This is a bit of a cheat, since I’m recycling a recent post from Project Middle Grade Mayhem. But this was well received by readers, and although I wrote it specifically for MG writers, I believe it has relevance to writing for other audiences.
I recently received a long-awaited revision letter, and one of the first items on my editor’s list of things to address was: Speed up the pacing at the beginning.
Immediately, my mind started running through what events I could cut. Or make more exciting. Could I slash more words from the text? Should I make things happen faster? (There’s a reason Jax is running on the cover of the first two books, right?)
This is the third book I’ve revised for this editor, and I really should know her better by now! When I read through her letter it became apparent she wasn’t looking to cut events or slash words. In fact, to improve the pacing, I often needed to add words to scenes—spelling out the very important element I hadn’t made clear in the text: the stakes.
I know what the stakes are. My characters know, too. Therefore I mistakenly assume that my readers know as well. But sometimes the stakes get lost or buried in the events of the story, and when the reader forgets what they are, that’s when the pacing falters.
What’s the goal? What’s the deadline? What happens if the goal isn’t met, and how much time is left? These are the things that need to be hit – repeatedly and hard – in a MG adventure. In my books, days of the week are important because there’s a secret eighth day and some characters exist only on that day. My editor wants me to remind readers what day it is. Often. They should practically hear the clock ticking in the background.
She also suggested I avoid talking about people waiting even when they must do so. Instead of writing “There was nothing he could do until Grunsday, when Evangeline would be back” I need to describe what other people are up to during that time. How are they striving to meet their goals, overcome the opposition, or raise the stakes for the main conflict?
Perhaps the third time will be the charm? Maybe I’ll learn the lesson my editor is teaching me and improve this skill on my next manuscript. Pacing isn’t about writing nothing but pulse-pounding action scenes. It’s about focus and tension.
Those are good ways to up the stakes.
There are still things I haven’t learned by my fourth book. Not as many, but stuff that I should know by now!
Great tips on pacing. Many people have the opposite problem with pacing in general–they need to cut out things that aren’t really so important to the plot and add more in that really moves the plot along. I’ll use your recommendations when I get back to the first chapter of my current manuscript.
Great tips on pacing. Most people need to cut not add to pick up the pacing. Hope this publishes as I just tried to comment.
Interesting – I do think it applies to more than just MG. Losing sight of the stakes definitely makes a novel lag for me when I’m reading.
Nail on the nose. This was pretty much what I got from my recent crit. I moved too quickly and when something happened it didn’t hold enough impact. So, it’s not that the pacing needs to slowdown, I just need more information to build up readers.
Interesting. So even though you want to include stuff in your books to attract an adult audience as well as youngsters, some of the things you need to do are specifically aimed at the adolescent brain. I’d never really considered this. Little kids love lots of repetitive elements and familiarity in their stories; it sounds like adolescents do, too, since your editor stresses the need for frequent reminders.
It’s also interesting to consider the idea of adding more to amp up the pace, rather than dropping something, as one would think.
Excellent tips. I think that was the problem with my last chapter, I was writing it as if my characters, and therefore my readers, knew what they would find as I did. But they didn’t. Thankfully someone helped remind me of this 😉
Building the tension steadily and quickly enough to grab the reader and keep them engaged is one way to ensure I stay with a book, and I’m sure other readers are the same one. That’s some interesting feedback on how to do it, but I can see what your editor is talking about.
Dianne, this is an excellent reminder for all writers in any genre. If the pace is flagging, then the writer needs to deal with THE STAKES. Excellent. I think my WiP suffers from this, too. I will pay special attention to it on the next read through.
Great tips! I need to hear this over and over as I’ve begun work on some middle grade stories. Thanks!