Monthly Archives: June 2011

Picking Up The Pace

According to Sol Stein in Stein On Writing, one of the most common reasons manuscripts are rejected is because of a slow pace.

In the last four books I’ve read, one in particular had a notably slow pace. The truth is, there were sections of the story that were boring.

According to Stein, there are a number of techniques writers can use to keep the pace of a novel or non-fiction work (including blog articles) moving at a healthy clip.

First, short sentences move the pace along. Second, short paragraphs do the same. Finally, short sentences combined with short paragraphs create the fastest pace of all.

To achieve these shorts, first tighten sentence structure (get rid of words like even or just, for example) and reduce redundancy. Second, judicially shorten sentences and paragraphs in action scenes.

I say “judicially” because a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can become exhausting … and equally boring. Varied sentence structure is by far more interesting than one subject/verb/object sentence after another.

Besides regulating sentence and paragraph length, a writer can control pace by skipping steps, or condensing action. For example, suppose a character decides to bake a cake. Including all the steps would look something like this.

Duncan Hines Moist Delux German Chocolate Cake

    Martha went to the pantry and picked out the cake mix she wanted — German chocolate. She flipped to the back of the box and checked the list of ingredients. Off she went to the refrigerator, pulled out the egg carton, and selected three eggs. Next she turned on the oven, setting the temperature to the required 350 degrees. After retrieving her measuring cup, cake pan, and mixing bowl from the cupboard, she opened the box.

Nothing is wrong with this paragraph. The writing is clear, the sentences are varied, the verbs are strong. But so far the reader hasn’t learned anything. Martha is going to bake a cake — we got that. But five sentences later, she still hasn’t done it. In other words, this scene can be compressed in a sentence or two.

    Martha settled on German chocolate cake for dessert and prepped for her first baking project in a year. When everything was ready, she whipped the ingredients together and popped the mixture into the oven as if she’d been baking cakes for a living.

In those two sentences, Martha not only gets the cake in the oven, we have a chance to learn something more about her in the process. We’re letting the reader imagine the particulars of baking the cake. As a result of the faster pace, we are able to make the scene do double duty.

Another technique to increase pace is to leave a scene out. The old time movies used this technique, not for the sake of pace, but to adhere to a standard of modesty when a couple would enter a bedroom and close the door. The intimate scene was left to the viewers’ imagination. The next scene in the film, then, would show the wife in the morning helping her husband with his tie, for example, or heading to the kitchen in her robe and slippers to start breakfast.

For the sake of pace, scenes in novels can be left out in the same way. Take a story about an innocent man going to prison. The courtroom scene isn’t necessary because the conflict will center on what the prisoner must endure behind bars. Hence, for the sake of pace, the court appearances simply are not present. The police come to the protagonist’s house, and in the next scene, he’s being strip searched in a federal penitentiary.

Jump-cutting is a similar technique, but instead of taking out a scene, the transitional action is omitted. Here’s how that would work.

A pastor is going to visit an accident victim in the hospital. He tells his secretary where he’ll be and heads for the door. When using the jump-cut, the author includes an extra line between text to indicate something has been left out or time has passed. In this example scenario, the next action is the pastor stepping into the hospital room with a Bible in hand. The transition — how he got from his office to the hospital room — is left out.

Whichever techniques an author uses, the important thing to remember is that these devices should serve the story. Jump-cuts for the sake of jump-cuts don’t move the story forward, and a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can lose readers.

If, however, the story is dragging or critique partners are falling asleep, it might be time to experiment a little with some ways to pick up the pace. 😉

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Transitions

Transitions are nearly invisible, or should be, whether in fiction or non-fiction. However, they serve a vital purpose. They usher the reader logically from point A to point B. They are the guideposts that make your writing clear because they establish the logical connections from one idea to another or from one event to the next.

Transitions include such words or phrases as therefore, next, then, however, first, in addition, on the other hand, for example, later, once, now, and so on.

Unfortunately, transitions can go awry in two different ways. First, a writer may fall in love with a particular transition and overuse it. Here’s an example from an excerpt of “The Other Open Door” with the transitions altered from the original:

If she didn’t love [her brother] so much, and owe him so much, she’d happily let him believe his gruff exterior had her fooled. Anyway, she knew how the conversation would end—the same way all their discussions about God ended. Anyway, after belittling her and dredging up the past, Darnel would yell and storm from the room. Anyway what made her think he’d listen today? What made her think anyone would ever listen to what she had to say about God?

Anyway, as her rangy brother shuffled toward the back of the house, that open door coaxed her, suggesting — promising? — this time would be different.

When a transition is repeated over and over, as the word anyway was above — even when that repetition isn’t in such a small section — it draws attention to itself. Rather than serving to seamlessly connect one part of the story with another, the transition becomes a distraction and disrupts the flow.

A second problem with transitions occurs when an author chooses an inappropriate word. In the following fable “The Cat And The Fox” I’ve altered transitions (words in red) to illustrate the point.

Surprisingly a cat and a fox were having a conversation. The fox, who was a conceited creature, boasted how clever she was. ‘Why, I know at least a hundred tricks to get away from our mutual enemies, the dogs,’ she said.

‘I know only one trick to get away from dogs,’ said the cat. ‘You should teach me some of yours!’

‘Well, maybe some day, when I have the time, I may teach you a few of the simpler ones,’ replied the fox airily.

Now they heard the barking of a pack of dogs in the distance. The barking grew louder and louder – the dogs were coming in their direction! Later the cat ran to the nearest tree and climbed into its branches, well out of reach of any dog. ‘This is the trick I told you about, the only one I know,’ she called down to the fox. ‘Which one of your hundred tricks are you going to use?’

The fox sat silently under the tree, wondering which trick she should use. Before she could make up her mind, the dogs arrived. They fell upon the fox and tore her to pieces.

A single plan that works is better than a hundred doubtful plans.

If you plug in the correct transitions — one day, just then, at once — you’ll see that the story reads more smoothly, with a logical flow.

In conclusion, transitions aren’t showy — they’re actually meant to be invisible. When a reader starts to see them, that’s when they aren’t doing their job.

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Tears And Smiles

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a history teacher who had a verbal tick — that is, he repeated a pet phrase over and over and over. Honestly, I don’t remember what it was he said (something like “on a daily basis” or “so to speak”), but I do remember that on some days, a group of us would keep a running tally to see how many times he resorted to his standby. The very repetition of his words distracted us from his intent.

Novelists can distract readers in the same way by giving their characters stock or repeated responses to their circumstances. Two overused emotional reactions are crying and smiling.

Earlier this year, in a blog post about what fiction editors look for, agent Rachelle Gardner took a look at characters. Among the list of excellent points, she included this:

Avoid overstated emotion. For example, a single tear can be more effective than a dramatic breakdown. (Rachelle’s rule: a protagonist should never cry more than once in a book!) [font color change added for emphasis]

That resonated with me. I’d read a novel not so long ago that drove me nuts because every character, men as well as women, cried over everything. I mean, everything! They cried if they were worried, fearful, excited, grieving, in love, in hate, when they were tempted, when they were worshiping.

The fact is, people do cry in all those circumstances and more. But in the same way that characters have individual physical features and particular voices, they have unique mannerisms and expressions of emotion. Not everyone will “choke back a tear.” Not everyone will have “a tear squeeze from her eye” or “slide down her cheek.” Some people go stoic rather than cry in public. Some people use tricks to stop themselves from crying, like biting the inside of their cheek or taking a drink or making a joke. Some people try to hide the fact that they’re crying and others call attention to it: “Oh, look at me acting like such a big baby.”

The point is, expressions of emotion need to be as varied as the author’s cast of characters. No two people feel exactly the same about the unique circumstances they go through, and their unique personalities mean they will respond differently even if the circumstances are similar.

Smiling is the same as crying. Some characters smile when they meet someone new, when they get a raise, when their boyfriend brings them flowers, when dinner is ready, when they wake in the morning, when they turn down the bed at night, when the police arrest the villain, when the mom lets the son drive the car home, and on and on.

The sad thing about so much smiling is that it weakens the expression of emotion. Some things deserve a smile. Some things don’t.

Further, smile has a number of good synonyms, each with a nuance, that can add meaning to the emotional expression in the scene. Consider these alternatives, for example: beam, grin, dimple, twinkle; smirk, simper; leer.

The key when depicting a character expressing emotion is to know what that particular individual will do in that particular circumstance.

An outgoing, expressive character, for instance, may still behave in a reserved way at a funeral for someone he doesn’t know well. Or a shy person may act rather effusive if someone she knows and loves is getting married to the man of her dreams.

But if she is effusive at the bridal shower, at the rehearsal dinner, at the wedding, at the reception, when the couple returns from their honeymoon … quite frankly, most readers aren’t going to believe this character is shy. In addition, if her expression of joy is the same in each of those settings, readers may dread seeing her name in the opening sentence of a paragraph, because quite frankly, even effusive expression becomes boring when it is overused.

In summary, keep these in mind:

    * Emote with care. 😉
    * Avoid overusing emotional responses such as crying or smiling.
    * Particularize your character’s emotional response based on their personality and the circumstances into which you’ve put them.
    *Finally, stretch your vocabulary so that your prose has variety.

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Good Description

Once upon a time, description read much like a classified ad, with all the significant attributes of the object in question listed out one after the other. As noted in the previous post, “The Power Of Prose – More About Description,” this kind of static description has given way to description through action.

While this method may be the best way for writers to create graphic scenes and vivid characters, it is not the only app on the screen. Let’s look at three other devices that contribute to good description.

First, good description utilizes a variety of senses. Rather than limiting depiction of characters or setting to visual aspects, a writer can include sound, touch, taste, or smells to give life to the story. This idea is not new and may seem simplistic. However, I’ve critiqued, judged, or edited work before that seemed bent on providing a five-senses descriptive experience, regardless of whether or not the sounds or smells, tastes or textures mattered to the story. Rather than enhancing the scene, these unnecessary additions bloat the action, slowing the pace.

Picking the right sensory details, then, is the second way writers can build scenes that come alive. The clue is to pick those sensory details that matter to the character at that time, in that place. From Description by Monica Wood:

Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers. These precise, illuminating finds are the “telling” details of fiction, for they stretch beyond mere observation to give the readers a larger, richer sense of character or place. The old man’s carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up. The tinny clatter of cheap crockery implies that the restaurateur has fallen on hard times. …

This kind of detail makes fiction more than what-happens-next storytelling. It makes description more than an account. The right details, inserted at the right times, allow your readers access to a character’s inner landscape (pp. 6-7).

A third device at the writer’s disposal when creating powerful imagery is two-pronged. On one hand the writer may employ similes and on the other, metaphors.

A simile is a figurative statement comparing two usually unrelated things or people to one another by using “like” or “as.” The sentence My brother is as tall as my father does not create a simile because the comparison is between two people. However, My brother is as tall as a giraffe does produce a simile.

The metaphor is another figure of speech, more understated and more revealing, according to Ms. Woods.

With a simile, the comparison stops at the end of the sentence; with a metaphor, the reader’s imagination goes on to include all the images and associations that the metaphor implies (Description, p. 14).

Metaphors, like similes, can be created using nouns and adjectives. Example: The boss is coming, our supervisor warned us. And still I wasn’t prepared for the peacock that strutted into the conference room.

Another effective approach is to utilize verbs, which some writers may do naturally. Characters burrow under the covers, for example, or fly across the room. These established uses of verbs in a non-literal sense add color to our writing. Creating new and unusual metaphors make our words memorable.

Just For Fun.
I used two metaphors earlier in this post (not as part of an example). As homework, see if you can spot them, then write your own or identify the well-known (and oft used) comparison that served as the model for one I created. Next, look at your work in progress and find places you can deepen your description by creating a simile or metaphor. Have fun! 😀

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