My fics are here.
Also, I note with some amusement that the only fic mentioned in this post that I haven't actually managed to finish is The Fall of Strelsau. Though it's now sitting at 6,833 words, and yes, includes a by-election.
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A friend asked me for this blog post, and I really haven’t been feeling the blogging lately, so here we go, a way into it by talking to a specific person.
A lot of people do pacing instinctively, sometimes synaesthetically. This is why you’ll hear metaphors like an unbalanced washing machine, a car with a flat tire–things where the rhythm is off, things where the story is going THUMPa THUMPa THUMPa. If you have that feeling for it, if you have that instinct, hurrah! Lucky you. If not, here are some other ways to spot broken pacing.
Ask an external reader. If they are bored in some sections, the pacing is probably breaking down. (Also boredom, who wants it.) Also, if they can spot the scenes that are the most important to the writer, that’s no good–obviously there will be things like the climax of the piece that are important scenes, but you don’t want to have a lot of scenes that are obviously un-important. If the reader feels like a scene doesn’t matter to you and they’re right, take it out and find another way to do the thing it’s doing. If they’re wrong and it really is important to you? Probably a pacing problem.
Track things! Track all the things. Okay, not all. But any of the things. Figure out what elements are showing up in each scene, what each scene is doing. You can do this with characters. You can do it with things like description/action/dialog balance. You can do it with objects that are touchstones to your plot. You can do it with locations. Anything you are wanting to pull through the book and balance, you can track, sometimes with color. Put it on notecards, print it out in tiny font and highlight it, just do a chapter list in a different file: who is in Chapter 1 with the protag(s). Who is in Chapter 2. Or: where does the Axe of Awesomeness show up first, where does it show up again, how long is it between spottings of the Major Macguffin. Has the reader had time to forget about it or think it is no longer important or get distracted by the Minor Macguffin. Has the Shiny Red Herring come up often enough? Track it in red to see where it is swimming. Is there a love story? If there is supposed to be a love story but you are not seeing Captain Swoonypants between Chapter 2 and Chapter 13, the pants: they will not be swooning. That is what we call a major sag in the pacing. (And/or in the pants.) Negative relationship stuff, too: that distance between a fight and the next appearance of the person fought with will mean that that relationship is not carrying a lot of tension. The pacing on it will sag. The reader will forget that they are supposed to care.
A thing that I said in the previous paragraph: figure out what each scene is doing. Not just one thing. If it’s just one thing, the pacing will sag and fall over. Do more. But also: when you revise, sometimes one of the things a scene used to be doing will change. If you rip out a subplot, remember to look at the scenes around the stuff you removed. It’s not just that you have to check to get the information redistributed. It’s that the beats also have to be redistributed. If that subplot contained the moments to breathe, your new pacing will be too frenetic. If that subplot contained mostly action and excitement, a hint of that needs to creep back into the new pacing. Pacing, sadly, is not just something you can do once and be done.
Stylistic and length changes. Word length, sentence length, paragraph length, chapter length. You can change these deliberately if you want to, but if you find you have subconsciously changed them without meaning to, you may be rushing a section or meandering through a section that will not feel integrated with the rest of the book and will nag at the reader–sometimes without them being able to spot why.
Note that you do not have to do length analysis on every element of every book every time. This is more a diagnostic for when something seems to not be working or if you consistently have problems than something every writer should do at every moment. In fact, all of this is in that category. If you’re finding that people are saying things you don’t really get about pacing, that something is not working and you don’t understand why, you can poke at these things (or at ideas people will offer in the comments, maybe!). But no writing tool is universal, this is not universal, and you should feel utterly free to not do any of this if you don’t need to and don’t feel like it.
I feel like I can’t stress enough in process posts that everybody works differently, because I hear enough conversation about “I heard one piece of advice and I thought I had to,” and seriously, no, you do not have to, you never have to. Do what works for you. Discard things that sound horrifying until/unless nothing else is working and you feel like it’s worth a shot. Try things that are exciting or weird, try things that feel like they’re fixing the problems you actually have, and don’t listen to me when you don’t feel like it. Okay? Okay.
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Miracles. Gods are apparently like ants in a California apartment complex in this Bennett trilogy: you think you’ve killed them all and there’s always one or two coming back again, so put your miracles in sealed containers. This is definitely a third book of a trilogy, not a stand-alone; I do not at all recommend starting here, but it does end things nicely. (The first book is City of Stairs – ed)
C.J. Cherryh, Convergence. This, on the other hand, is a sawed-off chunk of an ongoing thing. I wrote to another friend who has also read all twenty books of this series with a character’s name in all caps followed by “???” after reading this book. There is plot again, it is not like the trilogy within this series that was essentially focused on Bren getting his apartment back and furnishing it. Is it better for that? I’m not sure. I’m still reading as of book twenty, which tells you something, but for the love of Pete, do not do not DO NOT start here, it will be confusing and boring and generally awful, which it is not when you have read the other nineteen. On the other hand: will you want to read nineteen of these to get to this? I don’t know. It is very much science fiction about alien interactions, and it is very psychologically medieval in ways that I appreciate, and there are moments (like the name in all caps with the ???) where I feel like this is a very long game she has been planning in intricate detail all along and other moments where I am fairly sure it is the equivalent of going out for a morning nature walk with Auntie Carolyn and having her point out which tiny flowers and mushrooms grow under that big leaf and which ones are poisonous (most of them). On the other other hand, I do like nature walks.
Kathryn Evans, More of Me. Discussed elsewhere.
John M. Ford, The Scholars of Night. Reread. I picked this up for my Cold War Fantasy panel, and it is made of love for Christopher Marlowe and Anthony Price and intricacy. It is exactly what this panel is all about, but I reread it not that long ago; I just wanted the excuse.
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. Reread. This is the last of my old Natalie Goldberg books, and honestly it is the one to get if you’re getting a Natalie Goldberg book for a new writer. It is straightforward and cheerful and does not self-aggrandize particularly; it quotes her teachers without acting like they hung the moon, it has ideas for what to do but sort of shrugs through them like, yep, try these and if they don’t work try something else, just try stuff. I am no longer at a point where I think it’s a good use of shelf space for me to keep this book, so I will set it free for some newer writer to enjoy, but it did not make me snippy with Batman the way the others did. (…if you didn’t read that blog post, maybe we should just draw a veil over it.)
Paul Gruchow, Letters to a Young Madman: A Memoir. Gruchow is a Minnesota nature writer and observer of the land, farming, people…he overlaps with my interests enough that I have been reading his books in an essentially random order from the library, and then I came to this one and it blindsided me. Because the present tense in that first sentence is inaccurate. Paul Gruchow. Oh God. Paul Gruchow did not survive his last bout with depression more than a decade ago. I had been darting merrily through feeling so much kinship with this man, and he was gone the whole time I was reading him, painfully and horribly gone, and he suffered so much before he went, and this is the memoir of how. I recommend it under only two circumstances: 1) If you have not read a memoir of depression and mental health treatment and hospitalization in this country. This is a keenly observed and fiercely intelligent example of its genre. It is not heartening. It is not uplifting. It is not the work of a person who managed to find his way out, to see brighter days ahead, to kick at the darkness, as the man said, until it bled daylight. The man I was starting to think of metaphorically as “cousin Paul,” struggled and fought with himself and hurt himself and his family and was hurt by himself and the world, and then he died. This is that book. If you are not yourself depressed and/or have not otherwise experienced the mental health system up close and have not read anyone’s detailed modern account of it, I think you should read at least one, and you could do far worse than letting it be Paul Gruchow’s. You also owe it to yourself to choose very carefully when you subject yourself to it. It does not have to be today, tomorrow, next week. You can look with deliberation when you must look. 2) If you have read such a book before but have come to love the other works of Paul Gruchow, you can choose to look again even if you know the facts and figures of modern mental health care. That would be me. You can see how some of his other stories are changed, cast in different lights, by these stories. By the stories of his illness. You may decide that you don’t want that of a writer whose work you love. And you may decide that you owe it to a writer whose work you love to have his whole work, not to look away. If it was me, I would want some of my readers to look away, to only have the brilliant and lovely things I said about frogs and rocks and farming. And I would want some of my readers not to look away, to read all my work, even the hardest and darkest. It is not me. But we come from the same places and the same people. It could have been. I am glad I didn’t look away. It has been a very long time since I cried so hard over a book as I did over the opening and closing pages of this book, and also many, many times over the middle, and it was not a very long book. Proceed with caution if at all.
Marvin Kaye, ed. The Fair Folk. Reread. Vividly told tales, most of which did not hit me particularly personally. The opening story from Tanith Lee is a really great example of a story that feels like it is going to be a wonderful story for someone else, a story that will go right to someone else’s heart and stay there. I think it’s easier to recognize those with experience.
Donald Keene, ed., Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Reread. This is something I purchased for a college class and kept. It is not the very last word in Japanese lit, but with twenty years’ experience it turns out to still be a quite decent first word and well worth keeping; there were things I was happy to quote and discuss with friends. I haven’t done a survey of survey anthologies, so I don’t know if this would be the one I would recommend above all others, but as the one I already have on my shelf, it had many things worth reading in it and I am glad to keep giving it space, which is a quite nice feeling. There were several place where I rolled my eyes at Donald Keene himself and his notes–his handling of notes on periods where there were predominantly women authors were not, shall we say, deft and sensitive–but most of the material was the material and could just be enjoyed for that. Good mix of poems, stories, diary excerpts, novel excerpts, play treatments.
Naomi Mitchison, Sea-Green Ribbons. This is a strangely spare novel of a young woman printer during Cromwell’s time. I enjoyed it except for the ending, which I found unsatisfying in its handling of Quakers and slavery, and I spent much of the experience cocking my head and squinting sideways at it and thinking of Gillian Bradshaw’s London in Chains and A Corruptible Crown. They are really, really, really, really similar. Young woman printer, era of Cromwell, sexual trauma, various details…I don’t think that one is cribbed from the other, their style is quite, quite different, and their endings are, and there is something like four times as much of the Bradshaw. It was just very strange. I want more novels of the Interregnum, but it’s okay if the others are not specifically about young women printers with sexual trauma, variety being the spice etc.
Toni Morrison, Jazz. Lots of people failing to make their relationships work, but the language is rich and improvisationally jazzy, very successfully evocative of the ’20s urban setting and newly urbanized Black American culture of the Great Diaspora. If someone other than Toni Morrison had been writing this, the petty, angry despair of the major characters might well have put me off, but Morrison’s writing is so beautiful it was worthwhile for me.
Jim Northrup, Marcie R. Rendon, Linda LeGarde Grover, and Denise Sweet, Nitaawichige: Selected Poetry and Prose by Four Anishinaabe Writers. Highly varied voices and forms, but the traditions they’re drawing on are very recognizably Anishinaabe in their own ways. A very short chapbook, definitely worth the time if you can find it. Hilarity and anger and pathos and beauty all represented here.
Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight and The Shepherd’s Crown. Rereads. After long hiatus, I have finished the Tiffany Aching series. Last first: The Shepherd’s Crown is Pratchett’s last book, and you can see that he was not quite done with it, that it is the bones of the book he meant to write rather than the full book, with its gestures toward third-wave feminism and a love letter to the geezerhood the author himself would never achieve. It has some great things to nod at. It makes me wistful. As for I Shall Wear Midnight…I find myself ambivalent about books with the “they persecute us for our virtues because they are stinky jerks” plots right now, and this is one. And yet it is a pretty good one, and sometimes “they” do. And the virtue in particular in this one is being willing to step up and help where help is needed, and I want more of that in fiction and in life.
Frederick Taylor, The Downfall of Money: Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class. This sounds a bit dry but is very, very human–it’s very much about how the German people experienced the interwar hyperinflationary period, what played into it and what it created. Interesting and a much quicker read than one might expect.
Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless. Reread. This is far and away my favorite Valente novel for adults. I picked it up because I misremembered the time frame–I had thought, for some reason, that the ending was long after it was, deep in the Stalinist period, instead of 1942–and so I thought it might be of interest to my Cold War Fantasy panel at 4th St. Well, this is why we do panel prep, and of course 1942 is the exact right year to end this book. It is so vivid, so food-oriented and so full of myth and relationship and history. It is not for my panel. I still don’t regret the reread.
Martha Wells, All Systems Red. Murderbot! I was one of the last on the Murderbot train, but I do like Murderbot. All Murderbot wants is to be let by to figure things out and watch videos, is this too much to ask? Apparently so because humans, ugh. We are with you, Murderbot! We are with you through the rest of your adventures among humans, ugh, and whoever else you may encounter. Intimate voice far future SF, hurrah, more please.
Review copy provided by Amulet Books.
Some spoilers are our friends, although I will not visit them upon you unsought. This is the first time I remember in ages flipping to the last few pages of a book to make sure that a particular concept was not how a book ended, because if it was, I did not want to be there for that experience. It wasn’t. I kept reading. In fact, I turned the pages compulsively.
The science fiction concept of this YA novel makes a better special effect than actual science: the cells of an entire person reproducing themselves and pulling apart fully formed, so that an entirely new version can step out and also leave the old version intact. Teva has been doing this annually, so that there is herself, age 16, but also her previous selves, known by their ages: Fifteen, Fourteen, and so on. Her mother, for reasons later made clear, has decided that it isn’t safe for this to be known, so once the split happens, the earlier version has to stay in the house all the time, and no one else is allowed in.
This is not, as you might well imagine, a long-term tenable situation.
I will not want to reread this book, because it is emotionally well-done. The claustrophobia of the well-meant captives, the panicked family turned in on themselves, the girl(s) taught to distrust the school friends and teachers who are part of her/their daily life…and inevitably led to doubt her/their own sanity. It was all incredibly evocative. There were times when I writhed reading it. The speculative conceit was not realistic. The teenage psychology was. And it was very clear that you do not have to intend to be a monster to wind up treating your loved ones monstrously, and you do not have to intend to be a jailer to put them in a prison they need to escape.
Those who have issues with reading about self-harm will probably also find this book really, really difficult. Like, you would need a serious good reason to read this book if you are a person in this category because there are substantial amounts of very vivid description of self-harm. This is for plot reasons due to the speculative conceit, but I’m not sure that will make the experience less difficult to read and may well make it more so. Beyond that I cannot honestly tell whether people whose families were less loving and healthy than mine will find this book cathartic or personally horrifying or some of each. You should tread with caution not because this is badly done but because it is well and lovingly done. This is not a hopeless book. Its ending is a substantially positive one. But I think it will be a wall-climbing experience for many readers.
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