Wednesday 27 May 2009


I promised that I would soon hit you with a post which would improve your writing. Big Mistake 1, you'll doubtless remember, was back in February, when I talked about making mistakes with voice. This Big Mistake "series" aims to point you towards the commonest mistakes in otherwise decent manuscripts, the things that so often stop them pressing the necessary ecstasy buttons for an editor or agent to say "OH YES!"

This lesson is aimed at already decent writers, not those whose writing is at a level of direness which you cannot imagine. (Unless you've seen a website that I recently gawped at. Put it this way: supposing its author decided to go down the vanity publishing route; this would be a) the only way she stands a chance of getting published and b) akin to Medusa paying for some glamour photos to be done as a birthday present to herself.)

Sorry, but I needed to get that off my chest. There are some seriously deluded idiots out there; please tell me you are not among them.

Anyway. Pace is one of the things that perfectly decent writers often fail to analyse in their own work and is, thankfully, one of the easiest things to fix.
In fact, so easily might you be able to fix it, that I would not be surprised if this post alone does not propel at least one of you to publication. Go, go, go! If one of you gets published, I will feel like a midwife, which would be rather lovely (in some ways, though not in others). I could get to be at the birth - otherwise known as champagne-drenched launch party.

What is pace? Where will you find it?

Pace is not always fast; nor does it have to be. Pace consists of controlling the variety of speeds with which the action happens and with which the reader reads. And you find it in any book where you keep wanting to turn the page.

Hold onto that thought because it's your ability to make the reader want to turn the page, instead of just turning down the corner of it prior to going to sleep, which is your whole aim as an author. Regardless of whether you write crime fiction or romance, kids' books, comedy, literary fiction or whatever - including non-fiction - you want your readers to keep going. And if you get the pace wrong, they won't.

Clearly, some books move faster than others. Some genres require a faster pace throughout: action stories, thrillers, books for teenagers, chick-lit - all require more foot on the accelerator more of the time, because that's what their readers are there for.

But no readers respond well to a constant fast pace. After all, if it's fast all the time, how do you get your reader's heart racing faster for your climactic scenes? How do you create suspense if every page is a sprint? You must play with the reader. You must think: where do I want the reader to become breathless with anticipation? When will I allow him to relax before upping the pace again? How many times will I do this and how often? If we have a really fast bit here, what happens when we get to the scene later which I want to be even more intense and dramatic?

So, pace is about control. Pace is a tool, one of the most important tools in keeping the reader going.
Now, I can't decide for you where your fast or slow bits should come, because I don't know your story-line. (Please don't tell me). Only you know that, and it should be obvious to you. But, once you have worked out which are your big scenes and paciest bits, I can give you some tips for how to control the pace at those times.

Technique 1 - chapter ends

You can change the whole pace of a section (or whole book) by simply changing where you end your chapters. Think of a chapter as a breath. If your chapter depicts a complete episode, the reader starts by inhaling, reaches the top of the breath (the climax of the episode), then exhales to the end of the chapter, at which point he relaxes. And quite possibly turns out the light and goes to sleep. Which is fine - your reader needs to sleep. But, what if you don't want him to sleep now? What if this is supposed to be a fast bit where you want your readers breathless with excitement? Simple: end your chapter mid-breath. So, end it before the climax, at a point where the reader cannot relax.
Do that a few times, and you've created a really fast-moving section. You've upped the pace. Try it: go through your book messing around with your chapter ends.

Technique 2 - chapter lengths
Fast sections = short chapters. Simple. Make the reader sit up. Make the reader read another one.
Can't stop themselves. Just one more. And one more. And now they're really into the story. You've got 'em.

Technique 3 - sentence lengths

One common mistake of not-good-enough writers is having sentences that are all the same length. (And same structure, but we'll tackle that another day.) It slows everything down (if they're all quite long) and makes it monotonous (even if all short and breathless). The simple rule is: short when you want to increase the pace. Again, it's about breathlessness.

You can also extend the technique to paragraph lengths. So, for a particularly dramatic fast bit, you might have a series of very short sentences, each on a new line. I did this in my next novel (not Deathwatch - the next one, Wasted.) Let me show you, and bear in mind that this is the most dramatic moment of the book, which the reader has been waiting for for a long time:

There is a moment of emptiness. It is a fraction of space, when one thing ends and another begins. Laughter stops, punched in the face, shocked.

Jess’s body freezes.

Breath holds.

One jetski.

It is coming.



The beach.

Jack is standing now.
His back to the sea.


The rider’s face.

But then.


Trying to turn.


A spray of froth.

A flash of red.

OK, that's a bit extreme but this is a novel where much of the book has a dreamlike, headachey quality, a thick summer feel with the menace of thunder, and when I need to gear up I use what I call the Ferrari Method - (well, I'm calling it that now) - a super turbo-charged shock to the reader.
That particular example shows something else about Ferraris - you can hear them coming, but there's not enough time to get out of the way. The build up of short sentences lets you know, absolutely know, that something horrible is just about to happen.

Alternatively, you could also use Fire-cracker method, where the short sentences come out of the blue, in the middle of some long sentences. Earlier in Wasted, I do this when a pigeon flies through the window ... (Something of which, as you know, I have considerable experience). I give absolutely no warning of this and both my agent and editor commented on this as being the most shocking moment because the reader is not ready. Bearing in mind that there are a considerable number of far more shocking moments, a pigeon is doing a pretty good job if it over-takes human disaster on the shock stakes.

Technique 4 - controlling tense
Now, this isn't exactly a technique but it's something that affects pace in ways which are worth looking at. The easier tenses to handle are the past tenses. No one has a problem with these. Using the present tense is much trickier, and creates its own atmosphere which is (surprisingly?) not always one of greater speed and immediacy. It can sometimes feel detached. So, with the present tense, you need to be even cleverer about controlling pace. I don't recommend the present tense unless you really know what you're doing. There are too many pitfalls
and many readers are put off by it.

Whichever tense you are using, Technique 5 comes into play.

Technique 5 - chopping words
When you want a particular section to feel very immediate, you could omit bits of sentences altogether, usually subjects, articles, or finite verbs. Don't do this too much, or it becomes irritating; and if you do it, as I do, it needs to be a recognised part of your style, not something you just inserted for effect on page 178.)
Here's a bit from Deathwatch. The bits in red are where I've left words out, deliberately to increase pace. The bit in blue is technique 6.

The towpath was narrow here, backed by a high wall. No escape. She looked behind her. The barge was nearly at this bank. She could just make out the figure of the woman at the helm. Hear her voice but not her words. She didn’t want to hear her words.

She ran, pummelling the air, cold wind in her throat, rain running down her face, pain in her lungs. Straining to hear any sounds behind her. No sound of the boat, not any more. It must be at the bank. The woman would be leaping off. She would be only seconds behind."

Technique 6 - running phrases

That sentence in blue could have been separate "sentences". (Yes, I know, not technically sentences, since they lack finite verbs, but I could have separated them with full-stops/periods). And that would work too. But in some ways this method creates a smoother speed, not a jerky breathless one. Here, the character is running sucessfully - she feels powerful. If I'd made them separate staccato sentences, I'd have created a more breathless and desperate effect, but I'm saving that for later ...

Please don't think I'm setting myself up as in any way a perfect writer. No, no, no. I look all my published books, including the new one which is looking at me accusingly right now, and think, "ARGHHH, why didn't I change that bit or notice this bit?" No, what I want to do is show you how carefully you have to look at your writing at every level, from overall structure down to individual word and punctuation point, in order to be in control of your pace.

See, if you can't control your pace with absolute precision, you've lost your reader. And, published or unpublished, you cannot afford to do that.

Now, on a personal note, I am feeling very much under pressure, and not for any reason you might guess. Last night, I was accosted in a bar (in the nicest possible way), by a very interesting and personable person who asked me if I was Nicola Morgan, "because" she read my blog. We then had a really good chat, but what was disconcerting was that she said she recognised me from my boots. Considering that the boots in question have never featured in this blog (though others have), this was remarkable. Anyway, she said she knew I'd be in this bar because I'd put it on Twitter and on my blog, and she thought to herself, "Hmm, if Nicola is there, she'll be bound to be wearing great boots." So, she must have gone around the bar looking at everyone's feet. I feel a little like Cinderella.

Anyway, if I'm going to be held to account by the gloriousness of my boots, this puts me under some extra pressure, to which there is really only one answer: I'd really better go and buy some more.


Captain Black said...

Thanks for these tips. Great series so far; I look forward to reading and learning more. I'm not sure if I count as an already decent writer, but I'll take the free advice anyway :o)

lacer said...

Thank you for a great post, very relevant to what I'm writing at the moment. Thanks!

Sarah Hilary said...

Terrific examples of putting this great lesson into practice, Nicola, thanks. And yay for the Boots of Fame!

Nicola Morgan said...

Yay, for the boots of fame, indeed! But if it could only be the "books" of fame, how much richer would I be!

Helena Halme said...

As always, a very useful post, thanks! A littel scary to be clocked for your boots because of a blog...?

Barb said...

A very useful blog, thank you. This came at the right time.

Also I was shopping over in Blackhall today (for research purposes) and saw the most wonderful bishop purple boots at Dotty P's.

Nicola Morgan said...

BARB - you're a wonder and I MUST GO THERE tomorrow. Who cares about my lists of tasks? (Hope my agent is not reading this ... Shouldn't you be working, Elizabeth?) Thing is, I HAD some purple boots and they died so I really really do need some more. I'd never have thought of Dotty P's either. Thank you!

Kelly H-Y said...

Fantastic advice! Thanks!

Ebony McKenna. said...

Hi Nicola,
Has anyone nominated you as a national treasure? Because you are. And if not, I'll adopt you as an honorary Aussie.

Another thing to remember, typeset proof pages sometimes have only half the word count of a regular A4 manuscript page. So a 20-page chapter in manuscript form could end up being 40 pages when it becomes a book.

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post (although you never write an un-great one). Lack of pace is probably the most glaring fault in work people send me to crit, both in novels and short stories. Allied to this is the inability of some writers to get going. They've learned that they need to write a cracking opening sentence or paragraph but then spoil it all by taking the reader back to what happened that morning or the week before or even in childhood in one long dreary info-dump.

fairyhedgehog said...

I came for the chocolate competition and I'm staying to learn. There are so many great posts here and I'm having a wonderful time wandering through them.

Alexis said...

Ever since I started reading this blog and came across a few posts that mentioned pace and included the word "fast", I've felt that I have a problem with my pace.

But that's not the main problem.

The main problem is that I've no idea how to fix it, as the advice that you gave doesn't seem to apply to my WIP.

In four words: I. Am. In. Trouble. (make that six words) Big Trouble.