Monday, August 18, 2014

Pacing Charts


I've been working on a manuscript for over a year now, writing and rewriting it over and over, each revision (I think) getting better than the one before. At the same time, every time I revised the manuscript, I sunk a little deeper in it. Got closer to it. Until it became really difficult to see the forest for the trees. I felt like (I sometimes still feel like) I was up to my eyeballs in words, so close to them that although I could tell on a sentence, or even a paragraph, level if something was working, I no longer had an overarching view of the project, what it was, where it was going.

Enter the pacing chart.

For this revision, instead of trekking through the story one chapter after another, losing sight of what had come before and forgetting what was supposed to come after, I thought I would try something different. I read through the entire manuscript very quickly, in a day, I think, only making short notes like "MORE HERE" and "INSERT A BEAT." This gave me a sense of the story, the main conflicts, the character arcs. The basic stuff.

Then I made a list of every chapter (and the stories that fall between chapters, a la The Kingdom of Little Wounds), and I assigned each chapter to one of two categories:

A) Action

B) Talking

Obviously no chapter or scene is purely action or purely dialogue, but if a scene mostly involved the characters doing things and moving the plot forward in big ways, I coded it red. If a scene mostly involved the characters talking, growing, arguing, or reflecting, I coded it blue. If a chapter was evenly split and I couldn't decide, I simply made it both.

As you can see, I ended up with a lot of blue chapters all clustered together, most notably Chapters 7-10 and Chapters 22-28. For a fantasy novel, these are fairly sizeable stretches for people to be doing nothing but talking.

(Apparently, I really like making my characters talk. And reflect. And go on and on about the meaning of what's happened to them. I think this is just a part of my process, understanding what my characters are really thinking and feeling, articulating it for myself. But I don't think all that necessarily belongs in a novel.)

And boy did it show in the manuscript. I loved those sections, but they slowed the pacing so much. The pacing chart just allowed me to see it.

So when I went back to revising, I was able to target these sections specifically, switching talking chapters to action chapters to make sure I never had more than three blue sections in a row. You can see to the right: I added a big fat action-packed scene between Chapters 8 and 9 and added two action scenes in the big slog between Chapters 22 and 28.

This was a pretty huge undertaking, and it took me about two months to do it because I had to rework the main storyline as well as two subplots, but I like to think it made the manuscript better. Without even reading it, I can see that there's a better balance between talking and action, as the reds and blues are more evenly spaced.

I've never made a pacing chart like this before, and I have to say it was a pretty valuable exercise for guiding my latest revision. I'm not sure if it will work for all stories, as talking/action is a pretty artificial division, but I can say it worked for me.

What are your tips, tricks, or exercises for addressing pacing in your own work? What do you do when you're so in it that you lose sight of the big picture?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Now That's Something You Can't Do With an eBook


With this lovely picture book Megumi Kajiwara and Tathuhiko Nijima, readers use a handheld light source to create shadows that help tell the story. The reader in the video is using a cell phone, but how cool would this be by candlelight?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Frozen Sea Inside Us

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

--Franz Kafka (via Brain Pickings)