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Posts tagged with: pace

Exit, Stage Left!

Red CurtainNo, this post isn’t about the Hanna-Barbera animated  character Snagglepuss. (Yeah, I’m definitely aging myself here.) Instead, it’s about stage direction – you know, those descriptions, tags and ‘beats’ we writers use to move our characters around within the setting we’ve created.

To be even more precise, this post is about UNNECESSARY stage direction.

Too much stage direction can really slow down the pace. Too little stage direction can really confuse your reader. Either can make the reader want to throttle you.  

I’m doing some final revisions on my WIP in part to improve the pace. (ENTHRALL ME currently weighs in at a whopping 128K words, so some judicious pruning is definitely in order.) When writing early drafts, I err on the side of writing too much stage direction rather than too little. This means that later on in the revision process, my manuscript is littered with so much unnecessary walking and sitting and touching and crossing and glancing and noticing that the Pace… Grinds… To… A… Haaaallllltttttt….  

“Duh, we GET it, Tammy. Move on. No, really. MOVE ON.”

Seriously, we don’t have to explicitly write every physical action every character makes in every scene in our books. Readers are more than capable of filling in the mundane details for themselves. 

I write in very deep third-person point of view. Following are examples of some “Well, Duh!” revisions I made to eliminate unnecessary stage direction and pick up the pace:

He let himself stare while she continued the conversation with Thane and Valerian, cataloging her rose petal skin, her lush, pink lips, her foolish green-tipped hair, and the mismatched earrings. Her eyes sparkled with verve, with life. Her impish grin conveyed her energy and delight.

Had he ever been so young?

First of all:  The scene is written from Wyland’s POV; we’re already seeing Tia through his eyes. Using the words “staring” and “cataloging” to explicitly reference the act of seeing is unnecessary, and actually introduces distance in the POV work.

Second: My purple-tinged description of Tia’s many physical charms * wince*  not only slows down the pace, but it diverts the reader’s attention away from the point I wrote the paragraph to make: that Wyland feels old in comparison. This is the wrong place in the manuscript for so much physical description – description I know I wrote better elsewhere.

Third: Wyland is an educated man, but I think I’ve used too many multi-syllable words here. Simplifying the language will pick up the pace.

The revision:

As she talked with Thane and Valerian, she sparkled with life, full of energy and delight.

Had he ever been so young?

Another example:

As he dealt with the cork and poured the wine, he heard a series of electronic clicks and ticks behind him. Fabric rustled, and the whispered sounds made his body hair stand on end. He shifted his shoulders, trying to gain some breathing room in a perfectly-tailored suit coat that suddenly seemed two sizes too small. 

“He heard?” OF COURSE he heard; we’re in his POV. And, OMG, did I actually describe him moving his shoulders? #FAIL

The revision:

As he dealt with the cork and poured the wine, electronic clicks and ticks whispered behind him. Fabric rustled, making his body hair stand on end. His perfectly-tailored suit coat suddenly seemed two sizes too small. 

Sometimes, when revising, a few snips with a cuticle scissors will do the trick. At other times, you need a freaking machete.

On this revision pass, I’m also pruning away a lot of eye, lip, and breath gymnastics. You know what I mean: the blinking, the frowning, the eye-rolling, the raised eyebrows, the tightening and pursing of lips, the sighs, the inhaling and exhaling, that writers sometimes use to convey a character’s emotional reaction…or to avoid using “said” quite so often. 😉  I seriously overuse these supposedly subtle reactions in early drafts, to the degree that reading them later on makes me feel like I’m banging readers over the head with a cast-iron skillet: “SEE? SEE? IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, THIS IS HOW SHE FEELS!” 

A little of this ‘tagging’ goes a long, long way.

In this example, Tia and Wyland are sharing a shower. They don’t have time to make love – he’s late for work – but that doesn’t stop Tia from teasing him: 

The commute from Marine On St. Croix to Chanhassen was a haul and a half under the best of conditions. “Rain check?” Transferring her hands from his body to her own, she started washing her breasts.

His gaze followed, his face taut with arousal. Swearing under his breath, he grabbed the shampoo. “What are your plans for tonight?”

Oof, talk about belaboring the point. Do I really need to explain to the reader that Tia moved her hands from Wyland’s body to her own so she could wash her own breasts? Do I need to interpret Wyland’s emotion for the reader quite so explicitly? In addition to flagrantly violating “show, don’t tell,” my unnecessary stage directions killed the sexual tension dead.

My revision:

The commute from Marine On St. Croix to Chanhassen was a haul and a half under the best of conditions. “Rain check?” She started washing her breasts.

Swearing under his breath, he grabbed the shampoo. “What are your plans for tonight?”

These precise little snips can really add up. I’m about 150 pages into this revision pass, and I’ve already eliminated nearly 4000 words of  unnecessary stage direction from my manuscript.

Revision-wise, one writer’s clarity is another writer’s overkill. As always, YMMV. But when revising for pace, every word counts. We don’t always have to be so literal or “explain-y.” Our job as writers is to not bore our readers with too much stage direction, or to confuse them with too little, but to find that Goldilocks Zone where the story keeps moving, the pages keep turning, and the reader doesn’t say, “Exit, Stage Left!”

Do you have any stage direction, face gymnastics, or pacing pet peeves? Care to share some of your personal “Well, Duh!” or “Exit, Stage Left!” manuscript moments? 

-tammy

Curtain image by Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just Say “No” to NaNoWriMo: In Defense of Writing Slowly

Two books and a novella.

That’s what I remembered being “normal,” back in 2011, before my son was born. It felt like a lot, but as an unpublished author, I didn’t think I had much say in the matter. Swim with the big fish or get left in the shoals. And before my baby was born, I could keep up. I mean, I wasn’t writing the sort of books that I absolutely love to read, but doing so would have required a much lengthier research period, and I didn’t feel like that was possible. Not with the pressure we were all under. I had to demonstrate that I could meet the very high expectations placed upon us. Whether or not I was writing the book of my soul was secondary to meeting the expectations of the industry.

Look, the first book I wrote won a Golden Heart. Doors opened for me. I couldn’t stand in the hallway. I walked through and got to work.

Then my baby was born.

I didn’t fall into motherhood as naturally as I’d hoped I would. He was large and needed almost constant feedings. He didn’t sleep well. He cried often, not quite enough to be called “colicky” but enough to make us feel like we were doing it all wrong. 

This is not unusual, I know. What was unusual was that I hadn’t intended on taking any maternity leave from writing. I’d sold my first two books just weeks after my son was born. I meant to keep writing, to capitalize on this amazing sale to a fabulous publisher. But I couldn’t. Just….couldn’t. I was too tired, too sore. Even when I found free time, which was very rare, I couldn’t think of a single thing worth writing about. I tried. But I had no interesting inputs, and therefore I had nothing to output. I was drained. Empty. 

But every other mother I’d talked to had been able to do it. Why couldn’t I? Why was I so weak-willed that I couldn’t do it all? Why was I so unimaginative that I couldn’t write while taking care of one little baby?

Failure. Guilt. Shame. You know the drill.

I soon found that I was happier when I was 100% devoted being a mother. So I stopped trying to write. We moved to live closer to family, became happier. Life got easier. My son flourished. He has turned out to be a bit of a physical and mental dynamo who was probably just pissed off that he didn’t pop out of the womb ready to run. Now, he’s in preschool, and I have twelve hours a week to write.

Except I’m not writing, not in the way I used to, with #1k1h sprints and daily tracking on a spreadsheet to keep myself motivated. I was happy but not healthy on that treadmill. Worse, I’d been afraid to write my most favorite kinds of books: multi-layered, beautifully written romances with a rich cache of historical detail and intricately woven mysteries.

Why was I afraid? They take a lot of time to write, especially if you’re starting from scratch in a historical period. I didn’t feel like I had that sort of time before. I just jumped in and started swimming. Frantically.

But now? I’ve been out of the game for three years. I’m a mother. I feel like I’ve been through battle. My skin has thickened. I’m not afraid of the industry anymore. (Oddly, this has carried over into my personal life, as well.) As long as I’m being true to myself, I don’t care very much what other people think of me.

So I’m writing what I love to read. Finally.

And I’m not NaNoWriMoing. Instead, I’m researching. I’m taking weeks to read and think and plan, and I’m not feeling anxious about how many words I’m writing or what the market is doing in the meantime. What matters to me now is whether or not I’m writing my very best book. My best. Every time. That’s how you make it, in my opinion. That’s how you find and keep devoted readers. By giving them your very best every time, as often as you can, but not so often that you die trying.

Let me repeat that: Don’t die trying.

Really. How is your thyroid? Your carpal tunnel? Your back pain? How’s your neck holding up? That tingling in your toes? Your weight? How’s your caffeine consumption? Your energy level? Your sex life? Your relationship with your non-writing friends? Your children? Your family? When’s the last time you had your teeth cleaned? How much pain medication are you taking? Alcohol? Anti-depressants?

When’s the last time you lamented your slow pace and wished you could just…write…faster? When’s the last time you heard a friend say the same thing?

Honey. Stop. Just…stop. Listen to me: you don’t have to do this to yourself. This is absurd! Why are we accepting these insane expectations as normal?

WHY?

Because we are WOMEN, and women are supposed to make people happy.

Aren’t we? And it makes editors and agents and husbands very happy when we are extremely productive, and all the more so when we pretend that we can get up at 4:30 AM with a smile and that our backs aren’t killing us and that we don’t harbor a secret and unhealthy addiction to caffeine.

We are supposed to “do it all,” remember?

That’s our right as beneficiaries of feminism. If we don’t “do it all,” we are failures. Even though we think it’s really hard or perhaps even impossible to be extremely productive without driving ourselves into an early and painful grave, we think it’s WHAT WE SHOULD BE DOING. This is like the Mommy Wars, only there’s no one on the other side saying, “Hey! I’m tired. I’m sick. And I’m unhappy. I can’t meet these insane expectations, and I think we need to slow down and support each other in doing so.”

I think we’re doing it to ourselves.

Or at least we’re complicit in the agreement that this is all supposed to be normal. By nodding in agreement when some editor or agent or whoever talks about the crazy pace they want us to meet, we’re agreeing with the insanity. When we beat ourselves up for not meeting this unmeetable standard, we’re complicit with this craziness.

Well, bull. I think that what I should be doing is living a full and healthy life while also writing beautiful, well-researched and fully imagined books that I can stand behind 100% (rather than some half-baked, one-handed erotica that pays the bills but makes me feel like I’m not using my talent or speaking my truth. Not that that’s what I or you have been doing, but I know we’re all wondering if that’s what it’s going to take to make it big). I think that if more of us who cannot meet these unreasonable standards take a vocal stand against such pace, we’d all be better off.

For me, this is a feminist issue.

It’s an issue of women vs. women, and how hard we are on ourselves. Victoria Dahl gave a moving and brave speech at the Emerald City conference about how the whole “your heroine must be likable and good!” message is finally fading, and it’s because writers like her took a courageous and lonely stand against it. She feels that part of the “likable heroine” messaging that we receive is an extension of the “women must be likable” messaging that most of us would agree we have been receiving since birth.

So, I’ve begun having conversations like this one with my friends who feel that the expectations placed upon us are insane, and that those who manage to meet them are very often living unhealthy lives. I’m not saying that every writer who can meet this schedule with a smile are unhealthy; please don’t take offense if you are a productive, healthy writer. 😉 But most writers I speak to who are extremely productive are also secretly very, very tired and very, very sick.

We’re killing ourselves and encouraging our friends to do the same. I say it stops now. NaNoWriMo if if makes you happy. I’ll cheer you on! But if you feel like the pace of our industry is killing you softly, then please, for your own health, join me in writing at a more reasonable pace. I realize that we’re genre-fiction writers, and our readers do expect regular offerings. But our health and happiness is more important than our writing output. Don’t let the industry squeeze you dry in ten years flat. Find a steady, productive pace that allows you to maintain your own good health and loving relationships with your friends and family.

If I hear one more of you tell me that you skipped a family vacation to write, I’m going to get seriously angry over here!

Love,

Jamie

Jamie Michele writes smart, sexy suspenses about women who never do what’s expected of them, and the men who should know better than to stand in their way. Check out An Affair of Vengeance, the first in a two-book sequence, on sale for $2!

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