5 Quick Tips for Improving the Pacing of Your Novel

The issue of pacing in a novel — whether your story is moving ahead smoothly — came up in my writing group this past week. The question was phrased this way: It feels like the pacing is off in my manuscript. What can I do to make sure it’s right?

 Thanks to that question, the group brainstormed together and came up with five tips to help improve a manuscript’s pacing:

  1. Wait to evaluate your novel’s pacing until after you’ve finished your fast draft. Fast drafting is an act of discovery and falling in love with your characters. It’s all about writing forward – not going backward and fine tuning anything: characters, plot, spiritual thread, or pacing.
  2. Read your story chronologically. This may seem like a “duh,” but sometimes as writers we jump back and forth between scenes as we rewrite. We realize we need to add a new chapter in between chapters 7 and 8 and then we decide to add a third scene after the two scenes in chapter 20. While we’re doing this kind of rewriting is not the time to evaluate our story’s pacing.
  3. Allow your character’s emotions to drive your scenes. Specifically, look for deep emotions for your characters to react to and push your chapters forward.
  4. Ensure that you have Action, Reaction, and Action/Reaction scenes. If you write only Action scenes, your pacing is all go, go, go – and you’ll exhaust your readers’ emotions. All Reaction scenes? Your pacing is too slow. You don’t want to put your readers to sleep, do you? HINT: Sometimes I label my scenes when I’m rewriting with an “A” for Action, an “R” for Reaction, and an “AR” for Action/Reaction to give me a quick visual of my pacing. If I’m too heavy with one kind of scene, I know my pacing is off and I need to adjust.
  5. Hand your manuscript off to someone else. You can be too close to your story to tell if the pacing is off. This is where a craft group comes in to give you needed feedback. Or preferred readers. Or an editor. They can tell you if your scenes are dragging because you’ve taken too long to get to the action at the beginning of a scene or if you’ve left a scene too early.

Remember: Pacing isn’t something you evaluate in the early stages of writing a manuscript and sometimes you need other people to help you evaluate if your pacing. Do you have any other tips for checking whether your novel is moving ahead smoothly?

 

[Tweet “5 Quick Tips for Improving the Pacing of Your Novel by @bethvogt #amwriting #tips”]

 

 

NaNoWriMo Scene Starter!

[So—like you all, I’m writing a book in month with NaNoWriMo! Just to encourage myself, I dragged out this conversation I had with an aspiring author on how to keep going!

If you want the entire Conversation on How to Write a Novel, check out Conversations with a Writing Coach!]

*****

“How is your NaNoWriMo manuscript going?” I set my coffee down at the table where Sally sat waiting for me, drinking coffee and eating a cookie. A light frost tipped the grass outside, the lake frothy along the rocky shoreline.

“I think my brain is shutting down. I’ve written about two thousand words a day, but I am running out of ideas on how to start my scene.” Sally broke off a piece of her monster cookie, the fresh-baked smell enough to make me wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

“Have you done your scene preparation?  Figured out Layer One: what kind of scene it is, and the 5 Ws’?”

“Oh, that’s the easy part. And Layer Two isn’t so hard either. Creating Tension is easy once you understand the equation: a Character we care about who has a goal, as well as something to lose who meets obstacles that feel insurmountable so much so that we fear they’ll fail.”

“Right. The equation is: Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure.”

She broke off another piece of cookie. A M&M dropped onto her napkin. “But finding the first line and getting going that is stumping me. I feel like the words should just come to me, but…I’m staring at the blank page.”

“I understand. Let me teach you my first line/hook technique that is simple and fast to get you going into the scene. This is Layer Three and it’s simply about making the Hook SHARP.

“S stands for STAKES. What does your character have to lose? What can go wrong? You must have this element or there is simply no reason to have this scene, and especially no reason for your reader to stick with the story. In an Action scene, it’s something that could happen. In a ReAction scene, it might be making a bad decision. To find this, ask: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character right now? What does he/she fear?

“H stands for Hero/Heroine Identification. Why should we care about your character? What about your character makes us understand or even sympathize with him? To find that element ask: What do I have in common with my character? What need, or dream, or situation, or fear, or past experience do we share? And what about that can I extrapolate that fits into my story? Giving your character a realistic, sympathetic situation and realistic emotions is the key to creating that connection between your reader and your character.

“A stand for Anchoring, or Storyworld. Use your inner journalist to create place. By the end of the first paragraph, and for sure the first scene, you should have anchored your character into the scene by using the five W’s. Who, What, Where, When and Why? Then, add in the 5 senses. The Facts and Feelings work together to establish place and evoke emotions. The right storyworld can give us a feeling of happiness, or tension, even doom in the scene. Ask: What is the one emotion you’d like to establish in this first sentence, paragraph, scene? Using the five 5’s, what words can you find that conveys this sense of emotion? Use these in the crafting of your first paragraph.

“R reminds us to start your scene: on the Run. Writing craft instructor Dwight Swain in Techniques of the selling writer says that “a good story being in the middle, retrieves the past and continues to the end.” Your scene should start in the middle of the action, as if drawing back the curtain on the scene to find it already in action on the stage. Ask: How can I start my scene with the characters already engaging the problem of the scene?

“P helps us to identify and weave in the Thematic Problem, or the Story Question, in the scene. You will have one story question, or thematic question that drives your book. This question permeates all the decisions your hero and/or heroine make throughout the story. Ask: What thematic question is my character grappling with in this scene? How can you weave in the theme, or some part of it?

“Once you have identified all these pieces, climb into your POV character’s “skin” (or head) and stand at the edge of the stage, looking at all the activity and ask: What am I (as the character) thinking right now? Not what am I thinking about, but what am I thinking?

“Use this sentence to start your character in the scene. You can change it later, but at this moment, you’ll be in your character’s skin and able to go forward in their POV and write the scene. (Because you’ll know the goals, stakes, obstacles and even the thematic problem they’ll struggle with in the scene).

“What if I get the wrong first line?”

“Sally, there’s no wrong first line. But at this point, you’re just trying to get words on the page. Try it – you’ll be surprised at how the words just start to flow out of you once you figure out these elements.”

“I don’t know. I like to let the scene just . . . flow out of me. Organic. Seat of the pants.”

I looked at her cookie as she finished it off. “When you make cookies, you use the same ingredients for almost every kind of cookie. Sugar. Flour. Eggs. Salt. Baking soda. However, have you ever started making cookies and realized you’ve run out of one of the ingredients? Suddenly you have to run to the store, and your baking is stalled.

“The same thing happens when you are creating a scene. First, you assemble your ingredients. If you skip this part, you don’t know what you’re missing and you’ll suddenly be stalled in your creation process. This way, you’re pulling your “scene ingredients” out of the cupboard (your head) before you start mixing it together. You’re still writing the scene “Seat of the Pants” but you’re using specific ingredients to help you build it. And since you’ve assembled them before hand, you can flow without having to stop and figure out what you’re missing.”

“You’ve been eyeing my cookie all morning haven’t you?”

Truth: Success with scene building and maximizing your writing session is about preparation and gathering your ingredients before you begin. 

Dare: Do your prep work before you begin your writing session. An hour of planning will save you and hour of staring at an empty page!

Have a great writing week!

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May

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Conversations Postcard bigLet’s have a conversation about how to be a published author! (only $4.99 on Kindle!)

“I was so excited to see that Conversations with a Writing Coach contains the lessons and writing aids that took me from being an unpublished writer to published with a multi-book contract. Susan’s talent for teaching the craft of writing is phenomenal. The lessons are easy to understand and will help beginning writers understand and develop their characters, plots and settings. And not just beginning writers—the workbook is a great refresher course for me as I begin my 5th book in two years. Patricia Bradley, author of the Logan Point series”

 

NaNoWriMo: 5 Steps to building the right SCENE FOUNDATION

[A note from SusieMay:  So, like you all, I’m working hard on my NaNoWriMo project!  To keep me motivated, I pulled out a conversation I had with an aspiring author about how to set up a scene.  (to read about the rhythm of storytelling, click here.)  Go! Write Something Brilliant!]

If you want the entire conversation on how to write a novel, check out Conversations with a Writing Coach!

*****

Sally was waiting for me as I walked into the coffee shop.  The fallen leaves chased me inside and Kathy handed me a spicy pumpkin latte, with whip and a layer of caramel.  I sat down at the table and couldn’t help note the frown on Sally’s face.

“What?”

“It’s just boring.”  Her hand rested on a stack of printed manuscript papers. “I mean, the story is good…in my head. But it seems to lack…well, let’s put it this way; my husband fell asleep somewhere between page 87 and 103.”

“Oh my,” I said, sipping the latte.  Just the right balance of whipped crème sweetness and pumpkin pie spice.  “So, what do you think is the problem?”

“He says I have a great story, with great storyworld and fun dialogue and even good emotional layering. It’s just…well, he says the scenes are boring.”

“This can be fixed, Sally, don’t despair.  What you have is the right ingredients to the second layer of a scene: storyworld, emotional layering, dialogue and even metaphors.  However, none of these matter if you haven’t built the first layer, or the foundation of the scene: the scene tension.”

“You mean what we talked about last week. The Scene Equation.”

“Right.  You have to understand what drives a scene before you can create the actual scene. Let’s review just a bit:  The scene equation is:

Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure. 

“If any of these are missing, you don’t have tension and are simply decorating the house before its finished.  Only after you build a solid foundation can you add the gleaming details that make your scene stand out.  (storyworld, dialogue, emotional layering, wordsmithing. emotions, metaphors and even a great hook.)

“Let’s go a bit deeper and explore each of these pieces of the equation:

“Sympathetic Characters:  Building Sympathy isn’t just about putting our characters in sympathetic situations – it’s about seeing ourselves in our characters. What situation is your character in that we can understand or identify with?  Or, what common emotion do we share with the character that helps us sympathize.  Consider this:  When have you felt the same way your character feels?  Can you build in either this situation, or actions that help us connect?

“Here’s an example:  In my book, You Don’t Know Me, my heroine, Annalise, is in the WitSec program. However, she’s never told a soul – including her husband and family.  She is leading a normal life…until her WitSec Agent appears in her world and unravels it.  Although most of us haven’t been in the WitSec program, we do have situations where we fear a secret might emerge. It’s this feeling I built into the scene where her past shows up.  I created a scene in a coffee shop with all of Annalise’s friends and community around her – including her husband – and made her stumble to keep her secret and composure in the face of this awkward situation.

“Goals: What does POV want?  Emotionally, physically?  What do they need?  Why?  Answering these questions gives the character a purpose for the scene – something that pushes them forward.  Your character must have a goal for every Action Scene.  (and a dilemma to solve for every ReAction scene).

“Obstacles:  These can be People or Situations, (weather, or machines, or even government) – but at the end, they are the conflicts that stand in the way of the character reaching her/her goals.  Tension is created by the use of these external and internal obstacles.

“Stakes: What will happen if the character doesn’t meet their goal?  What fear hovers over the scene?  Both the character and the reader must see what might go wrong in the scene to create tension. This involves using the Push-Pull rhythm, a MBT technique for creating the right motivation.  (in short, it’s the PUSH away from something negative, and the PULL toward something positive.)

“Fear of Failure:  This is the secret ingredient to keeping tension taut in a scene.  Without this fear, and this believe that it could happen, the scene is flat.  If we know the outcome is a sure thing, then why bother?  Even if the tension is only inner dissonance, it’s that fear of losing themselves that keeps the tension high.

Sally, go through every scene and ask:  Why should I care about this character and this scene? What’s at stake?  What are the Goals and Obstacles, and finally, do I fear the character might fail?  Answering these questions for every single scene will help you reshape your story into something that won’t put your husband to sleep.”

“It might have been the Vikings game, and the way they crumbled after the first quarter.”

“Yes, that was painful. I would have rather been sleeping.”

Truth:  Wordsmithing can only get you so far in a story; if you don’t have tension, your book will suffer the “put it down in the middle” syndrome.  

Dare: Analyze every scene and build in the right foundation before you add in the riveting details.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May

Conversations Postcard bigLet’s have a conversation about how to be a published author! (only $4.99 on Kindle!)

“I was so excited to see that Conversations with a Writing Coach contains the lessons and writing aids that took me from being an unpublished writer to published with a multi-book contract. Susan’s talent for teaching the craft of writing is phenomenal. The lessons are easy to understand and will help beginning writers understand and develop their characters, plots and settings. And not just beginning writers—the workbook is a great refresher course for me as I begin my 5th book in two years. Patricia Bradley, author of the Logan Point series”

 

The Easy Fix to creating MOTIVATION (and adding tension to your scene!)

Extreme Book Makeover: Saggy Scene Solutions – Creating powerful MOTIVATION

Have you ever read a scene where the character says or does something that seems to come out of the blue?  Or, you expect a character to do or say something – and they do the opposite?  Which makes no sense?

The flip side is that they choose the predictable, boring decision?  And now you’re yawning through the chapter.

Suddenly, as an author, we’re stuck, right there in the middle of the book, not sure where to turn, what to do.

Let’s stop here and talk about Walking Dead for a moment here. (A show my college kids started binge watching over Christmas, and now, thank you so much, I’m hooked.)  If you haven’t seen it (and I’m not saying you should, but it’s actually an interesting show about character growth), the show is about how to survive a Zombie Apocalypse.  Rick, the leader, and his band of refugees are just trying to find a safe place to live/stay/survive, and are currently roaming around Georgia, raiding grocery stores, trying to avoid other groups of renegade refugees and generally exploring the concept of survival verses living.

All while killing zombies, of course (which they call Walkers).

Now here’s why I’ve subjected you to this:  In every episode, at least one of the group members has to walk into a scary building/house/prison/vehicle and face the possibility of being eaten.  And every time we are shouting at the screen: “Don’t go into that building – there is a walker in there!”  But they do it anyway.

And we’re okay with that as long as he/she has a good reason.

And that’s the key to the aforementioned problem as creators of story – your character must have a good reason for every action he/she takes.  Otherwise, we all know it’s simply a plot device instead of an organic decision we all agree with.  More, when a character steps into an “unmotivated bad decision” territory, the author risks the reader not going along on the journey.

It’s possible, if this is done incorrectly, you could motivate your readers right into putting the book down.

But your character can’t make the right, sound decision every time, or the book becomes predictable and boring.

So, how do you convince your reader that a bad decision is actually a good one?

PUSH-PULL MOTIVATION

We talked about Push-Pull PLOTTING earlier in this series as a way to convince the character (and the reader) that your character should go on his/her journey.  But now that you’re in ACT 2, we need to re-utilize this technique to convince the character to move forward through the murky scenes of character change.

A Push-Pull Motivation employs a physical or emotional PUSH from behind, and a physical or emotional PULL ahead to propel your character on the next step of his journey.

It works like this:

Please, no, I don’t want to go into the warehouse. I know there are walkers in there who will eat me.  Worse, it’s dark and murky and I can hear moaning noises.

Yes, says Rick.  You have to go. . .

And here comes the PUSH:

The rest of us are injured. (You’re the only one who can go.)

We’re starving to death (The stakes are high)

This is the first store we’ve seen in miles, and maybe the only one we’ll see.  (it’s the only option)

And, it’s getting dark out, so you’d better hurry (there is a deadline)

 

The PUSH outlines all the negatives that push your character forward in the decision.

 

Now, here comes the PULL:

 

This is a former Super Walmart, so there’s bound to be food inside. (The opportunity for success is high)

I’ll give you my super awesome Colt .45, as well as Michonne’s super cool sword. Besides, you’re a state track champion – there’s no way they’ll catch you. (you’re armed with the best stuff & you have super powers.)

You used to shop at this Walmart – you know where the canned food is.  (See, you have some tricks up your sleeve!)

Once you stop by the pharmacy and pick up some bandages, we’ll all get better and help you battle the Walkers. (This will lead to a great outcome!)

 

The PULL offers a powerful reward for taking the chance. 

 

Now, the final ingredient to creating believable motivation is to reasonably dismiss all the other choices:

 

But Rick, what about going into that warehouse in the back?

Rick – no, because it’s locked and probably has Walkers trapped in it.

 

But Rick, what if we wait until you’re better – you’re not that hurt.

Rick – I hate to tell you this, but I am actually turning into a Walker.

 

But Rick, maybe we should just hijack that motorhome sitting in the parking lot and keep driving.

Rick – To where?  This Walmart is 30 miles from the next town.

 

But Rick, I don’t even know how to shoot a gun. Or swing a sword.

Rick – But you’re fast.  And wiry.  Maybe you won’t even need them!

 

Okay, fine, I’ll walk into the creepy dark building filled with walkers, armed only with a sword and a rusty six-shooter, grab a shopping cart and fill it up with food and medicines. Alone.

 

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

 

Now, here’s the secret.  Look at your character’s choices. Which one seems the riskiest, with the highest reward?  Can you give your character a strong Push-Pull to choose this one?  Can you find reasons to dismiss the rest?

Make them choose THIS option and guess what – you’ll suddenly add tension to your saggy scene!  Because who isn’t turning up the volume and sitting on the edge of their seat as our heroine walks, fearfully, bravely, into the creepy Walmart?

In Summary:

To add tension to your saggy scene, have your character pick a risky, yet rewarding next move.

Gird it up with:

A Negative PUSH:

  1. Exclusivity (your character is the only one who can do it)
  2. STAKES (for a good reason)
  3. Limited Choices (this is the only option with this outcome)
  4. Deadline (hurry! Time is running out. Or, this is the only time this option will come around)

A Positive PULL:

  1. A real possibility of SUCCESS
  2. You’re armed with the right TOOLS or a SUPERPOWER
  3. The Strategy is clever/You have TRICKS
  4. If you do this, everything will get BETTER

 

Finally, solidify the decision with a few options that are reasonably dismissed.

 

Next week we’ll talk about how to increase the tension of ACT 2 by making each turning point worse.

 

Until then, go, write something Brilliant!

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