Category: For Readers (page 1 of 12)

A Better Writer

titleRead A Better Man, Louise Penny’s latest book over the weekend. I finished it late on Sunday night and have moved on to a new novel. Yet Penny’s story continues to haunt me. Why?

I asked myself that question as a writer, not a reader. What is it about her writing that gets inside my head and refuses to leave? Can I learn from her to make my own work more compelling? I found a number of answers.

First: Compelling Characters.

Everyone who has ever taken a class or a workshop in writing fiction knows compelling characters are key to a successful novel.

Penny’s characters are all well-rounded, complex, interesting and tug at the heart strings. I don’t want to go into a long review here, so I’ll concentrate on the lead character, Armand Gamache, a senior officer in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is an emminently appealing character, kind, honest, brave, loving, loyal—and deeply wounded. As a police officer he has seen and done things that cut to his soul. He has been betrayed by colleagues, attacked by politicians, shot by criminals. Penny creates scenes of evil and hate and greed and she puts Gamache in the middle of it. She tries his principles, tempts him with an easy way out. She hurts him deeply, yet he remains true to himself and what he stands for. As a reader, I’ve come to trust him, depend on him to get me through the terrible events of the novel and show me that justice will prevail, that good men can, if not win, at least survive.

The wounds, I believe, are what makes Gamache so relatable. I’m too soft when it comes to hurting my characters. I like them and I don’t want to make them suffer, but the suffering is where real character is displayed. It is where readers identify with characters and ache for them and cheer for them and read on until they are safely home again.

Second: Appealing setting

The village of Three Pines plays a large role in the stories. It’s a bit like an English village that you might find in a Miss Marple mystery, but it is deeply Quebecois. The bistro, the village green, the duck pond, the old church, the book store, and B&B – these are all Quebec, with harsh winters, hot summers, mosquitos, and no WiFi.  All the instant communication a modern culture takes for granted, must slow down in Three Pines. This lack of speed in the village is a wonderful plot device, stretching out the suspense. It takes time to get reports, it takes time to run down leads, it takes time to receive orders. If you’re really in a hurry you can drive a few miles out of town to where there is cell phone reception, but that takes time too.  Everything takes time and we settle into Three Pines like a comfortable old armchair. We probably want a latte and a wood-burning fireplace, and good friends and good conversation. We want to luxuriate in the slowed down time of this village.

Third: Beautiful writing

Penny’s prose is almost poetic. She is obviously well-read and educated, referencing art, literature and politics, yet her language is not beyond the understanding of most readers. She doesn’t dazzle with long words and convoluted sentences, but there is a poet living in Three Pines and her phrases creep into the narrative and make it sparkle. There is also a foul-mouthed duck who roots us firmly in the modern culture. In other words, Penny has a recognizable and enthralling voice.

Fourth: Dynamic Plot

Since these are murder mysteries one would expect lots of plot turns, but Penny is a master at throwing in an unexpected twist. Even when you think a character has won, he loses. Even when Gamache seems defeated, he has an ace up his sleeve. I am always in awe of people who can plot out even a simple mystery, With Penny’s serpentine plot twists, I can only marvel.

This is only a brief analysis of what I think makes her books so remarkable and none of it is new. All of these points are developed in how-to-write books, workshops and university courses, but Louise Penny has provided us with a masterful example.

Even if you write lighter stories, where romance and humour are more important than danger and crime, I recommend any of Ms Penny’s books as a great learning tool — and a wonderful way to spend a weekend.

Anyone else a fan? Who’s your favourite writer. Does he/she get inside your head and refuse to leave?

 

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Winner!

We interrupt this blog post to bring you the author’s annual brag fest. The fall fair was on the long weekend and I won some prizes. Not as many as some years, but still enough to encourage me to try again next year.

By the Friday before the fair, I’m worn out with fretting and primping and second guessing myself and I wonder why I bother. Then I win some ribbons and by Tuesday, I’m looking at the catalogue to see what else I might enter next year. 

I encouraged a friend to enter this year for the first time. She did and then spent two weeks telling herself not to get too worked up about it all. “It’s only a country fair.” “It doesn’t matter if the judges like my rose. I like it,” and other depressing sentiments of that sort. When she won a first prize she jumped up and down like a school girl, squealing, “I won, I won, I won.” 🙂  

I think writers are like that too. Give them a little encouragement and they jump into the next story convinced it will be the best ever, maybe even earn a movie contract.  So, hope, is a universal trait. That’s something writer’s can use in crafting their tales. Since I’m a naturally hopeful person, my stories are full of hope and it is usually fulfilled. Others take a more pessimistic view and they create characters without hope. This too can serve the story well. Someone with no hope of winning, of finding a better path, of being loved . . . sounds like a perfect villain.

Another universal trait is the desire to win. Whether it’s a blue ribbon at the fair, or a mega-lottery prize or a foot race or an election. We all want to win something. “How to” books on writing ask the author to define her character’s goals. If the word “goal” doesn’t spark your imagination, try asking what your character wants to win.  It means the same thing, but sometimes we respond to a different word more effectively. For myself, I wrestled with “conflict.” Then I heard someone use the word “struggle,” and I understood what story-conflict means.

And if you’re looking for a plot for your next romance, try the country fair. Lots of intrigue in the judging tent, conflict among the exhibitors, skullduggery in the garden. The possibilities are endless. And at the end, your heroine can come home with a fistful of blue ribbons.

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Singapore Sapphire

Set in the far east, Singapore Sapphire isn’t my usual cup of tea, but I like the author, A.M. Stuart, so decided to try the book.

The far east is still not my favourite place to visit, even in fiction, but I thoroughly enjoyed this first of the Harriet Gordon mysteries.

The story takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century, before two world wars changed the order of things for the British Empire. In the midst of the Malay jungle we have a Church of England school and a proper Cricket Club. Alongside these pillars of the ex-pat community are the Dutch traders and native Malays, Chinese, and Burmese. All thrown together in the heat and damp of Singapore. Along with murderers and thieves and smugglers, the climate itself acts as an enemy to European sensibilities. Fine buildings fall into decay, mouldering away almost as soon as they are erected. Rot seeps up from the docks, corruption lurks behind fine facades.

Harriet Gordon is an interesting character, widowed and hiding the secret of her time in Holloway prison for women, she is both bold and timid, bowing to conventions in her brother’s house, yet poking her nose into police business and seeking to solve a murder. There’s a hint of romance, even though it seems doomed at the outset.

Although Singapore is not on my list of places to visit, the author clearly knows and loves the area. Her descriptions of sights and sounds and smells brings the city and the time alive and will appeal to those with a taste for exotic locales.

I read the book in paperback but it is also available in e-book.

You don’t often see book recommendations on this blog because I only promote those I’ve actually read and enjoyed. Singapore Sapphire is a good read with lots of twists and turns in the plot and lots of historical and geographical detail to thrill the armchair traveller. 

I’ll be watching for the next Harriet Gordon mystery.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

 

 

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The Forgotten Sense

“Use the five senses,” is familiar advice to all writers. Just as news reporters use the 5 W’s — who, what, where, when, and why to check their stories, fiction writers can use sight, sound, smell, taste and touch to enhance the emotional impact of their tales.

 

Nothing triggers memory like a smell. I have two four-month old kittens. They were born in the country and at only eight weeks of age they related to smell. We had transported them 2500 miles, from the prairies to the coast, but when the scent of new-mown hay wafted through an open window, they stopped playing and sat up as tall as they could, their little noses twitching mightily as they inhaled the aroma of home.

Psychiatrists will tell you that smell can trigger forgotten memories, and stir the emotions. The perfume industry is built on that premise. A simple fragrance won’t make people spend hundreds of dollars on an ounce of liquid, but the emotions that fragrance elicits, will pry open the  purse.

Because scent has such a powerful effect on the emotions, good writers use that correlation not only to describe a scene but illuminate characters and draw the reader into an emotional  connection with the protagonist of the story.

Out on my bicycle I gloried in the number of summer smells I encountered on my ride–lavender, roses, ripe blackberries, fecund soil, dusty hay,  a horse barn . . . I inhaled them all with a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I should be a natural when it comes to using scents in my novels. Sadly, while I enjoy the fragrance of my garden, I’m not good at incorporating the fifth sense into my writing.

In my wip I reference the smell of clean mountain air — a lost opportunity. Clean mountain air is generic. If I said, “clean mountain air filled her lungs, driving out the stench of the immigrant ship, erasing the odor of poverty and desperation” I’d have done a better job of placing the reader in the story and giving her a reason to root for the heroine.

There are many literary works devoted to smell, but I thought I’d investigate the romance genre for tips on how to include the forgotten sense in my writing.

“His face and eyelids were swollen and he was beginning to stink like rotten meat.” The Silver Lining by Maggie Osborne. Maggie Osborne is a favourite of mine, even though she is no longer writing. Notice the words here– “stink” “rotten–deeply evocative. She could have said “smelled bad,” and the impact would have been lost.

“When I pull loose wrap off the top of the bottle and  stick my nose in, it is agreeably, deeply sour.” How to Bake a Perfect Life, by Barbara Samuel. I knew I’d find examples of cooking smells in Barbara Samuel’s work. What I like about this example is the paradox of “agreeable” and “sour.” Most of us consider sour an unpleasant odor, not an agreeable one. However, it you are making sourdough starter, the concept changes.

“The scent of fresh blood on an undercurrent of primeval decay choked Elodie Rousseau, nearly bringing her to her knees.” Choosing Bravery by Jacqui Nelson.  Jacqui writes historical westerns. Aromas can conjure up the old west in a few words. The “scent of fresh blood” is a generic phrase, but “primeval decay” and “choked” lift this sentence from ordinary to memorable.

I’m now off to scour my work-in-progress for missed opportunities to use the power of scent in my story.

How about you? Any favourite “smelly” writing examples you’d like to share?

 

 

 

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The Fantasy Wave

My writers group held it’s annual picnic last week. As usual there was a fair mix of old members and newcomers. After a delicious pot luck lunch we did a read and critique. Once again I was impressed by the quality of the writing but what struck me in particular was the number of newer writers working in the fantasy genre.

“Fantasy” is too broad a term to describe what’s happening with the genre today. One can choose romantic fantasy, mystery fantasy, thriller fantasy, urban fantasy, space fantasy. . . Pretty well an story you want to write can have a fantasy element to it.

We used to say that about romance. Back in the day “Romance” meant Harlequin category. Then writers flexed their imaginations and our love stories began to include elements of women’s fiction, mystery, thriller, erotica, inspirational. . . Again, any  type of story the writer could imagine might include a love story.

Because romance led the industry in sales, other writers jumped on the bandwagon and added romance to their books. Some didn’t do it very well. There are  websites devoted to awful romance scenes written by non-romance authors.

Is fantasy set to take over from romance in the “anyone can to it” department? The incentive is surely there as sales in fantasy have taken off, particularly in the self-published industry. Forbes reports a 100% rise in sales of fantasy novels since 2010. Interestingly, traditional publishers have not seen a similar rise. Is that because they are not investing in fantasy or because authors aren’t submitting ms in this genre? Given the success of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, why wouldn’t a publisher be eager to pick up the next big thing?

The Marvel comic superheroes are another manifestation of the genre. Buck Rogers, Mandrake the Magician, Star Trek, Star Wars and the many spin offs have increased the genre’s appeal.

While it seems as though the bourgeoning of fantasy is a recent phenomenon, the genre is as old as literature itself. The Iliad, Greek and Norse myths, and children’s fairy tales all contained elements of the supernatural. Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fit some definitions of fantasy. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Tales fall into the genre. But the real impetus for the modern fantasy popularity probably began with JRR Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings.” Legions of young readers became hooked on literature when they met Frodo.

With so many varied examples to chose from, small wonder that romance authors, among others have embraced the genre. But why is it so popular?

We live in a complicated and rational world. For many, work days consist of sitting in front of a computer screen where every key stroke is governed by the rules of logic. We politely queue up at the coffee bar. We live in regulated housing complexes. We hover over our kids lest something terrible befall them. We buy toys that have received the good housekeeping seal of approval. In short, we do everything possible to make our world safe and predictable – and boring.

I think Fantasy offers the ultimate in escape literature. Here we can play on a cosmic stage. Our opponents are formidable on a mythical scale. Battles are epic. The stakes are high – maybe even the survival of the human race. As an antidote to a constrained life, fantasy offers unbeatable adventure.

As a writer and reader of romance, I find the epic proportions of fantasy a bit too over the top for me. Although I’ll admit to enjoying a long ago romance novel that had a ghost living in the attic, the hero/heroine were regular humans and it was their love story I followed.

I write Western Historicals and part of their appeal is the larger than life characters. Somehow it’s easier to give a cowboy physical prowess, a hidden wound, and a big heart combined with tenderness and toughness, than it is to assign the same character traits to an office worker—apologies to all romantic hero office workers. Still, at the heart of the story are real human beings with longings and failings I can relate to. If my hero were a superman, he wouldn’t have to struggle to overcome obstacles the way my wilderness hero must.

What about you, dear reader? Do you like your romance spiced with mythical creatures, or do you like the love story rooted on our earth?

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Summer Time and . . .

the livin’ is easy or it’s full steam ahead. 

I’ve just been listening to CBC radio two and both Julie Nesrallah and Tom Allen have remarked on W.A. Mozart’s remarkable productivity during the summer of 1788. In a matter of weeks, Mozart completed three symphonies, two operas, a significant number of chamber works and gave numerous performances in various European capitals.  He accomplished  all this while in desperate financial straits and while his infant daughter took ill and died. Truly an incredible burst of creativity.

For most of us though, summer is a time to relax, read for pleasure only, visit with friends and relatives and smell the roses. When I was a kid, the end of school signalled summer vacation. The days seemed to stretch into forever. Routines and schedules vanished. We showed up at mealtimes, but the rest of the time was for entertaining ourselves.

We crawled through the long grass playing “cowboys and outlaws.” We built hay forts in the barn. We lay on our backs gazing at the sky and finding pictures in the clouds. We bombarded any available adult with requests to take us to the lake for a swim. On the way home, ice cream cones were essential. There was always a dog for companionship. Usually we could find kittens in the barn. As I remember, those summers were a sunny idyll.

One of the first bits of advice given a beginning writer is “write what you know.” There are many who will argue with that maxim. After all, you don’t have to be a murderer to write a thriller. You don’t have to be an astronaut to write a space fantasy. I didn’t experience the gold rush first hand, but I’ve set my Prospect series in that era. Still, “what I know” from those childhood summers has crept into the story. In The Man for Her, Sean, afraid of heights, has to climb to the top of the hay mow. The barn of my childhood helped me write that scene. When Michael brings a box of kittens into the kitchen at Pine Creek Farm, bits of myself play into the scene.

As a grown up, I miss those summers. Mostly, I miss the promise of those summers. At the beginning of July, everything and anything seemed possible. September and a return to school were too far in the future to even contemplate.

Some years ago, I decided to recapture some of that summertime magic. I made a list of ten things that mean summer to me and set out to experience them all before Labour Day rolled around. My list included the scent of new mown hay, evenings on the swing outside, impromptu visits over the back fence and a swim in the lake. The lake trip required a picnic with egg salad sandwiches and chocolate brownies to make it complete. My friend and I often remark that that was a great summer even though we were both working full time.

Now that I’ve given up my day job, a lack of routine is “routine.” Still, the smell of fresh hay, an unexpected visit from a long-lost relative and an evening watching the sun go down, still capture the sense of summer for me.

What about you? Are your summer days “lazy, hazy?” Do you experience an outpouring of creativity? Do you feel the joy of that first day without school? What’s on your list of perfect summertime moments?

 

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Calico Kitten vs Bathroom Scale

Exploring her new domain, a calico kitten jumped on the bathroom scales. The needle moved. Kitten reared back, raised her front paw and gave that needle a good smack.

I applauded. I’ve often wanted to smack the scales. Being a writer, I started to wonder if I could use the incident in a book. Since I write historicals  and bathroom scales are a modern invention, the answer is probably not, but I’ll store the idea away for future reference.

Then I got to thinking about body shape in romance novels. Harlequin novels of a certain era used to spend a lot of words describing the heroine in minute detail from tiny waist to slim hips to curvy bosom. She had fine eyes and a cupid’s bow mouth, porcelain (or sun-touched) skin. Always slight enough for the hero to carry her in his arms.

Corsetry through the ages pinched and prodded women’s forms into many shapes to suit the taste of the day. Small waist, no waist, round hips, flat hips. It seems the female form always had to be constrained and manipulated.

Clothing too played a role in our view of the ideal feminine shape. From Jane Austen’s heroine with the waist right below the bust and slim body, to Victorian panniers and enormous sleeves, women’s forms have been hidden by clothing. However, a look at nude paintings of various eras will show that in the 16th century, the ideal woman was full figured with rounded hips and thighs and an obvious belly.

By the eighteenth century she was shown with small breasts and a flatter stomach. Raphael’s “Three Graces” is an example.

By the mid-nineteenth century, tiny waists were de rigueur. Scarlett O’Hara boasted of  a seventeen inch waist. Later in the century, Edward VII’s mistress Lillie Langtry’,  measured 18 inches about the waist.

Moving into the 20th Century we see women of the flapper era going for a boyish silhouette, even binding their breasts to appear flat-chested. After the privations of the Great Depression and WWII, Christian Dior brought out his “New Look.” Once again, women were curvy. Liz Taylor’s 36-21-36 figure was the ideal. Skirts swirled wide at the hem, tight bodices showed off full breasts.

But fashion is fickle. By the 1960’s we had Twiggy and ulta-skinny was the shape du jour. By the 1980’s women were on the fitness bandwagon. Remember Jane Fonda’s workout video? Remember when Jane Fonda was a sex kitten?

Today’s woman is any shape she wants to be, although, in general, today’s twenty-something is larger than her grandmother at the same age. Better diet, in childhood is the most likely cause.

All of which brings us to the question of how historical romance writers should treat the depiction of women’s figures. Do we go with the style of the day and describe them as wasp-waisted. Do we dwell on their high, round bosom? Do we denigrate those who don’t fit the mores of the day?

In my own books, I don’t spend too many words of physical descriptions of the heroine. I’m more likely to pick one feature and use that as a touchstone throughout the novel. i.e. red hair is symbolic of temper and impulsiveness, so those character traits will be emphasized in the action of the story and be referenced to the hair colour.

In my latest book, Her One True Love, the heroine is a photographer. Portrait photos are usually meant to flatter the subject, often wearing her best clothes and posed before a pretty backdrop. My heroine, Louisa, says “Maybe I can make my career photographing women as they really are, strong, stubborn and hard-working.”

I think the modern romance reader has outgrown those dainty Harlequin heroines of a bygone era and would rather see their female protagonists as “strong, stubborn and hard-working.”

What about you, dear reader? Do you want a lot of detail about physical appearance? Do you want your heroines to come in many shapes and sizes? Can too much “reality” spoil the romance?

Leave a comment and your name will be entered in a draw for a free copy of “Her One True Love.

 

 

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Season of Change

My household has just come through a time of sadness. Our fifteen year old cats both died. We missed them sorely, constantly opening doors to let them in, then remembering they were gone. There were many tears.

For several months we lived in a house with no pets. We didn’t have to organize visits to the vet or clean up litter boxes. We could go away without finding a cat-sitter. Yet our hearts were heavy. We missed the extra heartbeats in the house. We missed the love the furry little creatures doled out on their own schedules. We missed being “staff” to our royal felines.

Last week we brought two calico kittens into our home. Life has changed! they have only two speeds — top gear or sleep. The floor is littered with shredded paper, empty spools, a Ping-Pong ball and a roll of string. Anything and everything is a toy, including my bare toes. I bear little scratch marks everywhere. Yet I am happy.

My friend came to meet them and couldn’t stop laughing as they wrestled and jumped and ran. She asked if I ever got anything done. The answer was “not much.” It took me three days to complete what should have been a two hour task.

But there is joy in our hearts. After a time of mourning, we celebrate new life.

Writers experience seasons of change in their work-life too. A friend of mine recently switched from historical romance to historical mystery. The change renewed her enthusiasm for writing. It brought her a new audience and it refreshed her spirit. A change of season in her writing life.

I know another author who has decided to change her writing schedule from one book a month to one book a year. For her the season of growth has changed to the season of reflection. For now, she has time to fill the well, to enjoy her family and to appreciate the beautiful place we live.

A well-loved vocal teacher in my town passed away recently. At a service for her I saw old programs and photographs. Before she became a teacher, this woman had a successful career as a performer. None of her students every heard her express regret for the change of season in her life. She embraced teaching with enthusiasm and dedication, taking enormous satisfaction in the success of her students.

Life is not static. We don’t stay children, or newly-weds or young parents for more than a season. We do not stay mired in sorrow or exultant on the mountain tops. Life is change.

Barbara O’Neal not only writes great books, she is a font of wisdom on the writing life. She says, And don’t forget to plant some new joy for writing.

So, I may be distracted and unproductive for a time while I enjoy my calico cats. That’s my season of life just now. It’s all part of living and writers need to live fully. Instead of chafing at wasted time, I’ll embrace a slower pace. Who knows, it may improve my writing?

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Buzzwords and your Book

Buzzwords abound in our language. I sometimes liken them to buzz saws with their annoying noise. Words and phrases that used to be specialized jargon restricted to particular fields of study, like science or medicine, are now showing up in all manner of speech, especially politics and business. Such words grate on my ears. We hear them too often and usually they are meaningless. The Urban Dictionary defines a buzzword as “a seemingly intelligent word dumb people use to sound smart.” Hear! Hear!

One of my pet peeves, beloved by politicians, is “going forward.” Why not just say “in the future?” Are those people “going forward,” by walking, driving, or riding a hobby horse? Anyone who wants my vote won’t assault my ears with “going forward.”

Another irritant is “sit down.” People used to meet, often sitting around a conference table, in order to work out a problem, whether in labour negotiations, or community plans or any number of other events. Now the buzz is “we’ve got to sit down.”  No mention of what they’ll do once they plant themselves in a chair. Maybe they’ll just have a beer.

Yet, despite my objection to the whole genre, I went to a writers workshop where buzzwords were presented as a good thing. In this case, the words didn’t meet the Urban Dictionary’s definition, rather they were a kind of shorthand for writers and readers.

Words like “sweet,” “family saga,” “trust,” “vulnerable,” “danger,” “small town,” “rugged,” “glitzy,” send clues to prospective readers of what to expect in a romance novel. These clues are vital for successful marketing. Whether an author likes to apply them to her own work or not, she needs to understand them and what they mean for reader expectations. Anyone who has tried to sell an edgy, sexy romance under the guise of “sweet” will be skewered by readers. They feel not only disappointed, but misled.

On the flip side, writers can use those code words to their advantage, by working them into the blurb for the book. For some readers “small town” is an automatic buy, as is “ranch” or “cowboy.” An amazon.com search turned up over 50,000 books that used the word cowboy in the title!

Writers can also benefit from studying the buzzwords of the romance genre before they write the story.  By picking a few that apply to her novel, she can ensure she highlights the themes that resonate with readers, as she is writing.

Of course, there are authors whose work doesn’t fall cleanly into any one category . They have to work harder to attract their readers but attributes like beauty, trust, courage and transformation work across all genre boundaries, so even for the outliers, buzzwords can help in the writing and marketing of a book.

In my book The Man for Her, the blurb includes the words beauty, kindness, proud, strength, determination, temptation and love, all code words that readers look for. 

When I’m buying a book I look for time and place words, like WWI France, or North American frontier. Then I look for words to give me the mood and style of story. I like sweet, family, bravery, resolve, choice, and true love.

What about you, dear reader? What words on the blurb make you look inside the book?

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Pacing

I recently attended a workshop on pacing. In broad terms, pacing describes the speed at which your story is told. An exciting action scene is fast-paced. The sentences are short, verbs are intense, words are terse. The reader is led through the scene in short bursts of action with few or no descriptors. The reader’s heart should race as she confronts danger.

In more reflective scenes, the sentences are longer, with several clauses. The writer pauses to describe the protagonists surroundings, or her feelings and thoughts. Here the writer wants the reader to slow down, to catch her breath and to identify more deeply with the main character.

The mix of these two types of writing gives the story its pace. Too fast, and the reader is exhausted and may not finish the book. Too slow, and the reader is apt to fall asleep and forget to pick up the book again. In romance, readers demand a story that takes them into the hearts of the characters — slower pace. They also want a book that takes them to new places — perhaps a slower pace. But they want the action of the story to keep them on the edge of their seats, pages turning quickly, eyes moving rapidly across the printed lines — fast pace.

I knew all that before I took the workshop so expected to have my ideas reinforced and maybe pick up a tip or two on how to vary the pace of a story.

I was surprised then, when the speaker talked about time in a whole other context. She talked about story-time, reader-time and writer-time.

Story-time is the timeline of the story. Is it six weeks or six years? Does it cover one weekend or generations? Once the author knows her story-time and the number of words she expects to write, she can break down the scenes by words — sort of.  If I’m writing a story with a 60 day timeline and the finished book will be 60,000 words, it would seem I can spend a thousand words on each day. That would be very poor pacing, but it gives a general outline of the task of the writer.

It is highly unlikely that a romance would document every day of this 60 day period in equal detail. The author will pick the high points for the protagonist. She’ll spend more words on the scene where hero and heroine meet, than on the weather the day after. She’ll write more words in the action scenes because the reader will be reading quickly. If the author wants the action scene to last more than a minute for the reader, she needs to fill several pages with those short, snappy sentences. She needs to dig deep into the characters’ emotions and visceral responses, without getting wordy and slowing the action.

When it comes to the slower scenes, with longer, complex sentences and multi-syllable words, the writer needs few words to fill the reader-time, because the reader is perusing those words more slowly.

This was an entirely new concept for me. I’ll admit to being disappointed in my action scenes on occasion. When I’m writing them, I “think” I’m getting it right. I’m using those intense verbs. I’m avoiding dialogue tags and modifiers. My heart is racing as I get my characters down the rapids or out of the clutches of outlaws. Yet, the next day, when I re-read the scene, it feels too small. I now realize that I’ve confused writer-time with reader-time. Because a scene took me a long time to write, it doesn’t mean it will take the reader a long time to read it.

Modern genre novels tend to be fast-paced. We start with the car crash and go up from there. Right now I’m reading a book written in the 1920’s and the introduction takes three chapters. The book was highly successful and has been made into a movie. At the time of its writing, I expect reader-time was a luxury and fans would enjoy the slow pace, stretching out their enjoyment of the book.

Nowadays, attention spans are short. Readers have many demands on their time and can’t, or won’t, ease into a story with a long introduction of time and place and circumstance. Yet, to make a story interesting, readers need to know the time and place and circumstance. The author must exercise great skill in conveying these necessary facts while still giving the reader a sense of racing ahead — until she’s tired enough to take a breath.

The concept of writer-time vs reader-time I find intriguing. My hope is that it will make the first draft of my action scenes more successful.

I love my writer’s group. No matter how many workshops I attend, there’s always a fresh take that helps me grow as a writer. Thanks to the many authors who share their wisdom and their experience.

What about you? Do you want stories that are mostly action? Do you like the long, gentle introduction? Any thoughts on pacing. I’d love to hear them.

 

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