Category Archives: writing techniques

Pacing

by
Sandy Tritt

Pacing is a tool writers have to control the speed in which a story reads. Lush, descriptive segments slow the pace, giving readers a breather. Rapid-fire dialogue speeds the pace, leaving the reader breathless. It is up to the writer to decide when the pace needs quickened and when it should be put in slow gear.

Perhaps the easiest way to judge is to ask questions as you read. Do you start drifting? You need action. Is the conversation or action moving too quickly? You need narrative to even out the pacing. Beware, though, not to use repetition to slow your pace. Instead, find new things to say or new things to focus on. For example, during a highly emotional scene that is moving too quickly, allow the character to study a picture on the wall or watch children playing nearby. Or allow him to remember a conversation from the past. Or focus on one of his other senses, such as the smells or sounds in the background. This can add depth and an emotional layer, as well as slowing the pace.

We can also slow the pace of a chapter or even the entire manuscript by adding more description, more exposition (background information) and more internal dialogue (character thoughts).

Let’s look at an example:

 

Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob’s Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother’s feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. “We gotta talk.”

            “I get off at three.”

            “Now.”

            “What’s up?”

            “Let’s walk.”  

            Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. “What did the doctor say about Mom?”

            “He put her in the hospital.”

            “Why?”

            “He got the tests back.”

            “And?”

            “What did the doctor say?” Gary repeated.

            “She’s got cancer.”

            Gary stopped walking. “Cancer?”

             “Something about a mass in her brain.”

             “Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?”

            “He says there ain’t nothing they can do. He says it’s too late.”      
 
            “Too late? Too late for what?”

            “Dr. Brown says . . .” Ray rubbed his head. “He says it’s too late. He says she ain’t coming home.”

            “What’re we gonna do?” he said.

            “About what?”

            Gary took a new pack of Marlboros from his pocket and tapped it against his palm. “The boys.”

            “I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat.”

            “I don’t mean now,” Gary said, opening the cigarettes. “Until they’re grown. Who’ll take care of them?”

            “Mom will.”

            “You okay?”

            Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. “They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do.”

            Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.

 

This is an important scene, filled with kinetic emotion. Yet, it passes so quickly we don’t feel the full impact of it. This is where we need to slow the pacing down. To do this, we add two things: internal dialogue and description. In our rewrite, I will put the internal dialogue in red and the added descriptive passages in purple. See how slowing the pace adds power to the words:           

            Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob’s Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother’s feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. “We gotta talk.”

            “I get off at three.”

            “Now.”

            Gary stood and wiped his hands on an oily rag. “What’s up?”

            “Let’s walk.” Ray feared his brain was going to explode. Too much was going on, too many things were changing. He’d read the front page of the newspaper over and over while waiting in the doctor’s office. The Apollo 7 astronauts were heading home after eleven days in space. President Johnson was negotiating for the release of fourteen North Vietnamese POW’s. And Jackie Kennedy, the dead President’s wife, was marrying a Greek billionaire the very next day. He didn’t even know if it was legal for the President’s widow to marry a foreigner.

            Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. “What did the doctor say about Mom?”

            “He put her in the hospital.”

            Colorful leaves swirled around their ankles, the drier ones crunching under their heavy steps. Gary kicked them out of his way. “Why?”

            “He got the tests back.”

            “And?”

            A young mother, her sweater flapping in the wind, pushed a baby carriage over the uneven sidewalk with one hand and pulled a stubborn toddler with the other. Ray stepped into the street to let her pass.

            “What did the doctor say?” Gary repeated.

            “She’s got cancer.”

            Gary stopped walking. “Cancer?”

            Ray slowed down until Gary caught up. “Something about a mass in her brain.”

            Gary was quiet for a long time, then spoke softly. “Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?”

            “He says there ain’t nothing they can do. He says it’s too late.” Ray remembered that part very well. He’d argued with Dr. Brown, insisting there had to be something. She had three young boys who needed her.

            “Too late? Too late for what?”

            “Dr. Brown says . . .” Ray rubbed his head. “He says it’s too late. He says she ain’t coming home.”

            They walked slower, silently, past the library and into the park. Pre-schoolers played on the swings and slide, laughing and shouting.

Gary leaned against an oak tree, his dirty gray jumpsuit blending into the trunk.“What’re we gonna do?” he said.

            “About what?”

            Gary took a new pack of Marlboros from his pocket and tapped it against his palm. “The boys.”

            “I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat.”

            “I don’t mean now,” Gary said, opening the cigarettes. “Until they’re grown. Who’ll take care of them?”

            “Mom will.”

            “You okay?”

            Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. “They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do.”

            Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.

            Ray watched the smoke disappear into the October-blue sky. A foreigner. Two hundred million people in the United States and the President’s widow was going to marry a foreigner. No wonder the world was so damned screwed up.

 

 Likewise, to speed the pace, omit everything except for the direct action or dialogue. Ignore descriptions, ignore reactions, ignore anything other than the bare necessities. This is necessary when the action is more important than character reflection. Let’s look at the following example, in which Gary and Ray are trying to repair a barn roof destroyed in a storm when the storm comes around again. Gary slips on the wet roof and is now on the steep slope of the roof, his weight partially held by a fragile drainpipe below. Ray is able to extend one hand, which Gary has grabbed onto. David is trying to reposition the ladder so Gary can climb down. Here’s how NOT to do it: 

            “Can you reach the ladder with your foot?” Ray asked. He wondered how long it would be until the drainpipe gave way.

            “If I move it,” Gary said, “I won’t have anything to hold onto.”

             “Just me.” Ray’s arm ached from holding Gary’s weight. He hoped David had seen what was going on and would try to move the ladder. Someone had to do something. Otherwise, Gary would fall.

            “I don’t trust you that much,” Gary said.

            “Looks like you ain’t got much choice.” The rain still fell. Ray looked at the sky. Dark clouds hovered even lower. The rain was there to stay.

            The ladder vibrated again.

            “Shit,” Ray whispered. “I wish they’d stop shaking that thing.” It made him nervous. Surely David knew that shaking the ladder also shook the gutter. And any little movement added pressure to it. It could snap at any time.

            “I wish they’d stack up some hay underneath me.”

            “Hell, as much rain as we’ve got today, you’d just land in the mud. Ain’t gonna get much softer than that.” The mud had to be deep. But still, he knew it was a long fall and Gary would most likely break some bones or worse. He remembered when he’d broken his leg in tenth grade. It was so difficult trying to get around the school on crutches and it seemed that his leg itched all the time. He’d stuck an unbent clothes hanger under the cast to scratch his leg.

            “You trying to tell me to jump?”

            “Nah. You’d probably pull me down with you.” Ray knew Gary wouldn’t really do that. But he also knew Gary was still angry with him for spending the money on the drum set.

            “I’d damn sure try.”

            “Let me have your foot,” David’s voice said.

            “No,” Gary answered.

            The roof shimmered in the rain. If the situation had been different, it would even have been beautiful.

            “I’m right underneath you,” David said. “If you lift your left foot, I’ll put it on the rung.”

            “Shit,” Gary said. “I’m trusting Ray to hold me and you to guide me. I might as well jump.”

            “Or apologize for being such an ass all the time.”

            Ray smiled. David had a point. All the boys had taken Ray’s side of the argument. Except maybe for Joey, who hadn’t said anything. But then, Joey never did talk much.

            “I’ll jump first.”

 

It’s difficult to be too worried about Gary with all the internal dialogue muddying the situation. Let’s look at how cutting all the internal dialogue and description adds immediacy and excitement to this scene: 

            “Can you reach the ladder with your foot?”

            “If I move it,” Gary said, “I won’t have anything to hold onto.”

             “Just me.” Ray’s arm ached from holding Gary’s weight.

            “I don’t trust you that much,” Gary said.

            “Looks like you ain’t got much choice.”

            The ladder vibrated again.

            “Shit,” Ray whispered. “I wish they’d stop shaking that thing.”

            “I wish they’d stack up some hay underneath me.”

            “Hell, as much rain as we’ve got today, you’d just land in the mud. Ain’t gonna get much softer than that.”

            “You trying to tell me to jump?”

            “Nah. You’d probably pull me down with you.”

            “I’d damn sure try.”

            “Let me have your foot,” David’s voice said.

            “No,” Gary answered.

            “I’m right underneath you,” David said. “If you lift your left foot, I’ll put it on the rung.”

            “Shit,” Gary said. “I’m trusting Ray to hold me and you to guide me. I might as well jump.”

            “Or apologize for being such an ass all the time.”

            “I’ll jump first.”

 

Reading our prose aloud is perhaps the best way to judge the pace. Listen as you read and consider if the action is happening too fast or not fast enough. And remember, there is never one right answer. The pace of your story is just one more element that contributes to your unique writing style. Experiment, study, write. But in the end, use your own judgment.

Bleeding on the Page

by
Sandy Tritt
 

Is writing an art or a craft? I’ve wavered on this, thinking one and then the other, but I believe the “truth” is that good writing must be both. A craft is something that can be learned, something that, with time and practice, can be improved upon. It is something that has basic rules and methods, such as using active voice, maintaining point of view, creating realistic characters, and writing sharp dialogue. It’s what we give tip sheets to help explain; it’s what we teach at writing workshops; it’s what we comment on within the pages of your masterpiece. A good writer simply must have a good handle on the craft of writing.

But there is more to writing than craft. A perfectly crafted novel is not necessarily a good read. There is something more, something that oftentimes cannot be named but instead is felt, that separates a well-crafted book from an I-can’t-put-it-down novel. In the 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer, Paul Gallico (author of The Poseidon Adventure) writes: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.”

That is what we do. We bleed on the page. We put our hearts and souls into creating not just a carefully crafted work, but a work of art. We don’t create characters; we discover them. We get to know them. We don’t decide what happens to them; we discover that, too. Whereas the craft of writing is a product of the brain, the art of writing is a product of the heart and the soul. The craft of writing gives structure to the end product while the art of writing is an exploration of The Truth and provokes emotion. Perhaps that is the greatest difference between craft and art—emotion. Just as viewing a great work of visual art can overwhelm us with emotion, reading a great work of literary art must also touch us deeply.

As editors, we love to nurture the artist in every writer. We love to highlight those passages that are exceptional and tell you how amazing they are—even if they need a little editing. We love to discover the great storyteller inside you and help give you confidence to continue to write and continue to hone your craft—so that you may, indeed, create a work of art.

NaNoWriMo

by
Stacy Tritt

It’s that time of year again. The scent of pumpkin spice and cinnamon apples permeate the air, the first frost of the season killed my chrysanthemums for good last night, daylight savings time changing gave me one more precious hour of sleep, and, most importantly, it’s noshavenovember National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! So grab your keyboards, it’s time to hunch over our laptops with some hot apple cider and quit finding excuses to not write!

Okay, so maybe you aren’t so gung-ho about dedicating yourself to writing 50,000 words before the end of the month. Well, that doesn’t mean you’re a complete party pooper. There are still ways to get inspired, get motivated, and get encouragement from fellow writers without having to participate in NaNoWriMo, at least on the surface. Because this blog is all about using the resources from NaNoWriMo to your advantage, whether you are actively trying to write a new 50,000 word novel in one month, or not.

There are so many wonderful resources the NaNoWriMo organization offers to the writing community. Here’s my take on the best they have to offer:

When you sign up for NaNoWriMo, you select which region you’re from, so no matter if you are in Paw Paw, West Virginia or in New York, New York, you can find some writers nearby with whom you can network, and with whom you can exchange encouragement. The best part about these local groups? Write-ins! I can’t explain how wonderful it is to sit around a table at the local library or coffee shop with a bunch of strangers while you all type away—different worlds being created behind each screen. The creative energy that flows forth at such a gathering is something I have never experienced in any other setting. Write-ins can have many different nuances depending on who plans it, and who attends. Fun caveats are often added, like everyone puts a dollar on the table, and the first person to write 500 words gets the money, or everyone is banned from getting up from the table until everyone has written 300 words. These types of activities not only encourage you to get more words on paper, but they encourage you to utilize the writers around you, and allow them to utilize you. By encouraging and supporting each other, we all become better, more effective, and efficient writers.

NaNoWriMo offers various other inspirational resources. The NaNoWriMo organization gets professional writers from all over the country to send out encouraging messages to the participants of NaNoWriMo each week, as well as sending out new ideas on how to refresh your drive to write. If that isn’t enough, there are virtual write-ins for those in areas where there are fewer writers, or for those who are afraid of meeting strangers in coffee shops to participate in write-ins.

Word sprints are also great tools NaNoWriMo participants use to get words on paper, because, let’s face it, without getting the words out on paper, it is impossible to ever edit it up to be a best-seller. Word sprints can be done individually, or in groups in person or online. The idea of a word sprint is to write a set number of words in a designated period of time. Only have a half hour to write today? Make that half hour count by challenging yourself to write 500 words in that time. Seem crazy, impossible maybe? Try it. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can prove yourself wrong.

Some of you are probably wondering why these resources can’t be used by writers who don’t write long prose, or during months when everyone isn’t jumping on a writing marathon bandwagon. Here’s the best part: they can be! These resources can be personalized to any writer. If you’re a songwriter, great! Go sit around a table at a coffee shop with a bunch of other writers, and get the words to a new song down on paper before you leave. When January rolls around and you get snowed in, utilize writing sprints to get entire scenes written between hot cocoa breaks. The important thing is to forge friendships with fellow local writers now so that you can plan write-ins throughout the year. It is important to learn new techniques, to take advantage of new (and free!) writing opportunities, and, most importantly, to get yourself started on a regimen where you make time to write. NaNoWriMo isn’t just a trend, it is a resource for all writers, one which you should take advantage of while it’s available.

So, once you’re done reading this blog, head on over to NaNoWriMo.org, start meeting new writers, start learning new techniques, open up that fresh, new word document, and start writing! Your novel is waiting.

Writing Emotions

by Sandy Tritt

Emotions. We all have them. Good, bad, or aggravating, if we’re alive, we move from one emotion to another throughout the day. Yet, emotion is one of the most difficult things to show in a story. We want to either overstate or understate it. You know the melodrama—Joe fell over the casket, sobbing. “Why, God?” he shouted. “Why?”

Yeah.

And I think you know the understatement. Joe left the funeral home. Well, that was that. His entire family—his parents, his wife, his children—had been killed in the explosion. Now it was time to hit the road and follow his dream of being a street musician.

Ouch. Not much feeling in this guy, is there? I’m starting to think he may have caused the explosion.

Some writers try to sidestep this problem by using the show-and-tell method: Joe was outraged. He slammed his fist onto the table. “I’m so angry!”  

Yikes. We can discuss all the ways this is wrong, wrong, wrong in another blog.

None of these examples, of course, show us how to capture emotion and present it in a way that sucker-punches our reader and leaves him breathless. How do we do that?

First and most importantly, do not name an emotion. Not ever. When you write “he was sad” or “she was angry,” you are telling your reader what your words should be showing your reader. Additionally, if you do not provide backup that proves the character is feeling the emotion named, your reader won’t believe you and may even distrust you. Instead, you must take the time to describe the emotional response, and then you must trust your reader to “get it” without explanation. Readers are smart. If you do your job, they will do theirs.

So, how do you show emotion in a fresh way without being melodramatic, without telling, and without ignoring the feelings? I’ve been teaching the “continual improvement” method, which, simply stated, means you need to work harder than you’ve ever worked before to make your writing innovative and juicy and the best it’s ever been. So, get out a fresh sheet of paper or open a new document. At the top of the page, write the name of the emotion you want to convey (we will use “anger” as our example). Under that, write a sentence using this emotion: Joe pounded his fist on the table and glared at Cathy. Then, number from one to five along the left side of the page. Next to each number, write a way your character can express this emotion. For example, we could make a list like this:  
  1. Shout 
  2. Shake fist 
  3. Hit table or wall  
  4. Kick something or someone 
  5. Storm out of the room and slam the door after him
Okay, those are all valid ways to show anger. But they are also somewhat cliché—we’ve seen these same reactions used zillions of times. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or effort to list them. So, after we’ve listed our five items (or more—if you have additional examples clamoring to escape your brain, write them down), we need to list one more. Hmmm. This is when we have to actually think. How else can we express anger? What if our character is so angry he destroys something that belongs to the object of his anger?

Create a sentence using that vision:
Joe grabbed Cathy’s doll—the one that had comforted her throughout her childhood—and snapped off the head.

Okay, that’s better than glaring and pounding. But we’re not done. We can still do better. We need to improve that sentence, using the most active verbs we can and the most unique visuals we can imagine.

     Cathy’s doll sat on the mantle, pristine and elegant.
     White flashes obscured Joe’s vision. He seized the doll and threw it into the fireplace. Flames lapped at the virginal gown, now tarnished by soot.

Better. A bit disjointed. So, once more, we go back and improve. As we improve, we must smooth out the rough spots and we must be sure the emotion builds, that the reader can see the emotion coming and expect it, yet are still surprised by the rawness and power of it. And, perhaps, by the way the emotion changes, sometimes presenting multiple emotions in just a few moments, if it is logical to do so (most highly emotional situations do facilitate multiple emotions).

So, our third (and fourth and fifth and sixth and . . . ) try:
    
     In that instant, Joe knew. Those late night “wrong numbers” and those “working late” excuses were nothing but lies.
     He fell against the fireplace, the weight of his discovery heavy on his shoulders. Why would she betray him? They had made love just this morning. How could she pretend?
    Heat roiled in his gut, churning with the acidic taste of vomit. As he lifted his hand to his mouth—the hand that hours ago had caressed his wife—he inadvertently touched Cathy’s childhood doll. Always untouchable, until recently it sat in a glass case, protected from dust and dirt. Protected from Cathy’s lies.
     Flashing white light grew at the periphery of Joe’s vision. He shook his head to clear his sight, but the light consumed him. He snatched the doll and heaved it into the fire. Orange and red flames teased the virginal gown, lapping closer and closer until they captured it, consuming first the clothes, thread by thread. The fire danced across the cloth body until a hole opened in its center. For one second, two seconds, three seconds, the fire burned yellow. Then the stuffing fragmented, breaking into pieces. White flames consumed it.
     Joe’s hands trembled, but it was too late now. The greedy fire seized the doll’s rubber head. For a second, the head rebelled, holding its shape, until it too surrendered. The skin blistered and cracked, then melted into a smelly, gummy mass that dripped off the log and onto the ashes below.
     Black smoke curled up the chimney, its acrid odor stinging Joe’s eyes. He blinked back tears. 
     It was over.

And so on. This last incarnation was actually reworked several times, with details added each time.  You’ll likely do the same, finding more descriptive and unique ways to describe the same old emotions. You’ll also find yourself wanting to use setting to enrich emotion—which is another leap in the quality of our writing. Try to find ways in which the description of setting can emulate the emotion.

It takes time and effort to make your writing fresh and enticing, but it’s worth it—it’s what separates ho-hum writing from really good writing.      

If you get stuck and want some help with creating vivid descriptions, pick up a good book on body language or study one of these references:
  • Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglis, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression (Create Space)
  •  Linda Edelstein, The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits (Writer Digest Books)
  • Ann Hood, Creating Character Emotions(Story Press)
        And, of course, our editors are always standing by, ready to assist you when you get stuck or need some help. Just shoot us off an email and we’ll get started right away.

The First Deadly Sin of Writing

by Sandy Tritt

The Devil of Rejection tempts every writer with the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing. They seem innocent enough—a misplaced comma here, an adverb there—but soon the writer finds himself sinking into the dreaded darkness of the Rejection Pile. Often, he doesn’t even realize he’s been deceived. So let’s reveal the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing for what they are—Death to your manuscript.

DEADLY SIN ONE: POOR GRAMMAR AND SPELLING
And punctuation and word choice. Nothing shouts “AMATEUR!” as loudly as poor punctuation, ghastly grammar, and sporadic spelling. No matter how wonderful a story is, if the writer doesn’t make an effort to proof for these problems, no agent or publisher (or reader) will take you seriously. If you do not have these skills yourself, hire an editor. If you plan to make writing your vocation, take classes at a local college, pick up a good reference manual (we recommend the Little, Brown Essential Handbook for Writers by Jane E. Aaron—$26.75 at Amazon.com), and keep up to date by subscribing to email services (we recommend Daily Writing Tips at http://www.dailywritingtips.com/  and Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips at http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/)–and, of course, our own blog, newsletter, and bevy of tips on our website. Proof your manuscript, have five friends proof your manuscript, and then proof, proof, proof again.

BONUS TIP: Be consistent, especially if you wander from conventional usages. For example, if you choose to capitalize a word that is typically not capped, do so throughout your manuscript.

BONUS TIP: Limit use of exclamation marks, ellipses, colons and semi-colons.

BONUS TIP: Periods and commas go INSIDE the quotation marks.

Next week, we’ll post the Second Deadly Sin of Writing. See you then!

(c) 2003 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved.