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?


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4 Tips to Prep Your Writing Contest Entry

It’s contest season in the writing world! Perhaps you just submitted your entry to the ACFW Genesis contest earlier this week. There are lots of other contests coming up later this year for both published and unpublished writers.

Several writing friends asked me to give them feedback on their submissions, so I’ve been reading like a potential contest judge and making suggestions to strengthen their stories. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a short “consider this” checklist for any future manuscripts you might submit to a writers contest:

  1. Avoid starting a scene with dialogue. As the all-wise author of your manuscript, you know who is speaking. But the reader, who is new to both the story and the characters, doesn’t know who is speaking or why they are saying what they are saying or who they are talking to. Starting a scene, especially the first scene in your book, with dialogue creates a lot of questions for your reader — and for a contest judge.
  2. Avoid muddling up dialogue with multiple action tags. Dialogue, in and of itself, is action. Some writers like to crowd dialogue with a sentence describing some sort of action the character is doing, a.k.a. an action tag. Then comes something the character says. Then another action tag. Then more dialogue. It’s too, too much.
    1. EXAMPLE: Tony blocked the door, spreading his arms out wide. “You’re not going anywhere.” He glared at Mona, who tried to move past him. “I told you I wanted to talk to you–and I mean it.” Smooth the dialogue out by using only one action tag per segment of dialogue: “You’re not going anywhere.” Tony blocked the door, refusing to let Mona move past him. “I told you I wanted to talk to you–and I meant it.”
  3. Avoid rushing your story. Oftentimes, a contest entry is the opening scene of your manuscript, which means your Inciting Incident is included. Remember: the Inciting Incident is the event that shoves the main character out of their normal world. It can be negative (someone tries to kill them) or positive (they win the lottery). Once again, as the all-knowing author of your manuscript, you know everything else that’s going to happen to your main character(s) in the rest of the book. Don’t rush it. Pacing is an important element of good writing. Yes, you can slow your story down by dumping in too much backstory. But you can also rush your reader — and a contest judge — if you push the story ahead too quickly, writing too many pivotal elements into early scenes. 
  4. Avoid spending too much time in your character’s head. I blogged about avoiding too much  character introspection back in January, offering one tip to get out of your character’s head. Yes, there are times when your POV character is going to be thinking about things — a problem, a person, a decision. The question is: Can you rewrite the scene so instead of thinking, thinking, thinking for fifteen hundred words or more, your character is talking to someone about the situation? 

How can you apply these 4 tips to your next contest entry? 

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REWRITING: 1 Tip for Getting Out of Your Character’s Head

We all talk to ourselves from time to time. 

You know what I mean: Those moments when you think quick one liners such as:

  • What am I doing here? 
  • Is everybody staring at me?
  • I can’t breathe. I. Can’t. Breathe.

And then there are the times we’re in our heads for minutes, maybe a half hour or more. Mulling. Debating. Remembering something like a first kiss . . . or saying goodbye.

As writers, we let our characters do the same thing. We get in their heads — let our readers get in their heads. Sometimes for just a moment. And sometimes our characters become ve-ery introspective. The scene . . . the thoughts . . . it’s all from inside our POV character’s head.

I’m thinking, I’m thinking, I’m thinking . . . 

The question is: How much is too much — or rather, how much introspection is too long?

When I’m rewriting a manuscript, I always look for scenes where I’m in my character’s head too long. Where my character is thinking, thinking, thinking for one third of the scene or longer. To get my character out of their head, I ask myself:

Who can my POV character talk to? 

HINT: This lines up with author Rachel Hauck’s wisdom to “Tell the story between the quotes.” 

Get a conversation going. Get someone else in the room with your character — and yes, you may have to change your setting to do this. If your character is driving, have them activate their Bluetooth and call their closest friend and talk out what they’re feeling, what they’re dealing with, rather than just thinking about it. How about this: bring the very person you’re  character is trying to avoid onto the scene. (Just a thought, but oh, what fun you could have!)

In my my upcoming novella, You Can’t Hurry Love, I have a scene where my heroine is stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic — everyone’s trying to get out of town for the Christmas holidays. And yeah, she’s thinking about a lot of stuff that is pertinent to the story. On my rewrites, I have her call her best friend and have a conversation. Same information — but she’s out of her head, no longer just thinking her own lonely thoughts. Much more active storytelling — and a much stronger scene.

So what about you and the story you’re working on? Are there any scenes that can be rewritten by getting your POV character out of their head and into a conversation with someone else?

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Reality Check: When Your Writing isn’t Measuring Up to Your Expectations

I was talking on the phone with a writer-friend a few weeks ago, encouraging her as she prepared to submit a manuscript to an agent. She gave me a rundown of what she had left to do – a list of one-more-things that she needed to finish before she could push SEND.

After detailing all her must-do’s, she said, “I know it’s not going to be perfect.”

Something in her tone made me pause and ask her, “Do you hear yourself?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said ‘It’s not going to be perfect.’ But the way you said it, you sounded disappointed in yourself – like somehow, someway, you should be able to make this manuscript perfect.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then she said, “I guess you’re right. I am disappointed in myself.”

And that’s when I said:

“Writing is not the art of perfection.”

I know a lot of talented writers. Award-winning, best-selling authors. You know what? None of them write perfect manuscripts.

I also know myself. I try to up my game with every novel I write. Even so, writing is about getting better – not about being perfect. Writing is challenging enough without setting my sights on some unachievable goal of flawlessness.

As my friend and I talked some more, I tried to help her readjust her expectations for herself. My advice was something like:

“When you’re done with the manuscript, you have to be satisfied that you’ve given it your best – whatever that is right now – and that makes it good.”

My friend had spent months rewriting her novel, utilizing feedback from both other writers and beta-readers. She attended conferences and even paid for critiques. Yes, I had to remind my friend that there was no guarantee that the agent would decide to represent her. But at some point, she had to submit her manuscript, trusting that her effort was enough, and prayerfully leave the results in God’s hands.

How do you avoid unrealistic expectations as a writer — and accept your best efforts, rather than thinking you have to craft a perfect manuscript?