It is a truth universally acknowledged that the one thing which separates beginner writers and intermediately experienced writers is the skill with which they pace their novels.
I often get the feeling that people think that beginner novels are bad because people don’t know how to write—as in, the prose has a quality which could be described as ‘bad’, itself. But I’m quite positive—and I’m not the only one to think so—that the major beginner ‘sin’ is being boring.
The first novel I’ve ever written had almost ten pages of traveling—by carriage—early on in the narrative. The first novel I’ve ever published needed two full years of rewriting (technically, redrafting—I’ve seen that term used for the practice when you get to do it all again from the get go, not just fixing bad copy, but writing new one) mostly because those 50k (yup, it was a NaNo novel) had enough pages-long character introspection to bore even the greatest fans of stream of consciousness novels. I hope to think I’ve learned a thing or two in the almost decade past.
But the November-friendly question is—how do you manage to pace your novel in an acceptable, not to mention readable manner when you’re already racing ahead in a challenge such as NaNo, and you’re already stretching yourself thin with getting enough words down every day, hoping that at least you won’t get a lot of plot and/or characterization wrong? Is there room, at such a writing pace, to even consider narrative pacing?
Um, yeah. Otherwise, the novel will remain just a fun—and personal—experiment.
So here are a few tricks—from a few years of wrestling with pacing, trying to find help wherever possible, and slushing those godawful character introspections year after year—which might help you make it through the final eight days of this November without losing sight of the bigger picture.
#1 Are you having fun in this part of the novel?
You might’ve heard about this, and I feel there’s a lot of truth in it—if you are not having fun, how on Earth do you expect the readers to enjoy themselves? Observing your own emotions is the quickest and the cheapest way to find out whether the part you’re currently writing works or not. When it does, great. And when it doesn’t, switch things up a bit; add a new element, make your characters live a little. In other words, pick up the pace.
#2 Did you spend too many words at the beginning or at the end of the novel?
You’re (probably) not at the end yet, but try to figure out whether there will be an imbalance in the wordcount. I don’t really think that ending-heavy novels are all that balanced, but rushing the end helps no one, either. My common problem is that when I have more time, in a day of writing, I tend to write more words in the scenes and parts I’m working on, even when there’s really no need to stretch them so far. While some people follow screenwriting pacing—google it, if you want to ruin your experience at the movies or if numbers and percentages are your thing, in which case do it now—some follow their own inner tempo. I just try to not fuck it up too much on any given day.
#3 How long ago, wordcount-wise, did anything important happen in the plot?
If you can’t remember, the reader won’t, either. You don’t have to write the fastest novel ever—unless that’s exactly what you’re aiming for, and your genre allows it—but at least some manner of things actually happening helps. (You don’t have to have a dragon come out—not even one which is a piñata—but do at least have the characters discover something important about each other or something. Anything.)
#4 Do you have enough ‘breather’ area in the novel?
This is actually something I’ve heard my partner say the other day—that she’s writing a breather part in the pacing just at the beginning of a chapter, because there were three bigger things happening before and/or right after that, and both the characters and the reader need a bit time off, I guess. When shit happens, characters need to react—helping the reader live through their own reaction, too—and slowing things down a bit, from time to time, might be necessary.
#5 Can you paraphrase a certain non-crucial (or non-impactful) event from the plot in order to pick the pacing up a bit?
You wouldn’t believe how useful this is. Unless you’re already doing it, in which case—hell yes!
#6 Would this event you’ve just paraphrased be beneficial for the reader to see onscreen?
This was a really hard point to understand for me, in the early years of writing unpublished novels. (I’m now in my early intermediate years of writing unpublished copy, thank you very much.) Not everything happening in the novel needs to be on the page—I do prefer the term onscreen—but some things must. A character has their heart broken mid-novel—write it down, word by painful word. There’s an exceptionally emotional event in any tone, positive or negative—yup, put it out there. The reader needs to feel what the characters feel, and to get there, they need to go through what they went through, too. Saying a thing happened, and then another thing, and then another, isn’t nearly as successful in getting there, no matter how fun the things are, as showing said things.
Also, a little extra drama never hurt nobody.
A note in terms of a disclaimer at the end—not every novel needs to have the exact same pacing as any other novel, and subject matter, genre and also—very important!—reader preference impact the pacing of a novel in a big way. I’d never read a lot of the slower things currently being praised out there, and I do write prose with a deliberate (and proud) genre element. If you’re writing literary fiction, take all of this with an even bigger grain of salt than if you’re not.
Also also—have a great weekend, all. We’ll need it, since we’re entering the final week of NaNo tomorrow!
Photo by Abdulkadir A.