Tag Archives: pacing

Professional Wednesday: Hampton Roads Writers Conference, and the Hardest Writing Topic to Teach (For Me)

This week I head to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in Virginia Beach. I’ll be teaching several workshops over the three days I’m there — a two-hour master class on “Point of View and Voice,” a ninety-minute class on “Character and Character Arc,” and two one-hour classes, one on “World Building” and one on “Pacing and Narrative Arc.” I always look forward to conferences like this one, in large part because I love to teach, and I love to talk about the craft of story telling.

Recently, some of you may recall, I wrote about the difficulties inherent in encouraging aspiring writers given the state of today’s literary market. I don’t believe teaching at the workshop contradicts or undermines what I wrote in that post. If students ask me about the business side of writing, I will be brutally honest with them. And even if they don’t ask the questions, I will not misrepresent the publishing industry or in any way downplay the difficulties currently faced by new writers.

Teaching writing, though, is always a service, always a worthwhile thing to do. Whether someone wishes to write professionally (despite the odds) or write as a hobby — or something in between — it can never hurt to hone those skills. I don’t ever intend to be a professional photographer or musician, but I am always looking to improve at both and would gladly attend photography workshops to learn new techniques. (Provided I can find the time and the money to do so — those workshops are spendy!) Put another way, if I can help any writer improve their skills and get more enjoyment out of their literary projects, I believe I have done a good thing.

I have taught on previous occasions all the topics I’ll be covering this weekend, and I can safely say that pacing and narrative arc are far and away the toughest to teach. Why? Because, they are somewhat amorphous topics. Point of view has definite categories and approaches. It has “rules” most writers tend to follow and most editors tend to look for. I have developed techniques and mechanisms for character development that I am more than happy share. And world building is a process with which I am very familiar and which can be broken down into component parts as a way of rationalizing a complex, sprawling endeavor.

Pacing, though, is all about feel, about instinct. I can talk about things I try to do myself, in my own work, but even those discussions tend to stray into the realm of analogies and metaphors, ways of describing something that defies description. A lot of what I have learned over the years about pacing and shaping narrative arc, has come out of trial and error, mistakes I made in one book or series and corrected in the next, or the one after that.

So why try to teach it? Because, quite honestly, despite the difficulties inherent in talking about a subject that is so hard to pin down — or perhaps because of those challenges — some of the best teaching sessions I’ve ever had focused on this subject. As the topic grows harder to discuss, I find, the classes on the topic grow increasingly interactive, until all in the room are working on ways to conceptualize and contextualize the conversation. In other words, it becomes a team effort, and that helps everyone in the room.

I plan to approach the class in three ways — one is conceptual, relying on those analogies I mentioned earlier; one is visual, using drawings to show how narrative arc ought to progress in a book and in a series; and one is pragmatic, focusing on those narrative mechanics that help us with pacing and that are easiest to discuss in concrete terms.

As I say, my past experiences with teaching pacing and narrative arc have generally been pretty good (and I just jinxed myself) so I am hoping this one will be, too.

The other thing I love about teaching at conferences like Hampton Roads is the opportunity to hang out with other industry professionals, and I believe the coming weekend will be especially fun, since two of my favorite people in the world, Edmund Schubert and John Hartness, will be there as well. In fact, Edmund is one of the conference’s keynote speakers.

So that’s what I have on tap for my end-of-week/weekend. I hope yours is great.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writing Musically

It will come as no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a huge fan of The West Wing, in particular Seasons 1-4, when series creator Aaron Sorkin was writing nearly every episode, and his creative partner, Thomas Schlamme was directing most of them.

Sorkin talks often about writing musically, about bringing to his dialogue cadence, rhythm, motif, and even melody and refrain. Take a moment to watch this clip from one of the best episodes in the series’ long and storied run, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II.” Listen to all of it, but pay particular attention to Ron’s monologue, starting at time stamp 1:15.

Notice not only the gorgeous cadence of all he says, but also the return to two refrains: “It was an act of mad men,” and, from earlier in the scene, “The Secret Service doesn’t comment on procedure.”

Often in these Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, I will offer advice that is concrete and easily implemented. This is not one of those posts.

Thinking musically about our writing is an abstract idea, but, I believe, a helpful and important one. I strive, in my dialogue and my prose, to find a musical cadence, to create a rhythm that carries my narrative along. We all know what it feels like to write a clunky phrase or sentence or paragraph. Hell, I’ve written entire chapters that were clunky. I would imagine some of my less generous reviewers on Amazon would say I have entire books that are.

But of course, it’s easy to say “write musically, think about rhythm and beat as you craft your stories.” It’s another entirely to explain how this is done. And I should pause here to say that simply repeating phrases in our writing doesn’t make us Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a master, and this technique works beautifully for him. That doesn’t mean we can repeat a few lines and say, “Hey, look! I’m writing musically!” Learning to write this way comes with years of practice, and even more years of reading. And the process is not easy to describe in concrete terms. The books of Guy Gavriel Kay, my favorite fantasy author, are incredibly musical – like symphonies. But I would be hard-pressed to tell you what specific things he does to achieve this. He just does.

Here, though, are a couple of tips that might help.

Let’s stick with that symphony analogy. Consider a movement from your favorite piece of classical music. No doubt its tempo varies from section to section: it has moments when the pace of the music quickens and others when it slows. Likely the dynamics vary as well, thundering in one passage, softening in another. If you’re not a fan of classical music, think about your favorite rock album. Chances are the rhythms and moods of the songs vary — an upbeat, fast track, followed by a ballad, followed by something moody and tense, followed by another rocker… You get what I mean.

Writing, to my mind, works best when it follows a similar pattern. Some writers like their entire novels to go at one speed — fast, fast, fast. They create one action scene after another, leaving readers breathless and, they hope, eager for more. That is a perfectly legitimate approach, but I don’t like to write that way, and I don’t particularly like to read books of that sort. I prefer to intersperse crescendos of action with quieter moments, pushing the plot forward and then allowing my readers, and my characters, to catch their breath and contemplate the implications of what has just occurred Some scenes must be breakneck and loud — absolutely. Others, though, should be softer, slower. A battle scene, followed by a spoken confrontation, followed by a love scene, followed by hand-to-hand combat, followed by a chase, followed by a key conversation, etc. The narrative flows this whole time — writing musically is not meant as an excuse to insert scenes that don’t advance your story — but sometimes it flows with cymbals crashing and sometimes it flows with the sound of a single violin.

Another way to think musically about writing: Again, think about that symphony or your favorite song. And think about the ways in which melody works. Some phrases end with the perfect note, resolving the musical tension; others end more discordantly, ratcheting up harmonic conflict and propelling the piece in question forward. Storytelling works the same way. I try to vary the narrative energy. I finish some chapters with a resolution of conflict; I end others by heightening tension, by leaving things hanging, by leaving my readers still waiting for that resolving note.

Rhythm and tempo, dynamics and volume, tension and resolution, harmony and discord. I find that these terms work equally well in describing musical performance and the written word. You might find that incorporating these concepts into your narrative will help you find the perfect pace and mood for your current project.

Keep writing!