime. You don't need to start every school day when the bell rings and end it when they leave the school grounds. We're going to assume that if a scene suddenly jumps to your character in a classroom, they got there by, you know, going to school on time and stuff. The exceptions are if something IMPORTANT happens during these showers, or dressing scenes, or traveling scenes, etc. It's easy sometimes when you are writing to get caught up in transitions because you need to see every part of the story, but most of those transitions are very, very inessential.

(Of course, this isn't to say you should cut details. But a few details go along way as far as food, clothing, physical descriptions, etc. Unless you are Laini Taylor, and then you could write a book of nothing but descriptions and I would still read it forty times.)

3) This is something my crit partner, the lovely and brilliant Stephanie Perkins, told me after reading Flash (the book that didn't sell): "You end most chapters with Sarah going to sleep. And that does feel like a very natural way to end a chapter, but every time you do that you are giving your reader permission to take a break and put down the book. Don't ever give your reader an excuse to put down the book."

I repeat: Don't ever give your reader an excuse to put down the book.

4) Funny and cute cannot exist for themselves. Everything must serve to push the plot forward. It doesn't matter if it's character development or plot development, each chapter and each part of each chapter needs to have momentum and forward progression. In the first draft of Paranormalcy (and I've talked about this before) I had this great section where Evie spends a whole day at school with Lend. But first they go shopping for clothes. And then they go to all of his classes. And eat lunch. And meet his friends. And sit on a couch. And...yeah. It was cute! There were some great lines! But it brought the action and the pace of the story to a screeching halt. Nothing was happening to move anything forward, and in the end it was very self-indulgent writing. I wanted Evie to have that. I wanted to see her in this place she'd always dreamed of. And, once I had, I was able to step back and pull the best parts from that and then cut everything that didn't matter.

5) Don't make things too easy for your character. This is the problem I'm having with Isadora right now. There is the Big Bad Thing that is hanging over everything else, but until we get to the point where we address that head on, there needs to still be conflict. And, being the nice writer I am, I've made things too easy for Isadora in the meantime. And if things are easy for Isadora, they're easy for my readers and my readers can forget the DOOM AND DESTRUCTION looming over her unknowing head. So my job now is to find ways to drop stronger hints, foreshadow, and also introduce tension in other areas of Isadora's life so that the readers (and Isadora) never get too comfortable and decide to, say, put down the book.

6) Don't write to your reader. Now, obviously, in Paranormalcy I did break that wall and have Evie talk directly do the reader occasionally. But it was a choice, and on purpose, and I totally nailed it so absolutely it works. (Ha! Just kidding. I'm just saying, you can use that as a narrative technique as long as you are doing it on purpose.) But too often I've seen (especially in books that have a complicated setup like dystopian and fantasy so often do) writers using their narrators to explain the world to the reader through thoughts and musings. If you ever find your MC "explaining" things in their heads, stop. Take a step back. Think whether or not it makes any sense for your character to be thinking about the broad and complicated political history that brought her society to the point where she is now dancing in an ice cream cone costume on the side of the road. At gunpoint. With, uh, aliens. Would you be thinking about the socioeconomic conditions of the world in which you lived? No. You'd be thinking, "Dude, this ice cream cone costume is stifling and I have a blister and if I could just get one of those guns from those smug, horribly little aliens I'd show them a thing or two about what it means to be an ice cream cone."

Let the world speak for itself. Let us learn about the world through what your characters are doing in it. If maybe you never get to put in that information about the stock market crash in 2017 that led to a worldwide shortage of dairy products and the new legislation banning all inessential dairy items such as ice cream, well, we'll figure it out through the world.

In conclusion, sometimes it's hard to see what's essential. Sometimes your favorite parts might end up being very inessential. Sometimes we forget about our readers and let them fall asleep, and sometimes we are all too aware of our readers and don't trust them to figure things out on their own. But sometimes you need to write those inessential parts when you are first drafting because they help you figure out what you are trying to say.

This is what's great about editing--pull out what works from what's slowing you down, and figure out some other, more essential, place to put it. Lose the fluff and sputtering that is dragging your pace down; keep the spark and soul of your story. First drafts are for finding the story. Edits are for making it a story your readers simply cannot put down.

So it's just too bad that they, unlike your characters, frequently need to eat, sleep, and pee. You're going to make it very hard for them to do any of that.

27 comments:

Whirlochre said...

But they can still iron their clothes, right?

I wouldn't want my writing to render anyone a scruff.

Sarah Darlington said...

Great post!!!

Kiersten White said...

Excellent point, Whirl--NEVER assume ironing has been done.

Nellee Horne said...

When I was writing my draft, I had to cut out the first chapter too :)

My friend who read my book said that it didn't have enough description. I asked her what she meant and she said, "Well, like how things taste and stuff." 0_o Why do I have to describe how it tastes when everyone knows what BBQ chips taste like? :P Oh, and cheeseburgers.

Sometimes I would talk directly to the reader as well, but only once or twice. I don't think you should NOT do it. Just not a lot. :)

Great points by the way :)

Ciara Glynn said...

Kiersten, can I ask if, for you, a draft is writing out the story as you see it at first in your head, and then - once you've read over it and decided waht needs to be added in/taken out - you write it completely anew? Or do you just edit your draft? It's a very silly question, I know, but I'm curious. Also...first chapters are hellish. I haven't finished a first chapter at all.

Kiersten White said...

Ciara, future drafts are almost always just editing for me. I'm not a start-over-and-rewrite type of writer, though I have many friends who are. I find most of my best material comes out in the first draft, and then it's a matter of refining the technical elements of the story.

Ciara Glynn said...

Thanks :-D That's very helpful.

Lois D. Brown said...

I like the thought that every single scene should add to the plot. Good advice.

Bahnree said...

Educational post is educational!

So I'm not published or anything, but I've been learning the TRUTH of #1 today. I edit older stuff, even short stories, and the beginnings are always awkwardly pointless. ^_^

Tracey Neithercott said...

This was just what I needed. My first draft was full of pointless scenes that I've had to cut. Pacing is probably the hardest thing for me to nail in that first draft.

Jeigh said...

I used to think that first chapter cutting concerned everyone else's first chapter, not mine. Mine was so precious and pretty! But, yeah, then I ended up cutting my first three chapters. I was kinda chatty with the backstory.

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Excellent x infinity. ;-)) I'm off to chop out the dribble...

Tara said...

Wow. Thanks for the advice :-) especially the first chapter advice. maybe that's why I always struggle after the first chapter.

Michelle Wolfson said...

Which is why you shouldn't query agents before your manuscript is complete and edited and edited again. Because why on earth would you want us to read that first chapter when you are going to throw it out???

Athena said...

Great post! Lots of advice! (I didn't know you could be serious for that long!) :D

Jessie Oliveros said...

Great points to know! And I really want to know what happens in that dairy-less society.

Sarah said...

Thanks for all the good advice.

I had to cut my first chapter, too. I think I might have cut my first three, actually.

Ivy Hawthorn said...

Once again, so many great writing tips you spoil us with!

When I read Paranormalcy I even said to myself "Wow, she did a GREAT job on filling me in with all the necessary details of Evie's world without having it be slow or boring." I'm having trouble with that in mine, seeing that my characters come from a different world, there are some things the reader just needs to know, but so far I haven't successfully done that without having it be slow or boring but I feel that I can't just explain things through character interaction. Gah! Writing is hard... :P

And wow that was a long post! Sorry! What I meant was thanks so much for the great pacing tips!

The Story Queen said...

Thanks for the great advice! I'm having some pacing problems right now (okay, so I'm always having pacing problems) and this helps a lot.

You should totally write that ice cream costume, alien dystopian, by the way. Can you say NY Times bestseller?

Darcy Drake said...

Great blog entry! I struggled with the 'sleep' ending of chapters with my first book too! My main character had a bit of a drinking problem, so I seemed to get into a habit of having her drink and angst too often. You can bet I've worked on fixing that!

Kirsten said...

Thank you for posting this! It really helped me, as I am currently editing my mess of a book. I know I do the "musing" too much, but I suppose that's just for me. I really would like to read the sene with Evie and Lend, though. I'm sure it was great.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

Wonderful post and very helpful. Thank you!

Laini Taylor said...

Great points, Kiersten! Constantly grappling. Constantly!

Tina Moss said...

Bravo! Going in the Writing folder for future reference.

Katie P. said...

I absolutely loved this post! Thanks for the many words of wisdom. It's making me rethink my first chapter, and that's hard because I'm in love with it, so cutting it would be soul surgery. But I guess that's the life of a writer....So...am I the only one dying to read your "deleted scenes" from Paranormalcy? I for one loved Evie enough to indulge with you in the Evie-living-in-her-school-dreams-day-of-happiness. You should post the extended writing via your blog sometime!

Michelle said...

I agree with Katie! We want to read the school-day story. Bring it! (pretty-please!)

And a few more of these!!! for good measure!!!!

(Word verification: mersi, which is a lot like merci, which means thank-you. So take that as a sign!)

Madeleine said...

Man, I need this post! I'm so glad you took the time to write it. I struggle with pacing, but I SUPER STRUGGLE with editing. I'm terrible at it, I'm finding, and utterly lost. I always feel like I'm floundering. Hopefully some of your advice will help! Thanks!