Having an insomniac night, and find reading to be of no help in settling my mind, I switched on the tv at 4 o’clock in the morning. After flipping through the handful of channels I get on the antenna (I don’t have tv cable) I ran across this on OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting). It’s a 2-year-old documentary hosted by the actor Stephen Fry about a handful of contemporary Russian authors. Russia kind of fascinates me after being closed off to the West for so long. It makes me wonder what we in the West have missed. The documentary website is here. I do have a couple of books by Russian contemporary writers, one fantasy (Nightwatch, by Sergei Lukyanenko, and The Stranger, by Max Frei) but haven’t gotten to them in the TBR pile.
If it makes you curious for more, and aren’t the type to read the comments, I found this guy’s blog which has much more on Russian writing and writers.
These pictures feel like a fairytale world. I need to write a fantasy set in this place. Gotta come up with a name for it. Amazing how it’s never the same two days in a row.
When I look at these pictures I keep wanting to label them “Farksolia.” But I need to think up my own name if I want to create an imaginary world. For those not familiar with Farksolia, it was an imaginary planet invented by Barbara Follett, a ‘child prodigy’ who wrote an acclaimed novel at the age of 12, in 1925. She even created a language for the inhabitants, Farksoo. She disappeared mysteriously in 1939, and I like to think she created a new life for herself somewhere, changed her name, and kept writing. She would have been 101 on March 4. I somehow stumbled across Farksolia years ago, no doubt following one link, then another, and have never forgotten about Barbara.
Anyway the whole thing is giving me ideas for different blog formats, and creating a little world of my own. I owe you for that, Barbara.
Today I have a real treat for you guys. I’m delighted to host a guest post by Harry Connolly, author of the Twenty Palaces series, and The Great Way, his new fantasy trilogy. I’ve been a fan of Harry’s for years, and was thrilled to be able to participate in Harry’s blog tour. He has written a dynamite post on pacing in fiction, so you writerly types take special note. And be sure to follow Harry on Twitter @byharryconnolly and follow his blog, Harry J. Connolly. And go read his books! They’re fantastic and imaginative and great fun. Now, on to Harry’s words of wisdom!
He Always Runs While Others Walk: Pacing in Fiction
We’ve all had the experience of reading a book all the way through to the end because we just have to get to the end. God help us, the awful word “unputdownable” was coined just for this, and as much as I hate the word, it exists for a reason.
Pacing. For the sort of fiction I write, it’s vital, but I think it’s also misunderstood.
Typically, people talk about pacing when they talk about my style of writing—chases, fights, daring escapades—but every book has its own pacing. If we’re reading about a young woman spending a summer in Florence, you’d expect the pacing to be mellow and relaxed, with a text mainly focused on description and casual conversation. Likewise, most cozy mysteries are chiefly made up of conversation and scene description, which are not usually considered gripping entertainment.
And yet, just like with thrillers, we can find ourselves compulsively reading cozies.
In other media, pacing can be pretty straight forward. How do we pick up the pace in music? Have the drummer (or the other musicians) play faster. (Probably there’s advice about playing on the upbeat instead of the downbeat, but I’m not musical.) Film has a number of techniques, including fast editing, that will speed the pace.
But with text on a page, it’s just one word after another. We can make a book seem shorter by including a bunch of one-line paragraphs that don’t extend to the right margin, but that’s just the book. It doesn’t increase the pace of the story. Yeah, I’m going against some really common advice here: short sentences are not one of the keys to fast-paced writing. We can increase the pace with long sentences, too. I ended the biggest action scene in Game of Cages with a run-on sentence that was over five hundred words long. It’s complexity, not length, that slows things down.
My friend Bill Martell is a screenwriter with an interesting theory (well, more than one, really, but let’s talk about this one) about films: they generally have two genres. The primary genre is where all the big set pieces and high drama occurs. Those are the super-exciting “peaks” in the story where the pace is most frenetic. The secondary genre (the word “subplot” just isn’t that descriptive) is where the “lulls” happen. Taking Super-8 as an example: the primary genre is a monster movie about an alien that grabs people and devours them. The secondary genre is a coming of age story. In between the chase scenes and the scary monster stuff, the mellower moments that let us catch our breath center on the protagonist’s relationship with his father, with the girl he likes, and with his best friend.
In decades past, the second genre was typically a love story, usually with the Only Woman Appearing In The Film. Lately, it’s more likely to be about Daddy Issues.
Books are different, but only because they can be longer and more complex. We can have a whole bunch of different plots running throughout the book, with multiple points of view, and can switch between them whenever we need to alter the pace. If we have one storyline about a prince leading a battle against an invading army, we can switch over to the princess being forced into a marriage with a man she knows is secretly plotting with the invaders, then switch to a disreputable smuggler working the docks, wondering who’s bringing in all these new shipments. Battle -> Court Intrigue -> Skulking -> Battle -> Court Intrigue -> and so on, switching between them.
The thing is, each storyline could be equally gripping. Just because one is slower-paced than the others doesn’t mean that the reader attaches to the story less ferociously. But the difference in pace is important for creating that reader attachment. The fast parts need the slow, just as the slow needs the fast.
To shift gears a little bit: Most people who go to see a Michael Bay movie know they’re in for spectacle, which is achieved through some very specific techniques. However, although the pace is fast due to the way it’s framed, shot, and edited, a lot of people find it intensely dull and/or unsatisfying.
The audience doesn’t care because the first step in creating pacing that really works is to create a situation that the readers care deeply about.
Look at the situation I presented four paragraphs before: some readers will have zero interest in anything related to a princess forced into a bad marriage. Maybe they don’t like reading about female characters. Maybe they don’t like reading about female characters without a lot of agency. It doesn’t matter. Even if the story is full of chases and betrayals and death-defying risks, every time the narrative switches to her plot, the book will sag.
For that reader.
You really can’t please everyone. Personal example: I was confused by early reviews of Child of Fire that said “nothing happened” for the first 100 pages. I was perplexed by this, because the protagonist sees a child catch fire and transform, they he helps break into a home, then a gunman shoots up the restaurant he’s in, then…
Anyway, a lot was happening, and it was happening quickly. However, the main plot question was “What the hell is going on here?” and there are certain readers who don’t consider that a legitimate plot question. For them, unless there’s a clear goal (beyond “we need to figure this out”) it’s all a holding pattern. I suspect those readers will never truly like my work.
How do we control the pacing, though?
As I’ve been trying to demonstrate, there are no hard and fast rules. Some choices will seem fast in one book and slow in another, depending on what’s around it. Sometimes the reader will be impossible to win over, no matter what we do.
Like all writing, it depends on what information is being delivered to the reader and how. It’s not something I can turn into a numbered list. Is the scene we’re writing about a soldier trying to defuse a ticking bomb, and full of relatively simple language? Probably fast paced. Is it about a soldier trying to defuse a bomb and full of complicated clauses, digressions into the soldier’s childhood, a description of the surroundings? Well, that might be frustratingly in conflict with itself, and maybe that’s the point.
Characters we care about, doing something we’re interested in, acting in a frantic way, described in the appropriate language, is probably a fast-paced part of the story. Unless it isn’t. If they’re taking stock, or just getting to know each other (so the reader will be sad when they’re killed later) that’s probably slower.
The only way to really tell is by the feel of it. When writing/revising/rereading a section, do we feel as though some tidal force is pushing us forward? Do we feel centered and at ease? Frankly, for all the talk about writerly technique, I think we too often give short shrift to the true arbiter of proper technique: our own taste.
Short sentences! Showing instead of telling! Whatever! These things are usually substitutions for the careful creative decision that seems right at the moment. The real world of art—even commercial art of the kind I write—is more complicated than short sentences = fast pace.
Anyone who’s curious about the way I do pacing, look no further than the opening of my new trilogy. Check the cover.:
It’s about a sentient curse that brings about the collapse of an empire, and it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
You can find out more about that first book here, or you can read the sample chapters I’ve posted on my blog to see a slow lull that builds until it turns into a fast-paced scene of violence.
Thanks for your time.
BIO: Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it’s the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos, was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system.
Chapter 19 posted on Wattpad this morning! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read about my little group of vampires and humans. It’s still kind of surreal to me that it’s out there and anybody AT ALL is reading it. Lots of questions about the sequel, which is in the works, but it’s way too early even for me to know what’s going to happen! It’s interesting to see which characters become favorites, though.
And a couple pics. I was surprised to see Venus and Mercury in the sky last evening on my way home. I stopped on the road to get pics, just wish I’d had my tripod (or better, telescope) with me. Timestamp is 5:55PM EST, looking south. I rather like this pic:
And this morning:
Happy Hump Day!
I have done it, I have loosed my vampires upon the world! This is both terrifying and exciting. There was a lot of time I thought about just tossing it in a drawer (electronically) and forgetting about it. But then I thought, what the hey, eh? Why not just run it up the proverbial flag pole and see who salutes? Maybe we should meet the team:
This is the core group: just a couple of fun-loving, bourbon-swilling, chain-smoking, blood-drinking vampires and one human woman who have become a de facto family. It’s a little dysfunctional but what family isn’t? Somehow they’re still falling in with the wrong crowd.
The book releases on October 31 (I just had to have that day!), but you can pre-order now on Smashwords in a variety of formats and it should be up soon if not already at B&N, Kobo, Scribd, Oyster, FlipKart, Overdrive… You can also download 10% of it to take it for a test drive, see if you’d like to read more. Also, the first chapter is up on Wattpad .
I’m working on getting it up at Amazon, but until then you can get the MOBI version from Smashwords.
If you don’t like pre-orders the book is available in just a couple days. I did a short pre-order period, mostly due to the timing of being able to get it through Smashwords vetting system and into their Premium Catalog, which took far less time than anticipated.
So, on to NaNoWriMo on Saturday, and start of the sequel to RA, working title “The Age of Revenants”.
So it looks like it’s really going to happen, I’m really going to unleash Andrej, Neko, and Anne-Marie on the world, probably late this summer. This is, quite frankly, terrifying. Honest to dog, I don’t know how I’m going to make myself do all the obligatory marketing and selling. I don’t want to become “that author” who endlessly tweets nothing but ‘buy my book!’ tweets.
But first, I have to get something, some kind of descriptors or keywords to my cover artist so he can get started on the painting (yes, not CGI. I’ve seen some really dreadful covers done in CGI). :::chews nails::: This is much harder than I thought it would be. There are the obvious things: vampires, Prague, the three main characters. I really have no clear vision of what I want on the cover so I’ll wait and see what he comes up with. I’m still not entirely sure what all he’s going to do as far as creating the digital version of the painting. So many details still to work out. I hope to have a contract in the next day or two.
I’m rethinking how/where I’m going to release the book. I had initially figured I’d go KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) but now I’m thinking Smashwords who can distribute to iTunes and loads of others, including Kobo (since that’s the kind of ereader I have).
Oh god I feel like Kermit.
This piece gives me chills. I just wish it was longer and didn’t end so abruptly. I give you: Two Steps From Hell, “Protectors of the Earth” from their album, “Invincible.”
I downloaded the MP3 version from Amazon, in case anyone’s wondering.
I still don’t know if this current WIP is going to be a short story, or if I want to take it to full length novel. It’s funny how I have real life models for some of the characters, but not the main character, my protagonist. Sigh. Back to it.
I wonder if the CD cover is available as a poster…
Having no other content to put up here lately, I thought I’d post a snippet of a story I’m working on and see what you 3 think of it. This is actually quite terrifying, putting it out there like this. I don’t even have a title for it yet. Oh what the hell, here it is.
“Not many women choose this life,” he said, watching her clean the blade of her sword. The steel was smooth as glass, not a ripple in the metal. He’d never seen such a beautifully crafted blade.
She knelt on one knee in the mud by the body of the man she had just cut down in battle. “I’d hardly call it a choice.”
He dismounted from the enormous black horse. “Ah. Like so many of us. Sometimes the gods choose for us.”
“The gods and a bastard of a father who beat his children. He was my first kill.” She stood up, taller than he’d expected, broad-shouldered for a woman.
His mouth curved up on one side in a sardonic smile. “Self-defense is a basic skill for a warrior. The gods started training you early.”
“What is it with you and the gods, old man?”
“They’ve brought me victorious through many a battle.”
“And you don’t think that was any credit to your own skill?”
“Oh assuredly. But they set me on the path to learn what I’d need.”
She snorted. “All right, old man, if it gives you comfort at night.”
It was his turn to smile. “Old man? My hair may show many winters, but my arm will match yours in battle yet.”
She looked him up and down. His arms were as thick as oak branches, taut and strong, hardly flagging into old age. And then she saw the rank insignia riveted to his armor. He was the highest ranking general she’d come across since the war began. “No disrespect intended, General…?”
Her smile faded. He was more than a general, Vercingetor was the legendary commander of all the armies. And here she was sassing him. She laughed self-consciously. How could she not have recognized him? One didn’t expect to see the prime commander wandering around a battlefield unescorted. She saluted, wondering if it was already too late to salvage her career in the army. “My deepest apologies, General. Your presence here is a surprise. How may I serve you?”
“Apology accepted, Captain Lassuni. Since our work here is done,” he said, sweeping his glance over the battlefield where the crows were already arriving to scavenge the dead, “join me for some food, and we can talk.”
“Sir, I need to check on my troops.” Gainsaying the top Commander was probably error number two that day, but her duty to her own troops weighed on her. She couldn’t just go off for food and wine and leave them.
“Of course. I’ll join you,” he said, and mounted his horse once again. He sat and waited for her to retrieve her own mount that had wandered off during the battle. Once in the saddle she kicked the horse’s flanks, urging the animal to a canter.
“This way, General,” she said, and rode up the hill that hid their encampment.
They reached the top side by side, and reined their horses to a stop. Smoke from cooking fires and the smell of blood of the wounded scorched their nostrils. The wind was picking up as dark clouds moved in from the north. Just what they needed, Lassuni thought darkly. The wounded were suffering enough without cold rain and snow coming down on them. She urged her horse down the hill, nearly forgetting the presence of the army chief. She wasn’t too worried about him, though. He could figure out on his own what to do. All she could do now was her duty to her troops.
They rode down the line of tents, many of which had become camp hospitals, stopping now and then to have a word with some of the field doctors. None of the soldiers in the camp seemed to notice Vercingetor any more than she had, which made her smile inwardly. She didn’t know why this pleased her so much, only that it did. She suspected he was as arrogant and full of himself as most high-ranking officers were, probably moreso. Not that he hadn’t earned his fame the hard way, but most of them forgot the hardships suffered by the field troops once they got so high and mighty. And she hated them for it. She watched him out of the corner of her eye to see how he reacted to his anonymity. Annoyingly, he seemed to take no notice and said nothing as she spoke with some of the soldiers, simply observing from his saddle, not even offering an opinion. Finally she gave up worrying about him. Dismounting, she handed her horse off to her aide. She ran a hand absently through her chin-length, rough cut hair. She entered her tent where fatigue stole up and embraced her, and for the first time she felt the strain of the last few weeks. Forgetting the presence of the Supreme Commander, she lowered herself into her chair and called for wine, and two cups.
“My compliments, Captain. You have an excellent unit,” Vercingetor said. He had followed her in, but remained standing as if waiting for an invitation to sit.
Lassuni grinned, just a little, then started to stand again. “Forgive me, General…”
He waved his hand at her. “You’ve earned that seat, Captain,” he said. He turned and looked around the tent, then pulled up a second chair to sit near her. Lassuni shifted ever so slightly.
“Forgive me, General. I’m not accustomed to superior officers doing for themselves,” she said. But even that was half bait to see how he’d take it. What was it about this man that brought out this childish desire to provoke?
Vercingetor gave no indication that he felt in any way slighted or that she was being insubordinate. Peculiar. By now her aides were entering bearing plates of food and flagons of wine. As they refreshed the fire she began to thaw a little from the numbing cold of the gathering night, and started removing her armor. Vercingetor took a mouthful of the roasted meat and a swallow of wine, paying no heed to her. She shrugged and allowed her aide to finish taking the armor off.
“Tomorrow,” Vercingetor started, “we’ll cross the Ringossa Valley, and advance into Segora Province. Your troops will need to rest some before we can finish the push into the capital city.”
“We’ll need reinforcements before we can engage the rebels there. We suffered too many casualties today. I can’t move my forces for at least a week.”
“Precisely. You’ll leave your squadrons here, and take command of the Ninth Division. They’re stationed just beyond that ridge to the north.”
“Sir?” She finished swallowing a mouthful of food. “You want me to lead the Ninth?”
Now Vercingetor smiled. “Did you think I just stumbled on you by accident today, Captain?”
“Surely there are other officers more qualified to command the ninth.”
“More senior, certainly; more qualified – not that I’ve seen.”
For a moment she could hardly speak. The Ninth was a legendary elite unit, undefeated on the battlefield. To be handed command of such a unit was unheard of. Only the most skilled warriors were assigned to serve directly under the military’s highest commander.
“But sir, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to promote one of their own to command?”
He swirled his wine while watching her. “Perhaps. Under normal circumstances. At the moment I need some of them elsewhere, and after what I witnessed on the battlefield today, I believe I can trust you to carry this burden. Your regiment scored a decisive victory, your troops fight fiercely for you. I need officers who can inspire their troops like that.”
“But who will take over my regiment?”
“Captain, are you trying to tell me you’re refusing this promotion?”
She swallowed hard. “No General, not at all.”
He was handing her a position beyond anything she’d hoped for and she was acting like a mother hen. True, she had brought these troops up from nothing, turning them into one of the most feared and best trained units in the empire, but fate it seemed had decided it was time to move on.
“Your devotion to your troops is commendable, Captain, but I need you elsewhere right now. Be ready to leave in the morning, if you please.”
“Now, if you’ll direct me to a tent I can use tonight, I’d be most grateful.”
Once Vercingetor was settled, Adovana Lassuni assembled her officers in a hasty council to pass on the news. Her top lieutenant openly blanched at the news, until she informed him he was receiving a field promotion to captain.
“You’ll assume command immediately,” she told him. “I ride out in the morning with the supreme commander. There’s no time for a formal change of command.”
“It’s been an honor to serve with you, Captain.” Lieutenant Satonos stood at attention as he spoke.
Lassuni nodded. “Thank you. And may I be the first to congratulate you on your promotion, Captain Satonos.” Each placed their left hand on the other’s right shoulder in salute.
More to come…
My time lately has been concentrated on researching book covers: designs, designers, how-to, software, stock photos, pre-made vs. commissioned. What I’ve decided is since I want to give the book its best chance possible I am going to commission cover art. My reasons are thus:
1. I want good art that will stand out, and won’t make me feel embarrassed to show someone, like these would. (Fair warning: you may need trauma counseling after viewing that site.)
2. The book is the first of what I hope will be a trilogy. I want a cohesive look, rather than a mish-mash of different styles so I’m hoping to be able to have the same artist do the covers of the next books as well.
3. Design programs like PhotoShop or GIMP have a steep learning curve. If you don’t already know how to use them, it’s not likely to be something you can learn to do well in a weekend (unless you’re a whole lot smarter than I am). I suspect it would take years to achieve the level of mastery I’m after. I got as far as downloading GIMP and was flummoxed. As much as I love playing around with it, I have no idea what I’m doing and the effort would be amateurish at best. Again, the embarrassment factor.
4. I love really good cover art. Most of the pre-made covers are formulaic, or just not quite right and make me want to tweak the design this way or that, even if the art isn’t bad. I don’t want to settle for something that’s almost there.
5. I’m not an artist and know only the merest basics of design principles.
What can I say? Champagne taste on a beer budget.
It will cost more money, but people do judge books by their covers (I know I do) and those cheesey, bad CGI covers with ugly fonts are a turn-off to me, so probably are to most other people as well. I’ve solicited information from three or four artists online (and dismissed others out of hand due to their prices) and am pretty well focused on one. It’s not that I begrudge these people their rates, god knows a real artist with real talent deserves to be compensated for their work. I simply can’t come up with that much money right now. And high prices are also no guarantee of talent, as you can quickly discover. I trolled the internet for a couple of weeks, looking up all kinds of artists, checking out the DIY options, pre-made offerings. This, I believe, is the best course.
The whole process is kind of taking my breath away, and my heart beat faster. This is really happening. Unless I chicken out and decide not to do it. I’ll probably just quietly put the book up on Amazon and hope no one notices…