Friday 28 October 2022

Writers’ Questions: How can I control the pacing of my novel?

After tackling a few questions related to the business side of writing in the last few posts in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m back today with a more craft-focused blog. If you’re a writer, have you ever received feedback that a scene, chapter, or section was too fast or too slow? Or maybe you’ve just been told that the pacing feels a little “off.” This can be frustrating to hear, but if you’re not sure how to fix your pacing problems, never fear! Here are some strategies to employ.

Timeline out your book: If you wrote an outline when starting work on your novel, this is the moment to revisit it. If you didn’t write an outline, spend time mapping out each milestone in your book now. Then take your timeline/outline and write dates or other time markers beside each chapter/scene. This will help you look at the pacing of the novel on a macro-level. 

Typically, we’d expect to see more major events happening close together near the end of your novel, as the story crescendos to a climax. There will usually be fewer big time jumps around the climax too, as skipping through months and years will dissipate all that lovely tension you’ve built up. And there may also be an effect where a short period of time will be spread across more scenes/chapters. Consider a stereotypical heist movie: the director may choose to include only a 5-10-minute montage of the months of the thieves’ training, but the hour spent on the daring escapade itself may be detailed minute-by-minute, making up half the film. 

With these trends in mind, look at your timeline and try to diagnose your book’s issues. Are you dedicating too few pages to important moments? Did you rush to the finish line, rather than giving your ending room to breathe? Did you spend too long setting up your novel’s promises, but then underdeliver?

Cut the boring bits: Here’s a fix that works on pacing issues at both a book and chapter level: if there are scenes or parts of scenes that even you, the writer, think are boring, they’ve simply got to go. A good novel isn’t a few magical moments with dull filler content in between, and every scene you write is a chance for your storytelling prowess to sparkle.

What’s more, it’s easy to summarize action no one wants to read. It can take a sentence or even less. Boring scenes to consider cutting include journeys (just tell us your characters traveled somewhere), periods where your character is bored (if the point of view character is bored, readers will soon be bored too), and long waits for information (ask yourself: would you be tempted to skim ahead if you were reading your own book?). Of course, it’s entirely possible to write interesting scenes set during journeys, or which start with a character being bored/waiting, but you’re going to have to have other content to work with.  

Pay attention to sentence length: If you’re happy with the big-picture view of your novel (with a timeline that makes sense and no boring bits), then it’s time to address pacing issues on a sentence level. And it’s a great idea to look to music for inspiration. Scenes you want to read as slower should be made up of longer, legato sentences. Short, staccato sentences are best to convey action.

If a beta reader tells you your romantic scene feels rushed, try using flowing sentences filled with sensual details. If a fight scene is complicated, dull, or difficult to follow, make your descriptions pithier and rely on strong verbs, without qualifying adverbs and adjectives.

Understand simultaneous vs. sequential action: While we’re on the subject of action…one mistake I see a lot of newbie writers making is packing too much information into single sentences in a misguided attempt to speed up their pacing. One result of this is that they write actions as simultaneous when they must be sequential. Let’s look at a worked example.

A writer may want to pick up the pace of a scene to retain reader interest. And so, she writes a sentence like this: “He walked into the hallway, opening the front door.” However, unless this character has incredibly long arms, it’s unlikely he walked into the hallway, while at the same time opening the front door. Instead, the sentence should be: “He walked into the hallway and opened the front door.” Alternatively, the writer could choose to use two sentences here to give more weight to each action: “He walked into the hallway. He opened the front door.”

So, there you have it! Here are a few fixes to consider when facing a pacing issue. I’d also love to hear yours—get in touch in the comments, via Instagram, via Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Monday 17 October 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Spirited, Julie Cohen (2020)

Welcome (or welcome back!) to my blog and to my Neo-Victorian Voices series, in which I review novels set in the nineteenth century but written in the twenty-first. This time, I’ll be discussing Julie Cohen’s Spirited (2020), which (spoiler alert) I loved!

Julie Cohen and I were previously on a panel together, celebrating the Brontes during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns (catch a video recording of the event here). And I recently had the pleasure of listening to her keynote at the Historical Novel Society 2022 conference. However, this was my first time reading one of her novels.

Set in the 1850s, Spirited tells the story of Viola (an amateur photographer grieving the loss of her beloved father), her new husband, Jonah, who’s keeping secrets about his time in India, and Henriette, a “medium” who’s adept at conning the bereaved. Even this short description gives you a good sense of some of the components that attracted me to the book. I love Victorian settings, a Gothic mood, and the very nineteenth-century fascination with pastimes which test the boundaries between the scientific and the supernatural. 

But I was surprised to find that Spirited also treats the reader to several queer love stories, to some first-class character and relationship development, even as the plot moves forward at a good pace, and to chapters set in a lesser-seen locale in historical fiction, Delhi. 

Cohen does a great job weaving the story threads of her different point of view characters and in withholding information from us without straining credulity (something I complained about in my recent blog on Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders (2021)). The opening scene, Viola and Jonah’s wedding, was wonderfully atmospheric, but don’t let the first pages fool you: while the subject matter might sound dark, Cohen gives us moments of levity too, and, against seemingly all odds, delivers a happy ending. 

I’d recommend the novel to readers of Gothic, to people interested in nineteenth-century spiritualism, and to anyone who enjoyed Kris Waldherr’s The Lost History of Dreams (2019).

Which nineteenth-century novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.