What do I do if someone says my pacing is off?

a glacial pace...

Maybe an agent said your pacing is off. Or an editor, or a reader did, and you're not sure exactly what they're talking about, or more importantly how to fix it. 

Pacing is something that is difficult to detect in your own writing.  It requires an ability to look at your own work from a psychological perspective that's far away, which is difficult to do when you are literally sitting in it--kind of like detecting your own B.O.  Happily, other people will point it out for you if they are kind, or at least, really blunt. 

Although sometimes people sense pacing is off but can't quite articulate it as the reason--they might just have the sense that "the middle lagged" or "the ending felt rushed" rather than knowing to pinpoint the word exactly: pacing. 

If someone tells you the pacing in your book is off, that it's too slow, in particular, the first thing to do is look at your word count.  If you are over 100,000 words, in any genre, I think you want to take pacing very very very seriously.  Every book that I have beta read/ edited that was over 100k could have been a lot tighter and all had pacing issues. There are good books that are legitimately over 100k words, but there's also a very good chance that your 100k+ book doesn't need to be that long, and if you're book is really long, pacing is a bit harder to sustain. Sometimes length is justified--when I saw the run-time for Avengers Infinity War I assumed it would just be wallowing around it it's own wealth, but that movie is super-tightly plotted and well-paced. Which is why people say "that didn't feel like 3 hours." 

Diagnostics: what does "your pacing is too slow" even mean?

Problem: There are too many segments where nothing is happening.  Sometimes something appears to be happening when actually nothing is happening.  I have a method for telling when nothing is actually happening that I will get into a bit.  My sense is that this often happens for scenes that purely exist for characterization's sake, for the sake of world building, or for the sake of looking at your own pretty words. 

Solution: This is tedious, but it works (and I have written about this here). You get an index card for every single scene. Draw a line down the middle.  On the left, write (briefly) what happened in this scene that actually moved the plot forward.  On the right, write the auxiliary stuff that was also in the scene that has to be in the book somewhere, but doesn't actually move the plot forward.  A plot point (on the left) could be that Frodo announces to the Council that he will take the ring into Mordor.  The fact that he does this somewhat reluctantly is characterization--stuff that goes on the right.  Even things that are almost entirely character driven still have plots.  It's hard for any type of writing that requires a lot of world building because that stuff just takes of so much space.  But you know when you are reading something and you get to a huge chunk of description or history--an infodump?  That's what happens when there's nothing on the left side of the card, and all world building on the right side.  Another thing that might be auxiliary--even though it is really important--is to show an important relationship.  That X and Y don't get along. 

You might do this exercise and discover that there are a lot of cards that have nothing on the left.  (If, for example, we had one scene where Frodo agrees to take the ring to Mordor, then a separate scene that consists solely of him worrying about this decision). Any true plot point can be written in a scene in such a way that you can fold in all that auxiliary stuff.  A scene where a CEO sacks every single person in the company (plot) can be combined with the fact that Becky and Miranda are besties (demonstrating relationship), the fact that the CEO is a crazed visionary who thinks technology will destroy the world (characterization), or the fact that this is a company that manufactures fax machines in 1995 in Detroit (world building).  Ok, not very interesting world building-- say it is a company where they illegally manufacture pencils, because writing is outlawed in the future. You don't need a big chunk about the legality of pencils.  It can be interspersed throughout the scene, a scene which is moving forward. When I'm editing someone else's stuff, the most dominant problem that contributes to pacing that is too slow is too many scenes where technically nothing is happening. 

Problem: Too many examples of the same thing. Say you have one card where Becky's terrible husband does something terrible, and she forgives him.  Then you have another.  And another.  We get it.  If you did it right, we got it the first time.  The best example I can think of this is when I tried to read Les Miserables.  There's a scene (it might even be multiple chapters) about a a bishop (Monseigneur Bienvenu, if I remember correctly) doing something really kind.  Then another scene about him doing something kind.  Then a third.  Point being, that this is the religious man who does something incredibly kind for Jean Val Jean in a moment when he could have punished him.

Solution: I would argue that you could jump straight to the scene where Bienvenu does the thing relevant to the plot--helping Val Jean--because otherwise a scene where he is just helping some random person serves only to characterize him, and not to move the story forward.  (Les Mis is a great story.  It is nine million pages and ain't nobody got time for that.  My favorite musical though.). If there is one scene of Becky's husband abusing her and her staying with him, and then another scene where that happens, there needs to be something substantially different and/ or meaningful about that second scene in order to justify its existence. The second instance could be combined with some other plot point. You might think "piling more on will make this more intense." It doesn't--people want to move forward, not down. (NB: Be aware that if cyclical behavior is part of your plot (a woman who keeps going back to her abusive husband) the plot will feel meandering unless you are able to somehow instill a sense of forward inertia.)

ProblemToo much physical space has been spent on the page for the amount of things occurring. You know when a bad Saturday Night Life sketch overstays its welcome? Don't do that. (Go back and watch Key and Peele instead: these guys get right what SNL still can't. Not only do the sketches end at a reasonable amount of time, but they often end on a weird, out-there funny hook rather than a slow descent towards "Okay, I'm going to run to the bathroom while this winds down..") 

You write dialogue that goes on and on.  Cut out the sentences that don't actually move the conversation forward.  Cut out the stuff that repeats.  For the love of god, cut the "As you know Bob" speeches. Unless you are really, really good at dialogue, use it sparingly and efficiently. 

A relatively small plot point is dragged out.  This is kind of hard to tell on your own, in part, because it is related to the pace of things that come before this.  If you're entire book is written at a fast clip, like an airplane thriller, and then you get to a part where someone gets in her car and takes a phone call AND THIS TAKES FOUR PAGES people are going to pull their hair out.  You need to keep reasonably true to the rules of pace that you have set elsewhere in the book.  If it's a small plot point, it doesn't need tons of space.  And the fact that it doesn't take much space doesn't mean it isn't important.  I would rather have one tiny chocolate truffle packed with flavor than a large cake with that same amount of chocolate in it.  If you have trouble telling how long a scene should be, figure out some sort of score: a combination of how important a scene is (1-10) and how complicated it is (1-10).  The higher the number, the more space it gets.  Every line is real estate, and real estate is precious. 

A scene is physically or logistically complicated.  This is hard.  Really hard.  Because you don't want to be so scant as to be confusing, nor do you want a blow by blow of every little thing.  I think this happens most when writing action scenes.  Action scenes are hard to write without being confusing.  People either say too much (way too much detail, like four paragraphs describing in detail how someone falls to the ground) or not enough (reader gets confused and doesn't know where things are physically or what has happened in the literal sense).  Think about size.  If you're writing the major bout between Rocky and Apollo Creed, which the entire movie has been building to, you can do the blow-by-blow.  If you are, however, writing about an entire battle with thousands of people, you can't really do blow-by-blow.  If you've read the original Lord of the Rings books, there's tons of battle scenes with lines like "Aragorn slew an orc."  For a scene that has a lot of action, but is supposed to be suspenseful. I'm deeply flattered that several people told me I write action sequences well. If I had to guess, this is how I would say I do it: 1. You increasingly build the tension as you get close to the big action scene, which then justifies the amount of space it takes up. But the pace must be at a fast clip. 2. Literally nothing can be confusing. No ambiguous language. Read the text for unintended double entendre. Pronouns and you're not sure who they refer to. Passive voice. 3. View the scene in your head as if you were watching a movie. Then write what you would want the reader to see from the camera's perspective. "Cinematic" writing works really well because we've all grown up watching TV and movies. I like to think of actions scenes from the perspective of a director: what do I have to show so that this makes sense to the viewer? Related to this... 

what about pacing that is "too fast"?

Problem: Reader is confused or feels cheated. I think the former happens with action scenes when it isn't clear what has happened. The latter is when the reader feels emotionally cheated--this is often because of a mismatch between set-up and pay-off. If you've spent an hour of movie time hyping up the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed, and the fight is Apollo punching Rocky twice before Rocky falls unconscious, people are going to be annoyed. This lack of pay-off might be the point in some particular cases, but this would still violate expectations. Sometimes this is done well in meta-fiction. An excellent example of this is in the movie remake of 21 Jumpstreet. The two cops have several instances of small collisions (a car hitting another car) where they then cringe, waiting for the huge explosion that would normally occur in a movie even though it likely wouldn't have in real life. They comment on how weird this is. Later on, something does inappropriately and unexpectedly explode, and it's really funny. But more commonly, this is something unintentional, where the writer wanted the reader to feel the pay-off, but the pay-off wasn't full enough. A good example of this is Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War. She spends the entire novel building the potential of this couple, you're really rooting for them, and you are just waiting for that moment for them to finally declare their love/ be together. . . but it just sort of happens. Like, "oh, we're together now." Especially in context with some other things that happen at the end of that novel, you needed a big emotional pay-off in their finally getting together. This is also the perennial problem of the "will they won't they" romance. If they get together it often isn't satisfying for some reason--the reason for this is the amount of tension put into the equivocating far outweighs the emotional pay-off of them actually being together. (I actually don't think there's a solution to the "will they won't they" problem-- I think people like seeing the perpetual tension.)

A (Writing) Year in Review

Someone once pointed out to me that I never take any time to celebrate my accomplishments because I am always anxiously, frenetically focused on the next thing I'm supposed to accomplish. The end of 2016 and first half of 2017 were pretty bad for me-- I was sad and didn't quite realize it, and I worried that my obsessively reading the news or working was going to cut into my ability to be creative. I don't think that turns out to be the case when I look back at what I did this year. 

In 2017 I queried two different novels, both of which continue to get requests. Regardless of what happens with them, I still love them both and they're both an accomplishment I'm proud of. 

Although I wrote a sci-fi novel last year, in 2017 I started writing my first sci-fi / speculative fiction short stories. (er.. novellas/ novelettes). Terrorcry is sci-fi noir I wrote as part of the Jenny McKean Moore fiction workshop at GW. Shortly after I finished Guava Summer which I can't really say is a sequel, but has the same characters and gets into some themes about totalitarianism. When I was at Breadloaf I attended a seminar on "Tell, Don't Show" which was SO UP MY ALLEY. I was tired of the parroting of "Show don't tell" in workshops, because sometimes telling is awesome. I became obsessed with the idea of having an entire story that was all telling, no showing. (to be fair I think the line between the two is fuzzy). I wrote Even the Precession of Earth Must Come to an End, which is all telling and takes place over about 7.5 billion years. Then one day I went to brunch and left a little drunk, wanting an ice cream sandwich. I went to this place that has good ice cream sandwiches but when I got to the counter she said they were all out. For some reason I can't explain, this is exactly the sort of thing that would embarrass me, so I ordered a cappuccino which I didn't really want. I don't drink caffeine that often (maybe once a week) because it makes me batshit, and because I don't drink it that often, it has an even stronger effect on me. So then I was pretty drunk AND really wired, and came home and wrote an entire story just based off the title which popped in my head, I Saw Goody McDerry With the Devil. 

Another awesome thing that happened? I went to VONA this summer, a writing conference for minorities. My class (genre fiction) was all girls AND THEY WERE ALL AWESOME. I had so much fun getting to know them and had so many conversations at that conference that I haven't had anywhere else. Black poets continue to blow my mind. I ate an entire Philly cheesesteak myself. I had some beers. We talked about how we were or weren't addressing race in our works and I hadn't really thought about it before. We danced really late into the night. Fun was had. 

A story that was accepted last year, The Derecho, got published. It's about a catfish catfishing a catfish, and is part of a growing pile of stories I've written that take place in DC. In other DC news, through contacts I made at various conferences, I started to meet other writers and go to readings in the area. I knew there were writers here, but for some reason hadn't tried connecting with them before. 

On the submission front, I started sending out my speculative stories, and judging from the response I'm getting from them, I'm confident they will be getting picked up soon. I wasn't sure if being a novelist (published, anyway) was necessarily in my future, but when I got back from VONA it occurred to me that I had enough short stories to form a collection. So I did that! And I like it! I'm starting to send it places! For some reason I never thought of putting them together before, but now that I have, it's interesting to see that 1) I have enough for an entire book and 2) how they fit with each other. Some of the themes are the same, even if the content is radically different. Some fit snugly into the standard literary realist tradition and some involve people getting their detached heads reattached. 

Then in the fall came the equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy. I must have been thinking of the Goody McDerry story. Or this thriller I had written a third of but put down for a while.  It took place in college and I continue to love books that take place in college.  My friend from Boston was visiting and we were walking home and I said, "What if there was like an entire school filled with psychopaths?"  I suddenly wrote a novel. It just appeared, like an unplanned pregnancy, and forced itself out with a really short gestation period. I write really quickly once I have plot figured out. The characters and voice lent themselves to a plot that seemed to write itself. I have to say, it was my first time using Scrivener, which I was initially really skeptical of. (Kind of like how I was super skeptical of anyone who bakes but doesn't mix things by hand. Only last week I bought my first Kitchen Aid). I liked the ability to move scenes around without it being a pain in the ass. The visual representation of scenes and chapters made plotting easier. I'll try it for my next book and see how I feel. The program isn't that expensive, and I definitely don't use all the bells and whistles, but I guess I would say it's worth the cost. 

So now that I think about it, I did get a lot accomplished this year. I plan on chilling out for the next two months. Doing some baking, some editing, maybe beta reading for someone. Relaxing, I guess. 

A petty list of unrealistic things that frequently appear in fiction that drive me crazy...

1. Incredibly intelligent characters who lack basic reasoning skills.
There's a draw to having whip-smart characters, but readers get pissed when the aforementioned brilliant characters miss obvious clues or repeatedly make dumb decisions for no other reason than serving the plot.  This does raise two interesting questions: 1) How do you write a character who might be smarter than you? [hint: you need to have a mystery that is actually difficult to solve and have your smart character navigate through it reasonably] 2) Why aren't there more books about people who aren't whip smart?  How about Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights solving mysteries? (Billy can help... when he's not getting in the way.  Twist: Jason Street turns out to be the killer.) I am, by the way, writing a whole other post about the overpopulation of brilliant people in contemporary fiction.  More on that later..

2. Buff characters who never work out. 
Buff doesn't grow on trees.  You have to schedule a lot of your life around the gym. You book hotels based on whether or not they have a gym.  Active people feel uncomfortable if they go several days without being active.  Corollary to this: thin women who never seem to work out and eat a lot of junk food because they just happen to have a high metabolism--I think this is a feeble attempt at being girlpower by not wanting to depict a woman who watches what she eats. But if you want to be progressive by not having women want to change their bodies, you don't get to also default to always having thin characters. There are people of all sizes who go to the gym, ones that don't, people who watch what they eat for whatever reason, people who don't. Real women in America, or at least a lot of them, talk and think about food in ways that are deeply fucked up.  Some of these women are strong, intelligent, complicated, and interesting.  There's nothing wrong with showing that.

3.  Scholarships don't exist.
Non-rich teen has no money and/or screws up their chances for a single scholarship by winning the spelling bee/ sheep-shearing contest/ ironic beauty pageant, so now they can't go to college!!!!  Their life is ruined!  Actually, it's called a FAFSA.  You can go to college, but welcome to the world of student debt we all live in.

4. Character is a CEO / high-powered attorney / neurosurgeon but never seems to be working.
This shit takes time.  And often times, lots of schooling.  Son who inherits company from his father and is a lazy ne'er-do-well--? More believable that Mr. Career awesome who never works.  

5.  Characters don't use cell phones the way they are actually used.
That is to say, to look up just about anything.  Realistically, the introduction of cell phones and the internet in general is a massive game changer in any mystery, horror, or danger type situation.  This is related to why I've been disappointed in horror movies in the past 15 or so years: the villains got smarter but the protagonists didn't become more clever. 

6.  Lame excuses for not telling the authorities/ cops/ parents when a dead body is discovered. 
Please provide a reasonable explanation as to why these people wouldn't just tell their parents or call the cops.  Remember HBO's The Night Of? If that ever happens to you, don't run away from the dead body, then go back, break in, get your keys, and then try to keep it a secret. He probably should have just stayed exactly where he was, touched nothing, and called the cops.* Lots of people don't actually trust the police, for legit reasons, but too often the excuse is, "but we can't call the cops because we can't!"  (*On second thought, if your name is Riz Ahmed, maybe call your dad and a lawyer first, and I guess I would say when a chick wants to play that knife-hand game, it is time to say you're going to the bathroom and run far, far away).

7.  Newbies handling guns with amazing accuracy and no fatigue, often holding them with one hand sideways.  Guns are heavy and hard to handle and even people who are highly trained professionals miss their targets. 

8. Cities devoid of minorities. Actually, this isn't petty but serious.  I can't stand when I read a book that takes place in a city I've spent a considerable amount of time in and the actual racial makeup of the city is depicted as wildly off.  California has a ton of Asians.  The real Beverly Hills High, from Beverly Hills 90210, has a large population of Persians, as does Los Angeles in general.  New York City is not just filled with 20-30-something aspiring hipster writers having epiphanies. If you want to write about an all white city, pick one that actually demographically looks that way.  Writing and talking about race is super awkward; at least we are at the point in time that we are starting to have the conversation. I admit I'm cautious about bringing up race in my own writing, both because I'm afraid of getting something wrong, but also because even being explicit about it sometimes makes people uncomfortable. I'm working on this. 

8. People die for literary sweeps week.  Remember on TV when you knew good shit was going to go down because it was sweeps week?  Similar to this, I hate how death is always a plot device in books.  Someone only dies if it serves some dramatic purpose.  In reality, sometimes death is a random wrench thrown into a machine that was originally headed in a different direction. I think this would be a really awesome way to get rid of Frank Underwood in House of Cards.  All this intrigue is going on where the journalists are closing in on all the shady stuff he has done. Chess pieces are being moved. Then, in the middle of everything, he up and has a heart attack, or his fucking rowing machine breaks, sending the fan part directly into his face and impaling his brain. Claire becomes president. All Claire all the time!!!

9. "As you know Bob" dialogue in general. NCIS is a perfect example of this. One biologist explaining to another what DNA is. One thing I loved about The Wire: there was absolutely no hand holding. 

10. No one ever has their period. Or almost never. And it's too often used for comedy rather than this thing that is there for a huge segment of the population. 


This is how I revise long pieces. 

1. Finish book. Let it sit for some reasonable amount of time without looking at it at all. 

2. Print out a single-spaced hardcopy. Read it with no line editing- just making general notes like "fix this," "this conversation needs to happen sooner," "cut this?" etc. (Sometimes I do this by sending to my Kindle and reading it there, but it makes taking notes more awkward). 

3. Go back and do plot diagramming (see post from Friday). While doing this I take notes per scene that are more specific (eg, "he should be more suspicious here.") or just general notes that only occurred to me just when I was reading that particular scene. 

4. This is when I would plan major structural edits-- usually I have something I can physically move, like notecards or post-its that represent individual scenes. 

5. Next I make a list of the large-ish things that need to be fixed, drawing from the previous notes, or things I know in the back of my head need to be fixed. (eg, "cut out this character," "there need to be more hints that this person is the murderer.") I don't put in pretty minor things that are confined to one thing only (these are just in scene-level notes.) 

6. When I do a revision, I'm only doing one thing at a time. My original approach to revising was to start from page one and think "okay, fix everything." This is too much to handle at once. I heard this "one thing at a time" per revision thing from author Daniel Torday when workshopping with him once. I thought it was a fantastic idea and have been doing it ever since. Cutting out a character from an entire novel is a major thing--a thread that is probably tangled across different scenes throughout the book.  It's easier to go through the book only looking for and fixing this one thing--how to cut this character out. I found that it really focused my attention on one thing at a time. I did one revision that was about eliminating an extraneous plotline. Another that was beefing up one particular character. When I do multiple POV things, each character gets their own revision--I go through the book only reading their POV sections, making sure their character and voice are consistent, that they appear to have an arc over time. 

7. Final copyedit revision- this involves printing the whole thing out and reading it out loud. This is sort of a pain and hurts your throat, but is worth it. It catches typos and gives you a better sense of when the rhythm of your sentences is off. 

8. Save an extra Word and PDF copy somewhere else safe. Save separate Word files that contain only the first ten pages, first 50, and first 100. (It's easier to have these lined up for when you want to send it out to people, as opposed to copying X pages every single time out of your larger document.) 

Diagram Your Plot

This is tedious, but I'm a firm believer in doing it.  

If you're pre-Millennial the below may look familiar.  These are sentences that have been diagrammed-- broken down to the most basic components (who did what-- Boys (subject) like (verb) games (direct object). Maybe they stopped having kids diagram sentences because they thought it was a useless exercise, but I always liked it and found it helpful. 

Chloe + Yess go to SAE party. Left: C sees Will. Sees C and his girlfriend. Right: SAE house. How calm she stays. 

Chloe + Yess go to SAE party. Left: C sees Will. Sees C and his girlfriend. Right: SAE house. How calm she stays. 

After I write a book, I always diagram the plot in at least one way. It is somewhat tedious but EXTREMELY useful. I diagram every single scene this way, which makes it really obvious to discover when I have extraneous scenes. Plot points go on the left of a notecard or post-it. A line is drawn down the center, and everything on the right is information that is probably needed to be somewhere in the book, but that technically does not move the plot forward. 

An example to the left: the major focus of this scene is that Chloe goes to a frat party. Two major plot points occur: she sees Will, and she sees another boy, Charles, with his girlfriend. These things have to happen to move the story forward. To the right are things that need to be somewhere in the book, but not necessarily here (in this case, it works out well that they go here.) A description of the SAE frat house: we need to know what it looks like, but that description isn't part of the plot. (In other words, I would not have a scene that just describes the frat house and does nothing else). The second point is to demonstrate in this scene how Chloe tends to stay really calm even when a normal person wouldn't be. This is a characterization--her tendency to not freak out--not a plot point. It cannot hold up a scene by itself. 

Here's another example from a different story: 

Left: Team is kidnapped and offered by Riley a second chance to win their stars back. Tank.  Right: Base move occurring. NASAR (military) training. Intro Riley 

Left: Team is kidnapped and offered by Riley a second chance to win their stars back. Tank.  Right: Base move occurring. NASAR (military) training. Intro Riley 

In the above case I color coded blue to indicate the narrator (blue= Dorian). The team is kidnapped and put into a diving tank rapidly filling with water. Obviously that is a clear plot point. Told along the way is an important setting issue--that the entire military base is in the process of planning to be moved to another planet--but technically that information is not a plot point, just something in the background. The packing boxes are laying around, and people are talking about it. Also relevant but not a plot point itself: escaping from the tank brings to Dorian's mind all the training he has endured over the years and how it could be applied to his current problem. Riley is introduced. His introduction itself is not plot--what Riley does is. 

When I've had to do serious structural edits, including needing to cut down a book significantly, doing these notecards is really useful. If you have stuff on the right side, but none on the left, this means you can take those things and move them to some other place that actually has plot points. Plot is like the skeleton in the body-- it needs to be there for structure, to literally hold the body up. Everything else can be moved around on the skeleton.  I'm of the opinion that there should not be any scenes in a novel that do not move the plot forward. Describing a setting is not plot. Describing a political context is not plot. Characterization is not plot--sometimes it seems like it is, but it should it be. "Bob is an asshole" does not move the plot forward. "Bob gets kicked out of the restaurant (because he is an asshole), getting his wife to realize that she wants a divorce." does move the plot forward. 

If I'm doing a multiple POV novel things get a bit more complicated: 

Don't bother trying to read this. 

Don't bother trying to read this. 

On the right: You can see chapter numbers indicated on the left. This is color coded for four different narrators. Each row is one scene, each box colored in indicates one page double-spaced. This gave me a sense of how long each chapter was, how much space each character got, and how much stuff happened plotwise in each scene. 


On the right: on the left page is the entirety of a book color coded by POV, with one block of graph paper per each page. The right side is the same thing, for the next book in the series. The width is the same for each. The second book stays with narrators for longer segments of time (I switched to only one narrator per chapter for thematic reasons). This gave me a sense of the "shape" of the book, who was getting long segments and where (sometimes this needed to be rebalanced.) 

TLDR: It's useful to justify every single scene, and to physically see your plot with moveable pieces.