Pacing is a crucial component of fiction writing. After all, it’s important to keep your readers “hooked” throughout your story. Whether you are just getting started in writing or looking to break into fiction writing, you’ll need to know the basics of how to pace a novel. Read today’s tip of the day from Crafting Novels & Short Stories. In this excerpt written by Jessica Page Morrell, she explains what pacing is and seven ways to keep your story moving at the right pace.
What is Pacing in Fiction?
Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told, and the readers are pulled through the events. It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story. Pacing can also be used to show characters aging and the effects of time on story events.
Pacing differs with the specific needs of a story. A far-reaching epic will often be told at a leisurely pace though it will speed up from time to time during the most intense events. A short story or adventure novel might quickly jump into action and deliver drama.
Pacing is part structural choices and part word choices and uses a variety of devices to control how fast the story unfolds. When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, maneuvering city streets, or cruising down a freeway. Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed.
Seven Literary Devices for Pacing Your Story
You need speed in the opening, middle, and climax of your story. Sure, you’ll slowdown from time to time, especially to pause for significance and to express characters’ emotions, but those times will usually appear just before or after a joyride of skin-tightening speed.
There are lots of tools to hasten your story. Some are better suited for micropacing—that is, line by line—and some are better suited for macropacing—pacing the story as a whole. Let’s take a closer look at each device.
ACTION. Action scenes are where you “show” what happens in a story, and, when written in short- and medium-length sentences, they move the story along. Action scenes contain few distractions, little description, and limited transitions. Omit or limit character thoughts, especially in the midst of danger or crisis, since during a crisis people focus solely on survival. To create poignancy, forgo long, descriptive passages and choose a few details that serve as emotionally charged props instead.
CLIFF HANGERS. When the outcome of a scene or chapter is left hanging, the pace naturally picks up because the reader will turn the page to find out what happens next. Readers both love and hate uncertainty, and your job is to deliver plenty of unfinished actions, unfilled needs, and interruptions. Remember, cliffhangers don’t necessarily mean that you’re literally dangling your character from a rooftop as the scene ends. If your characters are in the midst of a conversation, end the scene with a revelation, threat, or challenge.
DIALOGUE. Rapid-fire dialogue with little or no extraneous information is swift and captivating, and will invigorate any scene. The best dialogue for velocity is pared down, an abbreviated copy of a real-life conversation that snaps and crackles with tension. It is more like the volleying of Ping-Pong or tennis than a long-winded discussion. Reactions, descriptions, and attributions are minimal. Don’t create dialogue exchanges where your characters discuss or ponder. Instead, allow them to argue, confront, or engage in a power struggle.
PROLONGED OUTCOMES. Suspense and, by extension, forward movement are created when you prolong outcomes. While it may seem that prolonging an event would slow down a story, this technique actually increases the speed, because the reader wants to know if your character is rescued from the mountainside, if the vaccine will arrive before the outbreak decimates the village, or if the detective will solve the case before the killer strikes again.
SCENE CUTS. Also called a jump cut, a scene cut moves the story to a new location and assumes the reader can follow without an explanation of the location change. The purpose is to accelerate the story, and the characters in the new scene don’t necessarily need to be the characters in the previous scene.
A SERIES OF INCIDENTS IN RAPID SUCCESSION. Another means of speeding up your story is to create events that happen immediately one after another. Such events are presented with minimal or no transitions, leaping via scene cuts from scene to scene and place to place.
SHORT CHAPTERS AND SCENES. Short segments are easily digested and end quickly. Since they portray a complete action, the reader passes through them quickly, as opposed to being bogged down by complex actions and descriptions.
SUMMARY. Instead of a play-by-play approach, tell readers what has already happened. Because scenes are immediate and sensory, they require many words to depict. Summary is a way of trimming your word count and reserving scenes for the major events. You can also summarize whole eras, descriptions, and backstory. Summaries work well when time passes, but there is little to report, when an action is repeated or when a significant amount of time has passed.
WORD CHOICE AND SENTENCE STRUCTURE. The language itself is the subtlest means of pacing. Think concrete words (like Prodigy and iceberg), active voice (with potent verbs like zigzag and plunder), and sensory information that’s artfully embedded. If you write long, involved paragraphs, try breaking them up.
Fragments, spare sentences, and short paragraphs quicken the pace. Crisp, punchy verbs, especially those with onomatopoeia (crash, lunge, sweep, scatter, ram, scavenge) also add to a quick pace. Invest in suggestive verbs to enliven descriptions, build action scenes and milk suspense.
Harsh consonant sounds such as those in words like claws, crash, kill, quake, and nag can push the reader ahead. Words with unpleasant associations can also ratchet up the speed: hiss, grunt, slither, smarmy, venomous, slaver, and wince. Energetic, active language is especially appropriate for building action scenes and suspense, and for setting up drama and conflict.
A fast pace means trimming every sentence of unnecessary words. Eliminate prepositional phrases where you don’t need them: For example, “the walls of the cathedral” can be written as “the cathedral’s walls.” Finally, search your story for passive linking verbs and trade them in for active ones.
By: Courtney Carpenter
Hello, everyone. Today it’s my great pleasure to introduce to you a fellow writer from Rave Review Book Club, Gordon Bickerstaff. We are both members of this great club and today he is their “Spotlight Author”. It’s my privilege to be part of his Blog tour. He is introducing you to his main characters and providing you with a short synopsis of his book. Enjoy
Gavin Shawlens and Zoe Tampsin – DoomWatchers
Who is Gavin Shawlens?
Gavin Shawlens is an academic in his mid-thirties. He’s not a fitness freak but he keeps trim with occasional visits to the university judo club and jogging up the three flights of stairs to his top-floor flat. He has a thick mop of hair has a light straw colour in summer that darkens in winter. He is single, and has had on/off relationships, but he’s haunted by a previous relationship that ended badly.
He has a secret part-time job. Gavin has gained a great deal of experience over the past six years on a number of major investigations for the Lambeth Group. In fact, Gavin has a UK security clearance of Top Secret Level D, which means he has knowledge of the highest category of official state secrets. He knows where some of the nastiest Government skeletons are buried. He’d been present at the burial of two of them.
Who is Zoe Tampsin?
Zoe Tampsin, Senior Field Officer with the Security Service. On temporary secondment to the Lambeth Group. Based here in London, Zoe is five-eight, slender, athletic-looking, intelligent and ambitious. The forty-three-year-old ex-army captain had joined the OTC at her university and went on to receive the coveted Sword of Honour at Sandhurst as the best officer cadet.
Captain Tampsin had served with the SAS in Bosnia and more recently on Special Forces operations for MI5 and MI6 at home and abroad. Her CO wrote about her – Zoe Tampsin protects her troop like a lioness protecting her cubs, powerful, determined, and completely ruthless.
Zoe had proved herself in combat, and she was accepted as combat hardened. She was powerful in dealing with the stress of imminent danger, and her concentration over long periods was second to none. Many times her troop had faced the white of the opposition’s eyes, and she had led them through hell and back.
Zoe had smashed the hardest glass ceiling, and showed the pencil generals the unique skill set that women have to offer, in the multi-dimensional fight against 21st century terrorism. She formed and led a special operations unit of women, W Troop. Still a small attachment, compared to the number of men in Special Forces, but against a strict background of no drop in standards, her select group of female troopers had proved themselves worthy of the badge.
Who are the Lambeth Group?
The Lambeth Group is a covert organisation formed when a group of twenty-six university vice-chancellors from elite universities met secretly with Home Office mandarins at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London. After prolonged discussion, they agreed on the need for a doomwatch strategy to discover and manage research and technology disasters that can happen when top researchers push past the boundaries farther and faster than they should.
Working with CPNI (Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure) a branch of MI5, and the Home Office, the Lambeth Group had successfully prevented the most damaging university and private research disasters from becoming public knowledge.
The Black Fox
Zoe Tampsin is resourceful, smart and Special Forces-trained, but she has been given an impossible mission. She has to protect scientist, Gavin Shawlens, from assassination by the CIA, and discover the secret trapped in Gavin’s mind the CIA want destroyed.
As the pressure to find Shawlens escalates – the CIA send Zoe’s former mentor to track her down, and her fate seems sealed when he surrounds Zoe and Gavin with a ring of steel. With each hour that passes, the ring is tightened, and the window for discovering Gavin’s secret will shut.
Zoe is faced with a decision that goes against all of her survival instincts. If she is wrong – they both die. If she is right – she will discover the secret, and become the next target for assassination. Run for your life…
Buy Gordon Bickerstaff’s Books
Follow Gordon Bickerstaff here:
Twitter handle: @ADPase
The following blog is from BubbleCow which I received this morning. Because of my editing on Princess Adele’s Dragon, I seem to be paying a lot more attention when I see these helpful tips. I wanted to share it. Have a blessed day. Shirley
I’m talking about that dirty word: grammar.
But more than that, I’m also talking about formatting, which is kind of like grammar for the computer-age. Bold statements aside, if you want to be taken seriously by publishers, editors, and readers, then you’ve got to get your head around formatting conventions on word processors. I often joke that you wouldn’t start playing a sport without first reading the rules. It is the same for writing. You need to be getting the basics correct; there’s no excuse. As a writer, you simply need to know this stuff.
I’m a big fan of writing software in general and favour a whole host of different word processors. However, Microsoft Word is still the industry standard, so I’ll be using that as a reference point. These rules will still apply whether you’re using Scrivener, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or whatever your software of choice is.
OK, so with all that said, here’s the six grammar/formatting issues that drive us mad:
Ellipses – yep. They showed up last week and they’re back again. A few of you seemed unclear as to the nature of an ellipsis. Well, an ellipsis is the three dots writers use to denote an omission or to show a pause in speech. Here at BubbleCow, we often receive manuscripts where the writer has thrown in a few ellipses but with variable numbers of dots. In fact, some writers seem to think that the more dots they add, the more mysterious and tantalising their cliff-hanger becomes. “I was never there…………………… OR WAS I?” Oh dear. Ellipses only ever have three dots. No more, no fewer.
Two other things to say about ellipses. The correct way to write an ellipsis is . . . – that’s dot space dot space dot. The problem is that this plays havoc with some eBook conversion tools. Therefore, our house style is to alter them to … (three dots with no spaces). This will be picked up in the conversion process and handled correctly.
What about when an ellipsis is used at the end of the sentence? What happens to that extra full stop? Should it be three dots (…) or three and a full stop (… .). The answer is a little confusing. There’s no set rule on this, with different style guides opting for different options. At BubbleCow, our house style ignores that last full stop. Just the three dots for us, please.
Here’s a great LINK to an article on ellipses.
Writing numbers – this, confusingly, is not another case of consistency. Now, we get hundreds of manuscripts where the writers rather sensibly choose to either use either purely numeric or purely written numbers for the entirety of their manuscripts. Then we get those who arbitrarily use a mixture of the two. Strangely, both parties are wrong in this case. Our house style (based on the Chicago Manual of Style) is as follows: numbers up to 100 must be written in words – so: one, seventeen, ninety-four. After that this becomes a little time consuming, so we allow these larger numbers to be written in digits: 1003, 784, 100,000. All you have to remember is that 100 is the magic number.
Spaces – now I know what you’re thinking. How can anyone mess up a space? Do we receive manuscripts that are just spaceless walls of interlinked words? The answer is no.
I’m talking about making sure that you’re only using one space between words. Now I know how it is – you’re writing passages, deleting them later on, shuffling around paragraphs – things get messy. But I recently ran a find-and-replace on a manuscript and it found 384 instances where two spaces had snuck in instead of one.
We’ve talked about single and double spacing before and it kicked up a bit of a storm. You see back in the olden days of typewriters and typesetting, double-spacing was standard. Those days are over! Double spaces are a nightmare for those unlucky publishers who’re in charge of creating eBooks. They mess up the formatting, resulting in unattractive, oddly-spaced electronic books that inevitably have to scrapped and redone. Our advice? Stick to one space.
Page breaks – this one is easy. The reason I’ve listed it here is because eBook conversions rely on page breaks between chapters. They will see the page break and understand that they need to do something special. If you’ve just pressed Enter a load of time to move the text to the next page you are in trouble. Not only will the conversion process potentially miss the chapter break but you’ll also lose the positioning if you then add or remove text in the chapter.
The bottom line is that you should always use a page break to go to the next page before starting a new chapter. This makes for a clean and presentable eBook, and will also help the printers if you’re going to print copies.
Paragraph breaks versus line breaks – these two phenomena might need explaining as they’re both pretty similar. Indeed, Microsoft Word didn’t start distinguishing between them until about 2003 (don’t quote me on this), but in modern word processing, the difference is very important.
OK, if you open up Word, type “BubbleCow is great,” and then press Enter, you’ll notice that the cursor jumps down to the line below, leaving some space between the previous line and the new one. This is a paragraph break. This is the one you want.
If, however, you were to hold Shift and then press Enter, the resulting new line would be right up beneath “BubbleCow is great,” with no space between them.
A great way of checking this is to use the Show/Hide Nonprinting Characters button, found on the Home tab in Word (it’s the odd black backwards P symbol). A paragraph break will show up as one of these backward-Ps, whereas a line break will be a cornering arrow. You want the P.
Line breaks are a nightmare for those in charge of formatting your masterwork – it groups all the text together, which means that text becomes harder to arrange on the page and stubborn in its disobedience. Using line breaks to create space (at the end of a chapter, for example, so you can get that page break in) can create nightmares for eBook conversions. Paragraph breaks all the way. One of the first things I do with a new manuscript is to find and replace all line breaks with paragraph breaks.
Indentation – those pesky line breaks also have a habit of messing up any system of indentation you might (should) have going. Indents only trigger on paragraph breaks, so there’s an extra reason always to paragraph break! But indents are important in their right.
Here at BubbleCow, we want the first paragraph of each chapter to be a straight flush, with the first sentence in line with the following sentences. After that, though, every paragraph needs its first line to be indented using the Tab key (not spaces! These tend to be messier and can disappear during the eBook conversion process). Again, this is one of the first things we add when we receive a new manuscript, as it helps your manuscript appear clean, streamlined, and readable. It also makes eBook versions far more attractive and is necessary for the conversion process.
We are always wanting to glean what other authors know about writing. This blog by Steve Silberman gathers together authors and has them give suggestions on how to improve your writing and make your book great. I thought it was something worth sharing. Have a blessed day. Shirley
I love books. My late father Donald, who taught Wordsworth and Melville to inner-city kids for decades, used to read Ulysses to me while he carried me on his shoulders. Perhaps it was inevitable that I grew up to be a writer. Now, after years of investigative reporting for Wired and other magazines, I’m finally writing a book of my own.
The subject of my book is autism, the variety of human cognitive styles, and the rise of the neurodiversity movement. The seed of the project was an article I wrote for Wired in 2001 called “The Geek Syndrome” about autism and Asperger syndrome in high-tech communities like Silicon Valley. I’m happy and humbled to say that it was an influential article, and I still get email about it from the families of kids on the spectrum and from autistic people themselves, though it was published more than a decade ago.
The science of developmental disorders has made significant advances in recent years, and some of the social issues that I raised in the piece — such as the contributions that people with atypical cognitive styles have made to the progress of science, technology, and culture — seem more relevant than ever. At the same time, the wave of kids diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the ’90s is now coming of age, and their heroically devoted families are facing fear and uncertainty about the future as crucial government-funded services and support provided to families of special-needs children dry up. Meanwhile,neurodiversity advocates are challenging narrow definitions of “normal” cognition, and autistic people — even those who are unable to employ spoken language — are using assistive technology like the iPad to express themselves. There’s a lot of new ground to cover.
I’ve signed a contract with a wonderful publisher — a Penguin imprint called Avery Books — and a sharp and enthusiastic editor named Rachel Holtzman. One of the most thrilling moments of my life as a writer was walking into Penguin headquarters in Manhattan and seeing classic jackets for Jack Kerouac’s novels like The Dharma Bums framed on the wall. It was reading the exhilarating, compassionate, and perennially fresh poetry and prose of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and their friends that made me want to grow up to be a writer in the first place.
I’m not sentimental about old media vs. new media. Nothing will ever replace the sublime feeling of sanctuary created by the printed page, but I treasure the books on my Kindle too, particularly when I’m reading at 30,000 feet. What I love is words — storytelling, the flow of well-wrought sentences, the gradual unfolding of a long and thoughtful tale, the private communion with an author’s mind.
But now comes the hard part. It’s one thing to work up a 4000-word magazine feature and another to sit down and write a 100,000-word book. I’m acutely aware that I’ve been granted a precious opportunity to cast light on forgotten history and provide a platform for voices that are rarely heard. At the same time, I’m scared out of my wits that the two decades of journalism that have led up to this project have not prepared me to write a good book. I wake up at 3am staring into the darkness, wondering if I’ll have the skills, discipline, and inner resources to pull it off.
I’ve chosen to deal with my anxiety by tapping into the wisdom of the hive mind. I recently sent email to the authors in my social network and asked them, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”
I’m delighted with the sheer range of practical advice that poured in. The writers in this group are as diverse as the volumes that line the shelves in my home office. There are top science writers and journalists like Carl Zimmer, Jonah Lehrer, Deborah Blum, Paula Span, and David Shenk; prolific blogger Geoff Manaugh of the endlessly fascinating BLDGBLOG, which focuses on architecture and the future of urbanism; award-winning poet and essayist August Kleinzahler; a wise-beyond-his-years entrepreneur named Ben Casnocha; a Zen master named John Tarrant and an author of Buddhist bestsellers, Sylvia Boorstein; two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and two of the geniuses who helped launch 21st century digital culture and the spunky “maker” movement, Cory Doctorow and Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing. A more diverse group of writers, talking about the nuts and bolts of their craft, would be hard to find anywhere on the Web.
A few things became clear as soon as their replies came in. First of all, I’ll have to throttle back my use of Twitter and Facebook to get this writing done (and I may never rev up my idle Quora account after all.) Secondly, scheduling intervals of regular exercise and renewal amid the hours of writing will be essential. And thirdly, I’ll certainly be buying and downloading a software program calledScrivener, which is a powerful word processor specifically designed for writing books and keeping vast amounts of related data in good order.
Reading these tips has made the voice in my head that whispers I can do this a little louder when my eyelids snap open before dawn. I hope the advice here inspires the creation of many great books, not only the one I hope to write. I’m deeply grateful for the time and attention of the master writers assembled here.
Enjoy — and good luck with your own writing!
Author of A Planet of Viruses, The Tangled Bank, and Brain Cuttings
- Do as much research as possible away from the Internet — with living people, in real places.
- Be ready to organize vast amounts of data. Use a wall, or software like Scrivener.
- Be ready to amputate entire chapters. It will be painful.
- Make it great, no matter how long it takes. There’s no such thing as too many drafts. There’s no such thing as too much time spent. As you well know, a great book can last forever. A great book can change a person’s life. A mediocre book is just commerce.
- Get feedback — oodles of it. Along the way, show pieces of your book to lots of people — different types of people. Ply them with wine and beg them for candor. Find out what’s missing, what’s being misinterpreted, what isn’t convincing, what’s falling flat. This doesn’t mean you take every suggestion or write the book by committee. But this process will allow to marry your necessarily-precious vision with how people will actually react. I find that invaluable.
- Let some of you come through. You’re obviously not writing a memoir here, but this book is still partly about you — the world you see, the way you think, the experiences you have with people. And trust me, readers are interested in who you are. So don’t be afraid to let bits and pieces of your personality and even life details seep into the text. It will breathe a lot of life into the book.
- Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.
- Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it.
- Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.
- Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.
- Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.
- The first tip is that readers expect books to be exhaustive on their subjects. That doesn’t mean they want the books to be long — it means that they expect that you will cover all the basic ground that needs to be covered to understand the subject, even if they know some of it already. This piece of advice may or may not be relevant to your subject. In my case, with a very idiosyncratic book on viral culture, it led to people asking me at readings why I hadn’t included an analysis of X or Y viral phenomenon in my book. “Because you already know about it,” the magazine guy in me always wanted to respond. But in the book world, people want to see you mention the stuff they already know, at least in passing (or to knock it down)– otherwise, how can it claim to be a book on the subject? It’s worth taking that point of view seriously.
- This is a basic piece of advice, but it can’t be overstated when you’re trying to go from magazine-length to book-length writing: hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagining ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.
- Don’t hold back on that fantasy site visit / phone call / interview / query / meeting that you have always wanted to do, lest it become too late to include the results in your book. Do it now! This book is your golden ticket.
- Don’t lose track of your notes and/or future ideas for inclusion by writing things down in multiple notebooks or on scattered pages of the same notebook; concentrate, aggregate, cohere, reread, and compress. Keep it all in one place (with back-ups). Obsessive-compulsive organizational habits are your bestfriend; telling insane and vaguely embarrassing stories later on, about how you used eight different colored markers, four highlighter types, and multiple versions of extra pages stapled into a vast mega-notebook that you re-read every night before bed – and that you also took digital photos of lest you lose the whole thing in a house fire – will be a lot more fun than explaining how you forgot to include certain things and your book sucked because you never got your shit together.
- Quick, tossed off, last minute additions, typed right before you submit the final manuscript, probably aren’t a good idea, no matter how funny or emotionally powerful you might feel they are at the time of impulsively writing them. Always allow time to come back and read something from a distance.
- And run all quirky one-liners that you hope to include in your author’s bio (do you “always enjoy a good latté”?) past a close friend; they don’t age well.
- Use Scrivener to write your book. Awesome organizing tool as well as word processor.
- If you have the feeling an interview isn’t yielding much, get off the phone as soon as you can. On the other hand, when you strike interview gold, keep it going as long as you can.
- Don’t forget to write the book that you want to read.
- here are a few things that i’ve learned or that people have told me along the way. i’ve written five books. the first two (monkey wars, sex on the brain) were issue books. the best advice i got when writing an issue book was to write the first chapter LAST. this isn’t absolute, but it’s in the research and writing of later chapters that you often figure out what your primary points will be and how best to frame them.
- the best advice i got in writing narrative non-fiction was to get my hero in trouble and keep him there. this was with my first narrative book, love at goon park. my editor suggested that as the over all arc — how is harry harlow ever going to persuade the scientific community that love matters? — and within that to have him confront an obstacle in every chapter. i’m a little looser with that now, not an obstacle in EVERY chapter, but it’s still a great way to think about structure. for instance, in poisoner’s handbook, every chapter is a poison. so my heroes must confront arsenic in one chapter and thallium in another…
- i usually try to have a single sentence that describes the primary message of the book. this turns out to be really useful when your editor asks you for the one sentence the sales force can use to persuade book sellers to buy your book. but, again, it’s also a useful organizing principle. so with monkey wars, the primary sentence (not brilliant for sales, but still) was “animal research is really about us.” number one species on the planet, can do whatever we want to other species. and i used that to frame every chapter around a decision that a researcher was making in his use of non-human primates, from brain surgeries to testing on endangered species.
- i let my first draft suck. kind of the anne lamott advice on “shitty first drafts.” to me my first draft is just an attempt to start unfolding the flow and logic of the story. if i get stuck, i just put xxx in the draft (for figure this out later.) with one of my books (sex on the brain) i did this so often that i had literal nightmares about it, that people were coming up to me and asking me if i had adopted an avant garde writing style.
- i’m obsessive about the research. i organize and cross-list and file from the very beginning. i make notes of key points, issues, and themes. the amount of research one does for a proposal is very different from the amount of research one does for a whole book. so i keep track of all these key moments in a way that lets me recognize patterns that i didn’t see earlier. and also so that when i’m later actually writing, i know where to find everything. writers waste a lot of time looking for that study that they filed, well, somewhere.
- i recognize that today’s book author isn’t done even after the manuscript is accepted. publishers expect us to be part of the marketing of the book and the sooner that starts the better. i used to tell people that i wanted to be the j.d. salinger of science writing and just stay home and let the royalties wash over me. but that’s mostly in the moments when i’m just overwhelmed. the new public version of a science writer is actually pretty fascinating.
- I find it helpful sometimes — and still to my surprise — trying to explain to someone what it is I’m trying to write about, usually someone bright but in a different intellectual zone, and not a writer. Or, likewise, in a letter or email to such a person.
- When my self-disgust reaches critical mass I seem to be ready to go.
- I tend to discover the structure, a structure, after diving in the deep end and swallowing water awhile, until I stop swallowing water, make my way to the surface and figure out how far it is toward shore or the side of the pool, and what mixture of treading water and the Australian crawl, given my limitations/aptitudes, might get me safely home.
- Shitty first drafts. Anne Lamott nailed it! But with books, it seems to be more like “shitty 20th drafts.” So shitty, for so long.
- Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.
- Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions.
Author/editor of The Mindfulness Revolution and In the Face of Fear
- You’re better off than you think, because you’ve done this before, just not in as large a format. Almost every technique and skill you’ve used to structure and tell a story at feature length scales to book length. So, let go of the excess anxiety about never having done this before.
- Planning. Planning. Planning. It’s a campaign. I used some project management tools in the end to put some order into the vastness. That’s the thing about the bigger scale. It requires more management to support the creativity. Cultivate a good relationship with your editor from the beginning. He/she is going to be your task master at some point. That’s going to go so much better if he/she is also your friend, colleague, supporter, and fan. The campaign of writing a book can get so lonely sometimes, you need a good attaboy just to remind yourself of why you’re doing it and that you’re not the crazy loser who needs to get out more.
- As Trungpa Rinpoche said (I paraphrase): enjoy refreshing activities from time to time. If you’re planning and scheduling well, you can find opportunities regularly to breathe more fresh air into your life and replenish yourself, because “the work fills the available space” is nowhere more true than on a book project. Watch out for self-indulgent and cheap substitutes for actually taking an honest to god break, of whatever duration.
- When I’m writing a book I only read other books that somehow inform my book. If it doesn’t serve my process — no matter how much I want to read it — I don’t. I suspect there are a lot of people who will give the opposite opinion (take a break from reading about your subject matter, etc.), but I’m not one of them. This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead — bask in the madness.
- Non-fiction shouldn’t mean poorly written. Writing is writing and art always counts. Make your book beautiful to read and you’re more likely to communicate your messages to your reader.
- Don’t focus on the promotional aspects of social media. Just share your passion for the subject matter as it filters through your writing process. The promotion aspect will be an organic extension of your passion.
- Cathartic effect.
- Love of the well-turned phrase.
- Set specific times to work.
- You already know what you need to know to do this. The fact is, my 60,000-plus-word book was pretty much like writing 8 to 10 long-form pieces. I didn’t do it differently, in terms of research or writing or rewriting. My existing skills were perfectly adequate to the task; yours will be too. It took me 2.5 years but then, I was teaching and freelancing at the same time; had I focused solely on the book, it probably would’ve taken 18 months. So you will make your deadline, even if your book is longer and more complex.
- Unhelpful, right? But maybe not. Bottom line, this is not some whole different sphere for which you are ill-prepared. For better or worse, whether you use some nifty software to organize your material or you use a whole bunch of yellow legal pads and photocopies in hanging files (like me — so retro), this is familiar territory and you are an old hand. So get to it.
- I had the easiest time of my life writing my three Asperger books. I just ran like Secretariat once I got going. But, I did learn that questionnaires make good research tools. I had three levels of questionnaires, each expanding on the one before it, so I didn’t have to individually interview each person. I did that by email or phone if and when it was warranted. By the time I wrote Aspergirls I had it streamlined: The questionnaires were posted on my site, the first one visible to the public so anyone could use it, then the 2nd and third were on hidden pages that I gave my participants the URL to. The data was compiled and I received email alerts whenever there was a new entry. So while I was researching certain elements of my book, the questionnaires and the people who used them were doing a lot of the legwork. Being that I’m fairly uneducated, I think I did a pretty good job with it.
- Advice from a Newsweek editor I worked with in the ’80s, Nancy Cooper. Roughly my age, but so much smarter and more worldly and sophisticated. I was worried about writing the opening story of the nation section. And she sent me a note that read: “You just start working and you keep working til it’s done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery.”
When I settle into writing, i.e. proposal signed, accepted, etc., I…
- Do not open email until 5PM on any weekday or other day when i expect to be writing much of the day.
- Do not read other people’s work on the same subject. That might be hard for you, since you are collecting research data, but I say very little about what other people have said or thought. They’ve already said or thought it.
- I am VERY selective about having other people read it as I go along other than my editor, and that only when I have enough written to feel secure that I have found my voice.
- When I do not like how what I’m writing is sounding, I quit. I leave the computer. I do something else, like cook soup. I “hear” what I am about to type before I type it and if it is not sounding like me naturally talking, I know i am not clear or balanced enough to go on.
- I do not write from the beginning to the end. I write in the order that particular parts take form in my mind and I enjoy mulling them over… I mull and mull and imagine I am explaining them to someone and then I write them down. I have the order in mind, so I write whatever part is bubbling energetically in my mind, print it out (always) and begin a stack on THE BOOK on a corner of my desk into which I can add pieces (in their proper order) as they get written and so I have a visible proof at all times that something is happening.
- I take the due date for the first draft EXTREMEly seriously., like everything depends on that day. it makes the project energetically alive for me, like a James Bond five-minutes-and-fifty-two-seconds until the whole world blows up movie and even if the draft is finished a week early I push the SEND button just after 12AM on the day it is due. Theatrical, I know, but I learned it from a friend of mine whom I admire as being a fine writer who prides himself on doing that.
Author of notable books on science and psychology
What I wish I didn’t know now that I didn’t know then:
- How hard writing a book would be on my body — two major illnesses and two surgeries in two years, a health record unprecedented in my life, and unrepeated in the two years since. No idea what to do differently, other than maybe make sure I have good health insurance. (But you shoulda seen me revising my last draft as they wheeled me into the OR for an appendectomy.)
- How important and valuable the final reward would be. Not the money, but (in my case) the promised trip to a very special place. Wish I had put the photo of my destination on my screensaver long before I did, as it worked like an extra force of gravity pulling me to the end. The trip also gave me a coda to write into the book, just an extra added benefit.
- How inept publishers are at selling books, even books that, as in my case, they have a significant financial stake in and that they profess to love. Once they get rejected by Today and Terry Gross and once the Sunday Timespasses (or, as in my case, assigns a review and then never runs it), they’ve exhausted their playbook. Solution: what you’re already doing, which is to build your brand among your intended audience.
- The most striking thing about my book processes was that no one at the publisher did any editing at all. No fact checking, no line editing.
- Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.
- Find ways to break it into chunks and set concrete deadlines with friends/agent/editor. I’m sending my agent material every week now. The shit is super rough, but at least I’ve got *something* on page. Also consider a writer’s group. When I asked Bruce Feiler for this advice at the start ofLincoln’s Melancholy, he said: “emotional management.” I told him, yeah, but I really want practical advice, etc. etc., and he repeated the phrase. Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.
- What’s the idea/argument in a sentence or two? You shouldn’t have this necessarily at the start but will want to by the time the book is done.
- Apply to MacDowell, Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center, Headlands — a few other good residencies, including one in Cali I can’t remember now. Four to eight weeks of you, quiet, among other artists, with people feeding you on schedule can do wonders.
Here’s a triplet of things that may apply only to me.
- Ideas don’t come from anywhere identifiable, so I’ve come to trust that they will be given. This is along the lines of not whipping the donkey.
- The process of lining the book up, giving it a bedside manner, asking “Is this what it is about? But what is it really about?” was a plunge. I had to explain the work to myself in more and more elementary language. I came to enjoy doing this. It helped when I realized that the discovery process was part of the writing and I didn’t have to be through it already.
- There is always period when I wrestle alone with my own process and at the same time I like collaboration. So I’ve learned what kind of editing works for me. A good editor is an impersonal force who says things like, “You could ditch the first half of your first chapter and start with what comes next,” and immediately I know if the edit is true or not. So I learned to be confident about sharing my work when it is not fully formed, learned that the process is robust and will look after itself.
- My one piece of advice is to insist that your editor be brutal — there should be red pen on every page. At least in my experience, the book only gets decent during this phase, as all the darlings and digressions get killed. It’s such an important process, and yet too many editors are too meek (or overworked) and too many writers resist their edits. A good editor is a great thing.
Author of The Panic Virus and Feeding the Monster
- If you’re a Mac guy, I whole-heartedly, full-throatedly recommend using Scrivener. I think you can get a free 30-day trial, so it’s at least worth checking out. Especially with this last book, it totally saved me from having hundreds of (virtual) stacks of thousands of (virtual) scraps of paper.
- For me, it was vitally important that all non-book related reading be as mindless as possible. I binged on mysteries…Rex Stout and Donald Westlake/Richard Stark in particular.
- I tried, not always successfully, to start each day with some discrete goal I wanted to accomplish: write 200 words, or get through a certain amount of research, or conduct two interviews, or whatever. If I set out to spend a day “writing,” that would be so overwhelming I’d end up just farting around online all day instead of starting the climb the mountain.
- Finally: assume your book is going to completely tank commercially. That’ll help you remember that you’re not writing this for the purpose of writing a best-seller (at least I assume you’re not), but because it’s something that you care passionately about and excites you intellectually and because you hope to be able to share your thoughts and observations and conclusions with a group of people you respect and want to discourse with. Everything else is gravy. At the end of the day, what’s important is producing something you believe in…not producing something that’ll catch people’s eyes at B&N.
- Find an organizational scheme for your notes and materials; keep up with it (if you are transcribing sound files or notebooks, don’t let yourself fall behind); and be faithful to it: Don’t obsess over an apparently better scheme that someone else has. At some point during your work, someone will release what looks like a brilliant piece of software that will solve all your problems. Resist the urge to try it out, whatever it is, unless 1) it is endorsed by people whose working methods you already know to be like your own and 2) you know you can implement it quickly and easily without a lot of backfilling. Reworking organizational schemes is incredibly seductive and a massive timesuck. (I use DevonThink, OmniOutliner and Filemaker Pro. David Dobbs apparently has a quite different flow. We hope to do a workshop on this at NASW.)
- Don’t wait too long to start writing, especially if your book incorporates descriptive or narrative elements. Write at least a quick sketch of the sensory and emotional elements that stick with you as you come back from field reporting.
- You’re going to spend a lot of time in your head. Take care of your physical self too. Be just as committed to that as you are to getting your writing done every day. If you don’t care about your health, think your vanity — there’s an author video and a lot of public appearances in your future.
- Bonus tip: Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it.