Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pace Yourself

I just finished reading a book that's gotten rave reviews from writer-friends of mine.  About a third of the way through, I was starting to wonder what was wrong with me.

I didn't like it.

I muscled through the rest, and while there were parts I enjoyed, overall, it just didn't do it for me.  (Nope, I'm not naming names.) Now, a good part of my musing over this book was just me letting myself admit that I didn't care for it, plenty of other people did, and that's ok.

Let's repeat that.

It's ok to not like The Book that everyone is raving about.

Then, being an overanalyzer, I started thinking about what it was that got the pass from me.  It wasn't the characters (loved them) or the plot (the basic concept was great) or the setting/world-building (I want to go to there).  It was the pace.

And isn't that just the worst?  The thing that I hate--HATE--trying to fix in my own manuscripts is pace.  It's hard.  Pacing is hard.  But a pair of little lightbulbs went on for me dissecting what didn't work for me in the pacing of this book.  I thought I'd share.

1) Isn't It Ironic?  Well, maybe not.  Dramatic irony, unlike the "ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife" colloquial irony, is defined as a literary device in which the audience knows or understands something that the characters do not.  The killer is in the house.  The soldier with amnesia was the prince all along.  You get the idea.  And the upshot is, it's brilliant for creating tension and engagement with the audience.

What went wrong in this book was, I felt, the dramatic irony not lasting long enough.  The clues came tumbling out in a few pages, and within another few pages, the characters had teased out the truth.  Come on, writers!  Let your reader feel superior and feed on the tension for a little while!

The other sticky part of dramatic irony is that you can't simply assume that your reader just happens to realize the reality of the situation before the characters.  Characters are not stupid.  If something is obvious to the reader, there needs to be a reason it's not obvious to the characters--they don't have all the information, they're limited in their understanding by cultural norms, they're under an evil spell.  Whatever.

2) Exciting =/= Driving the Plot.  To me, filler is killer.  Yes, I just coined a truly awful 80s style catchphrase.  But it's true--everything that happens in your story needs to further the plot.  It may be feeding into a subplot, developing a character, or even sending your protagonist on a deliberate wild goose chase, but it has to drive the story forward.  Anything that happens that doesn't drive the story is filler.

Here's the rub--filler can be exciting.  Your protagonist can battle a rabid wildebeest in a fight to the death.  He can built a tower of toothpicks eight stories tall before the hourglass runs out.  She can charm her way into a royal ball and steal the crown jewels.  But if it's not driving the plot?  It's pointless.

Sometimes cutting exciting filler can be a kill-your-darlings moment.  That scene may be beautiful, compelling, edge-of-your-seat, emotional gold. But it also may be filler.  And if it is, it needs to go.

What say you?  Is pacing a sticky wicket for you, too, or does it come naturally? Do you find ways to improve your own writing in the books you love--and those you didn't care for?

Monday, October 14, 2013

NaNoWarmUp Halfway Point

The month is close to half over (where did the time go!), so the big question is--how is this on-the-clock writing experiment working out for me?

Not bad, as it turns out!


The first week I shot out of the gate and surpassed my goals.  That. Was. Awesome.  Everyone talks about how keeping tabs on your word count goals and progress makes you accountable to yourself--in a sort of "Tsk, tsk, Self, you didn't hit your goal yesterday.  Back to the grindstone, now, Self.  Get crackin'."  But I feel like the awesomeness of seeing yourself meet and even surpass your goals isn't talked about enough.  It's a great feeling.  I think I may start keeping a spreadsheet just to see those tallies, because it's inspiration enough to come back tomorrow when you reflect on how well today went.

The second week--not as great.  I had my excuses.  One big one.  It was this little imp's first birthday party:

Photo by Sweetest Impressions, Heidi Hauck

and that kind of took over my life for the better part of the week.  Baking, cleaning, making a ridiculously froofy outfit for her to wear...

Now I'm looking at the start of week three, and it's time to get back on the writing wagon--I have a spreadsheet, darn it, and I want to see it fill up!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Staying Focused (or, Avoiding Shiny Things When You're a Magpie)

Today's NaNoWarmUp community question is a really good one--how to stay on task with the WIP when shiny new ideas crop up at the rate of mushrooms after a spring rainstorm (or in my downstairs bathroom, but that's a different story entirely).

I've touched on this before, and I stand by it--writers are mapgies. Creativity magpies, at any rate, and we're drawn to the shiny things our own minds create.  And create they do!  Because I think most writers are creative, imaginative, layered, interesting people whose minds are constantly churning and probably look a lot more like that shack in A Beautiful Mind than the "after" pictures of an organizing makeover.  I tend to think that ignoring those creative impulses isn't beneficial--bury them too long and they start to atrophy.  But you can't go running after every sparkly new idea and expect to finish everything, either.

What to do?

I give in--but only a little.

When an idea strikes that I can't shake, I write it down.  I have a big blue notebook devoted to the purpose. (Savannah Foley writes an ode to these wonderful notebooks here, by the way.  Scrounge the Barnes and Noble clearance section and discovery why they have such a loyal following!)

You know what?  Having that reserve of ideas comes in really handy.  For one thing, letting an idea marinate is a great test--I put it in the notebook, and if I'm not so jazzed on it when I pull it out again, the likelihood I ever could have spent the months and pages upon pages it would have taken to develop it into a novel is very low.  For another, it gives me a place to go for inspiration, a sort of idea candy store that I can go pick something out from when it's time to start a new project..  My WIP--which just crested (YAY!) 50K--started as a shiny idea of just one scene that I jotted down over a year ago.

Another thing to keep in mind--if your intention is to be a lifelong writer, to make a career out of this thing, there may come times when you're going to need to put one project aside for a while.  And it's not wise to just sit on your hands at that point, so having a cache of ready-to-go ideas gets you in back into the writing game quickly.  For instance, while my agent had the draft of the manuscript I'd finished, and I was waiting on her revision feedback and notes, I started on a Shiny New Idea.  That Shiny Idea is now that 50K I mentioned.  I love it.  And working on it while I let my other project settle refreshed me and gave me better perspective on the revision than if I'd tried to stay in the trenches with only one project.

How do you resist the Shiny?  Do you write it down, or let it marinate, or follow it where it leads right away?