Pacing, Fantasy, Authors, and Agents

I received feedback on one of my manuscripts from an author. She said the pacing at the beginning was too slow. It had been an issue during earlier drafts and I had thought I had resolved it to my satisfaction. I do not immediately agree with feedback from an agent and I don't believe you should either. You should take it for the seasoned, experienced advice that it is and then decide what's best for your story. In the end, you're the author after all.

But remember, they are seasoned and experienced (assuming they are seasoned and experienced, otherwise I can't help you there). Do not dismiss their comments because it doesn't jive with your original vision. An agent's feedback is A-list beta reading. Think of it that way. A strong recommendation to help you make the best choice possible.

It took me awhile to see it, but I finally saw where I went wrong. The pacing was off and I knew just which chapter needed to be rewritten to fix it. In fact, I there must have been a concern there from the beginning because some indescribable concern I had about that part of the book resolved itself as soon as the chapter was rewritten.

The trick is, while the agent was correct that the pacing was an issue, I don't agree with the degree to which the agent said content needed to be cut to resolve the pacing. That's making me nervous. I'm about to go back to the agent and say, "I've rewritten this part of the story and tightened things up, really improved the pacing." But if she does not agree, then that is the end of the line with that opportunity (and it's a good opportunity which is why I'm nervous).

The trick is, I know this is right. I've ditched some setting background, a little more than I would have liked, but it does improve the pacing. A lot of it was able to be shucked off and some can be introduced in later books if I have a chance to write them. Even if this opportunity ends, it made for a better book. The best book, really. Without concrete feedback that says x, y, z, I have reached my capacity for abstract revision. This is the story I want to tell.

It reminds me of a blog post Kristin Nelson made last week about her feedback to an author and how she could not quantify her concerns for the pacing. Ted Cross mentioned in the feedback that fantasy was getting shoehorned into pacing models for other genres. While I'm hesitant to allow an entire genre be an exception to a rule, in this case, I agree with Ted. At least somewhat. There are plenty of anecdotal examples of slower pacing still available in fantasy, but rarely are those examples first-time authors. New fantasists have a run-and-gun structure to their stories. Is it because of the stories we grew up on? The MTV effect? Or is it the industry imposing those standards on a genre? Or is the fan base of said genre wanting something new?

It could be all or none of those things. Sometimes I wonder if agents who represent multiple platforms might have some leakage, some preconceptions based on their work with MG/YA that imposes itself on fantasy where the world is sometimes as important as the story. (Incidentally, I don't like those books. I want the story to be more important than the world.)

I don't think it's one thing. I think it's a lot of things. A big Venn diagram of things. But I lament the difficulty of creating a slower work. Sometimes it's good to feel a story inhale and breathe life into a whole new world and culture.

For those of you who read fantasy, have you noticed anything similar? And for those of you who read other genres, have you noticed anything like that in your chosen genres?

Timing is Everything

Like the classic joke goes, "In comedy, timing is...



I'm reading the last in the Shadowmarch tetralogy by Tad Williams, SHADOWHEART. It's a less than stellar name and most people don't know that a four-book series is a tetralogy1, but Tad Williams is the reason I write fantasy--the reason2. So we're going to give him a pass on that.

I have to admit, though, between Williams and Martin, I'm starting to get worn out on epic fantasy. Their stories are the epitome of epic, but frankly, there are characters whose chapters are fundamental to the resolution of the entire thing and I could care less. There are just too many people. As I wade through this lofty tome, after having consumed the three before it, I find myself impatient for the end. I want that long-awaited climax and resolution of the various characters I've come to care about. And having to read through yet another chapter of a character I don't care about where content that I know well is repeated (and repeated) in internal dialogue is getting frustrating.

That is not so much the focus on today's writing, just an observance. Perhaps that's why my word counts have been shrinking. Not so much an intent to cowtow to the industry and its word limits, but the desire to tell a more compact and immediate tale. I will ponder this in the future and see if that's the case.

No, the focus of today's telling is timing. This is crucial in any work, and the more characters you introduce, the more difficult it can be to align character actions to further the plot but to remain consistent with the story's own chronology.

Specifically, there are two characters who will influence other characters who will influence other characters. They finally make their trip to Southmarch and I am enthused becomes here comes the domino that will set the whole chain a falling! Woo hoo! Here it comes.

...but it doesn't come. Now granted, this is an epic fantasy, so while characters A and B swim across the bay to the nearby island, the author can focus on characters C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J without losing any time in the total advancement of the story. It can maintain the preferred pacing of this rumbling epic without losing track of the domino that is about to set the chain falling.

But then Character E gets another chapter. And then Character H gets two more chapters. Too many things are happening. Why haven't we gone back to characters A and B?

Well, the obvious thing is that when next we see them they won't still be swimming across the bay. They will have done other, irrelevant things necessary for their trip but unnecessary for the enjoyment of the reader.

That doesn't happen. In fact, when we finally return to characters A and B, they are finishing their swim across the bay. This is offensive to anyone paying attention. Some stories may play loosely with the passage of time, but most don't. So unless you're slip-streaming back and forth, be mindful of your timeline. When characters begin moving at different speeds, the reader can see the hand of the author in the story. You're this giant distracting thing like a boom mic that falls into frame. You're holding onto the characters while their legs turn so you can have the plot play out how you want.

And that's a funny thing. While you're the author, when a reader invests, the story becomes theirs. They don't want to see your hands in their stories mucking everything up. You need to be invisible. You are the mirror in which your readers see your story. There may be glass and silver there, but all they see is themselves.

Timing... everything.

1 Instead of a tetralogy, people try to call it a quadrology.

2 I can tell you plenty of influences, but I know when the light bulb turned on. I was thirteen or so reading the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy and knew this is what I wanted to do. No hemming or hawing. Tad Williams showed me the path.

The Transition Story

Empire Strikes Back is my least favorite of the Star Wars trilogy1. This is heresy among accepted Star Wars fandom, but it is the way it is. You can rattle off the various elements of the movie that make it better than the others, a richer universe, more defined characters, a darker/grittier edge to it, and you'd be right. It has the basic fundamentals to be all the things the other movies aren't but is missing one thing: a story.

Oh, it has story. It has plot and adventure and action, but as an arc of introduction to conclusion goes, it's incredibly wanting. Now I had to suffer through a novel in college that showed how you can craft a story that doesn't have that kind of arc. But I don't participate in media to suffer. I want an inciting action. I want a climax. I want resolution. Empire Strikes Back is a bridge from Star Wars to Return of the Jedi. You couldn't reach the third story without the second movie, but they didn't offer any sense of accomplishment on its own.

The Two Towers? That's a movie that bridges Fellowship of the Ring to Return of the King but also stands as its own movie. Dislike the absence of the Rangers or the increase in self-depricating Gimli jokes or Legolas surfing down stairs on a shield, the movie begins, there is a big ass fight at Helm's Deep, and the movie resolves pointing to the third movie.

CATCHING FIRE is not a bad book. It's certainly not as good as THE HUNGER GAMES and by the end I'm more annoyed with Katniss as a character than the author probably wants me to be, but it's not a good book either. It's a bridge. Sure the climax and resolution exist. A climax and resolution technically exist in Empire Strikes Back as well. But they are of a degree that I don't think warrants a story of their own2.

I don't read a book just to get me to the next book. If a book exists only to propel me to the next book, it's not worth reading. It should have its own merit, it's own story, it's own essence. The entirety of CATCHING FIRE was a transition from the events of the first book to the events of the third book. The events of the second book only occur in two chapters. Really, at that point, you're looking at an epilogue of the first book and a prologue of the third book and bam, you have everything that's happened in the second.

Transition stories feel like the author has enough peanut butter for one sandwich but has four slices of bread, so (s)he just spreads it on as thinly has (s)he can. And when you pay full price for a book, you want all the peanut butter.

1 Yes, there is only a trilogy. That is all. Nothing else. Han shot first only.

2 The problem being, they were necessary to craft a trilogy, so the genuine failure is that they just weren't big enoug.

The Drawl

I've mentioned before that I've been struggling on voice with JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. It's not so much struggling as I can't find it. It's struggling in that I keep changing my mind, so the narrative text is horribly inconsistent.

Here's where I've been flipping. Take a nice classic rural drawl. Change of to a, drop the Gs off of ING (remindin' me a somethin'), swap was/were (he were/they was), add 'n to the ends of certain words (if'n), and the like.

At first this was only dialogue, but a lot of narrative text focuses on Jehovah's thought process. We think the same way we speak. Someone's grammar doesn't magically improve just because they're speaking instead of thinking. But that's easier to choose to do than to actually do.

For one thing, a lot of us drop the G off of ING anyway, but seeing the apostrophe makes us slow down and identify what's missing. That can be a big distraction when reading narrative text, so that switched back to normal ING. The next was the was/were relationship. I've tried to maintain this, but no matter how actively you write your verbs, you'll still use WAS more than any other, sometimes multiple times in the same sentence. What was quaint and distinct to begin with became burdensome and distracting.

Jehovah were certain he'd a seen such a thing afore. The last'n had kill't Lil' Petey and ate off Rick Rick's right foot. That all made no nevermind here.

Quaint. Distinct. But for 90,000 words? I just don't know.

Speaking of 90,000 words: I'm usually one that says the book is as long as the book needs to be, but seeing just how depressed the sci-fi1 market is, this isn't something I want to thumb my nose at. The thing is, I thought I was coming in too short somewhere around 35k and kind of fleshed things out. I'll have to go back and chop some of that out because I'm actually at risk of going over 90k, which I'm using as a hard ceiling for this book.

Approaching the end, I reached the book's thesis statement. The exchange includes more than one racial epithet. And while both the character and the setting make it an appropriate word choice, as a writer, it is SO hard to include. A thousand and one times I started to just scrap the entire chapter, but forced myself to finish it. It still makes my skin crawl, though.

1 And in terms of genre, I wanted to bring up dystopian fiction, but will do so in a separate post later after I've gotten some work done. Interesting things. There will be questions, so all a you that have been quiet lately prepare yourselves to comment. :)


Things on JEHOVAH'S HITLIST slowed down for a couple weeks. It occurred to me that I was fast approaching maximum word count and the pacing was too slow. I also was bored as a writer, which means I'll probably be bored as a reader. I pushed through what I had and sped things up. That has yielded some fresh and fun ideas (I love making iconic secondary character types1). I am now grooving along. Jehovah is about to go up above to which the book will end when he returns.

Since my wind sprint on THE SEVENTH SACRIFICE, I have decided that will be my next work. If complete, it should also be my largest book to date. I will revise the first chapter with some suggestions from Nate Wilson and move on to chapter 2 which is already percolating in my brain. Hopefully that will get the ball rolling and will yield an awesome fantasy story2.

Yay for writing. If this all goes to plan, I should be starting the new wip the week before or the week of Christmas.

1 In TTS it was the Triad Society itself. In JH it is the tinkers. ... in fact, in the first draft of 7Sac, it was a completely different type of tinker3. In Wanted it was the Baker Boys and in BM/BBQ it was Cyrus the cat.

2 I'm making a genuine effort to include magic in this one too. Huh, woulda thunk it, magic in a fantasy book!

3 It started with a genuine intention to get certain themes I like into a published book. Since the previous book wasn't selling, I might keep something for the new work. What happens is you can draw a dot-to-dot of my manuscripts where I've taken something (like tinkers) and reimagined it in a new world. I kind of enjoy it.

The Obnoxiousness of Fantasy Characters

Fantasy characters are dicks. In fiction, in D&D adventures, anywhere "adventurer" is available as a life choice, people are dicks. You see it all the time. Main character meets Douchebag McAsshole and DMcA immediately starts talking down to him. I'm a wizard. I'm a barbarian. I don't bow before anyone. I don't show any semblance of etiquette that lets me function in a social environment. Blah blah blah.

With so many dangers in the world (waking gods, monsters, demagogues) and everyone seemingly armed to the teeth, how do these people not get left for dead on the side of the road?

Only in fantasy can "Hello" be answered with a recitation of all the reasons why DMcA is better than you and how you're not even worth the time he took reciting his better qualities, and then the two of you can go on a quest together. Together you go over to the tavern where DMcA insults the tavern keeper's food and beer and finds out he's the brother of the merchant DMcA threatened to kill if he didn't receive a 50% discount on some bauble he wanted to buy earlier that day. He gets the best food, drink, and women in the house and everyone steers clear of him because anyone that large of a douchebag must be powerful and could kill them all and DMcA can kill an entire tavern full of people without repercussions in fantasy because anyone that goes into law enforcement is a complete tool unless he's a hero in which case he's gone on a quest and unavailable to teach DMcA a fucking lesson.

Never once does the tavern keeper throw DMcA out, send a scullion for the cops, and join with the rest of the patrons to show DMcA what happens when one person is a dick to an entire town. Main character is then either tarred and feathered for having shared a drink with DMcA or gets to watch while DMcA is thrown down a well and collectively pissed on by a dozen men who have been drinking all night.

Because of this, I am incredibly sensitive about characters, specifically how they react to one another. I could speculate why so many characters are written this way, and I would touch on those points you would expect me to touch on (social deficiencies of the writer, attitude norming of the genre over the course of decades of DMcAs). This morning working on JH, I took Jehovah in a direction I never planned on taking him. At first I thought it was a mistake. It wasn't a "DOUCHE RAGE!" moment, but a tangential angle. I'm cautious to have characters get angry for much the same reason. The exaggerated Hulk reaction is a second-place finisher to the character as a dick thing.


If people lost their temper that often in real life, we'd all live in an episode of Buffy.

Losing time is usually representative of some kind of mental ailment, a la "Primal Fear" (Ed Norton, Richard Gere). But it can happen in great moments of stress, car accidents and the like. Today, Rae stated Jehovah's greatest fear (being abandoned again) and said she would do everything she could to make sure it happened.

Where do you go after that? In a setting where you kill a person for a pair of shoes, how does one remain calm? The obvious answer is one doesn't. But I didn't want a Hulk smash scene either. Jehovah needs Rae and any conclusion to such a situation would be dissatisfying to say the least. And in fact, given the POV of the story, I don't believe Jehovah would remember anything that happened.

So he doesn't. Rae launches her attack on Louisiana Avenue and he comes back to his senses on Maryland Avenue, alone and totally confused how he got there.

This is a risky move. At this point in the novel Jehovah has killed nine people and there will be more to come. This could be the last trick to make him appear a sociopath instead of an empathetic main character. My gut instinct was to backpeddle. Just don't have Rae say what she said and his reaction becomes unnecessary. But given their own relationship and the truths Rae revealed to him, this was the appropriate result. And the more I think about it, the more I think Jehovah's reaction is appropriate as well. The trick is that it's balanced with his experiences up above on the platform, something that won't be coming for awhile. I gotta keep the reader reading to get to that point and he balances himself out.

So in the end, this is a good but tough decision. And even if the reader decides that Jehovah is too much of a killer, at least he's not a Douchebag McAsshole. I really hate that character.

Straight Lines

I'm hanging out at Midas while my windows are fixed so my car can pass inspection. I'm posting from my phone, so please pardon the typos. The Pre has a small keyboard and I have fat thumbs.

I tried to begin revision on THE TRIAD SOCIETY today, but I felt compelled to continue with JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. The story is ripe and needs picking. Regardless, I'm still thinking on TTS, trying to find all my errors. Something I knew I was doing as I went (something I hate), I was writing in a straight line. Adventure stories are often like that. A happens, B happens, C happens, the end. Done poorly, you get a movie like Jurrasic Park 3 where one dangerous situation follows the next but never overlaps or spreads out. The entire movie keeps a predictable tempo. Done well and you get Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is similarly linear, but who cares! We're having fun.

TTS falls somewhere in the middle. I have been writing adventure stories so far. I actually prefer intrigue, bit that's much easier to write in a series of D&D adventures, I've found, than in a novel. I really need to get back to that kind of writing. It didn't work in TTS and it's not right for JH (which is definitely an adventure story). I'm hoping to bust oit the intrigue in a major way in THE RED SOCK SOCIETY, but that story's a ways off yet.

Sometimes (like JP3), an adventure is too linear. It eliminates the sense of risk. It suggests that the character's decisions have no impact because he's being swept along with the wave of the plot. The way to break this up is to zigzag, to bend the line without completely turning away from your stort. I call them speedbumps, the interference that happens when going from A to B.

Now it's just as easy to overuse speedbumps. If something always goes wrong along the way, the pattern becomes obvious and the reader questions the protagonist's decision-making process. If things keep going wrong, why do you keep doing what you're doing? We only accept that from Malcolm Feynolds.

For example, in the current ms, Otwald goes home, climbs into his window, meets Princess Klara, chats, climbs out, and sees his father. Too straight. It's like a video game where he went to a quest giver. Quest givers are for video games. Keep them out of your novels.

The obvious speedbump is the guards. A princess is unguarded. That's a bad speedbump. What self-respecting guard wouldn't check on the princess? And what princess would send them away because some stranger just climbed into her window. Hello cliche. Nice to see you again. Instead, don't have the window go into her room. Have the entry elsewhere. Maybe split up what he learns when he sees his father, a little here, a little there. You get to reinforce the setting by showing what life is like there (guards, servants, tc) while avoiding the drive-thru quest giving