I’m an aspiring writer perpetually stuck on the launchpad. I always get excited when I start a new writing project – It’s all good fun and excitement when you worldbuild and visualise awesome setpieces, but it evaporates to dust the moment you start putting them in words.
What the fuck am I writing? Can I even call myself a writer? Words, what do you fail me? Aaaaaaaargh! It turns to chaos and self-loathing and you put the project away, inside a folder of abandoned projects (But you don’t delete them – There is always some hope) and try to forget that you ever wanted to be a writer. Excise that part of you, if you want to be dramatic.
It’s a couple of months before you slink back to the file, late one night. The dreams begin again, beautifully imagined landscapes, desperate fights, sassy comebacks and all those glorious moments. It’s almost like a high that we writers constantly seek, relapsing again, and again to the wonder of creating stories and then to the self-loathing of not being able to create anything tangible on paper that matches our dreams. A cycle that cannot be broken.
I’ve been writing my first novel for the past 10 years now. And I’ve never gotten more than halfway through one of them.
Until this time.
I quit my job (And that’s a story for another time) and embraced that I sucked as a writer. SUCKED. But I decided I wanted to write an ending, see what that felt like. And I did. And it turned out just as I expected. I wrote 100k+ words of an novel that isn’t even worth wiping your ass with.
But I wrote it anyway, and as I have begun to edit it, I’m trying to see just how badly I fucked up. And I did fuck it up. Big time. It’s all pieces scattered, here and there, meaningless, pointless and boring. But I learned something in all that shit and it was in the moment I started revising the damned thing. Revising a story after it is written is not a place most aspiring writers ever get to. It’s redrafting, the second draft, call it whatever you want. And I’ve always thought I hated, hated the idea of going over what I wrote.
And that’s turned out how I thought too. It isn’t the nicest feeling to scratch off pages of writing as crap, cut and then began the tortuous process of rewriting. But I think this is where you learn a lot about the craft, and especially your own writing.
And I learnt about pacing.
I think I did. Of course, I could be screwing this up too, and so badly that I don’t even have a clue that I am. But hey, if you’re this bad, there isn’t much to lose. The dignity’s all gone anyway.
Now, I’ve always thought that pacing was some sort of mystical art. Like monks up in the mountains, hiding wisdom behind cheap aphorism, always ready to stump the eager protagonist that comes to learn. I thought pacing was something that couldn’t be learnt. Just done.
But I was wrong, which wasn’t surprising since I’ve been wrong most of my life.
I found that pacing was all to do with verbs and promises.
Now, if you’re scratching your head like a confounded baboon, don’t worry, I’ll try to expand on that so that even the non-mystical monks amongst you can understand.
Most of your chapters begin with some sort of promise, some vague approximation of what might happen. He/she could be going for a dump. Or have their head cut clean off (Hey there, Sean Bean!). And this is what the wise and the writerly call as promises. And keeping them or not keeping them is the entire deal with pacing. Let’s say the protagonist is stuck in a city, under siege. Now, the promise set up is the siege and the writer has many wages to engage with it – it could be an attack, food shortage or the usual treachery and back-stabbing that follows when too many people are shut up too close together. Now, if none of this is advanced in any way and if instead, the protagonist is waffling with her shoes, or the fact that he’s got dirt on his dress, then you’re reader is going to be pretty pissed. Now, if the story is instead about a pageant, then waffling with shoes or finding dirt on the dress fits.
So, if the actions of the protagonist does not move toward resolving or complicating any of the promises, if it doesn’t engage with the promises, then you’re likely to end up with a rather bored reader. Likely. Now, you can never be sure of this sort of thing. Obviously, there is perspective that the reader brings and a ton of other factors. It could be that the reader has a guilt-complex of biblical proportions and reading that kind of book is just the kind of punishment he or she wants.
So, you’re probably shaking your head and thinking what’s new that I’ve got to tell? All this is rather self-explanatory. You don’t need anyone to point it out for you. But here is how I learnt this is actually executed in a story, at it’s smallest detail – Verbs and time. See, I think (and it could just be me out here, all alone), that verbs have a big impact on how the reader sees time. Each verb moves the time in the story by say, a single unit. So how many verbs are you using before you engage with the promise you set up? How many verbs are being used for a particular plot arc? There can’t be too little – It’ll not make sense or will feel undercooked. But have too many without a sense of progression, without a change in the protagonist’s situation, without the promise being engaged with, and then it’s too slow.
Let me repeat – Verbs are how the reader sees a progression of time in the story. Now, of course, there are outliers and no, I never said that this was a rule in writing. There are no rules in writing. Just call it a feeling, you know? Like the sort of feeling you get when you need to piss.
Now, you’re thinking that I’m talking bullshit. You’re probably right. Writing is an art. It’s never meant to work in such a mechanical way, with units and all that crap. I thought so too. A mystical art. But this is what revising my story taught me.
So, here is the sum up, the TL:DR – Fulfilling, complicating or just engaging with the big promises that you set up affects pacing of the story. And verbs is the unit of time in most cases in your story. If there’s something like a nuclear bomb ticking down, then weather is least likely of places where you must spend your verbs. Unless if you’re predicting nuclear winter in which case ‘Hallelujah!’
Now, for the next post, I want to take about repetition!