Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Writer's Wednesday - Good Narrative or Cutting for Pace?

This Writer's Wednesday, Donna Alward heaves a sigh and discusses trying to find the balance between cutting for pace and narrative opportunities....

I don't think there's a romance writer alive who hasn't at some point heard the words "cut for pace" either in regards to their work or in regard to someone else's. It's a necessary thing; readers need to keep turning the pages and every now and then certain things need to be sacrificed or tightened to keep that PTQ - Page Turning Quality. I don't cut for pace that often, usually it involves tightening a scene and making it work harder and on more levels. Every scene has to work - and work hard. Sometimes it's not enough for a scene to have one single purpose.

The flip side of that - and isn't there always a flip side? - is that you should never miss an opportunity for good narrative. So while in some places you can jump cut without needing that five or six paragraphs of transition, getting to the meat of the matter, there are definitely other times you DO jump cut and reveal what happened and miss a great opportunity.

How do you know which is which?

You know what? I don't know. Bear with me here. I recently finished a first draft of a book and because of scheduled holidays and National conference coming up, I scrambled to write the last 25% in the last week. The problem with writing something so quickly, at least for me, is that at times I skim, rather than savour the scenes. A few chapters it worked...I was in the zone. The last few chapters? Not so much. And the thing is, a lot of times you don't know what you need to cut, or the opportunity you missed, until you get that draft out and SEE it. It's right back to that famous Nora quote, you can't fix a blank page. You can't see an opportunity you missed until you actually MISS it. You can't tell if you need to cut something to keep the pacing going until you've written it and know it's slowing things down. In other words, unless you're very fortunate and the book comes out of you easily (which is a beautiful and rare thing), you need to screw up before you can fix it.

It's probably easier to explain if I give a bit of an example. My critique partner, by the way, is brilliant in spotting this kind of thing. At the beginning of my chapter eleven, she pointed out that the first page was mostly unnecessary and I could start the scene midway down page 2. I haven't done it yet, I'm thinking about how to take the things I wanted to point out and filter them in through the scene in another way. Instead of that page + of information dumped at the reader, I can feed those points through in individual beats later, without sacrificing pace. It doesn't always have to be a whole scene; sometimes it's just a page or two that needs to go, so you can get to the purpose of the scene faster. What does the scene need to accomplish, and what way can you do that to get the most impact?

Alternatively, she has sent back my last 2 chapters and while I am going to edit out the story details, her comments go something like this: "You missed an opportunity for great narrative action at the start of the chapter and thus the entire chapter feels flat and without tension... You need a short scene between Ella and her editor... Rather than the scene of introspection that you have now. It makes her be proactive and adds to the question... You can then cut to...
It is about getting that tension sky high with showing and narrative rather than the exposition that you used. It is simply tweaks but it will add considerably to the layers. You can do this and it will increase the PTQ no end."

So while I overdid it in one spot, I underdid it in another - and didn't show what I should have. And I know she's right. This is the second-last chapter. This is the part where we need the stakes sky-high, and be at the pinnacle of the growth arc. We need to see Ella's actions to feel her triumph and to also share in the sacrifice she's made - and feel good about it. It engages the reader far more.

Will I make this mistake again? Of course. It is why you give yourself permission to write crap. It is what first drafts are for - so you can look at them, put what you've done in perspective, decide what needs to be fixed. There is no magic formula. It's a great deal of trial and error, and what works for one set of characters and story may not work at all for another. So go ahead, get your hands dirty, and then cultivate your story until it blossoms.

Donna's current release is HIRED: THE ITALIAN'S BRIDE, finishing up its North American run and enjoying a July release in Australia and New Zealand.
Today is Canada Day and she's officially on holidays - sharing the day with friends, food and fireworks. And gardening. Lots and lots of gardening....


  1. Hi Donna
    As someone who has just cut HUGE chunks at the revision stage I am hearing you! Sometimes I think that it would be great to have time to set the novel aside and then look at it with fresh eyes. That's why editors and critique partners are so useful, they have the perspective that the writer, who has been wrestling with the words up close, doesn't necessarily have.

  2. I've just had my first draft back from my "reader" at the RNA's NWS - and EVERYTHING she said made sense! I'm hard at work on my ms. But it's always good to read of other author's "journey's". Thanks Donna. Have a good holiday! Take care. Caroline x

  3. Great timing for me Donna, as I'm in the middle of editing right now- the first time I've done it on a complete first draft! It's a interesting and satisfying, even if somewhat perplexing process.