Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Novel Trend

"Two pages does not a chapter make."
-Critique of my first novel submissions

When I first started submitting Oracle to the group, I had major pacing problems. Now, a couple of years later, I realize that I'm not the only one. In our big batch of group submisions there were two new novels being newly submitted. Both are rushed, and they aren't the only writers who've come through the group to do this. Weird.

I can't help but wonder what the big rush is. Are we just in a hurry to get done so we can say we've done it? Are we trying to pace ourselves and not put too much into one chapter for fear of neglecting the others? Is it an issue of being intimidated by writing something novel length? Or, are we just trying to cram too much in?

What helped me was making the novel into a movie in my head, then trying to translate that movie into what I wrote. The firmer things like scenery, props, gestures, costuming, etc. were in my head, the better I was at expanding scenes and slowing the heck down. It goes back to that idea of "show, don't tell." I had to show people the movie in my head, vs. tell them the story about the movie. That was my lightbulb moment. It still took a few months of practice before I could get the pacing about right, but I did get there.

Now we have two more people telling us about the movie, and getting them to show it will be quite the trick. Anyone have thoughts on other ways to explain pacing?


-John said...

Would it still make sense if the story was told orally, instead of...literaryally? I can think of many phrases that are interchangeable for both methods. "You blew by that part too fast." "I don't really need to know this character's ENTIRE life story when the story is not about the character's life story." "I have no idea what the hell is going on here."

Some of the best things I've read were not grammatically written like someone speaks, but there was a sense the writer sat across a table from me, telling a story over a cold beer, or warm soup. Can the pace hold someone's attention if they only heard the story, and didn't get to turn back pages when confused?

Debbie said...

I think the answers to your questions may be simply, "yes."

There is that idea of holding your nose and jumping in feet first. Then we rush to get to the "good stuff" so we don't lose reader (read: agent) interest in the first few pages. Then there's that nagging thought at the back, or even the front, of your brain that you only have one book in you so you'd better hold something back for the next one. And, my personal favorite, the "race to the barn" at the end of the novel. A couple people made comments about the end of MMG. "When did she decide to do that?" "Where did that come from?"

Watching the movie is a good idea. Am I tempted to fast forward? Rewind? Or am I glued to the screen?

Remember, too, that there is a problem for the reader to keep track of the pacing when you're reading a chapter or two then have to wait a month for the next couple chapters. There's a tendency then for the reader to want big action--physical or emotional--in each submission. Then when you put it together, it leaves the reader breathless in a bad way.

Wow, didn't think I'd go on like this. Maybe I should have paced myself. :D

Ali said...

I like the storytelling analogy, and given the many readings various authors do/audiobooks, it really makes sense. If it doesn't work spoken it may not work written either (though the only way I got through any of the Lord of the Rings books was by having them on audio tape).

I know what you mean, Deb, about the chapter-by-chapter thing. I had that very critique on some of mine. However, the difficulty I'm seeing isn't lulls but the opposite. On three critiques now I've written something like "You have one chapter here, but it should really be two (or in once case, four)." As a movie, I'm pausing and rewinding a heck of a lot.

Jenny said...

The trick with chapters is that I have a hard time if a *scene* isn't complete...every piece should have a beginning, middle, end...even if the end leads to the next chapter. It's taken me forever to figure this out in my own writing, and I'm definitely still working on it. If you have a scene in your head and then proceed to describe it, let it run its course, and then move on to the next one, you automatically have something 'action-y', even if no real action is going on, and something that is fun for the reader to actually read.

Possible exercise: Pick an author you admire and look at a random chapter in any of their books. Can you pick out when the scene begins and ends? Basically, can you see how it's working?

Lydia said...

Hi Ali!

As someone who has never written anything longer than ten pages, I love your idea of making a movie and translating that onto the page. I'm always so beffudled when I try to think in terms of longer pieces of writing (a novel sounds insurmountable to me) but pacing is probably the first thing I would need to work on. Or maybe I'll just stick to poetry where a couple of pages is already on the way to being epic :)

Shane said...

I think the problem stems from the writer not considering an outside reader.

So, you're writing the first scene and you know where you want to go, I mean you've seen it in you head, right? But, if you're not careful, a lot of those details get left inside your head.

The idea is to guide a complete stranger, someone who never imagined the world or situation you are trying to tell a story about, and give them enough detail that they feel comfortable hanging out there by themselves (without the author there to answer questions).

Readers need a nudge in the right direction. They aren't going to know where they are unless you map out landmarks and people they might bump into and such.

On the other hand, people don't like being talked down to. That's how I've always viewed the show don't tell arguement. When you tell me stuff, I feel like the author doesn't trust me or worse, thinks I'm stupid. "Now this character over here is feeling sad, okay?" or "This is why we have to go this way and not that way, understand?"

As to rushing, it can be a matter of the author just not having the story clear enough in their own head. I got that from your early submission, Ali. Like you had an idea, but were still doing the sketches instead of full-color oils. However, if you don't trust your reader enough, those sketches turn more towards blueprints than paintings.

Whittaker Luckless said...

Le ponder...