Category Archives: Editing

I’ve Finished 2 Novels. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

With the release of Harbingers, the story I began working on in 2009 with the hazy goal of finishing a single novel has now materialized into 2 published books. Hooray!

But something looks a little off there. 8 years to finish 2 books? Lots of authors publish novels on a yearly basis.

I’ll tell you right now: I’m not “lots of authors.” I haven’t distilled novel-writing down to a crank-’em-out science. But, I also don’t think it’ll take 4 years to outline, draft, and finish Sword and Starship Book 3. Here are some factors that should aid my turnaround time.

1. I’m more disciplined about writing now. This is the big one. From 2009 to 2014, I was only writing once a week or less, flying by the seat of my pants with no outline. Quitting my day-job allowed me to make writing my full-time focus. Once I got connected with an editor who could guide me in the ways of book-planning, things really started falling into place.

All planning and good intentions aside, the book only gets written if I sit down to write it. I’m blessed to be able to do that every single day. (Though I do take breaks on weekends. Breaks are necessary.)

2. I’m more informed about the novel-writing process. Novels are a LOT more complicated than short stories, which I was more accustomed to prior to starting this project. My first draft of Blood’s Force (which was later expanded into Blood’s Force and Harbingers) was only about 80K words, and performed a breakneck speed-run through the plot without pausing to build up suspense, relationships, or other really important stuff.

A ton of prep work has to happen before any writing starts: figuring out character goals, constructing an outline, mapping character arcs and relationships. They won’t be set in stone—while drafting, surprises always happen that force you to change course—but working in the mid-draft revelation is much better than petering out after 80 pages because you have no idea what happens next.

3. I know to finish the first draft before doing any editing. Long before a first draft of Blood’s Force was done, I was taking chapters to critique groups, obsessing over word choices, etc. This is a HUGE waste of time. Surprises happen constantly while you’re drafting. You don’t want to know how many really polished scenes I ended up cutting as my outline changed, and how much I was tempted not to cut only because I’d spent so much time on it. This time around, I know not to start rewriting or soliciting critique in earnest until I have a complete story done.

4. I’m letting myself be OK with imperfection. This is hard, because it goes against the grain of my upbringing. “Make all As!” “Always give 110%!” The demands of perfectionism are like a harsh spotlight blaring over everything I do. When writing, I pause constantly in search of the right word or turn of phrase. A voice in my skull tells me I need to be funnier, more clever, more profound. Get it right, or else!

Then a whole morning passes, and I only have three sentences written.

It helps to remember that the writing process isn’t a one-time orchestral performance in front of a huge audience. It’s more like sculpting alone in a studio. I can start rough where no one will see, then chisel out something more beautiful while editing.

Eventually, though, I have to stop chiseling and release my work into the world as-is. There are always parts I think are still unacceptably weak, but they’re probably not as bad as I fear.

5. I’ve learned to prize clarity and simplicity. As a younger writer, I wanted my prose to be profound and complex and thought-provoking. Now, I just want to communicate clearly, which should make drafting easier. I don’t need the fancy $10 thesaurus word when the first word off the top of my head will do—especially in a first-person narrative where the main character is talking informally to her audience.

6. I know how to leverage the strengths of my reviewers. I’ve learned my husband is great for taking a pitch and improving it. “Why don’t you do X instead?” where X is something so much cooler than what I thought of. What he’s not so good at is at challenging me on the weak points in my writing—pointing out awkward phrases, noting where I could include more emotion and reflection, etc. My editor is much better at this. So I’ll keep these things in mind when seeking critique.

All that said, I’m now outlining what I’d like to have happen in future Sword and Starship books! Wish me luck! :)

Polish Your Manuscript With One Final Sanity Read

sanity_catWhat? This picture SCREAMS sanity.

Last time, I talked about the editing and revision “groove” I got into and rather enjoyed. As you read there, it involved

  • a defined but flexible schedule,
  • a good heaping helping of self-compassion,
  • a blend of making edits directly on my computer and typing in edits made on paper.

Some of the edits were rather substantial, basically drafting whole new, fresh paragraphs (or pages). Then there was the matter of all that typing. Data entry inevitably opens the door to finger-mistakes. How could I be sure all this new material fit in well, and as flawlessly as possible?

For sanity’s sake, once I finished my final editing/revision pass on Blood’s Force, I completed one last read-through of the entire manuscript. This was not just to look for dumb mistakes. During my prior editing, I’d been deeply focused on one chapter at a time. This was a time to consider the book as a whole, and how all the parts worked together.

Once again, I started at the beginning with a blank mind and moved forward chronologically. I tried to read at the same pace as a regular reader, but was a little slower at times with my attention on typos. Still, this went a lot quicker than an editing/revision pass. I was able to review around 15k words a day on average; you might be able to handle more or less.

On my sanity pass, these were the specific things I paid attention to. Hopefully, you find them useful as well!

(1) Spelling, grammar, punctuation, omitted words, repeated words. In your word processor, try reading your work at different zoom levels. Low zoom gives you a better chance of catching words that have been accidentally repeated across paragraphs and pages. Reading at a high magnification lets you identify typos easier. So can switching fonts, especially to something monospace, so the font you normally use doesn’t trick you into thinking you spelled something right. Speaking of fonts, make sure to pick a good one for the final product.

megaflicksOh, kerning, you bitch.

(2) Continuity. Verifying consistency in character traits, inventories, events, details, spellings, and actions.

(3) Flow from chapter to chapter. Does the story progress the way you intended? Are your chapter transitions strong enough to allow someone to put the book down for a while, then ease back in with minimal difficulty? (I’ll likely have more to say on this later, as it was a weak point in my earlier drafts.)

(4) Huh? sentences. If at any time you pause and sit on a sentence, not quite sure what you meant to convey, that’s likely to be a spot where your reader will stop and go “Huh?” too. Edit or remove it.

This is not just about quality and making sure you correctly changed what you intended to change. You’re also minimizing the chances of your reader being jarred by unintentional goofs. The more attention you put into this now, the less likely you’ll have to correct things after the book is published. Given how tedious it is to make these corrections, post them, and wait for the fixes to become available to customers, you want to avoid this whenever possible!

I’ll probably have more to say about my first experience with the self-publishing process as well. There was a lot that I DIY-ed, and I’d be happy to talk about it for anyone else who wants to minimize their publishing expense without sacrificing quality.

If there are any questions I can answer for you about anything, feel free to ask in the comments!


Finding My Editing And Revising Groove

curved_arrow“OK, now I gotta go back over it from the beginning!” When you’re editing a novel, you’ll say this at least 37 times.

I was on a blogging hiatus for a while there! Sorry about that. Two major things kept me from blogging for the past while:

(1) Both of my cats passing away in August, less than a week apart.

(2) My final editing passes on Blood’s Force. Which is a real book now. Holy crap. :D

With (1), I’m still not quite ready to go into detail. Maybe I’ll have more to say about my babies later—they certainly deserve a fine tribute—but right now I’m not up for it.

The work on (2) has helped me keep my head. I found myself with 22 chapters to revise, reread, and hunt through for those insidious errors like accidental repetition, words left out, or two letters displaced (“complaint” vs. “compliant,” for example. I did that in a Daily WTF article once).

I accomplished this in two major passes. One was a thorough editing and revision pass, the second a “sanity” pass for cleanup purposes.

I’ll talk about the editing/revision pass first (sanity pass will be another article). For the first time ever, I fell into a really good groove with this process that I’d like to repeat later. I’ll lay out here what I did, and more specifically, why it worked for me. Everyone has different preferences and approaches. It’s all about finding what works best for you.

Here’s the naked process—or algorithm, if you will (gotta put that CompSci degree to good use now and then):

(1) Started at Chapter 1 with a “blank” mind and advanced in chronological order, tackling one chapter at a time for as long as necessary.

(2) I did an initial read-through of the chapter on my computer, making whatever changes I wanted. I already mostly knew what to fix based on my editor’s suggestions, but I’d also find typos, plot/character inconsistencies, and other things to iron out.

(3) Once the chapter was in a readable state, I printed it out double-spaced, in a different font.

(4) With the printout, I waited until at least the next day to re-read the chapter on paper. From there, I made further notes and revisions in pen. Waste of paper? Au contraire! My eye catches different things in different media. When the font is different, it tricks my brain into thinking I’ve never seen this stuff before, and makes me feel like I’m critiquing someone else’s work. Don’t worry, tree lovers, my city has a lovely recycling program.

(5) Typed in my revisions.

(6) Moved on to the next chapter!

The following factors made the above process work for me:

Flexible deadlines. Every week, I’d schedule day by day what tasks I hoped to complete. I aimed for 2-3 chapters edited per week. Sometimes I worked on the weekends, sometimes I didn’t. The scheduling was important for providing a clear idea of what I needed to do to feel “done” each day. But if I fell behind, I allowed that to happen and adjusted things accordingly. (See the point on compassion below.)

A set work time every day. Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM – 12:00PM were my working hours. Some days there were exceptions, like for doctor’s appointments or really bad surprises (emergency vet trips, sigh). No worries. The point is that as long as I devoted those hours to the book, I felt like I’d done my job. The rest of the day, I could spend however I wanted without feeling guilty. Sometimes I did do extra work on the book, but not terribly often. The time away was always valuable for refreshing my brain.

Compassion toward myself. When I fell behind my schedule or got frustrated with a bit of editing that just wouldn’t edit, I didn’t give myself shit for it. Since leaving the 9-5 rat race, I’ve worked hard to cultivate a compassionate inner voice, a “boss” who doesn’t fret or put me down when things don’t go perfectly. This has seriously cut down on the amount of anxiety and stress I feel overall.

Chronological sequence. Once you’ve written a whole book full of crap, and have another book full of all the crap you cut from the book, you’ll reach the point where you constantly ask yourself, “Wait, is that [scene/character/etc.] still in the book?” Starting fresh on page 1 and editing forward from there will let you experience what the reader is going to learn and when. If it doesn’t work, this is the time to fix it.

And for your sanity’s sake, please please PLEASE don’t edit until you’re done drafting! :)

If you have your own tried-and-true editing method, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!


Ridiculously Simple Tricks For Reducing Word Count

scissorsChoose your weapon wisely!

Once you’ve got a fiction or nonfiction piece ready for prime-time, there may still be a word count limit you have to worry about. It may be a restriction imposed on you by the publisher, or you may want to get your piece as short and concise as possible- not just for simplicity’s sake, but also to reduce its overall file size. A smaller file size means a larger per-sale commission when you sell your work through sites like Amazon.

Reducing words while leaving meaning intact can be a real art form. Here are some tricks that aren’t so much “art” as “stupidly easy wins.” With any luck, they’ll trim your word count and make your prose stronger- and you won’t even break a sweat!

X of the Y -> the Y’s X or Y X

Holy crap, did I just go all math on you? No, I’m just referring to the very common of the structure for indicating possession. Common, but also wordier than necessary. Instead of “The branch of the tree,” for instance, you can say “The tree branch.” Instead of “The edge of the lake,” you can say “The lake’s edge.”

It’s really easy to perform a find operation in your word processor, look for occurrences of of the in the document, and see how many of these conversions make sense to do. Each time, you’re cutting out two words!

Was Xing, Started/Began/Try to X -> Xed

A lot of times, the construction of [subject] + [to be] + [verb]ing does nothing to add meaning to the sentence, and just pads it out unnecessarily. For instance, “I was poring through photo albums on Sunday” can easily become “I pored through photo albums on Sunday.”

Similarly, you don’t always have to announce when someone begins to perform an action. When they begin, they begin; it’s understood. And trying to do something is similarly redundant. Follow Yoda’s advice here: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Limit how often you use begin to, start to, try to, and similar constructions. When you eliminate these wishy-washy phrasings, your prose gets stronger and shorter.

Oh- but if you do use “try?” It’s always try to. There is no try “and.”

Not X -> UnX

If you can sub in un- instead of not, that gets rid of a word. “Not happy” to “unhappy,” for instance.

Adverb cutting

I discussed this recently, but simply axing unnecessary adverbs does a lot to lower word count and strengthen sentences. You’ll reap big wins for eliminating adverbs like really, quite, almost, somewhat, mostly, truly, very, etc.

Sometimes, a simple delete will do. Other times, you may want to look for a stronger verb or adjective to get the job done. For instance, you may change “very cold” to “frigid.”

Verb substitution

Be on the lookout for phrases that can be eliminated simply by using an equivalent, but shorter verb. For instance, “I turned to him” can become “I faced him.” Or “We got up to the counter” can become “We reached the counter.”

Unnecessary lead-in expressions

I don’t have a good name for these, but any time you start a sentence like “It’s a fact that…” or “I strongly believe that…” just cut that phrase out entirely. These words add nothing to the point you’re trying to make.

Extraneous “that”

There are a few cases where you can remove the word that and reduce your word count. If you can take that out and the sentence still makes sense, then do so. An example would be “He realized that he needed to do it.” This can easily become “He realized he needed to do it.”

Another example is “that” followed by a verb of some form. “The hands that restrained him,” for instance. You can take out that and tweak the verb to get “The hands restraining him,” which is shorter. Shorter still would be “The restraining hands,” but this construction may or may not make sense in context.

 

That’s it for now! When reducing word count, do be careful to preserve the meaning of your sentences. It’s easy to get so caught up in the number game that your prose suffers for it. When in doubt, err toward being CLEAR rather than CLEVER.

If you have any other dead-simple word count tricks, rattle ’em off in the comments below!


Killing (And Sparing) The Adverb

knifeAny tool can be used goodly or badly!

Why are adverbs “bad?”

Well, to be fair, they’re not. They’re quite simple and clear in their meaning, and are very common in ordinary speech.

However, some are severely overused in prose, making it plodding and tiresome to read. Some are extremely extraneous. And some tell what you can easily be showing instead.

One good way to step up your writing is to strike and swap out adverbs- when it makes sense to do so. Here are some thoughts toward addressing adverbs in your prose:

1) Don’t worry about dialogue. People talk how people talk. You needn’t take an axe to the words that come out of a character’s mouth, unless their dialogue must conform to a specific pattern (for instance, Commander Data in Star Trek never used contractions, lending a stilted tone to his speech).

2) Consider the person/voice of your narration. A first-person narration, wherein a character is telling you his story, should read more like the character is speaking. In that case, narration can follow the same rules as spoken dialogue, and can be whatever it needs to be- so long as it’s in-character. Your raging illiterate barbarian probably won’t ever be pondering the verisimilitude of his targets, for instance.

However, a narrative voice that’s not attached to any particular character will have no particular personality associated with it, and can benefit from some adverb-trimming.

3) Some adverbs can almost always be removed without a problem. Very, mostly, quite, really, fairly, somewhat, basically, fundamentally– these don’t add much. Removing them often makes the sentence stronger.

4) Consider revising or removing “cliche” adverbs. Strikingly beautiful, frequently used… some adverb/adjective or adverb/verb pairs are glued at the hip, they’re so frequently used together. Using them is a bit of inadvertent laziness on our part. It’s what our brains fall back on. And that’s fine for a first draft… but couldn’t you later come up with some original, more revealing way of saying the same thing?

Example 1: “I don’t come here often,” he said nervously.

Alternative 1: “I don’t come here often.” The hand holding his shot glass quivered.

Alternative 2: He stuttered something out, too quiet for me to hear. “What’s that?” I prompted.

He gave a start. “I- I just don’t come here often is all.”

Again, this falls into “show don’t tell” territory. Use these opportunities to reveal how characters behave or interpret the world around them.

Suddenly is also a good cliche to hunt down and destroy where possible. It does nothing to add to the prose, and is just a lazy way of signaling, “Hey, something’s about to happen.” You can do better!

5) Consider reserving adverbs for “unexpected” uses. An original adverb pairing can be attention-grabbing, but it should still be used sparingly. Too many of these can be distracting.

 

Have any other ideas about adverbs? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Successfully Rewriting Existing Scenes When Expanding An Outline

palmtreesWe’ll need a bigger, better palm tree!

There are tons of degrees of rewrites: the little tweaks here and there; the nuke-it-from-orbit, scorched-earth policy; and everything in between. The sort of rewrites I’m conducting right now are part of a larger effort to expand the outline of a manuscript, all the way from A to Z. New scenes get inserted, old scenes that no longer fit get removed.

There are also plenty of previously written scenes that still fit into the outline pretty well- but by the time I’m done with Scenes A through Q and get to Scene R, for instance, so much has changed concerning events in the story, characters, etc. that Scene R as written may no longer make sense or be adequate.

So, what to do with Scene R?

There’s a strong temptation to edit Scene R in-place- leave things mostly as they are, and just fluff here and there as needed. However, I think with A through Q being different, it’s better to give R the chance to breathe and be what it needs to be now.

Here’s how I do that…

1) I avoid re-reading Scene R. By this point, it’s been a long time since I’ve looked at it (around 5 months), and I’ve forgotten most of what’s there. I don’t want to remind myself, because I might be tempted to keep things that don’t really fit anymore.

2) I open a different word processor. On my Mac, it’s TextEdit. In Windows, it would be Notepad.

3) In a fresh new document, away from my manuscript, I outline what I think Scene R should be now. I start by writing down the big events in sequence- then I go and add detail to each event, chaining them together. Sorta like this:

Characters enter The Place- describe

Character1- reaction

Character2- reaction

Characters encounter The Thing in The Place

And so on.

I have the rewrites of Scenes A-Q fresh in my mind (sort of, LOL). I know who the characters are now, versus who they were pre-expansion. I keep in mind what new events are shaping the outline and affecting the characters. I try to remember what everyone is thinking and feeling, and consider the scene from every point of view.

4) Only after I’m happy with the quasi-outline do I revisit old Scene R. Hopefully, I’m horrified by what I see! New Scene R should be better!

I take a snapshot of old Scene R using Scrivener (creating a backup copy), then go through and see if anything previously written can be salvaged for the new Scene R. Good lines, good dialogue? If so, great- I copy and paste that stuff over.

5) I delete everything in the old Scene R that no longer fits. New Scene R and the salvaged bits are pasted in its place.

6) I flesh out the new scene. In a first draft, I’m putting down sentences, not really worrying how good they are, just trying to squeeze out every detail I possibly can. I revisit the prose quality later.

This is obviously more work than just modifying old Scene R directly, but I think it leads to a better, truer result. Otherwise, there’s too much temptation to twist things to conform to what you previously wrote, even if it makes no sense, simply because that’s what you’ve already written.

How do you like to handle rewrites? Let me know in the comments!


How to Successfully Delete A Scene

marshmallow_fireKill it with fire! (Image credit: Imagebase.net)

Is there a particular scene you’re having a really hard time with? Do you dread writing it, and just can’t come up with a way to make it more significant or fun for yourself? Or have you toughed through it, but reading it over makes you cringe?

Then have you thought about deleting that sucker outright?

This scene might be taking up unnecessary space in your story outline. Maybe you can gloss over the thing with a sentence or two and move on, sparing you time- and potentially removing a part your readers would’ve glossed over or been bored through.

Here are a few characteristics of a scene ripe for deletion:

  • It does nothing to advance the plot. A side-event in which nothing significant happens. Everyone comes out of it exactly as they came in. No new information, no intrigue, no foreshadowing.
  • It does nothing to develop the world or the characters. If a scene doesn’t move the story forward, it better be showing off the world and/or characters- helping the reader to understand the context in which the story is based, and acquainting us with its participants, who are ideally challenged constantly throughout the story.
  • No conflict. The sun’s shining, everyone’s getting along, no problems lurking on the horizon. Careful- this can get Boring fast. No, not every scene needs explosions and car chases, but when everyone’s nodding along with each other, what is there to explore, reveal, question, or develop? In other words, what is there for the reader to care about?
  • Routine stuff. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?” Getting dressed, brushing teeth, feeding the cat… unless it somehow illustrates character in a significant way, the reader doesn’t need to see it. Fast forward to the next point where things get interesting.
  • Stuff that’s already been shown or explained in an earlier scene, with no extra significance. Constantly rehashing the same information- with no new facts, details, or speculation added- is not only needless, but potentially annoying to the reader. I got it the first time, thanks!

So, can you bulldoze your scene with a few recap sentences, or even a scene break (i.e. a line or set of stars * * * used to indicate transition or time passage)? Great, my work here is done!

But wait! you might be saying. Most of this scene sucks, but there are a few important things I can’t get rid of! What do I do?

If so, list out the important things your scene accomplishes. Now think: do they have to be accomplished here? Could you perhaps weave these important bits into a different scene?

I love using the technique of smashing two tepid scenes together, making a single, more interesting scene. Here’s an example…

Old Outline: First scene with a political VIP in a limousine, driving to a federal building as part of a motorcade, being followed by a crush of reporters. Second scene with the VIP at the building, having a long private conversation with his chief intel guy in a quiet conference room.

New Outline: One scene where the chief intel guy and VIP are in the limousine together, having their exchange while driving in the motorcade. They’re trying to talk as reporters shout through the windows and flashbulbs erupt around them. Now you’re adding conflict as these two allied characters struggle to concentrate around the tumult outside. You can show how these characters react to such pressure, as well as the information they’re exchanging.

Do you have any other favorite techniques for ditching unnecessary scenes? Let me know in the comments!


Why I’m A Draft Packrat

roughdraft_finaldraftI miss college.

In the five years I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve done everything you’re not supposed to do. I let things sit for weeks or months, until I “felt” like writing. I wrote slow, under the misguided assumption that the words had to come out perfect the first time. I edited, edited, edited well before I ever had a first draft done. Don’t feel much like writing today… I’ll polish that last chapter I wrote! Only to have to cut the chapter later, and feel like a jerk for wasting my own time.

Plus, plot and characters changed so many times mid-draft that there were several drafts I abandoned entirely to start over from page one. That happened, oh, four or five times. Nearly every scene in the book has existed in so many different permutations, I sometimes forget what “version” I’m favoring currently.

And yet, I’ve never thrown any of it away. I have folder upon folder of draft discards: deleted lines, deleted scenes, the full drafts abandoned midway through.

Why? Because, even when I’m sure that what I’m cutting is best destroyed for the sake of mankind, I often find myself missing a certain description or scene later, and wanting to add it back. Fishing through earlier drafts spares me the angst of having to write it anew!

Even better, I eventually switched to writing in Scrivener, which made my packrat behavior much easier to manage. One of the main reasons I favor Scrivener over other writing tools is its snapshot feature. I can take a snapshot of any scene before I change it. That snapshot is then preserved for all time. I can go back and pull lines out of it- or revert back to the snapshot version wholesale.

snapshotThese are just for my first chapter…

The only problem is remembering to take a snapshot before I make changes- which I usually do, but occasionally I’ve forgotten. It’d be nice if Scrivener had an option where it prompts you to snapshot the first time you start typing in a scene. Not a big deal, though; I’ve never lost anything I couldn’t recover from.

Along with the snapshots, I also maintain a special file of cut lines/dialogue/etc. that I still like- just in case I might have use for those lines elsewhere.

If you don’t have Scrivener, I recommend keeping a folder or file of your discards. You never know when they might save your butt, and you can always delete them after the book is done! Of course, you should also be backing up all of your files on a regular basis.

Do you keep your discards? Or do you prefer a different system of retrieval? Let me know in the comments!


Pacing: Seize Control Of Your Story’s Tempo

footprints(Image credit: imagebase.net)

Along with the million other things writers must worry about, there’s pacing!  Basically, pacing is how fast the story moves.  Ever hear someone describe how a book took off running from the first page?  Or how it started slow, but picked up toward the end?

What creates those impressions?  How do you control them?

Each individual sentence of your story has an effect on overall pacing.  If it’s advancing the plot in a meaningful way, then it’s on the “fast” track.  If it has nothing to do with the plot, it’s on the “slow” track.  Physical length of the lines, and the portrayal of time passing, can also contribute to a fast or slow sense.

Every story will feature a combination of fast and slow sentences, paragraphs, and scenes.  How you arrange these, and how many slow ones you allow to exist, determine pacing overall.

Here are some specific examples of fast pacing:

  • Terse, conflict-laden dialogue.  Characters hashing out a plot-related conflict through words, and/or trading only a few words at a time.
  • Short sentences and paragraphs.  These are fantastic for moments of action, or calling attention to important details.
  • Action scenes.  Characters doing stuff, or events happening, to move the story forward.  By “action,” I don’t necessarily mean explosions and car chases.  One character interrogating another for critical info can be “action” too, as long as their exchange doesn’t wander off-topic or draw out too long.
  • Summaries.  Instead of explaining how Johnny drove home, brushed his teeth, put on his jammies, went to bed, then woke up the next morning, simply saying, “Johnny went home to bed.  The next morning…” to leap forward to the next time of actual interest.

Keeping things moving is important.  Your reader should never be thinking, “Where is this going?” or “When will this be over?”  A reader who can’t justify why he’s reading anymore will quit on the story, one way or another.

On the other hand, there are times when hitting the brakes on your pace is a good thing.  You want to linger on important moments and feelings, draw them out.  When your main character’s best friend dies, for instance, he shouldn’t be over it two sentences later.  His grief process, and its duration, give the reader a better sense of who he is.  The reader “grieves” too, and is now more attached to the story.

Anything that hits the pause button on your plot slows the story’s pace.  Specific examples:

  • Long and/or conflict-free dialogue.  It can be informative, but also potentially dangerous, because there’s potential to wander on too long.  (I never have this problem.  Ahem.)
  • Big paragraphs.  More words to read serves as a physical hurdle for the reader, creating a sense of more time passing and things happening.  If that’s the effect you’re looking for, good!
  • Characters pausing the narration to think.  Their thoughts are important for explaining their actions and attitudes, but remember, you’re calling timeout on the story to put them in.
  • Scene descriptions.  Significant places deserve a great setup.  This isn’t as critical for minor or mundane locations.
  • Flashbacks.  I hate flashbacks, myself, but other people use them.  If you insist on dreaming or time-jumping, be as clear about it as possible.
  • Backstory.  Try to incorporate backstory in small doses, and interesting ways.  Do not halt the plot to present pages of information (Dammit Jim, it’s a story, not a dossier)!  Don’t begin the story with backstory, either- that was one of my big weaknesses once.  I now avoid writing an intro whenever possible.
  • Dragging out detail.  Instead of saying “Johnny got stabbed,” explain how the knife went in, when it began to hurt, etc.  You definitely want to highlight big moments this way.

A slow pace can establish a mood, draw attention to something important, create and lengthen tension, drum up reader empathy, and give a sense of more time passing- but be careful not to slow things down to a crawl.

How can you tell if your story is paced well?  You must have a finished draft first.  Spend a little time away from it, then go back and read it as though for the first time.  (Printing it out, or selecting a different font in your word processor, can help trick your brain into thinking you’ve never seen it before.)  At what parts do you think, “Man, I wish there was more here?”  Add in what your brain was craving.  At what parts do you think, “Geez, get on with it already!”  Make that stuff shorter.

It’s also critical to get other people to make the same review.  If there’s consensus as to what parts need to be faster or slower, take heed!  Once you fix those parts, you’ll be glad you did!  (I have more hints for eliciting great feedback here.)

Do you have any other tricks for managing pace?  Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!


The Rapid Prototype Model of Drafting

masonry(Image credit: Imagebase.net)

When most people think of “editing,” they think of reclining on the couch with a printout, red pen in hand, making tiny, gentle corrections in the space of an afternoon.  Probably followed by a cookie and a well-earned nap.

With a novel-length work, though, editing is a complicated slog.  You take out extraneous words, and collapse chapters.  You add words where they’re lacking, and split chapters.  You say, “holy crap, this character would NEVER do/say that!”  You rediscover plot details you totally meant to weave into the larger work, but never did.

Whatever changes you make, you have to ensure everything preceding and following is consistent.  For instance, if I decide my character doesn’t curse after all, I have to review all of her dialogue, across hundreds of pages, to take out every errant naughty word.

These changes snowball until the chapters toward the end have no relation to the chapters you’ve already gone over.  They might as well be from another book, or alternate plane of existence.  With the entire back third of my novel in progress, I haven’t been editing- I’ve been writing from scratch!  (It’s for the best, trust me.)

I’m still mostly adhering to my one chapter a week “editing” schedule, though.  How?  Here’s my process:

  1. Outline the chapter at a very high level- the scenes it will contain and the big events that will happen.  (ex.  Vlad the Decimator reaches the Hall of Math, saves it from destruction.)
  2. Write a terse draft.  Expand/collapse the outline at will- anything goes- but I only let myself work on this draft for a few days.  It’s absolutely not richly detailed or nicely worded by the time I’m done.  It’s more a suggestion of where I could go with it.
  3. Get feedback from my spouse.  Is this a good approach, or should I try something else?  What should there be more/less of?  Are the characters’ actions consistent and reasonable for the situation/state of mind they’re in?
  4. Spend a few days expanding and refining the draft with the suggested changes.
  5. GOOD ENOUGH. NEXT CHAPTER.

It’s similar to the rapid prototype model of software development, wherein you hack out a rudimentary program to start, then hone it with continual rounds of user testing and feedback.  You don’t spend too much time on the prototype, because you don’t know what might get the bum’s rush.

I don’t have time for zillions of feedback rounds at this point, or making the prose beautiful.  I’m more concerned with solidifying the big plot and character events.  In September, I’ll be working with a professional editor to give the manuscript some real spit-polish.

Is this the way all first-drafting should work?  Absolutely not!  As with software development, different design methods work best for different situations. I find this method good for:

  • Times when you can get fast, reliable feedback
  • Times when you’re having trouble figuring out where to be wordy, and where to be concise
  • Adhering to a strict schedule
  • Short, “easy” pieces (ex. my Daily WTF articles)

How do you prefer to draft when there are time constraints involved?  Drop me a line and let me know!