Saturday, July 26, 2008

RNA conference notes--part five: Sunday afternoon

These appear to be the last set of conference notes I have! I actually found a lot of Julie's advice here really useful for revising Kett's book.

Julie Cohen: Pacing—it isn’t just what you do in Jimmy Choos while waiting for The Call.

It sure isn’t. I don’t own any Choos. I’ve only ever seen one pair in real life (Alysia, you know I’d nick them if they were in my size!).

Anyway. Pacing, as explained by the not-at-all-hungover Julie Cohen, is about being a Timelord (here we both regretted that she didn’t have a David Tennant picture to display) and controlling your reader’s experience of time. We’ve all experienced the OMG of sitting down to read a little of your book while dinner’s cooking, only to look up what seems to be minutes later, and find your kitchen filling with smoke. The book changed your experience of time, so you didn’t notice the minutes ticking by, or indeed the smoke alarm going off.

How to do this? It does depend on how long the book is. Julie writes short contemporaries for M&B Modern Heat (about 55k, I think) and longer books for Little Black Dress, which are nearly twice as long. In the LBDs, there’s more room for subplots, downtime and introspection, that there isn’t in a shorter book.There’s also space for more worldbuilding and the action can take place over a longer time period.

But all this can slow the pace of a book down. The basic thing you want to do is to make the slow, boring bits of life go faster, and the fast, exciting bits go slower. Lots of conflict slows down the pace, which is exactly what you want for the big dramatic moments in your book—you don’t want them to be over in a twinkling.

Similarly, there are certain bits of exposition that are necessary, but maybe not all that exciting. These could do with being speeded up or incorporated into another scene. You never, ever want your reader to have an excuse to put the book down, or worse, skim bits. You want your reader to burn her dinner (well, you don’t really, but you know what I mean).

Be efficient in your writing. Don’t waste time with things that aren’t relevant, and try to make each scene have two or more purposes. This isn’t about what happens in the scene, but about what it actually does for the story. Does it move the plot or subplot along? Are your characters being developed? Does the scene create environment/atmosphere/conflict? Does it impart information?

Revise for pace. Don’t try and cram it all in on your first draft. Julie often prints out her scenes and writes down what each one actually does in terms of the above. If you do this and discover that you have scenes doing nothing but imparting information, you might want to consider rewriting those scenes, as they’re going to be quite slow. Try to start, and end, each scene with a hook.

Vary the mood, topic, style and theme of your scenes. Julie gave us a breakdown of the first act of Romeo and Juliet with a bullet-point list of what happens. Shakespeare varies, in almost every scene, the tone and style of the language—the younger lovers, the older parents, the aristocracy, the servants. He alternates high drama with comedic moments or fanciful, romantic scenes. The combination is different in almost every scene, and thus a whole lot happens, the world is built and the characters introduced all in the first act, without the pace dropping for a moment.

If you have secrets to impart in your story, try to hand them out gradually. Reveals are dramastic, and they keep the reader coming back for more. Slow down these moments, make them full of emotion and drama. If they pass too quickly, they’ll just vanish and your secret-keeping will have been in vain.

Julie compared novels to comic books (her forthcoming LBD is about a comic book artist), where all the action takes place in the white space, call the gutter. Don’t be afraid of white spaces in your books—use them to break up scenes. They allow time to lapse without filling in pages of boring, “and then this happened, and then that”.

What should you speed up, or even skip altogether?

Coffee and shopping scenes. In films they’re always cut down to montages anyway. These scenes don’t actually do anything (unless the coffee meeting or shoe shopping is the backdrop for important revelations!).

Descriptions for the sake of it. You can tell me the minutest details about your heroine’s outfit, but unless those details are relevant in the scene—the over-tight corset that makes her faint, or the borrowed shoes that cause her to stumble—it’s all completely pointless. Ditto surroundings. This ties in with what Anna said in her workshop on settings, that there should be an emotional connection to the setting, and your characters need to interact with it. If there isn’t, and they don’t, then why are you telling me about it?

Things that are necessary in real life but not in fiction. Your character is driving--I don't need t0o know every gear change. I don't need to know about every meal they eat or how often they use the bathroom (I really don't). There’s a Jude Deveraux book (I can’t remember which one, and I’m not about to go through all twenty-twelve of my books to find out!) where the heroine is a cook, and she makes lots of jam. The reader is treated to page after page of nothing but checking temperatures and boiling sugar, or whatever it is you do in jam-making. I’d tell you, but I was so bored I skipped pages at a time, so I have no idea.

Naturalistic but unnecessary dialogue. I was reading a book the other day—and mercifully I’ve forgotten what it was—where every single word spoken by everyone in every conversation was recorded. You and I know that when you make a phonecall you start off with the pleasantries, but your reader knows this too, and doesn’t need to read, ‘Sarah picked up the phone and dialled Jane’s number. “Hello?” said Jane. “Hello, Jane, it’s me,” Sarah replied. “Sarah?” “Yes. How are you?” Sarah asked. “I’m fine, how are you?” Jane replied. “I’m very excited about the date I had last night,” Sarah said.’ See? Disaster. Your reader has skimmed most of that. If your narration just runs, ‘Sarah called her best friend and said, “Jane, I’m so excited about the date I had last night…”’ you’ve imparted the same amount of information without boring anyone.

Bits at the start and end of the scene. Start with a hook, and go straight in. Don’t re-cap anything.

Resist the Urge to Explain. Remember the jam story? Have R.U.E. painted on your keyboard. Remember about keeping secrets? Your readers are smart people. They’d like to think they’ve figured things out for themselves without being told in every scene what’s going to happen, what’s happening and what’s just happened. Don’t be afraid to cut anything that’s not useful or entertaining.

Analyse your pacing after the fact—especially if you're like me and Julie, and can’t plot in advance. Julie said that for Girl From Mars she made a quick summary of everything that happened in a chapter, then made a chart marking out who was in the chapter, and what was happening with them. Each character got a coloured dot—a small one if their presence didn’t make much of an impact, and a big one if something important was happening to them. This way, she can tell if there are different things happening in each chapter; if there’s a big dot in each chapter; if there’s something from each character thread in each chapter. It’s useful in seeing what the important thing in each chapter is. Can you cut the rest?

I bastardised a version of this for Kett’s book (which despite a list of potential titles running over two pages, still doesn’t bloody have one), which I know is over-long and has pacing problems. My version has columns for character and plot development, and then for the tone and content of the scene—one each for humour, love, lust, drama, and hate. I put in varying shades of each colour for varying degrees of content. Sounds complicated, but it enabled me to see where there were chapters with lots of plot development, but apparently no humour, love, lust, drama or hate. The characters didn’t develop much either.

See the highlighted box near the top? Skim along to the right, and you'll see only one colour there—plot development. But absolutely nothing else. That's the Hateful Chapter Five, which has since been fixed, to be funnier, sexier, and less hateful.

On the other hand, I could see where the Black Moment fell by the big dark colours in each column. The Drama and Hate columns had lots of colour there, but after that the Hate column got paler, while the Love one got darker.

It’s all about using what tools work for you. If you’re a better plotter than I am (and I can’t even write notes on my plots, or the creative bit of my brain just goes on strike) then you might not need all this. But if your book is plodding a bit, try using some of Julie’s advice to tighten it up a bit.


  1. Thanks very much for these excellent notes.

  2. OMG, I love you. LOL. Can I come live with you for a month, just to absorb the process???? Not to mention, cuddle with Spike since he reminds me so much of my childhood cat, Cleo.

    It's a weekend for conference notes. I was just revisting all the ones I took from the RWA National Conference in Atlanta a few years ago.



  3. You're welcome, Debs.

    AStacia: The process involves lots of procrastination online and many instances of forgetting to attach files to emails (such as when I sent Kett to my editor yesterday). It also involves wine. And kittens on the keyboard.

    But Spike would be extremely flattered that someone would cross an ocean to cuddle him. No, not flattered...what's the word? He's a god king, so he'd just consider it appropriate!

  4. Thanks for your notes.....they come at exaxctly the right time to refresh my brain even though I was there an not hungover at all either!!!