Of Pacing & Description – Writing Strengths & Weaknesses

Hi everyone! We have a few different series that we’re going to rotate through here on Fictional Ferrets until we get through all of us, but we won’t bombard you with the same series all at once. First up, though, I’m going to start with “Writing Strengths & Weaknesses”.

One of the benefits of having several regular critique partners is learning each other’s style. I know what kind of critique I’m going to get from each person, and who to send it to if I feel like I’m having a specific problem.
By gnuckx (Flickr: Roma Italy - Creative Commons by gnuckx) [Public domain or CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Every writer has their own styles, and their own strengths and weaknesses. For now, we’re going to just focus on one strength and one weakness per Ferret. In actuality, every writer has more than one strength and/or weakness, but there will be one that stands out to you the more you write.

Also, your writing strength doesn’t have to be something that comes naturally to you in the first draft.

It can also be what you most easily see how to fix in subsequent drafts.

So, Rebekah’s Writing Strengths & Weaknesses are:

Strength – Pacing

What is pacing?

Pacing is, really, just the ‘speed’ of the story. Depending on the type of story, it will move at a different pace. A romance novel moves at a far different speed than a fantasy novel, the same with a thriller/suspense, or a mystery. There can even be major differences between sub-genres – urban fantasy does not read at all like high fantasy, for example.

The general rule, though, is you don’t want useless scenes. Every scene, every sentence, every word in your story should be relevant to the plot, to portraying the characters, or to the setting. If it doesn’t deal with at least one of those (preferably ALL of those), it shouldn’t be there.

So what should a well-paced book do?

It should read smoothly, each point flowing into the next.

You shouldn’t read a scene, and then read the next one, and wonder why you had to read the previous one. I actually made the choice to cut one of the beginning scenes out of my novel, Catalyst, because there literally was no reason for it to be there. Even after five drafts. So in draft six, it was chopped.

Pacing is more intricate than just picking and choosing scenes, though. Let’s compare a scene from Catalyst. This is from the very first draft:

The pulse in my ears makes it almost impossible to hear the footsteps behind me. The looming, square, stone buildings make the shadows deep and long except for the brief hours of the day when the sun is almost overhead. Right now, the shadows are what hide me.

I’ve been so intent on staying out of the sunlight, though, that I haven’t watched my steps within the shadows. If only I had. I would have noticed that pile of rubbish before I tripped in it, and I wouldn’t be searching for a place to hide. Another alley appears to my left and I duck inside, following the corner around the stone walls.

“Fethras!” The alley turns back to the right. Could I have been more asinine?

Mother would have smacked me on the mouth for saying that.

Do I go back or forward? I’m not familiar with the intricate alleys of the city and whoever is following me probably is. I’m certain I’ve stumbled into an area that I never meant to, an area that wasn’t on the map that I’d found with my father’s remains.

Forward it is. I take deep breath and dart out.

Clawed fingers grab me and the world changes angles temporarily as I’m pulled out of the shadows. The wall is suddenly behind me. My head thuds against it, and a flash of pain shoots through my eyes.

This is from the latest draft:

The Kashtophim were obsessed with tall, square buildings. Their looming height caused deep, long shadows along the alleys and streets except for the brief hours of the day when the sun was almost overhead. Up till then, those shadows had hidden me. But I had been so intent on staying out of the sunlight I hadn’t watched my steps. If I had, I would have noticed the pile of rubbish before I tripped over it, and I wouldn’t be searching for a place to hide.

I was in the capital city of those who’d made killing my people their purpose in life. Why hadn’t I been more careful? The pulse in my ears made it almost impossible to hear the footsteps behind me. Another alley appeared to my left and I ducked inside to follow the corner around the stone walls.

The alley turned to the right. Twice. It would lead straight back to the same alley I had just left. Could I have been more foolish? “Fethras!”

I cringed. Mama would have smacked me on the mouth for saying that.

Should I go back or forward? I wasn’t familiar with the intricate alleys of the city and whoever followed me probably was. This was an area I never meant to stumble into, an area not on the map I’d found with my father’s corpse.

Forward it was. With a deep breath, I darted out.

Clawed fingers grabbed me and the world shifted, every straight line turning sideways and blurring as I was pulled out of the shadows. The wall pressed against my back and my head thudded against it, a flash of pain shooting through my eyes.

There are several differences between the first draft and this one that make a huge difference in pacing. It’s not word count, though. The second version of the scene is 50 or so words longer than the first, and yet it conveys so much more.

First, word and tense choice. The first draft of this story, I wrote in present tense. I had a goal I was trying to achieve with that, but it didn’t work, so I changed it to past tense.

Pacing is infinitely easier to control in past tense. I can’t tell you all the why’s and wherefore’s, but it just is. That said, there are some excellently paced novels told in present tense (Robin LaFevers His Fair Assassin trilogy being one example).

Second, the order of events. In the first version, there is too much thought interspersed in the moments that should have solid action and reaction. In the second version, once the action starts, it keeps going until it’s finished. No random aside thoughts from Sachi, except for the barest in-the-moment reactions, because this is in first person point-of-view. (Mama would have smacked me… etc.)

So really, when it comes to pacing, there are two simple rules:

  1. Make sure you’re choosing the right words for what you’re trying to say (and the right sentence structure), and that the words are appropriate for the feel of the scene.
  2. Don’t get distracted. Only reveal what needs to be known for that moment.

Now, moving on!

Weakness – Description

I have two settings for description – it’s either ALL OF IT, NO MATTER HOW MUNDANE, or …none at all.

I don’t know why. I have an entire prologue of another novel written, and completely edited, and there’s not one bit of physical description of the characters in it.

You can even see what I mean between the two examples I gave for pacing above.

Just go back and re-read them for description now.

The first version is mostly telling. “Looming, square, stone buildings”, “shadows deep and long”, or… non-existent.

The second version is more subtle – and the description didn’t even get changed until the 4th draft, if I’m remembering correctly.

The Kashtophim were obsessed with tall, square buildings. Their looming height caused deep, long shadows along the alleys and streets except for the brief hours of the day when the sun was almost overhead. Up till then, those shadows had hidden me.

Instead of a basic description, we now have an actual glimpse into the city through Sachi’s eyes. We notice what she notices, and the WHY – because she needs those shadows to stay hidden.

This certainly ties in with pacing, though. You only want to tell what is relevant to the story.

Let your reader’s minds paint their own pictures. It doesn’t need to be a paint-by-number, you just need to implant an idea into their head, and let them run with it.

I… just sometimes forget that step. A lot.

Do you struggle with one of these as well? Does pacing or description come more naturally to you?

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5 thoughts on “Of Pacing & Description – Writing Strengths & Weaknesses

  1. This is fantastic. I love this bit: “Let your reader’s minds paint their own pictures. It doesn’t need to be a paint-by-number, you just need to implant an idea into their head, and let them run with it.”

    Because… yes! It’s so easy to feel like you have to hold their hand but I’m really learning now that the less of that I do, the better the prose flows. Excellent post 🙂

    • I was very fortunate and had someone point out my over-description very early in my writing “career”. By career I mean… a reviewer on a LOTR fanfic I was writing at the time, lol.

      But it’s always stuck with me, and while sometimes now I get so caught up in the story that I forget to have ANY description, it’s always there in the back of my head when I start getting distracted by the scenery in my imagination, lol.

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