5 Pacing Problems that Break Your Story’s Stride

Pacing can be my best friend or my nemesis when I’m writing. It depends. Getting from one plot point to the next without losing momentum is always a struggle. I’ve lost my way and left my characters wandering around too many times. That’s because pacing is the last thing on my mind when I’m tapped into my hero’s personality, living through what he is going through. This is the reason I’ve had to cut out chunks of my manuscript to be replaced by a line like, “It took three days for Aaron to cajole his rusty Plymouth into Arizona to find Maurice.” No introspection. No dialogue. No car-broken-down-on-the-side-of-the-road details. I have a story to tell; the extraneous information doesn’t work.

I’m reading two self-published books that have ruined their story’s pace in the first third of the book. Both are sci-fi fantasy with very different tales to tell, yet they make the same mistake. I’d like to say it’s just a fluke – two stories with pacing problems – but it’s not. To those fiction-writers who are flunking the story-pacing test, I, the reader, need you to know five things,

I’m Not Your Therapist.

I like that your character has thoughts I can share. That’s what introspection is for: divulging information that is vital to the storyline or to my connection with your character. That’s it. When you include immaterial monologue, I, the reader, become the unwilling listener. Yet, you are not paying me to trudge through the many branches of your character’s runaway train of thought. I am the one that paid for your book! If I wanted that kind of treatment, I’d have picked up a memoir. Sift through your character’s thoughts and decide whether they help your reader or subject your reader to TMI.

I’m Not Your Man Friday.

When a character is flashing back to the past, then to the present, and back to another time in the past, you have probably mistaken me for a yo-yo. Why am I errand-running through your protagonist’s head? I have my own head to run around in, thanks.

It’s imperative that a character’s experiences move the story forward, which is why every writer should question all flashbacks. “Is this flashback absolutely necessary for the reader to read?” Once you’ve answered that question, go back through the flashback again, asking, “Is there another way to convey the information more concisely?”

I’m Not an Idiot.

If I’m reading about a doctor who’s talking with a patient, do I need a dialogue tag to tell me who says, “Your blood work came back fine”? Please don’t use overuse dialogue tags, (begged Rilla). If you had to read a tag after every sentence, wouldn’t you find that annoying? (asked Rilla). Unless your characters are named “Dick” and “Jane,” and I happen to be at an elementary reading level, your tagging is belittling. Use hints. Often. They are the weapons of mass instruction for a dialogue pro.

I’m Not Your Prisoner.

I’ve mentioned this before, so perhaps I’m being redundant about this redundancy: If your character says it and the description repeats it, it is wasting four seconds of my life. Those are four seconds I could have been checking my email. I could have been deleting another Groupon offer for a spectacular $20 Jujitaekwarate course “Introductory to Principles of Breathing for Martial Arts” (as much as I would like to see who actually shows up for those). If Justin says he’s going for a run, I believe him! I don’t need the narrative to report, “Justin put on his running shoes and stepped out the door for a brisk jog.” Changing the words doesn’t change that I’m chained to Justin’s every move.

Um, I’m Still Here.

Have you ever had a friend tell you an anecdote only for you to remind him/her, “I was there.” It’s pretty funny when that happens, but the friend is usually a little embarrassed because, you know, he/she ought to remember me, right? A character may need to explain something to a new character that I, the reader, already know. Or a character may need to discover what the narrative has already described. Worse than the friend who forgot I was around, a writer who repeats an explanation is showing a lack of consideration for the reader. It doesn’t matter how brief is it. It’s being repeated for the sake of whom? Your imaginary character? I’m real. It is never a bad thing to show your reader you remember he/she is there by skipping the rehash.

 

As a detail-oriented writer, I know what a pain pacing can be when I’m in the throes of a tale, but it’s really worth it. I latch hold of the story’s momentum, as writer or reader, when the pace is kept in check. I don’t have to work at finding the important points because the story doesn’t get sidetracked. The characters will know where they’re going and how to get there, so I know, too. When it comes to introspection, flashbacks, dialogue tags, descriptions, and explanations; be ready to chuck the immaterial, stay in the present, drop the labels, and skip the replays. And don’t forget the magic words: Move On.

There are plenty of pacing tips I’ve not included here. I need help with these, too. Have some helpful advice?

On Finding Joy

This year has been full of wonderful experiences for me. I’ve been less focused on my own writing in favor of learning from other writers. (I’m still writing, but – you know me – I’m not ready to share until I’m ready to share.) During one event I attended in September, I met talented writer Sarah Floyd, who has self-published her novel, Finding Joy.

Yes, it’s my tendency to shrink away from self-published works; I’ve been burned many times. This book is different. It’s different in a lot of ways. First, it’s inspirational fiction…and I actually like it. That is a shock to me. There is a natural passage of time needed for persons to grow and develop, which principle is terribly lacking in most novels, particularly in the “Christian inspired” ones. And there’s no heavy weight of preachiness, no “hit me over the head with the Spirit of God” moments. In fact, most of the life principles that are brought up in this book are underemphasized. I found myself a few sentences ahead when the impact of some thought really penetrated my brain. This is where Sarah Floyd’s skill truly impresses. Here’s an excerpt near the end of the book where one of the characters is talking about how she’s forgiven someone for hurting her:

“I have to keep forgiving him periodically, you see, like clockwork…or a…an annual physical or something. And it’s overdue…I need to do it again.”

Yes! That’s how forgiveness really feels. It’s not something where you just forget what happened. The scar is always there, and you have to go back and reapply forgiveness every-so-often with no feelings of guilt, or “God isn’t doing His job taking this away from me.” It’s a natural part of the process that gets ignored. And it’s like an afterthought in this conversation. I love that!

Second, Floyd remains true to her characters. When Joy Carnegie gets to Vermont, she’s overwhelmed. She sees the needs others have, and she doesn’t suddenly pull a skill out of her back pocket and come to the rescue. When a friend gets sick, Joy reflects on her distress at her friend’s sickness; but she can’t think of what she can do to help. She prays; she calls to check on him. That’s all she can do. In another section of the book, Joy has a friend who is going through a family crisis and is crying softly in her bed. This moment of quiet release is a single statement in the story. Joy doesn’t do the superman thing and run over to comfort her. She just let’s her cry, let’s her have her time. The author doesn’t make excuses or leave her heroine feeling like a lousy friend. It’s clear Floyd’s not directing her principle actors to say what needs to be said at the fitting time, or pushing her characters to be anything more than what they are organically. She allows them to develop and change on their own. It’s wonderful! They say things and do things that flow like a normal stream of consciousness would have them. This is one of many reasons I turn to the old books for normal-human-reaction therapy. I want to read about the behavior that was completely acceptable before our super self-aware, movie-watching imitators’ culture decided what emotion and response is universally appropriate for every personality and situation. The writer of Finding Joy doesn’t conform to that silliness.

Here’s the third great thing about Sarah Floyd’s Finding Joy: It’s comforting. When I was a kid, my mom would make Cream of Wheat for breakfast, sprinkle it with sugar, and pour milk over it. That’s my comfort food as an adult – that or oatmeal with the milk poured over it. Now, if I’d just said, “Finding Joy is like eating oatmeal,” I realize most of you readers would’ve curled your lip at that. (Maybe you still are!) But I’m trying to give you an idea of the feeling this story wraps around me. It empowers one with the sense of being part of a special fellowship in the midst of all the struggles that can occur in life. There were sections where I smiled or laughed at the gentle banter between Floyd’s characters because they reminded me of the fun I share with close friends. (And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a character that likes eating oatmeal.)

Lastly, the grammar is better than I’ve read in current book selections from some of the genre book clubs. (Isn’t it dreadful how writers lazily apply past tense verbs when the narrative is in past participle? I don’t know why editors allow it in print.) I found a handful of typos but nothing that made me cringe. It’s obvious the author knows her verb tenses and her English, as well as some French!

I have no qualms or hesitations; I can completely recommend Finding Joy to you. Like I do with every story, I looked for a worthwhile protagonist to take with me after I closed book. I’ve found Joy to be just that sort of character. Find Joy’s story on Amazon.

My Neverending Story

Some homeschool mom on Facebook just announced her family started their first week of school. When I read those words, my heart stopped. No summer-loving homeschool mom can cope with this type of behavior on Facebook. I’m not saying she’s on my blacklist or anything. I still love her. I’m sure she’s completely unaware of the spike in my blood pressure, the pounding in my temples, the itch in my feet to bolt.

All year long I wait for summer. I think about it like a child thinks about a great big cloud of cotton candy. I salivate in anticipation of those two hot months of brain sluggery. I do this every year regardless of the reality that all my plans are gonna get sucked up into the vortex of camps and playdates and VBSes… and I don’t know what all I’ve been doing. I just know all my lovely teacher-free weeks are almost gone! Summer is going, going… And then this perky, plan-aheader mom announces, “Hey guys, we’re starting school! We’re so excited! We love us some maths! We’re all up in that earth science business!”

Oh no she didn’t. She did not just start her school year in the middle of July. There goes my fantasy summer, fading into the Nothing. I feel the Gmork of lesson plans and tests and endless “do I have to do this exercise?” whining breathing down my neck. And I’m not ready!

childlikeempress

Save me! My summer world is crumbling!

The Company Drill

There is nothing like coming home after the holidays. I drive by the neighbors’ houses, where cardboard boxes are battling it out with the garbage cans. The once festive green garlands are trailing along the front walks like miserable, bloated snakes. I walk through my door and spot the tinsel draped across my sofa pillows, a tad passé now. The white tree lights, dangling dangerously near the forgotten mug of curdled milk left out for Santa, are not going to win any Better Homes and Gardens awards this week. The leftover party favors, the scary-looking nutcracker dolls toppled over like dominoes on the mantel, the torn edges of shiny paper littering my floors are all evidence that we were hit by the Christmas tornado.

Is it worth it? I’m not going to answer that. I’m not the wide-eyed seven-year-old on Christmas morning anymore. And I would never be the one to deprive a child of the joy of presents under the boughs of a precariously-stationed tree. (My kids witnessed two trees come crashing down this year, so I’m not entirely exaggerating the precarious part.)

Still, a new year means a new leaf, right? Easier said than done. Where to begin…

If your house is clinging to Christmas past, and you have kids at home who can read, catch up with the Company Drill. This drill is inspired by the panic that ensues when you find out—15 minutes beforehand—that your favorite Aunt Minnie will be dropping by for a visit; or when that fabulous Mrs. Hodge, the president of your homeowner’s association, who washes her car for zenith shine while most sane people are asleep, calls and asks to borrow your Rain-X. The drill focuses on getting the public areas of your house in order.

At our house it looks something like this:Company drill2

This simple little paper is posted in an inconspicuous location, say, on a door inside a closet. It works best if you employ a timer—because you’re trying to clean up in record time. The goal is to straighten up in less than 15 minutes. Don’t expect a miracle. The first couple of rounds of the drill will probably fall short of that goal, but it makes a significant dent.

Call a family powwow, bring your timer, and announce that it’s drill time. I like to assign certain rooms to each child with the proviso that if one person does not complete his/her task after the rest have finished, then the whole team won’t make the 15-minute goal. This encourages us to help each other once we’ve finished our room assignments. (I usually take the kitchen—less broken dishes that way.)

What’s the reward for beating the clock? A cleaner house. Seriously. Just knowing you’re done in 15 minutes is pretty exhilarating. The kids have more time to play, and mom can get some writing time in!

Two more tips:

Record your best time and see if your team can beat it during the next drill.

Upbeat music is a great motivator for cleaning, but I suggest not using the music during a drill. It’s more distracting, since you’re yelling “Who has the vacuum?” and such. Plus, without the music I can pretend I’m that kid on Newsies and encourage my team with “Go! Go! Go! Get the lead out of your pants!” I’m helpful that way.

 

Happy Hallothanksmas!

It’s that time of year again. Confusion is in the air! The stores are packed with jolly little pumpkin and candy cane costumes. Wicker cornucopia centerpieces dripping with blood are lined up on the shelves, waiting to adorn your festive table. I have no idea what all this is about. So, I did some research.

autumn-19672_640Regarding this “Halloween” thing (I read that on a poster somewhere. I think it was between some glittery corn husks and the purple and black-striped tree skirts.), legend has it there was a very old woman who liked to wear black, had an uncommonly warty nose, and carried a broom around—to sweep her neighbors’ front porches. She swept and she swept. Nobody noticed what a nice thing she was doing, so she became disgruntled and decided she wanted payment for her act of kindness. So, she knocked on their doors.

“Hello, I need you to come out and look at your porch,” she told them.

They looked, thanked her, and promptly denied her any donations for her good deed.

Well! she huffed to herself; and the more she thought about it, the more it rankled. She decided she would get even.

On every front porch she set a rotting pumpkin, and on one she placed a dead cat. (Her cat had died, and it seemed right to her, since that one neighbor had refused her quite meanly.) The neighbors, in return, decided to reward her for her presents. They baked pies for her. Made of pumpkin. (The rotting ones on the front porches went missing about that time.) The especially mean neighbor made odd-looking jelly candies for her. (Cat bones are wonderful for giving a jelly-like consistency to things, you know.)

For some reason the old woman became ill and died. The neighbors felt bad. They began to sweep their own front porches until it occurred to them to have their kids do it. The kids, knowing the origins of this chore, played terrible tricks on the neighbors, pretending to be the ghost of the old woman and leaving rotting pumpkins or carcasses and bones of animals. Some of the neighbors, still feeling guilty about the old woman, relented and gave the kids sweets as payment. Soon the children became bold enough to knock on doors dressed in their ghostly garb and announce, “Hello, we need you to come out and look at your porch. And if you don’t give us a treat, the ghost of the old lady will give you a terrible trick!”

The “Hello, we need” later merged to form, “Halloween,” the rest became the brief, “Trick or treat,” and that’s how it all began. At least, that’s the gist I came away with. I’m still looking for the thanksmas part.

Less than 5 days for Earth Trolley!

Earth Trolley is a fun read about a woman who slips into her future and has to change things to keep the love of her life, whom she hasn’t even met yet, all during a trip to the grocery store. Try it. You won’t be able to put it down. Three readers in a row just told me they couldn’t put it down, so I can totally say that.

As of today, the story is on the second page of the Beyond Time contest list for number of votes on Inkitt.com. It has to receive enough votes to make the top 10% by July 27th. That’s less than 5 days away. The Inkitt judges will choose the best stories from the top 10%.

Please, read it. Vote! And share it: http://www.inkitt.com/stories/16918.

Camp and Boys

I was fifteen years old the last time I was at summer camp… and a teensy-weensy bit suspended from going back the next year. When I was told I couldn’t go back to sleeping on a thin mattress in a cabin with no A/C and lots of creeping surprises—like ticks, spiders, roaches, and snakes—in the middle of the sweltering Florida summer, I was okay with that. Now I have my own kids, and they wanted to go to camp. I wanted to know about the camp I was sending them to. So, I asked to be a counselor, and I got my wish: one week of sleep-deprived, wilderness survival. Oh boy.

It wasn’t that bad—and I say that because it’s been two weeks since I got back from camp, and I’ve tried to block most of it out. Plus, my kids loved it. They didn’t seem to notice the filthy bathrooms and the chigger bites up their legs. There was a 75% off sale on candy bars on the last day, and what is there to complain about after that?

My daughter, Dawn, did have one complaint, though: her date for the bonfire.

Every camp session has an end-of-the-week couple event that sends the younger campers into a frenzy worrying about having to go with a boy or girl. The crisis is real; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Those kids are sweating it, and the fear smells really, really bad.

Dawn had no idea there was any such thing as going to a bonfire with a boy. Dawn is aware of boys; that’s about it. Dawn did not want to go with a boy anywhere. Dawn wanted nothing to do with a boy, and if a boy even brought up the bonfire subject she was going to scream and run.

“I am not going to the bonfire with a boy, Mom!” she averred on the first day.

“You don’t have to,” I told her.

“Are you sure? They made it sound like I have to!”

“They’re just doing that for fun.”

She calmed down. “Okay, because I don’t want to go with a boy.”

Then one of her cabin mates decided a little matchmaking was in order. It consisted of asking the boy sitting across from Dawn at lunch in the mess hall, “Do you have a date for the bonfire?” And telling him, “Then you and Dawn should go together.”

Dawn is not a violent child. Normally. In that instance she turned on her matchmaking friend, gave her the evil eye, and said between clinched teeth, “Stop it.”

Her cabin mate, a new friend, was unaware that this was Dawn’s violent side and all manner of plans were going through Dawn’s head for disposing of this new friend pronto.

The friend pressed the subject.

Dawn drew close, and in quiet, blood-curdling tones, repeated through her teeth, “Stop it!”

The friend didn’t get the hint, and Dawn left the table mid-meal.

Heated words were spoken in the cabin during rest hour. Dawn was incensed. Her ex-friend was offended. I felt very sorry for Dawn, but, well… C’est la camp! I won’t say I never tried to match my friends up. I won’t say they never hated me for it.

Then something really tragic happened. Dawn was asked to the bonfire by a boy! She said, “No.” And she felt bad.

“Mom, I feel awful for telling him I wouldn’t go with him. I didn’t even tell him why. I just said, ‘no,’ and walked away.”

“Then go back and tell him it’s because you just don’t want to go to the bonfire with a boy.”

“I just feel so bad,” she said. “He’s very unattractive, Mom.”

So, Dawn in all her gentleness went back to the ugly boy and told him she was sorry for having to tell him no. It wasn’t him; it was her.

He responded, “That’s okay. I was just asking random girls.”

When Dawn relayed this to me, I laughed. “See? You don’t need to feel bad!”

“But, Mom! Now I feel worse! All those girls have told him ‘no.’” She shook her head. “He’s so unattractive, but… he seems nice.”

I should’ve seen where this was going and warned the tender-hearted child, but I didn’t. The next conversation we had, she looked at me intently and told me, “I’m going with that boy to the bonfire.”

“You are?”

“Yes. I told him, ‘If you still want me to go with you, I will.’”

I didn’t try to persuade her out of it. I could see she was determined it was the right thing to do. After all, I knew she didn’t really like him, unlike her twin sister, Pearl, who had found a way to threaten the boy she liked into going with her to the bonfire. I had my hands full keeping my eye on Pearl.

So, the day of the bonfire arrived. The young campers’ moods were tense up to the hour of the bonfire. The momentous occasion came… and went. On the way back from the bonfire, Dawn found me. She was fuming.

“Mom! That boy was soooo dumb!”

I grinned. “What did he do?”

“Oh! He—everything! First of all, he made me sit on the end of the bench, and I only had half a seat. And second of all, he started to fall asleep on me.”

I laughed.

“Mom, he kept trying to shine his flashlight in my eyes. He wanted me to see how long I could stare at the light. Mom, he was so dumb he blinded himself with the flashlight.”

I died laughing.

She stopped walking and said, “It’s not funny.”

“I’m not laughing at you,” I said, trying to contain my laughter. “It may not be funny to you now, but it will be.”

She wasn’t convinced. “He was so dumb! I shouldn’t have gone with him.”

“I think you’ve learned a lesson here,” I told her. “A boy who is unattractive may not have any redeeming qualities. Don’t sacrifice yourself just because you feel sorry for someone.”

“He blinded himself with his own flashlight, Mom! Who does that?”

“Dumb boys?”

She groaned.

That night, the girls in the cabin recounted what happened around the bonfire, and Dawn told her story with all of the indignation and none of the disappointment. It was followed up with stories on stupid things boys do.

“Is it funny now?” I asked her amidst the laughter.

“Yeah.” She studied the underside of the top bunk and mused, “I just can’t believe anybody can be that dumb!”

Yes, there are dumb boys out there, Dawn. I hate to tell you, but there are lots of dumb boys. Some of them are unattractive. You can feel sorry for them, but don’t let pity or misplaced guilt influence you. Some of them are attractive. Don’t let their looks fool you; they are still dumb. It’s perfectly fine to say ‘no’ and walk away.