So you can read my books

Friday, November 9, 2012


{Image of Alice's mother courtesy of the genius of Leonora Roy}
John Steinbeck wrote of photojournalist Robert Capa

in a quote that launches the well-written, exhaustively researched biography, BLOOD AND CHAMPAGNE:

"Like the pen, the camera is as good as the man who uses it. It can be the extension of his mind and heart."

Blood and Champagne.

The term could be used on the yin yang of that most bothersome of aspects to our writing : pacing.

A good friend emailed me on a bit of a bother she was having with pacing on her WIP. It occurred to me that if she, as good a writer as she is, was having troubles with pacing, some of you might be having similar problems with it as well.

The sequel to THE LEGEND OF VICTOR STANDISH, UNDER A VOODOO MOON, has a lot of action in it.

But like with pepper, action must be used wisely. But too much introspection or description is dangerously bland.

Pacing is all-important.

Think of the best jokes: there is always a prep time that leads to the punch line. Without it, the punch is muted.

Where are your transitions in your novel? How does your MC get from here to there?

Reflection along the road, whether it be a physical one or a metaphysical one, is always a good way to pace --

and sow seeds for appreciation of the action to come.

The best monsters, the scariest moments in horror films are always the glimpses not the full shots.

In your novel, you show a terrorist place a suitcase under a table. You give a close-up of the timer : 60 seconds.

Two lovers sit at the table the terrorist just left. They talk about things important for the reader to know to understand the action of what is to come. But despite the flow of backstory, the reader stays keyed-up because between every paragraph you put one line :

40 seconds.
30 seconds.
15 seconds.
7 seconds.

No action. Only suspense. Then, BOOM!

It is a matter of instinct. It is, after all, your novel. Tell it your way.

If your instincts bother you about a scene, listen to them. Ask if the pacing is off in some way. Too much build up? Not enough?

Each chapter is a three act play all its own. But with a difference -- each must end with a hook to link to the chapter following.

Each chapter must breathe.

No one inhales all the time. You have to exhale. So does the reader -- give her and him a chance to reflect.

Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.

Give your characters a moment to savor their victories or cringe from their defeats. Blows leave bruises. Show them. Let the readers see your characters limp from life's impacts.

Actions have consequences -- perhaps your instincts are telling you to paint the consequences more fully with an extra paragraph or scene or two.

If you want to slow the pace, write longer sentences -- when you want the reader to consciously think about what you're showing him.

This is true for paragraphs -- it will slow down the speed of the reader. But don't over-do this. Long, blockly paragraphs tire the reader.

Pace is the tempo at which a scene moves. You are the conductor of your own orchestra, playing your own composition.

You know the overall story you want to tell. Slow down to build tension and hit the reader with short, active sentences and paragraphs to tug the reader along for a wild ride.

Use shorter sentences when you want the reader to react, not to think -- as if he's taking part in the whirlwind action.

Then, too, there are hard words and soft words, both in sound and meaning.

You can choose either or both. Hard words are those that contain hard consonants or create small explosions of breath when pronounced: b-d-t-v- x-z, for example.

Soft letters let the breath escape slowly or create the sound in your throat or mouth: j-l-m-r-,s to name a few.

Though we don't read aloud usually, we still "hear" the words in our heads. So use those hard and soft words artfully to subconsciously build the mood you want.

Some words themselves create feeling:

He drew her head back / He yanked her head back.

Both sentences paint different pictures and create different feelings about the action.

Having a character flex his hands hints at strength more than his stretching his hands would.

The overall pace of a novel needs to escalate as the story moves forward in order to keep the reader interested.

It has peaks and valleys along the way. Each peak must be higher than the ones before it, and each valley not as deep.

This gives the reader less time to catch his breath and little or no inclination to put the book down.

A good way to learn more about pace is by paying special attention to how published authors control pace in the novels you enjoy.

When a scene makes you bite your fingernails or clutch the edge of the chair, insert a slip of paper to mark the place so you can study the scene after you finish the book.

Analyze the scene this time, notice things the writer did that caught you up in what was happening as the pace sped up. How did the author stir your emotion or evoke a physical response?

Mastery of the fine art of pace comes with experience. Start getting it now with these few tricks and add and refine your pacing skills as you grow in your writing career.

I hope these thoughts helped you in some small way.


  1. I've learned to up the pace with shorter sentences.
    Saw the trailer for World War Z. Looks wicked cool.
    And saw Skyfall this afternoon - good movie!

  2. Alex:
    My never-ending war with bed bugs, steaming, sprarying, washing, praying is going to keep me apartmenet bound this weekend, away from SKYFALL. I heard it was a great movie.

    Didn't those super-charged zombies scare the willies out of you? How did they get Brad Pitt to do a zombie picture? Maybe I can convince him to portray Sam McCord? Hey, I write fantasy. I can fantasize, can't I?

  3. I like to think sentence length and wording, whether staccato or lyrical, help the pace of the scene. Being in romance, the genre can be very purple and the helpful critiques I get frequently don't consider pacing in favor of rich description. I like to think I don't sacrifice ambiance, but I would in favor of telling the story.

  4. Erin:
    Each genre has its own set of rules about pacing and description and dialogue: consider the historical romance vs. the urban detective novel. Thanks for visiting and commenting. Roland

  5. Each writer and each genre treats pace differently. I read Michael Cunningham's "By Nightfall" all of yesterday -- there was very little action but his characters and writing kept me turning the page.

  6. Pacing is very important, and you've covered it well. Changing the length of the sentences, and the choice of words are what I use to change the pace.

    Hope you're successful in the BB battle; I dislike most bugs, any crawly types. Kafka's Metamorphosis made an impression on me.

  7. Forgot to say that trailer makes me want to see that movie.

  8. brad pitt...i'm all there. enjoyed reading the post with great tips

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  10. Damyanti:
    The soap operas here in the states have made a fortune in drawing in viewers with much talk, much tease, and little action! :-) As you say: every genre has its own rules.

    Argggh! You had to remind me of that Kafka tale, didn't you? :-) Waking up as a huge bug. Yuck.

    Yet to awaken with BB's on my face is a true YUCK. Luckily, I have stopped that for the moment by encasing my entire bed in plastic. The next steps are tedious, long, but needful.

    I'm glad you enjoyed my post on pacing. I'm trying to put it into action with THREE SPIRIT KNIGHT. As Victor matures, his adventures are becoming more in-depth and reflective.

    Victor reflective? Wow, now you know the world is coming to an end!

    Yes, Brad does make me want to see that movie. I hear he insisted on some re-writes of the script. Good for him.

    Now, if Olivia Wilde had just played his wife! LOL. I'm happy that you got something out of my post.