A Matter of Time (Part 2)

La Ronde's Le Boomerang Roller CoasterLast week, we looked at how content benefits from timing. This week, we’ll explore timing within writing – the art of pacing narrative.

Pacing is what keeps your reader reading. In suspense/mystery/thrillers, pacing is easy to identify: what starts out as a problem grows steadily (and generally, rapidly) worse. When I write my humorous mysteries, I use humor to relieve some of that growing tension in my mysteries, and my uphill roller coaster ride is one of short climbs and plateaus; thriller writers often choose steeper climbs with no reprieves before the final sheer drop. As the writer, you need to choose what effect you want to create in your reader, and then manipulate your scenes and character development accordingly. For an excellent overview of pacing in fiction, read this post by K.M. Weiland.

Note, however, that I didn’t say ‘narrative of story’ in my opening paragraph. That’s because nonfiction benefits just as much from effective pacing as does fiction. Think for a moment about the biographies, how-tos, memoirs, travel pieces, or any other nonfiction you’ve read recently. Did they keep your attention? Did the author tease you with promises of solutions or details and then slowly reveal them, building momentum so that you couldn’t put it down? Or did you plod through pages of dry facts and lose interest to the point of feeling like the reading was a chore?

That’s the tipping point for me as a writer, whether I’m penning fiction or non-fiction: losing interest. Even when I’m the one doing the writing, I try to think like my reader.

Am I getting bored with a litany of facts? Then break it up. Focus on one fact and bring it to life with a concrete, preferably colorful, example, then note the other facts briskly. For instance, in my forthcoming memoir, I list items not to do with a new puppy. I got bored with listing the list, so I described how I totally did the wrong thing with our dog concerning the first point, then simply noted the remaining ones. Making a list personal will engage your reader and create momentum to continue reading.

Use dialogue. Even if it’s imaginary, it can help your reader place themselves in the same situation.

Use a metaphor or simile to make your explanation more understandable. Details enrich writing of every kind.

Keep focus. Confine paragraphs to one point, then move on – visual cues like breaking up text help your reader follow your organization and your pace of developing thought. You don’t want your reader lost in the middle of a page-long paragraph, because they might decide it’s not worth finding their way out.

In fact, write your nonfiction like you’re telling a story with its own beginning, middle, and end, and you might hear that awesome compliment: “It was such a good book, I couldn’t put it down, even though it was nonfiction.”

Timing really is everything.

A Matter of Time (Part 1)

HourglassTiming is everything.

This phrase appears frequently in the books of my mystery series, because my protagonist is a birder, and the timing of nature determines what birds he might see in each adventure: depending on the season, only certain birds are (typically) in a particular area. The phrase also is a descriptor of a ‘perfect’ crime – timing is everything if you’re going to get away with murder.

As it happens, ‘timing is everything’ holds true for all kinds of genres, fiction and non-fiction alike, both in regards to content and the pacing of narrative. In this post, we’ll take a look at how content benefits from timing; in my next post, we’ll focus on the art of pacing.

Content is dependent on the context of your experience of time. Everything a writer writes reflects his or her unique perspective and experience of life. For example, five years ago, I could convincingly set a book in a high school because I worked in a high school, and the students and faculty I met provided me with the raw material for characters and plots; a year earlier, I would have been inept handling the same material. The take-away: no matter the genre, write out of your own experience, because authenticity depends on reality. That’s not to say you can’t write a medieval romance – you can research the historical details that make the setting accurate, but you need to infuse your own feelings and insights, based on your own experience, to make the story ring true. Pay attention to what’s going on in your life, because that’s where your story will ultimately come from – the feelings and ideas you have in response to real-time life.

Content is strengthened by its connection to what is happening in the world right now. The obvious example is the spate of books that are published when an anniversary comes around, such as the books that hit the market last November to remember the JFK assassination. Holiday books do the same thing – they capitalize on timing. Any time you can connect your content to current events or trends, you accomplish two things: you strengthen your content by association, and you build in marketing opportunities. Are you writing a novel about a young person struggling to achieve success? Use current research about how depression can manifest in video game addiction to add intriguing layers to one of the characters; if you’re writing a study about age 30 being the new 18, that same research would add depth and attract readers.

If you’re lucky, time can even solve writing problems! I had that experience with my book A Murder of Crows, which dealt with the conflict between wind energy development and bird advocates. Mid-way through writing my manuscript, that exact conflict erupted in a neighboring county, furnishing me with ideas and even plot twists I hadn’t considered. I don’t routinely plan on serendipity to help me out with manuscript issues, but the timing couldn’t have been better for that one.

How do you make use of timing in your writing?

The Slow Loris Road to Publishing

I’m what you might call the slow loris of book publishing.

 Are you familiar with the slow loris? I know it sounds like a Dr. Seuss character, but the slow loris is actually a real animal – a tiny primate with big, puppy-dog brown eyes and a round head (so far, nothing in common with me, in case you’re wondering). The slow loris is also described as a slow and deliberate climber.

Yup, that’s me: the slow, deliberate climber.

It took me two and a half years to write my first (and at this point, only) book. In my defense, I also had a toddler and a newborn at the time, as well as a part-time job, so I wrote only in the very early mornings and in the evenings, after the kids were tucked into bed. I wrote every day, slowly and deliberately ticking off chapters one by one until I had a completed manuscript. I marvel at writers who crank out two or three books in a single year. I know people that do this, and they are very good, fast writers. I am not. I am methodical, and my editing is nothing short of painfully laborious.

After I finished writing and editing my book, it took me another two years to land an agent. Again, I was slow and deliberate in the querying process. I purchased The Guide to Literary Agents and The Christian Writers’ Market Guide, and scoured the exhaustive lists of agents, categorizing each with the letters A, B or C. “A” designated a top-choice agent; “B” were the agents I considered good, but second-tier; and “C” was reserved for those I might query in desperation. I researched the agents online and then crafted a personal query letter for each. I queried most of my “A” list and some on the “B” list before Rachelle Gardner (top of the “A” list, by the way) offered me a contract (truth be told, I queried her twice).

 “Whew!” I thought, after I’d finished cartwheeling across the living room the day Rachelle offered me representation. “Now the process will finally start moving along! Let’s roll, baby!”

I assumed once the manuscript was out of my slow loris hands (claws?) that the pace would accelerate.

That was last February.

My memoir has not yet sold to a publisher. I’m not saying it won’t sell eventually. I am simply stating that in the nearly 365 days since I accepted representation from Rachelle, it hasn’t sold. As it turns out, Rachelle chooses the slow loris approach, too, if the market demands it. Sometimes, as she noted in a recent post, publishers aren’t in the market for a particular genre (in this case, memoir), so she puts the manuscript aside and patiently waits for a better opportunity.

I admit, being the slow loris is frustrating at times. I see some of my favorite authors publish one book, and then a second, and I wonder, “What about me? What about my book? Why doesn’t my book sell?” Doubt creeps in. And insecurity. I begin to question my ability as a writer, my story, even my choice to pursue this publishing dream.  I contemplate ditching writing all together and taking up needlepoint.

In the end, though, I continue to stick with it. After all, slow lorises, in addition to their slow, deliberate climbing skills, are also known for their ability to cling to a tree in one spot for an exceptionally long period of time, patiently waiting for the perfect meal to wander into proximity.

“Everything in its own time,” Rachelle reminds me.

I’m patient. I can wait.  I am a slow loris.

{For the record, the slow loris is also the only mammal with a toxic bite. Just saying.}

What animal would you choose as a metaphor for your journey to publishing or your writing style {please don’t say cheetah or I may die a little inside}?

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